She kept herself cheerful and charming leading up to Christmas. She had no clue how to uproot herself from this hole she was digging, but she’d once read that women needed to keep smiling in order to uplift her sad spirit.
That was six days ago. Her cheeks were beginning to hurt.
She’d neglected to tell Vincenzo this, but it’d been during winter that she’d tried to end her life. She’d failed, thankfully, but the man she’d been with had gotten very angry at her for being so unsightly, and it destroyed her self-confidence for almost a year. Ever since, her winters were forever cursed. It seemed that, to counteract her lover’s happiness, this time of the year set out to bury her in sadness.
She pretended to be engaging for Vincenzo’s sake. In just a few days, he and Nonna had repurposed their living quarters into a winter wonderland. She thought the Santa Clauses outside were enough, but the fake snow on their tree almost made her laugh. Vincenzo delicately layering each branch in flour made her wonder how this boy got into the business of breaking the law for money.
He’d also officially moved Sylvia out of her apartment. They donated her last pieces of furniture she had no more use for—her dining table, her old bed—and he paid off her rent so she had no bills to pay in the new year. And, after months of procrastinating, they finally brought in her grand piano. His back doors were wide enough to heave in the heavy instrument through the gardens. They did not need to block off the whole street to bring it in. Vincenzo decorated it with pine cones resting on the music rack.
She saw that child in him all week with how he treated her and Nonna, with how feverishly he called their friends to set up their upcoming Christmas party. Luis and Ana would bring the pasta. Mitsuko would drive Laurence over with the desserts—Mitsuko with brownies, Laurence with a cake he’d bake—and Bobbie, who was shy to attend, would come with a sausage dish his parents often made during the holidays.
Dominic politely declined the invitation.
“What do you mean you’re not feeling well?” Vincenzo asked over the phone. “Do you need to go to the hospital?”
“It’s nothing that serious, but it’d be best if I stayed home tonight. I’m sorry. Tell everyone I said Merry Christmas.”
When he hung up, Vincenzo looked like he’d been slapped through the phone. Sylvia had been beside him, listening, wondering if he’d have the heart to accept.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “He’s never been sick a day in his life.”
“I don’t believe he’s sick at all,” Sylvia said.
Vincenzo scowled. “He wants to ignore Laurence until they part ways, fine, but how’s he to do that? They’re both mutual friends of ours now. He can’t escape him forever.”
“You’re very much in love with their love.”
“I am. He deserves happiness. When we went Christmas shopping, Laurence told me that they’d spoken privately over the phone. To know he has any interest in that sort of thing is such a start for him. He’s never done that before. If this is his one chance to be happy, why not take it?”
“Did it take you a while to gain the confidence to court me?”
The question caught him off guard. “Their courting and ours is very different. When I made my advance, I didn’t know anything about you, including your past. All I knew was that you played piano and that you were beautiful. When I found out…”
“When you found out?” she urged.
“I wanted to learn more about you,” he said. “I felt like we’d work out.”
“So do you think they will work out?”
“For our sake, I hope so. I don’t think I can stand the rest of our lives stuck in-between two men too prideful to admit they like one another.”
“Well, whatever they choose, I hope it feels safe,” Sylvia said, and covered her wrists with her sleeves.
Luis, arms open, embraced Sylvia in a snowy hug and kissed her cheek. Then he did the same with Vincenzo and Nonna, squeezing them tightly while trying not to drop any of his Christmas presents. Ana came in holding Sophie, which optioned her out for not hugging anyone. She gave them all one small nod, though.
“I can’t believe you got bullied into throwing a Christmas party, sir,” Luis said. “Not that you’d decline. It looks lovely, these decorations. Is anyone else here?”
“Mitsuko said she’d be ‘fashionably late’,” Sylvia said. “I told her to be here by six. She said ‘we’ll see’.”
Ana rolled her eyes and took off her coat.
“Sounds like something she’d say,” Luis said.
“And Dominic isn’t coming,” Vincenzo dropped. “He said he’s sick.”
“What?” He looked out across the street. Dominic’s lights were off, his house blending into the black waves of Upper Bay. “Maybe I’ll pop in after dinner and bring him some soup, or a kick in the rear. He should be here with us.”
Then, outside, as if right in time, two cars pulled up into Vincenzo’s driveway, and out came Mitsuko and Laurence in one car, Bobbie in the other.
“We didn’t forget where you lived,” Mitsuko announced from the driveway. “We just wanted to make an entrance.”
“Ha, I believe it!” Luis said. “Merry Christmas, everyone! Bring it in!”
Vincenzo helped take coats and presents while he greeted everyone in the doorway. Luis hugged, Ana nodded. Laurence was dressed as himself, wearing a green sweater and long khaki pants. Mitsuko wore a Santa Claus hat and her usual knickerbockers that sent Ana’s upper lip into her nose. Bobbie was dressed in a three-piece suit that looked ironed for the occasion. Each one had a handful of presents alongside their chosen meal.
“Thanks for inviting a bunch of fairies to your Christmas party. It feels strangely ideal.” Mitsuko kicked off her shoes and entered his home like she owned it. The bell on her hat jingled with each step. “Where’s the tree? Do you do Christmas trees?”
“Make yourself at home,” Vincenzo said.
“Gladly.” She went down one hall, then came back and went the other way. “Why do you have multiple living rooms?”
“You should be walking straight into it—”
“Oh, found it.”
Laurence gave Vincenzo his jacket. “She seems acclimated.”
“She thinks she lives here.”
“She does the same thing at my house.” He leaned into the foyer, sneaking glances up the stairwell. “Is…anyone else here?”
“This’s everyone,” Vincenzo said. “Come in. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Laurence looked down at his handful of presents. One had noticeably more time put into the wrapping.
As everyone followed Vincenzo inside, Sylvia asked, “Have you heard back from him?”
“God, no. He hardly looked at me when we went shopping. Why should I care, anyway? It was just a drunken mistake, don’t you think? Nothing to write home about, nothing to fret over.”
“Don’t be. I’m perfectly content.” He dropped Dominic’s present near the door. “There. Out of mind.”
The dining room had been decorated with a red tablecloth and a beautiful centerpiece of candles and pine cones. Nonna had taken up every inch of the kitchen to cook dinner. She made the first floor smell like a real Christmas, rich in flavors that blended with the candles lit around the house.
“Merry Christmas!” she said in English, and took everyone in her arms.
Luis dumped their gifts by the tree. “We should’ve bought more.”
“We have plenty,” Ana said.
“We bought about five per person, but we didn’t know what to get, or what any of you are into.” He looked down at Mitsuko’s pants, then laughed at nothing. “Well, you know, do you buy boy things or girl things? There’re only so many cards you can buy for someone when you don’t know.”
“You didn’t have to buy us anything,” Sylvia said.
“I just didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, so we went for some generally neutral presents, like glassware and candles and—”
“You’re ruining the surprises,” Ana said, hitting his arm. She seemed in a much better mood than when Sylvia had first met her. From questioning her sex to now wanting to keep her Christmas present a surprise, she seemed to have turned over a new leaf.
“No, by all means, ruin the surprise,” Mitsuko said. “I want to know what you thought to get us. For one, I like knives and cats.”
“Shoot! I knew it! Get a girl a knife and a new feline, what was I thinking.”
Sylvia chuckled. Vincenzo had kept his promise: This was by far the best Christmas she’d had. So far, no yelling, no arguments. Everyone was genuinely excited to be here with their loved ones. The tree shimmered, the food smelled divine. She was almost able to let her guard down and enjoy herself without feeling like she was ruining everything.
It was nice, feeling loved at this time of the year. She hoped to have another one to best it.
They had a sort of “early dinner” that consisted entirely of hors d’oeuvres: crackers with melted cheese, cooked broccoli, tiny plates of cookies dipped in cream. They kept coming, Sylvia wondered how Nonna did it all. She didn’t even look tired, even though it was past her usual bedtime.
Everyone split into two groups to continue talking. Sylvia stayed in the kitchen with Mitsuko, Nonna, and Ana and her child. Vincenzo relocated to the lounge with Luis, Laurence, and Bobbie. The boys lit cigarettes over wine, drowning half of the house with smoke. They spoke of news and work while Nonna caught up with Ana and her life.
The way they knew how much cheese to add to everything made Sylvia envious. Her parents had never allowed her to cook by herself and, when she was homeless, she couldn’t afford to buy anything like spices or fancy vegetables when buying a roll of bread would suffice. All she knew was how to mix drinks.
She hovered over a large pot of pasta, watching the bubbles pop.
“I made this,” Ana explained. “It took about three hours to make.”
“What impressive dedication. I could never make something look as wonderful as this.”
“I can try, if I have that sort of time to spend on food,” Mitsuko said. She was sitting rather unladylike on a kitchen stool with one leg hiked up to her chin. “I can make delicious scrambled eggs.”
“Quite,” Ana said. “So, do you know how to cook?” she asked Sylvia.
“I know the basics. My mother never let me cook in the house and I was kicked out at thirteen, so I never had the authority to cook for pleasure.”
Ana swallowed at that. It took Sophie pulling on her necklace to snap her out of her momentary daze. “How unfortunate. Why were you kicked out?”
“Bold,” Mitsuko said.
“It’s not,” Sylvia said. “She can ask. My mother found out I was dressing like a girl and threw me out, so I had to make do with what I had.” She smiled warmly. “This spread smells lovely. I’m surprised it only took three hours to make. If I cooked this, it would’ve taken me six or seven, and it wouldn’t have been nearly as tasty. How did you make it?”
“Pasta alle vongole?”
“If that’s what it’s called. I thought it was clams and pasta.”
“It…is, but in Italian.” She sucked in her red lips, debating on whether or not to tell her something so obscenely mundane that Sylvia didn’t even care that much about it in the first place. She was only being nice. “This’s a family recipe, so I can’t give you every step, but regular clams and pasta is easy to make.” She said something to Nonna in Italian, then took her place at the stove.
Her teachings were that of a strict nun’s, and that was a compliment Sylvia hadn’t meant to make. She didn’t listen to Sylvia when she asked questions, she didn’t explain herself, but she didn’t hit her, so she probably thought she was doing well.
“Thank you for this,” Sylvia said for the third time that lesson.
“It’s fine.” She scratched her ear. “If you’re going to act like a woman, you should learn how to cook.”
Sylvia looked into the sitting room. Vincenzo was enjoying something Luis had said. He hadn’t heard.
Mitsuko dropped her leg and dug daggers into Ana’s back.
“Why do you say that?” Sylvia asked.
She stirred the pasta. “Was that not right?”
“Did it sound right?”
She sighed. “Look, I don’t know what’s right and what isn’t right to say to you people. I’m doing my best.”
“Oh, ‘you people’?” Mitsuko’s chair screeched out, but Sylvia held out her arm.
Ana waited for a better explanation, arms squeezing around her child.
“I’m a woman,” Sylvia explained very clearly. “My mind, my spirit, my feelings, all of them are women.”
“And if you don’t like it,” Mitsuko said, “it doesn’t matter with how you live your perfectly ordinary and dull life, you cheeky whore.”
“Mitsuko, stop.” She hoped Ana didn’t know Japanese. She and Mitsuko had traded Japanese insults for Spanish ones. “Ana, I’m happy you’re trying to understand, but certain phrases sound very hurtful. If you have any questions about how to address us, we can teach you. But I just want to learn how to make pasta tonight. I don’t want to fight.”
“And if you don’t want to teach her right, I can,” Mitsuko said, “and that doesn’t come from me being a girl, it comes from growing up in a house with three cousins, four grandparents, and two neglectful parents who never bothered to cook for us.”
Ana put the pot on low. She kept clearing her throat. “Wait ten minutes and the clams should be ready.”
“Thank you for your help,” Sylvia said, and took Mitsuko by the arm back to Vincenzo.
“Asshole,” Mitsuko whispered.
“At times,” Sylvia replied, “though I’m glad she’s trying to understand us.”
“Don’t bother with her. An ass doesn’t stop being an ass, they just stop talking around you. Keep that in mind the next time you try to change her mind.”
The men made room for them in the lounge. Mitsuko perched atop one of the couch armrests, and Sylvia, feeling uneasy, sat right next to Vincenzo, their thighs touching.
From whatever they’d been saying, Vincenzo was lively. He massaged her thigh in front of everyone while he talked about business with Bobbie.
She bit her inner lip. She couldn’t focus on the conversations. His fingers, cold and shivery, squeezing her warm thigh, it took all of her willpower not to dip down and kiss him.
She pressed her head into the back of the couch. Calm down, be polite. Distract yourself.
As she contemplated playing piano for everyone, she looked up to Laurence, who was sitting closest to the Christmas tree. He had his eyes on Dominic’s house. His fireplace was going.
When the conversation lulled and the men took drags from the cigarettes, Sylvia asked, “Did Dominic say why he wasn’t feeling well?”
At the name drop, Laurence looked up.
“I didn’t pry,” Vincenzo said. “He didn’t sound enthused about leaving the house.”
“He hasn’t been at the Kitten, either,” Bobbie said, “excluding the night you all got properly smashed there.”
“I wish he were here,” Luis said. “I should go over and bring him some leftover cake.”
Laurence rubbed his pant legs up and down as if to restart a fire, then said, “I…” He tried again. “Let me go. Over there. I want to check up on him, make sure…None of his presents are here. I should bring those over for him, at least.” He sat up as he spoke to put on his jacket and shoes. “I’ll be right back,” he said, and left without another word.
Sylvia gave it a heartbeat of thought before she—all of them—skirted to the window like hungry flies. Mitsuko spied on them through the Christmas tree, Bobbie pretended to watch the Moon. Luis made himself the most suspicious, launching himself over the couch to get the best view of Laurence’s heroic efforts.
He was plodding through the snow to get to Dominic’s door. He’d yet to shovel his walkway and made Laurence’s journey more formidable.
“He’s got some valor, hasn’t he?” Luis said. “Normally when Dom gets like this, I try to leave him be until he comes out of hiding.”
“Does he do this often?” Sylvia asked. “Is this a very Dominic thing to do?”
“Not for work,” Vincenzo said, “but for personal issues, he tends to be a little…reactive. He can torture information out of a man for hours and say nothing about it the next day, but if he, say, gets in a fight with his family from whom he’s estranged, he tends to shut down emotionally.”
“He does know he’s invited, doesn’t he?” she asked. “We can be his family for the holidays.”
“He might not feel like he belongs,” Bobbie said.
“How do you mean?”
“I just feel like that’s the case,” he said, and took a drag from his cigarette. “I know the feeling.”
Grabbing hold of the icy railing, Laurence hauled himself up to Dominic’s front door and knocked.
Twenty seconds passed. The wind howled through the fireplace and tossed Laurence’s scarf.
He knocked again, said something at the door. He squinted at the window, knocked a second time with more strength.
The lights remained off.
He stepped back and waited, took another step back and waited. After waiting in the snow for thirty whole seconds, he bundled up his coat and left.
Sylvia sighed. She didn’t know him that well, but she could’ve if he opened up. She’d almost pushed through Ana, she couldn’t have imagined what she could’ve reached with him.
The steps must’ve been icier than they looked. When Laurence touched the railing, he slipped on the first step and fell in an almost comedic way, legs kicked out in front of him, mouth gasped in a surprised “O.”
The door wrenched open and, stumbling out to save him, came Dominic. He was in slippers and a bathrobe, his hair unstyled for the first time since Sylvia had met him. He hadn’t shaved either and left a little stubble around his chiseled jaw.
He helped Laurence up with both hands. He asked him questions and gestured to the new rip in his wet pants. They traded off polite back and forth almost like strangers, laughing nervously and looking away, until Dominic went for his door.
Laurence grabbed his hand and said something that made him stop.
They spoke quietly to another, then the two went into his home, together.
“Hey!” Luis said. “What’re they doing? I can’t see anything.”
“Very, very bold of him on this holy night,” Mitsuko said.
Vincenzo leaned forwards, fingers pressing into his lips. He squinted his eyes as if to see through the walls.
But to all of their relief, they came back after fifteen minutes. Only Vincenzo stayed by the window for the full time, waiting. Everyone else ate hors d’oeuvres until he announced that they were coming back.
Laurence was holding a half-dozen presents while Dominic carried the other half. Dominic had changed into semi-casual attire and had run a comb through his hair. It didn’t have any product in it, though, so it still retained a somewhat youthful curl.
Everyone pretended to act as nonchalant as possible when they came in.
Everyone but Luis.
“There’s my boy!” He jumped up and hugged him. “Got over your cold pretty quickly, yeah? What timing.”
“Laurence was…very persuasive,” he forced out. He looked at Vincenzo with hurt in his eyes. “I’m sorry I came late.”
“I’m just glad you came. Merry Christmas.”
“Merry Christmas!” Luis echoed. “Dom, you have to try Laurence’s cake, and Ana’s clams and pasta is perfect. She and Sylvia collaborated on it.”
Dominic nodded, then looked over at Sylvia. His gaze was dubious and hard to understand—it wasn’t as clear as happiness or anger, but it was something close to the surface. Something that needed to be said.
As everyone sat for dinner, Sylvia’s chest hurt. What was wrong now? Was he still angry at her? Was this about the Fifth Avenue trip? That hadn’t even been her idea.
She couldn’t eat. While everything looked wonderful, that dead feeling that sucked in everything and left her with nothing. When the conversation allowed it, she excused herself to the bathroom to hide. She kept the door open in case anyone else needed the space, but she needed to calm down. He’d probably thought she had food on her dress or that her hair was done differently, which he would’ve been right. She’d curled it.
She took a breath. If she didn’t feel settled come ten tonight, she’d mention something to him. Maybe she needed to give him a sober apology or a taste of her pasta.
Someone knocked on the open door and made her jump.
Dominic seemed just as startled. He took up the entire doorway with his hands behind his back, so she couldn’t slip out without apologizing. But she didn’t want to apologize, she wanted to know what his deal was.
“I…” He looked down the hall, then at the floor between them. “I didn’t know if you were done in here.”
“I just finished up.”
“Oh.” He dropped his hands. He was holding an envelope.
He rubbed down the ink bleeding through the paper. He opened his mouth and bit the corners of his lips to find his voice, but he couldn’t. It was lost.
Giving up, he handed her the letter addressed to her. “If you can read this by tonight,” he said, “please.” And he left.