“If Campo sent me on a business trip to Paris, would you like to accompany me?”
Of course, Sylvia had said yes, a “sure” that she didn’t think would ever come true. Vincenzo never joked with her, so it was nice to hear that side of him. And such a fantasy, too. To think she’d ever leave New York.
But after she’d agreed, Vincenzo took out all of these papers and folders and began explaining which port they’d leave from, how furnished their apartment would be, and what a grand time they’d have with all of their friends.
When he gave her a paper to sign, she asked, “Are you serious?”
“About the cruise liner? Yeah, apparently the man who drives it is Italian. We shouldn’t have any problems with them, though I’ll get there early and have a ‘one-on-one talk’ with the crew.”
“No, about the trip.”
“Oh, yes. Campo asked me if I wanted to go. Did you not want to come?”
After that, she reminded herself to always affirm if and when this boy was joking with her. He couldn’t joke; he had a terrible poker face. So all of this, from the cruise to the apartment to France, it sounded like a dream, but no. She was actually going to Paris. With everyone.
She’d heard of this foreign land as one heard of fairy tales. Somewhere, this world existed of lovely people doing lovely things with their loved ones, decorated in chocolate and roses. They ate delicacies, dressed beautifully. They had accents to swoon over.
And she was going to be in the center of it all in a matter of days.
“Come on, Sylvia! Hurry up!”
Sylvia struggled with her shopping bag. “One moment!”
Laurence giggled and carried on down the road. They were walking down Fifth Avenue once again, now buying for themselves rather than for Christmas. They’d been to seven different stores already and she’d only managed to buy a single blue dress for a reasonable price. Laurence had four bags’ worth of new outfits and was planning on buying more.
“Oh, Laurence,” she sighed. “Why must we go all out and buy new wardrobes? Aren’t we content with what we already have?”
“It’s because the man wants to dress up for strangers in a foreign country,” Mitsuko said. She was following them along only to be a moderator for Laurence and his shopping habits. She had only purchased a single hair clip and a glove she’d rescued out of a snowbank. “You shouldn’t get too excited for France. It was fine, I suppose, but the culture there is different than it is here. There’s not a lot of people who look like me or you or even Sylvia, and the rules for pansies are…”
“They are?” Sylvia prodded.
She kicked a lump of snow into the street. “It’s different. It’s not as strict as it is here, and it’s certainly better than places like England, but it’s not Heaven. You can’t prance around the streets kissing whomever you desire. You have to keep that confined inside of the home.”
“Mitsuko, do you have any reservations about going to France because of the War?”
She looked up at the blurry, white sky. She breathed out as if she was smoking. Sylvia tried her best to never bring up the War in front of her, but she wasn’t acting like her usual self. She wanted to know what she could do to help.
“I don’t know what to expect,” Mitsuko said, “so I’m expecting the worst.”
“You are being a downer,” Laurence said. “Vincenzo’s given us seven whole dollars to shop for ourselves and I am not putting that to waste. We will have a grand time. There will be no Prohibition, there will be bars the eye can see, and at the end will be that wondrous Eiffel Tower we can kiss passionately at. Oh, I’m so excited to see everything. I want to get my picture taken.”
“About that.” Mitsuko caught up with him before they entered a clothing store. “What’s this about you and Dominic?”
“Whatever could you possibly mean?”
“You can’t fool me, you little shrew. You’ve been putting your mitts on Dominic for weeks, haven’t you? I saw the way you acted at the Christmas party. You’re smitten.”
“Stop it. Is it true?”
“We don’t need to know,” Sylvia said, pretending she herself hadn’t been innately curious about their affair. “It can be kept confidential between the two of them. It’s none of our business to know.”
“She’s right,” Laurence said. “As if I’d have the time to tell you two.”
“Liar, you want to spill everything to us, you’re just keeping it to yourself because of him.”
“And so what if I am? Is that a crime? He said not to mention anything we do to our friends unless he approves of it and I am planning on keeping my word. Honestly, two months ago, you hated anything to do with gangster boys, and now you want to know everything about them? Let him be.”
“Hey, I can keep secrets.”
“This discussion is over,” he said. “Dominic is not like any man I’ve tried to court before. He’s a private person, so take this as the last piece of information you will ever receive on him and me.”
“Then tell me this: Is the sex that good?”
Laurence struck her with his bags and got them kicked out of the store.
Their two days of prep didn’t feel like enough time to pack. She battled between bringing her boyish clothes and her preferred girly ones, she needed to choose between heels in order to pack light. During the morning of departure, she preened herself in the mirror for two whole hours, fixing her face and making faces at Mitsuko to keep her smiling.
Vincenzo had left early to secure everything on the boat. In reality, he was probably arguing with the men on board to make sure that he and his friends wouldn’t be harassed while on their voyage. Sylvia let him go knowing that. Besides, Luis and Ana had offered to drive her and Mitsuko into Manhattan. Dominic was already at Laurence’s, so they’d be meeting up with them by Dominic’s car. She didn’t know if they’d officially moved in like Sylvia had with Vincenzo. It felt too soon, but she respected their wishes and kept her questions to herself.
“What do you think about them?” Mitsuko asked as Sylvia got ready. While Sylvia had four bags packed for the trip, Mitsuko had but one duffel bag along with one long scarf wrapped several times around her neck. Mezzanotte slept on her lap, the scarf her new bed.
“Who?” she asked. “Laurence and Dominic?”
“Yes. Don’t you believe it’s dangerous what they’re doing, or life-threatening?”
“No. How morbid.”
“But it’s the truth. If they’re found out, it might cost them their life.”
Sylvia set aside her blush. “It’s the price we take to keep our love going.”
Mitsuko’s foot tapped, a fight sparking on her tongue. “So what if they didn’t take that chance? They can still be homosexuals without being together. They can still love each other without being so forward about it.”
At this, Sylvia turned her chair to face her friend. “Mitsuko.”
She tensed up. “Don’t look at me like that. I’m just saying that it seems like they waltzed into this relationship too hastily without thinking over the consequences.”
“I don’t see it that way at all.”
Mitsuko was now sitting up ready to actually fight her on this, but as soon as Sylvia raised her voice a bit, she slouched back and returned to her casual self. “Sorry. I don’t mean to pick a fight before the trip. I’m just worried. I don’t want to see them hurt.”
“Oh, dearie.” She got up and touched her head. “Everything will be fine. Nothing bad will happen to us.”
“You can’t say that. That puts too much optimism in the air and poison us.”
“And is that so wrong?”
“Uh, to be poisoned? Yes. Can you imagine people like us being unshackled by their fear? We’d be unstoppable.”
“That’s a good thing, Mitsuko.”
“‘Bah’? Are you a sheep now, little Mitsuko Sheep?”
That got her to smile, and with that sudden dip into melancholy, Sylvia was determined to keep her happy during their vacation. It sounded hurtful, her wanting them to split up because they’d fallen too fast, but that genuine fear of them getting hurt kept her foot tapping on the bed. She’d be sure to keep the mood light from now on.
Someone honked outside.
Sylvia pulled back the curtains. One of Luis’ cars was parked near the tree line. He was hanging out of the window, waving and wearing a red beret.
Returning his wave, Sylvia whirlwind around her bedroom and picked the last of her bags. Mitsuko helped with her makeup, stuffing it into one compartment of her suitcase, before they closed her bedroom door and headed down the stairs. Mezzanotte meowed at them for safe travels.
Vincenzo had taken his and most of Sylvia’s bags to the boat ahead of schedule, so Luis heaved her remaining bags into his car. Mitsuko insisted that she carry all of her one bag. Luis didn’t complain.
“Have fun,” Nonna said before they left.
Sylvia waved to her, but this little grandmother called her over specifically. When she came, Nonna wrapped her skinny arms around her and hugged her as if she were her own granddaughter.
She felt Nonna’s love when she made her plate and offered to do her laundry, but that was always with Vincenzo near, and Sylvia bleakly assumed that it was only Vincenzo’s presence that made Nonna act so friendly. Without him here and her hugging just as softly, Sylvia felt like they were finally a family, that this was real.
She hugged her back. “Goodbye, Nonna. I’ll miss you.”
“Have fun, my little angel,” she said. “Enjoy. Be safe. You write, yes? Please write of the adventures.”
“And you have little Sophie on the weekdays, right, Nonna?” Luis asked, then asked in Italian for good measure. Nonna nodded both times, and they exchanged more information about Sophie’s meal prep and nap times.
“The boat ships off in an hour,” Mitsuko reminded them, and help open the door for them.
“Sorry for the tight squeeze,” Luis said as they stuffed into his car. “I had trouble choosing between what suits to bring.”
“You, in a suit?” Mitsuko asked.
“I can be dapper! I have to be, Ana said.” He smiled at her. “So, are we ready for a trip to Paris?”
He said that part in a terrible French accent. Mitsuko said something back at him in real French, then smiled to herself. “I’ve been practicing. Still bad, but it’s enough to insult a man.”
“Woah, Mitsuko, I didn’t know you spoke the language. You have to teach us while we’re at sea.”
“Why not? I want to use it to impress the foreigners.”
“You’ll be the foreigner, Luis. We’ll both be,” Ana said, and closed her eyes until they reached the docks.
Sylvia didn’t see the ship until they drove down the dock. Dozens of cars and carriages were pulled up to the harbor. Here, nearly a hundred people were huddled together, not quite ready to board. They had their suitcases and passports at their sides, families packed tightly in groups so nobody got lost.
“Thing looks like the Titanic,” Mitsuko said.
It did. The ship went up and up, stretching out like a porcelain castle with hundreds of tiny, black windows to gaze out from. Its hull and smokestacks were black and had barnacles growing where the boat met the waves. It all seemed too mighty for someone like Sylvia to comprehend. She thought she’d faint from arching her neck up so high.
When she left the car and saw Vincenzo waving at her from the ramp, she surely thought she was dreaming. He was wearing a black peacoat, a Burberry scarf, and a trilby hat. Out of breath, he took off his hat and waved to catch their attention, smiling brightly as if he were greeting them at the gates of Heaven.
She couldn’t stop her legs. She maneuvered around the stagnant crowds. There were police officers lining the dock, but maybe Vincenzo knew them and therefore let her do what she wanted. None of them stopped to question her as she ran up the ramp and nobody cared when she jumped into his arms bubbling with laughter, especially not Vincenzo. He twirled her around in one swing before dropping her down and kissing her.
She relished in who he was with a thousand eyes on them, savoring each kiss and touch. She’d soak in this drunken happiness for as long as she could, even if them being together would one day cost them her life. It was worth it, in the end, to have what she’d created for herself.
“Ready to go?” he asked her.
“Wherever you’ll take me,” she said, “but where’s Laurence and Dominic? We can’t leave without them.”
“They’re already on deck. Follow me.”
As they gathered together and boarded the ship, a tingly feeling overcame Sylvia. The floors, polished. The air, crisp and windy, so salty that she didn’t even mind the cold. As the boat prepared to leave and spewed steam into the air, passengers leaned over the railing and waved to their loved ones. Sylvia almost wanted to join them and wave at strangers when two people caught her eye.
Dominic, leaning over the rail and searching the sea with an absent gaze, and Laurence, hand around his waist, enjoying the view with his person.
Sylvia went to call out to them, then retracted her hand and simply wished them a quiet time together.
Staying sober on an Italian steam liner set for France was a challenge not many men or women could beat. As soon as they sunk into the depths of the boat, they, like vultures, hunted down the liquor from behind the bar. With Vincenzo’s forcefulness and Ana’s lack of charm (which the sailors ate up greedily), they entered their rooms with bottles upon bottles of hard liquor concoctions.
Six drinks in and they were arguing about which pronunciations of the Italian brands were correct. They had four rooms booked in the same hall, but that night, they all corralled into Sylvia’s and Vincenzo’s room and drank the night away.
They were sprawled out across the room, Mitsuko near the window, Laurence on the floor with Dominic passed out, Sylvia upside down with her legs resting on the bed. Vincenzo was pacing from the bathroom to the bed, Ana and Luis marking when he’d turn.
“You’re saying it wrong,” Luis said. He was on the vanity desk, putting an obscene amount of powder on his face like an 18th-century French aristocrat. “It’s a Domaine Raveneau Chablis les Clos. It says so right here.”
“Don’t argue with me ’bout fuckin’ wine,” Vincenzo slurred. He politely walked over Sylvia but almost tripped when she wrapped her arms around his legs. “This’s a Salon Champagne Brut Blanc de Blancs. Its bottle’s black. It tastes like Chardonnay. Don’t argue with me.”
“I didn’t fight to be Campo’s right-hand man not to know my wines. I can do it drunk, I can do it better sober. Hell, I can get this right wit’ me eyes closed.”
“Are you a pirate now?” Sylvia asked, and Vincenzo moved his legs over to properly see her.
Sensing that he was in the mood, she played with his shoe, untying his shoelaces and massaging his heel. Smiling, he gave her more room to better explore his toes.
“You’re all hideous when drunk,” Mitsuko commented on. “The stars are projecting to send at least one of you to the hospital.”
“It won’t be this fellow,” Laurence said, and ran his hand through Dominic’s hair. He’d been the first to pass out and had his arms around Laurence’s waist as he slept. It’d been an hour since they lost him. Laurence wasn’t eager to wake him.
“Poor soul’s got it bad,” Mitsuko said. “Let’s draw on him.”
“No, ma’am,” Sylvia said, but Mitsuko already had her pen.
“Wait.” Luis popped open a bottle and took a swig. “Whoever guesses this brand gets to draw on him. The closer you get, the longer you get with the quill. Ready, go.”
Everyone but Sylvia reached for the bottle at once.
The days passed rather hazily and full of gaiety. Drunk gaiety. Screaming gaiety. Falling asleep in each other’s rooms, eating at odd hours of the night and sleeping in each other’s rooms because everyone had entrusted their keys to one another. At one point, Sylvia slept with Ana while Luis was somewhere on the first deck. She didn’t feel well, poor thing, so she stayed bedridden for most of the trip. Sylvia gave her hot rags to keep over her head.
“Thank you,” Ana had finally said after hours of Sylvia taking care of her.
“Of course,” Sylvia was obliged to say, and thanked God their conversations ended there.
On the last few days of the trip, Sylvia and Vincenzo lounged about in bed like adolescents with too much free time. Kicking off their shoes, they stumbled into the covers together and even lost their bottoms to feel more comfortable.
An arm wrapped around her. A curious nose poked between her neck and shoulder, taking in the perfume patted around her ears.
He said nothing, but his hands suggested that he wanted to do anything but sleep. Was he drunk enough to hold her like a wife? Tonight, would he take her like she wanted?
She curled in her toes, listening to the boat sail against the wind and water.
A light finger tapped her shoulder. “I’m really excited to go on this trip with you. I’m glad you came.”
“I am as well. I can’t wait.”
“Do you have anything you wish to see?”
“Oh, the world. It’d be interesting to see the Eiffel Tower, but I’m not so much into the idea of sightseeing. I would like to go on a walk one day, or a carriage ride. Maybe dine at a fancy restaurant.”
“I’d do anything for you,” he said in a voice softer than a whisper.
She wondered if Mitsuko’s stresses had affected him. He’d never held her with such romantic longing before. “Is everything alright?”
“I’m just thinking,” he said, making Sylvia’s heart pound. “Campo recently asked me something that’s been making me think.”
“And what’d he ask?” she dared to ask.
“If I was going to propose to you soon.”
Sylvia’s heart, so full with how much it’d dealt with this year, ballooned in her chest and hurt her ribs. She tried to hold it down with her hand, but she couldn’t stop it.
“Is that…is that something you’d be interested in?” he asked, choking on the words. “In marrying me?”
She’d never heard of a man asking for a woman’s permission to marry her before the proposal even happened. It should’ve been a surprise, a life-changing treat for the woman to graciously fall into. She should’ve guessed Vincenzo, a man not one for surprises, would’ve asked beforehand.
Sensing he was waiting for a quick answer, Sylvia let her heart answer before her brain did. “If you asked me to marry you, I’d fall to my knees and weep out of uncontrolled happiness, and I don’t think I’d ever be the same.”
“Oh.” He swallowed. “Oh. Okay. Then. Good to know.”
“Did you think I’d object?”
“I don’t know. I thought…I should’ve asked first.”
“Have you been thinking about this for a while?”
“Since I’ve met you,” he answered.
Sylvia waited for any sign of movement, for him to get up and get down on one knee right then and there. She hadn’t prowled through his bag, she didn’t know if somewhere in his bags, a ring was awaiting her.
He pet her, kissed her neck a few times, then, after a soft “goodnight,” he rested on his back, sleep taking him minutes later.
Sylvia agonized over that looming question for several more hours, listening to the boat sway back and forth.
On the final morning of their trip, Sylvia awoke to the sound of commotion outside. People were running around while others made early morning conversation.
Vincenzo was already up and dressed when she finally opened her eyes.
“What’s all this?” she asked, yawning. “What’s happening?”
“Come see,” he said, and parted the curtain to their window.
A port she’d never seen before welcomed her to land. Its layout contrasted what she’d familiarized herself with in New York. The buildings were made of brown brick and had black roofs and stout chimneys. A garden there, a pavilion if she pressed her face against the cold window. Snow had coated the grounds the night prior. Horse-drawn carriages were cutting through the streets with places to be.
“Are we in Paris?” she asked.
Vincenzo ran his hand down her back. “I don’t believe so. Campo’s notes said a woman named Émeline was supposed to pick us up in a place called Nantes. I believe that’s where we are. We have a train to catch, so hurry up and get dressed.”
Sylvia moaned and curled up in bed.
“Hey, no, no, no.” He shook her bottom. “Come on. Wake up.”
She hiked up her legs. “Must I? It’s only six.”
“Oh, even worse.”
“Come on now.” Biting his lower lip, he straddled her through the bedsheets and pinned her arms around her head.
“Oh, my,” she said. “Now, how is this supposed to make me get up? I simply must go back to bed.”
“I won’t be able to do this when we’re out, so I’m getting it out now.” He leaned into her ear. “And I’ll promise even more if you get ready quickly.”
Two minutes later and they were out in the hallway. Dominic’s and Laurence’s cabin was cleared out. Luis had on another beret and was trying to lug all of his and Ana’s luggage down the stairs by himself. Vincenzo and Mitsuko helped where they could.
Outside, down on the dock, waited Laurence and Dominic. While Laurence took in the France coastline with a map in hand, Dominic was staring down at his free hand, taking reaches for it only for him to be deterred.
“Hey, careful.” Mitsuko jogged down the ramp and lightly slapped Dominic’s hand. “Keep it together. You’re in public.”
“Be nice,” Sylvia said.
“Yeah, no fighting on this side of the hemisphere,” Luis said. “Hey, where’s the Eiffel Tower? I can’t see it.”
“You won’t see it for another few hours,” Mitsuko said. She pulled her scarf over her scowl. “How’re we getting to the capital, anyway? From what I remember, it’s about four or five hours to Paris by train from here, even more by car.”
“A woman’s supposed to pick us up,” Vincenzo said. “She’ll by our chauffeur for the trip.”
“Great. Not a very punctual woman, is she?”
“We should’ve made a sign,” Laurence said, casually brushing his shoulder into Dominic. Dominic smiled, giving him the same look Sylvia often gave Vincenzo whenever they were alone.
“God, calm it,” Mitsuko stressed. “Honestly, two seconds in Paris and you’re already acting like love-struck school kids. I commend you for your bravery and condemn you for your stupidity.”
“Hey, leave them alone,” Luis said. “This trip’s meant to be fun. Let them flirt.”
“W-we’re not—that wasn’t—” Laurence covered his face in embarrassment and made Luis laugh. “Never mind.”
“Here I thought this trip was going to calm me down,” Mitsuko said, “but Luis and I are going to end up watching over you lot like two old caregivers. What a vacation. It’s going to be more stressful than—”
“I’m so sorry I kept you waiting!”
Across the boardwalk, holding a briefcase thumping against her leg, a young woman ran up to meet them.
She looked very similar to the woman in Campo’s photo, though her hair had been cut shorter and she was wearing more beautiful makeup. She was a small girl not much older than Sylvia, with tight, blond curls that accentuated her soft, round face.
She caught her breath on a street pole before greeting them properly. “I’m so sorry for missing you. My watch is running a few minutes slow…”
At hearing her voice, which was tender and probably too adjusted to apologizing, Mitsuko looked up.
The wind caught on the coastline and shot a gust at their backs. Mitsuko’s hair flared out around her hat, and Émeline’s hat, white with a wide brim, sailed up and over the light posts, lost.
Mitsuko pulled down her scarf. Her jaw dropped and her eyebrows furrowed like she was facing a riddle without an answer. Then fear, fear Sylvia had never seen in her before, scratched down her face and drained all the color from her cheeks.
Émeline’s briefcase dropped to the snow as she covered her mouth with both hands. Icy tears formed in the corner of her blue eyes. “Mitsy?”
Mitsuko didn’t answer to the name. She stepped back, stepped on Laurence’s suitcase. Unable to flee by boat or by drowning herself, she abandoned her bag, ran past the girl, and sprinted into the French town at full speed.