Three reasons why Sylvia was wary of Vincenzo:
- He was spacing out. Sylvia, she spaced out. Mitsuko had spaced out when she thought she’d lost Émeline when Émeline had actually been lost without her. Vincenzo, Vincenzo didn’t space out.
- He wasn’t eating well. He stuffed his face with bread so quickly, she worried that he was going to choke.
- He left for the bathroom wearing his coat and hat.
She drank her leftover soup that came with somebody’s meal. He’d been acting strange this whole trip, touching her and being more flirtatious than usual, taking her ice skating when they both knew they weren’t the couple to do that, but today was something different. He was acting like a whole other person she didn’t know how to act around. She was nervous for him.
Something Mitsuko said made Émeline laugh. Ana, who was sitting across from them, turned away and muttered something to Luis. Sylvia didn’t know if Vincenzo had noticed, but she and Luis had been buzzing like bees beside them. When Dominic brushed Laurence’s shoulder, Ana had something to say. When Émeline played with the tips of Mitsuko’s fingers, she’d bite her inner cheek and take a sip from her drink.
Sylvia thought about confronting her about her passive-aggressiveness but refrained from doing so. She had to take Mitsuko’s advice and only focus on what she could change.
So she turned back to her friends, to Mitsuko. “I assume everything has gone steady between you and Émeline?”
“Sort of. We’ve been talking behind closed doors, restructuring everything. We’ve been figuring out what’s there to do now that we’re back together.”
“And what are you planning to do? Are you going to take vacations to see her?”
“That’s the thing.” Mitsuko played with her cake, fork scraping through the icing. “I don’t think I’m leaving.”
“What?” both Sylvia and Laurence asked.
“It’s…We’re still deciding,” Mitsuko explained. “We’re here for, what, another week, yeah? We still have time to figure out what we’re really doing.”
“So you’re thinking about living here, forever?” Laurence asked, voice pitching like he was in the Kitten. “You’re not gonna get back on the boat?”
“I don’t know.” She lowered her head, in shame for considering it. “I love you all, and the Black Kitten means everything to me. It saved me after the War. It got me to where I am now.” She took Émeline’s hand. “But now I’m back where I feel the most like myself, where I left so many of my memories. I don’t know if I can just…leave. Plus, you know, I have someone tethering me down now.”
“We still need to talk about it,” Émeline said.
“A-and I didn’t want to ruin the trip with the news,” Mitsuko added frantically. “It’s…okay, isn’t it? If I stayed?”
‘Absolutely not,’ Sylvia wanted to shout. ‘You mustn’t. Think about how sad Bobby would be if you were to leave. We’re your family, we need you, you can’t just up and leave us.”
But she couldn’t be so selfish. If Émeline was truly Mitsuko’s partner, she deserved to be happy with her. It’s what they all deserved. If it were Vincenzo living in a little villa in Sicily and Sylvia had to choose with whom to stay, she, while it would hurt immensely, would have only one choice to choose from.
Laurence sipped his coffee. “I had the feeling this was gonna happen,” he said. “I knew right when you ran after this little girl that you weren’t coming back with us. And because of, what, love? Gag.”
Despite the bitterness in his tone, both Sylvia and Mitsuko smiled, for if Mitsuko were to follow through with the move, all of them seemed to be on the same page with where they stood.
“Whatever you choose, darling,” Sylvia said. “We know you love us, and you know we love you. Whatever you do and wherever you go, we’ll always support you.”
Mitsuko smiled. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for understanding, Sylvia, Laurence.” Émeline bowed her head. “Thank you for being so kind to her. I know I haven’t known many of you for very long, but I’m glad she has such good friends.”
“Of course,” Sylvia said.
“But you must write,” Laurence said.
“Oh, yes,” Sylvia agreed, “write, and make calls.”
“I don’t think that exists,” Mitsuko said.
“No, they do,” Luis was quick to mention. “They invented it last year. Transatlantic phone calls. I read about it in the paper.”
“How do they invent a call?” Ana asked.
As Luis tried explaining it to her, Émeline whispered something to Mitsuko—they always whispered, hands cupping their mouths so no one could read their lips—and Mitsuko looked around Sylvia before promptly spitting out her mouthful of milk.
“What’s wrong?” Sylvia looked behind her, but all she saw was a food store, a hair salon that reminded her of Clara, and a store she couldn’t name.
“Uh, nothing,” she said. “Just…remembered something.” She whispered more to Émeline. Émeline nodded apologetically.
“Course he would’ve,” Mitsuko muttered.
Five minutes later and Vincenzo came back, out of breath and pulling off his jacket and hat. “Sorry about that. Couldn’t find the damn bathroom. Waiter sent me around the building to find it.”
He sat roughly next to Sylvia and started eating like everything was normal, but Sylvia knew. She knew something had gone wrong by the way his face was scrunched up.
But she knew that if Vincenzo was unsettled by something, it’d be best to ask him about it privately instead of in front of all of their friends.
She kept her eyes on him for the rest of dinner. His hand never left his coat pocket.
It’d begun to snow, lessening both Sylvia and Vincenzo’s need to see every shop and attraction France had to offer, but her friends still wanted that vacation experience. Laurence and Dominic, they continued their tour of French museums, and Ana had yet to finish shopping, so she and Luis meandered through the streets hand in hand.
Mitsuko and Émeline retired to their room, as did Sylvia and Vincenzo. Sylvia was tired, or her brain was, and Vincenzo understood that and retired with her at six.
He paced in the living room, watching something out of the window before turning to pace once again.
“You’re okay, right?” Sylvia asked.
He nodded too heavily. “Are you hungry?”
“Well, since we just ate…”
She played with the buttons of her button-down. She had no idea how men wore these without suffocating. “I’m going to take a bath.”
“Okay. Have fun.” He looked up. “I mean—”
She smiled. “I’ll be sure to ‘have fun’.”
She loved their room’s bathroom. Wide, with translucent windows, marble walls, and ivory tiles swirled with gold. The towels stayed warm by these fantastic little towel radiators, something, according to Émeline, that was common in Europe. They kept your towels warm all day long and wrapped you in a hug when you exited the bath.
She relished in the freedom of her tacky boy clothes as the tub filled. She sat on the edge and drew lazy circles in the sudsy water, trying to catch her reflection between the bubbles. After adding vanilla and strawberry bath wash into the mix, she dipped into the water and relaxed.
A knock rapped on the door.
She tightened her knees together. She saw the curl of Vincenzo’s hair behind the door.
“I’m naked,” she warned him.
The hair disappeared.
“But you can come in,” she added.
He came back, hands in his pocket, shoulders high like he was hiding from her.
“So shy,” she noted. “What happened to all that confidence when you were ice skating with me?”
“Waxes and wanes, I suppose.” He took out the step stool in the corner of the room and sat it right beside the tub.
She brought her knees up to her chin to make room. “Wanna come in?”
“Perhaps tomorrow,” he said, then, “or…tonight.”
“You usually get cleaned up in the morning. Why the sudden change?”
His hand ran up the nape of her neck and twirled the tufts of her hair. “Maybe I’m planning on doing something with you tonight that’d need me to clean up afterwards.”
Her mouth popped open, and his reddening face made her chuckle into her bubbles. “I’ve never heard you propose it so explicitly before.”
“You’re already aware that I’m running a bit in circles at the moment.”
“Why? Why’re you so nervous? Do you want to retire tonight? You don’t have to do anything with me, you know.” She twiddled her fingers. “I have my hand.”
Vincenzo smiled forlornly and took her hand, playing with her palm and the inner parts of her fingers until he was giving her a massage. She noticed the faint scars broken into his skin from fights or strikes from rage. They looked so old compared to when she first met him. Even then, they still felt nice in her hands.
Hand still in hers, Vincenzo leaned over the porcelain tub and kissed her.
His lips felt different with her in a bath. The heat from the steam clouded her thoughts until they mixed into a batch of nothing but hot, wet sensation.
He kissed her several times, each peck quicker than the last. She leaned up to elongate his kisses, but he wouldn’t let her. A tease, even when drowning in unexplained anxiety.
“I love you,” she whispered into him.
He pecked her once more before getting up. She waited for him to say it back, but he just stared at her like she had something on her face. She rubbed her cheek just in case.
“I…love you, too,” he said, so slowly that she had to focus on every single word. She hid her mouth underneath the bubbles.
“Take your time in here,” he then said, then folded her towel out of the way and departed into their bedroom.
Waiting for him to be out of earshot, Sylvia sighed out her unexpected nerves and sunk. She still felt him holding her like he was still there. Would it be rude to ask him for more touches like that? Elsewhere, perhaps? Hopefully, soon, he’d be comfortable enough for her to do the same to him, touching him for long periods of time, running her hands down the muscles of his back, down that chest always hidden from her…
She submerged her whole head into the water. First fantasizing about marriage, now wondering how his naked body felt? She needed to calm down before she got too ahead of herself.
It wasn’t wise to keep your expectations high.