He wanted his cat.
He wanted to snuggle against her black, furry neck and give her kisses, reminding himself to breathe, breathe, fucking breathe. Everything would be alright.
No, it wouldn’t. He’d trapped himself in the bedroom, pacing more erratically than before. He even started rearranging furniture like some nesting mother bird. He made the bed, adjusted the flowers in their vase. The rug wasn’t centered, so he needed to fix that, and the sunset was hurting his eyes, so he played with the curtains until he got frustrated and collapsed into bed.
He pushed back his hair, staring up at a foreign ceiling. He hated how unworthy he felt. Back home, to sort out his feelings, he’d confide in his Nonna or Campo and discuss the proposal in detail. He’d show them the ring, they’d tell him there was nothing wrong with proposing now. They’d see the ring and confirm for him that it’d work out and that she’d say yes.
He fished out the velvet box and popped it open. He didn’t know if he’d chosen right, he’d been so nervous. The jeweler hadn’t spoken any English and he was second-guessing this silver ring as opposed to the many gold ones she’d shown him. While Sylvia mostly wore pearls and silver jewelry, what woman didn’t want a gold engagement ring?
That was a whole other disaster. Did engagement rings count as wedding rings? Would he have to buy another one? It hadn’t crossed his mind until after he sat back down at the bakery, but at that point, he’d been too focused on not crushing the box in his hand.
He’d return it. He’d throw it into the Seine or sell it to another man more put together than himself. Sylvia was ready for marriage, he felt it, but was he? He was a gangster. He’d be lucky to survive his thirties.
He thought of his mother and father. They fought and yelled so much. His father would hit his mother during arguments and play it off like that was normal. Then he thought about his grandmother. He didn’t remember much of his grandfather because he never spoke, never acknowledged him apart from birthdays. Nonna took care of everything back then, even his funeral.
He closed the box and held it to his heart. If she were here, he’d ask to go through the photographs of his parents’ and grandparents’ weddings back in Sicily. The grainy texture of the yellowed photos, the faded writing on the back adding each new person to their family tree. They were always such big events, bringing in dozens of aunts and uncles all throughout the island. Here, if he and Sylvia were to marry back in New York, how would his parents take it? Would they ever even know?
His nose itched. The ties he had with his mother and father were frayed—at times they felt completely torn—but he still wished they could come.
And this was all if Sylvia said yes.
“Of course she’ll say yes,” someone in his brain said. “She loves us, she’d been with us for almost a year now. How could she say no?”
“Well, what if she hates us?” another someone said quite coldly. “We’ve kept our sex a secret from her for so long, both literally and figuratively. How hurt she might feel.”
“Throw the ring away,” a third someone said.
Vincenzo hid the box and shut away the voices.
“Sylvia, I have something to tell you.”
“Sylvia, you know…”
The door opened, and he sprang up, folding down his sweater that’d rolled up his stomach.
Sylvia snuck in wearing only a towel. “Hi.”
He just nodded. He should’ve said ‘hi’ back. What was he doing? “Let me, uh, give you some privacy.”
“You can stay. If you want,” she added, and showed him the door, slightly ajar but not closed.
He thought on it, gaping mouth closing slowly, and sat back down.
She smiled brighter and closed it. He’d chosen right.
He watched, feeling guilty for feeling envious that she could do this in front of him and he couldn’t. Her movements were slow and seductive, letting her hands fall through her lace and silk. She crossed one ankle over the other as she took her time.
His heart was crashing into his ribs for reasons other than seeing her dress. He couldn’t take it anymore. He needed something to give. “S-Sylvia.”
She turned, nightgown chosen.
“Did you want to go out anywhere tonight?”
“I don’t think so.” She slipped into one of her white slips and a silky, lavender night robe that felt nice in his hands. Her bath had curled her hair like she’d put hair curlers in. Her skin looked as soft and pink as a baby.
She turned again.
“Come here. Please.”
She did, and when she went to kiss him or sit on her lap, he leaned back and pat the space next to him. “Sit.”
She did, her weight gravitating him into her.
The shivers came back. Why couldn’t he control this better? Why couldn’t he make it go away? This was like Campo’s mansion all over again, locked in a room at fourteen and forced to…
No. He wasn’t being forced to do anything today. Today, he had a choice of letting someone know.
He took her hand. “I want to tell you something.”
“Alright,” she said simply. “What?”
He faced her properly and tried not breaking eye contact with her. “I want you to know that I cannot describe how much I’m in love with you. Ever since we met, you’ve changed my world. You’ve changed me. I never want you to meet the man I was two years ago. I was ruthless and unforgiving. I did anything to make sure I stayed afloat. Meeting you has made me tempered, and kind, and…loving. You’ve given me my firsts in love, and I can never repay you for that.”
Sylvia tilted her head to one side and smiled. She gripped his hand harder. “Thank you. I’m glad I’m with you, too. I’m glad I saved you as much as you saved me. I don’t know if I’d still be here if it weren’t for you. Rather than being angry, last year I was so miserable that…I won’t go into it, but just know that those feelings faded the more time I spent with you.”
Okay. Which way to go now? He had two questions and both seemed just as impossible to ask. “So,” he started, “uhm, I wanted to tell you something, and you need to promise me that, whether you hate me or are disgusted by me, I need you to promise me that you’ll never, ever tell anyone, understand? It’s just between us.”
That smile he loved so much disappeared. She’d heard something she didn’t want to hear. He was ruining this. “I promise,” she still said.
He closed his eyes. Could he do this with his eyes closed?
He said, “You know how, when you were born, you were considered a man. You were treated as a man, and expected to do as one expects of a man, like all the men in your family before you.”
She nodded thoughtfully.
“But you never felt like being a man, or a boy, even when you were small, so you decided to drift. You started dressing differently and talking differently. You took on the role you saw in your dreams, and that confused a lot of people. It broke them away from you. It hurt.”
She nodded. “It did.”
He nodded back. “I didn’t know that when I met you, but when I did, when you told me, I didn’t see you any differently. You were still Sylvia Belmonte, the girl who played the piano at the Black Kitten, the girl I fell in love with.”
She moved even closer to him. He did, too.
“So with that all out of the way, I need to tell you. That I. I understand.”
“I’m glad you do.”
“No, I—” He turned away. Damn it. He was doing so well, too. Why had he screwed up the most crucial part? “I mean, that’s to say, I didn’t take this job at the Black Kitten because nobody wanted to. I mean, it’s true, not many men wanted to take up the position. But I…relate…very strongly to what you and the performers stand for. I’m…”
He grit his stupid teeth.
What the hell was he trying to say?
He just needed to say it.
Just say it to her.
He faced her. “Sylvia, when I was born, I was born a girl.”
Her head lifted, eyes widening. In betrayal, likely. In pain. Distrust.
He could no longer endure her quietness and looked away. The blood began draining from his head into his ears, his head detaching from his body and floating away. “Y-you’re the only person I’ve ever told. My family knows, and Campo, he knew. My father told him, even when I begged him not to tell anyone. He knew how it made me feel and used it as leverage against me. But Campo, you know, Campo knows how to act. He treated me right. He let me dress the way I wanted. He switched from my old name to my new one instantly. He accepted me into his Family as Vincenzo and nothing else, and I was able to live out my life the way I wanted to.”
His head felt light, so he took his hand off of her and leveled himself on the bed. “I wanted to tell you, for so long. I’m sorry I kept it from you up until now.”
Only when he stopped rambling did Sylvia fully take her eyes off of him, staring down at the floor, mouth agape.
He left her to her thoughts. He’d told someone. He’d actually done it.
“So,” Sylvia said, “so, you’re just like me, just the opposite.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I am.”
And she hugged him. A full embrace, hands touching his back and shoulders, his rapidly beating chest connecting with someone else.
He took her into his arms and buried his face into her neck. That weights he’d been carrying since walking into the Black Kitten and thinking ‘I don’t belong here,’ all of that disintegrated from her touch.
She sniffled into him. “It’s okay,” she told him.
He squeezed her harder. “I’m sorry.”
“Why’re you sorry?”
“I was a coward. I never told you. I never let you touch me.”
“That’s okay. Baby, you were protecting yourself. You didn’t know. I didn’t know.”
“Still, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I understand. I understand it all.” She pulled away and touched his cheek. “No wonder we never had sex, huh?”
He nervous-laughed. “Right? I mean, did you ever suspect anything? Anything at all?”
“No, never. Maybe only that you liked men as well as women, being that you went to the Black Kitten so often.”
That really got him to laugh. “Honestly, that’s what I thought before all this happened. Turns out I just wanted to be like them.”
“Oh, Vincenzo.” She touched her chest and sighed audibly. “You scared me, goodness! I thought you were breaking things off with me.”
“Yes! ‘Oh, I love you, and I’ll always love you’. Goodness. But this, sweetheart, I—” She fell back into the bed, one hand over her forehead. “Can I ask you a few questions?”
He fell beside her. “Please.”
“Well, I never suspected anything. I never even considered it. How did the whole transition go about? With the gangster business and your work profession, you’d think it’d be impossible.”
“It felt like that for a while. Before I grew into this body, I used to steal my neighbors’ clothes. We’d run through the streets like dirty vagabonds, me and the neighborhood boys. None of us understood it back then. Then I started growing. I lashed out, got angry at my parents for things I couldn’t voice. I didn’t know what was wrong. Years went by and I accumulated all this raw anger that frightened me. I was growing into my father.
“Then Campo found my father. He was tested and trialed and joined his Family quite suddenly. I was so jealous that I ended up doing lackey work for some of the men. I did everything they asked of me. Soon Campo heard about me from both my father and the whispers around the docks. When I was fourteen or so, he took me aside and asked me questions.”
His fingernails dug into his upper hand. Sylvia took those hands in hers, calming him. “I was so scared. It was the first time I met him, and I couldn’t just lie. I thought he’d kill me. So, I told him everything. I told him how I was a girl but didn’t want to be, that I was strong but only as a boy. But, instead of casting me out, he gave me a job: I was to stalk this man who owed him money, find out where he lived, get the name of his wife, and report back. Truthfully, he probably knew all of this, it was just a test to honor my loyalty. When I completed it and reported back, he started treating me like one of his men, just like that. It wasn’t a question for him to call me Vincenzo or treat me right. Everything was perfect.”
He paused. The memories slowly gnarled their way inside of his torn-apart chest.
“What happened then?” Sylvia asked.
“Nothing bad. When I was eighteen, Campo offered to take me up to Canada to meet with a doctor he knew. The doctor was under the table—he’d lost his license after deserting the War—but he did work for Campo when he needed to scar someone up or change the features of a man’s face.
“So, when we got there, he…” He touched his upper chest. “He sort of…cut away my chest, draining and scooping out all the fat that was there. You’ve seen my mother and grandmother, you could imagine what I needed to hide. I’d worn corsets and sweater after sweater to hide them, but after this procedure, when I woke up a few hours later, they were gone. It wasn’t the best surgery and there’re lumps and scars that’ll never go away, but the operation was like night and day.
“After that, it was like I’d been resurrected. Our men suddenly thought I’d fully transitioned into a man. The new recruits were never told as per Campo’s rules. I rose in rank. I became respected, and feared. I became Vincenzo DiFiore, and then I met you.”
Sylvia hiked up her legs, imagining it. “How harrowing. Do Luis and Dominic know?”
“Does the state?”
“Campo altered my birth certificate on my eighteenth birthday. Not even my mother knows about that.”
“My.” She stared up at the ceiling. “How wonderful, to change that part of yourself.”
He massaged her hands. “He could do the same for you, too, if I ask.”
A beat. “Would it be expensive, or dangerous?”
“The least expensive and dangerous thing we do.”
“Then I wouldn’t mind if mine was altered. That would make things a lot easier. We’d be seen as a real couple by the state, then.”
Right. He’d gotten one speech out of the way and had just barely survived. Now the final part. “Speaking of.” He sat up, controlled the wobble in his arms. “If I could jump in here. As you’re processing this, may I ask you a question?”
She said, “You may.”
He shoved his hands back in his pocket until the stitching popped. After pushing through one of the most heart-wrenching reveals he had, this question seemed world’s easier. “Can you sit up for me?”
She did, with his help.
He wiped his palms of sweat. He wondered if he’d ever not feel nervous around her when he was exposing his heart. “I should’ve prepared more for this, but I’m afraid if I don’t do it now, I’ll never find it in myself to ask again.”
“What is it?”
He braced himself, tried to come up with something better than what he’d been rehearsing all day, then forwent it and knelt down on one knee.
She covered her mouth.
“Sylvia, you’re so lovely, and wonderful, and so patient with me, and I can’t imagine going on without you and everything you’ve given me. You accept every part of me, even the worst parts, and I can’t explain to you how much that means to me. You’re perfect, wholly and truly, and I want to keep that love with me forever.” He shakily took out the velvet box and popped it open. “I know this’s silly. I know this feels too soon and that we’re too much of misfits and rule-breakers to see any of this through. And I know our parents would never approve, but—”
He looked up.
She touched him, touched the box. “Yes, please,” she said. “Don’t finish. I already know that it’s yes.”
The setting sun caught on the diamonds and her watering eyes, making them shine like the jewels they were. “It’ll always be yes,” she promised.
He choked on his breath, of his gasp, and he lunged forwards and hugged her and hugged her, and he felt himself become more a part of her than ever, making that final connection with the person he trusted and loved most.
“Oh, Vincenzo,” she said, crying now. “I love you.”
“I love you, too. I love you so much.” He held her tighter and tighter, affirming the belief that they could fall and love and get married and have every opportunity anyone else had.
“I can’t believe it,” she cried. “I won’t.”
“Please believe it. I may or may not want to hear you brag about it to your friends.” He helped place the ring on her ring finger.
She admired the silver band, running her thumb around the clear gem. “Why?”
“I’ve been trying to be more confident with myself, but I never thought this would ever happen to me. It’s hard to process.”
“This’s been real ever since I met you. Since our first date, I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to you. You’ve brightened me up in ways I didn’t know was possible. You’ve given me back my happiness.” He kissed her ringed hand. “You deserve this. You deserve love.”
She covered her mouth to cry quietly to herself, but Vincenzo left kisses all over her to show it was okay to cry in front of him. Soon she did, and he held her until she cried out every tear she had.
She lay down beside him, exhausted, panting with a delirious smile painted on her face.
He dabbed her face with the bedsheets. “You okay?”
“Ask me in a few years when we’re married with our baby.”
“Just one? I pictured at least two.”
“Two, huh? I don’t think my belly could take that.” She rubbed her stomach. “You’ve given me a future to look forward to. Before I met you, I would’ve…I don’t know if I’d still be here. It’s a morbid thought, but with how I’ve been treated, I didn’t think I was worthy of this. Paris, your parties, these friendships. It’s like a dream. How I feel about myself is still going to be a hardship I’ll continue to work out, but I’m glad I have you with me. Forever?” she then asked. “Do I have you forever?”
“If you’ll have me.”
“Oh.” She kissed him. “Thank you.”
He gave her his thanks by dragging his lips down her chin and exposed collarbone, tasting the hint of strawberry lingering on her skin.
“Vincenzo,” she suddenly moaned, and pulled back, realizing he’d gone too far.
For him. Not for her. Staring up at him with lust-filled eyes, she scrunched up her toes, waiting for him to act on what he’d teased her with.
He froze. “I guess I don’t have any more excuses.”
“You still don’t have to, though,” she said. “You’re not obligated to do anything. I just didn’t want you to go further than I could take it at the moment. I’m very sensitive right now.”
He pulled on the collar of his turtleneck. He shouldn’t still dislike sex after telling her his secret, but he did. Or he didn’t get it, not as well as she did. But he also didn’t want this fear controlling every decision he made and haunting him with his inadequacy.
“I want to try,” he said. “I want to try and experiment.”
She smiled at him. “That’s all I can ever ask for.”
“I should be able to do more.”
“No, this amount is perfect.” She sat upright and placed her ringed hand over his chest. “Lay down for me?”
Like he could say no.
She straddled atop him, putting as little pressure on his crotch as she could. Her hand was like a feather over the folds of his sweater, tracing the outline of him before retracing up to his cheek. The cold ring kissed his jawline.
“This feel good?” she asked him.
He nodded and fell into her touch. He wished sex could just be about touching, not so much inserting or penetrating. How content he felt with just her hands feeling him up and igniting the belief that he was alive.
“Then, may I?” Her hand went to his waist and the end of his sweater.
He nodded and helped her get himself out of his first layer.
“Oh. She sat off of him. “You wear a corset?”
“As a safety precaution, to make sure everything stays flat.”
“I try.” He’d chosen one of his dark corsets that evening that helped suck everything in, even his hips. It was worn from use, loose around the edges.
Steeling himself, Vincenzo undid the laces down his last piece of armor and exposed his bare chest to her.
Honestly, he expected worse. Two thick lines of melded skin crossed his chest, taking away most of the fat along with his nipples. He’d wanted to keep them so he could feign a fighting injury across his chest, but the doctor had to work fast. He’d used illegal anesthesia in an abandoned warehouse that didn’t belong to him. Now, Vincenzo was left with an uneven, lumpy, nipple-less chest.
He wouldn’t have traded it for all the money he had to his name.
“I expected so much more,” Sylvia said, regaining her voice. “It looks so much better than I imagined. Vincenzo, it looks like my chest.”
“That was kind of the goal.”
She stared for a few seconds more, mouth quirked in a curious smile. She took in the tiny hairs leading up to his belly button, the bareness of his arms.
He blushed, feeling small.
“You’re quite handsome,” she ended up saying.
She touched his hips, then fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Do you…” She gave a quick glance down. “Want me to? Down there?”
He gulped again, mouth watering too much for someone whose throat was just too dry for him to speak.
Then, with a need to have her, he nodded.
“Okay.” She kissed him once more before slipping off the bed and onto her knees. “Tell me if I go too far. I know how it feels when someone touches you in a way you’re not comfortable with. I don’t want you to experience that.”
“I’m, you know, I’ve never done this before. I was hoping you knew what to do.”
“I’ll try my best,” she said, and began undoing his pants.
Alarm bells in Vincenzo’s brain rang off, but he manually shut them down. She wasn’t an intruder seeking to hurt or embarrass him. He had to keep telling himself that.
By the time he kicked off his shoes and trousers, he had to close his eyes. He was naked, he didn’t have to face the body that made him feel so outcasted yet. That was only for Sylvia, her treat.
What hit him first was the airy openness between his legs. Her breath made his hairs stand on end, his leg jumping uncontrollably.
Then the sounds.
And her tongue.
The indecent slurping and moaning she made set him off. She opened him up and dug her nose into him. With both arms over his head, he panted and tried to conceal his own moans, but she was so good at it, so talented at cracking him open and spilling out his inner heat.
And what shocked him most was that he didn’t mind this as much as his brain was telling him to. His stress melted into her tongue like sugar as she sucked away his doubts.
He spread open his legs a bit more. The sensations were rising. She continued at a different pace. Her tongue, licking just the tip, before her fingers fondled their way inside of him.
He threw back his head. His mind blanked out and focused purely on these new feelings flooding him. Her fingers thrust in a motion so slow it was torture. His knees shuddered. He swallowed back a lustful moan. Something was coming.
Pulling back, Sylvia kissed his navel as her fingers worked faster in and out of him.
He grasped at the sheets and bit down a loud moan.
“It’s okay,” she told him.
It was, wasn’t it? His body was telling him it wasn’t, but he couldn’t go against her soundproof logic.
So, letting himself experience what everyone was allowed to feel, he closed his eyes, tightened his knees around her, and came.
His brain fuzzed up like radio static, the connection momentarily lost. He hadn’t done this many times, touching himself with the intent to cum, but never had it felt so right as it felt now. His body wasn’t seizing in disgust. It simply felt good.
Sylvia kept on him until his senses returned and he needed to push away.
She sat up, licking up leftover cum from her chin. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” he said, surprising himself.”
“Y-yeah. It’s intense, you know? I don’t know if I can do that as often as you’d like.”
“You don’t have to give me anything.” She rested her head against his thigh. “I’m happy it felt good.”
“Well, it was done by you.”
“What a compliment.” She fixed her wet hair out of her eyes, then touched herself. “Should I say anything?”
“No, just…hold on.” He fished up his sweater and pulled it back over him. “Too exposing.”
He hid his remaining half beneath the covers. “Okay.”
“Okay. If you want.” She shook her rear like a puppy. “If not, I do have my hand.”
“Well, when you ask that nicely.” He kissed her hand. “Get ready.”
She almost jogged for the bathroom and came back with a bottle of lotion and a hand towel. He remembered that this was a mandatory step in the process, but when she started coating her fingers, he took the bottle himself and did it for her.
He kept his face relaxed as he played inside of her. Finally back in control, he satiated her need for him. He fingered her, sucked her off, then tried doing both at the same time. When she started grinding against him in a desperate need to release, he found himself watching her, intrigued by her reaction. He hoped he didn’t look this desperate when she was playing with him.
“I know,” he moaned.
“I love you. You’re so good to me.”
This time, he didn’t hesitate on reciprocating her feelings.
He awoke with his heart pounding. It was pitch black outside. An owl hooted in a nearby tree.
He tried to close his eyes to return to his dreams when he heard what’d likely woken him up: a knocking. Someone was waiting for them out in the hall.
Both he and Sylvia had gone to bed nude, so he dressed quickly and slipped out of their bedroom without waking her. The memories from last night smeared with a new fear that something was wrong. Not even the street lights were lit outside. He didn’t hear any cars driving about.
As he walked to the door, he realized he didn’t have a weapon on him and grabbed a knife from the kitchen sink. “Who’s there?” he called out.
Behind the front door, a woman sniffled.
“It’s us,” Mitsuko said. “If you’re decent, open up.”
He dropped the knife and unlocked the door.
Standing before him was a composed Mitsuko and a crying Émeline. They were still dressed for bed but had on two matching bathrobes and slippers for their midnight walk.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“A lot,” Mitsuko said. “We need to tell you something.”