Written by R.F. Gonzalez
A week after moving into the apartment across from Lilly’s, she knocked on my door and pushed a plate of charred chocolate chip cookies into my hand. She was odd like that. Brilliant and rare. Exotic but toxic.
“Come on in,” I said, sarcastically but with a hint of invitation.
Lilly’s hair was a pink asymmetrical bob which flared out at every turn of her head. It smelled as fragrant as her name, flicking me in the face as she pushed passed.
She had a pointed nose, her pallid skin yearned for the sun, and her lips were thin and undefined. Later, when I’d known her a while and the dye had washed out, she would bundle her copper hair into a hat as if it was too much of a burden to loosen. Her usual navy cap said NY on the front, the Y impaling the N down the middle.
“Why did you move here?” she said. “It’s a terrible area.”
“I’m too broke to afford anything else, and my friends’ couches are off-limits now.”
“How sad for you,” she said, insincerely.
It was spring and the lockdown had been in place for weeks due to the novel virus. The media had announced that this one would kill us all. Things looked bleak. Standing in the middle of my cramped apartment, Lilly scrutinized my possessions. She said “Sexy” when she saw a replica of the Venus of Willendorf.
“I’m Lee,” I said and extended my hand toward her.
“Lilly,” she said extending hers. She was the first person I’d touched in a week.
“Thanks for the cookies.”
“You look like a cookie guy.”
“No, doofus. I saw your shirt.”
I Heart Cookies, right under the words was a graphic of a halved clotted pig heart. It had bulging veiny eyes and was suffocating.
“Oh, right,” I said, stretching my shirt out and peering at the art. “I appreciate the gesture.”
“I’m being neighborly.”
“Nowadays, neighborly neighbors are outlaws.”
“You going to turn me in?” she said devilishly.
“No chance. Want a beer?”
I handed her a lager and we said “Cheers” simultaneously.
There was a moment of cold silence before I said, “You just barged into my apartment without knowing me – during a pandemic.”
“Men are easy to know.”
“And women aren’t?” I said defensively, before adding, “We could be exposing one another.”
“We aren’t flashers,” she laughed.
“The virus will be gone soon enough,” she said, “and it’s mainly killing old people.” She was wrong, of course. COVID was decimating more than the infirm. Soon, we’d say goodbye to the economy and our way of life.
There was a knock on the door and a small white face peered in.
“Come here, baby,” said Lilly.
The four-year-old girl tiptoed barefoot across the water damaged laminate – a remnant of past calamity.
I said, “Hello,” as she ignored and passed me.
“This is Remi, my daughter.”
“She looks like you.”
Lilly rolled her eyes in contempt and said, “Remi, meet your new sitter.”
“What?” I said, wondering why she’d entrust her child to a stranger.
“I’ll pay you. It’s not every day but I’ll need you when I need you.”
“But we just met.”
“Schools and daycares are closed. Plus, you live across the hall. I can easily find you and hurt you if I have to.”
I laughed but she didn’t. I couldn’t say no. Everyone was isolated and desperate.
A week later, while sharing some lagers, I inquired about her work.
“I lease women out to men,” she said flatly.
“Shall we cheer to that?”
“Not everything needs a hurrah.”
“So, you’re a pimp.”
“Then what are you?”
“So, you’re a madam?”
“I’m not a damn madam.”
“You’re a fimp,” I said reflexively.
“A female pimp.” There was a short pause before I blurted out, “F-I-M-P – Females In Men’s Professions.” Lilly wasn’t impressed with my taste in jokes.
“Stop labeling,” she said. “I lease bodies.”
“It’s just your job,” I said, head bobbling, as if it was no biggie that she was a sex trafficker. “I’ll call you whatever you want.”
“Never mind. Fimp is fine.”
“So, how’s business?”
Lilly shrugged, “Not terrible so far.”
“Hopefully, it stays that way,” I said feeling like I was rooting for a James Bond villain.
“Is it me or is the end of the world taking ages to end?”
“It’s going slow,” I added, “but don’t sound too enthusiastic. Some of us like to live.”
“We barely exist now.”
“As a society?”
“I meant me.”
“You do more than exist, Lilly.”
“I have nobody and got no future.”
“What about Remi?” I said pointing out the obvious.
“She was an accident and she’ll leave me one day. Were you wanted by your parents?”
“As far as I know, but I’ve never asked. I just assumed.”
“I didn’t even know my parents.”
“At least Remi knows you,” I said, unsure of what else to say.
“It’s not a high bar when all you have to do is show up.”
“So, set it higher.”
“This is it for me.”
I had no answer. A part of me wanted to save her but she didn’t want saving, at least not from me. Her life was set in ruins. Mine was not.
Lilly explained that she’d fallen into fimping after befriending two sister hookers. One day she found herself scheduling for them and taking her cut, then short leasing her apartment for a few hours a day when the sisters became homeless. It beat minimum wage, she said, but from what I could see she barely made ends meet anyway. I wondered if by barely making it, if by avoiding the glut of money that often follows the exploitation of damaged girls, Lilly wasn’t somehow appeasing her guilt – the guilt of living for nothing. She survived as an ascetic sex trafficker throughout the pandemic.
“I only take what I need,” she said.
“But why not do something else?”
“If I don’t, someone worse will do it anyway,” she said, almost heroically, as if she was somehow saving the girls she fimped out.
We opened two lagers and cheered awkwardly to that. Ours was a friendship founded on warped attraction and necessity. Several times a week, she’d send Remi across the hall to my place when I was off work. My heart bled for the girl. I feared the type of sexuality that she’d unleash on the world after being witness to countless post-coital men in suits coming out of her mom’s apartment on the days I wasn’t around.
Summer arrived and Lilly phoned me to meet at the tiny communal pool. She was one hundred and twenty pounds with eyes a tapestry of yellows and greens. On the outside, there was no way to tell she’d birthed Remi. Inside, though, she was a cauldron of bones, hurt, and resentment.
“Pool is closed,” I said as I approached the gate. The water was green algae and neglect.
“I’d like to see our weak management come say something,” she said, again with her cattish smile. I was getting used to her doing this. It was her war face, and she showed it often.
Nobody said anything. The neighbors stared down at us from the balconies. It seemed that everyone had picked up smoking since the lockdown began. After a quick swim, I toweled off and reclined in a beach chair as Lilly and Remi waded in the murky water.
Lilly was fair with her workers but she could be as ruthless as any over-empowered misogynist.
“Scabby bitch!” she said to a girl in the hall just after our swim. I was already in my apartment, dry and sipping black coffee. I sprinted to my peephole. The view came into focus right as Lilly smacked a scantily dressed, spotty blonde across the cheek.
“Never again, Abby,” she said.
“Uh-huh,” quaked the girl. The skin around her eyes sagged from tears and abuse. A constellation of scabs was splattered around her shoulder and ribs, probably from severe acne. She shuffled off cradling her jaw.
Lilly shouted at my door, “Get out here, turd. I know you’re listening.”
I stepped out, face flushed, as the girl reached the exit. I said, “What happened?”
“Abby is pregnant. Again.”
She then said “So am I” with such force that the echoes in the hall flatlined for a split second before resonating through the hallways, hallways which acted as the connective yet congealed arteries of our building.
“Is it mine?” I joked.
Lilly said nothing. The next time I saw her she’d already gotten rid of it.
I had watched Remi all week. She’d been sick with flu or COVID. There were no hospitals that would admit anyone who looked less than half dead. We all ate off-brand chicken soup and drank sports drinks. That’s all we could get our hands on. Store shelves were bare because of the mass hording all over the nation.
Lilly walked into my place looking brittle from the wintry rain. She glanced at Remi who knew better than to approach her mom at that moment, so she turned back to the Rainbow Brite rerun blaring on the television.
“Sorry, Lee,” Lilly said. “Can’t pay you today. It’s a wasteland out there.”
“This one’s on me.”
She went red. “I don’t need pity.”
“I want to help.”
“I don’t need that either,” she said, stone-faced.
Instead of throwing me out, she gripped my hand, led me into the next room and pointed toward my rumpled bed.
“We shouldn’t,” I said.
“Undress now,” she said sternly.
I couldn’t deny her. She needed me when she needed me.
She reached for some Cuervo by the nightstand and said, “Drink.”
Anxiety made me shudder, but the tequila began to warm everything else – except my heart.
“We don’t need to do this.”
“I need the money,” she said.
“I can’t pay you,” I said, appalled at what she was suggesting.
“No, idiot. Scabby bet me a fifty to screw my dorky sitter.”
“My girl, Scabby Abby. Keep up, get it up, and put it in, Lee.”
“It’s not yours,” Lilly said, as I glared at a pregnancy test on her table.
“Sorry,” I said, unsure why I was apologizing.
“You’re home free,” she said with a sweep of her hand, just before lighting a cigarette. Every move she made in the bedroom and life was plastic and cosmic.
There were no laws scary enough to protect the baby in Lilly’s belly from the wrath of her life’s habits. She would smoke it into deformity one calloused puff at a time. How Remi had made it, I had no clue.
“Whose is it?”
“It’s the plumber’s.”
“Isn’t Remi’s dad a plumber?”
“This is a different plumber.”
“You have a thing for plumbers?”
“Don’t be smug, Lee,” Lilly snapped. “I’m knocked up but I ain’t dumb. I know what I did.”
I almost apologized again but the flash of hurt in her eyes shut me up.
She told me she’d terminated the second pregnancy as we stood on the roof of our five-story building, while leaning against a gray railing pocked with rust. The usual shredded street litter had been replaced by crushed masks and vinyl gloves. I hated the neighborhood. I hated New York. It was apocalyptic. You could wear a mask and hood and easily loot a store. Thanks to pandemic mandates, we were in the throes of a robbery renaissance. It was dawn and, for a second, I wanted to die right there, with the sun, with the earth, with humanity.
“Have you seen Planet of the Apes?” Lilly said. “It should have been called Planet of the Prick.”
I laughed before saying, “Why?”
“C’mon. It’s about a hairy-chested dude who invades an ape planet. He spends his time cheating the system and trying to kiss ape women who think he’s damn ugly.”
“That’s one interpretation.”
“My point, is that men are cheaters even when they imagine other worlds.
“We aren’t all like that.”
“Here,” she said while gesturing elegantly toward her bedroom window, “all men are created equal. Even you, Lee.”
“I’m not like them.”
“All men pay, one way or another.”
“So is sex,” she said, “and love.” There was an early morning fog creeping through the city which made her words seem mystical.
“My heart is sprouting thorns as we speak,” I said to avoid further exposing Lilly’s frayed spirit.
Lilly was pregnant again months later. Nonessential services that had been suspended were temporarily restored but the media was already telling us to brace for a second wave that would kill us even more than the last. The quarantine would soon be doubly enforced.
“I’m a regular here,” she said flatly, as she filled out the intake paperwork at the clinic. “This is my Cheers.”
“I watched that show as a kid,” I said, before asking her again, jokingly, “You sure this one isn’t mine?”
She stopped writing and looked dead into my eyes, “No chance, you self-righteous ape.”
They wheeled her out in a chair an hour later. She’d waited too many weeks and couldn’t take the pills. Remi asked what was wrong with her mom but I ignored her. She would need to get used to life’s indifferences anyway.
I helped Lilly into my junker, strapped Remi in, and then plopped myself down behind the wheel. I glanced at them before starting the engine. I was friends with a fiend, and I was raising a girl who would probably burn the world down. But I didn’t care. This was my place for now.
“Lee,” said Lilly. “Stay for a while.”
“Okay,” I said, and I did.
“I just want to be erased sometimes.”
“The pandemic is wrecking everything anyway. We’ll all be gone soon at this rate.”
“Not fast enough.”
“It could be worse. You could suddenly wake up on a planet where apes rule and pricks are heroes.”
“I wake up to that every day,” she said before looking daggers at me and adding, “Prick.”
We both laughed for a moment before I said, “Cheers,” and held up my mug.
“Cheers,” Lilly said with her usual cattish smile.
The charge of her pain was too much for my heart to wrap around. Friends is all we’d ever be. We continued like this for several more months until one day I crossed the hall and they were gone. Lilly had talked about moving to Florida where they’d recently announced that they would reopen despite the virus – no more lockdowns or quarantines. Herd immunity was their solution. The nation held its breath in anticipation of the geriatric body count. Mobile morgues were already en route.
R.F. Gonzalez was born in Nicaragua. After living in Europe and Central America, he moved to the United States where he works as a writing instructor, investor, and writer. He has written several short stories and two books, an anti-love story and an anthropology text. His work can be viewed at https://www.rfgonzalez.com/.