Lilian likes to say things about herself. She likes to say she is a dreamer. She likes to say she is in exile. Even better, she likes to combine the two. I am a dreamer in exile, she says, and hugs herself, eyes wide open and wild. Her friends tell her to stop taking so many drugs and Lilian says she is high on life. Only Lilian says things like this.
On the day the costumes arrive at the shop where Lilian works, she is in heaven. She prances around with the tiny outfits meant for dreamers younger than herself, exiles from their home countries, because the neighborhood the shop is in is mostly made up of people who don’t have papers. The kind that get written about in headlines. People who live and work just like Lilian in the neighborhood she’s always lived in too, but who, unlike her, don’t get to vote. Lilian doesn’t vote either. She says it is in solidarity of her neighbors, but her friends think she just forgets to register.
The shop owner yells at Lilian to get the boxes unpacked and bring them into the front of the store already so they can stock up. It’s nearing Halloween, only two months away now, and parents are already looking for the latest Disney princess and newest Star Wars character to dress their children as. Lilian handles the fake nylon and taffeta and silk and velvet costumes carefully, keeping the ones in plastic neat and the ones on hangers from getting dirty. She helps the shop owner put them away on shelves and hooks that have been carrying a dwindling supply of Fourth of July paraphernalia. All the American flag shit can go in the trash, the shop owner tells Lilian, and she nods and takes the American flag shit to the dumpster out back, where she feels ever so slightly guilty but not enough. She keeps a pair of star-spangled sunglasses without UV protection and two poppers that have prizes in them that she’ll give to friends as spontaneous gifts.
Lilian tells her friends all about the newest fads in kids’ costumes when she gets home to the house they all share. Six bedrooms, a veritable mansion of a house, except that it’s actually a dorm from the college they all went to that shut down because of fraud ten years prior. The city bought the house and sold it to private investors who rented it out to ex-college kids like Lilian and her friends. A couple of the people who live there aren’t actually from their college days, but they neatly replaced the ones who left to find greener pastures, where, as Lilian sees it, they would be able to graze on fresher grass and shit shinier manure. She is scornful of very little, but she is full of that ugly emotion that twists her face when it comes to the friends who left. She poured her love into them and they went and tipped it out elsewhere, into a sewer or a vagina or a career. She doesn’t know which, because they never call.
But Lilian’s friends who are still here take it all in, because Lilian has the ability to describe anything and make it interesting. They all have boring jobs as clerks or secretaries or the people who tear tickets at the movie theater, but they go through their days in numb oblivion, whereas Lilian is able to stay vibrant and watch the world be its best self around her, as long as the world isn’t trying to criticize her for her choices of how to live in it. Today is one of those days where Lilian knows the world has been kind to her, sending her those happy little costumes, giving her stories to tell her friends over ramen noodles with an inventive sauce someone made and an episode of an old reality tv show playing on someone’s laptop in the background, puncturing Lilian’s story with words like bitch and slut and worse words that are bleeped out.
Without people there, Lilian would be nothing. She knows this. Today, if she had no friends to go home to, if she lived in a studio apartment in a big city and was returning home to nothing more exciting than a gerbil or a goldfish due to a no-pets policy that would surely be in place, she wouldn’t have anyone to talk to about her day. She wouldn’t have Herbert, who works at the theater, to laugh at her jokes, or Mimi, who squeezes juice and pours it and has arthritis in her hands, to shake her head and smile when she thinks Lilian has done something silly. She wouldn’t have Jesus or Peter or Bianca the German and her girlfriend Bianca the Swede. She wouldn’t have anyone. Only herself. Only Lilian who likes to dream big. Only Lilian who has a big personality. Only Lilian whose personality is manic. Only Lilian whose manic episodes come and go with the seasons. Only Lilian for whom the seasons are turning too fast. Only Lilian who’s turning into her mother. Only Lilian whose mother is dead. Only Lilian who’s dead set on living as long as she can, as best she can, even if that’s not very good. Only Lilian, for whom good is great and great is better. Only Lilian, who better remember to pay her rent on time this month or else she’ll be kicked out. Only Lilian, who’s alive and kicking due to the photographs on the wall. Only Lilian, whose photos represent her friends. Only Lilian, whose friends live in her head. Only Lilian, whose head is up in the clouds, where the rest of us mere mortals can’t access it. Only Lilian, whose mortal coil is loneliness.
Only Lilian. Lilian, alone.
Ilana Masad is a queer Israeli-American writer whose work has appeared in McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Joyland Fiction, StoryQuarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Hobart, and elsewhere. She is also a book critic with publications in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, the LA Times, and more. She is the founder and host of The Other Stories, a podcast featuring fiction writers, and is a doctoral student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.