They dropped her in the middle of a road, in the darkness, her clothes a mess. A pair of black fishnet tights, a patent leather skirt – if it could be called that – a camisole and a short, feathered jacket. She protested, but Baçi tore off whatever clothing she had left. If she wouldn’t wear what they offered, they’d send her out in the street naked. She was nothing but a corpse, dishonoured and walking by the bins, nothing better than trash itself.
Her feet dragged slowly on the pitch-black road that would now be her home. By the curb, they’d set fire to a mound of rubbish, used condoms and who knew what else. She kept her distance, not wanting to go near the other girls. Elma felt ashamed of the clothes she had on, ashamed of herself, of everyone.
She closed her eyes. If only I could turn to dust, into wind – disappear, evaporate instantly. The blonde girl’s voice reminded her that the magic had not occurred; she was still there.
‘Ciao, come stai? Sei nuova? Non ti ho mai vista prima.’ The stranger spoke in an accent that sounded foreign. Elma had to leave immediately. She didn’t want to speak to the girl – she was a prostitute; Elma was not. The inner voice breathed coldly, tormenting her further: You are one of them, and even worse than them, Elmaaaaaa!
In the black of night, she noticed Baçi bringing another girl, one who looked terribly young, perhaps not yet sixteen.
Elma stood there, and the blonde did too, chattering away. Elma wanted to scream at her, tell her to shut her prattling gob.
‘Leave me alone!’ she said in a half-voice.
‘Aha, you’re Albanian,’ the other realised. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. It was difficult for me at the start too. Now it seems fine. I’ve got used to it. I make money, got enough for myself and some to spare for my family in Albania.’
Elma could not believe her eyes and ears. An Albanian girl who didn’t just prostitute without batting a remorseful eyelid, but actually felt happy about it?
‘I … I can’t do this, it’s impossible!’
‘Don’t be stupid. Those who brought you here aren’t just going to let you leave, so you better decide. I’ll help you tonight. I don’t know you, but someone helped me at the start. Maybe someday you’ll return the favour.’
‘You’re going to help me? How? Help me leave? But how?’
‘Who said anything about leaving? Leaving isn’t an option. I’ll help you by picking the first client for you – the rest, you’ll have to take care of yourself. For me, this is doing a lot. I’m letting you have my client. Do you understand how much I’m losing here?’
‘God, you call that help?’ Elma shrieked.
‘You’re a fussy one, aren’t you? I won’t be wasting my time with you all night. Decide! Do you want my client or not? Otherwise, you’ll be out here in the street. In the morning, you’ll have to answer for yourself and you won’t have a single lire to hand in. Trust me, that’s the tough part. That pretty face of yours will be caked in blood and, if you’re lucky, you’ll have a tooth or two left in your mouth.’ She laughed, and her false tooth shifted a little.
‘But I can’t ... I don’t know any of this ... don’t know how to …’
‘What do you mean? There’s never been a woman who doesn’t know how to win a man over, how to make love!’
‘But this isn’t love!’
‘You’ll get used to seeing it that way. This is your love, our love. There’s no other. Forgot to introduce myself. What’s your name?’
‘E–Elma. No, Vasiliqi, I think,’ she said.
‘Elma? What a strange name! Haven’t heard it before. You’ll be Vasiliqi to all the others, but not to me. And my name’s Eva – or, at least, that’s the name you’ll know me by. I’ll let you have my client tonight. Be polite to him. Tomorrow you’ll think about things differently and you’ll thank me.’
Thank her? For what? For bringing a stranger for me to entertain and who’ll gratify his male lust on my body?
‘Ciao, mia bella signorina, vieni con me stasera?’ She heard a man’s voice.
Eva approached his car and soon headed back towards Elma.
‘Go! He’s waiting. I’ve arranged the deal for you tonight. No need to thank me. The day will come when you’ll repay me for all of this.’
She hugged Elma around the waist, as if they were life-long friends, but in truth she was pushing her towards the car where the mysterious man waited impatiently for his night’s kill.
Elma moved stiffly, feeling no muscles. Her heart had ceased beating, but she was still alive. The man in front of her was guarding the gates of judgement. Would he point me to heaven or hell? She was undoubtedly headed for hell; she’d done so many ugly things – standing half-naked in front of a stranger for one.
Inside the car it felt warm. Out there, on the pavement, the cold had crept into her bones. He scanned her for a moment, head to toe, then they took off towards the big unknown...
Days and nights became all the same to Elma. Clinging to her miserable existence, she dragged herself to that place time and again. Tani was rarely seen around, but Baçi personally made sure that she got there every night. He watched from a distance as clients rolled up. She ran towards strangers’ cars.
Elma needed the money desperately, her soul sold to the devil ever since they left her starving for a week. Every night, she walked around the filthy alley that reeked of sweat, urine and sperm, like a dog scouring for a bone to live on for a few more days.
Six months went by, which seemed to be a lifetime. Jeton was almost forgotten to her; her own self was forgotten to her, but once a month she was forced to call her mother.
‘I’m OK, Mum. We’ve been at work, that’s why we can’t call you often. As soon as we’ve sorted the paperwork, we’re coming back to visit you. I miss you so much.’ She always said the same thing to her mother. Then, at the end of the year, Vera received a package of presents from Elma and Tani.