Leila! Leila!

By Nayereh Doosti

     “Leila! Leila!” she shouted, spreading her tiny arms as if they were wings, jumping as if she was going to fly over the pool. She kept running around, laughing out loud and shouting my name again and again.

     I yelled back at her, “Vaisa, Maddie!”

     She’d stop and look back at me. But if I’d say the same thing in English, something like, “Be careful, Maddie! Not so close to the water!” the little girl would grin, repeating “Leila! Leila!” as if I wasn’t there. As if she was flying in her own little world, and Leila could mean anything to her, everything.

     Leila! Leila! That’s all she could say. I had only been her nanny for a year. For the first four years of her life she’d never talked. Now all she would say was “Leila! Leila!” as she jumped around the pool in her Cinderella swimsuit. Her pale cheeks would turn red as she spun around. I would say, “Chill out, Maddie!” and she would run to me, jump into my arms. Sometimes she’d repeat, “Leila! Leila!” and I knew what she meant: “Leila! I still want to fly.”

     If she frowned, put her hands on her ginger hair and whispered “Leila!” I knew what that meant: “Leila! I’m upset.” If she tried to run away, screaming “Leila! Leila!” I knew she meant, “Try to catch me, Leila!” and I would run after her. She’d laugh. She’d fall on the lawn. I’d hold her, kiss her reddened knee and we’d go inside. We’d sit on the couch while I sang her a lullaby.

     “Leila, Leila…” she’d sing with me until her hazel eyes were closed and her mouth was wide open. I’d kiss her tiny chin. And even though she was asleep, I kept singing the lullaby my mom had sung to me forty years ago, when she put me on her lap as she sat on the grass, in our small village, Fasa, in Iran. She sang me the story of a girl named Leila. Even though my mother’s face or the clothes she was wearing were always blurry in my mind, I never forgot the smell of the rosewater in her palms. I remembered her singing the lullaby to me and I heard her crackly voice when I lit up the rosewater scented candles on the counter.

     My mom sang to me about the girl, Leila. She sang about Leila’s black hair, of how she was the most beautiful girl in the area, then she sang of how they stole her. Someone, somehow stole her and she was never found again, but she was in my lullaby. Her name was Leila and so was mine. I’d pictured myself to be like her, and loved the lullaby so much I couldn’t wait until I could have my own daughter, name her Leila, and sing her the lullaby. And now here I was, singing the lullaby to Maddie, and I knew she understood every single word of it. I knew it because she’d start playing with my hair as soon as I sang about Leila’s long black hair. She’d grab me tight, wouldn’t let go. And I had to hold her, sit there, and think, think until my legs fell asleep.

     I usually wore a long skirt, in a bright color like orange or yellow. I’d let my long hair down on my shoulders and I knew it was because of the rosewater shampoo that Maddie didn’t mind pushing it out of her face as she fell asleep on my lap. If one day I forgot to light the same scented candles, Maddie was the one to remind me.

     I’d look at her bony fingers and I’d think of my son, Sina, of the time he was this little and I never sang him the lullaby. I hadn’t let Sarah meet him, but I had let her know that some mornings he came over. As long as she only knew this much, it was okay with her.

     Sarah hadn’t even finished college herself, but she worked for a lawyer and that was enough for her to judge Sina by his black leather jackets and tight jeans, even though she herself had just started wearing those red or black dresses to work. Before she worked for this lawyer, she was another fan of those ripped jeans and six dollar Target t-shirts.

     I knew she wouldn’t let him lift up Maddie on his shoulders again if she ever saw the track marks on his arms. I could totally see her raising her red eyebrows as she’d say, “Does he do heroin?”

     And he didn’t. Yes, I knew he took those pills he called methadone, but he told me they were only painkillers and I believed my son. But, no, he didn’t do heroin. I knew he didn’t and I knew I couldn’t prove it to Sarah because she’d ask what he did for a living and I had to say he still lived at my house at twenty-three.

     This is why I only let him be around Maddie when Sarah wasn’t home. At other times, I’d let him stay with his half-sister, Anna. She lived only half an hour from us in Troy.

     That’s what went through my mind when I held Maddie’s warm fingers in my hands, sitting on the couch until Sarah came home.

    “Oh, Leila! Oh, Leila!” she would say as she put her purse on the counter and blew out the scented candles I’d lit. I knew she meant nothing but “Oh, Leila! You weird old woman! It’s time to give me back my daughter,” when she yelled from her room, “You don’t have to hold her! Just put her in her bed when she falls asleep.”

      But Maddie didn’t let go of me. And I didn’t either. I never wanted to. That’s why every now and then, I close my eyes and see a little girl in a Cinderella swimsuit, her hands on her head, looking down at her bare feet, “Leila! Leila!” she whispers. And I wake up to find myself screaming, “Leila! Leila!” I wonder if my son hears me and thinks I’m just full of myself.


     It was in the middle of summer and Sarah had been talking about it for a whole month now. They had simply asked Maddie to say her name. She’d cried, “Leila...Leila…” and run out of the office. They’d said they would put her in kindergarten, but she’d probably have a hard time if she wasn’t comfortable talking by the end of summer. Sarah told me this as if it was my fault, as if she’d forgotten that before me she thought Maddie could never speak. As if she’d forgotten all those speech therapy sessions and later the child therapists she had to change once a month, because none of them was any help. She had told me all about it on that first day she invited me to her house a year ago, when she told me how expensive those therapy sessions were. But now she seemed to have forgotten that first day when she heard Maddie say my name and she started clapping, cracking up, telling me how she was happy to finally hear her child’s voice.

     She told me she owed me on that day. I remember. Maddie was sitting at the table and when her mother tried to hug her, she pushed her away. Then Sarah gave me a hug instead and I held her. I didn’t care about her greasy hair in my face, because I looked at Maddie behind her at the table, smiling at me. She saw us hugging and she said “Leila” again. Then I held her up and Sarah didn’t give me the glare she gave me now when I held her child. We all celebrated the day with ice cream cones and I cleaned Maddie’s face, thinking of how I loved her, and I felt grateful for how Sarah and I had become friends. But that was a year ago. Things were different now. Now her glares when I rocked Maddie to sleep told me something else.

     “So, maybe you should start talking to her in English,” she said, a year after. She had just come back home with a pile of papers from the school she had tried to enroll Maddie in. She faked a smile. Her red bangs covered her eyes. “And maybe somehow let her know she won’t always have you around…” She blew out the candle on the table.

     Maddie had already fallen asleep on my lap and I held her tighter. “But she doesn’t listen to anything if I speak English.”

     “Oh, Leila! Yes, she does! She has to.” She sighed, leaning on the counter. “Oh Leila!”

     Then she tried to take Maddie, but she clung to me and pulled my shirt when Sarah tried to pick her up. Sarah threw her hands in the air and sighed again. “Whatever!” She picked up the papers and repeated, “Oh, Leila…” She didn’t sound or even look like the Sarah I had met a year ago.

     I watched her walk to her room. Her tight dress made her look fatter than she really was. When I first saw her in the library, though, she was wearing jeans and a Beatles t-shirt. She was standing in the same aisle as I was looking for a book on drug addiction, to make sure whatever Anna and anyone else said about Sina was never true.

     I’m pretty sure I was wearing my paisley dress and I had left my hair down, because I remember she walked past me and said my hair was so pretty, and I said thank you. Then she said I had an interesting accent and I told her I was from Iran. I tried to avoid talking to her, because after twenty years, I was used to the way American women started random conversations and soon they wanted to know where you lived or who your husband was. But then she asked what I was looking for and I told her about Sina and how he woke up in the middle of the night and said he’d had “a near-death experience.” I didn’t tell her it was my son. I said it was “someone I knew.”

     Then she told me how Maddie’s father was an alcoholic and she could relate to what I was talking about. She told me her “not-very-special story” of how she’d ended up raising Maddie on her own, and I said I knew what it felt like to be a single mom. Then I found myself walking with her to her black Malibu as she held her O magazine and I hadn’t found any useful books. I said I had to catch the bus and she said she’d give me a ride, and that’s when I told her how I’d married Sina’s father when he was here in the U.S and I was in Iran. She laughed and said that was crazy. I told her she had beautiful teeth.

     Then I told her, well, we’d divorced only two years after I came here. I told her now Sina was in his twenties. She said I looked much younger than that. I said I was only forty-two, and found out she was thirty-nine. Then we laughed again and she gave me a piece of her Orbit mint gum. I told her about Sina’s half-sister from his dad’s side and how she chewed the same type of gum all the time. Then suddenly I realized talking to her was so easy, so I kept talking about how I loved Anna, because she was like the daughter I never had.

     She went off talking about Maddie, but before she said anything about her speech problems, we were on my driveway and I gave her my number. That’s it. Then she called me later and invited me over. I met them on the next Friday and we had ice cream together and she talked about Maddie. She told me she was looking for a nanny because she had found a full-time job. Then I looked at Maddie licking her spoon and I answered yes. Yes, I would love to do it.

     It had been almost a year since that day. Now I barely saw Sarah. She left right after I got to her house and if there was anything to say, she would leave a note on the counter.

     She left this note around a week after we talked about Maddie’s school: “These flash cards might help if you want to start practicing some simple words with her.”

     I threw the note in the trash can and went upstairs. Maddie and I had decorated her windows with the Disney Princess stickers I got her for her birthday. Sarah said the stickers would leave a stain on the glass. She couldn’t take them off, because Maddie didn’t stop screaming, “Leila! Leila!”

     I pulled her blanket. “Wake up, Maddie!”

     Her eyes were already open, giving me a doubtful glare as if she wasn’t sure it was really me, speaking English.

     “Come on, Maddie!” I said. She laughed and covered her head with the blanket.

      “We’re not playing, Maddie! Get up. We have a lot to do today.”

      She kept giggling. She thought it was a joke, me speaking “the alien language.”

     “Get up, Maddie!” I almost raised my voice at her. Her hazel eyes kept gazing at me.

     “Pasho, Maddie!” I gave up. And she got up, clung to me, and I took her downstairs.

     She sat at the table and I put the cereal bowl in front of her: cinnamon apple crunch! She loved it. Sarah said it had way too much sugar, so I let Maddie have it only when she wasn’t around.

     She was still in her pink pajamas, but I didn’t mind. I pulled the sheer yellow curtains aside and wasn’t very surprised to see it was another gray and gloomy day, even though it was the middle of July and eighty-seven degrees the day before. I was used to that Michigan weather after twenty three years.

     Maddie was looking out the window, staring at the motionless water and the blue bouncy ball floating.

     “Leila?” she pointed at the pool out the window. Her voice reminded me of Charlie Brown in that episode with Janice when he kept repeating, “Why Charlie Brown? Why?” and tears dropped down his cheeks, and I thought it was ridiculous to have something so sad in a cartoon, so I turned the TV off. Maddie and I had watched that episode together on a Friday night when Sarah had gone out with her girlfriends.

     “No! It’s not sunny, you see? Not the best day for the pool,” I said.

     Her eyes were still asking for something, as if she hadn’t heard me. “Leila?”

     “Wipe your mouth, Maddie!” I said, and I myself wiped the milk dripping down her chin with my handkerchief.

     “Look, Maddie! Look at all these fun cards. We’re gonna learn a lot of stuff today. Are you excited?” I said, pointing at the flashcards on the counter. The lights were still off and I didn’t care, even though there wasn’t that much light coming in from the window. She didn’t look back at me, still looking out the window, nibbling on a piece of dry cereal. Her hair was messed up around her shoulders and I loved that cute mess so much that I didn’t mind waiting a couple hours until I dressed her for the day.

     “Okay, Maddie. Listen! If you’re a good girl, I’ll let you play in the pool later. Okay?”

     She nodded. I wasn’t surprised to see she understood what I said.


     Then we started, Maddie sitting on the floor in a pile of her Legos, me sitting on the couch, holding the cards at her face. I hated those Legos. They were everywhere. Sarah didn’t mind though. I hated it, because I thought Maddie should be playing with a Barbie collection like a real girl.

     “Repeat, Maddie! Book! You see the picture? This is a book here. Say it! Book!” I said. She was putting the Lego pieces on top of each other.

     “Maddie, here!” She didn’t look up.

     “Ok then. No pool for today.” I said, walking to the kitchen to get a glass of water. She walked after me and pulled my skirt. “Leila?”

     “What?” I said, trying to sound as cold as I could, pretending I didn’t know what that Leila meant.

     She stood there and stared at my skirt. I knew she liked those colorful patterns on my clothes better than Sarah’s black dresses.

     “What, Maddie? Speak up!” I said, brushing my hair with my fingers. Sarah said my hair was too long. She said it made her vacuum the floor every day. I wore a scarf around my head when she was home. I knew Maddie liked it though. Some mornings I lay next to her until she woke up. She hid her face in my hair and laughed. That’s why I got her the same scented candles as my rosewater shampoo.

     But I didn’t light the candles that day. Not on that Thursday. It was another one of those days when Maddie got stubborn and gave me a headache. One of those days when I didn’t mind letting her play with her Legos, so I could take a painkiller and watch Bettany’s show until Maddie fell asleep. I would let her lie on the couch and I would fall asleep too. I only did this on the days Maddie was grumpy and wore out my patience. When my headache didn’t let me do anything. Those headaches that had started when Sina’s sleeping problems started. He couldn’t go to sleep and his screams didn’t let me go to sleep either. Since the day I started talking to Maddie in English, she was giving me worse headaches. And I already knew this was going to be another one of those days. The flash cards were a warning to Maddie.

     It was ten in the morning and I knew Bettany’s show was on. I thought I could let Maddie play with the Legos for a while and I would watch my show, maybe we’d both feel better after. I wouldn’t do that if it was winter though.

     In winter, when Maddie was being stubborn like today and it was cold outside, I knew how to change it. I would boil some water and Maddie would ask if she could play in the snow, “Leila?” She would point at the door. Then I’d say, “Sabr kon!” and I would see the soothing sound of sabr would slow her down as she was sipping her hot coco, sitting next to me on the couch, watching the snow sliding down the window. Then her head was resting on my chest, her eyes closed, while the smell of rosewater candles filled the house. But today I wasn’t allowed to say Sabr and “wait” made no sense to Maddie.

     So I let her sit in her Lego pile and watch me drink my water as I swallowed a couple of those painkillers I had recently found in Sina’s room. I turned on the TV and sat on the couch. I knew if I ignored her, she’d be climbing up the couch, trying to sit on my lap.

     “No! Maddie!” I said, and even though that wasn’t very different from our regular Nah’s, she still pretended she didn’t get it.

     “Sit down!” I said, “Only if you do the cards with me.” I put her back right next to her toys. She, of course, started chewing on those nasty Lego pieces. She knew I hated that. She knew if it was a regular day, I’d make her walk to the kitchen and throw that piece in the trash can. Then I wouldn’t let her even touch the Legos for the rest of the day. Unless she would come close to me and whisper her apologetic “Leila” in my ear. And that would be too lovely for me to stop myself from kissing her on the cheek and helping her make the tallest Lego tower ever. Then she’d kick that tower down at the end and even if I wanted her to act more like a girl, her laughter was so innocent that I couldn’t help smiling at her. I’d bend to kiss her. My face would get so close to hers that I could count all the freckles on her nose. And she would let me do it.

     None of that was to happen on that Thursday morning. I already knew. Maddie had started a fight and Leila wasn’t going to let her win again, for her own sake. Sooner or later, she had to learn. Sarah was right. Leila wasn’t always going to be there for her.

     I turned up the TV, so that she’d know I wasn’t going to soften as I always did, and that painkiller was making it all easier for me. I had taken two, because when I found them in Sina’s room, he said they weren’t even as strong as aspirins.

     “Leila?” The most demanding Leila I’d ever heard of Maddie. She said my name as she looked right into my eyes, her palms closed. She made it clear it was going to be a fight. And I already knew that.

     “It’s hard to explain it verbally,” the guy on Bettany’s show said. A bald man with white Nike shoes. “And I felt myself going,” he said, sitting on Bettany’s red couch and crossing his legs, “I felt a great deal of pain.”

     I sat straight and turned it up. There she was, Maddie, slipping into my arms.

     “Do you want to do the cards? I said, “or Leila wi…”

     “I experienced what they call a near-death experience…” the guy said and the camera zoomed on his nervous smile. I put Maddie back on the floor, my eyes still glued to the screen.

     I wasn’t surprised to see something like that on Bettany’s show. It was a local show in Macomb County and I’m sure except for me and Sina, who sat next to me and ate nachos whenever he had nothing else to do, no one else in our neighborhood even knew that show existed. He sat next to me and watched the show in silence. I wouldn’t say anything, because I knew he would shush me and go back to his room. He was always in his room and that’s how the rumors started. I always told Anna he was just a quiet person, but she told me about the track marks on his arms and she thought I was in denial. I told her it was stupid, because Sina had told me those scars were not what Anna thought they were and I said my son wouldn’t ever lie to me. He was so sensitive and that’s why I didn’t dare to ask him more questions about it. Or he would get mad and wouldn’t come out of his room for days.

     It was only when Bettany’s show was playing that I got to sit next to my son and if I didn’t bug him with questions like “why does your room smell like pee,” he wouldn’t leave. He would even start talking about Bettany’s guests. “So fucking stupid!” he would say, or, “now they really think I believe this dude can see ghosts?” and he would laugh. He was right. There were a lot of weird people on Bettany’s show, but I didn’t think all of them were lying.

    Before I met Sarah, I watched an episode in which they’d brought a pet psychic. I still remembered some of his tips on how to communicate with pets. Some of them worked well with Maddie. I knew if she raised her eyebrows and stared right into my eyes, she was worried or scared of something and all I needed to do was hold her tight and scratch her neck. She would calm down and go back to play.

     “That was a frightening experience. I slipped. I could feel myself going,” the guy said as he lowered his voice just like people do when they try to fake a cry, but they can’t. So they eventually end up staring at their feet and blinking rapidly, pretending they’re trying not to break down.

     “And...I remember...I remember trying to hold on. I’ll be ok. I’ll be ok. I told myself.” The music in the background made it easier for me to believe him. Or maybe it was because I remembered Sina when he got up in the middle of the night and told me the same thing, “and then it came to a point when I couldn’t anymore,” Sina said. So did the guy on TV.

     “...and everything began to become...um..become more quiet,” he said. And I realized it had been so quiet in the house as well. I’d totally forgotten about Maddie. She wasn’t there in the living room. And the methadones had made my eyelids heavy enough and made me lazy enough to yell to her instead of walking after her just like I would do on a regular day when I pretended I couldn’t find her and then we played hide-and-seek. Sometimes she kept hiding for so long, but I didn’t mind, because I knew she was safe when Leila was around.

     I yelled her name again and didn’t hear her. The pills hadn’t left me enough strength to panic even if I felt something like water boiling in my guts. I dragged my feet to the kitchen to see her sitting on the floor, chewing on another piece of Lego. And even though she smiled, I still felt the water boiling in my stomach and I thought maybe it was the methadones.

     I usually took aspirins. It was the first time I took methadones. I had found them in Sina’s room on Monday. I knocked on his door to tell him I was going to Sarah’s. It was early in the morning, but I knew he always woke up early. I knocked again and he didn’t answer. So I opened the door and heard him in his bathroom. His dirty socks and underwear were all around the room. Then I knocked on the bathroom door where he had taped a picture of a creepy green creature with eight eyes, tied to a cross.

     Sina never yelled at me. He never raised his voice. But talking slowly was his screaming and that’s what he did. “What?” he said. I didn’t answer, because I was afraid he would get mad. So I just walked around his messy room and that’s when I saw that green bottle on top his drawer. “What is this?” I said and he ran out of the bathroom, unrolling his sleeve. His dark eyes were the same color as my mother’s, but his tiny pupils scared me. Then he grabbed the bottle. “What are you doing in my room?” he said. I didn’t go to his room very often. He didn’t like it.

     “What is this?” I repeated. He gave me that begging look I hadn’t seen on his face for a long time and he called me by a word I hadn’t heard come out of his mouth for years. I trusted anything that voice would tell me, no matter what Anna said.

     “Methadone, Mom! It’s just a painkiller. It helps me sleep at night. It’s kind of like aspirin. You take aspirin, don’t you? They’re not even as strong as aspirins,” he said, shaking the bottle at my face, “they just, like, help me sleep at night, you know? Here, take that, try it later. They’re just like aspirins. Really.” He put a couple of them in my palm. I believed him. I hadn’t been awakened in the middle of the night to hear his stories for the last couple of nights. So I didn’t say anything when he almost pushed me out of his room and closed the door.

     Since then I kept the pills in my pocket instead of the aspirins, in case I ever needed them and it seemed like it was the right day to take two. Because here was Maddie again, pulling my skirt, still in her pajamas.

     “Leila?” she asked, but before I could say anything I had to turn around and watch my TV as I stood behind the counter, because now the guy was talking again.

     “I can remember with every ounce of strength I had I wanted to say goodbye to my wife.” Now the soft music in the background was getting more rock-like and Maddie was still pulling my skirt. The pill had made me so schlumpy that if she kept doing that, I’d fall. And I guess I yelled, “what?” because I remember her eyes panicking and then she pointed at the unlit candle on the counter.

     “No! You see? I should get a new candle, ok? This one is almost over…”

     “It was important to me,” the guy said, and Maddie was still playing that “No English!” game. So I gave up and thought the candle would work by the end of the show and at least it would keep her quiet. I lit up the candle and went back to fling my numb body on the couch.

     “...and I did it! I remember just turning my head and looking at her…” the guy said.

     Now here was Maddie again, standing on her tiptoes next to the back door, her hand on the doorknob.

     “Leila?” she said, pointing at the window.

     “No! Maddie, no!” I screamed at her, with every ounce of strength the methadone had left me. I screamed at her to make her stop saying that damn name over and over again. And then I saw her face got blurry. The TV, the white walls covered with pictures of Sarah and Maddie. Everything was blurry. I didn’t see her anymore, because I could not keep my eyes open, not even for one more second. I closed my eyes and heard the guy on TV, “...and I remember saying, goodbye Joan. Goodbye. I think I’m dying...and I did. It was then that I experienced what we call a near-death experience. I think it was nothing near about it, it was there.” I heard his nervous laughter as the music got louder and louder.

     “It was a total immersion in light, brightness, warmth, peace...ah...and security. I...I did not have an out of body experience. I did not see my body or anyone above me…”

     Now I could barely hear him in that weird mixture of drum and violin.

     “I just immediately went into this beautiful bright light. It’s difficult to describe. As a matter of fact it’s impossible to describe it verbally. It cannot be expressed. It’s something which becomes you and you become it. I could say that I was peace. I was love. I was the brightness. It was part of me.”

     Then the nerve-racking music was everywhere and the last thing I heard mixed in that music was a weak “Leila” and a small click sound. Then the rosewater scent filled my skull and I felt like my eyelids were glued together, and then it was dark everywhere. And I became the darkness.

     Then I heard that “Leila” again, but this time I couldn’t say anything because I was only darkness and it was my mom singing the “Leila, Leila” to me, trying to hypnotize me to sleep. I could smell the rosewater on her clothes. I couldn’t see her, but I felt her. I knew it was her, her voice in the darkness surrounding me.

     She sang, “Sia cheshm, moo boland balaro bordan

     Black eyes, dark hair, Leila...Leila..

     They stole Leila...they took her away…”

     She sang and I sang with her, “Leila...Leila…” and I breathed her in, but then she smelled like burning ash and then it was only me singing. I heard myself, “Leila, Leila…” and I opened my eyes.

     I could see everything again, but it felt like the darkness was still around me, all around the room. I smelled the smoke again and I staggered to the kitchen to see a small flame on the bottom of the candle flickering. It had melted flat on the counter and burnt a hole in the white cloth. It was the burning cloth I’d smelled, not my mom’s ash.

     I blew it out, and I didn’t see Maddie in the kitchen. I saw the backyard door cracked open and I saw it was pouring rain out the window. And that was when I saw that pink pajamas floating in the pool, the blue ball bouncing on the ground.

     And I still see her, floating in the water, her wet hair on her forehead, drops of rain pounding on her face. And her eyes, her eyes are open. Those dull eyes that used to shine stare at nowhere and I can see a Leila has dried on her lips. I hear her scream, “Leila...Leila?” and I open my eyes. My throat feels dry and I’m awake again. Sometimes I take a methadone or two. Then I hide my face behind the blanket and let the darkness seep into me. And then I hear myself whispering, “Leila...Leila…”