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Leila by Nelly Rosario

“Leila Pimentel.”
     Leila sat in biology class, very much present. It was the only class that put an A on her report card and earned her new clothes. The rest of her classes could bust as far as she was concerned, she had told Ms. Valenza in a parent-teacher conference, minus parents. In general, she maintained, she was an epistemophiliac whose lust for knowledge had nothing to do with grades.
     Today they were studying the circulatory system, following a month-long tour of the human body. Leila smiled when Ms. Valenza said that the heart was about the size of a fist. When Ms. Valenza asked students to check each other’s pulses, Leila’s study partner thought he had miscounted.
     “Nah, I’m just horny,” she said, only to watch the blood rise in his face.
     Ventricles, the venae cavas, the valves, and aortas. She liked the v‘s and a‘s in her mouth, and repeated the words to keep from thinking about Him. Miguel Alloa Hernández: the bastard who was straining the muscle that was supposed to beat seventy-two times a minute for the rest of her life.

— Late bloomers last longer, Andrés told Leila.
     “But I wanna bloom now, man,” she said under her breath.

Leila and Miguel were in the basement, hidden in the labyrinth of thick walls. He squeezed her flesh, searching for the roundness that was not there. She moaned, afraid and excited that the superintendent of the building would catch them and trot upstairs to tell her grandparents. She imagined them racing down with her Uncle Ismael to beat up Miguel and then beat her with the belt.
     Leila felt a delicious rain of needles. Miguel’s fingers were now drawing circles in her tightness. She was wet and swollen and full of water while sucking on his earlobe. He seemed nice, she thought, liking and wincing at the easy way his hand claimed the newest hairs down there. She tried to hide her smile when his other hand reached under her tank top and pinched her nipples, as if he were handling the married woman who had borne him three children. A rain of needles. Studying him through the peephole every morning as he left the building for work, she had initially thought he’d be more mysterious. But here, against the wall, his mystique reduced to his mouth smothering hers. They grappled against the wall until the creak of the elevator doors separated them.
     A woman sang to her son on her way to the laundry room behind their wall. An echo of giggles. Leila was relieved, too flustered to continue. She really did not know what to do next. They could not do It in the basement. Once she had kissed a boy with soft hands named Danny at the YMCA summer camp, and one childhood summer in the Dominican Republic, she and her third cousin Alex had felt each other up under Mamá Graciela’s cashew tree. Leila had decided she did not like to kiss, and, to her amazement, she had in fact read in a book that people like her were called philematophobes. This man here did not seem to be curing her. But while smoothing down her hair and snapping her bra back into place, Miguel told her she was pretty — Mercedes’ pigeon soup must be fattening her up so that it even made a man want to cheat on wifey. Miguel was more flesh, more flesh than the Dannys and Alexes of her recycled fantasies. Next time, Leila would make him take her somewhere else. Not on the wall. She was about to ask him for his phone number, but he put his index finger to her lips. Shshsh. And before she slipped off ahead of him to ride the elevator back to reality, Miguel gave Leila his crisp business card.
     Two years of Leila’s life was missing from family albums; after her twelfth birthday, it seemed she disappeared. She saved her grandparents’ public-assistance money by refusing to sit for annual school portraits, and shutterbug friends called her a vampire for her absence in their photos. When she saw herself in pictures, it was as if she were looking at someone else, not the person she remembers being at the time of the photo. But, as Elsa says, Leila’s problem was that she was too “self-conscientious — just stand there and smile, stupid!”
     On the morning of her fourteenth birthday, Leila looked through the albums. She peeled off the snapshots of her birthdays and lined them up on the floor to see how she had grown into the beanstalk she was now — despite platefuls of rice and beans, heaps of pasta, giant triangles of pizza. Her medical factoid book confirmed that she was planistethic, her chest flat as a board.
     — Pigeon soup and malt extract should fatten you up good, L’il Greedy Gal, Mercedes said if a tank top highlighted the tiny knobs at Leila’s chest.
     Every successive snapshot captured Leila in front of the same cupboard and smiling to the world. She gathered the snapshots, the cheeky one-year-old in bright pink at the bottom of the pile, and, at the top, the twelve-year-old fatale with puffy bangs. Her fingers flipped through the twelve slices of her life. Back then, her stronger self had allowed her to look straight into the camera. A toddler smiled in the opening frame where she reached toward a jeweled cake. Frame by frame, Leila stretched past Felíz Cumpleaños streamers (which became Happy Birthday by the sixth frame). With each frame, faces filled out, hairstyles flattened, and Mercedes and Andrés wrinkled, while the china cupboard behind them remained unchanged throughout Leila’s growth and fading smiles. Each year, the cake was transformed into a doll, rabbit, heart.




The rhombus of sunlight had long disappeared. Mercedes and Andrés went to bed early, as usual. They slept snug and confident that their granddaughter was up late studying hard for her future medical career.
     Leila curled up by the television, the volume on mute. Her thumb was poised on the remote’s Off button, her ears cocked for the sound of creaking floor behind the bedroom door. She had wound and rewound the videotape Mirangeli lent her to That Part. That Part, where a multitude of naked bodies wriggled under oil like a pit of ravenous snakes. A woman with melon breasts slid under a man with a face like Miguel’s and the butt of a horse. Leila had munched her nails down to tender skin.
     Finally, after fast-forwarding through monotonous fellatio scenes, the videotape stopped. Her heart pounded like a fist in her chest. Three floors above, Miguel was probably in bed with his wife, his three children sleeping soundly.
     A child answered the phone.
     —Good evening, ¿may I please speak to Mr. Miguel Hernandez? Leila asked. She heard a cough, then the tiny voice yell out for Papi.
     —His phone voice was hoarser than she had expected. Leila pictured Miguel standing around with a hand on his hip, maybe bare-chested and in boxer shorts.
     —Meet me in the basement. Ten minutes.
     Leila hung up the phone. Her tongue searched for her fingernail, then settled on her cuticle.
     As she stuffed her bedsheets with sofa cushions, Leila shook her head at the cliché. With rough strokes, she brushed her teeth and combed around the hairline of her ponytail. Lights in the living room went out. She muffled the noisy padlock with her arm and then the bright hallway stung her eyes.
     Leila waited. Each time the elevator door opened in the basement, her heart rattled. After a while, the heat inside her began to fizz. She stood against the wall where they had last heaved, right where the gray paint had been chipped off by a vandal.
     —¿How’d you get my home number?
     Miguel wore red checkered boxers and a V-neck undershirt.
     —I have my ways, she said with a breath of surprise.
     —I’m supposed to be throwing out the garbage, he said, then hooked his finger around the waist of her jeans.
     His hips pinned her to the wall. His tongue was fatter than Leila remembered. His boxer shorts pointed forward against her belly.
     —Suck it.
     His hands pushed down on her shoulders. Suck it, she did. Close her eyes, she did. Enjoyed it, until she started to drown. No easy business.
     Their eyes never met while Miguel wiped the corners of Leila’s mouth with the heel of his hand.
     —Don’t call my house again, he said, I’ll call you, ¿okay?
     Leila nodded. Most of the heat had fizzled in her belly, but embers still glowed. A peck on her cheek, and with a swish of his house slippers, Miguel was gone as easily as he had appeared. Leila waited for the sound of the closing elevator doors, then bounded up the stairs to prepare for her biology exam.

Leila’s heart is a pear-shaped muscle, slightly larger than a clenched fist. At the center of the circulatory system, it pumps blood though the body at a rate of about four quarts per minute. Her heart weighs eight ounces and beats an average of seventy-two times per minute. The closing and opening of its valves produce the “lub-dub .  .  . lub-dub” sound of a healthy heart.  

Excerpted from Song of the Water Saints, published by Pantheon Books. Used by permission. To buy this book, click here.




Nelly Rosario was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in Brooklyn,
where she now lives. She received a B.A. in engineering from MIT and an
M.F.A. in fiction writing from Columbia University. She was named a “Writer
on the Verge” by the Village Voice Literary Supplement in 2001.