Donia Bijan’s forthcoming novel, The Last Days of Café Leila, follows an Iranian immigrant named Noor who leaves her home and husband in California after learning of his infidelity, returning to Tehran with her teenage daughter, Lily, in tow. While Noor finds comfort in her father Zod’s long-running cafe and tries to make a home once again in post-revolution Iran, Lily, with her American roots, feels the exact opposite. And Lily’s rejection of life in Tehran could have dangerous consequences.
In advance of The Last Days of Café Leila’s April 18 publication, EW presents an exclusive excerpt, below.
Excerpt from The Last Days of Café Leila by Donia Bijan
Noor hatched a plan. There had to be a way to draw Lily to the lives of teenagers like herself before she could broach the subject of school in Iran. The idea of going swimming excited her. She thought that if she could get Lily to the pool, then she would see all the girls her age, relatively free, having fun, giggling and splashing one another like girls everywhere. Noor summoned her courage by playing this scenario over and over in her head: if Noor could catch the mood of this environment, then in the days to come she could tell her daughter about going to high school in Tehran for the fall semester.
Anyone seeing them might have thought they were friends, strolling past the kindergarten and the little grocery, carrying their towels in Lily’s backpack, the sun already fierce on their backs. Under baggy coats they wore swimsuits beneath t-shirts and jeans and covered their hair in matching headscarves. Lily had grown taller and took longer strides past the men hosing the sidewalks in front of their shops, forcing Noor to trot behind her.
At the entry to the pool, through the confusing panels of cloth hung during ladies hour for “safety,” they paid the attendant, who demanded they turn in their phones and handed them a locker key. The fifteen-minute walk in the intense heat had made them irritable so Noor suggested they take a quick cold shower.
Normally, Lily would have ignored Noor’s ideas, a pattern so consistent that Noor thought this sudden willingness was a sign that it was going to be all right, that her daughter would take the news well.
They undressed and hung their towels on the line of hooks above a row of wooden benches. Whooping in the cold shower drew curious looks from the handful of women who had arrived at nine o’clock sharp to take advantage of the allocated three hours. When had they last done anything fun together? thought Noor, as she watched her daughter clearly enjoy herself, laughing while dousing herself with the cold water.
They came out of the changing room still laughing and stepped out into the bright sunshine. Out by the deck, Noor watched Lily hold her nose for a cannonball, and she remembered a holiday long ago in Mallorca, where they stayed with Nelson’s grandparents in a pink-and-white villa. They went for long swims in the Mediterranean and sat for late night meals in fish shacks along the beach, eating fried sardines, with Lily between them smacking her little palms together — a memory so vivid, it made her stomach hurt to think Lily would never be nestled between her parents again.
Lily surfaced and swam the length of the pool to where Noor and a few other women sat watching her. She performed frisky and playful handstands, somersaults, and held her breath underwater, enjoying the attention. Who is this new girl? they all wondered.
“She’s my daughter. She’s fifteen,” Noor offered. Bold now, she asked if their daughters were joining them. A woman with dyed reddish hair in a loose bun and wearing big designer sunglasses shook her head no.
“My girls are in America. They have swimming pools in their backyards!”
Her friend stretched her legs and nodded in agreement, “My son and his wife are also in Los Angeles.”
“You must miss them so much,” said Noor.
“Yes, they have two enchanting little girls I haven’t seen in three years,” she replied.
“Do you have more children?” the redhead wanted to know.
“No, just one.”
They searched Noor’s face to guess her age.
“You should have more,” they chanted in unison.
“Oh, I’m afraid it’s not up to me,” and Noor excused herself to swim some laps, not wanting to continue a dead-end topic. People felt obliged to offer their opinions. She’d had a few miscarriages after Lily, then given up. One day she had asked Nelson to put Lily’s crib and high chair on the sidewalk and watched from the kitchen window as a young father wheeled the crib to his pickup truck. Later an elderly couple, too polite to haul away the high chair without asking, rang the doorbell and gave her an earful about the grandchild whom would be visiting soon. She walked to the curb to show them how to snap the tray on and off and helped them load it into their trunk.
Noor pushed off a wall and swam energetically from end to end — the water icy at first and then just right. Lily, balancing on a noodle, paddled towards her, gleefully shaking her thick hair and lifting it like a curtain to twist in a knot. Her vessel tipped and she dropped back smoothly below the surface, exposing darling pink toenails like periscopes. Horizontal now, they floated on their backs for a little while longer with the sun in their eyes and nothing but water between them. As they climbed out, Noor could see the girls she had followed a few days ago coming out from behind the screen that separated the changing cabins. Two were already lounging on their towels and waving to the newcomers. Noor grabbed their towels and unrolled them near enough to greet them and Lily sat beside her hugging her knees.
“Excuse me, ma’am, are you a swim instructor?” asked the oldest in the group.
Noor laughed, “Me? Oh, no, sweetie.”
“It’s just that you swim so well and my little sister, Bahar, could use some lessons,” she explained.
“Oh, well, I’d be happy to teach her but my daughter here is really the better swimmer.”
She turned to Lily, “Don’t you think you could teach swimming?”
Bahar looked Lily right in the eye, probably contemplating the benefits of a lesson from a peer rather than an instructor. Lily worried about how they would communicate, but there was hardly a need for words in swimming. She nodded and gave Bahar a pleasant smile, “Okay, I will,” she said, sensing that Bahar liked her.
Noor felt that her hunch had turned out to be right — the company of these cheerful, curious girls, provided just the setting she had hoped for.
They nearly had the pool to themselves, as most women were sunbathing. Bahar, only a year younger than Lily, was reluctant at first. But urged along by Noor and the other girls, they walked together to the edge of the pool and Lily gently torqued her student’s back, tucking her chin for a dive.
But Bahar solemnly shook her head, “No dive.”
So Lily jumped in and held her arms out to her as Nelson had done when she was a toddler.
“One. Two. Three. Jump!” she cried and Bahar flew into her arms submerging them both and they rose to the surface laughing hysterically.
How easily they transcend barriers, thought Noor as she watched their pantomime — how do you say kick, how do you say elbow, how do you say high, how do you say low, close you mouth, breathe out, forgetting most and remembering some of these maiden words. Noor wondered if this was real, if her daughter could be happy here, or would this playfulness dry up once they toweled off.
Just before the café closed for the morning session, Noor ducked in to treat the older girls to cold sodas, which they accepted graciously. They asked Noor if she and her daughter would be back and Bahar kissed them shyly before they gathered their belongings and left.
Walking home, their hair still damp beneath their scarves, Noor reached for Lily’s hand and Lily didn’t pull away, slowing down her youthful gait to walk beside her mother.
“You had a nice time?” Noor asked.
“Yeah! Bahar is so funny.”
“In a half hour you taught her to swim!”
“Can we go again, Mom? Do you think she’ll be there?”
“Can Karim come, too?”
“Sweetie, didn’t you see there were only women there? They don’t let boys and girls swim together.”
“That’s insane. I don’t get this country, mom. Like, why is everyone so afraid of women?”
“I agree, it’s crazy, but just pretend you’re in an all-girls school.”
“That’s your solution?” The edge in Lily’s voice was back. Why was her mother so passive? How could she dismiss this blatant discrimination that was all around them?
“Lily, speaking of school,” she began, but the words caught in her throat.
“I’d never go to an all-girls school, mom. It’s not natural. Besides, girls can be so mean.”
“Oh honey, you saw how nice Bahar and her friends were.” She hurried along, emboldened by the turn in their conversation. “You’d like school here, they will love having a friend from America. Come September, you’ll be quite the celebrity.”
“Wait, what are you talking about?” said Lily. She stopped walking, all the color drained from her sun-kissed cheeks. She pulled her hand away and held it over her mouth, a storm gathering behind her pale face.
“You better be joking, Mom, or I swear I will tear this rag from my head right here and scream for help.”
“Shhh, now calm down, Lily.”
“Does this backwards country even have child services? Oh no, of course not, otherwise poor Karim wouldn’t be slaving it in that dump.”
“Watch your mouth! If it wasn’t for your grandfather, Karim would be in an orphanage!”
“I’d rather be in an orphanage and so would he!”
“Please listen, Lily,” Noor pleaded as Lily tried to talk over her.
“So this is your plan, for us to stay here? Does Dad know? Have you even spoken to him?”
“Just come with me to see the school. All right? And if you really don’t like it, we’ll find another one. It’s probably only for a few months until Baba — ”
“Answer me! DOES HE KNOW?” People stopped to look back at them.
“Let’s go home and I’ll explain everything.” Noor tried to keep her voice even but she was shaking — petrified that Lily would do something that would alert the police patrolling the streets. “Please don’t draw attention, Lily.”
“I’m not going anywhere until you answer me because if Dad doesn’t know, your little experiment is over.” Suddenly she pulled the scarf loose and threw it at Noor who just stood there paralyzed by the fury in her daughter’s twisted face.
“How many times has your precious father called you, huh? If I didn’t leave him a message to call you — ” Noor caught herself. She didn’t know if they were the morality police, but two men in uniform were weaving through the cars towards them. They absolutely needed to get off this street and she grabbed Lily’s arm, pulling her home.