A few months after we moved to Iran, my aunt, uncle and two little cousins moved out of our apartment where they had been living in our absence and we moved in. We lived on the first floor, in the middle unit of a 12 unit building. And while my parents rarely let us out of the house except for school, the neighbors provided us with plenty of entertainment. None more than the ever scandalous woman I came to know as Khanoom Shelakteh (Mrs. Slutty).
Khanoom Shelakhteh was a youngish woman with two children and a husband that didn't match her in age, beauty or style. Where she was frankly stunning and gregarious (perhaps too much so for the taste of her neighbors), he was a balding man burdened with such shyness that it seemed to weigh heavily on his slumped frame. How the two of them ever crossed paths and agreed to marry is still one of the greater mysteries of my childhood. Perhaps because of her looks and overly friendly nature, she had developed a reputation that caused women of all ages to clasp onto their spouses possessively and guard their sons' eyes. She had also acquired the nickname 'Shelakhteh'. In Farsi, shelakhteh literally means messy, but figuratively is used to mean promiscuous and/or uncouth. I did not know this. I thought Shelakhteh was a name, one of the many, many names I had never heard before. It never occurred to me that her name was always whispered by the older women after she had left, nor did I recognize the disparaging words that were used to describe her appearance. I knew my mother never spent too much time talking to her, but my aunt and uncle spoke of her warmly, removing any suspicion from my mind.
Which is why, I would smile mutely at her when we passed in the stairwell. If she noticed me at all, she would prattle on quickly using words I didn't recognize--until she got to the finale, "May God protect you for your parents.", to which I would reply, "Merci". I once tried to compliment her on her gold lame' Princess Leia outfit, but could only piece together the words "pretty" and "dress". She smiled and dashed down the stairs, glowing in a child's approval. I didn't hear the tsk-tsking of our neighbors, nor did I know they were saying she was endangering her children's reputation.
This went on for about four or five months. One night, my uncle stopped by on his way home from work. He brought some fresh bread and fresh gossip. Sitting at her window perch looking onto the street, Khanoom Shelakhteh had seen my uncle come into the building and a few minutes later came down and rang our door bell. My mom and uncle were deep in government conspiracy theories about the sudden scarcity of chicken and rice, so I answered the door. Khanoom Shelakhteh stood there in all her scantily clad glory and smiles, saying things that included my name as well my uncle's. By this time, my Farsi was much better and I had a good idea of what she was asking. I was also eager to show off my new vocabulary. Which is why I chose my words carefully as I yelled out to my elders, "Maman! Khanoom Shelakhteh dameh dareh mikhad ba Dayee harf bezaneh!" (Mom! Mrs. Slutty is at the door and wants to speak to Uncle!).
To her credit, she never batted an eyelash or said a word. She continued to stand there smiling as my uncle appeared out of thin air and wisked me away, only to be replaced by my very shamefaced mother who apologized profusely for her non-Farsi speaking daughter. After she spoke to my mom and uncle, I got an earful from both of them. I was horrified by what I had done, and swore to never cross paths with her again. I was not successful in anything but avoiding her eyes as we passed each other on the street or in the building. Our little game went on for a few months, until summer vacation at which time I tried to hide indoors as much as possible.
Of course it wouldn't end there. The coals had to be heaped higher.
One rainy afternoon, my brother came home from the produce market and announced that a bunch of the houses on the way had burst pipes and that the rain was causing sewage to flood the houses. Just about then, we noticed the stench of raw sewage. If you've ever been to a house in Iran, you know how horribly bad things can get in minutes. In seconds, my mom was rolling up the rugs, with each of us assigned to one of the smaller rugs. Everything was a frantic blur of movement with the smell of sewage becoming overwhelming, as filthy water started pushing up from the drains. At some point, my mom had opened the front door, ready to sweep the foul water out of the house if necessary. A few of the neighbors from the higher floors stood outside the house, mouths and noses covered, relieved that they didn't live on the first floor.
And suddenly, she was among us. She had rolled up her precious Levi's, kicked off her heels and was wading ankle deep in sewage. With her she had brought a linen closet's worth of decorated towels that were obviously from her trousseau and was soaking up the vile liquid before it reached our bedrooms. She never left, no matter how embarrassed my mom was and how much she insisted that we were okay.
Hours later, as my mom washed the floors and walls with bleach, she guided us outside, away from the fumes. I finally looked at her and spoke to her for the first time since the day she rang our doorbell, whispering, "Khanoom, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it."
Lady that she was, she smiled at me and said, "You can call me Khaleh (aunt)."