Tehran, 2002 On a scorching summer afternoon, I am running placement tests for a language school. Seated across from me there's a matronly thirtyish-looking woman nervously clutching her purse, waiting to have her command of English assessed.
There is nothing familiar about her until I check her ID — in order to prevent interviewees from taking the test for another person! Believe me they would do anything to be accepted to a higher level!
And bang, on her ID there is a picture of a teenage girl with a name that has haunted me ever since second grade: Kobra Maleki
Tehran, 1981 It is 20 minutes after recess, when an eight-year-old me tentatively raises her hand — think Oliver Twist — asking for permission to go to the bathroom, which is received by a stern, how-long-I-have -to-suffer-with-these-brats-before-I-retire, NO from the obnoxious middle-aged teacher.
I recoil in my seat trying to suppress the urge to go by pressing my legs together and praying for it to go away, when I feel warmth running down my legs followed by a small puddle forming under my desk.
Scared stiff and beet-root embarrassed I keep a straight face and copy what the witch has written on the blackboard when a shriek from the girl sitting next to me draws everyone's attention to our corner.
“Kobra has peed,” screams Fereshteh, who had gone under the desk to fetch her pencil, her goggly green eyes gogglier and greener than ever, pointing a finger at the girl sitting behind us.
Poor Kobra is speechless, so am I, not believing my luck, then she pleads: “no, I didn't, I swear I didn't, you're a liar”. But Fereshteh — drama queen that she was — won't let go and keeps accusing her and I, well, comfortably keep my mouth shut.
“Kobra, get the hell out and go stand in the corner,” bellows Mrs. J (no pun intended, her name really began with a J!)
Tears running down her little plump face, she shuffles to the corner of the class, mumbling “I swear to God, it was not me”.
I watch her pass by my desk from the corner of my eyes and can't bear to look at her, fearing everyone will find out once I look up.
She stands at her designated corner, head down, sniffing and fidgeting with her stained scarf.
Relieved yet sticky and wet, I looked at her but did not feel very sorry. After all the corner was home to Kobra, who would be banished there at least once a week for her inability to recite the poem in our Farsi book, being hopeless at math or merely picking her nose.
Unlike me, all bright-eyed and smart, reading 'Tin Tin' at the end of first grade, Kobra was THE lazy one, one of those girls who never learn to spell and for whom 'Tajdidi' becomes a household name as early as grade school.
The bell rings, and when my mom comes to collect me I clumsily try to cover my wet back with my satchel, which luckily enough goes unnoticed in the rush to get out of Mrs. J's nightmare of a class.
While we're walking home, my mom improvises a song about a little lady who's wetted her pants and I loosen up laughing sheepishly, but never tell her or anyone else an innocent girl got punished for it. Guess I was too scared she would go and tell Mrs. J all about it.
School ends and I am never in the same class with Kobra again. I turn into a rebel in the coming years and get into trouble a lot, ironically enough getting punished for things I have not even done, like stealing sandwiches from the buffet as they assumed I should have been an accomplice anyway.
Back to the interview I give Kobra a nod and ask her a few simple questions, which she can hardly answer. No doubt she has to go to beginner one class, but when filling out her form I put her to beginner two, she lightens up and says:
“guess I'm not THAT bad then!”
“No, you can manage.”
“Sure, good luck with the course.”
Off she goes and that's it. 19 years have passed and I am still tongue-tied, unable to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry I caused you that horrible humiliation. I am sorry I never tried to be your friend or to help you with studying. I'm sorry I was such a cruel coward.
Obviously she did not recognize me and there is a chance she did not remember the peeing incident as vividly.
Not that I am bad with apologies. On the contrary I apologize easily and effusively, seeking to smooth things over as fast as I can. I take the blame and try to make amends right away. I make obsessive calls to check whether a friend was offended by a remark I made. Guilt trips: pull them off to get anything from me!
And you know why: I just don't want to be haunted by another Kobra Maleki and wait 19 years only not to deliver a long overdue apology.