By Geeta Tewari
September 11, 2001, 12:01 a.m.: your twenty-first birthday. Also, International Day of Peace, according to the United Nations. You knock on Ethan’s door and ask if you can lie next to him. This is your senior year at Cornell University, and you remind yourself that now, today, you’re officially an adult. You had met Ethan in the spring of junior year, when you sat next to him on a birch-colored chair in the back of 314 White Hall for “China and the World.” You had arrived seven minutes late for that first class. It was the closest seat to the door.
You became friends in the magical way people register each other fondly upon sight without knowing the other at all. You started talking—about class and graduate schools and job options. He had one year left too, and you bonded, like Russian nesting dolls, yours tucked safely inside his. This is the first time either of you has fallen in love.
“But no sex,” you remind him now. You’re still a virgin, having only fooled around: kissing, spooning, naked from the waist up. You do not remind him today is your birthday, you don’t want to appear desperate. He won’t remember. You gave him this information once, last spring.
“Of course,” Ethan says. He stands against the door until you’ve propped your backpack against the foot of his bed. After he closes the door, he walks to his computer to click on Napster. Satellite from Dave Matthews Band’s first album emanates from the portable speakers on his dresser. His roommate’s bed is empty and made. You wonder where he is.
At 6:45 a.m., the outer lines of your mouth are sore from kissing. You slept with your naked breasts pressed against Ethan’s naked back for five hours. You watch him sleep on his left side, the forest green blanket over his lower body. You re-clasp the nude, polyester bra your mother bought you from TJ-Maxx the week before college started. You leave his room to collect your things for class.
In Florida, President George W. Bush is exercising, running four miles. The Mayor of San Francisco has already received the phone call that today is an unsafe day for travel.
At 7:30 a.m., in the bathroom, you decide not to shower even though itchy dried sweat tells you a shower is due. It’s always cold in the Balch bathrooms. There are two doors entering and exiting the bathroom on every floor, which causes a draft. Balch is the same all-women’s dormitory your grandmother stayed in, in 1936, when she received a scholarship to study Entomology here. It’s the fanciest, cleanest dormitory on campus, built in 1929.
Your grandmother was a Brahmin Punjabi, a Sharma, and after earning her PhD in Entomology, she returned to India for the arrangement of her marriage to Narrinder Kapoor, a Kshatriya Punjabi, one caste beneath her, because, so your grandmother claims, he was the only man in Patiala smart enough to recognize the thirty-seven-year-old woman’s intelligence. Secretly, after dinnertime, she advised your grandfather on the day to day conflicts at his post as an agricultural engineer for the Indian government. Politics.
You wash your face over the white, porcelain sink, and in your room, change your underwear and clothes. Other students come out of the shower wrapped in towels, holding pink plastic pails of soap and shampoo. You open the accordion gate of the elevator to leave your dormitory for Astronomy class. It’s partly cloudy outside, too warm for the sweatshirt you’re wearing.
The hijackers who will first crash into the World Trade Center have left Portland, Maine for Boston, Massachusetts. Your parents live there, in Milford.
Last night, at 8:04 p.m., while you were at the dining hall with two girls from your dormitory, your father called. You listened to his message when you returned to your room but you did not call him back. You didn’t feel like answering his questions, or your mother’s, about how school is going and what you’re going to do for your birthday, and more importantly, how your job search is coming along. You’re not looking for a job. You had wanted to teach, but when you told your father you’d like to teach children in India, he said, “take care of yourself first.”
“I want to help people,” you countered.
“First you help yourself,” your father had said.
“Maybe law school?”
He doesn’t want you to go to law school either. “No. Find a business job,” he said. “That will be easiest for you.” Your mother goes along with what he says, whatever he says, and you listen to your parents out of fear and ignorance and an imbedded insecurity about the person you could be.
You decide to call your father back immediately prior to dinner tonight so that you can talk to your friends afterwards, forget what he said, what you said, and how it all made you feel.
In 1978, your parents immigrated to the United States. They conceived you in Tennessee, where your father first worked. Nothing about Tennessee, you remember. Your parents make money, but not that much money, not as much as other Indians you know, who live in mansions and buy new Mercedes instead of used ones. Most of the students at Cornell seem rich to you, richer than you.
At 8:00 a.m., still September 11, 2001, you stop at Atrium for a chocolate croissant, a raspberry Light n’ Crunchy yogurt, and a Diet Snapple Peach Iced Tea. You pay with the points encrypted in your student ID card because there are only twelve dollars in your bank account and the emerald green credit card your mother gave you is for an emergency.
Flight 11, Boeing 767, carrying 81 passengers and 11 crew members, has departed from Boston. At least one person must have been afraid of flying, worrying before getting on that plane—This could be the day I die.
At 8:15 a.m., you walk to Goldwin Smith, and sit inside an empty classroom to eat breakfast. You eat the croissant first, then the yogurt, licking even the bit smoothed onto the seal. You do not open the Snapple. Twenty-six pages of The Cosmic Perspective remain before Astronomy at 9:05 a.m. You highlight each word you read and forget it as soon as it’s been painted neon yellow.
In four minutes, a woman named Betty Ong will call American Airlines using an Airfone, saying, “Somebody’s stabbed in business class and . . . I think there’s mace . . . I think we’re getting hijacked.”
At 8:45 a.m., nineteen pages left, you close the book. A neon yellow seeped page mashes against a dry one as you walk to Uris Auditorium for lecture.
A hijacker named Mohammed Atta has taken over the cockpit of Flight 11, and two fellow hijackers have stabbed at least four flight attendants. Atta in Hindi means wheat flour. In Arabic, it means gift. Your mother makes fresh roti almost every day for your father, with atta. The word is an English heteronym.
At 9:15 a.m., your Astronomy professor is ten minutes late. The hundred and fifty students sitting on the red cushioned chairs of the auditorium buzz like a swarm of bees. When he arrives, he asks, “What is our role in the universe?”
You are sitting at the top right set of chairs, and a student diagonally across from you raises her hand to say, “Our role is to help people.” She is white, a brunette, and from your vantage point, you see nothing else. You wonder where she’s from, how much money her parents earn, how much they give her.
A boy in the middle aisle, also white, with a reddish face, pomegranate acne, and a white Polo shirt, says, “Our role is to coexist underneath a cosmos of planets.” What does this mean? You draw a large circle in your notebook, imagining an orange sun.
Professor says, “Have you heard the news? The World Trade Center is on fire.” He asks you all to raise your hand if you’ve ever seen the World Trade Center. Almost half of the students raise their hand. The girl next to you in the black North Face jacket has raised her hand. You do not. You would like to buy a North Face jacket but you don’t know where they’re sold. These jackets are common at Cornell, among the more attractive students—both sexes—the white ones, the richer ones, you presume.
A custodian rolls a television onto the podium, and the professor snaps it on to a news channel. A black hole gapes through the upper portion of a tall, mirrored building. Smoke and fire wrap around the building like hundreds of rattlesnakes. The professor stares at the television, announcing another plane has crashed into the South Tower. You didn’t know the World Trade Center had a north tower and a south tower; you didn’t know the World Trade Center even existed. This is the bubble you’ve lived in. Students talk loudly. Some cry, some raise their hand, one screams. A boy in the center of the auditorium asks if the World Trade Center was bombed. “Looks so,” the professor says. He opens a tin folding chair and sits on the stage, arms crossed over the back of the chair. His neck cranes up at the television.
“I cannot imagine holding class today,” he then says. “You should go watch the news with your friends. Or stay here if you like.” Students leave, students stay. You leave. At the dining hall, later that night, you will learn that another airplane, Flight 77, has crashed into the Pentagon. These hijackers trained at Gold’s Gym in Greenbelt, Maryland to prepare for the attack. The one who took over the plane, he self-trained. He’d been rejected from flight school in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1999.
10:50 a.m. is ten minutes before the time at which you are allowed to order lunch, so you start walking back towards Atrium. You order waffle fries with neon orange cheese and push the metal lever of the soda machine for diet root beer to billow out. You pay again with the points on your ID card, and carry your tray to the seating area. A few students are there, most by themselves. You know none of them. You bet at least one of them doesn’t know about the plane crashes.
You sit at the corner of one of the white tables, by the row of floor to ceiling windows, eating the fries and cheese. You sip the soda thinking of your best friend Sarah who always says that soda is a necessity at meal time because of the combination of the two—“tasty food, popping beverage, like an explosion in your mouth.” It is delicious, and while you’re chewing, you remember the Snapple in your bag that you could have opened instead. You’re not wasteful, you tell yourself. You’ll drink it at the library. You make a mental note to e-mail Sarah when you reach the library, to check if she’s okay.
Both towers have collapsed to the ground now. They were ranked the highest buildings in the world from 1972, the time of their construction, to 1974, when Sears Tower in Chicago stole that prize.
Ten years later, on September 11, 2011, at 8:15 p.m., you’ll be watching the anniversary commemoration of the September 11 attacks on television with your husband after dinner and dessert, the wobbly mango cake he’ll select from a bakery on the Lower East Side. You will hate the cake’s consistency. You’ll light the candle taped to the box yourself. Your husband, an Indian-American man who will repeatedly claim he was smart enough to go to an Ivy League school, but was not as lucky as you in connections, will sing and kiss your cheek. After, on the red vinyl sofa he bought before you married, he will explain to you how heat combined with steel, the towers’ raw material, caused them to collapse. “You studied government,” he’ll say. “How do you not know this?”
You will go into the bedroom and google Ethan’s name for what feels like the thousandth time, and on the website of his law firm in New York, you’ll stare at his face. He works ten blocks from your apartment. You’ve tried to find out where he lives, but the internet hasn’t yet revealed this information to you.
Back ten years, to September 11, 2001. At 11:20 a.m. you reach Kroch, the East Asian Library, directly across from Uris Library. It doesn’t open until 11:00 a.m., much later than Uris. Why does it always open so late? Uris has red carpeting and gold framed paintings of old, fat, white men. Kroch is quieter, cleaner, and better lit. Sarah pronounced it “Crotch” when she was still at Cornell. “I’m going to study at Crotch!” you’d both say. She graduated a year early. In glass cases, there are Japanese vases, Chinese tea sets, and Indian clay pots. Also, there is a café in Kroch. In Uris, no food or drink except water is allowed. This café is called Libe Café, and you pronounce it Lee-bay instead of the correct way—Laiyb—because Lee-bay sounds more French to you, and therefore, more hip.
You order a strawberry smoothie, forgetting again the Snapple in your bag. “Yes, please, whipped cream on top,” you say to the student barista. You hand her your ID card which she swipes along the thin line at the top edge of her keyboard. You bring the smoothie to the computer station.
In 2011, on September 3, you’ll take your husband to Cornell to show him your campus, Balch and Kroch especially. The café will be renamed “Amit Bhatia Libe Café.” The strawberry smoothie you loved in college will no longer be on the menu, and your husband, after the café visit, will read about Amit Bhatia on the internet. “How lucky he is,” your husband will say. “Married the daughter of a billionaire.”
“At least he donates,” you’ll say.
Returning to 2001, September 11, 11:30 a.m. You log into your e-mail. Sarah emailed you at 6:12 a.m.
Happy Birthday, Kavita! Sending you a big hug. Wish I could be at Atrium with you for a piece of chocolate cake. Hope you have a great day.
Sarah is half Indian, half white, and at Cornell, most boys, all races, developed crushes on her. Her eyes are slanted, like an East Asian’s and her skin is perfectly smooth. These traits, you’ve reasoned, caused such a response. You feel grateful Ethan likes you. He e-mailed you at 6:14 a.m.: I miss you.
You begin drafting an e-mail back—I miss you too, but you erase it. What will come of a relationship with Ethan? At twenty-one, your parents’ rules are all you know:
1. No sex before marriage.
2. Only date Indian boys.
You write back:
Oh my God! Are you okay? I heard about the airplane. Wow! Through the
building? Isn’t Goldman downtown? Did you see it? Miss you here. Call me later.
You walk past the musical instruments—chimes, bells, gongs—down to the stacks, and sit at an elephant-gray desk, a cubicle really, with felt fabric padded walls on the sides and back of the desk in order to protect it from the other desks attached. The desk is empty except for the red and black bound books on Hiroshima left by Anne Tsoku. You know this is her desk because the white paper scrap taped to the built-in shelf says ANNE TSOKU’S DESK. You sit down and put your sweatshirt on because the basement is colder than the ground floor. You cross your arms over the desk, lay your head on top of them, and close your eyes.
At 12:30 p.m., you awaken to numb hands and a puddle of drool by your mouth. You read fourteen pages of Politics of Globalization by Mark Kesselman for tomorrow’s lecture. You underline most of what you read. You pack up, throw away the smoothie’s empty plastic cup, and walk outside, back towards Balch. The entire school, it seems, is on the Arts quad—a large stretch of manicured grass—lying down or sitting Indian style, crying, eating, playing Frisbee. You hear “Kavita” and spin half circle to see Ethan. He’s sitting with an overweight girl, she has ringlets of brown hair. He stands up, you walk to him. “Are you okay?” he asks. He touches your arm. You know immediately he’s referring to the attack, not to the fact that you slept half-naked next to him just twelve hours before, and miss him already so much that you think your heart will explode.
“No, I’m upset,” you say.
He embraces you for a long time and you lay your head on his shoulder. Out of the corner of your eye, you see ringleted girl watching. “Who is she?” you whisper in his ear.
“A friend from philosophy,” he says.
You say nothing back. He hasn’t asked to be your boyfriend, it would be stupid to show signs of jealousy. “Did you see the explosion?”
“You mean the attacks?” he corrects. “It’s so sad.” You agree, though you feel no emotion towards the event. To admit that it feels fake to you, like the documentaries about the atomic bomb you watched junior year for “Government 227: The Atomic Age,” would demonstrate that you are a heartless human being, which you don’t want to be.
You wish you could be alone together, again, now. You wish he would ask to be your boyfriend. You wish you had told him today is your birthday. Wouldn’t it seem odd to mention it now, in light of what’s happened? “Meet me for dinner,” he says.
“Not up for it.”
“Come, you’ll feel better,” he says, hugging you again. You almost reach to kiss him on his lips, but you don’t. Not in public. What will people think? Kavita kissing a boy, a white boy, in the middle of the quad.
“I’ll try,” you say.
At 1:15 p.m., you sit on your bed and call your father at work. It takes twelve tries before the call goes through. He sings the first two lines of the Happy Birthday song to you. You ask if he heard about the airplanes. “These Muslims are stupid,” he says. The “d” is hard, it comes from the tip of his tongue thrust against the roof of his mouth, the same way as his “d”s of dinner and idiot and donut. Your father was born in Rawalpindi, a part of India attacked by Pakistani Muslims, and converted into Pakistan. He hates Muslims and Pakistanis equally, and every time he sees a Muslim cashier or a Muslim couple or reads a Muslim name, he shakes his head and marvels, “Muslims are taking over the world.”
Last July, you went with him to New York City to renew his Indian passport. The office worker tried to make him change where he was born to say Pakistan. “India lost accuracy in 1947,” the woman explained. “You were born in Pakistan, sir.” Actual tears appeared in his eyes.
Five minutes after you hang up, your mother calls. She, too, sings the first two lines of the Happy Birthday song. Her voice is pitched high, less harshly Indian than your father’s because she’s finessed her accent over the years, as British as she can get it. You lie in your bed alternating between eating Oreos, sleeping, and highlighting.
At 6:30 p.m., you meet Ethan at the top of the stairs leading to the dining hall. His eyes are red, the skin around them is dry. He hugs you and doesn’t let go. Years later, after college, you will remember this and wonder if it was your last chance to tell him you were in love with him. You somber yourself to match his mood. “I’m not even hungry,” you say.
“You have to eat.”
You sit at an orange table with three of his friends. You know their names and what they’re studying, but you don’t know anything else about them because whatever little you asked last spring, when you first met them, you’ve forgotten over the summer. The televisions that have been rolled into the dining hall are on news channels. President Bush is on them all, saying, “Freedom itself was attacked this morning by a faceless coward…freedom will be defended.” You imagine a thinner version of yourself without a face—no eyes, no nose, no mouth, only a blank, olive face—sitting in the stacks of Kroch. You are uncomfortable eating with the televisions in the room, images of the buildings, black smoke and orange-red flames spiraling around them. You tell Ethan you’re not feeling well, that you cannot eat, and you say goodbye to him and his friends. When he insists on walking you home, there are still chicken fingers and iceberg lettuce and apple pie on his tray. You say, “No. You need to eat.” You throw away your noodle stir-fry and bowl of honey dew, and walk back to Balch. On the way, you stop at another dining hall that’s more casual with the option to take away. You pick up two slices of pizza, a donut, and a pint of brownie sundae ice cream. You eat the food in the empty lounge on the fourth floor of Balch, staring at the television, averting your eyes from girls that walk by.
After you finish stuffing yourself to almost nausea, you pack The Politics of Globalization and your neon yellow highlighter and walk outside, back towards Kroch. You do not want to spend your birthday alone. It seems childish to tell anyone now.
You call Ethan later that night, actually 12:29 a.m. the next day, and say you’re coming over. “Happy Birthday,” he says, after you’re inside and the door is shut. “I wanted to wish you earlier, but everything feels so weird.” He hands you a small box wrapped in lavender colored paper. It’s a broach, a painted figurine of a woman with black hair and white skin and a red coat. “I thought of you when I saw this, this summer, when I went to Ecuador with my dad.” The artist painted gold buttons on her coat, but she has no eyes or nose or mouth.
“Did you tell your dad about me?”
You thank him and are content in that brief moment. You lie together in bed, and are surprised he then says he needs time.
“Time for what?”
“What are we doing?” he asks. You don’t know the right way to respond, so you remain silent. “I like you, but I’m graduating in May. I need to be serious.”
“I’m graduating in May, too,” you say then.
“Maybe we’ll be together,” he says. “I’m not ready for what I feel right now.”
“What do you feel?”
“I think I want to marry you.”
You laugh, happy, nervous. “I’m Indian,” you say. “I have to marry an Indian.”
“You can’t be with any other race?”
“I’m not supposed to,” you say.
“That makes no sense,” he says.
“You need time, anyway,” you say.
He’s silent. You kiss him to sleep. He doesn’t answer the phone the next two nights, and when you see him on the quad on September 13, he turns to an opposite direction.
On September 14, 2001, your best friend, Sarah, finally writes you back. She writes of disappointment in you, that you disregarded her trauma so flippantly. You showed no earnest concern for me. I almost died. My lungs ache, they’re filled with smoke. You call her to apologize, and she says she cannot talk to you for a while, that she, too, needs time.
Over the next few weeks you eat at a dining hall in the western part of campus to avoid the awkwardness of running into Ethan. On October 6, 2001, at this other dining hall, a Muslim pre-med student named Umair asks you to dinner downtown, at a real restaurant. He’s Indian-Muslim, and an Indian girl, who you know and do not like, likes him. This girl had told you freshman year that you are not the type of girl she could be friends with, and you accept this invitation in the hope that it’ll get back to her, how her crush chose you.
The next day, October 7, 2001, Ethan calls you at 6:01 a.m., and you suspect he’s discovered you’re going on a date.
“I miss you.”
“Ethan?” you respond. “Are you okay?”
“I’m downstairs.” You must meet him downstairs to escort him to your room because boys aren’t allowed in the all-girl dorm without a female escort. In your twin bed, you lay naked together, waist up, for the last time at Cornell. “Are you sure you have to marry an Indian?”
“Yes,” you say.
“Because my parents will be disappointed if I don’t?”
“This is your life, Kavita,” he says.
“I know.” Once you’re certain he’s asleep, you tell him, “I love you.”
On October 8, 2001, at 6:35 p.m., Umair collects you from Balch in his white Audi. He takes you to downtown Ithaca for Thai food. “Everyone’s looking at me like I’m a monster,” he says. “People are mumbling swears to my family.” His parents and sister are doctors in New Jersey.
“Geez,” you say. “Just because the terrorists were Muslim, it doesn’t mean you’re like them.” Secretly, you believe that without privilege, perhaps Umair would be capable of such an atrocious act, even though he’s Indian. “Muslim is Muslim,” you remember your father saying. “They’re all the same.”
You feel glad that you are Hindu, that you’re female and too light-skinned to be associated with terrorism. You tell the waiter to pack your leftover pad thai to go, and you eat it alone in your room after the date. Umair doesn’t call you for a second date and this doesn’t bother you. Midterms are approaching and you need to prepare for job interviews and, frankly, you weren’t physically attracted to Umair. Anyway, you’d never marry a Muslim—you can’t upset your father like that.
Forward ten years, April 2, 2011, you and your husband have been married three months. You’ll drive to Rhode Island, to a large function room overlooking cold, blue ocean, where Sarah is getting married. You’ll watch her repeat vows, holding hands with a Korean-American man from Harvard, and during the ceremony your husband drapes his arm around you. You and Sarah have drifted away from each other over the ten years since September 11 to the point where you feel you have nothing in common anymore except that you went to the same school, and studied in the same library, and share Indian blood.
At the reception, she and the groom approach you with the type of hug reserved for someone you don’t remember so well. “We’re so lucky,” she says. “Aren’t we so lucky?”
On the drive back to New York, your husband will tell you Sarah is smart. “We are lucky,” he says. “Why don’t you spend more time with her?” Does she feel lucky, you wonder, because she found love? Or because she married a man from Harvard?
On May 2, 2011, around 12:00 a.m., the first black president announces Osama Bin Laden, the man behind September 11, has been killed. You remember that day in college, how no one at school wished you a happy birthday, how you had never seen the twin towers before. How Ethan had hugged you on the Arts quad, and then at the dining hall, real hugs, hard and long. You remember how you hid in Kroch wondering what was happening in New York City. You didn’t think the terrorists could be caught. “This type of people, they get away with everything,” you remember your father had said. You believed him.
You look at your Indian-American husband, whose frame is centered in front of the Chrysler building in your living room on the thirty-first floor of your apartment building in Murray Hill, New York. His eyes reflect the red and white lines of CNN’s coverage, and you wonder if Ethan married a Jewish girl, if he thinks of you, if given the right amount of time, or the right type of time, he would have made you fight for each other. You accept now, you didn’t give enough of yourself to see if the relationship could have worked.
After your husband falls asleep, you sneak out of bed to the kitchen to call the number on Ethan’s law-firm website, the number listed directly below his name, and for the first time, you leave a message.
“I miss you,” you say. “Can I see you?” You leave your cell phone number.
That morning, at 9:59 a.m., he calls you back. You are surprised by not only how deep his voice has become, but also by the first question you ask—“Are you married?”
“Not yet,” he laughs. “Are you?”
“Yes,” you say. There’s a pause across the line, as if disappointment is being tucked into pockets.
“Is he nice?”
For the next six months, you meet Ethan in coffee shops and high-end grocery store cafes and though you never discuss it with him, you waver between leaving your marriage and staying. You make lists for each side, reading them out loud behind your closed office door every day, editing them, highlighting points you think are important. You re-write these lists over and over, until the lists morph into abstract words like hope and risk and life against commitment, security, respect. On November 12, 2012, at work, at 8:08 p.m., you call your husband on the landline at your apartment, knowing he’ll be home, because it’s safer, less scary, to take this leap while you’re on the forty-second floor, in your office, inaccessible without your plastic identification card. You say that you’re sorry, that you must take care of yourself, that you need time alone. This is how your life begins.
Geeta Tewari was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. She earned a BA from Cornell University, a law degree from Fordham Law School, and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. She has been published in Narrative Magazine, The Boston Globe, Mom Egg Review, and Ibbetson Street Magazine, and has received Honorable Mentions for her stories from Kenyon Review, Narrative Magazine, and Glimmer Train. In 2013, she studied poetry at the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and in 2016 she received a fiction merit scholarship to attend the NY State Summer Writer’s Institute. She teaches a creative writing course at Columbia University titled “Sensuality in Scene.”