Trust me, you don’t rent an apartment over an Indian Restaurant because you love Indian food. You do it because of a lack of available rentals and to escape the dorms with their alcohol-drenched theme parties and communal bathrooms.
Naitee and Falan Sengupta owned the India Grill and had created the apartment out of a morsel of attic space. Despite the cramped quarters and pervasive garam masala smell, when I looked at my name, Thomas Dvorak, on the lease, I smiled like I had gotten away with something.
After classes, Naitee greeted me from behind a podium draped in plastic beads, while behind her, loud voices rattled around the kitchen along with endless CNN coverage of the Bush/Gore election.
One afternoon before winter break, Naitee wasn’t in her usual spot. Someone else was. She was about my age with dark eyes and a glowing smile framed by dimples, like parentheses highlighting a nugget of important information. I asked if she was new and she told me that she was Taara; her parents owned the restaurant, and she returned home from Dartmouth for breaks.
With only three days before I left, I made any excuse I could to walk through the restaurant and talk to her.
“I think my favorite class this year was a public policy course,” Taara said the first night.
“I like numbers,” I responded, “like for business.”
Our conversations fell into a comfortable rhythm. We talked about everything from Faith Hill’s transition to pop to my own suffering while writing a paper on Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.
I left school in Southern Illinois, and by the time I arrived at my house in the Chicago suburbs, I decided I would enroll for summer term so I could spend time with Taara.
Dinner that night was one part meal, one part celebration of my return home. My mother peppered me with school questions; then during dessert my father carefully placed his fork next to a wedge of apple pie and announced, “I have some good news. I was talking to Gary in New York, and he said if you’re interested you can intern with his firm this summer.”
Silence rose like a tide over the table.
“He said you could start early July and finish just before school starts again in late September,” he added.
“I don’t know,” I said, reaching for my water glass. “I’ll think about it.”
“What’s to think about? It’s an incredible opportunity.”
“I was thinking about staying for summer term.” I paused, then added, “I could use the credit hours.”
Over break I exchanged a couple of short emails with Taara. Then two days after the new year started I packed up to return to school.
“When I started I wasn’t even a manager of shipping,” said my father, helping me lift a duffel into my car. “I was actually loading the damn boxes onto the trucks.”
“I know, Dad.” I said. “I’m not trying to be ungrateful.”
“It’s in the Twin Towers — 90th floor. You should do it for the view alone,” he retorted. “Well, at least think about it some more. I have to tell Gary in the next couple of weeks.”
To make time pass more quickly back at school, I poured myself into studying, and in March I received a reward, a gift. Taara standing at the front podium. She had come home for Spring Break.
One night after seeing the movie Chocolat, we talked about our parents and expectations.
“You know what I’d really like to do after this year ends?” she said. “I’d love to take a gap year and travel.”
“That would be great,” I said, having never considered traveling. Then I blurted, “I’m staying for summer term.”
“Oh, nice,” said Taara. “It’s chill here with most of the students gone.”
I waited for a light to go on, her eyes to widen with the recognition that we could hang out.
“I’ve decided to study abroad at the London School of Economics,” she said. “I’m ambivalent. It’s a great program, but I’m burned out on studying. And I started dating this med student.”
The information entered my head then dropped through my body like a dense ball moving through a Rube Goldberg machine.
I hesitated before words dripped from my mouth, “London should be cool. Maybe he can visit.”
When summer came, I wallowed in linear algebra and thought about Taara in England and how stupid I’d been for staying. There had been hints of the coming reality, but I had been so sure of my place I was blind to them.
September arrived, and one morning after class I noticed no one working out front. I poked my head in back and found Naitee, her husband, and the staff huddled around the TV in the kitchen.
Smoke and flames poured out of the Twin Towers in Manhattan. Then the building to the left, the South Tower, no longer able to support its own weight, went lifeless and collapsed in a plume of smoke and ash.
In the subsequent days, I discovered that the terrorists learned to fly at a Florida flight school and that no one working at my dad’s friend’s company survived the attack.
I never saw Taara during my senior year. I moved out of her parents’ rental and our connection evaporated. Though one day right before graduation, I thought I saw her approaching in front of a bagel shop. I nervously tried to think of what I should say. How I was thankful. I literally owed her my life. Through her grace, I was going to graduate. I could spend time with family and friends, laugh, drink coffee; but there was something else I wanted to tell her. How after the dust of the Twin Towers settled, I was reluctant to move forward into a world that wasn’t what it seemed. It didn’t turn out to be Taara, and I kept walking past the bagel shop away from campus.
Stephen Kosnar is a freelance writer and editor living in Rabat, Morocco. He writes about healthcare, culture and education. He has written for the Medical Review of North Carolina, the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer, as well as various newspapers and magazines, including The New Republic online. His essay on International Red Cross founder Henry Dunant won the 2020 Hektoen International writing competition, and his short story “Searching for Pembrist” appeared in Bright Bones, an anthology.