My Imperfection

Edison, NJ 

September 11, 2001

Imparfait

At a bare minimum, I know this means ‘imperfect’ en Français.

However, correctly using the imperfect tense in French, conjugating appropriately, and all the other isht involved is something I don’t even know how to do in English. 

But I better figure out the imparfait before I get to the end of this long hallway because it’s the beginning of senior year. Colleges will care if I flunk out of French and I’m pretty sure the excuse — “Dear Harvard, I only took AP French to chase a girl I’m in love with” — won’t fly … however perfectly French an excuse like that might be. 

I get to the door and create a little song “a-i-s, a-i-s, *snap *snap, ions, iez, aient (pronounced “ayeeee” like the Fonz might say).” That should work for enough verbs to avoid an F. But the “être” conjugation has a bunch of exceptions as always. The être is a hopeless cause and I’ll just have to take the loss of points on any instances of “to be.”

Grabbing the door handle, I step in. Everyone is huddled around this TV we have in class. We’re experimenting with distance learning and have a classmate in some town in Georgia who doesn’t have his own French class. He’s charming as hell and looks like Tom Sawyer was dropped into an Abercrombie & Fitch photoshoot. So it’s typical that most girls get to class early to flirt with him–which includes the very girl that’s my raison d’être for being in this class in the first place. 

But on this particular morning all the guys are mixed into the TV throng. There’s even a couple of them who aren’t in our French class. And when I drop off my Eastpak bookbag at my desk, I see two of the girls are crying. 

I get a bit closer and get on my tiptoes to see and what’s on the television doesn’t make any sense. It looks like a preview to a movie if not for the undeniable word “LIVE” right there across a red banner. 

The first thing I can think of is “mom.” She works in the Empire State Building and the news might not be covering this smaller but still iconic building. I rush out of the hallway and make a bee line to my locker. I grab my cell phone and dial her as fast as I can. It’s ringing when some teacher comes out into the hall. She’s the advisor to our school’s Key Club, an activity group so meaningless that I’d assumed this person in front of me was just a volunteer stay-at-home mom until today. 

She’s buzzing from student to student trying to enforce our “no cell phones” policy for the 30-40% of us who have them. Under normal circumstances, I would curl my shoulders up, look apologetic and hand her my cell phone for retrieval at the end of the school day. But today I look her right in the eyes, defiantly, and just say “no.” She looks away and slinks off quietly while mumbling something about not wanting us to panic. 

I continue to wait for the ringing to catch my mom.  But my calls keep going straight to her voicemail and I barely have any service.   

I call my dad and hear his voice on the first try. It’s crackly but true. 

He works in New Jersey and is not in any immediate danger, but it still feels like a huge relief to hear from him. I’m trying to understand what he’s saying “mom … train … boat” and then I lose service entirely.  

Even though I’d later find out all cell networks were down, I vow to never forgive AT&T for this moment and won’t use them ever again. 

In a trance, I hopelessly keep dialing and getting both parents’ voicemails. Students are beginning to pour out of the doors in larger numbers and into the hallways now. The din is getting thick and I’m not sure I’d hear my parents even if I did get through to them.

A hand grabs my shoulder and I am ready to turn around and explode on whatever teacher when I realize, it’s Manish Reddy. 

High school had been very kind to Manish, clearing up all of his acne, shooting him past 6 feet tall, and he’d just been featured in the Star Ledger for starting an investment club in our high school. Mr. Reddy likely pulled a string here and there for his son on all counts, but it was impossible to dislike Manish. He always had a smile on his face. 

Except today. 

***

“What are we going to do?” he pleads. 

Tears are rolling past Manish’s face, which is contorted. 

I tell him that I think we’re safe here in the school. But if his mom is at home, maybe we should drive there. 

“No, I mean what are WE going to do? Are we going to go to war? Who do you think did this? The Middle East, right? Will we use nuclear weapons? If we go to war, I’m joining up. Are you?”

I don’t know what’s going on until I do. Because I’d spent 6 years in Model United Nations, Manish thinks I have a unique insight into what’s been happening over the past 20 minutes.

But the truth is shameful. I don’t have a damn clue what is going on. Who did this, how we’re going to respond, and how the world will deal with this crisis are all questions way above my head. Maybe I should’ve prepared more for these MUN tournaments and done actual research instead of just using gimmicks and fake eyeglasses to win. All those years and I’m useless in a moment like this–as ineffectual and meaningless as a Key Clubber. 

But then a dark cloud settles into my thoughts. Why is Manish talking about joining the army?

“Manish, where does your dad work?” 

He lets go of me and looks at the ground. 

The World Trade Center

Which tower?

2 World Trade

The South Tower?

The South Tower.

Have you spoken to him?

He’s quiet and is looking off aimlessly down the hallway. 

Manish, have you been able to speak to him?

No. 

When did he leave for work?

830am

You’re sure? … Manish! You’re sure?

Yes.

I hug him and tell him cell service is out all across NYC, but that it’s going to be okay. 

I may know nothing practical about international politics, but I know the NJ Transit train schedule. 

Every morning, I drop my mom off at Metropark so she can get to work. It’s not because I’m a great son. I just want to be a senior with a car to skip lunchtime at school and joyride with friends during the middle of the day. But the point is, I know the train brochure by heart. There’s no way Manish’s dad got to work before 9:03am–when the second tower got hit. 

This is because Mr. Reddy would’ve been on a “local yokel” train, my mom’s nickname for the type of train that makes every possible stop on the way to NYC. And I know that would’ve taken 50 minutes, at least, to make all the stops before getting to Manhattan. 

And to make matters even better … 

“They are single tracking today. Manish, I would bet my life that your dad is in that tunnel between Newark and New York Penn right now. He’s going to be okay. He’s going to be okay.” 

Manish’s jaw unclenches. It’s a tiny but undeniable movement.

Then, I think he’s coming in for a cool handshake which I know I’ll botch. But Manish grabs my hand. We hold each other’s hands for minutes in silence as the rest of the hallway continues to get more frantic.

***

 

“The payphones work!” Manish’s investment club cofounder shouts as he races past us. We start to chase him. And, when we turn a couple of corners, we see the zoo. 

Seemingly all 2,000 students are packed into the welcome hall at the front of the school, trying to get to the payphones. The air is thin, warmer, and it’s difficult to breathe.

There’s no teachers doing anything teacherly and you can almost tell which faces know where their parents are from the ones that don’t. 

I start to panic. I don’t know which group I belong to. All I know is “mom … train … boat” from what dad’s broken phone call passed onto me.

And Manish looks sick. He’s rubbing his forehead and getting smaller as if the large crowd is slowly melting him. There’s no clear lines to step into for the payphones. This could be hours without any progress. 

I let go of Manish’s hand, poked around my Eastpak, found my French textbook and walked to the middle of the swarm…

***

You should know that before I got to be on Model UN Security Councils–which was usually about 15 countries paired with a late night “emergency session” to deal with some kind of crisis–I’d cut my teeth on countries like Lesotho in the General Assembly. 

At these conferences, I’d need to get 150 debaters’ attention without a microphone. Fake glasses to look smart. Pouring water from a large jug during a speech just because it looked interesting. Whatever needed to be done to make Lesotho look important. Or at least just important enough to win a best debater gavel. 

***

… I hold up my French textbook in the air. A small radius of people around it are looking at it or me. 

“Hey, listen carefully!” 

The radius of silence shoots a bit further out. 

“Raise your hands if one of your parents works in the city!” 

As people in a small circle start to raise their hands, more silence shoots off in different directions. Time to really go for it. 

“RAISE YOUR HANDS IF ONE OF YOUR PARENTS WORK IN THE CITY!” 

About 1/4th of the hands in the crowd are up now. 

“Alright, if your parents don’t work in the city, you need to get out of this area. Cell phone service is working in the student parking lot and you can make your calls there!

Now, I’m going to keep screaming this out loud until I see you moving!

If your parents don’t work in the city…”

And on and on I go like this a few times until movement begins. Of course, I have no idea if there’s cell phone service in the parking lot. And if any of those students have AT&T, they don’t stand a chance. 

But it frees up Manish and countless others to get to the payphones. I’m within earshot when he gets through. 

“Hi, is this Morgan Stanley’s Jersey City office? Hi, I’m asking about my dad. Nitesh Reddy. Have you heard–Oh, um, Tower 2, South Tower. It’s just that–yea, I can wait. It’s just that he took a later train and I don’t think he got to–What’s that? Are you sure? Nitesh Reddy. That’s R-E-D–Ok, thank you so much!”

Watching him, I start to cry.

It’s still going to be a while before I get to the payphone. I try not to think about any scenarios because it makes it harder to breathe. 

But then my phone starts vibrating with a text. It’s mom. I smile. 

“Itsok. Im heer” 

*** 

L’imparfait (the imperfect) is a French past tense. It describes states and actions that were ongoing or repeated in the past. It is used to tell stories and report on past actions, mostly in written contexts. ~ Lingolia Francais

I don’t know how to tell this story in the imperfect. In part this is because I would royally mess it up from a grammar standpoint. 

But, also, whenever I think about that day, I feel like it is happening to me right now. That those moments are on a continuum–not old pages in a book, but an actual feeling that can bring you right back to reliving that day. 

A day that was far from perfect … but didn’t break us completely.

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