In the Shadow of the World’s Greatest Monument to Love

When she was seventeen, a junior in high school, she had her first sexual experience with a thin young sophomore named Gordon. Gordon wore a peach-fuzz beatnik goatee, black tee shirts when his parents let him, and slicked back hair he arranged in the boys’ bathroom before homeroom. Pale and pimply, he wrote songs and listened to bebop and when he whispered to her in sing-song rhythms, quoting poetry like he was performing, she loved him—or loved something—so much she wanted to cry.

Then she did cry, in the back seat of a ten-year-old Cadillac after he lifted her skirt, pinched aside the fabric between her legs, and finished off her virginity in four half-notes of his trumpet. She cried not because she hadn’t protected herself, or because she’d mouthed a feeble no and he hadn’t listened, but because something seemed to fall away afterward and reveal the world without her. How could anything matter again?

She stopped seeing Gordon. When he called at night, she left the phone on her bed and listened with her back against the pillows.

“Do you love me, babe? Do you love me back?” repeating himself until the words became a night bird’s song.

The song stuck in her head through sixteen years of marriage to someone else. It popped into her thoughts at unexpected moments—during their vows, almost always during sex, and both times during labor. “Do you love me, babe? Do you love me back?” until it lost its beat and the words meant nothing at all.

Then, one morning three months after her fortieth birthday and eight months after she caught her husband cheating, she woke up wanting an answer to Gordon’s sing-song question.

Her husband couldn’t give her one.

She gave him everything, including the kids, and that shortened the battle. Four weeks later, he moved in with his girlfriend, who was younger and prettier and probably a better mother.

For a time, she cried and was full of regrets. While before she couldn’t remember the good moments, now she couldn’t remember the bad. Why had she left, really? What right did she have to expect anything better? It seemed she’d kicked herself out of her own home. And now she lived in a one-bedroom apartment beside a mini-mall and wouldn’t go out at night for fear of thugs. What hope did she have of ever meeting someone else? She’d thought she’d travel for a while, but on her slight hourly wage at the Golf Warehouse, where she sold clothes in the women’s department, she barely had enough to pay bills. She ought to have asked for more in the divorce. She ought never to have asked for a divorce.

Months later, she did meet a man, a golfer who frequented the shop. He’d chatted with her, let on he was divorced, then asked if she played. She didn’t; she didn’t even like the clothes she sold.

But she was willing to learn.

The man, Frank, was much older, and charmingly timid. He played golf more for the setting than for the game, he admitted. He liked to find out-of-the-way courses, even if the greens were in sad shape. He had an extensive jazz collection and kept changing CDs in his Volvo as they drove to the public course on a Saturday.

“Do you like this?” he asked her. “How about this?”

Yes and yes. Three minutes later, he changed the music anyway.

She liked golf after all. It seemed a miracle when her slow, powerless swing shot the ball a hundred and fifty yards down the fairway. Strength and effort had little to do with it; the club had only to follow its ideal arc.

“You’re a natural,” said Frank, and after three weeks she almost bought it.

It turned out he wasn’t divorced—just going through one—and his wife still lived at home. He was fifteen years older, too, and this worried her. What was she getting herself into? They could only meet afternoons and weekends at the golf course, sneaking around like kids.

One day on the driving range, Frank spoke about a travel show he’d seen the night before. There was a golf course near the Taj Mahal—can you imagine? Right in the shadow of the world’s greatest monument to love. That was a quote from the show.

He got quiet for a minute, waiting, she thought later, for her to hit a good shot. When she did, he asked her if she wanted to take a trip with him to India and play the course. “It’s only nine holes,” he added.

His face colored. He wasn’t joking.

She knew how it would look. Up till now, they’d only kissed and held hands. Her ex and her kids would laugh at her for dating an old man. They’d think she was desperate and pathetic, and that’s probably what she deserved. Still, dating Frank made her feel things she hadn’t felt in many years. Maybe it was just the act of dating, and it mattered more what you did than who you did it with. She’d have saved herself a lot of grief if she’d recited that mantra years before.

“I’ll go,” she said.

Frank bought the tickets and reserved the room. They got their shots and passports together. He hoped the trip would help him celebrate his divorce and the beginning of a new life. Then the date for the divorce got pushed back, and Frank asked her to hold the tickets so his wife wouldn’t find out. She knew what was coming.

Five days before the trip, Frank missed their Thursday golf date. He didn’t call, and he didn’t stop by the golf store to chat. When she tried to reach him, he didn’t pick up.

She felt taken advantage of, like she’d accepted something less than she deserved out of politeness. Having reduced her wants, she found even those were too much. It was the mistake she’d made when she was young, when falling in love with a poet had tricked her into thinking her life would be more meaningful.

She went to India by herself.

On the long flight that passed through Frankfurt, she could sprawl out because the seat beside her was empty. She could look her worst and no one would care.

After the ordeal of the Delhi airport and the long bus ride to Agra, she laughed when she finally got to the hotel. Frank had reserved a room with twin beds. They’d have kissed with one foot on the floor, held hands across the nightstand in the dark. Like an old TV show.

When she showed up for her tee time at the Agra Golf Club the following day, the Taj Mahal’s marble dome and minarets rose above the tree line in the distance, as promised. From this angle, they were pale in the too-bright morning sun. While beautiful, they weren’t life-changing the way she’d hoped.

“The view is different late in the day,” her caddy told her. “I could get you in.”

The tall, young caddy had a peach-fuzz moustache and a wide, bright smile. A tangle of dark hair curled out from under his white cap and spiraled over his forehead. He kept a respectful distance and after his bold first promise, spoke only when spoken to. Under his watchful eye, she played nervously and lost an historic number of balls in the trees and golden marshes. The whole trip seemed a waste. She’d expected to feel independent and worldly; instead, she felt disappointed and out of place.

Only a vague promise in her caddy’s eyes kept her from quitting. When the round was over she asked him if she could try again tonight.

“At sunset,” he said, “the Taj Mahal shows its colors. You will fall in love.”

She smiled as she tipped him.

That evening he was waiting for her when the cab dropped her outside the club. He took her bags, and they bypassed the clubhouse for the first tee. He was right; on the Taj Mahal’s marble skin, the pink and blue sky gave the illusion of life. To watch the colors change and move and slip into shadow was to fall in love with everything and nothing; it didn’t matter which. Here was the poetry her young beatnik had promised and never delivered.

Her caddy waited until the third fairway to touch her. He came up behind her and placed his fingers on the waist of the golf skirt she bought with her employee discount.

She’d been expecting it.

He was half her age and smelled of cardamom and coriander and the thin, musky cologne he’d applied over a day’s sweat. He led her off the fairway and under the spinning leaves of a peepul tree, where he pinched open her waistband and bra and laid her down naked on a bed of moist brown leaves. She kept her eyes open and watched the play of light on the Taj Mahal’s dome and spires, the great slow magic trick that made everything worthwhile.

“Do you love me?” asked the light.

“I love you back,” she said.  

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