In the Shadow of the Taj

Monkeys chasing each other across rooftops.

The smoke from your cigarette.

The curtain of the night falling behind the Taj, its shadowy silhouette.

God is close.

Allah moves across the face of the stone, never seen, but always present.

Prayers called up to the night sky, shouted and sung from speakers like megaphones, echoing across Agra at sunset.

You say you wish they’d be quiet. That prayers are meant to be whispered, shared only between you and God.

A chorus of prayers.

A family of monkeys. A mother sliding down a wall to scoop up her child, who looks too afraid to climb.

In the street, a little girl plays with a yellow balloon, dodging motorbikes and the big, dark puddle in the middle of her street.

You tell me the Taj was more beautiful years ago. That now the pollution gets in the way.

You tell me that not all Indian men are like what they say but to be careful in Delhi.

You tell me about a French woman you took to dinner and showed around for three days and how she asked you to come see her in France and how, when her plane finally left, you couldn’t believe she was gone.

How you refused your family’s proposals for arranged marriages, put it off by getting degree after degree, and finally just said “no.” You were sent out from your family’s home. You only talk to your mother now, occasionally. Still, your younger brothers can’t get married until you do.

You say we are different. We are both different. That’s why you talk to me. That people here all go in one direction, but you go the other.

You believe in God but are not religious. When a bell rings—a Hindu sign for good luck—you don’t pray like your friend, but you place your fist to your chest and then to your lips, the same thing my friend did whenever we passed a Hindu temple on the road.

You say we are all connected. That race and religion can’t keep us apart. We are different, but we are connected.

 *

You ask me when I cut my hair, when I started dressing like a man. “Did something happen?”

Did something happen?

How could I explain the sense of awakening that allowed me to become who I am? The sensation the first time I wore a bowtie? The feeling of being at home in my own skin?

There aren’t words for that kind of letting go. How it felt like holding my younger self and asking forgiveness for all those years I tried to force them to be someone they were not. How it felt like that younger self snuggled into me and finally relaxed for the first time in a lifetime.

Like chords that finally resolved.

“No, nothing happened,” I say. “I just gave myself permission to be who I am.”

*

Metal detectors. Gender-segregated pat-downs.

“I’m sorry to ask this, but are you a ‘madam’ or a ‘sir’?” All to tell me which gate to go to to store my bags at the Taj.

Are you a “madam” or a “sir”?

“It’s smart you travel like this,” you say. “Do you dress like this back in the US, too?”

I want to say I have dressed like this my whole life, but I haven’t.

You ask me to join you for dinner, “a place the French girl said didn’t even feel like Agra—there is a garden and sparkling lights—” but I don’t want to be your next French girl.

*

You say, the next day, you only asked me because in India, it is strange to be alone.

“We think,” you say, “if you are alone, you must be lonely. I wanted to help. There are guests who sometimes stay in their rooms for days. In their countries, maybe they just go by themselves and read a book and that’s all they want. Here, we ask them if they’re okay.” You laugh.

You remind me of a man I met in New York, an actor. We were both in our early 20s, and as a friend of a friend, he wanted to show my travel buddies and me everything the city had to offer. He asked me to tell him a story, and I did. A week later, he called my dorm room and just wanted to talk.

But also wanted to see me again. Wanted other things, maybe love, maybe some connection—that was there, but wasn’t.

An echo of a connection.

A shadow on a wall.

I hung the phone up and didn’t call again.

*

I didn’t tell you goodbye. Just goodnight, on the roof, as if I would see you again, as if we would keep talking about these things each day.

You speak of learning to value those brief connections.

I want to say my life has been a series of goodbyes.

“Meeting people part,” a Korean colleague of mine once said. “Even husband and wife must part someday.”

Thin red lines pulled taut between us. Blood and gods, the touch of things unseen. Light changing on the Taj. Wind in leaves. A breath in that we’re slowly learning to let go.

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