Taj Mahal – Roman D’Ambrosio

        He fancied himself an architect and each woman a structure. Defined by cheekbones and auras with outfits as drafting paper. Standing miles from these structures he was able to admire them and how they interacted with their environments. Their use or misuse of nature, their direction towards sunlight, their access points for entry. While he called himself “architect” he did not plan on nor have the facilities to create a new woman for himself. Like most connoisseurs he preferred to inspect and view every aspect of his interest with a healthy degree of detachment. He’d give each structure its particular judgment, assess its value, enjoy its pleasure and move forward. As a surveyor he was generous in what he included in his discoveries. Cabin. Chalet. Reichstag. Even vulgar structures were included. Wigwam. Project. Brick house. He was happy with these options.
        Until he found a new structure. Taj Mahal. Indian and very rich. She was originally from Mumbai and smiled wide. She was a drinky drinky type of girl with so much backing and expectations he could only call her Taj Mahal. Pyramid was too lethargic, and Temple too pious. She had large brown eyes the whites of which would softly glow, especially in front of candlelight, when they would turn a creamy off-white. The whites of her eyes were the first things he noticed about Taj Mahal. An unspoken identifier, something that would be used to find her out of a crowd of bazaar merchants or camouflaged among jungle leaves. Her skin was the color of mocha coffee beans and contrasted strikingly against the architect’s pale gray complexion. This difference became less prominent the more time they spent together and eventually their pigments reached an equilibrium of a healthy tan on both of them. She wore no glasses, had thick black hair that fell to her shoulders, and a firm body with no extra fat to distract herself, but also no bones to scare away men. A butt that did pilates and was shaped like a cantaloupe. Not abs, per se, but a boyish midsection with a half inch layer of fat on top, that allowed her to wear crop tops and sports bras which seemed to be tailored just for her. Her Mumbai accent floated throughout conversation and was always noticed. It had a musical quality that the architect found adorable, like a puppy biting at bubbles, excited for the new discovery and not caring if it never caught any. The accent did not stop her from being a vocal upstart in New York society. She was very proud to answer questions about her vintage slip from “Dierry Mooglar” or the “Vivienne Vestvood” bag she recently bought.
        They met at a private club in Tribeca, a former factory turned into studios and bars for those in the creative industry to use and network. Because of the high membership prices no actual creatives were members, only high wealth individuals in their late twenties and early forties. People who chose to pay thousands of dollars to remind themselves of the coolness they could purchase. The architect was brought to the club as a guest by one of his patrons and through charm, and trading of an exclusive cocaine dealer’s contact information with security, he was never charged for entry.
        Walking into the dim Edison-bulbed room, the architect and his patron met for drinks with young investors from India. The architect was used to being invited to business meetings that had nothing to do with him. Shown off as a, “bohemian monkey” , his value to his rich friends was in his high tolerance for risk in his daily life, something these men could not afford as they built up their reputations in the city. The architect enjoyed this role. It allowed him the gifts of luxury without the responsibility to uphold it.
        After drinks, the Indians invited some girls to join the patron and his monkey. Over red wine the architect explained to the table the work of a French writer he had just finished reading. As he was complimenting the writer, one of the young women interjected and passionately disagreed with the architect’s endorsement. This was his first evening drinking with Taj Mahal.
        The next week, at a bar in Brooklyn, Taj Mahal brought her blonde friend, McMansion. McMansion and Taj Mahal went to college together in the East. One working in the legal system and one in interior design, it never mattered to the architect who did what. Neither of them talked about work and only knew each other in the workfree happy life they carved for themselves. McMansion asked the architect what he did for a living. When he explained how he made his money, McMansion’s fingers began itching for her phone. Taj Mahal giggled. It didn’t matter to Taj Mahal whose apartment they spent the night in. The architect was nervous and wanted to make a good impression. She reminded him that she didn’t care about those things and he wanted to believe her so badly.
        She had the sweet adorable helplessness only rich girls can have. She would order simple cocktails with specific ingredients. She would say that aquavit is the devil. Her tastes were always refined and thought out. Living life with richness was what drove her. She seemed to view the world not as an obstacle to overcome, but an amusement park to play in. She did have her own problems, but they seemed small and petite to the architect. It was fun to examine exotic life without the pain of living it. His own pain was boring and predictable but viewing the world through Taj Mahal gave him a new map of the city.
        The next weeks were filled with adventures for Taj Mahal and the architect. It wasn’t a one sided relationship and they taught each other many things, but what the architect got was something Taj Mahal had innately from birth. She had given him a nameable identity. A label, a box, something he could put himself in to operate within the world. The name was harsher, meaner, something he liked about it. It complemented well with her so he kept it around in silent pride. She was Taj Mahal and he was Slumlord.
        The one secret arena of release for Taj Mahal and McMansion was strip poker. The game was introduced to the girls by Slumlord when he was blessed with rare momentary cleverness that allowed him to enact his sexual fantasies. The game slowly became a weekly fête at the club in one of the private lounges, usually including other rakish guests of Slumlord and some of Taj Mahal’s more low class girlfriends. Taj Mahal loved poker because it made her feel like the most sophisticated woman in history. She’d imagine she was playing with Marie Antoinette or Audrey Hepburn or any other coy princesses who loved pink and green and being naked. At the club she and McMansion eventually played with a custom set of monogrammed mother of pearl poker chips. The soft scraps spelling out her initials glimmered in the candlelight by which they’d play.
        Slumlord loved watching her play. He loved her slim fingers rubbing the chips and how the heartbeat shadow of the candle flame fluttered on her dark nipples. When she let her black hair down it would pool in her collarbone and tussle off her shoulder. She was very competitive and had a poker face only she thought was unreadable. Whenever Taj Mahal had a good hand of cards, the tip of her tongue would slightly poke out between her lips. Her thick eyebrows would furrow and she’d look at the nude architect with playfulness and eagerness. He loved how infantile she got during strip poker, how it was a time when she’d embrace a young naive girly bratty attitude. When Taj Mahal taught Slumlord about wines and piano concertos, he was turned on by her intelligence and class, but these candlelit moments of bubbly girlhood excited him the most and he was grateful to have a thick marble table covering his lap.
        When they’d put their clothes back on and return to the real world, it always felt so tragic that Taj Mahal had to go back to being a financially and culturally literate person. She was so beautiful and cute and gentle that Slumlord wanted to take care of her himself. That she could handle her own affairs without the guidance of a man felt like a personal insult to his own abilities.
        This time with Taj Mahal was perfect for Slumlord. She was nothing like Windmill. Windmill was an artist too and Taj Mahal couldn’t care less about what Slumlord was working on. Windmill was a jealous hater. She was beautiful and curvy, and embraced and invited ogling from strangers. She was young and trendy and wore Santal 33 which clamped onto bed sheets like a sarcophagus lid. Windmill was demanding and thought Slumlord hated her whenever he denied her attention. Slumlord could sense Windmill’s silent judgment in bed, especially when he tried to assert himself as a dominant man. Windmill only liked him when he was down. When he was “cute” and “small” and a “baby” in her plump arms. Slumlord liked it at first, as some kind of role playing game, but when Windmill showed annoyance at his manhood he knew those roles weren’t a joke. Windmill came from money but didn’t know how to use it like Taj Mahal. Windmill’s father sold sprinkler systems in California and gave her an allowance of ten thousand dollars a month. Slumlord hated when she’d pay for things. When Taj Mahal paid for things it wasn’t charity, it was an inside joke about economic disparity, a temporary case which Slumlord would eventually resolve from.
        The weather got warmer and during a walk and cigarette in the park, Taj Mahal mentioned that her father was going to be visiting the city. It never occurred to Slumlord that Taj Mahal would have a father. She never mentioned him. Slumlord gave an open and plain response, trying to gauge how to react to this news. Taj Mahal did not seem to have an emotional reaction to the news, just delivering bullet facts like a scrolling news chyron. They finished the cigarette.
        Her father was an Englishman. Slumlord designated him Parliament. Thick and historical, he viewed New York with the amused and cozy arrogance only wealthy Europeans can have. Taj Mahal introduced Slumlord to Parliament not with the preparation of a serious partner, but as a casual friend whom she met at a few socials. No one really. Just a friend she sometimes sees around the club. Taj Mahal did not mention her love life to her father, obviously, as mutual peering into father-daughter hearts was perverse and inappropriate. In spite of his cool demeanor, Slumlord was insulted at the lack of introduction. Regardless, the only true things her father cared about were her happiness and how soon she could have a child, and the methods and details to achieve both those ends were of no deep concern to him.
        Parliament loved how domestic the sidewalks in Manhattan were, how large peoples’ coffees seemed, and how even the homeless had an entrepreneurial spirit not seen in London. He especially loved the Statue of Liberty, and the yacht ride, chartered by McMansion’s father, put in him a smooth image of how life in New York was.
        The yacht launched from Brooklyn and was captained by McMansion’s husband, Flatiron, his father-in-law also present and serving beers to his guests. Slumlord and Parliament discussed books, the state of the war in Ukraine, and which fish markets in London were the best quality for the best price. Parliament asked Slumlord what his occupation was and listened with great attention. He asked when Slumlord was going to get married. Slumlord said he had no plans or prospects for that. Parliament was disappointed to hear this. He told Slumlord to look for actresses or hostesses who could complement his unstructured lifestyle. Slumlord took a moment to take in what Parliament had said. Then Slumlord suggested that the women he might end up with should be from a family with means and security. Now Parliament took his moment. The conversion curtly ended and the yacht docked.
        After Parliament’s visit Taj Mahal became disinterested in poker. She only allowed Slumlord to see her during daylight and in public, and he was too scared to invite her over for what seemed like would be a final departing coitus. Taj Mahal met Apartment Complex and the renovations started. Bronze lamps replaced with LED lighting. Flowers carved in marble turned into vinyl siding. Guests of princes and priests became section eight housing tenants.
        It wasn’t just the downgrade of Taj Mahal that broke his heart, but the ease in which it happened. He was Slumlord and she was Taj Mahal and the symbiosis that sustained their relationship couldn’t be naturally broken. It took a western bulldozer to break their Indian Love Spiral. Apartment Complex was cheap but he had money. He didn’t have the taste or style but he did have the equity and title loans. His clear and stern mind would most likely bring him to an early grave, encouraged by cortisol and an endless fight against death, but a Slumlord and a Taj Mahal embrace mortality. They fight against modernization and ease of life. Death is the sweet water that spins and turns and remembers and loves. But Taj Mahal couldn’t stay in death. Taj Mahal wanted iPads and Heinekens and to call Ubers whenever she wanted. And Slumlord couldn’t give her that. Slumlord was a cute small baby. And any real venture of domination petrified him. An old money soul in a poor man’s body.
        He didn’t plan on this. He didn’t think he was capable of allowing another richer, more upward, more social, and more free woman to outgrow him again. His blueprints were all wrong and the pain was pugnacious. He wanted weed to numb it. He wanted porn to forget it. Every time he saw happier people it reminded him of his own loneliness and the loneliness, combined with the ratio between him and all other non-lonely peoples, amplified his feelings of singlehood. The architect was dedicated to self improvement, to retouching his entire life and making Taj Mahal regret doubting his potential.
        He rode out of Manhattan and into Queens. He spent the night with Mud Hut, a rude young girl who worked at his favorite bar. He woke up to a familiar voice above his head. It was his patron, having found the architect after searching for hours in the morning. Mud Hut let the patron in as he had also woken up in her bed some months before and she enjoyed the company of men. The architect didn’t get out of bed. His patron shook him but he could not get up.
        So Flatiron and McMansion and Apartment Complex and Taj Mahal all enjoyed life together in a cul-de-sac haze. They went to the Tribeca club, yachted, toured houses in Nyack, and enjoyed the pairing of two families in affluence and style.
        Later in the early fall, the architect and his patron were drinking and saw the foursome. Taj Mahal looked up from her martini and froze for half a second. She looked back down to her glass. When she eventually excused herself to the restroom, the architect left his patron to meet her in front of the door. All he could manage to push from his lips was a stream of absurdities. He became a misanthrope and a clown before her. Describing his feelings with the pathetic dexterity of an adolescent child. Taj Mahal’s patience was so evident on her face that the architect knew it meant he needed to stop talking. It meant also that there was no hope of changing her mind with this strategy. Her patient small smile stuck into him. Implacable patience for a poor man she now felt sorry for.
        He knew he had ruined any chance of being admired or sought after. His mystery was gone. And he was hateful toward Taj Mahal and her reasonable and even Machiavellian mind. How she was able to think out things twelve steps ahead of him. The architect knew he made the mistake of showing that he wanted to change and cared about how Taj Mahal’s mind worked. Of wanting certainty in the reasons she once loved him, if it was love, and if her admiration for him was because of his own power, or her own fashionable idleness. He was offending her sensibilities, which could not be forgiven. They both returned to their tables in silence. The patron offered to leave and he and the architect went to a bar near the East River.
        After ordering a beer the architect went outside for a smoke. He looked at the water. Looking at the river was a healthy woman who said she was visiting from Sweden. He named her Sauna. They talked for a bit and laughed. He finished his cigarette. He went back into the bar and drank his beer.