They were baffled at the sight of two apparently unattached women sharing the honeymoon suite. The question that had been filling my brain before I arrived — “Where is your husband?” — was now being posed, politely and persistently, on a balcony in Agra with a view of tiered swimming pools and the Taj Mahal, on the back of an elephant climbing to Jaipur’s Amber Fort, on a boat gliding across Lake Pichola beneath a bat-filled sky.
We got back from excursions to find the trappings of romance spirited away from our room and replaced by other, more platonic gifts: jewelry, scarves and once, unnervingly, a pair of dolls, nestled between the pillows. Then we’d arrive at the next leg of the tour and it would happen all over again: “Where is your husband?”
I repeated this refrain, along with variations, to my best friend: “Where is he? Why isn’t he here?” The price she paid for this luxury vacation was having to endure the most miserable travel companion of all time. She swam and sunbathed, wore a succession of very good hats and bought a Kashmiri rug; I huddled in the corner of our room and called the man who had chosen not to be there, leaving voice mail messages: “Where are you? Why aren’t you here?” I was the most self-pitying of lucky winners, having won the honeymoon but lost the fiancé.
Here’s the lesson I was learning about winning: It is impermanent, unstable, transient. It isn’t a happy ending, just punctuation between sentences, a triumphant pause before life rolls onward in uncontrollable directions.
If you win one race but lose 15 others, have you won at all? If you earn someone’s respect, attention and love, and then lose it again, what did you win? Winning can be lost. You can lose at winning.
“We’re going to win so much, you’re going to be sick and tired of winning,” a presidential candidate would later promise an entire nation. “You’re going to come to me and go, ‘Please, please, we can’t win anymore.’”