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The Secret photo

A little after the end of my first real relationship, I was spending massive periods alone in my apartment in FiDi. I couldn’t stop thinking about my ex, that she was still in the city, that there was no real reason things had to go the way they did, that we could still be together. 

Feeling restless one night, I took a break from my self-imposed isolation and met my friend Ari at a bar in Brooklyn. He was out with his lesbian friends. I said hi and ordered myself a whiskey sour to change things up a bit. 

It was time for a change. 

I was standing woodenly next to Ari and the lesbians who were dancing. I’d noticed an attractive woman earlier, who seemed slightly older, dancing in the corner with a friend. She was black with dyed red hair. 

Suddenly she was next to me, making eye contact. She was talking to me, though I had no idea what she was saying. I leaned in. 

“Huh?” I said. 

She was making fun of my clothing, the fact that I wasn’t dancing. I smiled. She was being good-natured about it. 

I moved closer to her and, feeling cajoled, started dancing rhythmlessly. 

“What’s your birth sign?” I asked. She told me she was a Gemini, and I said that meant she probably talked a lot of shit. 

“Only when it’s right,” she let out, grinning. 

I asked her to dance and we did, my hands on her hips. “Do you have weed?” she asked. 

I told her I didn’t and we left the bar to find some. Along the way I learned her name was Amaya and that she was Dominican. 

“I know you’re not supposed to ask,” I said. “But how old are you?” 

“32,” she said. “How old are you?”  I told her I was 23 and we grinned at each other. None of the smoke shops nearby sold weed, so we returned to the bar in failure. 

We started dancing again. I moved my hand to her ass, thinking in my inexperience in dancing with strangers that this was what you were supposed to do. She recoiled and stepped back, lightly scolding me. 

“I thought we were just chilling,” she said, seeming only slightly perturbed. I acknowledged my mistake and then kissed her cheeks and forehead. She looked at me for a second and then kissed me back in the same places. 

She stepped back again and tilted her head to the side. 

“I love you?” she said. 

I hesitated for a second and then said it back. We kept dancing until her friend approached her to leave. I asked for her number and received it. 

The next day I messaged her, asking if she wanted to meet at the Oculus beer garden to drink wine. 

We met and she seemed sheepish and shy, very unlike her drunken self from the day before. I learned she was a photo editor, that her brother had recently passed away, and that she was debating whether to leave New York for Miami. She was sick of the long winters. I encouraged her to follow her heart. 

Then we went to Eataly. As we ate she asked about my recent break up. I told her how I had felt like we were supposed to be together, how I couldn’t make my ex realize that what I wanted to give her was better than a series of semi-toxic situationships throughout her twenties. 

“You thought you knew better than a woman what she needed,” she said casually. I looked at her in awe.  

I moved to pay and she offered to split. “I don’t make the rules,” I said, denying her and putting my card in the check-holder. She looked pleased. I asked her if she wanted to come back to my place to watch the new Chappelle special. 

“We could try that,” she said, betraying nothing. 

At the apartment, I poured us some warm Jack Daniels I had lying around and we started watching. I put my arm around her, and soon after that we were kissing. It was slower and more intimate than I was used to, our tongues leisurely exploring each other’s mouths. 

“I like kissing,” she said. 

“You’re the second person I’ve ever kissed,” I told her. She looked surprised, then like she didn’t believe me. 

“Let’s go slow then,” she said. After some time we moved to the bedroom. As we began taking off each other’s clothes and kissing with our eyes closed I was troubled by the fact that I wasn’t hard. She noticed, and said that it was okay, that we didn’t have to if I didn’t want it. I opened my eyes and looked at her and was suddenly hard. 

The next morning, in the shower, we started kissing again and I wondered aloud if I should get a condom. 

“Unless you wanna have a baby with me,” she deadpanned. 

A few weeks later Amaya and I were cuddling naked in her apartment in Greenpoint. We’d discussed what was happening with us by this point, and had decided it was a fling. She was looking for someone who could take care of her, who wasn’t broke and aimless like I was, and I wanted someone closer to my own age for a relationship. 

She was telling me about her upcoming trip to Mexico. She had plans to go to the Bufo Alverius sanctuary in Tulum to take 5MeO DMT, which was derived from the secretions of the native toad. She’d done it once before and it had been a transformative experience. She showed me a flyer her shaman had sent her over WhatsApp, broadcasting an Ayahuasca ceremony somewhere near Playa del Carmen. I noticed it was on December 18th, my birthday, and felt immediately that I was supposed to go. 

In Mexico, Amaya stayed with me at a hotel. I’d serendipitously had a $500 flight credit and when I mentioned wanting to go down, omitting the details, my parents had offered to pay for my room as a birthday present. It felt like everything was conspiring to make it easy.

Shortly before the trip Amaya and I had decided to end the romantic aspect of our relationship. A friction had developed between us in New York. A condom had disappeared inside her, and she’d been back and forth about whether to take Plan B, but I’d insisted. After that I panicked and called off the sex and intimacy, viewing it as a sign from above that ‘casual’ wasn’t for me. But I still felt like I was supposed to go to Mexico, as did she, and so here we were. 

Amaya seemed to be in a bad mood. Everything I was saying or doing was irritating her. She confessed she was often like this in the days before her period, but knowing that didn’t help the situation. 

Finally, not knowing what else to do I offered to go down on her. She simply laughed as if what I’d said hadn’t been a real suggestion. A few minutes later she brought it up again, saying maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea. 

I went down on her and after she came she said she wanted to have sex so we did. 

Then things were significantly more relaxed. The shaman, though, wasn’t responding to any of Amaya’s messages. It seemed like maybe we were just in Mexico as a simple sojourn. We’d have some fun, hit the beach, maybe the club, enjoy each other’s company, and go back home. No transformative experience, no ceremony. 

Finally, on the 17th the shaman texted back. We were on. As soon as she read me the message we looked at each other nervously. Going to Mexico with an older woman I’d met to take a powerful drug in the woods somewhere was unlike anything I’d ever done.  

The day of the ceremony, my birthday, we skipped breakfast and lunch. We left for the temple in the Camry I’d rented at the airport. The sun was low in the sky as we turned onto a dirt road tucked into a wooded area and drove past huts and little houses. Aside from the pin the shaman had dropped us, we had no further information. 

Once we finally found the temple, it was unmistakable. It was large and round with a huge entrance. Inside was all sorts of nature symbolism. A tree was carved into the wall, and there were gaps through which you could see outside. People began arriving. There were no directions given to us, but someone grabbed a sleeping mat and blanket from the corner and soon everyone else did too. Someone told us we ought to grab the buckets they had stacked up and so we did. Before we’d arrived at the ceremony, Amaya and I had talked about sitting separately, as we both wanted to have our own individual experiences. And so when we put down our mats we put them down on opposite sides of the temple. 

I talked to a guy who was some type of Scandinavian. He seemed a little older than me and tremendously calm and grounded. He told me his intuition had told him not to get vaccinated, as had mine. “Are you nervous?” I asked him. 

“No,” he said, surprising me. 

“Oh,” I said. “I’m a little nervous.”

“You look nervous,” he said. I looked at him stupidly, feeling I’d find this funny later. 

Eventually it got pretty packed. There were about twenty of us in a smallish space. That’s when a woman informed us that we had to wait longer to start, as we were expecting twenty more people. An unsettling went through the room. People looked around wondering how 40 people could possibly fit in such a tight space. 

To my left was a black woman, who told me she was from Texas, and that she’d done a cacao ceremony, apparently a “heart opener,” a few days previous, but that everyone said that “grandma,” which I gathered meant ayahuasca, was the real deal. I stupidly hadn’t brought any water, and she offered to share some of hers with me, though a little later we were told that under the influence of the substance one wouldn’t feel hungry or thirsty. 

The ayahuasqueros, those individuals who we realized were putting on the ceremony, were all dressed in white. We were free to walk in and out of the temple, and some were doing Rapé, a form of tobacco snuff. Most did it, though I refrained. I figured one new drug experience was probably enough. I didn’t want to get complicated.

Amaya walked up to me. “Hey,” she said. “I’m thinking maybe we actually put our mats together.” 

“Oh,” I said. “But I thought we were thinking that we wanted to have our own experiences.” 

“Yeah, but that was before we knew about all these other people.” 

I looked at the ceiling. “I’m just trying to think about what’s right,” I said, not sure what to do. 

“Fuck what’s right,” she snapped, with a genuine rage that startled me. “Everyone’s doing what’s right for them.” 

I looked at her pleadingly as they told us the ceremony was beginning. I was unsure if I was abandoning her on some level as I returned to my spot on the floor. Then they asked us all to come outside, where we would finally meet the shaman, an older dark-skinned man who was pacing around and kept alluding to some horrible past of his that would chill us to know about. 

My attention kept flitting in and out. I’d always found it difficult to pay attention, even when it was important, and now was no different. The shaman was saying something about the importance of tonight. I looked up at the sky. It was a full moon in Gemini. And it was my birthday. I’d forgotten. 

Finally he had us face North, then South, then East, then West. While doing so he called down blessing from various deities, to protect and insure benefit in the ceremony. He named more gods than I could count, but the most preeminent among them seemed to be Jesus, Mary, and Mama and Papa. Finally, we were led back inside. It was time to drink. 

They gave us some pointers. After the first cup, there was a window in which we were permitted to drink if we felt we wanted more, and as the dosage required for an ideal experience was an inexact science they gave us a mantra to keep in mind: “don’t think, just drink.” If you’ve had enough, they told us ominously, you won’t be able to ask for more.  

Next they told us it was best to surrender to whatever it was that came up for us during the trip. To let go. What the Mother wanted to show us might be different from what we wanted to see, and it was important to be open. 

They said we should come back to the breath in times of trouble to center us and sit up instead of lying down. And that our bucket was to be our best friend for when we had to purge, which I knew meant to vomit. 

We were told to uphold the rule of silence for the first part of the night, until it was time for the icaros, traditional songs played at such ceremonies. A handsome ayahuasquero with long hair had brought with him a few large instruments. Other than that, we were free to wander around the temple area. There was a fire being tended to outside, and bathrooms a little down the path. And all of nature. 

We were called up two at a time to drink. When it was my turn, the woman who was pouring looked at me and said “first time?” I said it was and she smiled knowingly. I said Bismillah, in the name of God, and drank the mixture, which tasted like mud and twigs. 

I returned to my place on the floor by the wall. They blew out the candles, and it was completely dark. We settled into a silence, everyone focusing intently on their own thoughts and breathing. 

Not five minutes later a woman started letting out stomach noises through her mouth. She belched. Flagrantly ignoring the rule of silence, she said aloud pensively, “What’s going on?” A few moments passed and she repeated herself. “What’s happening?” She sounded panicked. “What is going on?” A few ayahuasqueros kindly approached her impelling her to uphold the rule of silence. “What is going on?” she repeated. “The fuck?” she said. “The fuck is going on?” she said louder. “What the fuck is going on?” She was surrounded by ayahuasqueros now. “What the fuck is going on! What the fuck is going on!” She was fully screaming by this point. “What the fuck is going on! What the fuck is going on! WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING?” This went on for a while. Until finally, an extremely tall and jacked ayahuasquero picked her up, threw her over his shoulder and carried her outside. We could still hear her screams, but after some time they died down.

The energy in the room was palpable. What were we in for?

For my part not much had changed. My visual acuity had increased and colors were brighter. A lightness in the body. I made my way outside where the fire was being tended. I wondered if maybe this might be it for me. The Scandinavian man from earlier was out there too. “How do you feel?” I asked him. He shrugged. “And you?” he said. 

“I don’t really feel it,” I said. 

“Mm. Well you remember what they said.” He made his way inside. 

I stayed a little longer, staring at the fire, a sense of dread growing inside me. I didn’t want to drink more. I had pushed my openness to experience about as far as it could go. I was already here, in Mexico, in the middle of the woods surrounded by strangers on a strange drug. It just seemed a bridge too far to have to ask for another cup, and whatever that would entail. 

This is what I was thinking about as I made my way inside. I tried to build up courage, but still I was horribly nervous. I just wanted to get it all right. 

As I sat down on the floor mat a heaviness came over my body. Suddenly there was no question about whether or not to ask for more; it was as if the brew itself was telling me to relax, that I’d done enough. Things were going to happen. 

I sat up straight and focused on my breathing. Everyone was belching, burping, making stomach noises. I’d always had a strong disgust sensitivity, and to hear these fluid processes of biology was mildly appalling. 

I thought of Amaya. She was across the temple, having her own experience, but I couldn’t see her in the dark. She’d told me that she’d grown up without a mother. I myself had always felt a lack in the kind of maternal warmth and affection I so desperately craved. This even though my mom was constantly expressing her love through acts of service. 

The pattern had repeated in some sense with my ex. She’d always been preoccupied with her inability to give affection. Previous lovers had complained to her about it. Her own mother had panicked to her as a child, told her she wasn’t affectionate enough. I was always looking for more from her, but she couldn’t give it to me. 

I realized that Amaya and I were healing each other in some deep, vital way. We were intensely affectionate. She complimented me incessantly, telling me I was beautiful. We behaved maternally to each other, showed each other the kind of love we’d both craved for so long. 

In knowing there was no future for us, no expectations or attachment, we were able to serve as vessels for what the other needed, free of pressure and compulsion. She was initiating me into adult relationships, teaching me how to be a man, how to embody the best qualities of masculinity. And yet there was another side to it. 

I flashed back to a time when we were having sex, and we locked eyes. Hers were green, dark and mysterious and spoke of the unknowable. If the affection we shared was maternal, the sex implicated wildness. In my vision, I fell into her eyes and didn’t know where I was. All I knew was that I was experiencing the most otherworldly, jarring, undeniably sexual pleasure I’d ever had. 

In the vision, Amaya represented the mystery of the feminine. I trusted and already loved her, but there was a part of her that was beyond my ability to know. I realized between my ex and Amaya I was attracted to danger, to wildness, to the untamable. Women were extraordinarily powerful and mysterious, and by virtue of this also inherently dangerous. Adam was brought to peril through his relationship with a woman who did something he couldn’t predict. I realized the structure and dictates of our modern day patriarchal religions, like Islam, my own tradition, were in some sense designed to hide the power of the Goddess, of the feminine, of the womb, which was a greater power than anything in all of creation. It, like so many of the most vital things of life, was a secret. 

It followed why that sort of power would need to be hidden. Even though this was the point, and everything else was in some deep sense in service of the power of the womb, it couldn’t always be like this. The chaos was simply too great. One couldn’t live without trying to erect some boundaries, unwieldy though they might be.

I fell then for a moment into that chaos, that which was simply beyond the borders of anything within our capacity to know, and anything written about it would be a complete fabrication, for it was beyond conceptualization. Everything that was wrong in this world was right there, everything that was right was wrong, there were no rules, what we knew to be true meant nothing in that space that was beyond space. Even though the deepest of pleasures were there and She was there I couldn’t handle it for more than a moment. 

I saw my ex then as well. Music began to play that was reminiscent of warm embers on the first night of Spring. I saw her somewhere ancient, dressed in white, taking small, tentative steps forward. She was a young soul. She wanted to see everything this world had to offer. If that meant exploring relationship dynamics with a variety of people that was okay. A part of me had always judged her, for wanting to dilly dally, for viewing life unseriously and delaying what I felt was really important in service of chasing experiences. That judgment left me now. I saw that what she wanted was beautiful as well, and that I couldn’t hold any ill will towards her. 

And I saw my mom. I realized there was a tremendous mystery in her. Parts of herself were completely unknowable and chaotic, and the reason she could be so tightly wound, so Type A, verging on controlling in her desire to set everything perfectly was because a part of her knew about this chaos. If she let up a little bit then everything could come apart. The reason she’d never been able to meet my emotional demands, despite loving me deeply, was fear. If she relented, if she opened her heart to sympathy and compassion she had no idea where that would end. 

I had the intuition at that moment that you could never really know a woman. 

Through all of this the ayahuasqueros were helping us. They were attending to everyone’s needs, making it easy for us. All this was for us, to help us see. It was beautiful, an incredible service. They seemed to me like truly pure beings. It was impossible not to be grateful. Feeling less attached to space or time or anything outside of that room, I had the intuition that these sorts of ceremonies had been taking place for millennia, perhaps even longer. This itself was the point. This was life. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t known about this; I had the urge to tell anyone and everyone. How could they all be back home, driving their cars, worrying about their problems when there was this paradise, here, available to anyone and everyone? 

A sense of dread arose in me, and a vision that was more like a story began to formulate. All this seemed realer than real to me; it was actually happening. 

Amaya and I were making love. In this version of events, however, she became pregnant. I was unwilling to bear the shame, being the eldest child of a conservative Muslim family, and I deserted her. In this time whatever I put in her gestated, and grew, along with the pain of my abandonment. When it was finally time to bring into this world whatever it was I’d put in her the scene was like the Day of Reckoning. There was a redness in the skies, trumpets that signaled the end were blaring; it was time for the final Judgment and all the world was an audience. 

We knew whatever she was going to bring forth would be a terror of terrors. The worst that creation had to offer, too horrifying to imagine. The pain of her labor was dreadful; there was wailing, shrieking, a build up of pressure that threatened to subsume all. And I had done this, in secret, in shame; this was all my doing. Finally she birthed the monstrosity. It was pathetic beyond pity, too appalling to behold. All the disgusting trauma of the world was congealed into one point, everything you never wanted to look at, the things you’ve done that you had no place for. It was mewling, fleshy, wailing, pathetic. It was unlovable. Parts of it were hanging off; it was in so much pain and it just wanted to be seen and held but you’d rather die than acknowledge its existence. One could do nothing but avert their gaze. This was the horrific, shameful aspect of creation that couldn’t be denied or wished away. And it was my fault: a symbol of my guilt and shame, for all the world to see, forever. 

And despite this, despite being confronted with that which seemed wholly unlovable I knew there was no choice but to love it. There was no choice but to surrender. All that could be done in the face of this deformed antichrist was to love. There was no turning away. So I willed love and that love, which was infinite, poured in and made everything right. There was nothing so horrifying, no guilt, no evil, that was outside the bounds of that love. Finally this became clear. Nothing anyone had ever done, no level of unworthiness or depravity excluded one from that perfect love. That love was everything and everyone, always. Everything that had ever happened, all the nightmares of history and of humanity were okay because they were in service of that love. We were all souls on a journey, and though it was made definitively clear to me that we could not under any circumstances fuck up, that we couldn’t be a means for the increase of suffering in the world or hurt people carelessly – or there would be grievous consequences – everything was at the same time okay in this process of learning and growing. Everyone would be saved in the end. No one, no matter how far gone into wrongness, wasn’t a part of that. We were each and every one of us Christ. 

This was the secret. And it was only secret because no one could bring themselves to believe what was so unmistakably, undeniably the case: that everything and everyone was love. Everyone in the end got exactly what they needed and wanted, whatever their soul truly asked for. We thought such a thing was simply too good to be true; the suffering we endured from the moment we came into this world begged us to forget that which was so true that it made everything good, everything acceptable. There was nothing realer, nothing more true than this love. I was sobbing then like I never had before, and as the tears left me they took the fear, the hatred, the shame. And I prayed and prayed to never forget the love. Please, please, never let me forget. No matter what, never let me forget.