This is a story about stacked tenses. It is an essay about the present tense: a now that is continually layered with what is coming and what is going, what is half buried, and what may bear fruit.
It is about seeing more than is comprehensible and learning to make sense of it. It’s about the dance between receptivity and agency. It’s about history in the present, clairvoyance, and freedom. It’s about destiny and release; side chicks and the sacred; questions that untangle themselves in their response. And circularity: a facet of both life and its records, of which this is one.
A love of mine took my photograph one Sunday afternoon in a gallery in Dakar: My face is buried in ripples of tissuey white paper. I am leaning forward, and though you can’t see them, I am blinking my eyes. I am feeling the softness of this artwork we are not meant to touch, but that submerges me. The billowy paper represents the future. Embrace the void is written on notepaper on my desk at home.
I do not sleep with my love that night, though he expects me to. We are both with other people. That matters to me and does not to him. This is always true.
We’d danced in our aura for hours that day. On the plane home he clutched me like I was oxygen. After, I spent six months writing an essay about our afternoon together and the palpability of layered time. Two years later I walked him out of his ten-year relationship. Three years later he left me, silently. One year prior, he had left me, also silently, while I bled out our baby. All of this is in the photograph, and it always was.
I see so much more than I understand when I look at you, I told him.
I don’t believe in nostalgia. I don’t experience it. When the past presents itself, it is present in the present. To remember is an active verb. Grief is an immersion. Trauma a repetition: cyclical nightmares that subsume us until we heal.
Depending on how it feels, the past in the present is a reminder of what we are shedding, or, where we are growing. Clairvoyance comes from the French: to see clearly. It’s all here, if we can look at the layers, submit to the tides.
The future feels like vitality, like light. There’s a freshness in the physical experience. It comes at different strengths. Sometimes the future bangs with life force. That’s how it was with him: a surge. It looks like dancing, leaning upward, eyes wide, body pulsing. Sometimes it is softer, like my eyes are suddenly open wider, more light is coming in. It comes in waves and requires submission. Tomorrow, last year, next year, yesterday, now, blink, now, blink, now.
The essay I wrote described the floor of the gallery in Dakar like a rainy Parisian sidewalk. I was thinking of the time I’d had a brief layover in Paris, and taken the train to the Foundation Cartier to see a show. It was raining and the ground was glowing white refracted light. I’d emerged from the subway with my smile that flows upward in moments of resonance like: yes, this. At the Foundation I’d taken pictures of the installation. I didn’t like the photographs, but I liked how they were displayed. I sent my images to my love along with curatorial ideas, though we were halfway estranged then.
Years later we were in a particular lacuna, a silence after the season of remembering, the season of forgiving, the season of liberation. It was now the season of healing and recovering; he said he had to do it alone.
I believed him at first, but then I saw him again at an event he’d organized: well-conceived but haphazard in its actualization, an expression of his fractured center. He’d invited the best photographers in the world and failed to care for them. Their works were printed dark and flat, prints were taped and falling from the walls. The show looked like his face: puffy with pain, eyes unfocused, catalytic and incomplete. He was surrounded and alone. Stagnant, fearful and dark. His aura was so putrid he was poisoning his staff.
He had taken time, but he hadn’t healed.
I picked up the pieces that were falling everywhere, soothed the neglect his artists were bleeding, welcomed them to my home. One of them used to work at the Foundation Cartier, and later, she invited me to stay with her in Paris.
Her arrondissement was familiar to me; I’d stayed here with another friend when I was much younger. The boulevard that passed her house still had shadows of that time: the wretched season.
My love had abandoned me while I bled out our half-formed dream: a gorgeous corpse I caught in my palm. I wondered if it was possible to grieve on his behalf when he told me that a single tear sometimes dropped from his eye on airplanes. I didn’t speak to him after that. I was having night terrors so violent I woke the orphan, a lover I’d taken in to fill that unfathomable void. He tried to rape me, twice, but I still had him in my home. I bled waves that splashed the walls and I drowned him in my grief.
The season of forgiving was robust.
The orphan called me another time I was in Paris. A very different season. I wasn’t sure I would pick up the phone: he’d been one of the darkest, and I’ve had many dark ones. But I did, and when I told him where I was he said: I saw a tweet the other day about how the most spiritual writers have these powerful experiences in Paris. How odd, I said, I’m here on spiritual work.
That was the season of enlightenment. The season of the ego death, the season of the meditation, where I recalled myself as a toddler dancing with sunbeams in the sanctuary of my father’s church, and remembered I’d been doing this my whole life. You always seem to float or fly in my memory of you, my oldest friend told me.
We were baptized together in that church. Twenty something years later, she became a doula after I became a doula. She became more of a doula, though I use the skills constantly, and we doula each other through spiritual rebirths.
Such as: one day, I felt my love fuck his side chick. He was in Milan. I was in Lagos alone in my kitchen, doubled over in body-tearing pain. I screamed to God: must I be torn in half to believe I love this man? (It seemed so.) And, what are you asking me to do?
In that season I still believed it was the other women between us. In our first explosion he would kiss me in the car, tell me I was brilliant, special, subtle, profound, that it wasn’t the same with his girlfriend, that he was trapped. Then go back to their house. My seemingly intractable domestic situation, he called it.
It was when they went to Venice and did nothing but drink that I left him. When you’re my age you’ll spend all your time at champagne cocktails too, he said. I already did that, I muttered.
I told him I was in a Nan Goldin tinged funk and tried to travel. I was so cloudy with withdrawal that I got on the wrong plane. I landed in Abuja instead of Port Harcourt, sat in the airport, and then flew home.
He was always in my body. His fingers inside me while we drove between shows. His tongue inside me drinking what he called caramel. In their bed, in the backseat, in the guest bed, in the kitchen, on that beautiful wooden table, on his desk where we stained a catalogue, and I always checked after that it was still there.
When we met it was bright lights and recognition; sleepless nights before we ever kissed. My heart beat so fast, for so long, I thought I was sick. I feed off the energy, he said. I feel like you came here for me. My natural inclination was to give him everything.
The explosion of life force was mirrored by the devastation of our separation. He left me. I left him. He sent me love songs over voice note, screamed my name at parties, followed me, called me. I ignored him, spent months sick on the floor and then three years limping. He was always in my body. I was hospitalized with malaria. I dropped boiling water down my legs, snapped a ligament, and my chest was continually concave. I failed to date anyone else meaningfully, only letting near me men who reminded me of him. I worked, mostly, and made photographs I didn’t realize until later were about us. They were foggy, like I was foggy in my perpetual internal conflict. The season of estrangement and denial lasted years.
I forgot all of this until I saw him one night at a garden party by the lagoon. It was days after his father died and years since we’d seen each other. He was glowing, as usual, with our everything-at-once: confounding, synchronous, spiritual and profound. He showed me a text on time he was drafting; I was writing the same. I entered our aura for the first time in years. It was dense and pulsating. It’s tangible, he said. My heart cracked violently open and I cried all night. It was only then I noticed my constant effort stitching my ribcage closed.
I was terrified of him, but I had to know: what was this energy? What could we make with it? If it was me, my own fears or rigidities that blocked our actualization, that felt like blasphemy. We looked sacred to me.
Silently, unknowingly, the past had been holding us hostage. It was always present in my body: in my fatigue, in my injuries, unfinished pain in my joints and in my lungs.
In the season of remembering I unspooled our everything-at-once. I pulled this dense tangle of times out of the jagged, hazy, hypnotic space and laid it out in narrative. Time was still tidalectic in the recounting; but memories were painted in and painted together, rendered coherent, made into sense.
As I untangled our past, our present smoothed too, and the future opened. The season of remembering unleashed terrible pain and terrible desire. I cried so deep, so hard, so long, that I saw my inner God-self: divinely fluid and full of light. The only rigidities were my defenses, like a box around my heart. I think he is part of my awakening, I whispered to my psychoanalyst in New York.
In the Dakar essay I had written on our velvety depths and brutal impossibility. Now I remembered I’d never believed in the impossible. My love curated utopias and I live dedicated to world creation through impeccability, which is why, perhaps, when I feel life force I call it the future. I choose to shed what feels tired or dull, let the ugly past, with its limitations and resignations dissolve behind me, while the beautiful, I keep and carry forward. The other world, the world that is only light, is here, we just have to orient to it. Follow its glimmers, drop the darkness, explode in light. Use that freedom to free each other. I have a friend who talks about the physical and spiritual worlds as if they are two things—But, it’s all here I tell her. There is no veil.
He was always in my body. It was corporeal and spiritual: I felt everything of him, everything of me, and everything of us. More than I understood, until I studied it. You’re so good at guessing my intentions, he said, in our re-opening season. I’m not guessing, I puzzled.
I could feel him in the city, any city. Whenever I landed in Lagos I knew if he was in town from the way we entered the air space. If he was around, the city had a buzz to it, not in the realm of traffic and people, but a tension in the air. If he was gone, everything was quiet. It’s why I moved to Lagos, before I’d ever met him. I called it resonance: something rhythmic and energetic, a warmth, a low hum. It’s the difference between the feeling of the past and the future: vitality, potency. I followed it. I moved countries for it. And when I saw him I saw its source.
He told me he was shocked when we first made love, and I was offended because I knew from when I saw him where we were going. It seems I’ve fallen in love and had my heart broken in two days, was the first of thousands of sentences I wrote on him. Even if I foresaw it, I still had to live it.
We took turns with the prophecies. Our words moved each other like whispers of truth that topple constructs and lies. Sometimes it took me years to hear him. When he was tired of what he called my astute observations of human character, he ignored me. But when I had his attention I would speak two words and his whole ocean would shift. We’d stare at each other and it was like swimming.
You’re precious he told me, wonderfully made. Like you, I said.
In New York one day, in our healing and recovery season, when we weren’t speaking, I was meditating quietly in a rainy park. I walked tenderly on tendons I had strained in the season of liberation, when I had walked him out of his relationship. Suddenly a surge of life force came upon me, familiar, but forgotten; I hadn’t felt him in months. My face was glowing. I went home and took photos of my forehead and my heart wide alive. I wondered if he was in town, and a few hours later I saw that he was.
And, so, the day he was in Milan with his side chick it was consistent that I was in the kitchen convulsing. He had his mask on, that harsh face he holds when he’s hiding in front of you. I fucked him once while he was wearing it, so I know it’s possible to do, though to me it has always felt incongruent to be both hiding and entwined; desecrating to receive half-truths and lies in my body.
Intermittently I texted my oldest friend, the doula, ten hours behind me, in Ukiah.
Life contractions? she asked.
I wore a mask the year my face disintegrated into sand. It was sometime after I lost the baby, my love, and the orphan, and I was flailing to recapture a semblance of my self. I try to find my mask with the faith that by the time I have to step into the world I will have a face to attach it to, I wrote then.
Later I wondered, at what point does the mask become the face? If my love only disarmed with me, is the soft face I knew—that glow—his interior, his truth, or just another persona? Even if it is his center; if he chooses to live defended, do his defenses solidify into a new face: dark, unrecognizable and devastating? The masks we choose to wear are telling—you can learn a lot from someone’s social media page, he told me once. We design our disguises, so you can read aspirations, values, the limits of imagination in our performances. The mask is made of skin.
I hated his masks and loved his lava. I loved watching his face soften in my presence. Like he was allowed to be excellent, seen to be sacred. You make me want to be so good, he told me. He only otherwise had that face with his first son, his little twin, born almost on his birthday. It felt like his true face, the face of resonance. But, we choose everything, I told him. It’s easy to forget, he said. It is a choice to nourish resonance or let it wither. We have to choose to live in light.
In my season of healing I learned about unmasking. About pulling in my own fractures, of which he was part. There was a time I had seen my interior as a shattered mirror. I wrote then on ricocheting off the people around me. Healing, I learned, is about wholeness. Integrity and integrated have the same etymology: integer, which comes from the Latin for intact, and, whole. Integrity, like clairvoyance, is about interiority. Both are about seeing the center, the core, cutting through the noise and giving no power to constructs or constructions. When we heal the center, we integrate all the aspects of ourselves, and in time we don’t need a mask anymore. We become strong enough, sure enough to be our pure selves no matter who is looking. Scars are not static, I told him, wound work is a portal to the divine.
I wondered about the traces we left in each other. I wondered where unanswered questions linger in the psyche. I wondered if he had possessed me. In the lacuna, the months when he disappeared, I would recall the embodied experience of looking at him, and I wondered if it was madness to remember or to forget.
When he was with his other women I felt like I was dying. When I imagined losing him, I did too. It was a ghastly conundrum. The first time we were together, I respected his girlfriend too much to break them. But three years later I saw their toxicity and his loneliness. The power of my feelings made me wonder if the hero he’d always asked for was me.
In the kitchen in Lagos, crying and heaving, I texted him in Milan and told him I was having a small block. When he’d finished with his other lover he replied to me: Stretch? I wrote: Though there’s nothing else to do, I’m tired of fixing it. He sent a sad face, a heart, a hug. What to do, love? He asked. Hold me, I said, for the first time in years.
The next day he made a video of his scarf printed with hearts and amore and sent me a photo from the bath. The side chick found another and my love left his girlfriend a few weeks later. I’m frightened, he said, as he struggled to walk away, I don’t see how we could untangle this situation and tie another.
But I was an expert on untangling by then. I think it would be liberating and expansive and beautiful, I said. A whisper, and his whole ocean would shift.
No expansion without contraction, my doula friend had told me.
After graduating high school, I went to Paris with my best friend. We had studied French together and we spoke it on the landline to each other after school because I was certain my mother was listening in. Seventeen years old, in Paris we bought the carte musée and relentlessly went to every museum, three a day, for two weeks. We were broke-ish. We studied art and drank wine and ate baguettes by the Seine. The semester before, we’d spent weekends pasting tiny cutouts of all the masters into notebooks with Matisse and Picasso on the cover in preparation for the Advanced Placement Art History exam.
During my love’s season of healing and recovering I spent a season of purifying and preparing. I went on a pilgrimage that lasted nine months and ended in Paris, a city I had been in and out of since I was young. I was there with the light and the vistas, palaces and parks, a lion spitting water from his mouth, rivers and street lights, libraries in homes, behind the mosque, above the buttes, breakfast in the afternoon; but, it looked just like me on my knees in a bright white apartment crying with God. And orchids, two of them, reaching to the light.
I thought: I don’t have to go to museums now because I’ve already been to all of them; I don’t feel obliged to be external anymore. The lines between interior and exterior, that had been cracking in all my visions and deaths, disappeared completely and everything was light.
It seems I will cry my way to enlightenment over? With? For? Regarding? You, I’d told my love the year before.
When he went quiet, he never came back. God made a beautiful thing, I begged, in the middle of that silent season. I’m holding it alone now, which is impossible, because it belongs to both of us and only exists between us, I said. I’m not ready, he said.
Whenever you’re ready, I said.
Nine months later I found him broken. I spent six months trying to remind him, trying to find him under all that pain. It wafted off him like fumes. It clouded his office all the way to the corners. He was surrounded by zombies. He was afraid to go home, was sleeping on his gallery floor, until I whispered let’s go look at it and brushed his arm. He moved in the next day. But I never entered. He invited another woman to come stay, one he called wahala, propaganda, pain to her face. (We choose everything, I told him.)
In our season of completion there were no more questions. I had asked them all, and I saw, in totality: beautiful layers. Everything at once, and, everything in sequence. Possibility and choice. Evolution and divergence. Character, consistency and change. His masks and what they revealed.
He wasn’t asking to be saved, anymore.
It was the strangest thing when he went from feeling like the future, to feeling like the past.
I asked God to take him out of my body. The next day he left me.
I returned to Paris specifically to go to museums. I wandered marble halls, pondering the physicalization of how we narrate the world. I was researching remembering, all in and out of time.
The essay, as yet unwritten, begins: Memory work is always about the present. It concludes: Now that we have done the work of remembering, we are free to do something else.
Allyn Gaestel is a writer who lives in Lagos, Nigeria. Her portfolio is here: http://www.allyngaestel.com/ and more fluid updates are here: https://www.instagram.com/ananta_anand_alxumdu/.
Photo by the author.