Memory: In Two Parts
Guest post by Brandon Mead
Part One: Three Days Later
The following words were written on June 15th, 2016
When my sister turned twenty-one, I spent all night holding back her hair in one of the gender-neutral bathrooms at Pulse. When I heard how many people had crowded in that same tiled room attempting to hide…that same space...that same stall…
Up until a few nights ago I thought the worst thing that could happen at that night club was getting my heart broken. I've done everything between those three connected rooms that are now surrounded by police tape. The drag stage where we held hands and watched our friends perform, the dance floor where we kissed and laughed, the bar lounge where I knew it was time to go home the moment he ordered tequila shots for anyone standing nearby.
I’ve gone through a lot of emotions between those walls; fallen in love in the spaces not bathed with bright light. And very recently, watched the man I love fall out of love with me.
Truth is, before any of this happened, I was afraid to go back. I was scared to lean against the glass wall out front near the small parking lot or push the heavy metal beads at the entrance aside. I was terrified I would see him smiling on the other side or dancing with someone else under the colored lights. Terrified—that word suddenly means something so different.
When I saw the pictures in the newspaper yesterday, I noticed the transparent wall had been shattered to pieces by bullets. The fence around the porch bar was torn to pieces to carve an escape route for anyone who was lucky to be under the night sky when the shooting started.
The way I found out was a hard pounding on my door at 7a.m. The last thing I had told my best friend the night before was that I was going to Pulse. It would have been my first time there since the breakup and it wasn’t that I was ready to risk bumping into him again, but I needed to be under those colored lights. I needed to feel the bass. I needed to watch some queens and go-go boys under the paper lanterns and strobes. To feel everything pumping against the interior walls like the vibrations could cleanse me of my sadness. My plan was to drink just enough to be able to sober-up before I had to worry about my car getting towed from one of the side streets with free parking.
When the banging on my apartment door got increasingly louder and constant, I jumped up and opened it, still in my underwear. Tears streaming down her face, my friend stood on the threshold, framed by an early morning sun, and simply whimpered out, "I thought you were gone."
At that precise moment, I couldn't comprehend the magnitude of how my sensitive stomach after some heavy take-out food may have saved my life. How it had kept me from leaving the house the night before and changing my original plan to dance away my sadness.
In the hours that followed, I received more texts and calls than I ever have in a single day, all asking the same question, "Are you okay?"
I even got one from him. The guy I had been so afraid to run into. And breaking through the silence we had mutually kept for weeks to cement the decision of not remaining friends after going our separate ways, we exchanged something simple, "I'm glad you're safe."
It was the moment I learned not even a broken heart can change the primal instinct to just want someone else to be okay.
For three days nothing has seemed real.
When the 49 bells tolled at the vigil they hung in the air for hours. Each one sending a shock wave through the crowd as locals, news crews, and celebrities stood together blending tears with sweat in the Florida humidity.
People on the news say they are with us in Orlando and I still can't believe they're talking about the city I've lived in for almost ten years, the place I call home, the bar I grew up in. I find myself today picturing each corner of the club, wondering if there's still glitter on the floor. Wondering if we will ever truly begin to heal from a word I would have hoped to only hear in a gay club after a particularly brutal drag lip sync battle. Massacre.
But it's setting in, this happened...it really happened.
When early morning on the 12th turned into evening, we gravitated toward each other. Lost and afraid, as Darcel Stevens stood on the Disco Stage at The Parliament House. No day drag, no makeup, no heels. Just a large man with wet eyes trying to hold it together, telling us through strained breaths, "Babies, this is real, and I’m just not sure I have the words."
Coming from a queen who can turn a thirty-minute show into a two hour show just through her talent of interacting with the crowd, if a Darcel says there are no words, only silence and togetherness, then you know it's true.
We lost people in a place meant for fun, love, and acceptance. There are no platitudes comforting enough. No drink specials or remixed songs to ease this pain. We are a city mourning in unison. We are a community covering our windows and storefronts in rainbow flags that may never come down.
Taking in the view from three days since that night, we will continue to cry, as we reluctantly embrace our newfound distinction as the location as one of America's largest mass shootings. But I know one day Orlando, glamor queen she is, will pull her wig down from the shelf and get back on stage. And when she does, we will not be afraid, we will be there with dollar bills.
Part Two: Five Years Later
The following words were written on January 15th, 2021
I can remember being patted down and scanned with a metal detecting wand outside of Southern Nights while traffic whizzed by on Bumby Ave. When I went to The Parliament House again, security was tight but the tips for performers flowed. Queens stood on either side of the stage picking cabbage from the grateful hands of a community who needed to learn how to smile again.
What sticks in my memory most is the strange uncertainty of every deep inhale among a southern metropolitan area suddenly decorated with rainbow flags. As the City of Orlando painted the arches of the Lake Eola amphitheatre in every shade of pastel, I still couldn’t pass the corner of Kaley Street and Orange Avenue without losing all the breath in my lungs. People were in the clubs again, we were trying to recover, but a proper exhale still felt far away.
Lying on the tall grass during Pride in October that first year, I heard the 49 names read before fireworks burst into iridescent rainbows across the night sky. The colorful explosions resonated not unlike the bells that had vibrated only months before. Faces of every shade and age played on a slideshow between the newly painted arches of the amphitheatre and each one looked familiar. I had probably seen them around town or in the clubs before, but I remember wishing I’d become acquainted with the victims under better circumstances.
On a warm June night, at the one year anniversary, angels with structured wings blocked us from hate as we all took in the art and painted stones at what had been transformed into a physical memorial. The pavement below my feet still shook like running from the parked car to the front door to make it there before the 11pm free cover ended, but the new energy of another sense of urgency pulled at my insides. People had run for a different reason in that parking lot and we were here to remember them.
Feeling the thunder beneath me, I wondered if I would see the guy who had broken my heart the June before. If we’d hug and finally verbalize the words we’d texted each other when we’d heard about what happened. But in the silence of the collected crowd, I couldn’t feel anything aside from tears on my cheeks and melted wax from remembrance candles dripping down my fingers. I peeled at the wax. I pushed a sleeve across my wet eyes. Maybe he’d moved away, but standing in the humid evening still waiting to breathe, it didn’t seem to matter anymore.
That wasn’t why I relocated to the desert. It wasn’t because I needed to escape the city I’d woven tightly with strips of my broken heart. When I found myself in Las Vegas it was the summer of 2018. Nearly two years to the day since the word “Pulse” had been changed from the name of a nightclub to a recognized synonym for tragedy.
Coworkers at the show on The Strip I started working for often grabbed my hands when I told them I had moved from Orlando. They looked in my eyes and we nodded to each other without the right words to say. This was a year after Sin City’s own gun-related hardship.
These coworkers told me their stories. How they had spent hours trapped inside a circus tent with hundreds of performers and guests while gunshots echoed from Mandalay Bay down the line of hotels and casinos. They huddled in their uniforms with people in suits and gowns, until the sun rose and the sounds finally stopped.
As different as the circumstances were, there was something we shared about living through a similar aftermath. That feeling of never truly knowing when things would be okay.
Miles from that venue, the LGBTQ+ Center in Vegas was so far off-strip I had to dodge cactus and tumbleweeds in the parking lot every week. Across from a gender-neutral bathroom inside where I met with queer writers, was a stretched banner that said, “Our Hearts are in Orlando.”
Volunteers at the front desk told me the banner had been hanging since June of 2016 and there were no plans to take it down. I told them when we heard about the shooting on October 1st, 2017, when they had worried for the safety of their own friends and family, Orlando had lent our hearts to them too.
Orlando Strong. Vegas Strong.
The vinyl bumper stickers on cars with glitter, poker chips, and playing cards around their license plates instead of oranges, fish, or Mickey Mouse reminded me every day then, this could happen anywhere. Even in cities designed for fun.
Working walking distance from the site of another major tragedy wasn’t the reason I left the desert. After having lived in Orlando for a decade, I can’t explain what turned me into a nomad. But a few months ago, from over three-thousand miles away in Seattle, I watched Darcel Stevens say goodbye in a live video from the mainstage of another Orlando queer bar about to lay in ruins.
The details are different. It was capitalism, not hate, that set the demolition in motion. But from the evergreen trees and snowcapped mountains of the Pacific Northwest, my heart aches heavy for the queer people of Central Florida who keep losing their homes.
It was The Parliament House, the remodeled Rodeway Lodge that had welcomed everyone since the 1980s, who caught the tears of a community when Pulse went from night spot to monument. When she turned her last look to become a wall of memorials. A corner in the center of Orlando for queer people from across the world to pay their respects.
What I know for sure is, regardless of how often I get back to see the Lake Eola swans or grab a latte at one of the best independent coffee shops in the world, part of me will always live in the center of the Mills 50 district. The man I call my boyfriend now, understands.
Like me, he can describe every section of Downtown Orlando, Ivanhoe, and College Park. We can trade stories about nights spent at Pulse, even if we never met on the dance floor.
Not unlike the 49 people whose names I wish I had learned sooner... the ones who I probably clapped at a drag show next to, or waited in a bathroom line with… the people I so easily could have been among five years ago; we were part of the same community...even if we'd never shaken hands.
Sometimes I think about the black light paint on the mirrors at Pulse. I picture the paper lanterns that hung from the ceiling and how they swayed above smiling faces flecked with speckled disco ball light. My heart thumps in time with music I can still hear when I remember every corner of a space that changed my entire life.
I’m not totally sure when I started breathing again, but I do know, no matter where I am in this world, I will not forget that place or those people.
Three days, five years, forever.
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Arielle Haughee is the owner and founder of Orange Blossom Publishing.