by Delaney Rose
A couple of years ago, when I was 23, I lived in Orlando for a year. I was mostly holed up in my apartment studying for my graduate degree or playing video games. When I did go out and socialize, it was a big deal. I chose my outfits and the places I went with friends carefully.
I wasn’t a huge fan of crowds or loud noises, but I had always wanted to go to a gay club and see what that scene was like. Once my friends introduced me to Pulse, I went there whenever I could. The colors were soft and bright, the music was good, the atmosphere was relaxed but still changed with fun energy, and the drinks were affordable with a friendly staff to serve them. Even an introvert could open up and have fun in that environment, especially with a gin and tonic in hand.
After I moved back to Tampa, I stopped going to clubs, and not just because I’m a nerd. The clubs here aren’t as relaxed or quite as much fun, and I have missed Pulse ever since. I always wanted to take my girlfriend there, but she lived in Tampa when I was in Orlando, and when we did get to visit each other, we stayed in to relax and spend quality time alone.
This morning at 9 AM, I woke up next to her, and we cuddled and talked for a bit before turning on our computers and phones. She heard about it first. She showed me the headlines with her mouth open, unsure of how to react, “Mass Shooting at a Gay Club in Orlando,” “20 dead in Mass Shooting,” “Worst Shooting in Recent History.”
I saw the fright in her face and clung to her. I knew she was thinking–it could have been me in some random Orlando club and a random shooting. When we hugged, I felt her shaking, and realized I was shaking too. I asked her which nightclub it was, and she said, “Pulse.” My whole body went cold.
I remembered a conversation Jenna and I had a few days before while she put on makeup and I stood nearby, watching.
“I used to be afraid to cut my hair short,” she said. “People told me I would look too butch, and that that was bad. That being visibly gay was bad.”
I chuckled, “Since when does a woman having short hair mean she’s gay?”
Jenna shrugged, “It doesn’t at all, but I didn’t want to draw more attention to myself than I had to.” She smiled at herself in the mirror, admiring her stunning new pixie cut and how well it frames her face. She ran her fingers through her hair. “But, you know, no one is really safe. When we were attacked, I had long hair.”
Last year in a Target parking lot as we were leaving the store, someone slung a jar of pee at us. She’s always suspected it’s because when we walked into the store, we’d been holding hands.
Jenna smiled at her reflection, “I figure it’s best just to be yourself. I’m glad I’ve been expressing myself more.”
I had smiled back, “I am too.”
This morning, as Jenna got ready to go volunteer at the local hospital, I updated her on the news. “There are 50 deaths now, honey. Fifty-three injured. They’re saying it’s the worst mass shooting in history. There are pictures of Columbine on the articles. I guess it’s worse than that. My god, I hope no one I know was there.”
Jenna shuddered. “Oh, my God!”
We had been talking about whether or not to go to PRIDE this year. Last year we didn’t go, but this year we were making plans for what to wear and which city’s events to attend. Now, we’re frightened. This isn’t the first time an act of violence has happened close to me. I grew up a block away from the Penn State campus, and I was a child when nineteen-year-old Jillian Robbins crouched under a shrub in camouflage gear, aimed a rifle across the HUB lawn, picked off students on their way to class. A few days before, she had tried to check herself into a mental hospital, only to be turned away because her insurance didn’t cover it. My parents shuddered to think that we could have been gunned down right where we threw Frisbees for our dogs.
The year I started my graduate program, there was a shooting at FSU campus in the library. Even though I attended classes remotely, friends and family members who lived out of state were making sure I was okay.
All too recently, the shooting at UCLA terrified me because my cousin was celebrating the end to an amazing Freshman year at school. For hours, I wasn’t sure she was safe and hadn’t heard a thing for her. Thank goodness, she was.
The Pulse shooting, though, felt different, worse to me than any because of the scale of it, and founded on so much hatred. Pulse was a place where anyone could feel safe, where you could be yourself. I could be as silly and open as I wanted, could dance freely without fear of being judged. If someone flirted with me, it was always polite. I had never felt as safe in a club or a bar. I wonder how many others felt the same way about that place.
And Pulse wasn’t just any nightclub. The owner’s brother had died of AIDS, and the club was made in his honor. It was named for his heartbeat, to keep his heart “beating.” They did a lot to raise AIDS awareness and prevention in the community.
I called my mother after Jenna left for volunteering. I had been holding it together surprisingly well, but once she left, and I was alone, I was devastated. I told my mom what had happened, and that I used to go to Pulse. I pulled up pictures of ads for the night club on my computer. I looked at the rooms where I once danced, at the faint glows of the lights, selfies taken by excited patrons in rainbow clothes. I found an ad stating that last night was Latinx night. As I talked to her, I began to cry. “The world still isn’t safe for people like me. Or for a lot of people.”
She said, “This kind of thing can happen anywhere to any group; it DOES happen anywhere to any group. It’s awful.”
“How can I be sure I’m safe?”
“You can’t. You just keep living and loving and doing what you can to protect yourself and the people you love.”
All day I’ve been trying to find a way to cope with the fear I’m feeling. I can report that taking solace in fudge doesn’t help. The fudge will not taste that good. Coffee will make you more jittery. Jazz music can help. Calling people can help. Seeing notifications flood in that your friends are safe will help. Getting texts from friends and seeing pictures on your newsfeed of friends giving blood can help. When you find an open donation center in your area and they state that they are “at capacity,” that can really help. There are so many more loving people than hateful ones.
Knowing that, in a few hours, your partner will be home for you to cling to helps. Hiding doesn’t help.
Neither does denial. In my little sheltered American life, I’ve lived through bomb threats, lockdowns, and a few shootings. Most were false alarms. Some kid called in a bomb threat to get out of a test, or a general threat was made to the entire county. An “armed gunman” turned out to be someone from the color guard whose fake rifle was mistaken for a real one by someone. I always figured statistics were on my side.
Tragedy like this, especially when it strikes so near, can make us all afraid again. I hope I find the strength not to become more frightened than I need to be. I hope I still go to PRIDE on my pixie-cut girlfriend’s arm. I hope I can hold her hand in public whenever I want, but when a place you loved and thought safe is destroyed like this, it’s hard. Right now I’m still checking my phone, hoping to get updates from friends in Orlando who haven’t posted yet, and thinking of all of them. I hope they’re okay. I hope their friends are okay, too. But I know, for sure, that there are many people finding out their loved ones are not okay. That’s what hurts more than anything.
After getting off the phone with my mom, in spite of the fact that part of me was sure it was better if I stayed indoors, I resolved to go to the grocery store. As I ventured out, I remembered one day during my freshman year at USF when I was walking to class, my phone vibrated with a notification of an armed gunman on campus. I kept walking to class even though I became aware the campus was deserted. The few students who showed up to class were greeted by an informal lockdown and no professor. She couldn’t get on campus because the entrance was closed off. No one could leave or enter. We sat in our seats, answering calls from frightened family members, trying to quell their fears, brainstorming what we’d do if the gunman burst in, dive on the floor and belly to safety or jump him from behind, each of us believing we’d figure it out, do the brave thing, the smart thing, survive. After two hours in lockdown with no news, we got antsy. Our phones and computers were dying.
The guy behind me leaned over and said, “Are you ready to go home too?”
“Buddy system?” he asked.
We bumped fists, gathered our things, and headed out.
The campus was empty and dead quiet. Police lights flashed in the distance. It was overcast and looked like rain.
We walked together at a leisurely pace.
“Thanks for leaving with me,” he said, “I didn’t want to go alone. I just wanted to get home.”
I smiled, “No worries. I don’t think anything will happen.” But we didn’t know. And we didn’t know if anyone had been hurt, or was being hurt, even as we walked. We were simply trusting–no, proving to each other–that there are so many more loving people than hateful ones. “They must have him by now.”
He laughed, “Yeah, I guess so. You looked about as done with all of this was I was, so I figured you’d want to leave.”
He walked me to my dorm room. As we parted ways. I said, “Thanks for being my buddy.”