» Nonfiction

Drew Ex Machina

…originally published in 40.2 of The Florida Review.


July 2, 2004

Pulse opened in Orlando, Florida, when I was nineteen and Drew had just turned twenty. We had met the first week of college, eleven months prior.


Drew danced like a maniac. Sometimes he would pull you up to him and slam his body against you. It was the same way he hugged. And tickled. With loving force, one might say.


We didn’t go to Pulse the night it opened. Instead, we spent the weekend in Clearwater with my family. We played Dance Dance Revolution at the mall, talked about doing a semester abroad in London, and danced in my room to Drew’s favorite song of the moment.


“Murder on the Dancefloor” by Sophie Ellis Bextor.


October 10, 2004

Pulse was remarkably non-Orlando-esque, according to Drew. Since I had only been to gay clubs in Orlando and Tampa, I didn’t have much basis for comparison. But I trusted Drew when he told me this was what the clubs in bigger cities were like.


Our favorite was the white room. He described it as “…rather miraculously immaculate. You’re not quite sure if the walls are windows, mirrors, or projection screens. Hoorah for ambiguous decor!”


I loved the whimsical way he would describe things.


April 13, 2005

“Club partners for life!” we screamed at each other on the dancefloor that entire night at Pulse. And then the next night at Firestone. Whenever we were together, a ten-foot wall couldn’t have kept people from wanting to spend time with us.


That’s the way we liked it.


Drew was like a soul-brother to me. Maybe it was because we were both Geminis (and he would swear to you this was exactly the reason). Maybe it was because we both had endless amounts of energy. I didn’t care what it was. I could have gone out with him every single night.


That year, it seemed like I did.


April 23, 2005

We attempted to crash Grad Nite at Disney World.


We talked about it for weeks. We would join up with the group from my high school because they had extra tickets. It would work out because we both still looked like we could have been in high school.


It failed because my friend on the bus never answered her phone. I am a terrible liar, but attempted to pretend that Drew and I were separated from our group. The manager took us to the Grad Nite ticket counter and once they looked up my high school, our plans were thwarted. He was laughing hysterically while I was on the verge of having a panic attack for lying and nearly getting caught.


We talked about crashing Grad Nite every April. We swore that one year, we would finally succeed.


We had infinite chances, right? We would look seventeen and eighteen forever, right?


May 1, 2005

From Drew’s journal. Gemini’s horoscope: You’ve never understood people who refuse to try new things. In your mind, even if you give something a shot and it doesn’t work out, it’s still better than being bored. That attitude is about to come in plenty handy, thanks to an interesting new friend who’ll bring you the opportunity to broaden your horizons. If your passport isn’t current, better see what you can do about that. You may end up with an invitation to travel.


A song lyric from one of his favorite bands, The Pet Shop Boys, comes to mind. We were never bored because we were never boring. Using the past tense still hurts.


November 6, 2005

Another excerpt from Drew’s journal. I told him he should write a story about this. How right and how wrong he was.


I imagine the end of humankind not to be in the form of a nuclear winter, a massive AIDS virus, or the evaporation of natural resources. Instead, I see the men and women of this earth reaching a quiet, still end.


Terribly, suddenly, all women would become infertile. At first, there would be a race to find a cure. All the scientists would rally together around this one cause — the fight for the survival of our species.


But eventually, hope would dwindle… the young would grow old, the old, older. Nightclubs and coffee shops and college campuses would close down, religions and governments would grow quiet. There would be no war or famine. The last remaining people would lie down in silence, no one watching. The end of humankind would be gone. In a whisper.


The future wouldn’t have much meaning to this sort of people. The only thing left after their departure would be the good things, and bad things, that humanity has done. The only way they could find peace would be to make amends to the world.


I’m not sure that they could.


I’m not sure they could, either.


April 30, 2006

Something I remember about Drew is that he was always down on himself. About his looks, about not fitting in with “the gay community.” I often felt similarly. It was hard to finally find a community, but to feel like you didn’t necessarily belong to it.


I wish he knew just how beautiful he was. I think he found that after college.


“Do not wish to be anything but what you are, and try to be that perfectly” was his personal motto. He did do it perfectly, however painful or awkward it may have been.


November 16, 2006

Diva Invasion was a huge drag show put on by UCF’s GLBSU every year. I was one of the event planners and had convinced my mom to join us.


I remember watching her laugh while grabbing one of the drag queen’s boobs. She said it was unfair that they were nicer than her own.


The after-party that night was at Pulse. My mom bought all of my friends a round of martinis. While Drew and our other friend, Christopher, were busy dancing with my mom Night at the Roxbury-style, my girlfriend and I snuck off to make out in the bathroom because it was a safe place to do so.


April 16, 2007

The Virginia Tech shooting was something that felt so close to home, yet so far away.


How? Why? These were the questions that kept popping up. These were the questions we would continue to ask for years to come. How could someone do this? Why aren’t there tighter gun laws?


Drew wrote: I’m feeling kind of shaken about the events at Virginia Tech today. I didn’t find out until I got home from class and went into the office. At first I didn’t really understand what was going on. Now I’m feeling like I could cry about it.


It’s hard trying to find a balance between caring and understanding (how could we?), and distancing yourself from the situation, passing it off as just another 32 bodies; as lifeless, heavy sculptures, as silence.


But, are we even supposed to try and find a balance? Are our emotions honestly constructed so mechanically?


[The] bodies weren’t enough. The implications of this could be so much more.


Sociologists will be happy. Not since Hitler has a mass murderer given so much fodder to disassemble and analyze. Maybe we’ll get inside the mind of a killer, but at what cost?


January 20, 2008

“You’re already in New York! All you need is a monkey and a popcorn machine!”


That was Drew’s response to my mini-existential crisis while I was deciding between psychology and writing graduate programs. After graduating from UCF, I’d packed up my entire life and moved to New York to live with my family for a while before figuring it out.


Instead of figuring it out or becoming a street performer per Drew’s suggestion, I fled the country and backpacked through Europe for six weeks.


Sometime in 2010

I had finally chosen writing for my graduate degree and stayed in NYC to pursue it. Sometime in 2010, Drew and I had a falling out. I don’t remember the specifics because this is how juvenile it was.


He was a die-hard anti-Apple Android fanatic.


He bought an iPod.


I made a joke about him buying an iPod.


That turned into a heated argument. He told me my “literature” “made his eyes bleed.”


I told him that a therapist should be more sane than his patients.


And we didn’t speak for several years.


June 2011

Every Monday, I would meet my New York friends at either Stonewall or Duplex. We would drink on the cheap at both places and play Guitar Hero at Duplex.


It was odd to think about drinking and dancing at a place with so much historical context.  In fact, I’m not sure I even thought about it at the time. The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street is where the riots started that set the tone for the entire LGBT movement. But by now, as at Pulse, we felt safe there.


When we played Guitar Hero, there were a few times that I thought of Drew. I remembered, very vividly, a photo of him, Christopher, and our other friend Andrea. They were sitting on my couch the night of Christopher’s twentieth birthday. Drew had just bought him the game.


I thought about it, but I didn’t reach out. Twenty-somethings can be like that.


September 6, 2014

After pacing back and forth through the Barnes & Noble on Colonial eight times, I sat down in the cafe and pulled out my phone. I had moved away from Orlando six years prior. I lived in New York, Alabama, and was now living in Denver.


I had just gone through my usual series of unfortunate events post-breakup:

find a rebound,


be hurt by the rebound,

regret breaking up with my original girlfriend to begin with.


I hated that I was in Orlando. Somehow, the humidity made the hurt feel worse. Somehow, it made me feel more stuck.


Drew was the first person I texted. He and I hadn’t seen each other in a couple of years because of the iPod debacle, but had begun speaking again from our respective parts of the country. He texted me back immediately, and just-so-happened to have been in the same shopping center.


“Fair warning: I look like shit,” he said.


“Fair warning: Same,” I responded.


We sat and talked for two hours before deciding to head back to his apartment. He lived around the corner and wanted to show me his place and force me to play Dance Dance Revolution with him—something I hadn’t done since college.


That evening, it felt like no time had passed. We talked about all of our silly college inside jokes, read the DSM, watched a bit of Eurovision, and took some photos together.


He still had the mug I made him for his birthday, years prior. It showcased photos of us from the evening we tried to sneak into Grad Nite at Disney in 2005.


After I left his apartment, I got a text message: “You left your sunglasses here!”


I responded for him to hold on to them. I’d get them from him the next time I saw him, which would, we hoped, be sooner than several years.


We were better at staying in touch, but didn’t see each other for a year and a half because I was living in Denver and he was still in Orlando. I had no idea how, of all of our friends, he was still the one to remain there. He always talked about moving but never pulled the trigger.


May 29, 2016

After spending two days texting back and forth about plans, Drew and I finally agreed to meet for brunch on Sunday. I finally got to meet Juan, the beautiful boyfriend in all of his photos.


We met at International Plaza in Tampa and went to The Cheesecake Factory for lunch because I couldn’t make it to Orlando. We, of course, made fun of ourselves the entire time. I think “Tampa’s finest!” was the caption on the Snapchat I added to my story. That afternoon was the first time I’d seen him in over a year. He and Juan were so cute together. It looked like they shared a wardrobe, which I found out­—they did. Drew seemed more calm. Way more calm than I’d ever seen him.


He still hugged me too hard. He still made an “mmm” sound when he did it. The way he hugged made me feel like he was hugging me with different senses. Can you taste a hug? I bet he could.


He felt older that day. We felt older that day. And not just because I had just turned thirty-one and he was about to turn thirty-two. Another thing we had in common was what some would call a “Peter Pan Complex.” It served us well. On my thirtieth birthday, he wrote to me saying, Welcome to the first day of the “wow, there is no way you’re actually 30!” club.


Before parting ways, he gave me back my neon green sunglasses. He’d held onto them for a year and a half.


June 10, 2016

How about the weekend of July 8th? We can go to Global Dance Festival at Red Rocks!


This was the last discussion I had with Drew. I was about to buy my tickets for the weekend-long dance music festival in Colorado. I had already begun planning out our entire weekend; all the vegetarian restaurants and breweries I’d take them to, a beautiful hike or two, and, yes—a gay club.


I warned them when I was sitting with them drinking strawberry lemonade in Tampa: If you come to visit me in Denver, you’ll end up wanting to move.


“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Drew said with a smile.


June 12, 2016

The morning of June 12, I woke up inundated by text messages and missed calls. I defaulted to text messages, even though three of the missed calls were from my mother.


“Oh my god, I am so so so sorry Sara” was the first one I read.


“How are you holding up? I am so sad to hear about Orlando.”


“My thoughts are with you. I can’t believe what happened.”


“Have you heard from Drew?!”


Eight hours earlier, I was sleepwalking. My dog barked to go out at about one in the morning, and I sleepily walked to the door, put his leash on, walked down the stairs, and walked him around the block. A neighbor screamed my name, and I distinctly remember telling her I was sleepwalking.


That’s the thing about sleepwalking. Much like hypnosis, you are somewhat cognizant of what you are doing, but you can’t control it. I waved to her and kept walking around the block.


I came home, took Baxter’s leash off, put my sandals back where they belonged, and got back in bed.


At that very same time, one of my best friends from college was lying on the floor of Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. At that very same time, he and forty-eight other people—his boyfriend, Juan, included—were being shot by a madman with a military-style assault weapon. And killed.


After reading the text messages and not having a clue what anyone was sending me condolences about, I opened Facebook. There were several more messages waiting for me there. But the first thing I saw when I opened the app was Drew’s mother, Christine. All over Facebook. All over the news. She was in tears. She had heard about the shooting right after it happened and, while Juan was already at the hospital being treated for gunshot wounds, Drew was still nowhere to be found.


I was hoping, like many of the rest of us, that he was just in shock and hiding somewhere. But for him to not check in on social media or answer his text messages? Unlikely. I sent him a text message at 8:57 a.m. MST: “ARE YOU OKAY?!?!?!”


That would be the last text message I sent him.


I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I couldn’t be alone. A week prior, I had begun dating someone new. And as soon as she woke up, she asked if I needed her to come over. No questions asked.


So she did. She lay in bed with me while I obsessively checked my phone, texted with my friends from college, and took phone calls from my friends and family. They were looking for answers.


I didn’t have any.


Twelve anxiety-inducing hours went by before anyone had any information. All day, I spoke with other people from our college friend group. My friends called me crying. As the hours dragged on, my hope that Drew was in shock and hiding grew dim.


All I could think about was the heat and humidity and the bodies. The blood all over the walls of the white room at Pulse. The couch that we used to sit on and take photos. I couldn’t believe they would take so long to remove the victims, considering the weather conditions.


Then I thought about how maybe it was a homophobic issue. How maybe they had to take extra time because it was a gay club and it was gay blood and, even though we are in 2016, there are still laws barring gay men from donating blood.


This is the way my anxiety thoughts work. These are the things that scamper across my brain constantly.


I couldn’t do much that day besides stare at the one police scene photo that was on every news story. The blue and red lights together created this amethyst, purplish color.


It somehow felt better than blue and red.


June 14, 2016

I went to the vigil in Denver that Monday. Besides the rainbow over the park, I found absolutely no solace in being there. I hated every moment of it. The executive director of the LGBT nonprofit I used to work for made it all about him.


All about his experience.


All about Denver.


All about a community who didn’t know Drew. All about people who had never been to Pulse. All about people who may not have ever even been to Orlando.


I felt selfish for thinking this way, which triggered more anxiety. I texted my other best friend from college, Christopher. He was at a vigil in Houston. I assumed he was feeling similarly.


Pulse Nightclub was a place in Orlando that I went to every week in college. Sometimes twice a week. Oftentimes with Drew.


When it was time to light the candle at the vigil, all I could do was watch the wax drip down. All I could do was feel the pathetic fallacy of the rain and hear the pitter-patter of the raindrops against umbrellas and ponchos.


I still didn’t cry. I felt like I was still sleepwalking.


June 15, 2016

I spent the day trying to make travel plans for myself and Christopher because he was working in the clinic all day.


The city of Orlando came together in a huge way that week. Several airlines donated flights and many hotels worked with the city Chamber of Commerce to help those who were grieving.


I booked our flights and hotel, completely free of charge, while on a hike with my friend Becca. She convinced me that getting outside and climbing a mountain would help.


When we got to the top, we sat back to back on a rock and looked out at the wilderness below us. I couldn’t help but be terrified about the next few days and how they would play out. I had only been to funerals of people who lived full lives. Who died of old age.


And still, I sleepwalked down the mountain.


That evening, the new girl I was dating came over and sat with me while I made bracelets for my friends. They said THEDRUPROJECT, which was Drew’s Internet handle for everything. I didn’t know how else to keep busy. I didn’t know where to put this sad energy.


It was as if he created the memorial for himself while he was still alive. He was always working on himself. He was always a project in progress.


June 16, 2016

When I arrived at the airport and checked in, I tried to muster the words to thank the people who worked for the airline who flew us for free.


Instead, they thanked me. They told me how sorry they were. They walked me through the airport. They gave me a voucher for food and drink. They put me on the airplane first.


I was sleepwalking then, too. I was moving through the airport, nodding my head, saying the words back that seemed like the words I needed to say.


I don’t remember any of them.


I remember landing at the airport in Orlando. I remember getting my bag. I remember getting in my friend Ashley’s car and her driving me to the hotel.


But it was all a blur. I felt as though I was peering through the eyes of someone else. Someone who was grieving. I wanted to extend my sympathy to this caricature of myself.


When I got to our room, I hugged Christopher for a good five minutes. Resting my head on his chest felt right. It was the first thing that had felt right in days.


June 17, 2016

The morning of the wake, Christopher and I walked across the street to the memorial set up at the Dr. Phillips Center.


There were photos of all forty-nine victims. Tons of flowers. Rainbow flags. Emotional support dogs from Alabama, even. People from all over the country were there, paying their respects.


I hung one of THEDRUPROJECT bracelets on the photo of Drew.


We went to lunch. Slowly, people came to meet us. Slowly, we made our way through the day until it was time to go to the wake.


“Will you walk up to the casket with me?” Christopher asked. “I need to see him. It’ll be some sort of closure.”


I agreed, but felt funny about it. I had never been to an open-casket wake or funeral. I wanted to be his support, though.


The wake was a procession of friends from my past. I hadn’t seen most of these people since graduating. We all sat around, watching the slideshow of photos from college. We shared Drew stories.


I hugged his mom for as long as I could. I had no idea how she was smiling. How she was comforting other people.


Christopher and I waited until the very last second before walking up to the casket. The wake ended at 8:00 p.m. and we approached at 7:30. The second I looked, I finally broke down and cried. Because looking at his body in a casket—the first body in a casket I’d ever seen—was like visiting a wax figure museum and seeing a cheap knockoff of a celebrity I once loved.


That was not how I wanted to remember him.


After the viewing, I went and got a tattoo of a phrase I’d been thinking about for five or six years: deus ex machina. The literal meaning is “machine from god.” In literature or theater, it is a plot device–a random character is dropped into the story to guide it to a happy ending.


I sent a note Drew had written to a friend of mine who does lettering for a publishing company. She pulled out all of the letters to create the phrase just perfectly.


He’s my Drew ex machina now.


June 18, 2016

“You and Drew were my first friends in the gay community.”


“You made me feel safe to come out.”


“The way the two of you welcomed any new friend into your group had such an incredible impact.”


“Thank you.”


A lot of people came up to me at the funeral or the days leading up to it to tell me versions of that. I had no idea that’s how we were viewed. I had never even thought about it. I’m sure he hadn’t, either. We might have been self-conscious and felt like we never fit in while in college, but nobody would keep us from being our authentic selves—whatever that was.


I don’t remember much from the funeral itself. Being inside of a church made me rather uncomfortable, if I’m being honest. It was a Catholic service inside of an Episcopal church, but what difference did it make? When it was time to take the cracker, neither my mother nor I knew what to do. So, two Jews went up to the altar and had a snack.


It was disgusting. The cracker, death, being at a friend’s funeral, the lack of gun laws, all of it.


July 17, 2016

Today, one day short of a month since the funeral, was the first day that I forgot to wear my THEDRUPROJECT bracelet.


I noticed I had forgotten it as I was walking to my car, but didn’t stop to go back because it would have made me late. It did make me pause, though.


It made me pause like so many moments in the first month post-Pulse. Like the moments where I had panic attacks in enclosed public spaces because I was afraid of being shot. Like the moments where I thought of something I wanted to tell Drew and couldn’t. Like the moments where I paused to reflect on how Congress could have turned down four common sense gun law initiatives while contemplating even one of the 200+ pieces of legislation that were proposed to discriminate against the LGBT community.


When will we, as a country, stop sleepwalking and do something? Remembering is simply not enough. Remembering is what we do.


I will never receive a too-hard hug again because we haven’t done enough. I will never be able to send my friend a song I know he would like because we haven’t done enough. I will never be forced to watch Eurovision or play Dance Dance Revolution again because we haven’t done enough.


We need to do more than just remember.


August 12, 2016

Another anniversary. It’s been exactly two months. It somehow simultaneously feels like two days and two years and it feels like a Sisyphean nightmare where I finally feel like I am okay before a find out a new detail or something reminds me of him or I just do that thing I do where I spend an hour looking at photos of him and I have to go chasing after the boulder as it races back down the mountain. Call it sleeprunning.


I know it’s not productive.


But neither was trying to eat 63% of a container of melon the other day. His mother posted on Facebook that his heart weighed 250 grams. No mother should know that. Nobody should know that. But now I knew, and it was a matter of time before something triggered me into needing to find out how tangibly how much that actually is.


The thing ended up being a container of pre-cut melon I bought the other day. I took it out of the fridge to have a few pieces and when I was putting it back, I noticed the container said 680 grams. I stopped everything else I was working on or doing or thinking about and stared at the container for a good several minutes before delving in and trying to eat as much of it as I could. I needed to have exactly 63% of it. Because then it would weigh 250 grams. And then I could feel what Drew’s heart felt like.


I couldn’t force myself to eat enough of the melon, so I took it out of the container.


I stood in my kitchen and held the container.


And immediately felt shame. What a morbid thing to have done. All I can wonder is when I will wake up or the boulder will just stay put long enough for life to feel normal again for more than a few days—for the anniversaries not to seem like every 12th, every Sunday, every day.


Sara Elizabeth Grossman

Sara Elizabeth Grossman is an alumna of the University of Central Florida's undergraduate Creative Writing program and earned her MFA at The New School in New York. Her work has been published in Narrative Magazine, Blunderbuss, and The Battered Suitcase, among others. She is Communications Manager for the Matthew Shepard Foundation and is on the board of The Dru Project, a nonprofit advocating for and providing curriculum for gay-straight alliances in high schools and which was founded the day after Drew Leinonin's funeral. She lives in Denver, Colorado.