binding we

…originally published in 40.2 of The Florida Review.


you have declared war on our bodies, and our bodies

have fallen on each other in piles

along the gravel and the wood

and the tile of a dance floor

and these holy spaces have become our graves

and the sidewalks our pyres because we are burning up

from our no and our why and our no more


we, our breasts, our bodies,

in all their shapes and sizes are heaving

in piles on one another, breathing

the force of love enough to hold the parts of us we do not

recognize, enough to stretch the parts we hold dear


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.


Where Do All the Dead Names Go?

…originally published in 40.2 of The Florida Review.


Three days after the shooting, I walked into my therapist’s office. She said, “Talk.” I didn’t know what to say. What do you tell people, after something like that? Do I tell them how when I was nineteen and barely out, I walked doe-eyed into Pulse with X’s on my hands and the hope that a girl might ask me to dance? Do I tell them that I felt safe to be myself for the first time, that we were all there for the same reason—to be open and unafraid? That we were all untouchable, then, and even though I left without a dance I understood that this was a place I could always go.


Do I tell them that people like me are more than twice as likely to be victims of violent crimes? Sometimes you forget that there are people out there who want you dead. They want you to die. Every day I am alive is an act of defiance. What do I tell people?


How do I tell them what it was like, waiting to hear from friends who’d gone out that night? Answering messages to let people know I was alive. I was not there, but God, I could have been. I could have been with friends on the dance floor, sweating to music, spilling the secret that I had a crush on a friend who was dating another friend, rushing out to the patio bar to avoid a girl I slept with once who never called me again, stuffing dollars down the briefs of a young dancer. Ordering a vodka and cranberry. Admiring the shot girl’s legs. Dancing so hard that I got hungry and stumbled across the street to order fries off the value menu at Wendy’s. I could have been.


In the days after the shooting, I had an older gay woman put her hand on my shoulder and tell me it shouldn’t have happened. That she and others marched and protested in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s so that now people like me would be safe. It should have been us, she said. Not you, not you.


How do I tell them that my brother was one of the first responders? That a man’s bullet came for his skull but instead got his helmet. That he came home with blood on his boots. How do I tell them how much he cares? Would he run into the building again, knowing a bullet was coming for him? A thousand times over. I want them to know him, to know that his hair curls tight like mine, that his favorite film is The Empire Strikes Back, that he’s a vegetarian. He’s my brother. Those first few days after, I had to prove to myself over and over again that he was still alive. I felt like I had to protect him. I’m part of the Pulse community, but also knit into the world of law enforcement. I don’t think about what should have been done. Did the police take too long? Did they not want to go in because the people trapped inside were queer? No. No. Maybe people don’t remember the UpStairs Lounge arson attack. Thirty-two gay men burned to death in 1973 at a gay bar in New Orleans. A man’s charred remains were visible to onlookers hanging from a window well into the next day. Press was minimal, jokes were made on talk radio. The police called them queers. No one was arrested. The case was eventually closed. Pulse was not the UpStairs Lounge. This is not 1973. Things are not how they were. This was not the UpStairs Lounge. My brother, and every single one of his fellow officers cared. At least that much is different. At least I know that.


When we were alone, finally, I laid my head against my brother’s chest and listened to the beat of his heart. Every steady pulse saying I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here. I listened to the pulse I almost lost, remembered the Pulse I did lose.


And later, alone in my room, I sat in silence and mourned for the forty-nine heartbeats that no longer were. The heartbeats of my other brothers and sisters. I repeated their names, struggled on pronunciations and felt the syllables twist my tongue, and now those names live forever in the spaces between my teeth.


How do I explain?—I want to know where all the dead names go. I want to know who swallows them. I cannot. I want to ask, when will it okay for me to move on? How do I carry these ghosts on my back? I can’t imagine putting them down—I’ve already promised to hold them forever. They are mine now. I carry their heartbeats in mine. I wish I could say I am not afraid, but there are days I am terrified. I have been practicing being unafraid since the moment I cut my hair and took the hand of a girl I loved on a crowded street. I am starting to understand that is something I will have to practice all my life.


Dancing in the Dark

…originally published in 40.2 of The Florida Review.


The headlight fell off again. It’s a little sooner than expected, but I’m not altogether surprised. When it rains, water creeps under the packing tape securing it to my car, gradually weakening the adhesive so that over a few days it peels off completely, leaving me driving ten MPH under the speed limit and dragging my front left headlight down the road by its cord like a stubborn dog that’s got its own ideas about where we need to go, which currently is the nearest CVS and quick.


I’ve been making excuses for not fixing it for the past six months, since I lost control of my steering wheel at a Pollo Tropical and careened into the white picket fence bordering the restaurant’s friendly front doors, bulldozing a family of shrubs along the way. Seated in the wreck, I counted down the seconds wondering when someone would emerge from the building to ask me if I was okay, or at least scold me for driving with headphones on, but no one seemed bothered. Unsure of a proper course of action to take and growing more annoyed that no one had as much as pointed and laughed at me, I stepped out of my car and tip-toed toward the fence to survey the damage. No harm done. The shrub had simply been pushed to a lean, like it had clocked out for its smoke break and would be back to work in a minute. Except for the fallen headlight, my car, too, seemed blithely unfazed by the accident, so with no one to answer to, I went on with my day, driving to work savoring my stale Get-Out-Of-Jail-For-Crashing-Into-a-Global-Conglomerate card.


Ever since, it’s been all “You’ll fix it with your next paycheck” and “It’s not like the light doesn’t work. At least now it has character.” Even more dumbfounding, my stepfather is a former mechanic and I have a close friend who recently repaired my taillights who would be delighted to help with the headlight problem, yet I don’t ask either of them for help. Part of me believes I deserve this headache, as if by getting away with crashing into the Pollo Tropical, I owe it to the universe as cosmic penance to be burdened with this slight inconvenience.


It’s not just the Pollo Tropical. Three years earlier my legacy of driving into things that are not roads began when my right front tire collided with a curb on a side street outside of Pulse, the Orlando gay bar with the least accessible parking, almost all next-to-impossible parallel spaces. Inspecting the damage with my fingertips and feeling the rubber only barely dip where it had scraped the concrete, I thought, “Idiot. You are such a lucky idiot.” Add to my cosmic debt the time I almost drowned in the community pool in my uncle’s apartment complex when I was ten. When I got a flat driving home from school and my car skidded down a six-lane road and glided neatly into a ditch. Being rushed to the emergency room after donating blood and fainting just steps outside of the Big Red Bus in full sight of a team of nurses. And being gay, because—despite the rush of revolt I get when I put on my patent leather boots and silk floral blouses in the morning—I am often confronted with the irrational idea that I’ve survived being gay. Irrational because surviving being gay seems like such an antiquated notion. My generation doesn’t survive being gay. This is 2016. My mother watches Ellen. Ellen watches Modern Family. A drag queen has a single on the Billboard dance charts. Even so, when I got the call from my best friend that a man had walked into Pulse, our Pulse, and used his gun to do what guns do, I was again thrust into acknowledging the harsh truth that I have survived being gay.


I don’t want to ask myself what I would have done had I been inside of Pulse between 2:02 and 5:15 a.m., yet I still do. “Would you have made it?” I find myself wondering while doing the dishes, surrendering to my pesky ego. “Would he have looked at you and seen something worth sparing?” In these moments of selfishness, I am the universe’s incontinent pet and it is shoving my face into a puddle of my urine, trying to house train me by asking, “Why do this? What are you going to learn from this mess?”


A coworker, a classmate, a woman at a garage sale noncommittally perusing through a copy of Atlas Shrugged all are interested: “Did any of your friends die?” Each time, my face is pressed back down to the floor. “Why do you ask?” I want to know. “Do you really think this is going to get us anywhere?” Each time, I could say no, thank you for asking, and maybe attribute my apparent sudden weakness to something else, perhaps a potassium deficiency, anything that would give me a valid reason to grieve when none of my best friends are dead at Pulse.


In the chaos of the first few days after the shooting, when there are still phones inside of Pulse ringing, a nagging pang in the back of my head follows me wherever I go, questioning my certainty that everyone I know is safe. In describing this doubt to a friend, I tell him that I feel like Catherine O’Hara in Home Alone. I am at the airport running towards my gate, already late for my flight, when suddenly it hits me: Kevin. The people I love the most are accounted for. My best friends are safe, I believe, but what about Kevin? Am I forgetting Kevin?


I remember a night at Pulse several years ago—the same night I rammed into the curb. It’s the week of my twenty-first birthday and I’m electrified by the power of gay spaces, partly because I can finally legally order a drink at Pulse. I rush home after the club to write in my diary, still buzzing from too many well cocktails and schmaltzy after some of my first public flirting with being a gay man. I recall a vow I made with myself that I would only drink one beer so that if my tire was deflated by the time I got back to it at the end of the night, at least I would be sober, and how I promptly broke that promise when I ran into my ex-boyfriend inside the club. Given the choice between being drunk on the phone with Triple A or lucid at Karaoke night with the guy that broke up with me over text message, I opt for an all-you-can-drink wristband and fall in love with the first cute guy I see. He’s a blur with a blond Mohawk and he’s punching at the air a few feet away from me on the dancefloor. Even in the dark I can make out how white his skin is, as if all the lights in the room have conspired to make him someone important. I’m not even beside him, but I’m already imagining us reading back to back in our country home in Connecticut and laying my head on his chest. I don’t introduce myself but I do Charleston a few times in his general vicinity which is just as good anyway as long as my goal is to drive home alone on a bad tire. I never get his name. All of my best friends are safe, but three years later, I worry about Kevin.


I could stretch the truth. Yes. To those who are curious if anyone I loved was there, I could describe the night I met one of the victims, not exactly a friend, but someone that I used to know. I could catalog the drinks it took me to grow the balls to walk up to him that night at Savoy, the gay bar popular for its aging go-go boys and $3 beers, the bar with the shotgun behind the counter that one of the bartenders once told a friend of mine is always kept loaded “just in case.” I could feign wonder at how despite not quite being drunk, I still found myself serendipitously falling into him, pretending to catch myself on his pleasantly toned arm that barely seemed to register the new weight of me. I could admit that the mixture of a recent breakup, liquor, and a tough pop song about life after love had me diving wholeheartedly into my own private rom-com. I could say that when I kissed him, silhouetted against the lurid neon lights spotlighting our half-empty glasses of booze, wrapping my body in his like this is what my arms were always meant to do, I thought, “Finally! So here is why it’s all been worth it.” I could recall his mouth, soft and sticky with cocktail syrup, so that when I took a step back to get a better look at him, late 20’s, with an impish grin that made him seem like he was keeping a good secret, I could still taste the lingering sweetness of him on my lips. I could tell them he had a boyfriend back then, watch their faces closely to see if that changes what they think about him now that they know he’s not perfect—this is a real man who is now gone. It wouldn’t matter, really. Either way, they would just be glad that I’m safe, that it wasn’t me, that I survived being gay.


The inquisitive woman at the garage sale who wants to know if any of my friends has died asks me for help piling her second-hand loot into the back of her car. “I’m so proud of your generation,” she says, handing me a trashcan designed to look like an antique apothecary jar to stow in her trunk. She looks at me warmly, adopting me in the way true parental spirits take in all stray children, and drives off satisfied, convinced that she has nothing to worry about. I would have never been there, not her sweet, chaste, not-that-kind-of-gay son. It’s almost like it never happened at all. But her story is wrong. She is too eager to get back to her daytime soaps, and her picture of me, of us, is not complete. It has been sanitized like the tools of the apothecary that inspired her fun, new trashcan.


Flashes of bad times come to me, too. A time, for instance, when I find myself in front of Jarred—from a year ago—with a half-naked twink in a full Rambo getup.


“Hey,” Jarred says. He turns to his friend and whispers loudly in his ear, “He’s friends with Michael.”


His friend appraises me up and down. “That would make sense.”


“Edgar’s an apathetic blogger,” Jarred goes on.


“I’m an apathetic blogger,” I say, testing the role out. I run”


“You’re short,” the friend says out of nowhere.


“I found your underwear under my bed the other day,” Jarred says.


I try to hide my disgust that he only just found the old briefs I abandoned in a whirlwind after we hooked up more than twelve months ago. “Congrats!” I almost say.


But Jarred isn’t finished. “I almost texted you, but I wasn’t sure it would have been appropriate.” They both giggle and elbow each other and roll their eyes.


“What do you do for a living?” Rambo asks.


“Nothing,” I say. “I’m not alive.”




“Did I upset you two?” I ask. “Because I don’t understand why you’re trying to be mean to someone who has done nothing to either of you.”


“I’m just a cunt,” the friend says, so genuine it hurts. “You have pretty teeth,” he adds.


Friends of mine have joked about how the catch-all slogan of late—Orlando Strong—sounds like a 5K marathon, disguising the unquestionable homophobia motivating the shooting with a baffling motto that sounds like a quote from The Incredible Hulk. “Orlando Strong!” The Hulk would bellow, tearing his lab coat to smithereens before growing three times his size and pounding on the bad guys. Erased is the queerness essential to the LGBTQ lives lost, replaced with generic calls to action to be McOrlando McUnited as if acknowledging our varying sexualities, genders, or authentic stories would make our lives any less worthy of reverence. Of representation, civil rights activist and author Audre Lorde wrote, “The visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which also is the source of our greatest strength.” I want to make myself visible. I need to be strong, not just #OrlandoStrong.


When I am fourteen, I wade into the full potential of my power when I tell my mother I am gay at a Saks Fifth Avenue. Even so, I prepare for this moment like a breakup, doing it in public in the hopes that she won’t make a scene. When I am sixteen, my history professor asks me to prove my worth, instructing our class to debate whether gay adoption should be legal, a debate in which I am the only student who believes I am not inherently a bad role model. At twenty-two, my best friend is sexually assaulted at another gay bar in Orlando. I am almost handcuffed for “disturbing the peace” after screaming at the officers called to the scene to stop laughing. For years, that is what being gay has felt like: disturbing everyone’s peace.


I have stripped off my mesh tank top to dance in midnight foam parties, undressed in cars tucked deep into parking garages with strange men I met on the internet, had my first kiss with a boy folded inside the lush red velvet curtain in sophomore drama rehearsal, a kiss so new and strained it felt like banging cutlery. Alongside all of this, I have survived being gay. Never tragically—always magnificently, absolutely fabulously. Still, I would be lying if I said I’ve gotten away with it unscathed. My queerness has, in fact, had its toll on me, a price of admission I can only imagine many closeted LGBTQ youth are skeptical of paying in the wake of so much hate. Even when it doesn’t get you, death snags you, tearing off your outer layer like in a horror movie where the virgin outruns the masked villain, leaving him behind clutching her crumpled cardigan, knowing they are destined to meet again in Act 3. But the real world isn’t a horror movie. In the real world villains have Sig Sauer MCX assault-style rifles and their stories are echoed in today’s pop hits, cleverly concealed in the lyrics to Foster The People’s deceitfully mellow “Pumped Up Kicks” blaring out of the stereo system at The Gap. They doff their corny masks to reveal centuries of support backing their hate: doctors declaring us mentally ill, legislation banning my friends from donating our tainted blood, preventing us from holding jobs, turning partners away from visiting each other in hospitals, expelling our transgender brothers and sisters from bathrooms, conveniently forgetting to hold our killers accountable in countless, nuanced ways.


Days after the shooting, gun sales in Florida double—people thinking that if they had weapons of their very own, they would have made a difference, or else worried that this will be the last straw, the deadliest mass shooting since Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. A Florida congressional candidate announces a contest on Facebook to give away an AR-15 rifle. Now that we’ve seen the worst of it, surely gun legislation will tighten. Better stock up while we can.


However, this fight is not entirely unfair. We, too, are more powerful in disaster. Even when we are killed, we cannot die. We are like the mythological beast Hydra—cut off one of our heads and three will rise in its place. Stop our Pulse and our hearts will beat three times as strong. We are faeries, they tell us, and I believe them because we are nothing short of magic. I have witnessed our enormous political and social power first hand. The morning after the shooting, lines at blood drives wrapped around blocks—our indomitable, mighty dragon’s tail. At vigils, swarms of us gathered so tightly in grief that in the rooftop images splattered across every major news outlet we resemble the shadow of a fantastic beast hovering just out of sight. More than all of this, though, I am most overwhelmed by our power over death at every Orlando gay bar the week of the shooting, packed with the fiercest of activists bouncing along to our favorite queer anthems, my comrades in revolution singing along to three different versions of “Born This Way.”


Three years ago at Pulse, I am in trouble. My best friend has ditched me for a one-night stand and my ex-boyfriend has teamed up with a drag queen to openly debate whether I qualify as being short, yet a moment on the dance floor redeems it all. That night, I write in overly romantic prose, hoping to trap the moment like a lightning bug in a jar: I’m finally 21 and I’m alone on the dance floor flailing around to the tune of “MMMbop”, alone and engulfed in a swarm of gay guys. They are anything but apologetic. They have a few drinks in them and are at their most honest. They push when they are intruded on and shout when they have something to shout. You’ll never see a gay man so political as when he’s dancing to Hansen.


Looking back at that night, it’s easy to imagine that I’m still in that crowd on the dance floor, singing along to the nonsensical words of a cheesy ’90s song, alone yet part of a tribe more powerful than any dynasty I’ve ever heard of. It’s hard not to laugh at myself for ever feeling bad about a drag queen calling me short when all along the only thing that truly matters about that night and every night since is that there was a drag queen at all, that I got to be at Pulse in the first place, just as it doesn’t matter that there aren’t really words to “MMMbop” as long as in my memories there will always be music to dance to and a gay space to lose myself completely in. I can’t help but think of anyone who has ever been to Pulse or any other gay club as my friend, my clan, in the truest, most authentic sense: Who else will you allow yourself to unapologetically sing along to Hansen with? Where else could I have ever learned to take my first steps toward love? As last call pulled everyone away from the dancefloor, I remember feeling my best friend grab my hand. He did not leave with his one-night-stand after all. Together, we make our way to my car a block away from Pulse. Lo and behold, the tire did not deflate. It’s looking a little rough and is featuring a brand new gnarly war-wound, but it will be fine.


Back in the CVS parking lot, again I find myself patching up my car. I reinforce the headlight with a fresh layer of packing tape, securing it into place and testing it to make sure the light works. It does. Despite falling off and being dragged through two hundred feet of pavement, it’s still burning bright. I know it’s dangerous, if not altogether stupid, to not get it professionally fixed, but I can’t help but dismissing it as yet another thing I’ll get to eventually. Right now, I have to get to work and there is so much work yet to be done. It’s only for a little while longer, anyway, I tell myself. It’s a rough bandage, but in a bind, I can trust it to help me see where I’m going.




…originally published in 40.2 of The Florida Review.


In Italo Calvino’s version, the world began at one point, and Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0—with all of her love, she made noodles for the boys—and then, like that, stars appeared. Land, the moon. Ocean waves, curling and releasing. Doves. Palms.


In my version, I am not as pivotal as Mrs. Ph(i)Nk_0, and I may never be, but I made noodles for the ones I loved: The woman I was dating, and the man who asked me, softly—“Can you teach me how to put on makeup?” And I said, without hesitation, “Yes,” and the woman I loved—she helped, too. I remember this: We went to the drug store, and I pretended the makeup was for me. He chose red, plum—the colors of autumn. And then we drove to my rental room, and Douglas sat on my bed, and Anna did too. I made spaghetti. We opened tubes of lipstick, palettes of eye shadow.


In the time it took for a woman’s love to become the land, tell me—did the sky stretch and open? Did the boys press their hand­s to its boundary, cupping each burning star? I’ll never fully understand the journey from one point to many, but I can tell you this: Every day we create worlds.


And in my rental room, on my bed, Douglas and Anna and I—we navigated a world that felt new, its boundary moving outward like a wing, or like oak leaves fading, then deepening, into umber.


If nourishment is the link between our true selves and the stars, then I wonder what can ever be their undoing. Bullets, golden and sparkling. A false map that says: Love is not love is not love.


The night of the massacre, music played, humans kissed. Queer humans. It was Latin night. Douglas, Anna and I stayed home.


With one bullet, the land and sky caved in.


And another, and another.


This is not the story of finding oneself. This is the story of how the universe became one stone.


Sometimes poetry is not enough to bring us comfort.


Sometimes, not even the language of the human heart can cup autumn’s colors, hold them dear in their becoming.


Sometimes we tell stories of love, of how one kiss can fill a soul with abundance.


Sometimes we go to sleep, and when we wake up—so much has vanished.


Pulse Remembrance

This week, we are waiting for a new issue of The Florida Review to be printed. We are also reliving the horrible day last June when we woke up to news of the Pulse shooting here in Orlando, made all the more acute by another act of senseless and murderous violence in our city yesterday. Although the reaction to Pulse from the literary community arose immediately last year, and poems and essays flooded online publications one after another from across the country, it took us here in Orlando a while to recover enough to write a word about it. In fact, we are still recovering, and we will never recover.

We appreciated the outpouring of support, but felt that our proximity demanded a response, and we decided to publish five pieces in our fall issue related to the Pulse shooting. They have been a source of healing  and comfort for the authors who wrote them, for our editorial staff, and for many of our readers. This week, in remembrance of those who lost their lives that day last June, UCF is holding a day of remembrance on campus June 8, and we would like to share these five pieces more widely on Aquifer, one each day from June 6-10. On June 11 and 12, we will be silent, holding our breaths, listening to the whispers of souls.