“Wait,” the stranger said, running his fingers through my freshly cropped ‘do.
He pulled a stray piece of hair from my face and carefully molded it back with his hands. “Now, girl, now, you’re ready to strut your stuff.”
His name was Juan. He was only one of the incredible people I met at Pulse Orlando that night.
That night, only a few months ago in February, when it was also a Latino themed dance party night. That night, only a few months ago in February, when I was randomly in Orlando on business. That night, only a few months ago in February, when R, an old girlfriend of mine from high school, insisted on taking me out on the town. That night, only a few months ago in February, when I stood exactly where the 49 people who were gunned down on June 12, 2016 stood.
My thoughts, one week after this brutal slaughter on humanity:
Not “it could have been me,” but: “How could it be them?”
I had never gone to a gay club before. In fact, I hadn’t gone to any club for that matter, since my mid twenties—which was painfully obvious judging by my forest green Ralph Lauren wrap dress and sensible black slingbacks, which were the hippest clothes I had in my suitcase. But it was R’s best friend’s birthday, who was also the lead stylist at the hot tamale hair salon she owned downtown, and he went to Pulse every weekend, and, well, why not?
And so I entered, mouth agape, but not for the reason you might think: Everyone was just so free there. And in a place I wasn’t sure I’d fit in, I was instantly made to feel at home. A part of the gang. Welcome. Light. …Free.
“Come on, I’ll show you where the bathroom is,” Juan said that night, grabbing me by the hand and actually holding it all the way there. There was nothing sexual about it, but there was something about the intimacy; the sense that you were wanted and you were welcomed and you were embraced. Literally.
“Damn girl, damn!” another new friend yelled to me later, laughing as he spun me in salsa circles on the dance floor. “You are FABULOUS!”
“When are we going to talk about your calves?!” yet another new friend howled, wagging his finger and making me feel as if I weren’t wearing a matronly Ralph Lauren dress and sensible black slingbacks.
Everyone was so free there. Even me.
And that was the thing that struck me the most about my night at Pulse Orlando, only a few months ago in February: The humanness of the people inside.
These were some of the most human people I had ever met.
Actually fucking present.
Actually fucking seeing one another.
And so, so joyful.
There were no pretenses. No judgments. No snubby noses. It was as if you had put a giant room full of 300 friends together in a room, and all 300 stood there and laughed, and danced, and hollered at one another’s moves, and then shuffled one another into the bathroom to whisper giddily about the cute guy from Colombia that had just walked in.
I was in that bathroom, only a few months ago in February.
I stood in a stall in that bathroom, so happy I had forgiven my wardrobe malfunction and just gone anyway. So glad I had said yes to meeting up with R, and to the uncertainty, and to the whole bit about feeling like a dastardly old matron in a place I wouldn’t belong. So glad that I let Juan lead me by the hand without awkwardly pulling away; so glad that I giggled about the Colombian and whispered in awe over the bartender’s tattoos—someone who I would come to find out was, in fact, a gunshot victim in this horrific massacre.
How could it be them?
Out of all the people in the world—the child abusers and the rapists and the serial killers and the psychopaths—how could it be them? This group of loving people I had the good fortune to spend an evening at Pulse Orlando with—how could it be them? These people, who were just so happy to have found a place where they felt natural—how could it be them? And these people, who had gone out of their way to make someone like me feel so, so welcome, and so wanted, and so appreciated for who I was—how could it be them?
It should not have been them.
It shouldn’t have been anyone.
But it was.
It was them.
It was someone I had brushed shoulders with, only a few months ago in February.
It may have even been someone I met.
It may have been someone I stood there and really saw, just as much as they saw me that night.
And, that’s the real reason I wanted to write this post. Not to make a statement about guns or religion or human sexuality. But for one reason, and one reason only:
To stand witness.
To say out loud: I saw you.
And to memorialize the joy that I saw on everyone’s faces that night, only a few months ago in February; the joy that I experienced as a member of that family, even if only for a handful of hours.
I saw all of you.
And damn girl, damn—
—you were fabulous.