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 MarthaStewartVEVO.tumbler.com.”
“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.