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.