The First Gay Space:
Getting Back to Reality After the Tragedy at Pulse
From where I’m standing I can see the earth suspended thousands of miles away and it really is just as people who have seen it at this distance always describe it. Suddenly it seems unthinkable to have names for oceans, lines to demarcate towns and cities and countries when it’s so obvious that they are all the same thing. A hundred shades of green are ultimately just green. Then again, that’s not true. The aggressively cheery green of the wristband I’m wearing from last night’s vigil clashes with the green on the fast food bags scattered on the floor, just as my freckled, brown complexion is different from Rick Scott’s white skin when he delivers a speech where in so many words he stresses that color is insignificant.
With a measured flick of my wrist, a wild projectile of stars and neon beams burst from my hands, seemingly rocketing out from within me in furious blazes before tiring out and resting midair among the stars. In awe of my newfound power, I begin to twirl in a poised frenzy like I am ten and playing ballerina. I am a kid again, manic, and delighted by the rainbow creations radiating out of me and settling into space. I am spinning faster and faster now, cocooning myself in vivid primary colors I can all but reach out and touch. Soon, I have blocked everything from my line of sight and am buried in a cacophony of blinding lights. I am trapped here in this neon orb, floating carelessly through the atmosphere. I am safe now.
Somewhere far off, as if from a radio interception from another dimension, I can hear laughter, so foreign a sound today that it jerks me out of the simulation. I was growing used to the weight of 5lbs goggles on my head, but now I’m suddenly reminded that none of this is real and I carefully take off Jason’s new toy, a virtual reality console you place over your head and manipulate with a pair of remote controllers. I am back in his living room where his girlfriend, Elyse, and my best friend, Arthur, are giggling madly at my childish flailing.
“Please try this,” I tell Arthur. The game I have been playing plops you into space with nothing but a paint brush. There are no stakes, no objectives. Looking down, you are surprised to discover that there is no you there. Maybe you are a corporeal-less form with the ability to embellish your surroundings however you please. Maybe you are God. The narrative you give yourself is entirely up to you. Because I have saturated my solar system with smatterings of rainbows and crudely drawn unicorns, I dub it Gay Space and blast Cher’s “Believe” into Arthur’s ear as I watch him create a Gay Space of his own. It has been 48 hours since he called me sobbing to tell me that there was a shooting at Pulse, my local gay bar, the first Gay Space I ran to when I turned 18. 48 hours since I have last slept. 48 hours of weak hugs, imitations of smiles, contact lenses in too long and pats on the back that have meant “I’m here for you” and “Please don’t talk to me about it right now” and “I see you, but I want to make sure you are really here.”
Arthur is thrashing, waving his arms in all directions, and I can’t help but laugh at how silly he looks, too, until he stumbles into a piece of furniture and I am reminded that even this is a dangerous game. To try to escape today can quickly become deadly. I have tried with alcohol, a Valium, so much caffeine that I imagined my molecules would vibrate into the ether leaving my crumpled shadow whimpering behind. As he struggles to regain his composure and acclimate to the synthetic virtual environment, without the aid of a simulator, I am transported to hours earlier when I was certain that I would never make it home again, driving aimlessly after having spent all night binging on coffee after cocktail in porches and dives and gas station parking lots. I do not remember long stretches of the past 48 hours, but my time has been well documented. There is an interview I gave to NPR’s Ari Shapiro outside of The Parliament House, the historic gay club so many of my loved ones congregated to when we first heard the news. It is midnight and I imagine I am already blacked out in the short audio file Arthur links me to on the NPR website because I do not remember any of it. “Why did you decide to come out tonight?” Shapiro asks. “I didn’t want to be alone,” I say confidently, perhaps the only thing I am sure of in that moment. There is a series of text messages in my phone that tell me I wasn’t.
“It was nice running into you at Will’s.”
“Thanks for meeting me to talk.”
“Where did you go? When did you leave?”
Added to the timeline, there is a photograph of my face I can’t bring myself to look at for more than a couple of seconds at a time. I sent it along with a text message at 5 A.M. asking anyone to visit me at a coffee shop. It isn’t open yet, but I’m outside and would really like to talk, I wrote. I’m not sure why I took the selfie, but I suspect I wanted to prove to myself that I was really here, grounded on earth, alive. I am caught off guard by the image when I find it while browsing through my texts attempting to piece together my night. It is not that I do not look like myself, rather that I have never seen myself so unabashedly exposed. I look like someone who has suddenly become too weak to carry the weight of themselves, as if the gravity switch has been flipped off and at any moment I will float away beyond the atmosphere into deep space and what has happened in my little planet below will soon be nothing more than a speck in the distance. My fellow astronaut friends will gather around me, squinting to try to get a better look. “Don’t you know?” one of them will ask. “Earth is so far away from us that everything you are seeing now happened thousands of years ago. It’s over.”
Amidst the surreal, the memories of the past two days that flash by when I close my eyes all seem ridiculous, selfish:
At the vigil where I got the green wristband, there is a man wearing a lime green leprechaun hat jauntily tilted to the side—another green—shirtless and donning a heavy, leather kilt. We are at a gay resort. I imagine he heard the news and simply ran out of his room in whatever he was wearing before to join the throngs gathering in the court below. Because of the cap, I am reminded of a royal jester. I want to ask him if he realizes what he’s wearing or if this costume was a conscious decision. Then again, we all look ridiculous sobbing into our $4 drinks in the middle of the afternoon.
The next day, at the official vigil, at the place where the mayor has declared we can all gather to officially grieve, we collectively lift our candles into the air as if God themselves has pulled on thousands of marionette strings. But there, in mine, floating like a prehistoric bug caught unawares and frozen in sap, is a bee. There is a bee in my vigil candle. A nearby church is chiming their bell in solidarity with the community, one ring for every victim of the Pulse massacre, and all I can focus on is the fucking bee in my vigil candle. I repeat the observation in my head over and over like a mantra. There is a fucking bee in my vigil candle. There is a fucking bee in my vigil candle.
Two years earlier, there is a candle on the bar at Savoy, silhouetted against the neon lit row of booze directly behind it. It’s impractical but cozy, and that seems like a good enough reason to warrant it being there. He looks cozy, too, chatting up the bartender, bobbing his head to the electronic song pulsating out of the speakers. He buys me a drink and I’m not drunk but I fall into his lips, kissing him in the sheltered flickering light of the candle that doesn’t belong here but is anyway. His best friend comes over and whispers in my ear that he has a boyfriend.
“Do you have a boyfriend?” I ask him outright.
“Yes, but it’s a new thing,” he says.
I have a boyfriend, too. It’s not a new thing but it’s soon to be over because of a combination of a lot of old things. I gather myself and leave.
Now I’m at his vigil and of course there is a fucking bee in my vigil candle. There are cameras perched on top of every surrounding building recording our grief for history, as if it’s already a thing of the past and we’re not all staring up at the sky turning the words sniper, guns, more shooters, everyday more shooters, love, hate, guns, love in our heads like a staccato poem that doesn’t even have the decency to rhyme. Of course we can’t just grieve. We have to worry that no one will harm us here, too.
And there is a fucking bee in my vigil candle.
It has been theorized that insects are attracted to sources of light in search for a place of safety. What they’re actually attracted to is a peculiarity of vision known as a Mach band: the region surrounding a bright light that seems darker than any other part of the sky. Guided by intuition, insects seek dark spaces in an effort to avoid danger. Yet, seeking refuge, they only end up making themselves more vulnerable, exposing themselves to shock from bug zappers and flames gay men wave in the air as a sign of solidarity. I think of the tragedy of vultures snapping pictures of my mourning friends, every ambulance siren a new sting. We are at a vigil, but there are still bodies in there, many of them unaccounted for. There are still cell phones ringing in there, the person next to me tells me, mothers and best friends and lovers caught unawares, frozen in shock.
There is a fucking bee in my vigil candle.
Since that night, I’ve seen crowd images of the vigil plastered across every major news outlet, swarms of mourners packed so tightly that from a distance the crowd resembles the dark shadow of a menacing beast lurking above us, just out of sight. We have gathered here to prove to ourselves that we can still love, that we can still have safety, but with a monster as big as the NRA prowling by, I do not feel safe.
The last time I’m at Pulse, I rush home to write in my diary about my night. I have been dozens of times before, but something about this night makes me want to take a snapshot of it, trap its essence in a jar to show to myself whenever I fall into doubt about belonging.
There’s only a handful of us left at last call and I find myself alone on the dance floor, I write. On cue, the opening notes to “The Time Warp” blast through the club’s loudspeakers.
I remember doing the time-warp… drinking those moments when the blackness would hit me…
I jump to the left.
And the void would be calling…
I take a step to the right.
But it’s the pelvic thrust… that really drives you insane…
I catch sight of a guy I’ve had my eye on all night awkwardly trying to keep up. He’s simultaneously attempting to follow the steps while steadying himself by propping his hands on his thighs.
A friend I lost earlier in the night fumbles onto the dance floor. He’s made good use of his all-you-can-drink wristband and is content with rhythmically waving his hands up and down. I wave back and shoot him a grateful smile. I don’t know what I’m doing either and it feels good to have a companion in chaos. I don’t think any of us does, really, which is shocking, because I’m certain we’ve all heard the song before.
The last of the night’s club goers has rushed the dance floor, but the idea that there is choreography to the music seems preposterous when faced with the state of our dancing.
Time is fleeting.
I am jumping when I am supposed to be stepping and twirling for too long than is called for, but it’s okay, because this feels good, too.
Let’s do the time-warp again.
I’m back in Jason’s living room with Arthur and Elyse. Arthur quickly tires of being in Gay Space. I understand. The version of reality the simulator presents is comforting, but eventually the real world begins to seep in through the headphones. You hear laughing on the outside. You hit your shin on a table and remember that you haven’t really left earth at all. For a brief moment, however, you can convince yourself that you aren’t here, that you weren’t there, that the names you hear aren’t real and their ages are an ancient cosmic joke. You can stare at the big green rock far off in the distance like it’s somewhere that existed thousands of years ago, but you can still remember it well, and in your memories and the stories you tell of it, you are always dancing.
Edgar Gomez is an MFA candidate at The University of California, Riverside, with a focus in nonfiction. His writing has most recently appeared in Thought Catalog, The Rumpus, and your boyfriend’s text message inbox. You can find him on Twitter, Tumblr, and Youtube @ edgarsucks. Selected by Karolyn Gehrig.
Image copyright Rohiet Seosahai via Flickr Creative Commons.