CW: reference to/descriptions of the June 2016 shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL.
Akyra Murray. Alejandro Martinez. Amanda Alvear. Mercedez Flores.
I’m sitting in a booth in the back room of a bar trying to write, trying to get the feelings up and out because they might be killing me, but all I can excavate is their names.
Angel Candelario-Padro. Antonio Brown. Brenda Lee Marquez McCool. Christopher Sanfeliz.
It’s unseasonably cool, my bare summer skin damp and clammy. Or maybe that’s just how Portland seems colored gray with memory, or maybe that’s just how things have been since Cory Connell and DJ Burt II and Deonka Drayton. I’m sipping a tequila soda, holding the burn of booze and citrus in my mouth just a beat too long. Women hang on the walls watching me with their hyper-realistic acrylic eyes. Somewhere there is music playing, the bass low and throbbing like the headache I have building.
Eddie Justice. Edward Sotomayor Jr. Enrique Rios Jr. Eric Ortiz Rivera.
A week ago, a lifetime ago, I wandered up and down the fluorescent aisles of the Bi-Mart on Woodstock, checking items off the list for my first solo camping trip. The purpose of the camping was twofold. On the one hand, it was an opportunity to prove to myself that I was a strong, independent, grown ass woman. On the other, it was a fuck you to my recent ex’s recent assertion that I hated camping. “That’s not fair,” I’d countered during one of our increasingly petty arguments. “It’s just hard to get out there because I don’t have the right gear.” Which brought me to the Bi-Mart, where I fingered the flimsy rubber handles of the cheap, open-fire cookware I knew she would hate, and checked it off my list.
For me, the breakup had been equal parts catastrophic and inevitable, like a blown head gasket after months of ignoring an oil drip, the break down was expected and still inconvenient. “I just need to get out of town for the weekend,” I’d told my friend Leah when I picked up her tent and sleeping pad.
So, I went. Drove three hours into the nearest wilderness and pitched Leah’s tent against a backdrop of greenery so Oregon it could have been straight out of a theater setting. The rest of the night felt like play-acting too: building the fire, drinking the beer (first one 6-pack, and then the other), crying over an open notebook, too drunk to focus on the scrawl of words my pen created. My raw and vulnerable everything on display with no audience to applaud my efforts. Look, I wanted to say, Look at me, I’m processing. I’m doing such hard work. Look at me healing. At 11 pm, red-eyed and dizzy drunk, I left my waterlogged dinner supplies in the poorly packed cooler full of melted ice and crawled into the tent. Around the same time, I was admitting to myself that my ex was right, I hated camping, a man 3,000 miles away entered the Pulse nightclub armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a 9mm Glock.
Frank Hernandez. Franky Velazquez. Drake Ortiz-Jimenez. Jason Josaphat.
The next morning, I rose with the sun and stumbled around blearily building a fire for coffee, for breakfast, for something to soak up the acidic dregs of craft beer churning in my gut. I packed and left the wilderness feeling and looking a lot like a half-crucified Christ: exhausted, nearly-dead and weirdly vindicated. I didn’t get the first ping until I was back in cell service again.
Hey, are you ok? Have you seen the news yet?
Let me know when you’re back in town. Something happened. It’s… not good.
Hey, call me when you get a chance ok?
Javier Jorge-Reyes. Jean Nieves Rodriguez. Jean Carlos Mendez Perez. Jerald Wright.
Pulse, the bounding of our blood through arteries. A rhythmic throbbing. A rapid burst of sound, of light, of other waves. A cascade of empty shells falling to the floor. Today, my friend Sarah meets me at the bar and we seem flat. Heavy-handed as the women on the walls, hyper-realistic like something from a bad dream. “You ready?” she asks. I finish my drink and we leave and I’m remembering just three days ago Sunday. How I found my way back to Portland like floating through an off-kilter landscape. How I picked up Leah, and over drinks she said “I don’t know, 50 maybe? Maybe more” as we refreshed the news reports. How we parked downtown to weave through the gathered crowd, the bodies stacked around a megaphone five, six, seven blocks deep. The voice over the speaker unintelligible but urgent. Insistent as the hum of all that gathered energy.
That night, we found our friend Jenny on Northwest Broadway. She was holding a sign. Or she was holding us. Holding us up, or holding nothing, maybe. Nothing but the space we so desperately needed.
Joel Paniagua. Jonathan Vega. Juan Chevez-Martinez. Juan Pablo Rivera Velazquez.
Sarah and I walk the six blocks to Literary Arts. She nervously mumbles through her poetry selection for the night. I compulsively fold and unfold the sheets of paper containing mine. There are no empty seats at Unchaste’s 2016 Pride reading, the audience humming and tense.
Juan Ramon Guerrero. Christopher Leinonen. Kimberly Morris. Leroy Fernandez.
Jenny introduces the co-host, introduces the series, tells us This is your place. This place is safe.
Luis Conde. Luis Wilson-Leon. Luis Ocasio-Capo. Luis Vielma.
A reader talks about navigating space as a trans woman of color. A reader talks about her cats, a reader talks about her father, about rape. About what it takes to survive, about mothers, lovers, and heartbreak. When Leah takes the stage:
Bang! Bang! They said it
sounded like part of the song until
it went on too long
It sounded like a song
Sunday, after the rally we found our way into Embers, where the drag queens singing karaoke were raising money for the victims’ families. In a booth at the back of the bar, we drank and sang. Lit candles and prayed. No play-acting in the waves that wrung us pale and shaky, leaning hard into the community.
At one point, stumbling to the bathroom I passed through a doorway into the back bar, where a laser light show pulsed over an empty dance floor, the smoke machine making phantoms of the light. Latin beats pounded from the speakers, deafening.
In June, we cloak ourselves in rainbows
and dance in the streets Leah is reciting.
Martin Torres. Miguel Honorato.
We are proud.
We do it because
Olgin and Chapa
Oscar Aracena-Montero. Simon Carrillo Fernandez. Paul Henry.
I stood in the dark on the outskirts of that dance floor, pressed a palm to the throb of my bladder, this small insistence of my still living body.
Peter Gonzalez-Cruz. Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala. Shane Tomlinson.
And all the bullets we’ve dodged.
Stanley Almodovar III. Tevin Crosby.
When I finally tore myself away, found my way into the bathroom, the relief of that release broke something inside me; wrung a moan from my throat that could have been laughing or sobbing.
It sounded like a song.
When Leah finishes reading, the room holds its breath, and in the collective exhale we are suddenly human again. Pulse, a momentary, sudden fluctuation in an electrical quantity. A throb of life, emotion, vitality.
Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado. Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan.
I passed back through that dance floor to rejoin my friends at the booth in the back of the bar, where we drank and sang, lit candles and prayed, thinking maybe this is what it means to be alive. To commune with our ghosts, but to return, without them, to the mundane pains of our daily living. To be alive means to leave the dance floor empty, but it’s also the dancing.
Brenda Taulbee lives in San Diego, where she teaches composition, rhetoric, and creative writing at San Diego State University. Her work has appeared in various print and online journals including GRIST, NAILED and The Unchaste Anthology, and is forthcoming in Iron Horse Press.