Two weeks after we heard, we went. Each moment was a flashback.
The car door slammed shut behind me, and suddenly I was back in November. The air was cooler then, less humid. In its very nature…it was easier to breathe.
We poured out of my Mini Cooper, my friends and I, and made a quick trip across the brick road to Dunkin Donuts, laughing as we crossed.
I can still hear the laughter.
I grabbed Sean’s hand, and glanced at Dunkin for a second longer than usual.
I can see the night in November, still, as we walk alongside the black mesh that barricades the Pulse of today. He squeezes my hand as everything falls into slow motion, and I am stuck between that night and this moment.
“Just parked. Gonna smash a bagel into my face to hold me over…be right there!” I send the text to Sean and glance over at Pulse, pull Dunkin’s door open…and we all fall inside for a snack before the show.
Sean and the other halves to our group had already been at Pulse for hours dragging themselves out. I imagined him fidgeting with the wig I had helped him carefully select the week before and the clothes we had done our best to match to his routine of “Love Shack” and 6’4” frame.
Luckily, they all had help with professional makeup and hair stylists who offered their talents.
Yep. A bunch of straight dudes were about to launch themselves into the spotlight, in full drag, at a gay bar on a Sunday night in Downtown Orlando. Each of them would take to the stage performing popular hits from Britney to Gaga…all while we reveled in drinks and threw dollar bills into the air.
The night, each dollar, each drink…benefitted local families who had children battling cancer; a cause that was fiercely close to our hearts.
The ellipses of Sean’s impending response appear, and then, “Have fun, be safe. Can’t wait to see you. 😘”
I laugh. I’m just across the street eating a bagel. But still, be safe.
“Can’t wait to see me?! Dude! You’re the one in drag! 😉” I text back.
Months before that night, I got a call from Michael who was in search of Sean. I felt something bigger was in play, but didn’t ask. Later Sean got off the phone and announced, “Well. I’m going to be in a drag show…”
Some would laugh when he’d tell them what he was doing.
I just loved him more.
Later Michael would say that my tall, ginger-haired, Irishman had accepted before he even fully went through his entire sales pitch of the event.
These are the people I surround myself with; lovers & givers.
This is the Orlando I know.
Greeted with big smiles and warmth by the women in the front entrance, no sooner could I give them my donation and there’s Michael and Jason throwing hugs out like Mardi Gras beads.
In a tiny entranceway where walls could close in, they help extend each embrace.
Jason moves towards me with his arms wide open, “Your man! Ohmygoodness. You will NOT.EVEN.RECOGNIZE. him. He’s beautiful, really.”
I throw my arms around him, in standard short-girl-meets-tall-guy-tippy-toe fashion, and nervously laugh, “What do you mean?”
“You’ll see! He’s stunning. I hope everyone has lots of dollars! All your men are beautiful!” Michael and Jason lead us beyond the entrance way and into what is typically a dance floor of Pulse, and it’s perfect.
Large, blue lanterns illuminate light from above, and I notice them immediately. They’re funky and fun, but serene and comforting…I think it looks like a nightclub in Heaven, and snap a picture.
Michael disappears behind the stage, as Jason becomes our pied piper – he’s been saving seats near the front row for us. From there, we make our first trip to the bar. While perusing the options, a bartender appears and smiles.
Instantly, I know I have a new friend.
I’m an awkward person, and
sometimes most times that awkwardness gets into my head and eats my words – even the ones of drink orders I’ve asked for time and time again in the past decade.
I think he knows this, but instead of fueling the fire of forgotten words – he guides me to the evening’s signature drink. He had me at vodka, and I start a tab. He remembers my order each time I approach. Typical bartender behavior that I think makes him a superhero.
We return to our seats, gold drinks in hand, and the energy is electric. I’m watching everyone exchange laughs and long hugs, a woman in the corner rummages through her purse – presumably for more dollar bills, while others are already sucking down the last drops of their golden beverages and wondering out loud how each of our men now looks all dragged out. Drag queens take their seats in the plush couches in front of us as this evening’s judges. From the corner, Michael appears and races over to the bar to get one last round of shots for our guys backstage, and we all share excited waves with him.
This is how it must feel to sit in the wives’ section during Major League Baseball games, I think. In fact, this may very well top that.
The lights dim, the crowd goes wild, and the night goes on…
June 12, 2016. Sunday. It starts nearly like any other morning. Except, I got to sleep in a bit and in those few extra moments the dog went from sound slumber to, “Must.Go.Out.NOW.”
I throw on some clothes and run out the door with her.
We walk around a bit, taking in to account that this day is not quite as hot or humid as it will be later on.
When we walk back in, Sean is making breakfast.
It’s then that I sit down to check Facebook.
I scroll past a few things that seem relatively normal.
I check a few notifications, and it’s then that the world becomes skewed.
“Casie – we heard what happened, we hope you and Sean are okay. Let us know.”
My head spirals the other way, thinking how bizarre it was. We had gone out last night, to Sean’s parents, but the roads were clear and we were in bed by 11pm.
I thought a big pile up must’ve happened somewhere, big enough that friends from out of town must’ve heard already.
But…that didn’t seem quite right.
Instinctively, I went to google and searched, “Orlando, FL.”
That’s when the world shattered.
“What’s up?” He’s pouring orange juice.
“Ah…fuck. There was a mass shooting last night…Downtown. 20 dead.”
“HERE? In Orlando? Where at…..?”
“Pulse.” The word falls out of my face almost as a quiet question. I’m still just wrapping my head around having friends worry over us, my brain hasn’t caught up to what I’ve just read…and said.
His face drops, “That’s where we were in November.”
When it is 20 minutes from where you live. When it is your town, your city. When it is a place you have been – a place where you shared one of the most beautiful evenings of your entire life. When it is somewhere you know your friends frequent, and feel safe in.
It becomes hard to breathe.
It becomes personal.
It becomes far too close.
It was the first of many check ins that day.
We stand outside of Pulse. Now, June 26, 2016. Two weeks after 49 lives were brutally ended on a dance floor in Downtown Orlando.
It doesn’t feel real, and, yet…it’s right in front of me, so I know that it is.
I am surrounded by floral scents and words of love; sobs break through the noise of the street that is just beside us. Underneath the sign of Pulse, I feel so much smaller than this. Broken and fragmented, I look past the black mesh that barricades Pulse…and see the doorway.
How crazy it is that one doorway throws me through a spiral of raw emotions.
With each rapid blink that tries to hide my tears, a new image from June 12th and the coverage that followed appears at hyper speed in my mind.
The jumping reflections of blue and red from squad cars who responded.
The families and friends who stood on these sidewalks, not knowing.
The truck with injured that raced down the road towards ORMC.
The fire department that is a Pulse neighbor.
The lives that entered Pulse on that Saturday night, and ended.
The lives that entered Pulse on that Saturday night, and survived.
The lives that surrounded Pulse from the moment they heard, and were changed.
We were all changed.
We have to be if this gets any better.
Our hands reconnect and we start to walk back down the brick road. I’m torn between wanting to stay and protect it, and knowing there is nothing more we can do here in this moment…but to take this love and share it. 49 lives cannot be lost without us strengthening our resolve to do better – THIS is our Pulse.
On that night in November, when the lights came up, and the evening had ended…I felt love.
I closed my tab, just a tad too tipsy. The bartender and I shared a smile. Acceptance.
My friends and I embraced each other, and held on to one another beneath the bright blue lanterns, and spoke of “next year” – of how we could make this inaugural event even better.
We filed out the entryway, all interlocked with our better halves, and thanked those at the front doors for an incredible night.
I handed Sean the keys, and my 6’4″ half ginger, half geisha drag queen drove us beyond the brick road. We headed for dinner, the time didn’t matter – none of us wanted the night to end.
And when we woke up on June 12th and learned that it had…our Pulse only strengthened.