My Heart is Invisible Vol. 6: The Day After
One night in June, racism, homophobia, and violence came together when Omar Mateen slayed forty-nine people, most of whom were queer and Latinx, in a combined terrorist attack / hate crime at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. As the news of this massacre unfolded, it shocked many of the LGBTQ community into an awareness of vulnerability. Suddenly, there were shrines of mourning at scheduled events for Pride, in Provincetown, at Stonewall. The next day, an armed man with intentions of an “Orlando style” killing at LA Gay Pride was apprehended before he was able to act. In the first twenty-four hours after those deaths, social media exploded. Overwhelming responses, from outrage, to fear of further violence, to calls for all out protest, flooded our devices. For some of us, there was the numbed shock that happens after a trauma. This essay is about a personal experience, when events on the world stage come home, and we realize our fragility, and strength. This series of "Writers React" is dedicated to personal essays that respond to prejudicial violence. The title, "My Heart is Invisible," comes from the first essay in the series, "Driving While Me," by Kerry Beckford. In this sixth installment, Norman Belanger describes the day after the Pulse shooting.
We had spent the whole long day walking aimlessly. Around noon, we found ourselves drawn to Stonewall. It seemed the natural place to go. There were armored SUVs. Heavily armed guards, dozens of them, lined the peaceful shaded street in front of the bar. A stream of mourners had come as we had, in search of comfort. A woman wailed. Her keening seeped into my nervous system as I gazed, unseeing, at heaps of flowers, candles, teddy bears, handwritten notes, and ribbons placed as a gesture of mourning on the sidewalk. There were news trucks at the curb. A young blonde approached us, microphone in hand. She thrust it in my face. “What are your thoughts and feelings right now?” A guy behind her held a video cam. I stared at her. Nodding to the police presence, she asked, “Do you feel safer, with the added security?”
“No,” I heard myself say. The single syllable broke a little.
“Can you tell me, do you have any words of comfort you’d like to share? Something you’d like to say to the families of Orlando?”
I stood there, looking at her, mouth open.
I felt the pressure of Jeffrey’s hand in mine as he pulled me away.
We went to lunch even though neither of us was hungry. A woman passing by smiled at us, gave us a thumbs up sign. We understood that today the simple fact of being two gay men together in a cafe was an act of courage, our existence a form of resistance. Holding hands to comfort each other was bravery, a demonstration.
We were just two men sitting together on a quiet side street, in the busiest metropolis of North America, watching half-heartedly the endless flow of people going about their lives, but something had shifted.
Later that afternoon, still less than 24 hours after the shooting, we stood together at 39th Street, waiting for the light. New York that weekend was perfect June weather, sunny, warm, breezy. Even in the city there were green things growing and flowers blooming. People were out biking, jogging, walking, shopping; the sounds of traffic and chatter pulsed the air. The noise was soothing. We both wanted to forget, for a little while.
A man approached us from behind, and stood very close to us. Too close. “Faggots,” he whispered. “Hate crime on all fags. Faggots. Hate crime on all fags. Hate crime on all fucking faggots." It was a chant, a mantra, a curse.
I felt Jeffrey's hand in mine, clasping me tight. Neither of us said a word. The light changed. We moved forward. The man followed. “Faggots,” he said, close enough that his voice was in my ear. “Fucking faggots gonna see a hate crime, now.” He followed us as we entered the Port Imperial building to buy tickets for the ferry, he watched from a few feet away as we fumbled at the kiosk machine. He never once stopped looking at us. His hatred was palpable.
People, unaware of our worries, unaware of us, milled about; their chatter echoed off the cold stone wall and high ceiling. There was no security guard visible.
It was not until we were in line that we lost sight of him. I was sweating, despite the breeze. The waning sunlight glinted off glass and metal, the water lapped the sides of the ferry as we pulled into the river. In a few minutes, we’d be on the other side, back to Jeffrey’s apartment, to walk his dog, like a normal night.
Jeffrey’s head was on my shoulder. I could feel his body, shivering. I held him, wordlessly, while the city gleamed behind us as it slipped into the distant evening.
Norman is a nurse by profession, and a writer living in Cambridge, MA. Many of his short creative non-fiction pieces and personal essays deal with his experiences in the LGBT community, but he believes they have relevance for a wider audience. Some of his other work has been featured in Silver Birch Press, Aids&Understanding Magazine, Potluck, Blunderbuss, and Jonathan, a gay men’s lit mag. He tweets at @norman_belanger.