On Learning to Breathe After Pulse

The bile rises in my throat for weeks. It reminds me of the way my sorrow is clawing my insides, mingling with the rage to seep out of my pores despite however much I try to swallow it down.

I receive the news through alerts on my phone in the early morning hours of June 12. I’m meant to be up by 9, as we check into the hotel at noon but something rouses me around 7. It is two and a half hours after the massacre, and as I blearily rub my eyes to read what is flashing on my screen I shatter. I remember dry heaving- I remember terror and sorrow. I know somewhere that logically this is not my immediate tragedy. But it has shaken me to depths I did not know.

In the midst of all this, my house is beginning to awaken. Cousins are packing for our weekend excursion into the city and my father is whistling along to the radio as he makes breakfast. Upstairs shrouded in my covers I am scouring twitter, facebook, snapchat checking in on friends and hoarding sordid details even as they seem to sting the already rawing parts of me. I was struck by the contrast- I truly was alone.

It was in that moment I forgot to breathe. I got out of bed almost mechanical. Taking deep breaths as I tried to quell tears that just wouldn’t stop. It was a hopeless task. I fled to upstairs at least twice in the hours before we left home. Letting it out in a rush of few breaths before delving back into my closeted world.

This is the tragedy of us closeted youth. We lack safe space. And this is why my mind was in shambles. I knew these people- or perhaps I knew people like them. I knew how they felt inside that club, in the moments before gunshots rang out. I could feel their blood soaking through my skin.

A cousin dropped the vent into casual conversation over tea. “Did you hear about the guy that shot some people in Florida?” It was like tunnel vision. 51 dead in a gay nightclub in Orlando. My mind rattled off this fact over and over trying to get it to make sense. “it could’ve been me” I screamed silently, mind hoarse with dread and anxiety. Not two nights prior, I had been dizzy with excitement at the idea of finally going to Pride, and going to gay clubs in DC come September. “Why do they want me to die?” I asked my friends desperately. “We are supposed to be celebrating.”

I cried the whole way to New York, furiously swiping at my eyes each time they threatened to spill. Each minute was a new, excruciating emotion. Shock and anger at the endless “thoughts and prayers” from unapologetic congressmen, eyes glazing over as the talks became more and more xenophobic. I took small comforts in the likes of Lin-Manuel, and President Obama, only to be snatched away by the news that a man on his way to L.A. Pride had been arrested with explosives.

As we drove through Lincoln Tunnel the answer came to me. It was time to go home-to the cradle of my civilization. I was going to Stonewall. After explaining the idea of allyship to my cousin, and assuring my mother I only wanted to take pictures of the village, I headed to Christopher Street quaking at the sudden surge of relief and uncertainty rushing through me at once.

I can’t decide if breathing became easier or more strained as I purchase the flowers. All I know is that the moment I first spotted a rainbow flag I was a flood of tears.

Stonewall that day was an experience unlike any other. For the first time I felt the physical presence of my community. I saw tear-stained colored faces marching and mourning alongside me. I felt arms accompanied by teary eyes engulfing me as I broke down in front of the makeshift memorial. Surrounded by NYPD clad in riot gear- whether to protect us or against us I am not sure-chanting to drown out the protestors’ ugly cries I have never felt so exposed, so safe, so rattled, so at peace.

How many hours did I spend soaking in the love and the sorrow? I am indebted to every single hand that wiped my eyes, and in turn I am grateful to whichever God may exist that some managed to find solace in my arms.

To many, the scene must’ve looked like closure, or simple mourning. But only we can begin to understand the inexplicable pull- the certainty with which we all knew we had to be there. It was the only thing that made sense, it was the only place to draw gasping breaths. It was an act of terrible pain, and intense defiance. It fanned the spark into a raging flame, and only once alight was there any relief.

The truth is, I still cannot hear their names without being reduced to tears, cannot school the stricken expression of my face when the event is mentioned in passing. When Donald Trump plays Pulse like a political card while glossing over all his party has done to sustain the attitudes that allow these atrocities I cannot control my rage. There is still too much grief to dissect the politics of this tragedy.

On the eve of my first visit to a gay bar my heart is swelling while my eyes still fill with tears. Honestly, I still don’t know how to breathe. But the choking drowns out complacency.

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