It’s dark, but not as dark as I feel right now.
Sitting hundreds of miles away, I’m surrounded by Canadian hipsters sipping their artisan coffee while absentmindedly scrolling through Facebook.
I’m sure they’ve seen it; another mass shooting in the USA.
Another madman with a gun.
Another American tragedy.
But they can’t know that this one, the worst in US history is less than a mile from where I call home.
Where I’ve danced and had a few too many.
Where people I love, the ones that make me smile and laugh through a thirteen hour shift, feel safe and accepted.
But here in Quebec City, these coffee patrons have no idea how it feels to watch your world crumble while you’re so far away, so unable to help.
For them it’s just another image on their screens.
They can’t comprehend the churning of my stomach or the panic in my chest.
They can’ know that as they scroll through their feeds – liking cute selfies, adoring wedding photos and digesting other trivial Facebook news – I’m screaming on the inside.
(Written June 12th)
At 6 am on June 12th my sister messaged me to tell me about the mass shooting. I spent the first two hours following up with all my friends, who I knew went to Pulse, making sure they were safe. After I heard back from them all, confirming their safety my brother and I went to a coffee shop down the street from our hostel. As I sat in that coffee shop and watched all the images of Pulse on TV I felt completely heart-broken. I held in my tears, knowing that these people sat down at their computers couldn’t understand the weight of what I was feeling. Not that they wouldn’t be sympathetic or understanding, but there was no way they could feel the hole boring its way through my chest. This, illogically, made me angrier; I wanted them to feel what I was feeling. I wanted to scream at that. To stand up and yell ‘how can you just sit there, while people are dying?’ It wasn’t until a few days later, when I began to process my emotions, that I understood the irony in that feeling. After all, only a little bit ago we had witnessed the Paris attacks and I had gone about my day, while people in Paris were feeling what I was feeling now.
We left the coffee shop, wandered around Quebec City and somehow it just felt wrong. It felt as though I was disrespecting the dead by being in such a beautiful place, by not being in my city to mourn, to help somehow. As we wandered, my sister kept me updated on the news. She told me how the death toll had risen to nearly fifty. Every new piece of information felt like a dagger to my gut. The entire day I felt restless in my skin. I wanted to be at home; I wanted to help, even though I had no idea how. I needed to be with my city. I needed to see Pulse, and the distance between Quebec and Orlando felt like a universe away. Pulse was somewhere I had danced and been drunk with my friends. I was supposed to go to Pulse with a couple of co-workers only the Tuesday before, but I had gotten out of work late and couldn’t go. I had spent many a night, a little too tipsy, in the bathroom where the hostages were held. As the day continued we avoided telling people where we were from. It was too raw to say. We were afraid of the looks, of the awkwardness, of the anguish the confession would bring. At the end of that day, which barely felt like a day, we took an Uber to the airport. The Uber driver wanted to know where we were from, my brother said it, ‘Orlando’. I held my phone in my hands, like I had been doing the whole day, waiting for any new pieces of information. I didn’t want to hear his reaction.
He apologized, and asked if we knew how many had been hurt. I told him we were hearing conflicting reports. He was nothing but sympathetic and concerned, but every word he spoke grated against my skin. Not because of anything he was saying, but because of the subject we were discussing. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want it to be real. As I sat in the back seat and gazed out of the window, he told us about a shooting that had happened at a club in Montreal and how thankfully how a couple of people were hurt. He told us that guns were what scared him about America. “Me too,” I whispered under my breath. When we arrived at the airport he handed us our bags and wished us peace, as difficult as that might be.
We walked through the airport, my brother wearing a purple hoodie and an Orlando City hat (which was completely unintentional). Facebook asked us to check in safe, due to us both being located in Orlando. We did, but not being there felt like we were cheating. When we finally made it on the plane, my brother and I were assigned seats on opposite sides of the plane. I tensed as I sat down, knowing that Orlando would be the topic on everyone’s tongue. Sure enough it was and when the Canadians in the row next to me began to discuss Orlando, guns, the military and Trump I remained silent. I looked out of the window and wished for time to speed up, to be back in Orlando. When we landed, the plane had to taxi and an older couple were clearly impatient to get off the plan. Nathan, my brother, was stood right behind them, and as my row was at the front they were stood in the aisle next to me while we waited to disembark.
“We have connections to make,” they grumbled and a fellow passenger asked them where they were heading. “Oh, back home to Pensacola, FL,” they responded and the man winced and said “Oh, Florida. Did you hear about what happened in Orlando?”
“Yes, we did. It’s a real shame but we’re from the panhandle. Things like that don’t happen there. We’re much nicer up there.”
I glanced at my brother – who I repeat was wearing an Orlando City hat – and he could sense my frustration. Didn’t they see how insensitive that comment was? Also the shooter wasn’t from Orlando, he had driven from Port St. Lucie to Pulse to carry out the attack. But even if he was from Orlando, what difference did that make? A tragedy was unfolding in my city and these people had the audacity to brush it off with the apparent ‘niceness’ of the Panhandle. What was Orlando then? A hive of hate and sin? If I hadn’t been in so much mental turmoil I might have spoken up, but I knew if I did I would break down. So I held it in. I bit into the side of my cheek, as I had done many times as a child to keep myself from saying something, and focused on that pressure in order to push their comment as far away from me as possible.
The plane doors finally opened, the older couple rushed off to their connection, and I let go of my inner cheek – tasting blood mixed with salvia. We stepped off the plane, rushed through the airport, and stepped out to the pickup area, feeling that rush of warm wind that is so particular to Florida. Our sister picked us up and warned us that we would have to go a long way home because the entire area around our apartment complex was blocked off. As we drove through the streets from the airport to our downtown apartment we discussed what we knew so far. The shooter was from Port St. Lucie. He had been shot by police after a hostage standoff in the female bathroom. The death toll had jumped from 25 to 50 with countless more in the hospital. An emergency response center had been set up in the senior center directly behind our apartment complex.
The drive was exceptionally long, but that small inconvenience was insignificant in so many ways. When we finally arrive in our area it was akin to a war zone. Police cars, sirens and flashing lights filled the entire area. FBI, homeland security and SWAT trucks clogged up the roads. Helicopters flew overhead and I could feel it, the tension in the air. We had to park in a random spot because the parking spots for our apartment complex were in the senior center’s parking lot – which was filled with government/police cars, and media outlets setting up with reporters. There were so many lights, so many sirens. The emergency center was right at the end of our complex. The only way to be closer was to be in the center. We walked past officers, who had surely been up all night, to get into our building. I’ve never experienced anything like it. We entered our apartment, and turned on the TV to the local news station, which had been live for almost 20 hours at this point. You could see the exhaustion and heartbreak on the reporters faces. They switched between the reporter stood on Orange Ave, (which on a regular day would be four lanes deep with traffic) who was as close to Pulse as the FBI would allow and a reporter who was stood outside the senior center, at the end of our apartment building, where family and friends had begun to gather to find out if their loved ones were alive.
The reporters talked about how they hadn’t identified victims yet because their bodies were still laying on the floor of Pulse, with their phones buzzing as loved ones tried to reach them. The reporters assured us it was protocol – that the FBI had to gather evidence etc before they could begin to identify and move the bodies. They told us there would be a conference in the morning, where more details would be shared. They told us they weren’t going anywhere. That they would stay live throughout the night and their hearts would be with us. There was a connection throughout the city that night. Everyone could feel it. We were united by grief, loss and heartbreak. And resting underneath that concoction of confusion and pain was the undeniable sense that this city, our Orlando, would never be the same.