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Enough. Enough. Enough.

Everyone at work today remarked about how well I looked – how much more rested and less stressed I appeared. I replied with comments about the curative power of Alabama’s micaceous red clay, gave a fake smile or two, and inwardly rolled my eyes.

The past several days have been exhausting in every way imaginable – in many ways for positive reasons, with one notable exception.

The staggering toll of the Orlando hate crime seeps into the fore of my mind every other moment. The faces of the dead slowly begin to emerge; we learn about their lives, loves, passions, dreams – all cut short by the hands of a disgusting waste of human flesh. His selfied face becomes the one plastered across the subconscious of so many television viewers – not those of his victims. And it makes me ill.

So many of my LGBTQ friends are having a hard time with this one, which is a horrible thing to write – “this one,” as if the other tragic mass shootings are any less horrific. But the fact of the matter is this was a hate crime – a deliberate, calculated attack on the lives of LGBTQ people.

It is different for us.

***

A tiny bar tucked away in the far reaches of Tuscaloosa’s downtown, Michael’s was more than a bar; it was a haven for fledgling LGBTs, each like me – unsure, cautious, exhilarated, terrified. But despite those initial feelings of unease, I felt safe when I passed through the doors; these were my people.

It was one of the first places I felt comfortable in my own skin, and the first place I got groped by a crush and felt alive in a way I’d never felt before. I laughed and screeched along to horrible karaoke and stuffed dollar bills into a drag show performer’s nylons for charity; I started to transform into someone I felt could actually make a life and be happy.

And then my friends and I stepped back outside, into the cool of the deeply late evening.

“FAGS!”

“COCKSUCKERS!”

“ASS-LICKERS!”

A bottle shattered in the gutter.

My mind stopped working; my self-esteem plummeted, and I reverted to my antisocial cocoon – all while humming to myself, “Get back to the car. Just get back to the car.”

The small group of fraternity brothers hovered on the side of the street opposite the bar door; they raised their fists, spat, gave us the finger, and made sudden, aggressive moves toward us.

Just get back to the car, back to the goddamned car…

I was sobering up fast. But then, the unexpected happened.

“OKAY! YOU WANNA ROLL, MOTHERFUCKERS? C’MON, I’LL DRIVE MY FIST SO FAR UP YOUR ASSES…”

Our self-described matriarch began crowing back, which is when I realized a few things.

 We’re not punching bags.

We can fight back.

We’re in much better shape than them.

We can be scary too.

We’re family.

We took up a cacophonous chorus, each of us stitching together our entire repertoire of obscenities, and watched the band of misfits melt back into their beer-soaked truck, disappearing entirely.

For the first time, I felt I had a voice.

I felt alive.

I felt I could make a difference.

I felt right.

***

A decade later, I know there will always be broken glass to dodge. But I do know something for certain: I am right.

And so were all the victims.

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34

Stanley Almodovar III, 23

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36

Luis S. Vielma, 22

Peter O. Gonzalez-Cruz, 22

Luis Omar Ocasio-Capo, 20

Kimberly Morris, 37

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32

Anthony Luis Laureanodisla, 25

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35

Franky Jimmy Dejesus Velazquez, 50

Amanda Alvear, 25
Martin Benitez Torres, 33

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano Rosado, 35

Gilberto Ramon Silva Menendez, 25

Oscar A Aracena-Montero, 26

Simon Adrian Carrillo Fernandez, 31

Enrique L. Rios Jr., 25

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30

Javier Jorge-Reyes, 40

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19

Cory James Connell, 21

Juan P. Rivera Velazquez, 37

Luis Daniel Conde, 39

Jonathan Antonio Camuy Vega, 24

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32

Frank Hernandez, 27

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33

Brenda Lee Marquez McCool, 49

Angel L. Candelario-Padro, 28

Geraldo A. Ortiz-Jimenez, 25

Akyra Monet Murray, 18

Paul Terrell Henry, 41

Antonio Davon Brown, 29

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21

Rodolfo Ayala-Ayala, 33

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25

Yilmary Rodriguez Solivan, 24

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32

Juan Chevez-Martinez, 25

Jerald Arthur Wright, 31

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25

Jean C. Nieves Rodriguez, 27

May they rest in power, their memories kept alive in the fight for justice, compassion, and understanding.

For our humanity.

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Pulse

I don’t realize how hard I’m clenching the waded paper towel until I turn from the television to look out the window and lose my balance, my hold loosening as I re-center.

My parents’ dogs have just been bathed, and are rolling around in the sun-bleached grass. I try and lose myself in their simple revelry, but know I can’t. My mind is swirling with the news anchors’ voices, the phrases “domestic terrorism,” “deadliest mass shooting in nation’s history,” “lone wolf,” and, occasionally, “LGBT community.”

I can’t breathe, and start sweating; my chest tightens and face burns. I grab my camera and walk out, up the gravel drive past the dogs – the youngest’s plaintive cries to tag along drifting away as I quicken pace.

Every step on the gravel sounds like a series of crashing cymbals; everything is amplified. I snap a photo of newly bloomed flowers, and try to map on a heartening metaphor, but fall short. A turkey feather catches my eye, and I dissect it through the lens; it’s nothing special, and completely uninteresting – but I have to focus on something, anything other than the rapid-fire thoughts pounding inside my skull.

I wonder how frequently the lives of those lost will be glossed over, their identities stripped and tamed and drained of color to be palatable enough for mass media consumption; how frequently “hate crime” will be disjointed from the narrative of this horrible attack; that “domestic terrorist” will become the coward’s moniker, divorced wholly from his anti-LGBTQ bias and motivation; that the fuel to his sickening fire was never spurred by our own politicians’ hate speech and rhetoric, but rather from “over there,” from “The Enemy,” “Them.”

I worry about our future, and mourn those whose futures were ripped from them – taken in an instant that should’ve been filled with joy and laughter, part of a series of rhythmic vibrations to club music, to living. Each of them should’ve been leaving exhausted and hung-over and sore from dancing, not having their lives become part of a protracted national narrative about hate and guns.

But then I watch the lines to blood banks grow longer, and hear calls to action ring out from more than LGBTQ groups. Where ignorance inspires hateful action, hope springs like seedlings from the earth, ready to grow. We must be constant gardeners.

***

A few feet away, our childhood seesaw hangs broken and rotted, a testament to the passage of time. Behind me, the wind gusts forcefully, nearly blowing me from the molding deer stand’s ladder-like steps.

But instead of bracing against it, I turn and face it. Eyes brimming with tears, I look to the horizon, to the infinite space before me, and murmur, “Keep dancing. Keep living. That’s how we’ll prevail.”

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The Hard Stuff

Spiders cower in hole-pocked wall crevices. Bags overflow onto cluttered tabletops, computer cords dangling out like disemboweled hunt kills over long-neglected CD cases with 90s-era pop band icons plastered across their yellowed covers. Boxes packed and repacked line every available space – constant reminders of blocks to begin building new lives.

Birds chirp in the rising sun, and wind gusts through overgrown flowerbeds and hedges, creating the illusion of a giant, larval caterpillar undulating across the yard. Beside me, the tendrils of a newly sprouted plant shiver slightly, reminding me of all the cottage’s cracks and gaps I’ve yet to discover – known only by the cool morning air, the nests of freshly hatched brown spiders. It’s a little after 7:00, and the fragments of morning light refract in the jadeite mug I’m holding, offering very little in the way of welcoming warmth.

Staring out at the unkempt blackberry bushes and sprawling decades-old English ivy, I reflect on how much work there’s still to do to reclaim this little piece of existence from the bramble. The pink-tinged sky brightens a bit, and I tip back my mug, sighing heavily as I peer out into the jungle of weeds.

And then the clouds swallow up the light for a moment, and there’s just me – puffed hair and six-o-clock shadow reflected in the dirty window panes.

Still so much to do.

Somewhere in this mess is where I must begin again – suss out the cherished from the painful. All of it’s part of a new recipe, and I don’t know what I’ll make of it.

***

Not that long ago, I wrote that life is a string of unscripted, unknown experiences, from which we can either choose to grow or wilt. Lately, this phrase haunts my shallow sleep and momentary daydreams; it frightens me. It empowers me. And, at times, it crushes me.

Life has changed, and I must change with it.

Andy and I are separating. Albeit amicable, it’s still the hardest decision we’ve ever had to make.

I gulp a mouthful of cooled coffee, closing my eyes and letting my thoughts thread this new reality together as my body adapts to the daily machinations of fledgling routines.

Joanna stretches out in a patch of sun and stares up dreamily with a bloated breakfast belly. And I’m overcome.

I’m a ball of exposed nerves; daily minutiae can thrust me into a mental brier patch. But rather than fleeing from the welter of conflicting feelings, I have to embrace it all head-on – grapple with the hardship, ambiguity, terror, exhilaration, anxiety – and fashion a different future from it.

I must once again become my own knight in shining armor. And remind myself that I don’t need to be rescued – that I am enough.