A month after the shooting, I held a yard sale. Out with the self-help books, the roller skates, the painting of the fortune-telling cat. Have to make enough money to get out of Orlando.
A pink woman crisscrossed my lawn, a Margaritaville visor shielding her broad face from the sun as she connected the dots: The Judy Garland vinyl, the stack of old Vogues, me in my denim cutoffs sipping a mimosa at 9AM. She tilted her head my way, and maybe in that moment put it all together. He’s gay. He’s available. He must have something to say about Pulse.
Was I friends with anyone who was murdered that night, the visor was curious. I smiled so I wouldn’t lose her. It was too early to talk about dead bodies, however, was she interested in a drink or perhaps a gently-used cocktail shaker I can’t figure out how to open, though I’m sure if you just run it under hot water…
She was proud of me, she said.
So no to the shaker?
Proud of us.
I had to make enough money to get out of Orlando.
Pulse, the bar with the watered down drinks and the impossible parking and the annoying chain-mail curtain you had to push through to enter, was gone. People like us were wanted gone.
So what was it that she was proud of? That I didn’t die? Or that I found a way to keep living? I know what she wanted, it’s what everyone wanted when they gave me their sad looks.
Tell me about it you poor, poor boy.
I sold her my old trashcan, chipped at the corners. Five bucks to behold my grief.
I’ll tell you what I didn’t tell her. That for those first few weeks, I wanted to cry at every gas station. I wanted to cry at Target. I wanted to get buzzed all night and sway my hips under a disco ball at any other Orlando gay bar. To feel the hug of hundreds of shirtless gay men dancing around me, all of us wondering whether this place would be taken away too, but at least for six minutes of a Lady Gaga mix we knew where our friends were. And after the bartender would slip my fat bill across the counter, I wanted to drive somewhere else, somewhere with cheaper drinks, somewhere open later hours. I remember, driving between bars in the early morning, how I would often look at the people passing me in their cars, daunted by their certainty that wherever they had set out to go would be there when they arrived. How did they do that? How were they so sure that they were safe?
A drag queen told me she forgot what it was like to be comfortable. My best friend started carrying a knife. We promised each other that we would not allow the fear of another attack keep us inside. We have to keep going out, we said, convincing ourselves that the nights we spent blacking out were courageous. We can’t let them scare us into hiding.
We would not be another sad story, another lesson on resilience sandwiched between The Planet is Melting and Will There Be Any Rhinos Left for Our Kids? Fuck the planet, we drank. Fuck the rhinos, another round. What about us? What about saving us?
I’ll tell you how one morning, days before the yard sale, I woke up drenched in vomit and curled up in the backseat of my car. I laughed and I cried and I knew that there was nothing else. No one would stop me from killing myself this way.
I threw myself into the fantasy of a new place, somewhere as far away from Florida while still basically being Florida. I was delighted most of all by California’s tourism commercials. Kim Kardashian brushing up on quantum physics by the pool! Betty White zipping around a film set on a golf cart! I’ve always been a sucker for ads. People tell me to do something and I do it. California asked me to come and I booked my flight.
I made all sorts of wild plans for the new west coast things I would get into. My life was going to be like a Nancy Meyers movie: I would spend my days tending to my succulent garden, drinking kombucha from a mason jar. I would roll up my all-white, crisp, linen pants and dip my toes into the Pacific Ocean. I would have moments of enlightenment, maybe once a day if I wasn’t busy, when I would look back at my life in Orlando and come to understand that Pulse was just a drop in a vast sea, there would be other places, more good to come. All that was before, the tragic set-up to this gentle ever-after.
In those early days in California, with no car to drive to the beach in and little money for artisanal probiotics, I spent most of my time lying on my mattress on the floor playing old episodes of RuPaul’s podcast, What’s the Tee? RuPaul was the one connection that I kept to the past. I wanted to start new, to take a hiatus from Orlando and from drinking, but him, I would keep. He was safe.
What did RuPaul talk about? Diana Ross. Kids these days. Tribes.
I don’t think he ever actually said the words, You must find your tribe, but I still took the order as seriously as if he did. The way he spoke of them, he made it clear that everyone had one, and if you didn’t, or if you’d lost yours, you’d better find one quick. To not belong to a tribe meant you were floating directionless through space. The bad kind. Space as in we need some. You are living in the nothingness between people, in the absence of relationships. I was in California, where no one knew I was a poor, poor boy. No one wondered if I knew anyone dead. I, finally, was no wonder.
RuPaul was my temporary tribe. He was a queer voice I could download and carry around with me while I explored my new zip code, Riverside, an hour and a half east of Los Angeles.
The summer I arrived, I thought that Riverside looked like a Bob Ross painting. Not one of his finished, pastoral scenes with soft names that sound like Yankee Candle scents—not The Old Mill, not Light House At Night—rather when he’s just getting started and guides his television audience to take a slop of color from their palettes and smudge it on their canvases, leaving them scratching their heads wondering how they’re ever going to fix this shit-stained mess.
Maybe it wasn’t that bad, but I had a vendetta.
A month after moving, I discovered that Riverside was ranked the country’s third most homophobic city, based on a study that analyzed the frequency of derogatory tweets. A friend suggested that maybe there was just one really homophobic guy tweeting die faggots a thousand times a day skewing the study, but I knew all-too-well what one really homophobic person was capable of.
The city hated gay people. The nerve of it! After I’d stuffed my life into two suitcases to avoid living in a place that was now famous for exactly that, so I hated it right back. I would hate Riverside more than it hated me. I would find other gay people to hate it with me, and we would form a gang of haters. We would wear matching leather chaps and studded belts.
Starting a gay gang is hard when you’ve moved thousands of miles away from everyone you know. Desperate to meet queer folk, I lined up a series of dates on Grindr. The idea was to friend-zone myself. If I could go on dates and be semi-likeable, though not enough that anyone would want to actually explore a romantic relationship with me, I could convince some of these guys to be my friend, and maybe they would introduce me to their friends, and I could ask them all to join my gang, be my tribe. I was getting my Nancy Meyers fantasy back on track. I was ready to lock down my role as the quirky, though ultimately unlovable, best friend. I bought glasses and everything. I knew I was being devious, but there aren’t many places to meet other queer people organically in a small city, and I figured no one on Grindr was looking for a serious enough relationship to be genuinely disappointed by my low-stakes con.
On my first attempt, I took a man named Cruz to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. Inside, red Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling washed the place in a warm, rusty hue. A drowsy-looking machine spun frozen tamarindo margaritas behind the register next to a portrait of The Virgin Mary. Cruz was exactly one inch taller than me and had a small patch of white hair on his left sideburn. It was such a quaint defect, something that would make me put my hands to my chest and say aw if he were a cat at a shelter. I concentrated all of my energy on beaming the command “You are going to be my best friend” into his forehead. From his perspective, I must have looked like someone staring directly into the sun.
RuPaul’s Drag Race is a common denominator among all gay people, so halfway through the date I asked him who he was rooting for this season. He leaned in and eyed the tables around us as if he suspected we were being followed by the Secret Gay Police.
“To be honest, I don’t like that show,” he whispered.
“Oh,” is what I said. I suspected there were gay people out there who didn’t care about Drag Race, but I assumed it was only a matter of not having seen it. The same feeling struck me as when a friend once told me that she didn’t “like” sunblock. This was simply not an option. You will wear sunblock. You will eat your vegetables. And if you are gay, you will like Drag Race.
“Drag queens are like, not even talented,” was his reason. So the white patch of hair had been a trick to convince me that he was a good person, a perfectly adoptable best friend. If he had initially seemed endearing, upon closer inspection I noticed a small pile of bloody hairballs in the corner of his cage, a shelter employee reassuring me that it was probably just a cold instead of what it really was: a sign of something nefarious lurking within him.
And why the hell were there Chinese lanterns at this Mexican restaurant?
Not liking drag is one thing, but to not think drag queens are talented baffles me. One of the most compelling things about RuPaul’s Drag Race is that it’s an amalgam of every hit reality television show of the last two decades. Contestants are asked to sew their own costumes (Project Runway), sing (American Idol), write stand-up routines (Last Comic Standing), model (America’s Next Top Model), do their own special effects makeup (Face Off), and display a slew of other skills that have yet to be exploited elsewhere on prime time. Cheerleading. Giving dwarves make-overs. Tucking their penises and scrotums into their anuses. I wanted to ask him to shove his dick and balls into his butthole, leave them there for six hours, and then tell me drag is not a talent, but like an annoying kid pestering his parents to explain the petroleum jelly on the nightstand, I instead followed up with, “But why?”
He smirked. “I don’t really like gay guys.”
It’s possible he thought we were on a heterosexual date. Maybe if I had let him come on my chest later, the jizz would have magically assembled into the words “No homo.”
But we’re supposed to be your tribe, I wanted to say. It hadn’t been six months since Pulse. Already? I wanted to scream. Already you can hate us?
“Well, obviously I don’t hate all gay guys,” he corrected himself. “Just the femme ones. So dramatic, you know?”
And so it was no wonder that Riverside was the third most homophobic city in the country. When my next date referred to the lesbian bartender as a “dumb dyke” for not laughing at his dog rape joke, I knew I had to do something, fast, because I was beginning to see the sense in agoraphobia. Why should I go outside, where it was so hot that my cellphone would often stop working in my hands? Why should I bother with Riverside, where in 2002 the local gay bar was the site of a hate crime involving a gang of skinheads who stabbed and killed a gay man and injured another, saying, “You want some trouble… fag, here it is!” Even fifteen years later there was a cracked mirror on the dancefloor that led to what looked suspiciously like a bullet hole. And look, even the gay people hated gay people, hated the women who were dumb dykes, the men who were too feminine, too gay.
I shut myself in my room, miserable. Moving to California hadn’t magically fixed anything. I was more alone than ever. I turned to Drag Race, a show where there is no such thing as too gay. The gang was a dumb idea. My Nancy Meyers movie needed a re-write. One night, I typed RuPaul’s name into YouTube and watched him speak for hours, hypnotized by his ability to articulate everything that was keeping my new address from feeling like a home.
“Finding your tribe, finding your constituency and your comrades—that’s what this event is all about,” he declared at his inaugural Drag Con, the annual drag queen convention that draws tens of thousands of drag devotees to the Los Angeles Convention Center to worship at the altar of RuPaul. It was as close to a gay Mecca as you can get.
That’s it! I thought. That’s where I’ll find people like me.
I would make friends, and we would not be tragic or sad. We would be drag. Glitter and big hair and so many Cher medleys. There would be life after love, dammit.
At later conventions, and in other interviews I watched that night—RuPaul on The Oprah Show, making the rounds on all the late night talk shows, tearing up on Entertainment Tonight moments after accepting his Emmy—he went on to speak, obviously, about The Matrix.
Because RuPaul loves The Matrix, the 1999 sci-fi thriller about a computer hacker named Neo who awakens one day to discover that his entire life is an illusion. The Matrix is his I Ching, his life manual, as foundational to his drag philosophy as mascara and duct tape. RuPaul frequently says that the way people expect you to dress and talk and play by their rules is all a game. You don’t have to play their game. You can make your own rules. But first, like Neo, you have to wake up.
If he’d been barefoot with a beard in any of these interviews, I would have dismissed his ideas as the ramblings of a cult leader. But he always wore the impeccable, tailored suit of a waiter at an intimidating fancy restaurant, so I believed everything he said implicitly. The veal pairs well with a full-bodied Zinfandel? Naturally. The world is like The Matrix and humans are all sleeping drones being controlled by higher powers who manipulate our happiness by limiting how we express our gender, sexuality, race, and class? Well, duh!
Many queer people have known this since they first realized that liking who they like is wrong. There are rules, and you are breaking them. I didn’t think there was a vast underworld of Matrix people being mined by robots for their life force. But I know how it feels to not have control of my body. I know what it’s like to deplete an essential part of myself in public to avoid standing out, to have to mask my queerness at auto shops to avoid getting ripped off, to have to calculate the odds of getting gay bashed while walking to the grocery store at night for a gallon of milk, to not be able to make it through a movie without thinking, What if it happens again? Here. And he starts with you.
RuPaul’s philosophy reminded me of a line by Rilke from the poem Archaic Torso of Apollo. After describing a bust of the god Apollo with lush phrases like “eyes like ripening fruit” and stone that “glisten[s] like a wild beast’s fur,” Rilke ends the poem with what feels like an off-topic declaration: “You must change your life.” I always liked the abruptness of that line. It was as if he had been in a trance staring at the marble Apollo and had the epiphany, Oh yeah, this isn’t real. Move along, bub.
When I landed in California, the world felt unreal, too. Pulse was a crime scene, and evidence suggested the murderer was one of us. A reality star had been elected president with a running mate that supported conversion therapy and they were both being backed by neo-Nazis. Skinheads lived in my city. Gay people were being rounded up and sent to death camps in Chechnya. Years of being cautioned that at any moment someone might try to hurt me for being gay and Latino have made me irrational and narcissistic. I believed the paranoid voice inside that told me I was next. Among so much chaos, RuPaul’s words felt all-too sane.
And so I listened to him and thought: Snap out of it. Wake up.
You have to move along. You must find your tribe.
Two months after watching his speech, I rented a car and drove an hour and a half to Los Angeles for Drag Con.
I took a seat in a crowded auditorium next to two middle-aged women. We were early at the convention, eager for the first of the day’s scheduled drag panels. Elaine wore blue lipstick that clashed against her pale white skin, giving her the appearance of a drowning victim. Her friend, Pam, was dressed unusually casual for the crowd—jeans and a t-shirt—which only had the effect of making her stand out at Drag Con. As I inspected the pair, I felt like the orphaned baby bird searching for its family in the children’s book Are You My Mother?
Are you my tribe?
Generously, Elaine asked, “So, do you like Drag Race?”
I made a note to stop glaring at people like they’re the sun.
“I love it,” I told her. Elaine beamed.
“So do we,” she wrapped her arm around Pam, then leaned her head on her friend. “She hasn’t been herself lately. Have you, Pam?”
I looked around the auditorium. I wasn’t sure if this observation was meant for me. After all, I’d only met Pam a second earlier. Elaine could have told me that Pam had just escaped a women’s prison in Taiwan where she’d been locked up for smuggling ayahuasca through a slit in her armpit, and I would have smiled politely and asked if she’d made any friends.
Pam was equally caught off guard by the revelation. “Guess I haven’t,” she said, gently peeling Elaine off her chest.
I reached into my book bag and pulled out a pot gummy bear. Ever since I got to Riverside, I’d gotten into the habit of popping them like Baby Aspirin. I was weening myself off alcohol with drugs. Progress.
“Breakup,” Elaine explained. She took my uncomfortable nod as a cue to tell me more.
After twelve years of marriage, Pam had found condoms in her husband’s jeans. This wouldn’t have been strange, except she was on the pill. They didn’t use condoms. Devastated, she called Elaine for support. Come to California, Elaine said. Kim K. by the pool! Betty White and all that! With her friend’s encouragement, Pam booked a flight from Portland to California. She planned on confronting her husband but wanted to take some time to clear her head first. Elaine thought a makeover and going to Drag Con might cheer her up.
So, yes, Pam hadn’t been feeling herself lately. Her husband was almost definitely cheating on her and her best friend thought the solution would be to get a perm.
“Who do you want to win?” I asked, trying to switch to more pleasant conversation. Maybe we could talk about politics or Chechnyan gay death camps. I swallowed another gummy.
“Valentina,” answered Pam, no need to think it through.
Valentina was the front runner of the current season of Drag Race. I imagine Pam in bed late at night watching her most popular performance on YouTube. In the video, she wears a silk, white gown with orchids in her hair, lip-synching to Isabel Pantoja’s “Asi Fue” at a packed bar. It’s a sad song, about a woman who has fallen in love with another man after her lover disappears without warning. The singer resents him for leaving and expecting her to still love him upon his return, as if her life was supposed to halt while he was away. She’s sorry, she croons, but her hands are tied. What does he want from her? In contrast to the lyrics, everyone watching her is thrilled, their faces rapt. Valentina makes the singer’s heartache seem almost glamorous. And yet, you can’t help but wonder about the gay man underneath the makeup, what it took for him to get on stage. I mean this literally. Drag is painful. Aside from the tucking, there’s corsetry digging into your ribs, wig-tape pulling at your skull, feet stuffed and forced into unnatural angles. You wonder at the work it took him to channel Isabel Pantoja, to look like someone who has moved on.
“And who are you rooting for?” Pam asked.
Before I got the chance to answer, a drag queen in a white latex jumpsuit appeared in front of us. She held the hand of an Asian girl who peeked at me from behind a fan with the word “Shade” printed on it in gold.
“Biiitch,” the drag queen started, eyes widening at the empty seats next to me. “Those taken?”
I told her no, and the pair shuffled in sideways.
“You’re here alone?” Elaine asked. She looked thrown.
“I thought… So, you’re not waiting for friends?”
Oh. Without a tribe, I was defective. I could see them retreating: Who’s this kid who came here by himself? What did he do to not have anyone? Where are his people? Why is he eating so much candy?
The room fell into a reverent hush.
Katya and Trixie Mattel, two of the show’s most beloved former contestants and the hosts of the panel, took a seat on stage. Trixie immediately launched into her impression of RuPaul’s endless corporate sponsorships: “So I want to talk to you guys about Square Space. I was updating my Square Space under my Boll and Branch sheets on my Casper mattress, waiting for my audiobook from Audibook.com and my delivery from Blue Apron…”
The audience roared. She was spot on. There were times when the show felt more like an infomercial than, as RuPaul has put it, “a place to showcase the indomitability of the human spirit,” whatever that means.
In a few days, Pam would be flying alone back to Portland. In a few hours, I would be driving alone back to Riverside. If not a tribe—which I was gradually realizing was ridiculous, to really think I could find a family in a day, worse, in a couple of hours—then what would I leave with? What was the point? I loved RuPaul, but did he really think I could find a tribe here, or was he just trying to sell me a t-shirt? I popped another gummy.
I lost Pam and Elaine in the chaos that ensued when the panel ended and hundreds of people attempted to leave through the room’s two rear doors. As I exited the auditorium, shaking, unsteady, I realized, Oh my god, you are the most stoned anyone has ever been.
Which is how, ten minutes later, I found myself blinking back tears as I stared at a bunch of mannequins strung up from the ceiling. It was RuPaul’s gown exhibit, and each mannequin wore a piece of couture RuPaul had made famous on the runway throughout the last nine seasons of Drag Race. I’d seen every episode of the show several times, replaying the same clips in my bedroom like a college football coach obsessing over plays. One mannequin wore an iridescent purple gown covered in sequins as delicate as fish scales. Another had its left leg reeled back like it was stuck in limbo between falling and righting herself.
They were beautiful and I was crying.
Not because they were beautiful. Not because they reminded me of myself, in the days and weeks following the shooting when I felt like something to be looked at. I was way too stoned to think metaphorically. In fact, the weed planted me firmly in reality. I was hyperaware of the drag queen a few feet away adjusting her chicken cutlets before a photo-op, the little girl yanking her mother from pink dress to blue to white.
It was, it hit me, the first time I’d been in a room full of bright, smiling queer people since the attack. I didn’t know what to do with something so sad and so good. The idea that we were here, and we were safe and okay, confused me, and I was filled with a wild sense of belonging to something larger than myself. It was the same feeling I’d chased those nights when all I could do was drink, cry, and dance. I thought, even after all we lost, look at us.
Look at us when we weren’t sad. Four years earlier. I was twenty-one, with my friends Arturo, Elyse, and Jason. We were at Pulse to watch the finale of season five of RuPaul’s Drag Race, sitting cross-legged on the dancefloor like it was our living room. The show was playing on a projector screen on stage, the captions on because none of us could go more than two seconds without screaming in tongues: “Yass mawma werk mawma slayyyyy!” Look at Jason, coming back from a table where there was a tall stack of pizza boxes and pressing paper plates with greasy slices into mine and Arturo’s hands. Look at Elyse turning down the free gay bar pizza, a wise choice. We were a tribe of people who had nothing better to do on a Friday night than watch TV at a club: The shot boy in a jockstrap hawking test tubes of tequila who would frequently message me on Grindr at three in the morning to ask, “What’s up?” A girl I went to high school with, when I knew her as a boy, sitting at the bar running her fingers through a cheap, synthetic wig. There was no conflict that night. We watched RuPaul’s Drag Race, screamed when Jinkx Monsoon, Seattle’s premiere Jewish narcoleptic drag queen, was crowned, then danced the rest of the night away.
“Are you okay?” a Drag Con employee asked. He wore a bright pink staff shirt and a frown on his face.
A tear crawled down my cheek where it surprised my upper lip. I swiped it with my tongue. The truth: It tasted incredible. If only I could grieve forever, then I would have an infinite supply to feed on.
Behind him, a mannequin in a silver gown hung in the air. The dress had soft, blossom-shaped panels along the bottom half and splintered off into sharp daggers above the waist. It looked like an origami pineapple.
“I’m just lost,” I told him, casually wiping my cheek. I hoped it was a good enough lie. There was a chance he might call for backup. Code Twink. Gay guy crying about some dresses.
I opened my guidebook to a map of the convention center. The cavernous, 720,000 square foot space was divided by crossways named after puns from the show. I knew exactly where I was, but I bit my lip and narrowed my eyes on the map, putting on my best damsel-in-distress voice.
“If we’re on Realness Road? What’s the fastest way to get to Back Rolls Boulevard? I’m late for a panel?”
He told me to go straight down Sickening Street and make a left when I hit the wall of wigs. Glamazon Lane would have been faster, but I followed his directions anyway.
I made it to the intersection of Death Drop Alley and Sissy That Walkway before I turned around to make sure the volunteer wasn’t following. That’s when I saw him. Not RuPaul, but close. An actor, seated at a booth with a small stack of DVDs, who I recognized from one of my favorite movies when I was in high school. It was a film about high school, and cliques, and breaking free from them. You’ve seen it. You would have moseyed around his table trying to catch a better look, too. It’d been years and I hadn’t heard of him landing any major roles since. He had dark bags under his eyes and an untamed beard that made him look twice his age. I wondered if he’d sold any DVDs. Who even bought DVDs anymore? Seated behind those ancient artifacts, he was a relic selling relics.
Jesus, is that what I looked like?
I was holding on desperately to Orlando and to Pulse, scared that if I let them go, I would never get them back. And what if I didn’t get them back? What if there was no more than what I had, and it was time to find something else?
I did not want to move on if moving on meant I would have to let Pulse, my first tribe, go. And yet, I had moved. I had a driver’s license with a California seal on it. I had an apartment with mice.
You have to enjoy your life, I told myself. Because you are alive and you can. Wasn’t that the whole point of getting the heartbeat memorial tattoo on my wrist? To remind myself that the people who wanted me gone lost, that life was going to continue to happen?
I bought pizza. My cellphone died. I was too stoned for any of this. I sat at an open power outlet by the bathrooms next to a group of teenage girls wearing neon tinsel wigs. One of them dumped her tote bag on the floor, unleashing an avalanche of condoms and party-sized packages of lube she’d collected at the several sex education booths throughout the convention center. Pleased with her day’s catch, she counted each one out loud as she deposited them back into her bag. It sounded like counting sheep, and around her fiftieth, I dozed off.
Meanwhile, as I slept, there were hundreds of people in line. They were standing on a long, pink carpet unrolled just for this occasion. Every few minutes, they inched forward. At the end of the line, all the way over there—Can you see? No, further back. Behind that partition—was the person they’d all been waiting hours to meet. Picture him, her, either/or, RuPaul doesn’t have a preference. Sitting on a chair? I wouldn’t dream of it. A throne! Gilded, with red velvet cushions. It’s RuPaul’s meet-and-greet booth. And what is RuPaul wearing? I don’t know. I was stoned and asleep. I was cradling a half-eaten pizza on a paper plate, tears drying on my cheeks, a teenage girl looking at me like, What happened to him? Back to her loot. Fifty-one condoms. Fifty-three. Sixty.
The line moved again. Was it a minute? Was it even that? How much time do you get with RuPaul? And what do you say? What can you possibly say to God that he/she/they haven’t already heard before?
You could start with, I love the show.
There was a professional photographer. RuPaul doesn’t want you to take a selfie. He is asked for a selfie every day, and when the picture is too close, or the angle is all wrong, he is asked for another and another until it is perfect. He wants it to be perfect the first time because he values his time. He has a life to live.
Thank you, RuPaul answers.
Big fan of your work. You look fantastic. When I listen to you, I forget there are Nazis, that my husband cheated on me, that people hate us.
Thank you, thank you, and thank you. He means it. Really. To prove it to you, here it is with furrowed brows, with a sage nod, with a sigh, stamped forever in a perfect picture: Thank you.
Meanwhile, the pizza slid off my plate and left a grease stain on my jeans that would not come off for weeks, reminding me that instead of meeting RuPaul, I got stoned and cried on the floor.
I opened my eyes. The girl with the condoms was gone and there was a loud buzzing in my ear that I eventually realized was the sound of thousands of people having the best time of their lives at once. Even after all we lost, look at us. Actually, not us. Them.
In line for the first panel, a complete stranger had offered me a chicken wing. In front of me then, three drag queens dressed as bloody Victorian dolls cracked up as they fought over which bathroom to go into. A woman pushed a baby in a stroller, the boy’s eyes bugging out of their sockets at the colors, the laughter. If these people could find a way to be happy, why couldn’t I? They were enjoying this, because they were alive and they could. And I was alive, which meant that I could, too. Most of them were queer, and all of them loved Drag Race. Didn’t that join us in some small way? Not just our love of RuPaul, but the hate that drew us here in mass, so we could, for once, be in a room devoid of fear and the stink of tragedy. Didn’t just coming here make us a tribe?
Pam and I travelled across the country to make our hurt vanish, to forget the bad things that happened. Pulse was gone. Her husband cheated on her. These things would be true in Florida and Portland and RuPaul’s Drag Con. There is a kind of grief that you cannot escape. There is no way to heal from it, no way to move on.
Here is what you can do about it: You can cry and cry and cry, and then you can take the chicken wing, you can meet RuPaul while you can, you can stuff yourself into a gown and demand that people tip you for the effort. Or you can miss your life trying to change it.
I stood up. I took my guidebook out of my bag. There were things I still wanted to see.