Edgar Gomez | Longreads | June 2017 | 34 minutes (8,473 words)
It was Christmas Day in Orlando, just over six months after the Pulse Nightclub shooting, and my brother, Marco, and I drove through eerie, empty streets looking for anywhere open to eat. Most of the restaurants we passed were closed for the holiday, but still the city celebrated. Flashing neon lights framed a deli window where a mechanical display Santa waved us by with automated merriness. A swarm of inflatable reindeer grazed outside a “New York style” Chinese restaurant. Palm trees dressed as candy canes wrapped with red and white tinsel lined the sides of the road ahead. We were back in town to spend the holiday with our mother, who unexpectedly had to take off to Mexico the night before for a funeral, leaving Marco and me alone and scrambling to make conversation. He’d driven up from Miami. I’d flown in from California. We opted to listen to music instead. Marco steered with his knees, scrolling through playlists on his phone with one hand and smoking a cigarette with his other. He landed on a country song I’d never heard of before. I leaned out my window, away from his smoke, breathing in the spectacle of Christmas in Florida.
This was not my home anymore. I had moved to California in September, just two months earlier, but already the streets outside looked alien, every other light pole crowned with a flimsy-looking evergreen. Elves in swimming trunks were piled in sale bins outside of The Dollar General. I noticed that Marco’s seatbelt was unbuckled. If he were a friend, I would have lectured him about the dangers of driving recklessly, but because he was Marco, I left it alone. At 27, he was only three years older than me, though it was a wide enough age gap that any attempt to talk to each other was clumsy and forced.
When I asked him if he thought I dyed my hair too dark since he last saw me, he asked, “What’s the difference?” I was blond before. My new hair was black. He offered me a cigarette by tapping the carton on his thigh and flicking the lid open under my nose. I shook my head no and went back to staring out of the window, satisfied that we had at least tried to talk. I suggested Anthony’s Pizza, the place downtown with the newly minted mural featuring a flock of 49 doves of assorted colors representing the Pulse victims. No, he said.
“What about ZaZa’s?” the Cuban diner a block from our house, I tried.
“No,” he repeated.
I should have known better. When Marco drives, he likes to be in control. Even if he wanted ZaZa’s, my suggesting it eliminated it as an option.
“Is there anywhere you want to go?” I asked.
He turned up his country music.
I had forgotten that it can get cold in Florida. My clothes gave away the trip I wished this had been: a tank top under a Hawaiian shirt topped with a back-of-the-closet sweater and flip flops. I sank into my seat, suffocating in my last minute winter wear with the heat on full blast. We passed a McDonald’s where the menu sign outside read “We are a PokéStop,” referencing the popular Pokémon app that had recently become the latest mobile gaming craze, and directly below, “#OrlandoStrong.” The latter is the mantra that dominated vigils and billboards in the days after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. It is just ambiguous enough that perhaps unknowing foreign tourists would assume it meant anything but tragedy. Maybe Orlando Strong was a weightlifting competition the city was inexplicably passionate about. Americans, they might have chuckled to themselves, sucking on Slurpees before turning their thoughts to the new Harry Potter park at Universal Studios. In a few months, #OrlandoStrong would be pushed out of the sign to make room to herald the long-awaited return of the McRib.
We’d been driving for nearly twenty minutes when we came to a stop at a red light. Across the street, I saw a gathering of people outside a familiar looking white building. It took me a moment, longer that it should have, but at last the realization of where we were smacked me dumb. Pulse. Next door to where the husk of the nightclub stood, four hands spelled out the world “love” in sign language on the wall of an Einstein Bagels branch. It’s sacrilege among Orlando queers, but I hadn’t visited the site yet. I’d written about Pulse for a handful of publications, helped fundraise for the displaced workers, and stood in solidarity with the survivors at several vigils, but I had not been able to bring myself to visit the club. Something about going there in the daytime felt wrong to me, like catching a drag queen under fluorescent lighting. The nightclub was permanently closed, in limbo between crime scene and memorial. Its bones were all there was left to visit.
I didn’t understand why so many people were treating it as a Mecca. The building already had a place in my memories, where it firmly existed, cloaked in the nighttime, back when it was alive. It’s where I spent my 18th birthday, my 21st birthday. It was where I lied about my age to older men, telling them I was 21 when I was 18. It was too much of a disconnect for me to go there if it wasn’t going to be that Pulse anymore, so I abstained, saving face with my friends by telling them I’d already gone on my own. What was there to see? The hole in the wall where the police had set off explosives, proving that my sanctuary was nothing more than a cabin of straws and sticks? The bathroom where Omar Mateen held my friends hostage, killing 49 of us before putting a gun to his head? I was sick of hearing about the place from people who, well-intentioned as they were, didn’t understand that it didn’t belong to them. Pulse was ours. I set my stake down and marked it as my land. I couldn’t stand the memorial bumper stickers that flashed by on the freeway. The locals wearing limited edition t-shirts with hand-drawn maps of Orlando and a small sketch of a heartbeat over the nightclub. The Orlando City soccer stadium and its brand new rainbow section in the stands where you could now eat a hot dog, watch a game, and simultaneously honor the victims. I imagined myself strangling the toy poodle I saw wearing a colorful onesie embroidered with the slogan “Bark 4 Pulse.” I had to get out. Two-and-a-half months later I left for California. I shut my window shade on my flight out of Orlando. What was there left to see? I was done.
Across the street, I saw a gathering of people outside a familiar looking white building. It took me a moment, longer that it should have, but at last the realization of where we were smacked me dumb. Pulse.
From the car that day, I watched throngs of mourners gather around the building. Blown up photos of the 49 victims flanked the entrances, but otherwise, the place looked like it had gone wild. Everywhere, elaborate flower bouquets littered the ground. Lilies, roses, and chrysanthemums lay in stacks weighing down posters with messages to the deceased that were strewn throughout the parking lot. A middle-aged woman crossed the road, heading back to the memorial from the Wendy’s down the street. I looked at Marco, curious if he’d taken this road on purpose, but he simply stared straight ahead waiting for the light to turn.
I’d called Marco the day after the shooting, blacked out after a vigil at another Orlando gay bar, to scold him for not checking in on me. He hadn’t answered, so I left a voicemail, asking him why he didn’t think to call his younger brother after the deadliest mass shooting in the United States. The next day, he responded by sending me a text: “Sorry, dude, I thought you were okay. I saw that you checked in safe on Facebook.”
I had never told Marco I’m gay. It’s one of the few things I assumed he knew about me without me having to say it. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t call me after the shooting. The call would have been a breach in our unspoken contract about not discussing my sexuality. I would have been as uncomfortable with it as he would have. Still, I am someone who does not shy away from telling anyone who asks (other than my relatives) who I’ve gone to bed with, so not even casually broaching the subject with him felt like a betrayal of my politics. In the aftermath of Pulse, not mentioning it felt tantamount to denial, as if I was turning my back on all of those lost lives. The idea of a contract felt preposterous in the face of the building where my community had been murdered. There should not be any hidden agreements about what you can or cannot discuss with your family, no caveats detailing under which circumstances you may love each other. After Pulse, more than ever, I needed Marco.
Across the road at Pulse, I watched a toddler waddle back and forth between the memorial photos on the ground, occasionally stopping to examine a bouquet. I leaned back in my seat and wondered if Marco was thinking about my drunken voicemail. It would be typical of our relationship: the two of us, sitting side by side in silence, replaying something I’d said months earlier, both too nervous to bring it up. I was sure he didn’t know that I hadn’t visited the site yet. He didn’t know what city in California I lived in. Even so, I allowed myself to surrender to the possibility that maybe he was finally going to act like my big brother. Maybe the past few years we had lived in silence would be corrected. Things were different now. I could have been there. I could not be here. I knew we wouldn’t go back to those days when we spent hours playing video games draped over bean bag chairs, slaughtering zombie armies while chomping through fleshy pizza bagels. But maybe we could go back to taking care of each other, like when he would send me off to fight the hordes of living dead by myself so he could sniper them from a distance. I trusted him then, knowing he always had a plan to get me out. And if he didn’t, we would at least laugh watching my avatar scream helplessly while being devoured piece by bloody piece. Maybe he was taking me to Pulse, something I had vaguely hoped to do this trip but wasn’t sure if I could manage on my own. I didn’t have to ask him. He just knew.
The light turned green and I mentally prepared myself for our arrival. I wished he had given me advance warning. I would have bought flowers, worn something less ridiculous than my wool sweater with a baby lamb on the front with my novelty lime-green Daytona Beach tank top showing underneath. I can’t believe I’m going to Pulse in flips flops, I thought, remembering all of the outfits I’d spent hours finessing when it was still Pulse, the bar with the cutest boys who looked you up and down before deciding if you were worth it. I was caught up in the pageantry, worried I was wearing the wrong thing, not bringing the appropriate offering, when I realized that he had turned the car in the opposite direction of the club, headed away from downtown. He wouldn’t look at me, ironically all-too proper, his eyes intensely focused on the road ahead, his hands at 10 and two, and still no seatbelt. I didn’t say anything either, letting my disappointment hang in the air and quickly swallowing it again. Nothing had changed. In the rearview mirror, Pulse got smaller, shrinking into a pale white dot before it disappeared.
Barbara Poma, the founder of Pulse, has been a silent fixture in the Orlando queer community for decades. When, as a teenager, I first learned about the nightclub located a few blocks away from my high school, I knew nothing of Barbara. I never wondered why a straight woman might open a gay nightclub. I didn’t care about the legacy I was inheriting. I rode by Pulse on my way to school and saw it for what it represented at the time: a way out. A gay bar, a safe space, within reach, so long as I made it to 18, when I would legally be allowed inside.
I had never told my brother I’m gay. It’s one of the few things I assumed he knew about me without me having to say it.
Growing up in the carefree, coastal enclave of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Barbara had the kind of relationship with her older brother, John, that transcended simple, compulsory familial ties. Raised in a strict, tight-knit Italian family, there was no secrecy, there were no mysteries between the two, John doting over his little sister, helping her put highlights in her hair, teaching her how to do her makeup, an older brother dutifully instructing her on the fundamentals of being fabulous. She would have to remember those lessons when she opened Pulse years later in his honor.
It was 1982, a time when the gay scene was a misunderstood culture shrouded in secrecy. Everywhere new records were being broken. Michael Jackson’s Thriller dominated the pop charts, becoming the world’s best-selling album in a little more than a year, a title it maintains to this day. On the silver screen, depictions of queer people were also on the rise, both Victor Victoria and Tootsie snagging Oscars at the Academy Awards. Though Tootsie featured very little queer content, it helped introduce a new generation to the world of drag. I imagine John at the movies, wearing acid-washed jeans with teased out hair, delighted at the sight of a cross-dressing Dustin Hoffman playing an over-the-top woman of a certain age as Tootsie cemented its place as a camp classic. Maybe Barbara was there with him, as she always was. Maybe on the ride home the radio played Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me, the two screaming the words at the top of their lungs, in their excitement stripping the lyrics of their somber underbelly.
Among queer folk, the concept of choosing one’s own family has opened the doors for those who’ve been rejected by their biological families, or otherwise do not see themselves as belonging with their blood kin. Yet I get the feeling that had they been given the option, Barbara and John would have chosen each other. Beyond sharing blood and a home, they understood one another.
In photographs of her today, following the shooting, Barbara Poma is never without makeup, her thick, blonde mane framing her bright, easily attractive face. She must have radiated as a teenager, possibly using her beauty to her advantage to maneuver her way into the gay bar and club scene in Ft. Lauderdale when she was just 14, following in John’s footsteps. When he had come out to his family, they transitioned from a culture of stringent Italian tradition to one of support for John. With her brother by her side, Barbara soon became enmeshed in queer Ft. Lauderdale nightlife, drinking and dancing with him while she was still in high school.
Their time together was cut short. On February 13, 1991, a year before I was born, John passed away after several years of living with HIV, leaving a hole in the Poma family. In 2004, Barbara partnered with her friend, Ron Legler, to open a gay nightclub in John’s honor. She named the bar Pulse after John’s heartbeat. It would keep beating inside the club’s doors.
I look back at myself in high school, desperate to escape my mother’s belligerently Catholic household with flea market portraits of Jesus on every wall, and recall how my eyes were forever opened when I first set foot into Pulse, discovering there was a whole new world in place for me, one that Barbara had been only beginning to forge all those years ago. I remember being overwhelmed by a mixture of anger and joy when I finally made my way inside. I was furious that I had to wait so long to enter this place. Many queer people don’t have the luxury of waiting. I wasn’t beaten at home for my queerness. Marco occasionally called me a fag, but he never told me to turn my pop music down, didn’t force me to wear looser jeans. I could tell he was embarrassed by me, so I watered myself down and tried my best to appear vaguely straight. When I could remember, I used headphones to listen to my music. I left the mystery of my sexuality open-ended so he might have a glimmer of hope and I could have plausible deniability on the off-chance things truly got bad. At Pulse, I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. I couldn’t stay angry for long with the place for making me wait. I had heard countless tragic stories of queer kids like me who’d taken their lives before they turned 18, but I had made it. I didn’t have time to mourn the unfairness of it all. I was a teenager and I was free.
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If I could not be out to my mother or to Marco, I could claim Pulse as my new home, its inhabitants as my new family. I could rely on them as surely as if we shared blood. I knew Pulse’s doors would be open on Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas. I had inside jokes with the building. The bathrooms for peeing and the everything-else bathrooms. The gray stain on the white sofa only a handful of us knew the true origin of. I learned how to be a man from the writing on its walls. The STD prevention poster that read: “A smile isn’t the only thing that can be infectious.” The sign on the bar that told patrons “Tipping is not a city in China.” It was in this nightclub that I tried karaoke for the first time, awkwardly tripping over the words to Dolly Parton’s Nine to Five, spilling a little of my vodka cranberry at each chorus. On other visits, I had danced “The Time Warp” at last call, thrusting my hips in circles on the near-empty dancefloor; I had watched my friends have lucky and unlucky nights; had gone around telling men my name was Antonio and Ezekiel and whichever other names I convinced myself I was sober enough to pronounce, on those occasions having unlucky nights myself, but still having fun anyway.
Then, on June 12, 2016, between 2:02 and 5:15 a.m., 29-year-old Omar Mateen walked into Pulse with a SIG Sauer MCX assault-style rifle. It was Latin Night, a busy Saturday that bled into early Sunday morning. John’s legacy and my family were wiped away. I drank for 24 hours straight. Disoriented, with my judgment clouded by too many drinks, I called Marco, leaving a voicemail demanding that he acknowledge me.
In the days after the shooting, Pulse regulars attested to having seen Omar in the club in the past. News outlets discovered that Omar Mateen had a presence on gay dating websites. Former classmates and coworkers threw their voices into the conversation, eager to talk about how they had always known there was something different about him. If Omar Mateen was ever interested in men as many of the reports after the shooting have insinuated, he certainly would have never told his father, the elder Seddique Mateen. Like me, he would have been terrified about telling anyone in his family at all. The Mateen family were pious, offering regular generous donations to a local mosque they attended, though around school, Omar did little to outwardly express his Islamic faith. Like most teenagers, he slipped his religion off at the door, surrendering to the more powerful life force of high school and girls.
Among queer folk, the concept of choosing one’s own family has opened the doors for those who’ve been rejected by their biological families, or otherwise do not see themselves as belonging with their blood kin.
Fifteen years before the shooting, on September 11, 2001, he was fourteen, the same age Barbara Poma was when she first discovered the Ft. Lauderdale gay scene with John. Unlike Barbara, Omar was unpopular, most often pictured wearing black. In later years, he would become obsessed with weight lifting, a seed that was likely planted as a teenager when classmates described him as chubby, the kind of kid who would get slapped in the back of the head while riding the bus to school each morning. He was one of the few students of Afghan descent, standing out in the predominantly white suburb of Stuart, Florida, where in the 2000 census, over 80% of the population reported as identifying as “white alone.” At the time, he attended Spectrum Alternative School for students with behavioral issues. He did not have an easy time. In an interview with The Washington Post, Justin Delancey, a former student at Spectrum, confirmed that Omar was brutally bullied at school: “He’d try to joke and laugh and make fun of himself to get the attention off of himself.” Mateen was guarded, using his persecutor’s words in a desperate attempt to protect himself. “But it didn’t work.” On September 11, he would try again.
That morning, watching the Twin Towers collapse on a small classroom television, former classmates remember that Omar was all smiles. Was he delighted, seeing the crumbling buildings and the gray figures running away from the smoke and debris as life imitating an action film, or was he already worried students would link the brown faces on the television with his brown skin, the smile masking his nerves? Reporters looking for a connection between Omar’s early history and the Pulse shooting uncovered a progress report dating back to the fifth grade. On it, a teacher noted that Mateen “lacks remorse.” But what does it mean for an elementary school student to lack remorse? And what is an appropriate response to terrorism, knowing that what he saw on that television would ruin the lives of so many in his community?
“It was almost like surreal how happy he was about what happened to us,” another classmate told The Washington Post. Reportedly, in his excitement, Mateen began to brag that Osama bin Laden was his uncle, spinning a tale about how the founder of Al-Qaeda had taught him how to shoot an AK-47 when he was younger. Back then, most teenagers did not know who Osama bin Laden was, so it’s likely Omar seized the name from the news coverage to fabricate his story. If making fun of himself didn’t work, could he somehow use the terrorist attacks to his advantage? Students in class grew angry. At Spectrum, this was no minor risk. Faced with a looming threat of violence against the already tormented Mateen, his teacher sent him to the dean’s office. His father was eventually summoned to pick him up. When he arrived, Seddique slapped his son across the face in the courtyard in full sight of his son’s classmates. Perhaps, predicting the rise in hate crimes against people of Islamic faith that were soon to come, Seddique wanted to distance his family from the attacks, using Omar as an example. They were not terrorists, the slap articulated to those who witnessed it. The Mateens loved America.
If he was already being bullied for his beliefs, how could he ever return to that class now that his father had publicly shamed him? His classmates, if not before then certainly now, despised him. His father saw him as a liability. Omar was silently queer and openly brown. He was at the bottom rung at a school for students with behavioral issues. Yet, he could have seen Pulse like I had: a place where he could one day go to escape. A home when no one and nowhere else would accept him. He could have chosen to wait it out, to let Pulse take him in. It would have. He could have danced to Kylie Minogue, drank too many cheap well cocktails, pulled someone into a bathroom stall. But when his father slapped him for smiling, for making him look bad, maybe he thought that world could never be for him. If he could not have it, he might have thought, then it would not be for anyone at all.
At 14, I was starting my freshman year at Boone, the Orlando high school commonly referred to as “The Reservation,” despite being built in 1952 and having no ties to Native Americans. I’d been accepted into Boone because the school I was originally zoned for, Oak Ridge, did not offer a criminal justice program. Oak Ridge had been given an F grade for two consecutive years by the school board. I was granted permission to attend Boone when I wrote to the board pleading to be allowed into the criminal justice program. All my life, I’ve wanted to be a policeman, I told them, figuring it was true enough: I wanted to be an actor and maybe one day I would play one on television.
Like Omar, I was an easy target, the only brown student in most of my classes, frequently wearing girl’s jeans while adamantly denying rumors about my sexuality. In the summer between middle and high school, I had finally admitted to myself that I was attracted to other boys. I was never physically harmed for being queer. I didn’t give my classmates a chance. If reporters dug through my high school records, what would they find? On one progress report that I forged my mother’s signature on, a teacher wrote: “Edgar is lovely to have in class. I wish he would communicate more.” Would that explain that I was worried that people could sniff the gay on me? That I thought I needed to avoid all of my former friends from middle school at every turn, taking a seat at the back of classes, eating my lunch in bathroom stalls, hiding in the rows of bookshelves in the library while I waited for Marco to drive me home because there was no school bus assigned to pick magnet school students up from my side of town? And even if there had been, that I would have been embarrassed to be dropped off in front of our house after my mom painted it light blue with red trimming on a whim one day? Would it get back to the other students in class that the Hispanic kid was living in a Pollo Tropical?
Halfway through the year, I begrudgingly made one friend, Colton from French, the only class where I was required to speak aloud. Among the alternative kids, Colton was popular, and we soon ended up spending every weekend smoking pot behind the mall, bonding over skateboarding and our mutual adoration of The Ramones, both of which I loved all the more because they were things the white kids liked. But our friendship did not last long. Colton quickly grew overly confident, bragging to our classmates about how much he loved pot, going as far as waving dime bags in the air on our walks to class and laughing as students distanced themselves from us. His behavior attracted the attention of the campus police. A month before freshman year was over, I was summoned to the discipline office and expelled. Colton was as well. However, his family had deeper pockets than mine did, and he was soon enrolled in a private Catholic school. I went back to Oak Ridge.
Omar was silently queer and openly brown. He was at the bottom rung at a school for students with behavioral issues. He could have seen Pulse like I had: a place where he could one day go to escape.
I’ve often speculated how my timeline might have been different had I not been sent to Oak Ridge. I could have, like some other students who were expelled for drug use, been shipped to a behavioral school like Omar had been decades earlier. Instead, because of my decent grades and because I believe the superintendent, who was a person of color, pitied me, the expulsion was expunged from my permanent record and I was given a fresh start at the school I was originally zoned for. There, I more or less thrived, coming out of the closet to my close friends sophomore year and being fully out on campus by junior year. I couldn’t talk to Marco or my mother about what I was feeling, but I had a support group of girlfriends at school who knew what it was like to have boy troubles. Besides, in a few years, I constantly reminded myself, I could go to Pulse.
It’s impossible to pinpoint the variables that make up someone like Omar Mateen, but reading about his early life, I’m alarmed by the similarities we shared as young adults. How would my depression and self-hate have manifested themselves had I not been expelled to a school where I was more or less able to express my sexuality freely? What options are there for young, queer, brown boys like us? Is there an alternate timeline where Omar was pitied by someone in power and given a chance to not become a killer? Omar is dead, and so in the absence of a trial where he would have been cross-examined beyond reasonable doubt, I demand a physical map of his life that I can spread out before me and scrutinize with a fine comb, so that I may point and say, There. That is when he stopped being human. I cannot keep asking why, but when. When could we have done better? Where? How can we make sure this never happens again?
Marco and I arrived at Anthony’s Pizza, long after I had suggested it. The restaurant is located in a prime corner of Mills 50, the Orlando arts district where you can take a Jazzercise class, drink Vietnamese boba tea, and buy a necklace to ward off the evil eye all within one block. Because it was Christmas, the parking lot at Anthony’s was deserted, and Marco, suddenly eager for pizza, took up two spaces with his Jeep.
“Is this the place?” he asked.
“I thought you didn’t want to come here?” I asked back, frustrated that he couldn’t agree to go there in the first place. He stepped out of the car and headed for the front door without saying a word. As usual, I followed.
After high school, our lives drifted apart. I could not fathom why Marco was so eager to begin his new life in Miami, where he had been accepted at Florida International University and planned on majoring in Civil Engineering. In turn, he didn’t understand why I spent so much time fretting over my hair or my nails. He never told me to stop, but it was understood that I should not linger too long around his friends in the same way that he knew not to ask me if any of the girls I hung out with were my girlfriend. I always wondered where he got his masculinity from, and if he was trying to compensate for my fay mannerisms by obsessing over things like rugby and cars. I was undeniably gay. Marco and I often barricaded ourselves in our room and eavesdropped on my step-father arguing with our mother about how she was raising me, why she was letting me bleach my hair, how disrespectfully I was behaving, all obvious disguises for what he really meant to ask: why are you letting your son be gay? Maybe, hoping to deflect the attention off of me, Marco postured himself as everything that I wasn’t. When he came home after soccer practice with bruises on his arms and legs, he proved that our mother wasn’t raising us wrong. Clearly, the pools of blue and purple on his body said we had the capacity to be men. She wasn’t doing a bad job raising us. It was me who was defective.
“You’re doing a really good Omar impression,” I told Marco.
He dropped his eyes down to his plate, zeroing in on his meal.
Omar is our stepfather, the reason my mom relocated us from Miami to Orlando over a decade ago and the reason she was in Mexico now: his mother passed away on Christmas Eve. Her hands were tied. She had to go.
The accusation didn’t come from nowhere. Marco was, in fact, acting like a total Omar, but still, I knew it was cruel. He is nothing like Omar. Omar, like all stepparents since the dawn of fairy tales, is fundamentally evil. It’s not enough that he shares a name with Omar Mateen, but that he knows and can easily call upon my biggest fears. Once, after Marco had gone away to college and left me with Omar and my mother, I overheard them fighting. This time, I didn’t have Marco with me to turn up the volume on one of our video games. I stormed into their bedroom and demanded that he leave our house. My mother, in her nightgown, told me to go back to my room. Omar’s father had just died. Yes, he was being unreasonable, but this was not the time for me to insert myself. It was already too late. I had never interrupted one of their fights. I had never made my presence known like this. I kept at it, unwavering in my insistence that he should leave. He pushed me out of his way. I fell backwards onto a dresser, hitting an open drawer with my back. Instinctively, I jumped to my feet and brought a fist to his face. I had been waiting my entire life to do that. To show him that I wasn’t someone to talk about behind closed doors. I was powerful. But it was pathetic. I shuddered at how unsatisfying the punch tasted on my knuckles. The blow had knocked my perspective out of place. Suddenly, he was not the man who made me question myself from the moment I met him. He was an old, petrified son who had just lost his father. I appraised him as if he had stepped out of my life and into a textbook. His thinning, white hair. The spider web of wrinkles bordering his eyes, still red either from drinking or crying over his father or both.
“I’m going to tell everyone that you pushed me,” I warned him, hoping to scare him off before the fight escalated any further.
“Who are you going to call?” he laughed. “Your dad? Your uncles? Marco? No one is going to come just for you.” I believed him. Why would anyone in my family try to rescue me? When had they ever before?
After the Pulse shooting, I felt my world shrinking out of reach. When I read about Omar Mateen’s father slapping him in front of his classmates, I knew instantly that that is where our lives shifted out of sync. He didn’t have anyone to call or any place to look forward to.
I needed Marco. He was not Omar.
“The food here is so heavy,” he said, stabbing at his eggplant parmesan.
“So heavy!” I yelped, theatrically struggling to pick up my pizza. He didn’t laugh, which in turn made me laugh.
Marco works as a construction foreman, but every few months, he calls to pitch me a new project, assuming that my teaching creative writing classes means I can bring his ideas to life: “Hey, little bro, I have an idea for a screenplay about a cabana boy. Think Will Ferrell.” “Sup, broski, I need you to write me a movie. I’m securing the funds, but I already have a director. I want a comedy. Big bucks.” “Hey man, I’m thinking about moving to Italy. Don’t tell mom.”
Marco and I often barricaded ourselves in our room and eavesdropped on my stepfather arguing with our mother about how she was raising me, why she was letting me bleach my hair, how disrespectfully I was behaving, all obvious disguises for what he really meant to ask: why are you letting your son be gay?
On the phone, he comes to life. But in person, we flatline.
I wanted to bring out Phone Marco. Real Life Marco stared blankly at the game on one of the restaurant’s televisions.
“How’s work?’ I asked him.
“Solid,” he said.
“Still live in that place near South Beach?”
“Whatever happened to moving to Italy?”
“The food’s so heavy here.”
The last time we were together was at my college graduation. My grandmother had died the night before. Again, my mother’s hands were tied. She had to go. I couldn’t afford a plane ticket to the funeral in Nicaragua. You better go to that ceremony, my mom told me, throwing random articles of clothing into her suitcase. It had been minutes since she got the call from my uncle telling her my grandmother was found on the floor of her bathroom. But she was done crying. She had things she needed to do. She could not miss the flight. I counted six pairs of socks in her luggage for her planned two-day stay. When she wasn’t looking, I shoved clean underwear inside. And you better take pictures for me. I had to stay.
Again, Marco drove up to Orlando from Miami. Again, we sat at restaurants trying to figure out what to say to each other. For my graduation ceremony, I painted my nails purple to go with my gown and sat in my assigned seat next to a girl who kept waving at a speck in the audience. She reminded me that my mom was not there. Omar had work and I didn’t bother asking him to request time off. Most of my family were in Miami. We couldn’t speak to each other, but at least I knew that somewhere in the arena was Marco, even if our minds were off in Nicaragua.
I wept openly, letting the tears roll down my face without bothering to wipe them off. Everyone was crying. We were graduating. But what was I doing here? Why wasn’t I with my mother at the funeral? I may not have had the money, but Marco did. Why didn’t he go? To be here with me?
Years later, at Anthony’s, I wanted to prod him back to life, to perform CPR on our relationship. I wanted him to be my brother again, to know that I could call him if I ever needed to, but I didn’t know how. I gave up and turned my eyes to my plate, drawing circles with my straw on the tray. I watched him eat his meal in silence. I tried to make sense of the game on the television. He wiped his mouth with a napkin and threw it triumphantly on his plate.
“So, where in California do you live?” he asked.
“Riverside,” I said.
“Near L.A., right?”
Back in the car, I told him to put on his fucking seatbelt.
In retrospect, it’s a wonder to me that anyone ever comes out of the closet, considering all of the creative ways the world tells queer people to deny themselves. Of course Omar Mateen would have never admitted to his same sex attractions. Of course he was angry.
In the years following high school, Omar hopped from job to job, never staying in one place for too long. His résumé doesn’t seem to point to any larger aim, working as a bagger at a popular Southern grocery store chain followed by stints at Chick-fil-A, Circuit City, Walgreens, Hollister Clothing, and at the supplement store General Nutrition Center (GNC). Colleagues described him as fun, always chasing after girls. Others have suggested that Omar may have lived a double life.
Samuel King, who was a year ahead of Omar in high school, worked at the Ruby Tuesday’s chain restaurant next door to GNC at the mall. King, who performed in drag at night, told The Daily Beast that Omar would occasionally hang out with his group of openly gay friends, often sitting at the bar after a shift where he would joke around with the lesbian bartenders. Omar’s former manager at GNC, Margaret Barone, whom Mateen called “Miss Margaret,” simply assumed he was gay. Another gay man, David Gonzalez, told The Washington Post that he remembers how Omar used to look at him “in a certain way like he wanted me to approach him.” Gonzalez lived next door to Mateen’s parents and has said, “He knew I was gay.”
It’s evident that Omar, if not gay himself, was at least comfortable around queer people, further complicating his father’s story that the shooting was motivated by an incident a few months earlier when Mateen witnessed two gay men kissing and became enraged. “We were in downtown Miami. Bayside. People were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” he told reporters. Gay marriage had recently passed in the United States in June of 2015. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said: ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’” If Omar was never comfortable telling his father about questioning his sexual identity, why would have Seddique believed anything to the contrary? Admitting to knowing about Omar’s hidden life would have been to acknowledge that he had a hand in stifling it, that he was partly responsible for the man his son would grow up to be.
In retrospect, it’s a wonder to me that anyone ever comes out of the closet, considering all of the creative ways the world tells queer people to deny themselves. Of course Omar Mateen would have never admitted to his same sex attractions. Of course he was angry.
Then there are reports that Omar had a profile on a popular gay dating app, Jack’d. I had thought Omar looked familiar when I saw his face plastered on every major news outlet in the days after the shooting, his grainy mirror selfies fitting in nicely with many of the older men I’d seen on Grindr and Hornet, two other gay dating apps, in the past. Would he have hit on me? I asked myself. Even more daunting: had he? When the news broke of his Jack’d profile, I pulled out my phone and scrolled through dozens of unanswered “Looking?” messages saved in my inbox. I was anxious to confirm for myself that I had never, I would never. I didn’t find any messages from Omar, but a horrifying thought clawed itself into my brain that day: he could have been any one of us. I remember all of the closeted men who have messaged me in the past, many of them married to women like Mateen had been. Their profiles usually requested discreet hookups. Masculinity is so prized in certain circles that instead of scaring off potential suitors, the idea of a secret affair often attracts some gay men. I wonder, if he truly had a profile, if anyone took him up on his offer. Seeing Omar’s face on the news, did any gay men discover they had been to bed with a murderer? Someone who had killed one of their friends?
Nearly a decade before the shooting, Omar began to take serious interest in transforming his appearance. Already six feet tall, he used his employee discount to purchase protein powders and supplements from GNC, bulking up so quickly that he developed stretch marks on his skin. He was done being used as an example. He was 19 now and decided he would become a police officer. Had I graduated from Boone’s criminal justice program, would I have been doing the same? After earning his associate’s degree in criminal justice technology from Indian River Community College, Omar quit the GNC in search of a job that would put him closer to his goal of working in law enforcement. Soon, he found work as a correctional officer at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Florida, a state prison for adult male inmates where he swore, under oath, to “perform my duties faithfully and in accordance with my mission to ensure the public safety.” He lasted less than a year. In April of 2007, the same month of the Virginia Tech massacre, he was dismissed. Colleagues suspect it had something to do with a gun threat made by Omar while he attended the police training academy in which he asked a classmate whether he would report him if he brought a gun to campus, though no formal charges were launched against him.
Pulse was a place where I didn’t have to worry about being caught. Passing through its threshold, I could shed off any embarrassment I felt about being too feminine, not liking the correct things.
Five months later, with a clean record, he found a new job at G4S, a leading U.S. security firm, where he was still working the night of the shooting. According to a statement released by G4S, “Mateen was subject to detailed company screening when he was recruited in 2007 and rescreened in 2013 with no adverse findings.” As a licensed security guard, Omar was granted a permit to carry a concealed weapon.
That same year, allegedly motivated by his coworkers teasing him about his Islamic faith, he bragged that he had family connections to Al-Qaeda and that he was a member of Hezbollah, echoing the stories he told as a teenager of being Osama bin Laden’s nephew. Again, he was turning his peers’ biases against them: Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah are bitter enemies, a fact Omar must have known his coworkers weren’t aware of. His claims landed him on an FBI watch list and Mateen was placed in a terrorism database. After 10 months of surveillance in which his calls and movements were tracked, FBI Director James Comey determined that he had only said those things “to try to freak out his co-workers.” From claiming familial ties to Osama bin Laden, to fabricating connections to conflicting Islamist militant groups, and later, inside the club, telling the police that the Boston bombers were his “homeboys,” playing to American fears of terrorism was a hand Omar was skilled at. It was the only hand he knew he had at all.
Free of the watchful eye of the FBI, with no open charges against him, he was legally able to purchase a handgun and a SIG Sauer MCX assault-style rifle in Port St. Lucie in the days before the attack. The owner of the gun shop, a former New York City police officer who had worked at the Twin Towers in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, told reporters if he “hadn’t purchased them from us, I’m sure he would have gotten them from another local gun store in the area.” On June 12, only twelve years after its doors first opened, Omar Mateen stepped into Pulse.
I woke up the morning after Christmas and found Marco gone. Back to Miami and to calling each other every six months and, yes, I’m fine, and I have an idea for a movie! My mother, still in Mexico, extended her stay and wouldn’t return until New Year’s, leaving me with the house to myself.
I used to thrive in moments like these, home alone, coming to life the second my mom would step out to go to work. I would wait for her car to turn the street corner and rush to her bathroom so that I could play with her makeup, in my eagerness bypassing brushes and rubbing pink and red eyeshadow on my lids with my bare fingers, bronzing my entire face and twirling around in clouds of her rich perfume. Before she returned, I would scrub the makeup off, take a shower, and go back to being myself. She wouldn’t be coming back from work this time.
I had a week left in Orlando to do everything I had planned this trip. I didn’t need Marco to take me anywhere. I would have to do it myself. I sifted through the clean clothes I had left. A pair of black jeans. A floral button-up shirt. Boots that I could possibly pass as formal. I could go and pay my respects to Pulse. I could stop lying to my friends and actually go through with it.
Pulse was a place where I didn’t have to worry about being caught. Passing through its threshold, I could shed off any embarrassment I felt about being too feminine, not liking the correct things. Here was a place where everyone liked the wrong thing. I could stop comparing myself to Marco. His home was in Miami. His safety existed in a world that I didn’t, and would never need to, fully understand. That was his. This was mine. I would not share. I would have to do it alone.
I walked around the house where I grew up. It was funny, now that I was older, how less terrifying the painting of The Last Supper looming over our kitchen table looked. The crucifix nailed above our front door and the statue of the Virgin Mary surrounded by votive candles in the living room were less ominous now that I didn’t feel like I needed to escape them. This never felt like my home. It was where I passed the time waiting for something more.
I would never have to tell Marco I am gay. For a long time, I thought actually saying the words to him was what was important. I worried that I would scare him off, that he would see me differently and wash his hands of us. Yet all along, I had made myself known. I had said it without saying it. I said it with my clothes, my friends, my silences. If he ever suspected I could be straight, my calling him demanding that he acknowledge what happened must have eliminated all doubts. And he was still around. I had nothing to confess that he didn’t already know. I would never have to tell him I am gay because in so many ways I already had. I might lose him some day for turning down one too many of his screenplay ideas, but never for this.
Pulse was waiting. I could go and fulfill my duty. I could leave flowers in the parking lot, take a picture of the memorial and tag it #OrlandoStrong on Instagram. I could, but I didn’t want to. It was just a building. It wasn’t Pulse’s walls that had made it what it was. John Poma’s heartbeat didn’t live in the laminate flooring or the marble countertops, it wasn’t brick and mortar. It was the people inside who embraced me that made it my home. And they existed whether Pulse did or not. Omar Mateen did not understand that he could break the building, but he could not shoo away the life that had fixed its feet there, could not pull out the stake that I had planted when I turned 18 and deemed it my own. I had felt John’s pulse. It lived long after he passed away and it would remind me that there was love and acceptance and dancing to be had long after Pulse closed its doors. It would be there whether I visited the site or not. I would carry his legacy with me back to California. I would take it wherever I called home.
I called my friends and we had a potluck, got stoned, and watched bad movies on crowded couches, went hiking and swimming and exchanged cheap, handmade gifts that I made room for in my luggage. We had cried side by side six months before at the vigils. That night, we didn’t talk about Pulse once.
* * *
Edgar Gomez is currently completing his MFA at the University of California, Riverside, where he is working on a collection of personal essays about queer spaces and community. His writing has most recently appeared in The LA Review of Books, The James Franco Review, The Rumpus, and The Florida Review.
Editor: Sari Botton