On a June morning, a Sunday just over a year ago, my girlfriend and I were settled into our weekend routine: she drinking espresso and I black tea on the couch with her two dogs flanking us. While she watched ESPN, I scrolled through Facebook on my phone. That’s when I saw the first of many posts about the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and, clicking through to the news, I saw that the targets of the deadliest shooting in U.S. history were like me, like us.
KJ switched the channel to CNN, where we watched footage of friends and police officers carrying victims down the street, victims in blood-soaked clothes and makeshift tourniquets, victims balanced on backboards made only of human arms. I reached across my body to clutch KJ by the elbow, a gesture I usually reserved for violent moments in movies. I leaned my forehead into her shoulder for avoidance of what’s most frightening in life and the sheer reassurance that she was there. We watched a looping newscast, heard the same report read over and over for lack of better details, saw correspondents struggling for updates. Forty-nine dead would be the final tally. But I did not need the body count for this shooting’s implications to sink in; they dwelled already at my core.
Just the day before, KJ and I had walked along Central Avenue watching Albuquerque’s pride parade. We’d held hands amid thousands of gay-friendly strangers, responded in kind to wishes of “Happy Pride!” and graciously accepted beaded necklaces and a compliment from a passing woman on what a “cute lesbian couple” we were. All of this, I confess, was relatively new to me. We’d been together fewer than three weeks. She’s a fellow professor at a state university, and I’d asked her out by email after harboring a semester-long crush. Certainly, this was not my first gay relationship, but the others had been fleeting or unrequited, no doubt due to my own hesitation. Instead, I took awkward shelter in relationships with men: a two-year marriage to an architect in Chicago, then a fleeting tryst with a married man—perfect for hiding from both commitment and coming out at the same time. These sofa Sundays, on the other hand, felt real from the start. After our second date, which lasted a whole weekend at her house, KJ had said, “It feels like you’ve been here all along.” It was that good, that easy. For us.
After the parade, KJ and I turned down an invitation to an outdoor concert with her running buddies and returned, instead, to her house, where we lay next to one another in bed and laughed at Tina Fey and Amy Poehler in Sisters, then fell asleep around the same time that the first shots would have been fired in Orlando. The New Mexico night was quiet and the air calm, punctuated not by rounds of fire but by the whir of a fan and the stirring of her two dogs at our feet, the hum of moth wings brushing the window screen.
In our short time together, we’d had several conversations about how to make our relationship public. We talked about Facebook—about simply changing our relationship status and tagging one another. But my family, save for my sister and one aunt, didn’t know I was gay. Social media hardly seemed the way to break the news. So we held off.
A few nights later, I called my dad on his cell phone, hoping for a parental conference call. But he didn’t answer. I called my mom. It turned out my parents, as they often are, were in separate states: my mom back home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I grew up, and my dad on a golf trip in North Carolina. This would not work, either. So I held off, and though strapped by my unshared news, drove the two hours to KJ’s for another weekend together.
By that time, the Orlando victims’ names and photos had begun to appear on television and online. I wondered what it was like for their families—for those who may not have known. Do labels matter after death? Do labels influence how families grieve? If this had been a highway pileup and not a gay-club shooting, how would those left have received the news differently? Or would they have, at all? I like to think not. Certainly, though, the news of a death compounded by the news of a brother, a sister, a son father daughter stepchild best friend mother aunt uncle cousin’s—anyone’s—queerness complicates the death into one that might, for some, be a twofold kind of dying: that of the person and that of the person we thought we knew, but didn’t, entirely.
By mid-summer, I came out to my parents, got them both on the phone at the same time and broke the news that KJ was more than the “running partner” I’d been telling them about. They sounded unsurprised. And then they said they loved me no matter what. They are both Catholic conservatives who have spent their whole lives in the Hoosier State. I recognized that their response put me among the lucky—lucky not just for my parents’ acceptance, much as it must have strained their ideology, but also lucky for a chance to say the word, out loud, that calls me what I am.
Do labels matter after death? Do labels influence how families grieve? If this had been a highway pileup and not a gay-club shooting, how would those left have received the news differently?
Sad as it is to say, and perhaps perilous to suggest, shootings in this country follow patterns, in both the shooter’s modus operandi and ideology, but also in the choice of unsuspecting victim. Whether through religious loyalty or not, shooters root their methods in a precedent—and there are all too many precedents to follow. Orlando offers yet another of them, and so is by no means the end of attacks on the LGBTQA community. Such an assertion is promulgated by the newscasts that interrupted the coverage of Orlando: that a suspect was apprehended just hours before the Los Angeles pride parade with a carful of explosives and a camouflage suit, and had named the parade as his destination. Thus opens a new collective fear among a new collective of potential victims, another group that becomes a scapegoat for a hatred far greater than any number of bullets a gun can expel, far greater than any amount of arms control or vigilance can detain or prevent. Such is the nature of hatred: those who have a motive will locate a way to enact it.
But so, too, is the opposite of hatred: those who have a motive will, again, locate a way to enact it. For if not, I fear that we will become, all of us—not just schoolchildren, moviegoers, shoppers in malls, public servants, marathon runners and spectators, employees clocking in for their workday, dancers in a club who mistook gunfire for a DJ’s soundtrack—victims to violence the same way that Joan Didion, in her iconic essay “At the Dam,” foresees the end, the Hoover Dam in a world whose humans are extinct: “Of course that was the image I had seen always, seen it without quite realizing what I saw, a dynamo finally free of man, splendid at last in its absolute isolation, transmitting power and releasing water to a world where no one is.”
But both fear and realism (and these days, they look awfully the same) imbue us with the idea that the end will not look like something so straightforward and agnostic as water rushing into our absent world. Rather, it will look like a succession of gunshots, and it will sound like the resonating ring of an automatic on what outlasts us. Rather than water, that most prolonged and suffocating of deaths, we now see that we will leave a world bereft of those who do not shoot, bereft of those who react with compassion, bereft of those who engage tolerance over radicalism, over loneliness, over whatever it is that causes people to want a world comprised only of their own kind, of bullets and bloodshed, of a selfish ideology so grandiose it’s indeed apocalyptic.
There is a West African proverb that asserts, “May we wake up one by one.” For when we wake up all at once, it’s to the rapidity of gunfire, of emergency, of violence. It’s to mass alarm, terror and sociopathy, all of the above. But when we wake one by one, we awaken on our own terms, to the sun through our windows, to morning of its own accord and ours—espresso and black tea. May we all awaken one by one, and when we do, may we call each other’s names by the staggered light of day and know the person for whom we call.
Lauren Fath received a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of Missouri, an MFA in nonfiction from Oregon State University, and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Her essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Post Road, and poemmemoirstory, among others, and her poetry in Metonym. She is an assistant professor of English at New Mexico Highlands University in Las Vegas, New Mexico.