ORLANDO, Fla. — When you’re a journalist you become accustomed to tragedy. One day you’ll have a mass shooting, the next day you’ll have a terror attack and on the third day you’ll have a natural disaster. You witness death and destruction but your brain is trained to protect you. You feel for your fellow humans but you write your stories and you move on. I had managed to overcome it all time and time again, until Pulse.
It happened in my college town.
I wrote a story about the tragedy and my love for Pulse and Orlando a year ago. One line from it still haunts me, “The same club whose floors I danced on endlessly is where bodies were found on early Sunday morning.” It’s chilling.
A year ago I was sleeping with my light on for days. I would close my eyes and imagine how it all played out. My overactive imagination is my gift and my curse. I cried. I didn’t understand. I felt scared and didn’t know why. It’s not like I knew anyone who was hurt or killed that night.
Pulse was painful on a personal level, making it the most difficult story of my professional career.
I would go to work and write about it day in and day out. I had to watch videos over and over again. I’d walk away from my desk and go to the bathroom sometimes to gather myself. I took lots of deep breaths. It was tough but I didn’t want anyone else to write about it. It was my story.
Two weeks after everything happened, I felt this uncontrollable urge to go to Orlando. I wanted to see my friends. I wanted to see Pulse. I needed to see it all to believe it. My incredible friends, José and Antonio, opened the doors of their home to me so I could confront my pain.
The day I landed in Orlando, I met up with my Brazilian-American friend Patti and her partner Teryn, who are raising an incredible 8-year-old boy together. We hung out at a Pulse benefit and as the night winded down Patti asked me if I wanted to see the memorials, I used to go to Pulse with her. I said yes.
We pulled up to Pulse and both of them gave me my space to take it all in. I was overwhelmed with emotion.
I remembered how I used to park down the street because I was a broke college student who didn’t want to pay $2 for valet. I remembered dancing to Beyoncé and Black Eyed Peas. I remembered Kate, the bartender in the white room who always took care of me.
All the memories rushed my mind and I lost it. It must have been midnight or later and I was standing in front of one of my favorite clubs from my early 20s sobbing. I had to walk away.
When Patti found me I was sitting in her car and I was inconsolable. All I could do is ask her why. Why would someone have so much hate in their heart? Why Pulse? She looked at me and had no answers. A place we so loved as college kids was gone, tragically.
I’ve been back to Orlando twice since that moment. Each time I’ve visited Pulse. It’s almost like a dream. You don’t believe it even though it’s all there right in front of you. You talk about it with your friends and reminisce about the awesome memories shared at this incredible place where people just went to have a good time and be free of judgment. Your heart still sinks every time. But then, you start feeling comforted.
When you drive through Orlando, you see rainbow flags everywhere. There’s banners with the words “Orlando Strong” and “Orlando United” decorating the streets. There’s murals with rainbow colors and decals that say “Safe Space” at small businesses throughout the city.
I can only liken the energy of the city to those moments when you sit down and cry your eyes out and once you’ve run out of tears you take a deep breath and feel at peace. You mourn but you moved forward. My second hometown has a wound that healed but left a scar.
This city will never be the same but it is not broken. I truly believe Orlando has become the most LGBTQ+ friendly city in America and I couldn’t be prouder.
Orlando is where I grew up and became an adult and despite having moved away six years ago I continue to learn from this community. They have all rallied around one another and remember Pulse with such love and respect.
One year later the crack in my heart is still healing but I find comfort in knowing that even on the cloudiest of days you will always find a rainbow in Orlando.