To each of you,
I was not paying attention. Someone at the gay campground in Tennessee said something had happened, he had a radio, but I was busy doing — what? Hunting for sex maybe, or avoiding the drama of the gay men who took me to this clothing-optional camp in the middle of the woods.
There was no cell service so nobody knew where I was. As I drove back the next day, the texts came in. My sister: Alex did you go to Orlando? Then: Please answer me!
I turned on the radio. At first, they said 30 were dead. Over the next few hours, the number rose to 50, then finally 49.
I arrived in Atlanta at dusk. I was with my friend Josh and his pack of men. Josh was my occasional lover, and when I looked at his face, his eyes turned down, I knew it was the end of our relationship, and it was. I can’t say our breakup was a result of the massacre but I link them together in my mind.
I could have driven to Orlando. It wasn’t far.
Over the following weeks, writing felt pointless. People in Florida were giving blood donations and volunteering. I thought about going. My blood could not be given, but I had two hands, two feet. I could do something.
You were murdered in a place I’d likely visit — a gay club. Nearly every weekend, I go to an Atlanta gay bar. I realized with horror that anyone could walk into any of them on a Saturday night and spray bullets.
A month ago, I was at the bathhouse. There’s a leather sling in a dark corner and I was there, blindfolded, getting fucked by strangers, when I started thinking about my friend Brent. For the first time in eight months, I wanted to be somewhere else — sleeping next to him. After my last breakup, I thought I would never have a crush again. I had hooked up too much, had too many wild nights. Promiscuity, I thought, had barred me from conventional feelings of jealousy and romance, things reserved for those who didn’t live this way.
What did these feelings have to do with you? It’s hard to say. I stopped going to bars and went to the bathhouse instead because it felt safer — because it was harder to bring a semiautomatic weapon into a bathhouse. The check-in person spoke through a square of bulletproof glass and pressed a button to unlock the steel door into the building. I went there seeking escape from the world — from you and from the understanding that you could have been any of my friends, any of my lovers. In thinking of those friends and lovers — the ones I feared for — I thought about him.
He and I had chosen particular sex lives: ones filled with slings and drugs and passing connections. No one gets hurt when you don’t know anyone’s name. Still, I was feeling romantic. What a strange thing to feel in such a place. Brent moved to New York not long ago and everyone in Atlanta seems to miss him. Everywhere I go, his name comes up in conversation. “You should have met Brent, this guy who used to live here.”
I want to tell them that I lived with him for a little bit before he left. I want to lay some claim over him and say I knew him first, though I did not. He grew up in Atlanta, this was his hometown. I was a stranger who knew nobody.
I had a crush on him, one of those moony affections from the afterglow of sex, the feeling that makes me wonder, “Could I? Could we?”
Was I capable of love? Most people would say everyone is capable of love, but I wasn’t sure about me. Maybe I was different. I had a bad spirit, an urge that took me out on weekends. I knew many people with the same spirit. I saw them at the sobriety meetings I occasionally attended.
I don’t like sobriety and don’t buy into its many dogmas, but sometimes I wonder if the sober life, like the conventional world of marriage and children, must at some point be assumed, like exile, in order to survive in the world. Maybe those like me, those locked out of love, must someday assume with diligence the charade of convention or be lost forever.
On those lonely nights in the bathhouse, I realized I had a crush on Brent and needed to tell him. The crush was not possessive — Brent never needed to be “mine.” People don’t belong to people, and I, more than anyone, belong to no one. I simply wanted him to know I was thinking about him in New York and hoped he was having the same effect on people there that he had on me. I wondered how he was grieving for you — I imagined he and I had found solace in similar places.
Brent was a light. He loved dancing. I wanted others to experience him and fall in love with him. People like us were meant to be shared.
Queers like us must burn out quickly. Lingering in the world demands restraint. If Brent and I shared anything, it was this thing, this bad spirit — this hunger for pleasure amidst such violence.
I am a gay man. My lovers and friends all blur together. They have become this fluid, lifelong dance. Boyfriends have become exes who later became fuck buddies. Friends became lovers, lovers became friends. I first met Brent at a gay bar in Savannah, the same bar where my ex-boyfriend, Jose, go-go danced on Saturdays. Every Saturday, I was at the bar, watching Jose, watching people put dollars in his underwear. On slow nights, he would step off the box and dance with me. We’d get drunk. He and I were together in our little city, a few hours from Orlando. We survived until we broke up. Would Brent and I survive? Would another gunman in New York choose the bar where Brent was dancing? Was there any point in fearing that?
I first saw Brent on the dance floor. The greatest connections of my life have begun this way, in gay bars and seedy dives and warehouses filled with lights and music. We talked, danced, flirted, stumbled back to my place, and had raw, beautiful sex. He fisted me (I was so drunk that I don’t remember it) and then told me to fuck him.
I remember getting behind him, spitting on my dick, and pushing it in. His hole was dirty, full of shit, but he wanted me to keep going. He said he didn’t care about shit — he actually liked it.
I have spent my life terrified of shit. When I came out to my father, he told me I would grow up to live in an apartment that smells like shit. I have never been able to let those words go. His words filled me with shame. Brent was the first person I fucked who simply didn’t care about shit, who eroticized it and made it a welcome thing on the sheets. In an instant, the last thing I feared about gay sex was rendered moot. There was nothing ugly about us, nothing to be afraid of.
I fucked him and it was nothing like the picture Dad made me see so many years ago. It was beautiful. We were beautiful.
When I think of all the men I’ve slept with, I wonder how many of them are dead now. Most were quick trysts in the dark, faceless and anonymous. Many have been completely forgotten. If I could pull them back to me, each one, I would tell them it’s been a privilege to share this world with them. We have been given so little safety in it, so little security, but I can think of no culture I’d rather be part of, no populace I’d be more willing to die for, than us.
My brothers and sisters, it is wrong that you are not here. It is wrong that we never got a chance to dance together. I try to imagine your last moments, the thrill of being with others, the hope for some fun that night, the confidence that comes with a few drinks. I hope you felt loved and connected as only people like us can feel in a gay bar.
Those who call for our extinction, like the gunman who murdered you: I wish I could show them, frame by frame, my first night with Brent. I wish they could see his slick, strong back, bent over with the moonlight coming in through the window. I wish they could smell our sex and hear my shaking bed and listen to his roar. Thank you for making me think of him — for reminding me that love still matters in a broken world. Even in such an ugly place, love looks the same way it’s always looked. It’s still love.
I love my dirty boy.