On April 20, 1999, I was in the sixth grade. I was sick that day so I didn’t go to school. My mom brought me to my great grandparents’ house. On sick days, my nana would make me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch and we would watch the Price is Right together; the perfect cure for the common cold.
On this day, April 20, 1999, Bob Barker was interrupted by a breaking news report. Two gunmen entered a high school in Colorado and 12 students and a teacher were murdered in cold blood. I remember watching the news all afternoon with my nana and pop pop gathering updates on Columbine High School. A particularly graphic image of a student trying to climb out of a second story library window has been forever etched in my brain.
My cold passed and I went back to school the next day questioning, for the first time ever really, my safety and the safety of my friends. My school wasn’t any different from Columbine. That could have been me.
In July of 2012, a lone gunman walked into a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado during the opening weekend of The Dark Knight, the latest in Christopher Nolan’s gritty Batman series. 12 people were murdered, 70 were injured.
The following weekend, my boyfriend and I went to see the same movie. I remember sitting in that theater for 152 endless minutes keeping one eye on the door afraid that someone might try to recreate the heinous shooting. During the movie, a white man with a shaved head left through the exit doors during the previews and never returned. That seemed suspicious and sure, I was guilty of profiling. But I watched the movie, ducked down in my seat, ready to hit the floor should something go wrong. After all, that movie theater in Aurora wasn’t any different than the one in South Philly. That could have been me.
This Sunday, June 12, a lone gunman went to Pulse, a gay night club in Orlando, a space meant for members of the LGBT community and our friends, a space meant for us to let our proverbial and literal hair down and freely express all facets of our identities in ways we aren’t always able to do outside of those walls, and brutally murdered 50 innocent souls and forever altered the lives of many many many others.
Pulse wasn’t different from the gay bars and clubs I frequent in my city. That could have been us.
It wasn’t me those times. It didn’t happen to me. I’ve never had to hide under a desk from a school shooter or sat helplessly in the dark as a mad person opened fire on me when I least expected it. I’ve never lived through those impossible, life shattering moments.
And yet I still have nightmares about a shooter coming to get me at school. I still get anxious when I see a movie, especially on weekends and premiers of the latest Marvel movie which I rarely miss.
What happens now when I go to Woody’s or Boxers or Tavern? How can I, how can any of us, feel safe again in these spaces let alone ever walk into one again?
I realize I’m a particularly neurotic person. Ask any of my friends and they’ll tell you, I expend a considerable amount of my mental energy deciding out how a situation might result in my immediate death.
But I can’t help but watch the news or read articles and see the faces of my friends and family in the places of the those beautiful souls taken from us and their grieving families. (Or see the face of a friend who managed escape Pulse with his life.) I keep thinking over and over again: that could be me. That could be you. That could be my mom, my grandmother, my aunt.
How do I continue to exist in this world with the knowledge that the only reason this isn’t me or this didn’t happen here is sheer dumb luck? Where do any of us find the tenacity and the bravery to march on with our lives?
I think the first step is admitting this: I’m scared shitless.
All of us who enter a gay bar knows first hand what it feels like to be threatened, to be squashed, to be fearful. We know what it’s like to have to question whether or not we should show affection to a person we love in public. We know that there are places where we have to hide the truest version of ourselves.
These bars, these havens, have always been the place where we have never had to restrict ourselves.
But now I worry. I worry that I’m going to go to the bar keeping an extra eye on the door, making sure I know where my friends are at all times, knowing where all of the exits are, pause if I hear a loud noise that seems out of the ordinary, suspiciously watch any one who is acting antisocial. I worry that I’m no longer free. When one place of sanctuary is violated, can any ever feel safe again?
I don’t want this. No one does. But this is where I am today.
I know I’m going to go back to my favorite bars, just like I know I’m going to continue to see movies and send my future children to schools. But I’m never going to enter any of these places without preparing myself for the worst.
A friend sent me this yesterday:
I am afraid and I suspect on some level I always will be. I still board planes and silently hope nothing happens this time. But again, and I stress this, this attack won’t stop me from going back again and again. It’s the perseverance in the face of fear that leads us to a better tomorrow. When each one of us decides to return to the spaces some one tried to take from us, we defy acts of terrorism.
To all of my friends hurting and fearful, we’re in this together. If you see me paying more attention to the doors than is necessary, if I seem a little aloof on Saturday night, you know why. It’s ok. We’re healing. I’m allowed to feel like this. And if you aren’t affected this way, that’s fine too. There’s no right way respond. But dancing together is a form of group therapy. So just be there, smile at me and I’ll smile back.
I can’t help but wonder, though, how many safe spaces do we have to lose before we do something to save each other.