Last December, a rare opportunity presented itself when my sister called and asked if I would be interested in meeting her in Orlando for a few days. It would be a chance to take my teenage niece to Disney and since they live across the country and I would spend days sitting in a muddy pond if it meant I got to spend time with them, I knew I wanted to go.
I, like a lot of Canadians had been taking reflective pause when it came to travel to the United States. For many, a Trump victory meant that it wasn’t the America they once believed it was. But for me, Orlando was particularly difficult. Because when I think about the city, I don’t think about Disney or Universal Studios, for me, Orlando will also be synonymous with the Pulse Nightclub shooting, which took place on June 12th, 2016.
To spend time with my sister and niece at Disney was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but going to Orlando would mean that I’d be going near the site of, what at the time it took place, was the worst mass shooting in american history. That night, 49 LGTBQ people and their allies were gunned down.
We all respond differently to the seemingly endless series of mass shootings in the United States. It seems like it’s easier to be numb to them, then to choose to think about each of them and each of the lives lost. But for me, my thoughts and my heart had never really been able to get over the Pulse shooting. For me, that was it. It was the first time that I felt really unsafe as a gay person. Even here in Canada, it struck me so hard that in the days, weeks and months since that shooting, I spent countless hours thinking about the victims, reading every news story, watching videos of police reports.
I know myself enough to know that I couldn’t go to Orlando without going to the site of the shooting. I had been thinking about these victims in their families for months upon months, so if I was going to be a few kilometres from the site, then I knew that I would have to go. But could I go? Why couldn’t I just be like the millions of other people who go to Disney and not feel filled with anxiety about that close to the location with such a dark history. Even just the thought of going to Disney, I felt bad knowing that I would be going and having such a fun time in the same city where something so tragic happened.
So I made a deal with myself. I would go to Disney and have an amazing time with my family, but I would not leave the Orlando without paying my respects at the Pulse Memorial.
Those first few days in Disney were everything that you dream about. Fantastic weather, busy but not too busy and the Christmas decorations had just gone up, so it looked extra beautiful. For two and a half days, my niece and I rode every ride that we could, stopping only for quick snacks and maybe a power nap or two.
Based on my flight itinerary, if I wanted to go to the Pulse Nightclub, I would have to get up pretty early on my final day in Orlando and head over. As the days and hours winded down and got closer, I could almost feel my heart rate increase and my hands hand basically turned into non-stop gushing fountains of sweat. Like most things I do in my life, by the time it was time to leave and go visit the site, my brain was working overtime. Sometimes it was punishing myself for having fun in Orlando, and other moments it was trying to convince myself that I didn’t have to go to the site, no one would know and maybe no one would care.
But then, whether I was ready or not, the morning came, I got up early, said goodbye to my sister and niece, called a Lyft and was soon on my way to the building that I had thought about every day for a year and a half. I’m probably the only person to take a car-sharing service from a Disney World Resort to the site of a mass shooting and I was terrified.
The idea of going to Pulse to pay my respects seemed appropriate when it was hypothetical, but now that I was actually in the car and watching on the app as we got closer and closer, I started taking deeper and deeper breaths, but it never seemed like enough air.
My Lyft driver was named Leonela and she was new to the country and asked why we were going to this particular address. She must have thought it was odd to be driving someone from Disneyworld to a seemingly random spot in OrlandS. She didn’t speak much English and I speak okay spanish, so I did my best to explain to her what Pulse was, and what had happened there. Unfortunately, I needed to use a lot of words that I never learned in my Spanish classes, but I was able to do my best and I think she understood. I’m not sure she understood why I needed to see it, and I’m not sure I did either, but as we got closer to the destination, I started to cry. Now, crying is nothing new for me. I cry as often as most people exercise, but no one wants to be in a car with a crying stranger, so Leonela did her best to comfort me.
As we turned the corner and I saw the Pulse sign, I can almost remember my brain pinging in a way that it had never before. I don’t think I had ever associated so much sadness and darkness with something that I had never seen in real life before. My brain and my breath struggled with what I was about to do.
It was a hot morning. And the parking lot of Pulse provides no shade. We pulled up beside the night club, and by this point I was crying quite a lot. I said thank you, got my luggage and began to walk to the memorial. To my surprise, the driver didn’t pull away. Instead she got out and decided to sit with me on the curb as I tried to take it all in. She prayed, while I sat there thankful that I wasn’t there alone. Even if was with someone that I had met just 20 minutes earlier. How gracious she was to sit with me. For me, that will always be the standard for how to help strangers. Be there. Be present.
We sat there for a while, ten minutes maybe. I began to feel bad. Every second Leonela was sitting with me, she wasn’t making money. So I took some deep breaths, wiped my eyes and told her I would be okay and that a friend would soon be joining me. We hugged, I thanked her again and she drove away.
The friend was another stranger. I had a friend in high school named Annie, and she lived in Orlando. I had initially messaged her to say that I’d be in town and was wondering if she would take me to Pulse. Through Facebook, I saw that she was involved in helping the community recover, so I thought she’d be a good person to see and help me visit the area. Unfortunately, Annie was out of town, but she said her friend Jamie would meet up with me. I’m not usually thrilled to meet complete strangers and spend time with them, but this was different. I would take any company I could get.
While I waited for Jamie to arrive, I continued to sit and then wander closer and closer to the memorial. It was a few weeks before Christmas, so there was a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments that beared the victims names. On the stockings were the names of other mass shooting locations. The stark contrast of what these cheerful red ornaments actually said, is something else that stays with me today. I continued to wander around, some would probably call it pacing. I didn’t know what to do. Had I paid enough respect? It’s a weird question, but while I knew I wanted to go to Pulse and remember the tragedy, I hadn’t thought much about what I’d do when I got there.
So I sat, sat in the hot sun and tried to take it all in. I tried to picture what it was like before the shooting. What it was like the night of the shooting. The morning after. I pieced together photos and videos I had seen on the television, but my brain couldn’t really line up with what I was seeing. That I was actually there. The site. The place where so many lives had been lost. So tragically. So recently.
One of the things I tried to do was get some silence. I thought silence would give me peace or something else that I was looking for. Because while this was a nightclub, it was now a memorial and memorials are supposed to be peaceful and a place to remember. The location of Pulse makes that impossible. It’s loud. It’s located on a busy road with lots of transport trucks. There’s a Wendy’s across the street and the club is flanked by a Dunkin’ Donuts and a car repair shop. I wondered what it was like for those places that night. Did the victims and survivors go running into the Wendy’s or the coffee shop? What did those employees do? Do they still work there? I had so many questions that I didn’t actually care to know the answer to, but my mind was racing simply because it was so loud. Anytime there was a break of trucks, it would only last for two seconds or so. I wanted it to be a peaceful place so I could pay my respects, which is weird. It wasn’t like I was in a cemetery or a war memorial. It highlights the darkness of these mass murders. They happen on busy streets, on loud streets. They happen in places we go to, we walk by, we drive around. It isn’t in a far off land, it’s places we visit on our vacations.
As my mind was racing and racing, Jamie showed up. And better yet, she brought a dog with her. Dogs, no matter what, no matter where, make any situation better. In the days after the shooting, Jaime and so many in the community were key in the rebuilding process. Helping the survivors, families and first responders cope anyway they could. The day were there, a story came out that an Orlando police officer claimed he was forced to retire due to PTSD from Pulse attack. So even though it was a year and a half since the shooting, it was still fresh.
I didn’t ask, but she’d probably been to the Pulse nightclub countless times, before and after the shooting. I felt very lucky for her to be there with me. We walked around the building, which is surrounded by a tattered black fence, which makes it easy to see what remains of the building.
Through the fence, you can see bullet holes. Holes that had pierced through the wall’s thick concrete. We weren’t sure if those holes were from the police or the shooter, but it gives you a sense of how powerful the bullets were. Around back, you can see the hole now covered with wood. This was where the air conditioner was that had been kicked out by survivors and police to help people escape. Where I was standing was where people had run for their lives. On this parking lot. Beside the Dunkin Doughnuts, across from a Wendy’s.
I asked so many questions, now a few months later, I barely remember what I asked or what the answers were. At the time it seemed I had an endless amount of questions, but now I think I was probably just nervous.
By the time Jaime had to go, I had probably been at the site for nearly two hours and I needed to leave for my plane. I hugged Jaime goodbye, thanked her for everything she had done since the day of the shooting and everything she’ll continue to do. Standing on one of the darkest places I could imagine, I met someone who was filled with kindness and bravery.
I called another Lyft and walked into the nearby Dunkin Donuts and waited for my driver to arrive. I didn’t dare ask if anyone at the had any stories of that night. Truthfully, I think I had heard enough at that point, at least for now. Soon the driver arrived and within seconds the Pulse nightclub was quickly disappearing in the distance behind me. This Lyft driver didn’t ask why I was there or why I smelled like a mix of bad coffee, sunscreen and tears.
I wanted to say the visit gave me closure, but that doesn’t seem right to say. The victims and the families will never have closure, so I definitely shouldn’t. But it gave myself permission to think about other things. To take deeper breaths and to think about my life. Even writing this was such a different experience for me. Normally I do something and I write about it almost immediately. But time I waited, probably longer than ever before. I wanted to make sure I knew what I wanted to say. And I didn’t want to just waste your time.
I should have a better word to use than weird, but it was a weird few days. On my flight home, I thought about those days at Disney and my morning at Pulse. What a contrast. But that’s Orlando now. And New York. And Las Vegas and so many other places that are both fantastic cities, but are also now scared with a dark and not-so-far-away tragedies. What does that mean for how we travel and to where we travel.
If part of travel is about learning about our history, then even a place like Orlando can leave you thinking of the world in ways bigger than Mickey’s ears. It’s about understanding how quickly life changes. But also how powerful life can be when people are faced with dark moments and somehow find the strength and power to rise above it all. I’m inspired by all that’s come out of Pulse. The people who ran into the help, the people are still helping.
For me, Orlando will now always be about heroes. But not the one’s found in films and TV shows, but the ones that you need to take a twenty minute Lyft ride to see.