“Their Cell Phones Just Kept on Ringing”: Report from Orlando
— I just pray that he makes it. He has so much to live for, he’s got a five-year old kid, he’s gorgeous, he’s talented — a costume designer, and so nice, — says Julian, with tears in his eyes, — He’s in ICU now, but Eman is a fighter and I know that he’ll pull through this.
Julian is a slender, flamboyant man in his 40’s with a huge, warm like a Florida’s summer smile, who is a part-time bartender, or, as he likes to say “gay on call” at Pulse, the popular LGBT club in an upscale downtown neighborhood of Orlando, Florida, where the deadliest mass shooting in American history took place.
I’m looking at the handsome young face of Emanuel Valentino, one of the 53 wounded victims of the terrorist attack carried out by 29-year old American born Omar Mateen. Flipping through his Facebook pictures, I can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the disturbing thought that this athletic, happy young man might not make it through the night. I wonder whether he got a chance to read the chilling message someone posted on the club’s Facebook page — “Everyone get out of pulse and keep running.” About 320 people were at the club, according to the police. Some of them escaped through the back, others got trapped inside. That night’s death toll of fifty is larger than the combined number of murders in Orlando over the span of the previous three years.
— And I’m really worried about our Victor, — continues Julian. — He’s a cocktail server at Pulse. A likable, sweet guy, a son of immigrants from Venezuela, who was trying to make something out of his life.
Victor Guanches has been transferred from ICU to critical care today. One of his friends pulls up his after-surgery picture where he flashes the victory sign, smiling crookedly for the camera through all the pain he had to endure.
— Six out of eight confirmed victims on the list were 23 and younger, — Julian tears up. I tear up, and a few other locals tear up, too, holding on for dear life to their drink specials.
We are sitting at Stonewall gay bar, with a charming bartender by name Brian who makes the strongest Long Island Ice Teas. Then we all get up to give each other a group hug. The latest events disrupted the typically slow, hot and humid weekend in Orlando, a laid back city of 270,000 people, whose theme parks and attractions annually draw more that 50 million people from throughout the world.
— It doesn’t matter who you are — gay, straight, black, white, a Democrat or a Republican, — we all have been profoundly affected by what perspired last night. This community will never be the same”, — silver-haired Kevin says.
He’s been with his partner for 49 years. In the 90’s, they made the cover of The New York Times and The Sun because of their case trying to adopt a girl.
— We fought for her as gay parents, and we won, — Kevin says proudly. — We have a beautiful 28-year old daughter. She always tells me: “Dad, you made the best mom I could have ever wished for. You taught me everything I know. I’m so grateful for you, daddy”.
Kevin and his partner are getting married next week — just a small, intimate wedding for the two of them.
— You know, we all want the same thing — to be happy and for our families to be safe.
Yes, I get it. We all want the same thing. Happiness and peace. We want to feel safe where we live in our neighborhood. A few blocks away from Pulse, at Lake Eola Park, the unchanging emblem of downtown Orlando, tonight, amid beautiful flowerbeds and graceful swans, people are hugging each other silently and holding hands. Several rows of burning candles line up the bank adding the subtle, ephemeral glow to the interchanging rainbow-colored lights illuminating the center fountain. A straight couple is holding each other closely in silence: her hand-painted shirt says “#Stop the hate”, his – “#Orlando Strong”.
The silence seems to be the main theme in this city tonight.
— I live a block away from the club, — tells me the tiniest butch woman I’ve ever met.
She has a buzz cut and is nervously threading her slender tattooed fingers. She heard the shots last night and had no clue what it was. We now know that people at the club, too, at first thought it was the DJ and the music. Her phone has been ringing non-stop all day — her family and friends from LA want to make sure she is okay.
— I’m not really okay and I’m afraid to go back to my apartment, to be so close to that place and to be left alone with my thoughts… — she says. — But I have to, my dogs are at home. And I probably have a ton of voice mail on my landline.
— Their cell phones just kept on ringing, — typically effervescent Sparkles mumbles through tears. — You know, the bodies are still there. It’s like a tomb. Their families keep calling, desperately looking for them. But the police can’t really answer it.
He is staring at his glass with unbearable devastation as I’m turning my cell’s ringer off.
Despite Mateen’s 911 call expressing support for ISIS, the FBI said they had no conclusive evidence of any direct connection with foreign extremists. Nevertheless, Trump followed the event with a speech repeating his call for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration. And his rival Hillary Clinton told the LGBT community that she was on their side and renewed her call for new gun control measures.
Just as immigration, militant attacks and gun control are put in the centre of the general election by the two dueling candidates, the relatives of the victims are still waiting to find out the status of their loved ones. JetBlue has offered to fly family members into Orlando for free.
An overflow crowd of mourners attended a vigil at Joy Metropolitan Community Church on Sunday — known for welcoming lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender — and marked a moment of silence to show solidarity and support for the victims. “Come together as we support one another and our community”, — Joy MCC’s Reverent Terri Steed posted. “Today is a day when we need to show Orlando what we are truly about and the love that we give”.
As the Orlando Gay Chorus sang “True Colors”, in New York City the Empire State Building went dark to express sympathy for the victims.
As of this morning, people are still lining up to donate blood — however, the official recommendation of the federal Food and Drug Administration is to turn away gay men from blood donations if they’ve had sex in the past year is still being enforced.
And the bodies are still arriving at the Orange County Medical Examiner’s office.
Photo: Evgeny Feldman / Novaya Gazeta