Written by Jonathan Z. Petro, Co-Managing Partner
Yes. That sounds trite. On June 12, 2016, I woke up in our comfortable bed, in our comfortable house, and the sun was shining into our comfortable bedroom. My life was not changed in the way Eddie Justice’s mother’s life was changed. My life was not changed in the way Xavier Serrano Rosado’s son’s life was changed. My life was certainly not changed in the way Brenda McCool’s eleven children’s lives were changed. My change was, by comparison, trite.
In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a 29-year-old human being named Omar Mateen walked into the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a mass shooting driven by hate. This has been deemed the deadliest single gunman mass shooting in United States history, the deadliest incident of violence against LGBT people in United States history, and the deadliest terrorist attack on United States soil since the September 11 attacks of 2001.
I have never been to Pulse. I never knew Pulse existed. Frankly, I rarely visited “gay” bars or clubs, as I had barely revealed myself as homosexual until I started dating my now husband in 2008. Since getting together, we have rarely visited “gay” bars or clubs. This is largely due to the fact that the vast majority of our friends are heterosexuals and we have ingrained ourselves into the social fabric of our town with as little public acknowledgement of our sexuality as possible. We preferred house parties and barbeques with friends, a nice dinner at a local restaurant and a cocktail on the patio.
I never met Eddie Justice, Xavier Serrano Rosado, Brenda McCool or any of the other 99 victims of this attack. On June 12, 2016, I tried my best to go about my day. On Sundays, my husband and I usually share coffee in the morning while we watch the news. It is our favorite morning of the week because of the quietness of our neighborhood, the ease of our schedules on Sundays and the belief that the Good Lord set aside a day of rest. On this day, however, my husband had to be at work early and I was home alone. For the life of me, I cannot recall if I even sent him to work with a mug of coffee or if I woke after he had left. This was not a typical Sunday. I put on the news, as part of my usual ritual, and learned of the devastation. After less than twenty minutes, I decided I could not take any more; but before shutting off the television, I hit record on our DVR. I still have the remainder of channel 4 news from that day saved. For some reason, I can neither watch what I taped, nor can I delete it.
June 12, 2016 was a perfect 10, by all standards, for those of us who live at the Jersey Shore. The sun was shining. It was not too humid and not too hot. I had completed my yard work the day before, and it was a rare weekend when I didn’t have to go into the office, so I had planned on the day being “foot loose and fancy free.” I intended to play fetch with the dog, swim in the pool and put a dent in the book I’d been struggling for weeks to finish. Instead, I spent the day wandering the house, wandering the yard, and wandering in my head. I was numb. I was incapable to even the simplest of tasks. I could not play fetch, swim, or read. I became fixated on my cell phone. I continuously picked it up, put it down, moved it from location to location. I know now, as I did on June 12, 2016 that I was willing it to ring or buzz. I was longing for someone to call or text or email. I had to actively restrain myself from calling my husband. I was afraid that if I made contact that I would crazily demand that he come home, where he was safe. On June 12, 2016, I felt that we were both unsafe unless we were together. In all honesty, as I look back, I cannot guarantee that I would have felt that we were both safe even if we were together. June 12, 2016 was that type of day.
That evening, we were to attend a lobster dinner at our friends’ parents’ home. I thought this would be a great opportunity to distract me from the news of the day; distract me from the unjustified feeling that I had personally been attacked. As I sit here today, on the first anniversary of Pulse, I can recall only snippets of the evening. I remember standing on a dock, watching the sunset. I remember that it became too windy for us to eat on the deck so we retired to the indoor dining room. I remember the kindness of our hosts, and their complete indifference to the fact that one of the couples at dinner were both men. I also remember wanting to run away and hide when the news of the day became a topic of conversation.
Upon returning home that night, exhaustion took over and I quickly fell asleep. On that night, I had the first of what was to become a recurring nightmare. I’m not at Pulse or anywhere that resembles a “gay” bar or club. I’m at a friendly backyard barbeque. I’m enjoying a few beers with friends, both new and old. I don’t recognize the home, and it changes from nightmare to nightmare. I don’t recognize all of the people, and they change from nightmare to nightmare, as well. Consistently, however, the frivolity is interrupted by a human being who stands during dinner, takes out a gun, and starts to shoot. While I wish I could say that I wake up at that part of the story, this is not the case. I remain in the nightmare long enough to be afraid, scared to the point of feeling frozen in time, and unable to help any victim or pursue the attacker. Each night, I am conscious of my belief that the attacker was a friend and I am consistently confused by the action. Thankfully, I do wake up. In our comfortable bed, in our comfortable bedroom, in our comfortable home. Relief that it was just a nightmare comes quickly, but so does a certain amount of guilt.
I’ve heard the lyric, “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive,” and I believe that that is true…but as a gay man living in a post-Pulse world, I do feel a debt to those who were lost on June 12, 2016 and to the many pioneers who paved the way for me to be a proud, out, gay American. The men and women we lost on June 12, 2016 left us too soon. Our failure to live life to the fullest is to deny their legacy, deny their lust for life, and to deny their pride.