After Orlando

Sometimes there were drawbacks to having your housemate and best friend as your business partner.

Lifting his head, Sweetie reached out for the coffee being held out to him. The paper cup was from Cool Beans because they hadn't bothered starting the coffee pot in the staff break room today. There was no need to have staff come in to babysit a closed club.

“The coffee shop wasth packed,” Nik explained, settling down on the opposite end of the couch with a cup of coffee of his own.

“I'm not surprised. When this kind of thing happens, people want to be together,” Sweetie said. He took a sip of his coffee, finding that Nik had perfectly sugared and creamered it for him already.

They'd needed to have this conversation about their club tonight, even though they were both still distraught and about what had happened down in Orlando. The best place for it was here, at Strokes, not at home. But it was strange, unnatural, and disconcerting to have the place so empty on an evening. “A couple people asthked me when we'd be open.”

“What did you tell them?”

“I told them we'd be open when people were ready to come back.” That was as good an answer as any. They had to be closed tonight, of course. Bands had been canceled. The scheduled delivery of alcohol for the week remained boxed up in the storeroom. They didn't have the energy or need to take care of it now. People weren't ready to walk into a gay night club and want to have fun yet.

“I don't think we should reopen until after we have a vigil here,” said Sweetie. He wanted to start the conversation with something they could both agree on. But the thought of Strokes filled with grief-stricken patrons holding onto candles and holding back tears was enough to bring on a fresh wave of sorrow for Sweetie. He set the coffee down and grabbed for a tissue from the box on his lap. He blew his nose, which seemed too loud a gesture in the otherwise empty club, and rubbed the heel of his hand against his red-rimmed eyes.

Every time he let his mind go for a second, he saw again the images from the news. The cell phone videos. The injured being loaded into ambulances or pick-up trucks. And the sounds of terror followed suit. The rapid pops of gunfire. The screams. The cries. Those were his people. People like him. People like his friends. People like his patrons. People who’d come to a gay nightclub looking for fun, to hold hands without judgement, to dance and be free, to feel proud, to feel alive. Some had practically been babies. And none had deserved what had happened to them.

Nik’s answer did not come right away. He sipped his coffee through the tiny little opening in the top, blew into it, and tested it again. Sweetie knew better than to push when he was like this, but if they didn’t talk this out soon, Sweetie was sure he was going to start sobbing again, and it had taken an hour to stop the last time he broke down. “Did you hear me?”

Still not answering, Nik looked around the office. His gaze rested on the wall of security monitors, each one showing an empty room or hallway. Finally, he spoke. “I don’t want to have a vigil. I’m not even sure I want people here again.”

Sweetie put down his coffee and tried to keep his voice from cracking as a new flood of emotion hit. “Are you seriously saying we shouldn't have a gathering here? Your reaction to everything is always to get everyone together.” Nik liked to surround himself with people. He felt most comfortable at the center of crowds, amidst a packed club, and with a full house at home.

“Well, not thisth time. Who would come?”

“The community needs to get together.”

“The community needsth to be sthafe. They're not going to get that in a gay nightclub. Not for a while, at leastht.” Sweetie started to object, but Nik went on. “I don’t want what happened in Orlando to happen to usth. Not during pride month. Not ever.”

“We can’t let ourselves be controlled by fear.”

“I’m not.”

Sweetie cocked his head. “Sounds exactly like you are.”

“I’m not. I justht want to keep everyone sthafe.”

Sweetie felt tears welling up in his eyes again, hot and itchy. “Well you can’t. It’s not a safe world out there. We can’t take care of the whole world or even our whole community. We learned that the hard way with Steven. We can’t promise safe. All we can promise is a place where people can come together and be themselves!” He didn’t realize he was close to shouting until he heard the difference between it and the quiet in the room that followed.

And Nik’s voice was loud to match. “After a tragedy, people want to feel sthafe. Are we the only onesth who get to feel that because we can afford a home behind a sthecurity gate and with a live-in pit-bull?”

“Of course not! But none of us are guaranteed safety. You know that better than most. You almost died.”

“We’re not bringing that up!” Nik sprang to his feet.

Sweetie followed, anger causing the tears to spill from the corners of his eyes. “Too late. You brought up hate. You brought up safety. It all comes from fear, and we’re not able to stop people from being afraid. Damn it, they should be afraid when people like that can murder people like us! We can’t stop that!”

“But we can sthop gunsth from passthing through our doorsth.”

“What, by closing them?”

“If we have to!”

Sweetie screamed in frustration and started pacing the office. Pausing in front of the large window overlooking the dance floor, he was reminded again of how unnaturally empty the place was right now. It needed performers like Coyote and artists like Turbo. It needed promiscuous guys like Nik, looking for a hook-up and it needed timid guys like Ducky and Trip had once been, only able to be out within these walls. This couldn’t be the end of Strokes. Not after all they’d worked for. He knew Nik didn’t want to see their family get hurt. They’d opened up their hearts before, only to have them broken. But that didn’t mean they shouldn’t try again. He wheeled around, turning toward Nik, who had seated himself on the arm of the couch, still breathing fast, angry. “What’s the real reason you don’t want to have people here for a vigil?”

Nik hesitated, fingers flexing against the fabric of the couch. A couch where Sweetie had curled up when he was sick. A couch where Nik had fucked hundreds of guys. A couch where their entire fate was about to be decided. “I don’t want to do anything that would make usth a target.”

“But we already are one. Why can’t you see that the most important thing we can do now is to stand up and show we’re not afraid to be who we are?”

“Because I’m not asth brave asth you!”

There was a micro-expression where Sweetie recoiled he was so taken aback. Then he narrowed his eyes. “Bullshit.”

“It’sth true.”

“It’s not. You came back from the edge of death after everyone wrote you off. You’ve got one of my kidneys. You’ve got part of my name. You’re just as strong and brave as I am. No. You’re braver.” Nik was shaking his head, silent tears spilling down his cheeks now, but Sweetie kept going. “You know exactly what hate is like. For some people, this is the first time they’ve seen it. Some of the guys who come here are too young to even remember 9-11. This is not going to be the first time they encounter it, so we need to teach them how to be strong.”

“The way you taught me?”

Sweetie grabbed the tissue box that had fallen to the floor, and tore out a chunk of tissues. He marched over and stuffed them into Nik’s hand. Then he took another tissue and wiped it over Nik’s cheeks. The action calmed them both a little. Sweetie forced a deep breath down into his lungs, held it for a three second count, and then let it out slowly. “This isn’t about us. It’s about the community in Orlando suffering in the wake of this terrible tragedy and about the families and friends feeling this loss and about our community here that needs to understand what it all means. They need each other’s love and support right now. And they need Strokes to be there for them. We need to show them we’re not afraid to care about them.”

Relieved to find that Nik had nodded along to the end of his statement, he was still surprised when the man said, “You’re right. We need to keep our doorsth open.”

“We can’t let fear control us or change what we do for the community. We’ll create a welcoming space. We’ll raise funds. We’ll let people know they’re not alone. And we’ll make sure that people who need help coping with this get the help and guidance they need.”

Nik nodded again. Then he slipped down off the arm onto one of the couch cushions. He hugged his arms around himself and hunched over a little. “Don't tell anyone.” Nik's voice broke as he whispered. “But sthometimesth I wish I had faith.”

“Oh Nik.” Sweetie took a seat on the couch and held his arm out. Nik bounced into Sweetie's embrace.

“I wish I still believed in God. I wish I could pray for the onesth we lostht. But I don't. You know—”

“I know.” Sweetie stroked Nik's back. “I know. But we can still send our love out there for the families and friends and for the community, right?” Nik shrugged. Sweetie kept rubbing Nik's back in the silence that followed. Nik leaned close, taking some comfort, as Sweetie knew he would. “Are you worried about the vigil?”

He shrugged. “I don't know what we'd sthay.”

“We don't have to say anything. We can invite others in the community to speak—advocates, leaders, ministers. There can be something for everyone.”

Nik nuzzled his face against Sweetie’s shoulder, drying it further even though he still held a wad of tissues in his fast. Then he pulled back, his expression serious. “I really do think we need extra sthecurity.”

“Okay, let's investigate more options. We can rent metal detectors for the event and price out permanent ones. We could afford to hire more security staff. Or we could have Pit and his buddies stand guard out front.”

Nik cracked a weak smile. “A bear guard?”

This made Sweetie smile as well. “We'll do what we can to protect each other. But we can't control everything or everyone. People are still going to be scared. And they should be. We live in a terrifying world. There's no way to ever be completely safe. But we’ll do everything we can and we won’t let fear stop us from being proud and being here, right?”

“Right,” Nik agreed. “I’ll start making callsth for the vigil if you want to sthtart running the sthecurity numbersth.”

“Deal. And there’s one other thing,” Sweetie said, relieved to be getting even this far with the plans. “I also want to reach out to Pulse’s owners to let them know we’re with them.” Running a gay nightclub wasn’t merely a job or even just a passion. It was a service to provide a place where people could feel free to enjoy themselves, and with that came responsibilities and burdens. “Their staff suffered as well.” Strokes staff was a family, and Sweetie was sure Pulse’s wasn’t any different in that respect. They were going to be dealing with this tragedy on top of being out of work.

Nik nodded. “Good idea.”

Sweetie forced himself to take another deep breath, this one slower and steadying. There was so much to do now. He started to get up, but Nik grabbed at his arm.

 “Not yet. One more hug.” Like magnets, they clung together. As Nik’s long arms squeezed tight around him, Sweetie felt tears welling back up in his eyes.

Sometimes Sweetie felt grateful to have his housemate and best friend as his business partner.


There are many ways to help those affected by the horrific mass shooting at Pulse, including giving to the Pulse Employee Recovery Fund and to Equality Florida.