for Orlando, for all of us
There’s a video I watch. Not often. But sometimes. And sometimes I watch it five, six, nine times in one sitting. Sometimes when I watch it, my heart fills with straw, maybe noble gases and boulders whose names I don’t yet know. There is a big black sky. And the video will begin with two friends standing on a stage. One wears a black leather corset, a black latex or neoprene dress beneath, a mask on her face. It’s a spacey look, dark, on the cusp of peril or dominance, ecstasies not many are privy to. The second friend: red-haired, no mask, donning a sleek white catsuit. This is a reality show, of course. Two friends pitted against one another. At the onset of the video, those of us fluent in this code know the outcome: both friends will battle, fiercely, with ferocity, even, and in the end, only one will remain standing, as the other, tragically, vanquished, defeated, even crushed, will exit. She will not survive.
The music cues.
It’s an old song. Not by epoch standards, but old enough to not be remembered by many. I remember it, though. So it is not so old to me.
It’s a show many of us watch. Adore. Aspire toward. Worship, even.
Each week during the show, two are pitted on this very stage, these lights. At times, the two are foes, the disdain thick, side-eye and posing for cutlery.
This week is not like any other week.
This week is the story of people like us from eras not-so-long passed.
Friends. A battle. Together in a world that is unkind to us. But someone survives. At least for a bit longer.
One wears a hood, black, a coat made of something like fur, maybe feathers. Or human hair. On her arms, there are gauntlets, and her chin quivers.
Neither friend wants the other to leave. If she leaves, if he leaves, then, you’re left behind. Perhaps all your life, you have never had a friend like this, or friends, at all. Perhaps loneliness, the company of shadows, is how you lived. When we are queer, or weird, someone who syncs with who we are, how we move in the world, is precious.
No one tells us the outcome as we watch.
The first time I watched, the images appeared crisp, sharp, perfectly toned.
Transfixed is a good word for the fog I felt in my body. To pierce through, to fasten to me, to hold me motionless and hyper-aware.
The two friends stand on opposite ends of the stage.
From the onset, this scene is different. Somehow, we know this isn’t going to be routine, one competitor vanquishing the other, a “slaying,” as people much younger and much cooler than I am might say.
A battle royale, no.
Before they begin, the two embrace. An embrace. Yes, simplicity that hovers over each of us, that capacity to hold another’s body with every quavering shape the heart can take: I love you, I don’t want to see you go, I need you here beside me. Don’t leave me, please.
Each speaks words the other cannot hear.
When the music starts, one drops to her knees, a slow gesture of a solemnity some of us will recognize, having held her emotions in our hands like twigs, or peat carried inside the throat. She squats, dropping her weapon, a gilded airgun.
The other removes her mask. Yes. And this is where my heart breaks. Each time. There is a big black sky over our town. A fissure inside the husk of that red pumping wake.
And those of us watching know what must occur. The script has been written beforehand. There are rules, after all. Laws. Systems greater than any articulation or pose our bodies can do. Is there a death-drop to transfix the way these things work out?
In minutes, one will be gone.
At times, I will shed tears for these two, because at times in my life, I have to halt my feet and slow my hands and listen to the eyes behind my ears, which remember someone, remember them, all of them, squinting and hushing the whole net of the body so that I may weep. In private. Alone. Holding my dog or brushing my teeth, trimming the blackness of my beard it has happened. And will happen.
I’m right over here. Why can’t you see me?
And other times, a name will stay in me, will sit in my side like a horn, and for this, for them, I will let my body be a body. Sadness will blare if we allow it, if we do not numb it with Xanax and alcohols or gauntlet squats, thinking happiness and joy are the only continents on which the body can live. It has been deafening unlearning a masculinity that denies the body its wants—overwhelm the body, and it becomes just that, the body.
Sometimes these men and women we lost were the best people in the world—kindness, love, cariño, trust. Other times, they may have been wicked. But wickedness is in the eye of the beholder, and no one has to fulfill all ideals of goodness in order to be loved, loved back, missed.
These days, watching the video renders images that are dulled, hazed, fading. Laws have taken the original offline—what we are left with are renderings, copies.
In less than a minute, the music pumps, and the two are holding one another.
Stilettos and broken bottles, I’m spinning around in circles…
For moments, the two may separate. Each at her own end of the stage. Each tending to her own body. Their movements tell of a body that is slowed, on the cusp. But on the stage, they return. Each to the other. Bodies near. Arm in arm. Mouths open.
It’s a big black sky over my town…
In the audience, looking on, there is a witch. And there is a goddess. And there is a songstress. And there is a man who makes fine clothing.
So many times in my life, in my twenties, I heard men and mujeres say: I wish you would have known X, he was so awesome… If only so-and-so was alive today,… O, my god, X would have loved to see this… If X was still here, she would perform the fuck outta that song…
Today, there are men and women we will not know. There are people, many of them men, whom we might, one day, have held as lovers and confidantes and parejas. This, too, is loss. People we have lost because of “unnatural disasters,” as writer Ricardo A. Bracho taught me when I was 19 in Miami, sitting around a table discussing how we might build something to stop our people from dying. He was echoing. We were not creating a machine, we were not weaponizing Love. He was telling us a theory of survival, which is naming, which carries blood, which is a dance that passes across generations, which involves recognizing that loss disrupts that inheritance and that what is happening to us today is made by man. The idea he named for us is from This Bridge Called My Back, from the wisdom of Mitsuye Yamada.
As the two perform, they tell us, I keep dancing on my own…
They tell us: I’m just gonna dance all night. I’m all messed-up, I’m so outta line…
I’m right over here. Why can’t you see me?
I cannot tell you with any certainty that this is not a song about losing 49 lives.
The world is what we make of it, and I am afraid of seeing people like me die.
At the end, in the middle of the screen, the idea of belonging shivers. Not because it is weak, not because it is ailed or insufficient. It shivers because it is of flesh.
At the end, before the rules fall, before one is declared survivor and the other sent away, the two hold one another. The music ends.
One of them cannot breathe. She tells us. She articulates what the possibility of loss enacts upon the body.
In the audience there we are. Watching, waiting for the rules to take effect, for the systems to do what they do, which is take one of us, which is to shatter that belonging—.
And I tell you, if you know what she means, then, loss is something we carry in our counts. It is blood and it is footwork and it is the movements of our mouths as we echo and swallow ourselves whole.
How many people have we lost?
How many more will we lose?
Whom have we forgotten?
I don’t know if she is breathless because she fears for herself or for her friend. I believe it is because she fears for both of them, because the rules must fall, and someone will be gone. The outcome must be announced. One of them is not supposed to survive this. The laws say so.
But rules can be changed. And I have to believe that laws, also, can shift.
One helps the other to her feet. They hold each other again.
“I am sorry,” one of them says.
I am sorry, also. I am sorry for knowing the rules. I am sorry because I know the world is made of loss as much as it is made of survival. Behind every great joy there is a great sadness. Believe me.
At this point, I carry my heart on my tongue. Watching is difficult. Watching means I remember their names and must and cannot forget. The struggle to remember is only half the fight—the other half: fighting to halt our own suffering, which means changing the rules, remaking the silence that says someone must die from this.
Imagine a world where no one has to die from gunfire, where no one dies from hatred, from bombings, from silence.
In this case, in this video I watch again and again, no one goes home. One friend does not survive at the expense of the other. In this case, both friends live. If only life were this way, where some great force of fierceness could intervene on our behalf, save us from dying, save us from defeating each other, save us.
In the background, as we learn both will live another day, you hear a voice yell, “Yes!! Yes!!” And this is what is emerging from my body at this time, in this place of the video. Yes!! Yes!! Today, and each time I watch this video, a powerful woman of color goddess-figure intervenes. And no one has to die.
There is laughter. There is dancing. There is embracing.
The goddess says, “Fuck it,” and this is because the rules have changed, because all of us make it. And in this video, the two friends do not have to say goodbye.
So far away, but still so near
(The lights go on, the music dies)
But you don’t see me standing here
(I just came) to say goodbye
But this is a reality show. This is television. The two will recreate this dance again and again on stages and screens across the world. I’d like to believe you don’t have to be queer to grasp this, having another queerness inside you, wearing it, those moments of friendlessness, of no compassion, of being abandoned, left at the bus stop. Yes, loss is loss, and yet, it isn’t. Loss wears desire in its blood, on its skin. Our loss is specific, and yet, it is connected to other communities’ losses. I believe it is possible to inhabit sameness and difference at once.
And so, this lip sync between Jujubee and Raven from RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars is a video I watch on YouTube when I feel a sadness I don’t entirely understand raring up inside me, or when I think of friends I’ve lost, lovers who are no longer standing beside me, when I think the world is more lonely because thousands of men and women in this city, like your city, are not here when they should be, when they deserve to be. Something has been taken from them. Something has been taken from us. We are right over here, and still, I ask America, Why don’t you see us? This is realness.
Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize. His writing has recently appeared in Entropy, Drunken Boat, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops. For more information, visit joejimenez.net.