True Colors

I wrote this entry two years ago, in the wake of the Pulse shootings.

06/16/16

The phone ringing woke me up that morning.

I sometimes wonder if that is when my aversion to the telephone really began; I’ve always blame my dislike of telephones on jobs that involved a headset and taking phone calls. But I can remember, before that Sunday morning, always answering the phone; I never screened calls. I always checked the voice mail the moment I got home and called people back right away. Now, the ringing of the telephone, any phone, grates on my nerves and tears at my subconscious. So maybe that was it; I cannot say for sure because my memory is foggy and I’ve learned, far too many times, that my memory has lied to me.

But the phone was ringing as I woke up, and as I started to sit up in bed I seemed to recall hearing it ringing earlier, in my sleep; aware of it but too asleep to get out of bed. But this time it woke me, and as I considered ignoring it and going back to sleep, I noticed on the alarm clock that it was nine in the morning…

…and Paul wasn’t home.

As I put on my glasses and slipped my shoes on and ran over to the phone, I remember the number on the caller ID was one I didn’t recognize; UNKNOWN CALLER with no number. I picked it up and said “Hello?”

“Is this Greg?” asked a very small, quivering female voice.

“Yes,” I replied.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this but Paul is on his way to the emergency room at Charity Hospital,” she went on.

I sat down in the desk chair and listened to her tell me the story, hiccuping and crying and trying to keep her voice steady. I listened, not entirely sure this was really happening to me, hoping that I was asleep and this was a bad dream, as she told me how she and her roommate, both waitresses, had gotten off work and decided to stop by Verti Mart and get something to eat on their way home from work. They were on bicycles, and they were both college students, I think she said at Tulane. She told me how they were standing at the counter, deciding on their order, when they saw a lone guy walking by himself on the sidewalk across the street. As they watched, a white van pulled up to the corner, five guys jumped out and attacked the guy, punching and kicking him and screaming at him even after he went down. Her friend shouted at the store clerk to call the police and the two girls, college students, ran outside screaming. The guys jumped back in the van and took off….with the girls getting on their bicycles and chasing after them, trying to get their license plate number, to no avail. When they finally realized they weren’t going to get close enough to seem the plate number, they went back and stayed with him until the police and the ambulance came.

“He just kept saying you have to call Greg, please call Greg,” she said, finally starting to sob. “I’m so so sorry, I don’t know if he’s okay. I just know they took him to Charity Hospital, and he told me the number to call, he made me promise I’d call.”

I said thank you, thank you very much, and didn’t think to get her name or her phone number or any of her information, which I regret to this day.

I hung up the phone, and knew I had to get to the hospital.

I know at some point as I brushed my teeth and put on clothes, I was aware that I was going into shock. It was the first time in my life I’d ever heard my heartbeat in my ears, and I had no peripheral vision, and I couldn’t really hear anything. It was a very very strange feeling; I don’t remember every feeling that way before, or experiencing anything like it (I may have, but as I said earlier, my memory lies to me). I was shaking, and I knew I couldn’t drive.

So I called my best friend, who answered the phone the way he always did whenever I called him, cheerfully, “Hey whore!”

“Um, I need a favor. Paul’s at the emergency room and I don’t think I can drive. Can you come pick me up and take me?”

“I’ll be right there.” He hung up.

Charity Hospital was enormous. It’s still there, even though it’s not longer open. It became, of course, notorious after Hurricane Katrina, but before then, it was one of the top trauma centers and training hospitals for emergency trauma in the country. I vaguely remember sitting there in the emergency room waiting area, on those hard wooden benches that were so like church pews, while people were being brought in and rushed past, as other people sat there around us, worried, crying, some screaming every once in a while in pain while they waited to be taken in to see a doctor. It was surreal, and again it felt like something I wasn’t actually experiencing but was happening to someone else. I felt like I was out of my own body, watching.

And then finally they called my name.

A nurse led me back into the triage area, I guess it was called, I don’t know. On television emergency rooms always seem to be big rooms with sheets or dividers up separating the areas, but at Charity they actually had rooms. As the nurse led me back, she told me they were about to take him into surgery, and the surgeons would explain everything to me before I was taken in to see him.

All this time I didn’t know what was going on, and had been hoping it was something minor; a broken arm, a concussion, ribs, something where I’d be able to take him home.

Surgery. They were taking him in to surgery.

“He’s been given pain medication so he’s also going to be kind of out of it,” she said gently, and I will never forget her squeezing my arm when she said it.

She led me to a door–it was big and wooden and there was one of those small windows set into it at about eye level, with crisscrossing mesh wires set in the glass, where two men in scrubs were waiting for me.

In a low voice one of them, who had a Japanese last name, explained to me that he had sustained a lot of cuts and bruises but nothing serious; they had examined him and there was no concussion or internal damage. “But his eye–” he hesitated for a moment. “His eye was damaged.”

“His eye?”

The nurse was holding my arm still and she gave it another squeeze.

“Think of the eye like a grape,” he said softly. “If you put a lot of pressure on one side of a grape, it will explode out the back side. That’s what has happened to his eye. We’re going to try to save it.”

I think my knees buckled a little bit at this point, both in horror and relief; relief that it wasn’t something life-threatening, horror that his eye may have been destroyed.

The doctor also took me by both arms and looked me in the face. “He wants to see you. But you need to be prepared. It looks really bad. The surgery will also take a couple of hours. Once we take him in, you should just go home and relax, take care of things. Waiting here won’t do you any good, and just come back in a couple of hours. We’re going to take very good care of him, but if we’re able to save his eye, the recovery is going to take a really long time…and the psychological trauma can take even longer. You’re going to have to be strong for him.”

I nodded, and the nurse led me inside. Paul was lying on a hospital bed and when he saw me he just kept saying, over and over again, in a broken voice, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

My heart broke. His eye…even now I can’t describe what that looked like. He was covered in dried blood. I just kept saying it was okay, everything was going to be okay, and then it was time for them to take him into surgery.

I felt so helpless. It was the most horrible feeling in the world, when someone you love is suffering and in pain and there’s nothing you can do to make it better.

The nurse handed me a clear plastic ziploc bag with his clothes and shoes inside of them.

They were soaked in blood.

I had Mark take me home. I don’t really remember the drive back home, I don’t really remember anything. I know that I didn’t break down until I was safely inside my apartment, and I sat on the couch for a really long time holding the bag of bloody clothes before I remembered that, no matter how much I wanted to wallow in it, I had to be strong.

I had to call his mother.

I had to call his boss.

I had to let friends know what was happening.

I know I did all of those things, but I don’t remember that afternoon very much. I just know that I kept calling Charity Hospital to find out if he was out of surgery but every time I called, I went into a nightmarish phone tree that I couldn’t figure out how to navigate, and finally I called a cab and went back.

Charity Hospital was enormous, as I said before, but one of the things that was really strange was I wasn’t able to find a reception desk, anything, anywhere, where I could find someone, anyone, to tell me anything.

There were phones in some places where you ostensibly could call for information, but a recording answered and I was too upset, too numb, to be able to figure out their phone tree system inside the hospital anymore than I had been able to at home.

I wandered around Charity Hospital looking for anyone for what seemed like hours.

Finally, I just sat down on the floor near an elevator bank, buried my face in my arms, and started sobbing in frustration and grief and pain.

Then someone knelt beside me and asked, in a very kind voice, if I was okay.

It was a nurse, a young African-American man with braids, and I sobbed out that my partner had surgery and I didn’t know where he was and I didn’t know how to find him and I couldn’t find anyone to ask.

He got me up, took me to a lounge, bought me a bottle of Coke from the machine there, dried my eyes, and made some calls. “He’s still in surgery,” he finally said, sitting next to me again. “I can take you up to the waiting room for that surgery. I’m so sorry.”

And he did, and he talked to the nurses on the floor, who came and checked in with me every half hour, making sure I was okay, making sure the television in the waiting room was on something I didn’t mind watching, or asking me if there was something else I’d rather watch.

They were so unbelievably kind.

This was before everything changed, you know, when I’d heard horror stories about how gay couples weren’t allowed to see each other in hospitals and how badly we were treated.

This was Charity Hospital in a state so red it practically glowed; yes, it was New Orleans, but it was also a city where my partner had just been beaten badly for the crime of walking while gay.

And they couldn’t have been nicer to me.

Finally, at ten o’clock, a nurse came to tell me he was now in the recovery ward, and she took me to see him. His head was bandaged but they’d cleaned off all the blood. He had tubes hooked up to him and monitors, but he was breathing, he was asleep.

I leaned over and kissed his forehead.

The recovery ward nurse told me I could stay if I wanted to, but she added that I’d be better off going home and sleeping in my own bed. “He’s going to need you to be rested and strong for him,” she said, rubbing my arm, “and so you’re going to need to make sure you take care of yourself. Will you promise me that? That you’ll take care of yourself? Because he’s going to need you.”

I nodded. “I don’t want to lose him again.”

She gave me her card, and wrote her cell phone number on the back. “I will call you and let you know where we’ve moved him, once he’s ready to be moved out of here. But you keep this card, and if you have any questions or anything to worry about, you call me any time. I’m so sorry you couldn’t find him earlier.”

I sat with him about an hour, and then I went home in a cab.

It was the longest and definitely one of the worst, days of my life.

I have never told this story publicly before, and I do not tell it now to try to make the Orlando tragedy about me. But what happened last Sunday wounded me very deeply, and dredged up a lot of these memories. As I tried to avoid social media, the news, etc., as much as possible–but you never really can–because of the arguing, the nastiness, the absolute viciousness, the attempts to erase the sexuality of the victims, and so on…I started thinking about what I personally have been through.

Paul wasn’t saved by a ‘good guy with a gun,’ he was saved by two brave college students–girls--who saw something wrong happening and did something about it even though those five assholes could have turned violence on them.

Two girls whose names I never knew, but to whom I will always be grateful.

And I also realized that in not telling my story of that awful day, that I was also being complicit. Complicit in not letting people know what it’s like to be gay in America, even in a tolerant city like New Orleans: that we are always at risk, we are always looking over our shoulder, we never can feel truly safe.

Ever since that day I have always, always made sure I was aware of my surroundings, of who was where and doing what. I observe and I watch, no matter what else I am doing, when I am out in public. I do it in the grocery store; I do it in the CVS; I do it when I am walking in the Quarter.

Tonight I have to go do bar testing, and it’s Pride Weekend in New Orleans. I’m not afraid; I have never been afraid. Being aware that you’re a target doesn’t make you afraid, but it means you just have to always pay attention and never let your guard down.

I never wrote about that day because Paul was the victim, not I; because it was Paul’s story to tell rather than mine. But I also realized that it is also my story.

The recovery for both of us from that day took a long time to heal, both physically and mentally. Reading the news reports about Orlando, paying attention to what was going, what had happened, the grief, made me realize that it’s still there, buried deep inside my soul.

My life changed that day. I changed. I am aware of some of the ways I’ve changed, but at the same time I also know I’ve changed in ways that even I may not be aware of. I didn’t write this for sympathy. I didn’t write this to try to make the tragedy about me. My heart breaks for everyone in Orlando. Even now when I run across things on my feed, stories of the survivors, stories of the dead, I can start crying again–so I try to limit my time on social media.

Orlando made us all change, I think. I think for the first time many people realized, maybe just a little bit, of what we as LGBTQ Americans go through, experience, on a daily basis; what it is like for us to live in a society and a culture where some people want us to die and celebrate our deaths.

Maybe things can change now. As I said the other day, I always try to make sense of the senseless; hope that things happen for a reason.

I just hope that those who died so horribly last Sunday morning, those whose last hours of life went from happiness and celebration to horror and fear–I hope that their deaths will mean something to this country, that their awful deaths weren’t just another statistic.

They are all at peace now.

May they never be forgotten.

I am posting this picture of two of the victims, a loving couple who hoped to be married but whose families will now bury them together, in a happier time, so that I, too, will never forget.

515769_300

May none of you ever be forgotten.

2 thoughts on “True Colors

  1. Greg, I checked my email just before going in to buy dog food and saw you’d posted, and, since I love your posts, I decided to take a few moments to read it before I went inside. You can guess what happened. I sat in my car with tears streaming down my cheeks, aching for what you and Paul went through.

    My dear friend Craig told me about the first time he read about the Upstairs Lounge arson and realized, “There are people who do this to people like me.” It broke my heart.

    I hope we can reach a place where we can all just recognize and respect each other as people. I’m so glad Paul recovered and that the two of you have each other.

    Like

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