by Melvin Félix
ORLANDO, Florida— It's Friday night and more than a dozen men and women are lined up outside Southern Nights, a gay nightclub just a few miles from Pulse, the scene of last weekend's grisly attack, which remains closed.
By 12:30 am, a crowd has gathered in a dark room with chairs, a small bar and a stage. Through a loudspeaker, a voice announces the drag show is about to begin .
Suddenly, the curtains open. Everyone shouts with excitement when Chevelle Brooks appears in a tight dress and huge earrings. She dances her way off the stage and mingles with audience members, who wave their money and sing along to the rhythm of "Rather Be" by Clean Bandit: "When I am with you , there's no place I'd rather be."
When the song ends, the crowd claps. Chevelle gets back on stage and announces that the club raised some $79,000 to donate to former employees of Pulse, who lost their jobs after a terrorist fired wildly into the partying crowd last weekend.
That's when the memory sets in: It's the first weekend after the Orlando club massacre. Forty-nine people who could have been here tonight are not, because they were shot dead.
Among them were Juan Ramón Guerrero and his boyfriend Christopher "Drew" Leinonen. They had been at this same nightclub the Friday before the shooting, seen hugging and smiling for a picture in the middle of the dance floor.
At Southern Nights, memories of the victims cause deep and bitter pain. But club-goers are here to forget that pain for a few hours—to start healing.
Up on the stage, Chevelle announces the next drag queen that will entertain the crowd, but first she has something to say: "Thank you all for coming. There's no other place I'd rather be, Orlando.”
Outside Southern Nights, two policemen stand next to a patrol car.
"Girls, on this side," says a woman in front of the nightclub, wearing a black shirt and pants. She and another guard are in charge of the new security procedures put in place this week: denying access to people with large bags, instructing people to empty their pockets, and frisking people for weapons. Guards stand at every door in the venue, in constant communication.
The female security guard tries to give instructions to a group of women who just arrived, but they are distracted. A friend has just arrived, and they can’t stop hugging him.
The next morning, hundreds of people attend Leinonen's funeral in a packed cathedral in downtown Orlando. Christina Hernandez, a 32-year-old Hispanic woman, is among the last to enter. She is part of Proyecto Somos Orlando (We Are Orlando Project), an initiative driven by members of the Latino and Puerto Rican communities.
"Now is the time for action," Hernandez told Univision Noticias.
The group has already raised $10,000 from the Hispanic Federation to provide mental health services in health centers south of Orlando and in Kissimmee for relatives of the victims. Many of those services are in Spanish, offered by counselors who understand Hispanic culture. That’s especially important in these two areas, which have high concentrations of Puerto Ricans. Of the 49 victims of the Pulse massacre, 23 were Puerto Rican.
"This will be a long-term process,” says Hernandez, born to a Puerto Rican father and Panamanian mother. “This is just beginning. We must be patient because things will not get better overnight. We have to endure the pain and the grief."
On Saturday afternoon, thousands of people arrive at Camping World Stadium to watch the Major League Soccer match between Orlando City and the San Jose Earthquakes. There are 50 empty seats in the huge stadium that are filled with balloons.
Forty-nine of them symbolize those who died at Pulse; the 50th honors Christina Grimmie, a young 22-year-old singer who was shot dead in Orlando just two days before the Pulse massacre.
During the second half of the match, in the 49th minute, the game is halted to commemorate the victims. The stadium is numbed into silence.
Then, the moment is over. The match goes on.
That night, the Revere gay club is celebrating. Although it's usually free to get in, tonight it costs $5.
Every employee, bartender and drag queen working this tribute night did so voluntarily, without expecting anything in return. All the money raised tonight, both at the entrance and at the bar, will go to the relatives of the Pulse massacre victims.
A few men and women dance to the beat of "Born This Way" when the drag show is announced. So many drag queens have volunteered to lip sync tonight that the show ends a few minutes past closing time, around 2:30 am.
Before leaving, the managers of this new gay club take to the dance floor and make an announcement: they will match the night’s profits, effectively doubling financial aid for their brothers and sisters at Pulse. "We will march on," one of them says.
Gradually, waiters light dozens of candles and hand them out to the audience. The mood at the club turns somber when the host asks everyone to raise their candles to honor the victims of the massacre. "If you would like to mention someone's name, shout it aloud now, so everyone can hear it," the host says.
Many begin to cry. The club goes mostly silent; a song plays in the background while two girls near the stage sob uncontrollably.
Finally, the host announces a round of shots for everyone. "Grab them by the bar," he says. But few move from where they are.