Lantern Traditions: Harnessing the Burning Story

— Sylvia Beato

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a 29-year-old security guard, killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in a terrorist attack inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida.


I believe the body is place. I believe this place is imagined. I believe there is no way out but through each other. I believe community begins at what we say, how we say it, and why it matters.


Papi’s gold-plated fountain pen: when you open and close the cap, it gives a percussive click so that one is driven to repeat the action just to hear the sound. A miniscule cymbal. To smell the ink from its tip is almost to smell him: oily and herbal, earthy and male, like his head beneath the thinning curls of his once black hair, the skin of his face, ever receding, stretched taut over his cheekbones.


“The piece you read about your father’s advice was so touching,” someone at a reading said. “Is he still alive?”

“No,” I lied.

I had just finished a workshop on ethnography and memoir. The writers in the class, myself included, chiseled our private stories of rejection, marginalization, and renewal, into what Felicia Rose Chavez calls golden stories. They aren’t golden because they are good or even pleasant, but because they “burn bright.” That night, we shared them with a room full of strangers.

But why did I suddenly shrink from owning up to mine?


Papi has pulmonary fibrosis, a disease that knits increasing tissue in the lung over a period of time. He is in the hospital with pneumonia, as he is prone to develop with the slightest cold. I know this is the way he will go, though, perhaps not this time. Not today.


i.

then it was cold
standing upright
feeling sorry
after losing control
asking to be met
in the center pulp
if only briefly
holding her face
with my hands
look at me

ii.

desire
to possess
what won’t deliver
to hide from
breathy eyes averted
to question the nature
of body wanting
in the way of error
thirsting for skin not unlike
hers stretched out away
hair long object of want
black lashes soft &
mouth—
                scrape
stubborn surface
deeper even
source of all
unrelenting
hunger

iii.

marbled kitchen
drenched with sun’s sorrow
unhinge the door
to toss sea urchins
down basement steps
illuminated
by starlight
where tender rabbits
blinking
don’t at all apologize
for what moves
just so


The façade of the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in SoHo features the Act Up slogan Silence = Death accompanied by an inverted pink triangle. On a recent visit, they were featuring Leonard Fink’s photography.

The exhibit begins with intimate self-portraits of Fink dressed in different sexualized roles, sometimes a police officer, sometimes a cowboy. The images expand to depict men cruising and sunbathing along the West Side Piers in the ’70s and ’80s, as well as the first pride marches following Stonewall. There is a gritty and dark quality in these images, but also something lovely.


“The gunman entered the bathroom and was shooting his machine gun, so we are all like scrambling around in the bathroom, screaming at the top of our lungs when he was in there for the first time and then, you know, people are getting hit by bullets, like blood is everywhere and then there was a moment where he stopped shooting in the bathroom and that’s when everyone looked around and that’s when I first realized that my leg was shot […] It was a shock. We went from having the time of our lives to the worst night of our lives all within a matter of minutes.”


Let’s talk about bullets.
Let’s talk about what bullets do to the human body.
Let’s talk about the human body.
The parts that yield.
That flutter and give.


Indonesia, in which my partner and I plan to spend our honeymoon, does not legally protect individuals from discrimination. Some regions outlaw homosexuality altogether: in 2017, two men were publicly caned to death, and saunas and nightclubs are regularly raided. Last month, two ISIS suicide bombers set off an explosion in a church, killing 14.

The recent political unrest has pushed us to question our summer plans. Of the two, I am less detered. But aren’t you outraged? Doesn’t it make you angry? How can you just be okay with going to a place that does that to people like us?


Here’s a golden story: the summer I fell in love with a woman for the first time. Few others rival the fury, the ecstatic madness of those days and the stripped-down, gnawing loss of those that followed. I thought I was ready to change my life but had no idea what that could look like. Robert Hass: “Emptiness – one is desire, another is the object it doesn’t have. Everything real is nourished in the space between these things.”


The doctors have just discovered that my Papi’s pneumonia is coupled with cancer, which has spread from his lungs to his spine. My mother calls me crying. She says, I’m trying to get him to think of la boda, how we were all together, your sisters, our cousins, and how beautiful you girls were.

I am moved to silence when I hear this. It’s been a rough road with my family, my father most of all. Once a Catholic priest, he carries contradictory beliefs about god and freedom, about what is natural and what cannot possibly be.


“You could hear the bullets drop. I even heard the clip fall on the floor for him to just reload again. And then the ring of shots just keep going.”


Act Up relentlessly pushed against shame, advocating for much-needed health care. Like in Fink’s photographs, the open stares and naked bodies of the subjects are vulnerable, decidely joyful.


Here’s another golden story: after my Papi’s triple bypass, I stayed in the hospital with him for a week while he recovered. Stuttering and shy with her English, my mother left it up to me to communicate with doctors and nurses: his medication, pillows, meals. Some questions I never asked him: are you ready to show up, now? Make better choices? Spain were in the semi-finals of the World Cup against France. I was 14. It would be another 18 years before I stopped feeling angry.


“Throughout that period of hours, the gunman was in there with us. He actually made a call to 911 from in there. Everybody could hear – who was in the bathroom, who survived. We could hear him talking to 911, saying that the reason why he’s doing this is because he wants America to stop bombing his country.”


In the dream we rode a motorbike
across the open fields of the Patagonia
a promise to name you mine
but the apple thistledown broke
two dark suns opened
all the while I made choices
didn’t answer the call didn’t want to
waking to April
sunlight crashing
through windows curtainless
and in slumber I understood:
what you cannot
deliver with the body
cannot apologize


There being nothing clean in the body to begin with.
Nothing void of complexity.
Of the things wiring arteries to organs, veins to blood.
Until a bullet comes and simplifies.
Blows apart.
Shreds.
Distorts.
Liver, kidney, spleen.
Limbs.
Legs for kicking.
Arms for reaching out.
Hands to grasp, apply pressure, hold, open.


At the wedding, we danced to a slow merengue. He swayed his hips with me for a full minute and thirty seconds before sitting back down. Guests echoed: your dad, so charming! Such a smile. And his speech was the best, the very best speech of the night… when he quoted Kahlil Gibran? Tears came to my eyes.


“And I could see piles of bodies laying over the toilet seat, and slumped over and the bottom of the toilet was just covered in handprints in blood. […] I looked across and I could see my best friend on the floor, Akyra, just looking lifeless. At that point, I was just like I really don’t think I am going to get out of here.”


Stay joyous. Learn to be thankful, but not oblivious. Learn to pick your battles, but don’t be complacent. Learn to remember, but don’t wallow in it. Embrace your choices fully. Pay attention to the people who stuck around. Regard them as the reasons you’re alive. Believe this to be true. Forgive those who couldn’t see you when you needed to be seen. Think of the many you couldn’t see when they needed to be seen.


Another golden story: I burst into tears the first time I heard Papi’s voice after learning about the cancer. I tried hard to keep my voice even, to take deep breaths so he wouldn’t notice. Are you crying…? He asked, panting through the oxygen tank. Oh, don’t cry, my star. I adore you. Que será, será, whatever will be, will be. Do you have time to talk?


Skin along the cheek. Shredded.
Blown apart.
Made shrapnel of.
Distorted.
Heat. Breath.
Escaping.
Until no face. No brain.
No child. No neighbor. No co-worker. No bodega owner. No mother.
No father.
No body.


Remember the power of laughter, the freedom of it. Remember how much can make you feel that way. Ocean on a hot day. Dog pummeling you at the door. Perfectly ripe mango. Clear mountain summit. How she looked at you, then, and tore you open. Cold water in a tall glass. Ferris wheel in Maine that summer. First campfire you made without help. Rise of your chest before you said,yes.


My partner and I sometimes drive out to the beach on Sundays. We take our busted Corolla to the Rockaways with a couple of bagels, hot coffee in our Thermos, and a pile of sweaters. The dog jumps into the backseat, nose moistening the cold glass of the window.

“What is important, what corrals you, what bullwhips you, what drives you, torments you, is that you must find some way of using this to connect you with everyone else alive,” writes James Baldwin. “And insofar as you can do that with your pain, you can be released from it, and then hopefully it works the other way around too.”


Learn the heart’s percussion. Lie still. One moment, sooner than it seems, that sound will cease. All is magnified, bright, the loudest it’s ever been. Our stories are how we share knowledge about living and losing, persevering and despairing, hope and more hope. Make language mean. Trust in how. There is no way out but through each other.


Read more from Issue No. 17 or share on Facebook and Twitter.