Essays: “Pulse” by Darla Himeles

Pulse: Reflections on the Communal Body

Having felt the danced-out togetherness of a gay club at 2 a.m., I can tell you it’s not that different from any sacred walled-in space. By that hour, bodies are sighing together. The floor isn’t as packed as it was at midnight, so arms are looser. Eyes find rest in strangers’ gazes.

I remember dancing at 19 in a gay club in West Hollywood when police officers came in—I don’t remember what their deal was. The lights went up, & all our squinting bodies tightened. We crept to the perimeters by instinct. Nothing happened, really—we were asked to leave, & then let back in, but most of us scattered, suspicious. Maybe any club-goer would tighten with fear, but I think there’s another level to it in a gay club: inside those walls we have the illusion of protection, the illusion that we can let loose in our bodies without being stared at, or worse. And many of us have a particular fear of being found out en masse, especially by anyone power tripping &/or carrying a gun. 

* *

My stomach turned when I read the name of the gay club where a 29-year-old shooter took hostage & then murdered 49 people & injured 53 more. Pulse. 

You see, Ani DiFranco, poet-folk-singer-activist, behaves as a kind of password among queer women of a certain generation. The first time I lingered in a lover’s bedroom, she played me DiFranco’s music & read me her own DiFranco-inspired poems. When almost a decade later a closeted woman broke my heart, my dear friend Liz, also gay, made me a mix CD only of DiFranco songs, which she titled something like “Say It with Ani.” Long distances I have traveled to witness DiFranco live—with Liz, with my wife Betsy, with my best friend E. To convince a crush that I was worthy of her time, I once strategically played an Ani album within her hearing; months later I lay in a bed several states away from her & listened through headphones, at the exact same time, to DiFranco’s long & haunting song “Pulse.” I would offer you my pulse, DiFranco says on the track, if I thought it would be useful. / I would give you my breath / except the problem with death / is that we have some hundred years / and then they can build buildings on our only bones / one hundred years, and then your grave is not your own.

* *

I don’t know if dancing in a typical (straight) club includes the gradual & profound blessing of relief that happens on a queer dance floor. Even when I lived an apparently hetero life, I felt unsafe dancing in straight clubs—I didn’t trust my eyes or body to stay fixed to the appropriate gender. In a gay club, my body sinks more deeply into what feels like a communal body. Strangers dance across gender & sexuality presentations with a knowingness that is sometimes transcendent. Sometimes fights or dramas erupt, of course, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has thought of the bouncers & the walls & the music as shields from a less kind world. But they’re not. All spaces are penetrable, all bodies murderable. I don’t know how we keep dancing.

* *

June 12, 2016 was Latin Pride Night at Pulse: no doubt a night of dance & joy before the massacre. One of the deadliest mass shootings in American history slips by more invisibly each year, but the injured & murdered were mostly Latinx members of the queer community. That’s two strikes against national remembrance. Remember that.

Remember that the American Red Cross still wouldn’t receive blood donations from gay men after the shooting, even as they lined up in droves, a shared pulse churning in their stomachs while outdated restrictions meant no help could come of their veins. 

* * 

The day after the shooting, my wife approached three men who were about to enter our local Wawa. They were dressed in rainbows for Philly Pride. 

“Tough day,” she said to one of them. 

“I think we need a group hug,” another said. 

A small crowd—just a few passersby & shoppers in the lot—gathered behind them as they held each other. Some of these strangers started patting Betsy & the men on the back, telling them, “We’re with you, we’re with you.” 

* *

I would give you my pulse / if I thought it would be useful

How useful is queer life beyond the body? 

To you, I mean. 

And what is a gay club if not a large closet within which we can dazzle or dream? If you have prayed in a closet, you know something about weeping on the floor. You know something too about the flimsiness of the door.   

What breathes the communal body together is fleeting as pulse. When the communal body rises, our blood blushes our skin, rages revolution. When the communal body dances, rainbows fill the air. But all bodies must sometimes rest, or weep. Adrienne Rich said, “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” Maybe we just want to be counted, as in: visible. As in: relevant beyond the body. 

When we weep, when we rise, be with us. Be with us.

About Darla Himeles

Darla Himeles (she/her) is the author of the poetry book Cleave (2021) and the poetry chapbook Flesh Enough (2017), both with Get Fresh Books. Darla is a poetry editor for Platform Review, and her poems and essays can be read in recent or forthcoming issues of Lesbians are Miracles, NAILED Magazine, Honey Literary, Atticus Review, Orange Blossom Review, and Talking River. She holds a PhD in American literature from Temple University, where she works as the assistant director of the Writing Center, and lives in Philadelphia with her wife and toddler. Follow her on Instagram @darlahimelespoetry, or find her at darlahimelespoetry.com.