When Edwin Maldonado talks about Amanda Alvear and Mercedez Marisol Flores, his voice breaks—frequently.
He last saw his two friends at about 1:30 a.m. on Sunday morning as he was leaving Orlando’s LGBT Pulse nightclub.
Maldonado had not been expecting to see his friends—“the girls” he calls them affectionately—at the club that night. He had had a little too much to drink, and, feeling the worse for wear, “had to go home.” He never imagined that it would be the last time he would see them.
“As I was walking out I saw my girls in the far left room of building. If I stayed, I knew I’d drink more and I really wasn’t feeling well, so I left.”
He wishes he had stayed: he says this more than once. “I would have protected them,” the 29-year-old says to The Daily Beast, tears clotting his words.
Best friends Alvear, 25, and Flores, 26, were two of 49 people murdered by homophobic mass killer Omar Mateen early Sunday morning.
If Mateen’s intention had been to simply kill LGBT people, his despicable mission also took the lives of straight people like Alvear and Flores. Unlike Mateen and his twisted hatred, Pulse welcomed and embraced all.
Maldonado, en route to Monday night’s vigil in Orlando, said three other friends wounded in Mateen’s attack were still being treated in hospital.
“I went to the club at around 12:30 a.m., and left at 1:30,” Maldonado recalls. “In that hour everything seemed fine, like usual. It was over-capacity, like it was on Saturday nights. It was a normal night. You went in there, there was nothing negative. It was only positive vibes. Nobody thought anything bad was going to happen.”
At 4 o’clock in the morning, he said, he received a text from a friend, saying, “Are you OK? Pulse has got shot up.”
Maldonado said the message left him in disbelief. “Everyone is so happy there all the time, I thought it was impossible. It was love: everyone was happy.”
Around three hours later, more messages came from friends asking if Maldonado was OK. They knew he was a Pulse regular, and were frightened. Maldonado went online to see the initial figure of 20 dead, and 50 hospitalized, later revised to 50 (including Mateen) and 53, respectively.
“But my two friends—Amanda and Mercedez—there was nothing heard from them,” Maldonado says. At Orlando Regional Medical Center, he found out nothing, but was told it was likely they were being questioned, like other club-goers, by police.
The day went on: nothing, no word. “Then,” Maldonado says, crying, “at 2 in the morning today (Monday), I found out that both my friends, Mercedez and Amanda, were victims.”
His sobbing continues.
“Now I don’t know how to come to terms with any of this. How is this possible? How can a man shoot up a club, where he would be accepted, loved, and embraced? How can he shoot up a club where there is nothing but love? It’s not even a club. It’s more of a family.”
By this, Maldonado echoes what others have said of Pulse: that it is warm, inclusive, a home for so many, the kind of “family” that forms in LGBT bars and clubs, and around LGBT groupings of many kinds.
“The family of Pulse was so open-armed,” Maldonado, whose nickname is “Jay,” says. “If you think you know what love is you don’t know what love is until you step into Pulse. Pulse was like nothing but open arms. Nothing ever bad happened at Pulse. It’s a place I called home for 10 or more years. At Pulse you could go and share whatever was on your mind. Everyone understood.”
This was especially true for Maldonado, as, he says, “an HIV positive, 29-year-old man. I went in there and told them, and people embraced me, loved me, told me it was going to be OK. They said, ‘Just because you have HIV doesn’t mean you’re going to die. It’s an illness. That’s it.’”
Maldonado had friends who were patrons there, as well as bartenders and other workers. “That was our home. It was our tranquility, our place where, whatever stressful situation was happening at home, you could go and clear your mind.”
He pauses and cries again.
“I can’t come to terms with how someone can do that. Two of my friends who were straight—he just shot them up.”
Both Alvear and Flores had many LGBT friends, and they loved Pulse, says Maldonado.
“As people they were the most lovable, honest, accepting, open-minded, and super-cool people you could ever meet,” he says.
The trio had been friends since 2008. Alvear was a nursing student at the University of South Florida, Flores worked at Target, though wanted to be a party planner, he says. “They were both the life of the party,” he adds.
You can see that, he says, in Alvear’s widely-publicized capturing of the first moments of the shooting on Snapchat, where she—like many others, presumably—seems baffled as to what is going on.
“You can see she didn’t think anything of it,” says Maldonado. “She’s thinking, ‘What is that?’ We would never expect anything like that, especially not in our home. To think that that thing we call safety could be attacked by some cruel, harmful, naive person who would go in there and shoot it up—I’m shocked by that.” He pauses, and says again, “I was there and if I would have stayed a little bit longer, I know they would have been OK.”
He cries again. “It’s like, they were nothing but love. I was hoping yesterday, ‘They’re OK.’ When someone passes you have a feeling that something bad has happened. And yesterday I didn’t feel that at all. I felt like they were at the police precinct.”
His crying gets louder, his voice louder. “They were girls, man. Innocent girls, man. How can he do that? They were wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, gays, bis, straights, transgdendered—everybody was in there.
“Imagine going somewhere where you can be anyone you want? You could be a vampire there.” Maldonado laughs through his tears. “You could be anyone you want and be accepted. This is how Pulse was. This was not a place where anyone judged you at the door, no. They would smile at you, and say ‘Go ahead, brother, do what you’re going to do.’”
Maldonado had many happy nights at Pulse, and other venues, with Alvear and Flores. His favorite drinks were a Long Island Iced Tea, or Grey Goose and Red Bull.
“My girls loved their vodka cranberries, and—not often—Tequila Sunrises. I always remember them trying to get me to do shots. I was like, ‘Only for you girls.’ To think that I’m not going to be able to experience that again. They were there for all my birthdays, for everything.
“The girls,” he says, “were amazing at all they did, and had been best friends since high school. They were bubbly. They would have loved your accent (this reporter is British) and would just want you to talk to them.
“On my 25th birthday, Amanda and Mercedez took me to (Miller’s) Ale House, and somehow we ended up with 10 or 15 people with us. They were just those type of girls. What you’d want in a friend is what they were.”
The mood in Orlando on Monday, Maldonado says, feels different. Before our conversation he had been to a 7/11 and a Chevron, and “nobody is happy. Usually they’d ask, ‘How are you doing?’ and I’d say, ‘Another day in paradise.’ But today there is a lot of sadness, but there is also a lot of support. Downtown is packed.”
Maldonado says he begged a friend in Los Angeles “to stay away from cars, to stay away from everything” after he heard about the man there found with a car full of ammunition on LA Pride day.
“I said, ‘I don’t need someone else in my fucking friendship circle to die.” He pauses. “They were two girls, two innocent girls.” The tears begin again. “They were my two favorite girls. They loved gay people. They loved us.”
Maldonado is proud to have known both women. He says they were both obese at one time: Alvear had gastric bypass surgery, and continued to lose weight afterwards, becoming “an idol to everybody.”
The motivation to lose weight came both from within, and from their friends, says Maldonado. Mercedez worked out, and saw a similar dramatic change.
Maldonado laughs. “I’m gay, she’s straight, and she always wanted to kiss me on my lips. They were both my angels. There are people out there who deserve to die. These girls did not.”
Alvear and Flores helped him through rough times too. “When I came out, they reassured me I would be alright. They were always there for my heartbreaks.”
What most saddens Maldonado is that Alvear’s parents had already lost a son—Alvear’s brother—to cancer some years ago. “To think that… I’m just so mad. Why, why do this to innocent girls? I don’t understand why.
“I read he was disgusted by seeing two men kissing in Miami. But he is not from here. Why come to our club? I think he was a bit… a lot of a coward. Why attack something that is love? I know he wants to hit us where it hurts, but at the same time why? Why do something like this, somewhere like this, where you could be accepted? I don’t understand that.
“It could be terrorism. It could be a hate crime. It could be whatever they end up calling it. Whatever he did, it wasn’t worth it. These people he did this to were scared. This is not something easy to comprehend, or easy to understand. I’m still asking myself so many damn questions.”
What has upset Maldonado is the thought of the bodies of the dead remaining in the Pulse for so long before being removed by police.
He knows that there must have been protocols to follow, “but come on dude, the first thing to do is get the bodies out. Do not make the families wait. Do not let the families suffer, making them think the worst.”
What meager comfort there has been has come from seeing all the vigils, the outpouring of love and support, from around the country and the world.
Maldonado has seen images from London, Key West, and in many cities across the U.S.
“I am so appreciative of that. I can’t believe our nation can be united like this. This is about love, respect and being united. I just wish more people understood that. This is not a place of hate. There is so much power here right now, so much encouragement.”
Alvear and Flores would want people to celebrate them, Maldonado says. “‘Do not cry at no funeral’—they always told me that,” he says. “They would want us to embrace each other and be happy. They’d want us to be happy. They really were the life of the party. They would not want us to feel down or be negative.”
As for Pulse, Maldonado would like to see it reopen at some point. “I want to show that we’re not afraid, to show the other bastards out there that we’re fucking staying united and we’re not afraid of them.”
Maldonado, Alvear, and Flores “always” told each other they loved one another, he says, “every day. These girls were amazing, powerful girls. I always felt they could do something better in life.”
He pauses. “I wish I would have stayed,” he says again of leaving the club that Sunday morning. “I feel like I could have been able to protect them.” Another pause. “It’s impossible: how could one man do this?”
It sounds as if Maldonado may have survivor’s guilt. Had he stayed, he is “pretty sure I would have got hurt, but maybe there would not be 50 people dead, maybe 10-15. I want to protect my girls. They always told me, ‘Jay, I feel safe around you.’ I always defended them. Anytime someone made fun of them because of being obese, I would defend them.”
Maldonado is resolving to stay positive. “We’re going to move on, we’re still going to be happy, Disney is here,” he says, laughing softly. “This is where dreams and the imagination start. We’re not afraid as a city. We are standing united.”
I ask what Maldonado’s favorite memory of his “girls” is, and he laughs that it’s of them, two or three months ago making him drink shots, shouting “Take a shot, take a shot.” “They knew I would do it, just for them,” he says.
Just for them.
For more on the stories of Alvear and Flores, read The Daily Beast's article on several of the incredible personalities lost during the shooting.
For a complete list of the 49 victims of the Orlando massacre, please visit this tribute to their lives.