Portrait by Kelly Bjork.
In her profile image on Facebook, Arielle wears a low-cut tank top and winged black eyeliner, and she poses thoughtfully beside a woman’s bent-over ass and bare thighs. Arielle’s hair is long and black and lightly tangled, and a silver barbell pierces her nasal bridge at eye level. She’s a bartender and lives in an artsy-industrial Seattle neighborhood. In her free time, Arielle volunteers with child refugees in the Middle East. “As the war in Syria started, my heart was breaking,” she says. Today we’re on the phone, but I met her in person a couple years ago, shortly after we’d witnessed a shooting at the Twilight Exit. To Arielle, the event carried a residual spookiness. “Usually stuff like that doesn’t happen. But it’s sort of like an intricate spiderweb.Things can sometimes slip through. A fly can land on the web and get stuck there, or it can fly through a hole completely. You can be doing your normal routine. I’m sure people went to Twilight every Sunday for karaoke, and they were totally fine. But things can change in an instant.1 Maybe someone will come in with a gun and shoot you. It can happen anywhere,” she said. “I think we have an illusion of safety, especially as Americans. It is so false. I’m also a queer person, so I can get beat up, or I can get shot. My friends of color can get killed by police. None of us are as safe as we think we are.”
Around the time of the shooting, Arielle was making coffee at a donut shop. “I was like, ‘Ugh, this is horrible.’ I didn’t like donuts to begin with. They’re too sweet. You get sick of them. You’d be surprised,” she said. Arielle had come to the Twilight Exit for her friend’s twenty-first birthday party. “She’s a little bit younger than I am, but not even by a year. It was my first time there. Hers too. I’d only known her a few months, but I’d gotten to know her really well. We’d worked together on a feminist/anti-rape-culture activism project with a bunch of like-minded people. We were part of a girl army,” she said. “I had to be at the coffee shop at five the next morning, and the bar was only a couple blocks away, so it was really convenient for me. She texted me later that night and said she was going to a different spot. I told her, ‘I really wish you could go to the Twilight so you could see me.’ So she changed her plans. I know there was no way to know what would happen that night, but oh my god, if only I hadn’t been so selfish.”
As Arielle was walking into the bar, she remembers “there was some kind of commotion. I think a guy was getting kicked out. I wasn’t really paying attention. It was loud, there was stuff going on, it was karaoke night, I was in a new place,” she said. “There were maybe ten of us. We found a seat right by the entrance, and at one point, I went up to the bar to get my friend a drink. At the Twilight they have a birthday drink, and it’s free. It’s basically a Long Island Ice Tea, and it comes in this huge boot glass. It’s insane. There were probably umbrellas in it, I don’t remember. I just know it was huge.”
The mood at Arielle’s table was festive. “I was talking to my friend, asking her, like, ‘How was your day, what did you do for your birthday?’ Just stuff like that. We hadn’t been there long. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes,” she said. Suddenly, a gunshot sounded right outside the bar in the alleyway entrance. “I thought it was a balloon popping at first. I was like, ‘Why is there such a big balloon and why did it just pop? What the fuck is this?’ We all paused, not knowing what was happening. I looked up and saw one of the bartenders, I think her name is Natalie. She was right there by the juke box. In an instant her body language totally changed. I remember focusing in on her face. It was just, like, total seriousness. All in a quick moment. I heard Greg yell. He said, ‘Oh god, no. No, no, no. Call 911.’ We all scattered. Everyone was freaking out and panicking.”
“My logic was: run. I just wanted to get to the opposite direction of the door. I wasn’t really looking where I was going. I was just going. I don’t know if I grabbed my friend, or if I just started running, but she was behind me. I didn’t know the layout, and I don’t think she did either,” said Arielle. Guessing their way, the women ran past the dining area and straight into the lounge. When they approached the far wall, “we saw we were at a dead end, and there was nowhere to run, so we huddled under the bar as quickly as possible. My friend was right in front of me, right next to me. We kept really close because it was so terrifying,” said Arielle. When she spoke with a detective later that night, she detailed the narrow aisle from her position, with her back to the dead end. “In my mind, I knew there were other people behind me, not very far away. Like, much less than a foot. I’d remember seeing two girls back there earlier, sitting across the bar,” she said, referencing me and Lexi. “I looked at them when I was ordering drinks. They were just sitting and talking. I don’t remember what they looked like, but I knew they were there. Maybe I saw Whitney too, I don’t know.”
Photo Credit: Seattle Police Department.
As Arielle crouched on the floor, “I don’t think I comprehended yet that what we’d heard was a gunshot until we were under the bar. The guy came around the corner. When he stood over us, I saw he had a gun in his right hand. I could tell he was pointing the gun at somebody but I wasn’t sure who. The person was behind me so I would’ve had to turn around and make way too much movement,” she said. “I had a lot of disbelief. I was in shock. I remember thinking, ‘There is no way this is happening. How is this happening. This doesn’t happen to me.’” (Later that night, Arielle described the gunman James to a detective. “He was least half-black, he was pretty light skinned. He was in his mid-20s. He wore baggy clothes. Light-gray pants and a gray shirt. I don’t know how tall he was. I mean, I was on the ground so he looked tall.”)
“He looked massive,” Arielle added when I read her this statement. “He looked like the biggest, scariest thing in my life in that moment. He was like an arm’s reach away. He was directly across from me but even closer to my friend. She and I were side by side. We can’t plan out how we’re gonna sit when someone comes in shooting. That’s just how it happened. But I was feeling really guilty. A lot of guilt. I wanted to keep her safe. I was scared she would get hit first. That’s obviously the first target, whoever is closest. I felt bad about that for sure. But we talked about it later in a group-therapy session, and she was totally like, ‘I was glad I was in front of you because I wanted to protect you.’”
Although Arielle and her friend were right in front of me, we somehow didn’t notice each other. When I stood up and ran away, “I don’t remember you leaving at all,” said Arielle. Mostly, she was concentrating on holding still. “I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. My reaction was kind of like a little kid’s, like: ‘If I don’t move, he won’t see me,’” she said. “At the time, I had no idea if he was on a wild rampage and wanted to kill lots of people or if there was just one specific target. I was thinking about the mass shootings that had been going on. They’re all running through my head: Columbine, Sandy Hook, Cafe Racer. I was like, ‘OK, everyone gets shot. Mostly everyone dies.’ I was thinking, ‘No one’s gonna save us.’ I figured the bullet would hit my friend first, and that it would go through her, and it would hit me. I was preparing my body as best I could. I was waiting to feel a gunshot,” said Arielle.
“I had this funny thought of, like, ‘What would a normal person do in this abnormal situation? Pray? Should I pray?’ I have my own spirituality, but I’m not a religious person at all. I was like, ‘No. God no. Fuck that. That’s fucking bullshit. Stick to your guns here. Don’t pray. There’s no point in praying. What is that gonna do. What would I say. Like, ‘Oh please, God. Please, make this stop. Please keep me from getting shot.’ That would literally do nothing. I’m gonna get shot whether or not I pray to some made-up god,’” she said. “I’m not trying to knock it. If someone believes in God, and that’s their thing, that’s fine. But for me it was a big moment, and I was learning about whether I believe in God like everyone else does. In that very instant, I was like, ‘I don’t have any control over the situation and neither does any kind of god. This guy has all the control.’”
I asked Arielle what she remembers of James in these moments. “I didn’t look at his face. I had my head down and was looking at the wall, looking mostly down. I was thinking to myself, like, ‘Don’t move, don’t look at him, don’t let him see you.’ I had no idea he was targeting his girlfriend until he started yelling at her. He said, ‘Fuck you, you fucking bitch. You ruined my whole life.’ He was being very angry with her. He said, ‘They took my dog,’ or ‘They killed my dog. You left the door open. They stole everything.’ He mentioned something about a TV. I remember just being like, ‘Really? All of this is for a TV?’ I was like, ‘Seriously dude. Like, what is wrong with you. You’re shooting people over what sounds like a break up or because your material possessions are gone. And now you’re ruining people’s lives over this? What the fuck is wrong with you.’”
As James continued, Whitney responded. “I think she was saying, like, ‘Stop. Why are you doing this?’ I heard one gunshot. I don’t know where it went,” said Arielle. “I didn’t hear her scream so I assumed he didn’t hit her. He yelled some more. He said, ‘Why did you do this to me?’ and he shot her again. It’s possible there was one more gunshot, I don’t remember,” she said. “I just know it was really, really loud. We were in a small area, and he was right next to us. My ears were ringing for a while afterwards,” Arielle said. “The smell of gunsmoke was really strong. It reminded me of my uncle’s shooting range. He lives in Montana, and when I’d visit him, we’d shoot a board in the backyard. It was still a little scary because I don’t necessarily trust guns, but it was something fun we’d all do together in my family. My grandparents would come too, they make their own bullets and stuff. That was just, like, this part of my life,” she said. “It was a completely different scenario.”
Back to the floor. While Arielle and her friend quietly huddled together, “the girl closest to me was trying to crawl over us and get away from him. I got kinda pissed. I thought, ‘You’ve got to stop right now. You’re gonna draw attention to us and we’re gonna get shot,’” she said.2 “That grabbed his attention. He told us, like, ‘I don’t want to hurt you guys. Get out.’ I was shocked. I was like, ‘Woah, really? We can just leave?’ I got up and my friend got up and before we started running, I looked back to be sure I’d grabbed my purse. What was I thinking? There was a shooter right there, and I looked back to make sure I didn’t leave anything behind! It was so insane.”
Once Arielle and her friend were outside, “we ran around the corner and the shots came. We heard those six gunshots. Cops aren’t my favorite, but I was grateful they came that night. It was an incredibly contradictory thing. Most of the times they don’t make me feel safe, but in that instant they did. Then a few months later, on May Day, I was out, and the police were shooting rubber bullets at people,” she said. “I felt unsafe around the cops again, and I still do.”
As far as the police’s response to James, “I don’t know if I feel one way or the other. I don’t think it’s up to me to decide if he deserved it,” she says. Then we go over James’s conflict with Whitney, and Arielle weighs in firmly. “Really, this was a domestic-violence crime. This was a man proving he had more power over a woman. So, he shows up with a gun. That was something that really bothered me. Because, like, what the fuck does that even prove? It’s fucked up. It goes into the whole male-power thing. He shouldn’t have been that livid and ignorant to deal with her like that. You’re mad at your lady, or you don’t get what you want from her, so you’ll hit her, or you’ll kill her to solve the problem. Like, how is that the go-to,” she said. “I think it has a lot to do with how males are raised. There’s this thought of men being more powerful than women, which is 100% not true, but that’s what everyone thinks, and that’s what society has us all believe. It just creates more problems like this.”
We go back to the shooting and the hours that followed. Exhausted after the waiting and the statements and the conversations with police, Arielle returned home and fell into a heavy sleep. “The next day was super weird. I called in to work, obviously. I didn’t feel well. Maybe I hit my head on the bar or something and gave myself a mild concussion. There was this thing happening with my hearing. My ears would stop and cut out. There’d be this ringing, sort of like a tunnel. Like a faraway-sound thing. The sound in one ear would go away for a bit, but then it’d come back. It was super bizarre. Whenever that’d happen I’d start crying. It was proof physically that this thing had happened.”
1 A memory pops into my head as I’m speaking to Arielle. It’s one of those things you see once and then always wonder about. It happened about a year ago, on a crowded Seattle street, near the entrance to a nightclub, on a weekend night. My friend and I were passing through, with nothing on our agenda beyond a short walk to a nearby vending machine for a couple sodas. A clearing opened before us, and we stood watching as a guy latched himself onto a policeman and pounded the cop’s back with his fists. The puncher was a white guy—a gel-haired, clean-cut, date-rapey type in a polo shirt bearing the print of a giant American flag, of all things. The cop was white also. He was locked in, taking a beating. It went on for a while. I waited in terror for the cop to pull out his gun. He never did, and neither did the several other cops stationed nearby, who kept a watchful distance. Abruptly, the white guy broke away, and then he ran off. It didn’t look like anyone caught him. Afterwards, I searched for the story in the news but never found it.
2 Quickly after, “I had another moment of, like, ‘I can’t blame this girl because she’s doing what she thinks she needs to do to survive, and clearly we’re gonna have different ideas of what’s going down,’” said Arielle. Meanwhile, in the weeks after the shooting, Lexi couldn’t shake her guilty feelings, and she used social media to locate Arielle and reach out with an apology—even if she probably didn’t need to. Things were cool between them and still are. Now and then Arielle and Lexi run into each other at music venues, and they say hi.