Portrait by Kelly Bjork.
Sitting at my kitchen table, Lexi wears skimpy tights, pointy-toe ankle boots, and a rip-neckline t-shirt bearing the name of a band in drippy Halloween font. As always, her hairstyle is new and fascinating. Tonight it’s a neon-turquoise and highlighter-yellow concoction, set into a squishy top-bun. Before this, she had a bowl cut, which was so glossy and blunt and electric-blue it was seemingly made of plastic. When that look became too familiar, Lexi shaved her head to the scalp except for a longish purple patch on top. “I styled that into fake pin curls so it was all spikey with lots of bobby pins sticking out of it,” she says. “I called it The Pineapple.”
We’ve met to talk about the shooting we witnessed at the Twilight Exit. To start, we go over an incident near the end, just after Lexi had fled the building. She and an incoming customer Steve tended to Greg while he lay bleeding from a gunshot wound. As I described here, Lexi’s response was strikingly proficient. “I learned it through military training,” she said. Lexi has a septum ring, and she absently pinches it as she’s speaking. With her other hand, she holds a coconut popsicle. “They gave us a PowerPoint showing us different types of injuries involving major trauma, and the best way to treat them. It was very basic. Just, like, what to do before medics arrived. If someone’s got an artery wound and you don’t make a tourniquet, they’ll bleed out,” she said. (This can happen in minutes, by the way. The average person has ten or eleven pints of blood. Once someone loses six pints, their heart can’t get enough oxygen, so then their brain can’t get enough oxygen, and then they fall into a coma.) “I offered to give my sweater for a tourniquet or whatever and his friend Steve was like, ‘No. I’ve got pressure on the wound. I’m putting pressure on the wound,’” she said.
Steve’s story is coming up later, but let’s back up now so I can tell you more about Lexi, who comes from a military family and served ten years in the navy. “We did full deployments with our weapons systems armed and all that, but there was not ever a call for us to be in combat, luckily,” she says. “I was a nuclear engineering officer.” Among her many tattoos, a string of letters and symbols along her inner bicep tributes her most-treasured scientific formula. “It’s the six-factor formula. Each term represents a factor that affects neutron population in the reactor core,” she says. Before she moved to Seattle, she’d been stationed in Japan for a couple years, and before that, she got her degree in engineering mechanics. “It’s a multidisciplinary degree in the engineering physics field that focuses on the design of dynamic structures,” she says. Today, Lexi works a union job and lives in a vibrant neighborhood. In her free time, she used to sing lead in a punk band whose set list included titles like “Grow Up (Don’t Throw Up)” — but as it happened, they’d broken up that very day. “I don’t get along with the guitar player, and he was saying things I thought were offensive, so a friend of mine stuck up for me and poured beer on him,” she said. In Lexi’s world, outrageous things tend to happen with frequency. Confrontations materialize then quickly dissolve. The music plays loud. Her stuff gets stolen. Seductions occur. (Once with a member of Franz Ferdinand.)
Back to the night of the shooting. As it started, Lexi and I had come to the Twilight Exit to sing karaoke, and we’d grabbed a couple stools in the corner of the lounge. Lexi first noticed James as he approached a woman, Whitney, who was seated across from us. “I don’t remember what he was wearing. He had an olive complexion. I wouldn’t say he was African American, but he was not Caucasian. His hair was cut real short and he had facial hair, some sort of beard,” she told a detective later that night. Lexi and I watched as James and Whitney had a heated exchange. As Lexi remembers, James’s statements involved unlocked doors, broken windows, and stolen TVs. The fight was too peculiar to be upsetting. “He was hysterical, and she was completely ignoring him. She had this dead look on her face,” said Lexi. As she saw the it, “I didn’t want to be the asshole to step in. I guess it was just like any other thing — it’s not really going to be any help to them, all they’re gonna do is tell you to go away, and she’s probably gonna tell you to fuck off too. I had a feeling that’s what would happen. When you’re around other people, you put that wall up.”
The bouncer led James away, and fifteen or twenty minutes passed without incident. As Lexi and I chatted and took pictures, “I was getting ready for the karaoke guy to call my name because I knew my song was coming up soon,” said Lexi. “He’d told us the order when we turned in our slips so we were both half-listening for that. Your song was gonna be up right after mine,” she said to me. In the dining room, a customer named Chris had just finished his rendition of Tina Turner’s “Better Be Good To Me.” A short silence followed as Karaoke Steve reloaded discs and selected the next song’s track. Microphone in hand, Steve was seconds from announcing Lexi’s name when a gunshot sounded in the alleyway entrance just outside the bar. “A girl comes in the door. She says, ‘Oh my God. He’s got a gun. He shot Greg,’” said Lexi.
In moments, Lexi and I were huddling on the floor in a dead-end corner with Whitney and a couple customers. James stood over us with a gun. I asked Lexi whether her military training had prepared her for this scenario. “I don’t have commando training, I just have basic training, and I know there’s nothing you can do when you’re starting in a crouched position,” she said. While Lexi and I had nearly the same view, we remembered James’s weapon differently. “It was like a silver metallic, possibly a revolver,” she said to a detective, while I would later describe it as “a very generic-looking hand gun. Like a squirt gun, but dipped in black paint.”
As we’d backed ourselves into the aisle, Lexi was directly behind me. Quickly, I stood and ran away.1 If my actions caused Lexi to feel abandoned, she didn’t mention it. “There was a pause and you got up. I thought, ‘Marti’s leaving me behind,’ but it was more like I was kicking myself. It felt like that was my chance, and it was over,” she said. As Lexi remembers, James kept his gun on Whitney. “He started yelling at her. He said, ‘They killed my dog. They came into my house. Why did you do this to me?’ I think Whitney was edging closer to the back corner, closer to me. She seemed really scared. She was saying, ‘No. Please don’t.’ James said, ‘My life is over. Now my life is over.’ Whitney was like, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ and James said, ‘Why are you doing this to me?’ They just went back and forth like this,” Lexi said.
“I remember seeing his face. He looked completely miserable that everything was happening. I felt like I was witnessing something very private. He knew he was ruining his life. I think he was more mad and sad and hurt and upset about that than whatever it was they’d been arguing about earlier. He’d already shot the bouncer and at that point he knew it was too late to go back. He said something about, ‘They killed my dog. They came into my house. Why did you do it. Now my life is over. My life is over now.’ That’s when he shot her,” said Lexi. “I remember smelling the gun smoke and thinking, ‘This is the smell of violence.’ That was strange. I’ve been on firing ranges so many times when I was doing weapons training in the military. It had always been such a nonviolent smell to me.”
On the floor in the corner, Lexi kept still. “He was shooting down. It hit her in the stomach maybe. I’d been looking down when he fired the weapon. I couldn’t see clearly because she immediately hunched over,” she said. “Whitney was like, ‘No. Stop. Why are you doing this?’ She sank down on top of me. I had originally been on my knees but I ended up laying on my side and trying to crawl away as she fell on me. She was like, sitting on my hip and my stomach. I don’t think she even realized I was there. He shot her again. I thought he might’ve hit her, somewhere in her lower torso or upper legs or in the pelvic area. He said, ‘They killed my dog. My life is over.’ Her eyes were glazing over. She was like, ‘Why are you doing this?’” said Lexi. “It sounds weird, but I thought her blood would get all over me, and I’d be able to feel it spilling out and seeping into my clothes. I thought it’d be warm and wet, like pee. I was bracing for it, but it didn’t happen.”
Just after the second gunshot, “I sort of panicked. I was thinking, ‘Oh my god. This is really happening. I’m gonna die here.’ There was no doubt in my mind he was going to shoot all of us. I was frantic. I started clawing my way out from under Whitney and climbing over the girl next to me. I still feel awful I did that to her, that I climbed over her like that,” Lexi said. “That’s when James turned. He saw me crawling away. He looked down at me and said, ‘Just go. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to hurt you guys. Just go,’” she said. “Suddenly, I started identifying with James even though I knew he’d put me into that bad situation. I felt bad for him. He was just a human being. I saw how troubled he was. He was angry because he was hurt,” she said. (My brain told me the same things about James. Just after the shooting, as Lexi and I discussed him again and again, our sentiments took on a reverential quality.)
Immediately after James spoke to Lexi in the lounge, “I ran out. I’m not sure if the other girl followed behind me, I wasn’t paying attention,” she said. As Lexi exited the building, she remembers feeling “total relief but also total confusion.” She observed Greg propped against the building and bleeding heavily. “At first I ran past him. But I couldn’t stop thinking about that girl I’d crawled over on the ground. I’d acted like she didn’t matter, or like she wasn’t human. I felt so bad. I thought, ‘Stop. I can’t do this. I can’t be this shitty of a person. I can’t just crawl over someone,’” she said. “The whole situation gave me a guilty feeling, like I hadn’t done enough. I forced myself to turn around and help Greg.” Working together, she and Steve maneuvered Greg near a dumpster around the corner and out of sight from the entrance. “I was like, ‘We gotta get him safe.’ Maybe I thought there might be a gunfight. In retrospect, it didn’t make any sense to move him. The guy with the gun had just let me go, and it seemed pretty unlikely he would come out after I left and try to shoot me or anyone else. I don’t know why I didn’t realize that til later,” she said.
Photo Credit: Seattle Police Department.
Beyond Lexi’s first-aid efforts, much of her memories exist only in shards. “I was just sort of freaked out and numb. I was processing that it was happening,” she said. “I saw you come out from behind the dumpster and you handed me the phone. I saw the police gathering to go in. I used to have a clearer memory of the cops lining up, but that’s faded. I heard a couple single shots and then a few spaced out shots and then a big burst, all at once. I don’t know who fired which, in terms of the single shots. I know there were a few apart.”
Later, amidst the police tape and the ambulances, Lexi and I hugged for a long time. Her whole body was shaking. “I was freezing. I had to leave my boots behind.2 They were caught under Whitney’s body, and they slipped down my legs when I was struggling to get away,” she said.3 “I didn’t have my jacket. It was cold and wet outside. My tights were soaked. I asked the cop if he had anything to put on my feet. I was hoping he had, like, CSI-style crime-scene booties. He was like, ‘Here’s a blanket,’ so I stood on that,” said Lexi. I remember it well. It was a yellow emergency blanket made of a lightweight plastic, too bulky to tie yet too flimsy to fold. Kneeling, I gathered the material into a dome around her feet and attempted to secure it at her ankles. No matter what variation I tried, whenever Lexi shifted, the structure would tenderly bloom itself open.
As Lexi looked back on the night one year later, she spoke of James. “I think about him every day,” she said. “One of the last things he did in his life was decide not to shoot me. He had mercy.”
fn1. Lexi and I discussed these moments later that night. As I understood her, she said Whitney had been making a move to get behind me and potentially use me as a shield. But when I asked Lexi about it later, it seemed Whitney’s actions might’ve involved me less directly. “She was trying to get closer to where we all were. She was trying to climb on top of all of us. Maybe she was trying to hide behind us out of total fear,” said Lexi. There are only two things I can remember of Whitney from our brief time together on the floor, and they barely amount to anything: the sight of her long black hair, and the pressure of her body directly against my side. With no way to verify the facts, the proper thing would’ve been to drop it, but for a time, my emotions mingled confusingly. Once, as I zipped by on a public bus, I saw a woman on the sidewalk who resembled Whitney. I was seized by anxiety.
2 “They’re knee-length black leather boots with multiple buckles,” said Lexi. “I couldn’t wear them again for a few months. I didn’t have the courage. The bar owner called them ‘the sticky boots’ when he handed them back to me. He said his bar manager wiped them down. I kept them in a plastic bag in the back of my closet,” she said. “Finally, one night I was getting dressed up to go out, and I was like, ‘Fuck that. It’s already bad enough that I’ve been having problems with this. I’m not gonna let them fuck up my favorite pair of boots.’ That’s where the line was drawn. I cleaned them off. I scrubbed them out in the bathtub with soap. A ton of blood came out. You couldn’t see all of it because the boots were black, but I could tell it was there,” she said. “To me, it was very symbolic. Now I’m back to wearing them all the time.”
3 In the following weeks, “I had lots of bad dreams. They were always about being somewhere unsafe and feeling unsafe, and having to leave because there was some sort of emergency — whether it was a fire or a flood, or there were just bad people around,” Lexi said. “I think it’s because I was physically trapped. I was stuck under her. I was trying to get away, but I couldn’t move. It’s like your nightmare when you’re in a scary situation.”