Portrait by Kelly Bjork
The day of the Twilight Exit shooting, Taryn had been hanging out with a college friend she hadn’t seen in years. The friend was visiting from Colorado, and the two women spent an earlier chunk of the afternoon together, strolling through a lovely collection of Seattle activities. “We went to the Pike Place Market, watched the fish get thrown around, smelled the fresh flowers for sale, ate good food, took pictures of each other on the piers, bought snickerdoodles from a favorite bakery. Just your typical tourist stuff.” Taryn told me over the phone. She’s meticulously polite and has a soft pretty voice. I haven’t met Taryn in person, but as I imagine her, she’s lounging in a bedroom strewn with dainty, interesting items: black ribbons, picture-locket necklaces, fluffy cats. She went on. “My friend was leaving the next day, and we were determined to have as much fun as we could. I’d always heard nice things about the Twilight Exit, and that night they had karaoke. I was probably gonna sing Stevie Nicks’s “Landslide.” When I got there, I recognized the bouncer Greg. I’d met him when I went out with a small group of women the night before. One of us was wearing a tiara in her driver’s license photo, so when he checked our IDs, he recognized us. He made a joke, like, ‘You girls are really getting around!’ and we’d all laughed,” she said.
After Taryn and her visiting friend arrived at the bar, she spotted her other buddies including Taryn’s coworker Laura, and joined them at a large table in the dining area. “Somebody told me they’d ordered a burger that comes with a pat of cream cheese. It sounded delicious. It was late, and I hadn’t eaten, and I was learning about this burger I wanted to try. Then I heard a loud pop. The music stopped, and a girl ran into the bar. Shortly after, a man with a gun stepped in. I didn’t know the full extent of what was going on, or that he was targeting someone specific. I had absolutely nothing to draw from. I went from, ‘What about this cheeseburger?’ to, ‘Why are shots being fired?’” she said.
“Things became really tight and slowed down. I wish I could remember more details. All my attention was definitely on the gun. I fell to the floor without even thinking. I wanted to find my phone, but none of my belongings were around me,” she said. As James walked past the dining area and into the lounge, “I watched his every move. I don’t remember blinking. I tried to be as still as possible. Someone threw a table down behind me, and that jerked my thought process. I thought maybe I should slam mine down too, and then I did. I remember I was scared to do it because I didn’t want to bring attention to myself,” she said.
“There’s some hype around a moment like that,” said Taryn, looking back. “People wonder what they’d do in the face of danger. Maybe their life would flash before their eyes, and they’d think about all the people they love. But I wasn’t like, “Gosh, if I get shot I won’t get to see my family again.’ Not to say they don’t hold importance. But I was very surprised at my own reaction. That moment wasn’t about survival and reminiscence for me. It was about human connection. Immediately, I had this overwhelming sense of empathy. I realized, like, ‘This isn’t just fricking you.’ I grew up in the ‘90s when school shootings were super common. I thought of the people and the lives behind every article, and what I was experiencing was dark and terrifying. I thought, ‘So this is what it feels like.’”
While Taryn was crouched on the floor, “all of a sudden, I realized the bar behind me was completely empty. It made me feel really alone and really deserted. I felt so sad that I was left behind, and that I was left behind by my friends,” she said. “But it’s not like I still have unsettled feelings or need an apology. I don’t fault my friends for doing what they needed to do to survive in that instant. It was such a hard situation for everyone,” she added, before getting back to the dining room. As Taryn was hesitating from behind her table, “I felt a tap on my shoulder. There was this stranger. I don’t remember what they looked like, and I don’t remember if it was a man’s or a woman’s voice, but they said to me very clearly, ‘We are going out through the back.’ Excuse me for getting emotional. I am so glad that person existed in that moment in my world. I credit my life and my safety to them, and I am very, very grateful,” she said.
Taryn stayed low as she made her way to the exit door. “I heard gunshots in the bar behind me. I was wearing a dress and tights that night. I remember I was crawling over so much stuff, and my tights slipped down. They were all the way around my ankles when I got outside,” she said. Taryn found her visiting friend in front of the building, and the women ran to Laura’s apartment, which was nearby. “I slept on the floor and let my friend take the couch. We woke up super early the next day. She was level-headed about the whole thing. we carried the weight of that experience quite differently. I have a guilty conscience, and I often feel like I should take responsibility for things. I was very sorry I’d brought her to the bar and all this had happened. She was supposed to be having a fun little weekend trip. It was hard for me to process so much at once. I might’ve still been in shock. I pretty much just went home and stayed there until she had to leave for the airport.”
The following days brought Taryn challenges. “I found I was too scared to do anything. I felt like an abandoned dog cowering in the night. I took every opportunity to not be alone. If no one was available, I’d seclude myself in my room. I was uncomfortable doing basic stuff, like shopping at a grocery store. I used to really love walking to work, but that changed too,” she said. “Whenever I did go out in public, I’d become hyper-aware of doorways and exit paths. I’d dissociate to the point where I wouldn’t even remember being somewhere. If I heard loud noises like a pop or a clap or anything immediately resembling a gunshot, my adrenaline would go up.”
Taryn didn’t share her story with a lot of people, for different reasons. “It wasn’t considered a significant shooting, compared to the broader world. It made it into only a few papers. I think that minimized my experience. Maybe that’s why I was so private about it,” she said. “At the time, I was renting a basement bedroom with a back entrance. I was living in a house with a group of roommates, but I knew them only nominally. I’d found them on craigslist. So even though they were there, they weren’t really there. We were living our separate lives under one roof,” said Taryn. It also seemed inappropriate to call on her parents. “They lived three hours away, and my sister had recently moved back in with them because she has a daughter with cerebral palsy, and she needed their help. I know my parents love me and support me and they worry about me. But I didn’t feel like they could grasp what I went through, and I felt kind of selfish asking them to take attention from the more immediate pressures in their daily lives,” she said.
“I think part of my personality factored in, too. I’ve been put in positions where I had to be strong on my own. I personally am a child of trauma, and when things happened, I taught myself to deal with them alone. It gave me a sense of control. I felt like that was the only thing I really had, that I was able to handle my shit. That carried over into adulthood. I wouldn’t say it’s a pride thing, but it’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I want to bother people with this,’” she said. “The trauma I experienced as a kid was different, though. I was groomed into it. There was a buildup. It’s natural for the brain to want to make connections. The shooting felt more catastrophic because it happened without warning,” she said. Even still, “I don’t always feel like I have the right to let it impact me the way it does. It feels really indulgent to me, in a way. Like, who am I to complain? I walked away with my life. I walked away without being shot,” she said. Throughout our interview, Taryn would return to the latter sentiment. She seemed unable to fully believe it but also unable to let it go.
A friend urged Taryn to see a counselor, and she got in right away. “I’m not a stranger to that scene. Body wellness means taking care of the mind. While I wouldn’t say I was suicidal, my life had certainly lost all its light,” she said. “I began meeting with a talk therapist who validated my feelings. For whatever reason, I didn’t have the skills to validate them myself. I also met with a psychiatrist and was diagnosed with PTSD. I was treated with a very low dose of Prozac. It was just 10 mg, not even a therapeutic dose. It helped give me the lift I needed so I wouldn’t feel so down all the time.”
Taryn eventually left Seattle and relocated to Phoenix to be closer to a beloved aunt. Today, she works at a play center in a movie theater. “Parents drop off their children and we watch them and feed them water and popcorn until the parents’ movie is over. It’s fun and it’s less stressful, but it’s not as rewarding as the work I was doing prior,” she said. At the time of the shooting, Taryn had been a behavioral specialist at an inpatient facility for troubled children. “I gave myself permission to leave that job and take a sabbatical of sorts. There are layers and layers of intense things going on inside me, and the shooting drew attention to the fact I have stuff I need to deal with,” she said.
I asked Taryn whether she holds any anger for James. “What he did was such an act of passion. He must’ve been sure this whole thing was just about him and his girlfriend, but it affected the lives of everyone in that room. And that really sucks. Of course I’m mad,” Taryn said. “I think, like, how could that have been worth it? He died in the end. How could that have been worth it?” she said.
“I hate to credit that one night as the night that changed everything. But it did. It profoundly impacted me. I kind of unraveled a little bit. It made the world seem a lot scarier than it was the day before,” she said. Before the shooting, “I tended to move places without knowing a soul, and I’d move without a car. That’s how I ended up in Seattle,” she said. “I was totally someone who’d make friends at coffee shops or attach myself to people I found interesting. I’d let life happen, I’d let meet-cutes happen, I’d watch friendships flourish. I was comfortable being alone, being up late at night. I often faced what other people perceive as scary situations. I loved living my crazy beautiful colorful life, and now I’m trying to find ways to calm that down. In a way, it’s like I’m protecting myself. It’s been hard adjusting to my suburban life, and I don’t always feel like I fit in. But I just need some time to breathe,” she said.