Melanie* is a twenty-two-year-old student studying chemistry at San José State University. She is originally from Santa Clarita in Southern California and moved to San José in Fall 2018. She, her boyfriend, and several of his co-workers went to the Garlic Festival on Sunday afternoon. They were present during the shooting, and, like many, found their way out of the park to escape.
I wasn't initially planning on going until my boyfriend had mentioned that he wanted to go with some coworkers. I like going to festivals. I like food. I like garlic. I wanted to check it out. I always like to see the cool little knick knacks or craft stuff whenever I go to festivals, so I said, “Yeah, sure. Let's go.”
The day of the Garlic Festival, my boyfriend bought me a sterling silver ring. [she takes it off her finger to show me] It’s got a little bit of scroll work, like a Celtic design. We got some drink tickets, had some mimosas. We had the garlic ice cream. I had just finished getting a henna tattoo, and my boyfriend’s coworker was about to get hers, so he and I walked over to a tent selling garlic olive oil and garlic cooking things. It was like twenty feet away. We thought, she's right there. We'll just buy that thing and come back.
I bought some garlic olive oil for my mom who likes to cook. I'm standing at the edge of the tent, putting my wallet away and I heard a pop, pop, pop. I remember thinking, “I thought there was no fireworks.” Then we saw a crowd of people start running at us.
The workers encouraged us to come into the tent and hide behind some apple crate displays. I remember kneeling with my boyfriend and one of the workers between the back of the crates and the back of the tent wall. We didn't see what was going on, but I heard people screaming.
I moved a couple of boxes and lifted up the back of the tent and crawled out from underneath it. My boyfriend followed me. There was a big gap, an open space. I didn’t hear any more gunshots, so I ran towards the exit gate. I was running and looked to see if my boyfriend was next to me. He wasn't exactly where I pictured him to be, and it freaked me out for a second. Then I saw him and kept going. We bumped into one of his co-workers by the exit. We asked each other, “Have you seen so and so? What's going on?”
People were running out the exit. It was a long, narrow stretch of chain link fence. We ran halfway down and stopped. I thought, “What about the girl at the henna tent?” She was closer to where the shooting was and now we didn't know where she was. I started crying and my boyfriend held me. More people were running, so we kept going.
We tried to get on the first couple of shuttle buses and they said, “We're full. You can't get on.” I didn't start to be consciously scared until then. I knew I needed to get out of there, but I couldn’t. I went to where I should be and the bus was full. What was I going to do?
Eventually we got on one of the handicap buses. Everyone was crouching below the windows. I was leaning on some guy. My boyfriend was leaning on top of me. Once we were out of range, everybody started to come up. We didn't know what was going on, but we could hear stuff from the bus driver’s radio.
We sat on the bus for a while. They didn’t let people off. As soon as we got to the other lot, I started Googling for info. Nothing was coming up. I remember texting my mom, "A shooting just happened. We're okay. We're on the bus." I texted my dad or my stepmom too. My boyfriend was texting his coworkers trying to get updates. Everybody in our group was okay. A couple of people had left before the shooting happened. The girl who was getting the henna tattoo had to hike out of there. She was hiding with other people. They said they would give her a ride home.
At some point in all of that, I lost the bottle of olive oil for my mom. I didn’t realize until we were driving home. My boyfriend felt bad that in the chaos he managed to hold onto his bag of kettle corn. He said, “Why did I hold onto this? All I know is I didn’t want to get out of there without you and I guess this bag of kettle corn.” He felt dumb.
We were really quiet on the drive home. I don't even think we listened to music. I kept checking news stuff. We got to his house. I called my parents. I said, “I'm fine. It was crazy, but I'm fine.” I was talking about how I felt proud that I didn't stay hidden behind the display. Then I felt bad for being proud, because it's a terrible situation, why am I feeling proud about anything in this situation? My mom, my dad, and my stepmom all said, “No, you thought on your feet. You didn't freeze.” The shooter was already dead at that point, so I almost felt silly for doing that, but I didn't know.
Normally on Sunday nights, I spend the night at my place, but we decided that I was going to spend the night at his. The reality of it started to kick in when we went to bed. I couldn't stop playing the picture of us running across that empty gap before we met up with his coworker. The edge of the tent, running across, over and over. That's all I could see in my mind. I started to cry. We lay there, and he let me cry. I couldn’t see because it was dark, but it felt like he was crying too.
I had a hard time sleeping that night. I was checking news articles. I was on Reddit. I just kept looking at stuff to find more info. Eventually, I went to bed.
When I woke up the next day, it was noon. I pulled out my phone and checked news articles. Then I found out about the six-year-old boy who died and I fucking lost it. I started sobbing. I felt so bad. I still do. He was so young. The thirteen-year-old girl, the twenty-five-year-old man. It's just awful.
I got angry a lot after the event. Not like for a reason necessarily. I was irritable and had no patience, just mad at almost everyone. I was angry about what happened. I was mad something like that could happen, that there are gun laws in place, sure in California semi-automatic guns were banned, but anybody can cross the border, go grab something in Nevada. As long as you don't drive like an idiot, you can come across and no one will know. That's how the shooter got his gun.
I already don’t have the best patience with people, but it had gotten a lot worse. You know how you have those days where just a bunch of little minor inconveniences set you off? It was that, but it wasn't a day. It was constantly. Any minor little thing would just make me mad. Sometimes coworkers would ask something, and I would snap at them, just, bam, I'm angry. Or I would be driving and somebody’d cut me off, and I just started yelling in my car. I'm not one to do that. I might say something, but it's usually in a joking way like, “I'll watch out for you, don't worry about it.” But I was full-on just yelling in the car. It felt good. It felt very cathartic, but it just pissed me off. The thing is, I almost didn't even care. I knew that it wasn't good. But I was like, “So what. F off. I don't care.”
I remember being angry, just this quiet anger. Almost dull. I really couldn't sleep at all afterwards. I felt bad for being bothered because I wasn't directly impacted. I didn't know anybody that got hurt. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t get hurt. Nobody in my group got hurt.
One friend who’s a nurse recommended that I try to find groups of people with similar situations. Honestly, I didn't feel like I deserved it. It's like save those resources for people who really need them. Plus, I've dealt with anxiety and depression for a long time, but this was definitely the straw that broke the camel's back.
About a month after the shooting, at the end of August, I started school again. I went to all my teachers that semester to give them a heads up in terms of my academic performance. Most of them were pretty nice about it. One teacher rubbed me the wrong way about it. She was very whatever about it. As we were walking back inside the classroom, she whispered, "Get help." The way she said it, just felt mean, like she didn't believe that I could be affected by it.
About two weeks into the semester, I started having panic attacks, out of the blue, just sitting there. It got tight right in between the collarbones. I wasn't nauseous, it just felt like I was going to throw up. You know the way your throat tightens up right before? I was having to step out of a couple of my classes and compose myself in the bathroom. That was when I realized, “Okay, I got to get help for this."
I did see somebody at CAPS. It was a one-session crisis counselling kind of thing. I felt rushed. The person was pushing me to find someone through my insurance. It's difficult because I'm on my mother's insurance. She works in Southern California. My primary care doctor's in Southern California. Same with my dentist, my optometrist. I waited about two weeks, then found a local psychiatrist. I started medications for anxiety and depression in mid to late September. That was the first time I had ever gotten medication. The panic attacks stopped. I wasn't so angry all the time.
My mom sent me an email about the Victim Assistance set up by Santa Clara County. Initially I was on the fence about it. I didn’t need any medical bills paid. I lost a bottle of olive oil. It was $12. I'm not a “victim” [she makes air quotes with her fingers] in regards to that. Eventually I applied, but I felt bad using it because almost all of my therapy sessions now are not related to that. I don't want to claim aid for something that's not directly related. I got a phone call in January. They sent me an email saying that it's being reviewed and to send them any of the medical billing. I probably won't follow up on it. My wallet’s not being drained dry. I don't want to take money away from those who need it.
This is going to sound weird, but you know how sometimes after an event you might be nervous about going to other things? When I go places, I think, how can I get out? What's going on around me? I've always kind of done that. My dad really ingrained that into me when I was a kid. I'm very small. I'm kidnappable size, so I've always been aware, but I'm extra aware now.
My boyfriend and I went out to a comedy show about a month later, and I remember being nervous while we were there. Where are the exits? If people are going to leave, it's going to be a stampede. We went to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. I was a little nervous about that. The stage was fenced in on three sides. The side that wasn't fenced in was a giant, steep hill. I do remember initially being nervous thinking, “Man, we’d have to fight through all those people,” but once we were there for a while, I mellowed out. At the very least, we were right by the chain link fence. As long as I feel like I can get out, I'm not that nervous.
Then I started worrying that I'm going to put my bag down, grab something out, and somebody's going to think I'm trying to do something when I wouldn't ever do something like that. I don't look aggressive. I don't look like I'm going to do anything. I mean I can look like a bitch sometimes, but I don't look like I'm going to do anything. I have a backpack with me a lot or I wear a jean jacket that has inside pockets. They're cool. [She shows the inside pocket of the jacket she’s wearing] What if I'm reaching inside to grab something normal and someone thinks I'm pulling something out for some reason? I don't know where that thought came from. I worry about that often. That's something that has happened only since the event.
Fall semester was a very packed academic semester. I managed to snaggle all A's, and I was extra proud of the fact that in the beginning I was dealing with these panic attacks. The meds, just talking about it and time have helped. I talked about it with one of my friends more often than anybody else. It was never anything groundbreaking, just her listening and saying, “Yeah, that makes sense.”
The other day, I saw a Gilroy Strong window decal on a car. I thought that was cool. Even though I don't know anybody else who was at the event, if I were to bump into somebody who was there for it, I would feel connected in some capacity.