By Asma Gaba
When a school shooting hits close to home, everything reminds me how unsafe we really are.
I didn’t have a name for all the feelings that resided in me when I thought of Janeera.
What I did know was that I refused to go to the Texan famous Whataburger restaurant because the part of me that was Californian was loyal to In-N-Out. Eventually I relented and said my first time would be with her.
What I did know is that we took goofy videos of us on the bridge behind our community college that she posted on an obscure photo sharing app.
What I did know was that we kept postponing our hiking — we called it exploring — plans beyond the bridge, because we just knew we would be tired and aching and would complain about it for the rest of the week.
What I did know was that if I went to school the day she was murdered, she would have walked me to my class’s building on the opposite side of the school.
And she would still be alive.
Friendship opportunities during community college were scarce. Sure, I was lonely, but was it really worth making friends in this new state when I could possible move again when I transferred to university? I figured I could probably last one more semester.
After the first week of spring semester, I entered my Spanish class about 2 minutes earlier than usual and noticed a small girl sitting in the seat next to mine. I sat down, settled my things, and asked her how she had fared through the homework.
We consistently became the only people that showed up to the class that early. I told her that I came early because if I even came in a minute late, everyone’s heads would swivel in my direction. And even if only for a second, their attention would be solely on me, and the idea of that made me want to vomit. I sucked in a deep breath of air after the fat text bubble I had just blurted out. She agreed with me.
And from then on, an unexpected friendship bloomed.
Janeera and I would hang out at the bridge behind the school. She called the bridge a secret; she said that nobody ever hangs around this far behind campus. So we claimed the “secret” bridge as our own and went there almost every day.
On the school’s side of the bridge was a garden — it was green with mold and just the right amount of neglect that made it feel a little sad. It had tall trees with leaves covering the sky and the occasional duck that had strayed from the small stream under the bridge. It was always cold there, but she never wore jackets––she said she didn’t feel so cold. The other side of the bridge was what we called the forest. A forest was too big of a word for what it really was; a cluster of trees with a few trails here and there to make it walkable.
One cloudy day we stood on the bridge and looked over to see the muddy waters below us slowly undulate away. She told me about how she identified with her Hispanic culture and how the political climate made her upset — not angry, she reiterated. Just sad.
“What’s your opinion on guns?” I asked. “I hate them. I would feel safer with more gun control.”
“I also believe in gun control,” she replied. “But I like the concept of gun ownership. What about you?”
“I am scared to death of guns,” I told her.
I didn’t go to school the day she died. There was no reason for my absence — I was lazy and the spring semester was winding down as summer approached. My phone started to light up around 10 a.m. — someone in my history class group chat asked if anyone else had heard the noises that sounded like shots. They all replied no. I told them I skipped classes that day. A few moments later, someone else in the group chat said that yes, the noises were real gun shots, and that they were following intruder protocols right that moment.
I scoured local new sites, incredulous that a shooting would happen in the small suburb of nowhere Irving, Texas. I pulled down the touchscreen on my phone, morbidly curious for the next update. Every refreshing of the page followed was followed by a dark curiosity accompanied with a pit of dread. Thank god I wasn’t at school, I thought.
I didn’t even text Janeera to see if she was fine.
The evening the shooting happened, I went to Panera Bread with a family friend. I had macaroni and cheese and an M&M cookie. My history class group chat lit up again with the latest update on the incident: that there was a reported one fatality.
“Thank God,” one of them texted. I clicked on the link and the first image on my phone screen was Janeera’s face with a flower crown Snapchat filter on her head. I excused myself and shuffled my way through the restaurant until I stood still in a bathroom stall. The idea that my only friend, a quickly close friend was dead — no, murdered — was unbelievably impossible for me to grasp. I didn’t know how shock felt, but I was sure it felt like it did then.
The feelings that flowed through me were foreign. How was I supposed to untangle my emotions if I had no idea how to handle them?
How was I supposed to untangle my emotions if I had no idea how to handle them?
I told my mother about Janeera. She didn’t understand that I wanted to lay my head on her lap and cry. I told a friend about Janeera. She didn’t take me seriously. I suppose it has to do with the façade that I wear that everyone sees: I’m funny, I make jokes, I’m never serious, and I definitely do not have friends that are victims of gun violence. She just looked at me and asked if I was joking. Why would I be joking? I answered back.
One hot day, I walked across the bridge to the forest for the first time ever. I followed the path between the trees and not a single tear formed in my eyes. Which was strange for who I was, I normally cried at the simplest of things.
When Janeera’s brother messaged me on Twitter with information about her wake and funeral, I cried.
When my history group didn’t believe that I was Janeera’s friend and I basically had to prove to them that I actually was Janeera’s friend, I cried.
When I listened to “Blue Jeans” by Lana Del Rey — a song we used to listen to — I cried.
So yes, it was quite strange that after all the talk we had about our potential exploration, I didn’t cry when I went into the woodsy area without her.
I walked for about two hours. My headscarf burned an embarrassing tan line around my face and my Converse high-tops were definitely not the right shoes for the activity.
When I went to Whataburger for the first time with a few coworkers, I remembered my promise to Janeera that my first time trying the traditional Texas staple would be with her. I didn’t cry then, too. I felt melancholy; a longing for a friend who understood me in a way that I thought rare for someone as complicated as myself.
The police say that this man was stalking her after she had turned him down multiple times. If that story was correct, I knew nothing about it. She never told me about a guy persistently asking her out on dates, or that he was following her. I wondered why. Every time I walked outside and saw a man holding an object, or walking a little too fast, or with his hands in his pockets, panic began to brew in my chest. Theoretically, I knew that every man wasn’t a potential school shooter, but there was a small part of my mind that totally believed that every man was.
I was lying down on my bed and scrolling through my phone. School had been canceled and professors sent out emails addressing Janeera’s death. Teachers were giving out accommodations on finals due to the tragedy. My Spanish teacher called me personally after she sent out a class email. I picked up the incoming call and when the professor told me who it was, tears slipped out of my eyes as I remembered the way our friendship had begun.
I didn’t understand the pull that made her use a tragedy for comedic purposes.
A girl I knew recorded a few “story time” videos about the shooting and posted them on Snapchat. Her videos were of her laughing and making inappropriate jokes about the gun and the man. I tapped on the screen to skip to other clips of her talking. She continued to laugh and joke.
“And as soon I heard those gunshots, I got up and sprinted! I didn’t wait for any professor or anything!” She laughed hysterically. “At least only one girl got shot — she should have run like I did!” More laughter.
I didn’t understand the pull that made her use a tragedy for comedic purposes. And honestly, as stories go, it wasn’t even the slightest bit funny. A few days later, she approached me at school. She offered her condolences and wrapped her arm around me in a halfhearted hug. I wondered if people talked to me to become closer to tragedy. I accepted her words but eventually walked away. All I could hear were her videos and how she trivialized Janeera’s death.
Spring semester was my last time physically at school until I eventually transferred to Seattle University, the following year.
Something about the school felt out of place, like it had shifted in its fixed position in time and space. Someone had been shot dead at our school.
Janeera used to sit at this particular couch that was to the side of the college’s common room. We would meet there and sit for an hour or so before heading to our Spanish class. I don’t know exactly where she died, but a morbid piece of my mind imagines she was shot on that couch.
Something about the school felt out of place, like it had shifted in its fixed position in time and space.
I imagine her face in shock as she realizes that she is about to die, I imagine the bullets hitting her as she bleeds through her clothes, staining the carpeted floor and couch. I know that following that trail of thought will not get me anywhere productive, but I can’t help but follow it anyway. The idea of walking into school and passing the common room everyday sickened me.
When brainstorming this piece, I sat and talked to a close friend. She has a degree in sociology, and is the perfect person to turn to when you need help with big pictures in social settings. “Why do you think that some school shootings get more attention than others?” I asked. “What happened that made us numb to these deaths?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
Later that day, the news broke on the Parkland school shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018. The thoughts that ran through my head when I heard of the tragedy— I knew they were not logical.
Every rational part of me knew that these thoughts were unreasonable, but the combination sadness and guilt overrode the logic. I thought: “I spoke the shooting into existence when I speculated aloud earlier. And it’s my fault.” For the rest of the day as I refreshed the news on my phone, I berated myself for causing the tragedy: If only I had chosen a different topic to write on, if only I had kept my mouth shut and not asked stupid questions, 17 kids would still be alive and I would be spared from having to revisit the death of my friend as if it was the first day.
The vigor that I see in the Stoneman Douglas high school students inspires me. They say every movement starts with one moment. And I think that we are in a moment right now — the high school students that are demanding for their safety is a moment. The national and international support, and the momentum they have is a moment. Their ability to organize events, marches, and movements in less than one month is a moment.
I can only hope that I can tap into my strength and contribute my voice to a cause that is deeply personal to me.
It took me six months to tell my therapist about Janeera. During the session I used nearly half of her tissues. She called it a “multiple Kleenex day.” After the session, she gave me a hug. She had never hugged me before.
Dr. Novinsky told me that I didn’t know for sure that if I was at school that day Janeera wouldn’t have died. In fact, she told me that if this man was stalking her, he would have known that she would be with me and I would be dead, too.
And I wonder if death would have been more peaceful than the seemingly perpetual sadness that followed me long after Janeera’s death.