Had she lived, Elisa Tissot would be 58 years old.

I try to imagine what she would be like. I can see her as a high school teacher or a social worker. She used to talk a lot about her mom, so maybe she’d have had kids of her own who would be all grown up by now. Maybe a grandchild, even.

But that didn’t happen. On April 17, 1984, Elisa Tissot was shot to death in a cafeteria at the Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She was 21.

This was going to be a column about gun control. But I don’t have the stomach for it.

So far this month there have been two mass shootings in the news, one in Atlanta, where eight women were gunned down, and another in Boulder, Colorado, where 10 people were killed in a supermarket.

And when something like that happens, we have a debate. And then we all move on, the way we always do after a mass murder or the single killings that are so common in this country that they rarely get more than local notice.


I don’t want to move on yet. So, I’m remembering Elisa.

We knew each other. We were friends. We briefly dated. A few months before her death, I moved back to the East Coast. I never called or wrote.

Then one morning I heard from her best friend, Sheila. Elisa is dead, she said. Mike killed her.

It’s funny what you can remember and what you can’t. I know I was talking on a chocolate-colored Slimline phone. I know that a kind of wave moved through me, sweeping away all my thoughts and feelings. I remember that because I felt the exact same wave last week when I looked up the case on the internet.

It feels just like it did then, although, to tell the truth, other memories of that time are hazy.

Here’s what I do remember: She was cute. She was short, with huge eyes that sparkled. She was funny but not in a mean way. She was not “cool”; she was warm, generous. That’s what I remember, she was warm.


Before we met, she had been in a serious relationship with a guy named Mike Pimentel. He was older than us and walked with a limp. I can’t see his face now, but I remember stringy blond hair and a green army jacket.

I don’t think I ever talked to him, but I’d heard that he had served as a mercenary in the Rhodesian army. The word was that he had a lot of guns.

I know that Elisa took him seriously and saw him as a threat.

I recently reread accounts of her murder in a couple of blog posts, including one by Craig Thompson, who was a writing instructor at the college at the time and remained shaken by it many years later.

I’ll spare you most of the details. They are horrible. But here’s what happened:

Elisa was having coffee with some classmates. She joked that they were her bodyguards. Meanwhile, Mike was outside, pacing the hall for 30 minutes.


He finally came into the cafeteria and emptied the clip of a .45-caliber automatic pistol into her body. Then he walked outside to the bus stop, where he lit a cigarette and waited for the police.

He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His sentence was reduced to 30 years on appeal, after he argued that his war experience affected his mental capacity. He was scheduled to get out of prison in 2014. I don’t know what he’s doing now.

Elisa was one of 15,000 or so Americans who were shot to death in 1984. About half a million more have been killed with firearms since then, not counting about a million suicides in which a gun was used. You can multiply that by the number of family members and friends who will always be grieving.

America can be one cold-hearted place. Collectively, we’re always ready to live with a lot of other people’s suffering. We know how to move on.

This was going to be a column about gun control, but start the debate without me.

You can try telling me again why this or that proposal would not have prevented this or that crime.

Or why we can’t have universal background checks because you want to be able to lend your buddy a rifle in case he ever needs to shoot a woodchuck.

And, go ahead, explain why keeping guns out of the hands of people who shouldn’t have them is unconstitutional if it in any way impedes your ability to buy a gun whenever you wish, or two guns, or 10.

I’ll try to listen. But just know that I’ll probably have something else on my mind.

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