No one in my life has real names now.
In the back seat, I watch the landscape fade from day to night, back to day; endless fields of corn, listless cattle, pitch pine clambering up the Appalachians, Texaco, Dairy Queen, Jesus Saves signs, hypnotic neon arrows leading to rest, food or gas.
Up front, Nick studies our route down to Birmingham while Jack drives, keeping well within the speed limit. I just met Jack yesterday, but Jack isn’t his real name. I figure he must be ex-military, with his blond crew cut, rigid back, ropy muscles, and steely blue eyes. Sometimes Jack stutters, sometimes whole sentences come out fine.
With every mile, my former life disappears. I’m on the run, in a Mercury Marquis, traveling down to a safe house in the Deep South. Only a few months before, Nick offered me a way out of our federal trial, soon to end with long prison sentences for us both. He had radical friends that would help us escape, and I desperately wanted to escape. I convinced myself that I could continue to be an activist while underground. On June 3, 1970, we became fugitives and began a surreal existence, hiding in different cities.
It’s impossible to turn back now. I close my eyes, remembering who I was.
Three years ago, I graduated from UC Berkeley and climbed into a VW van, headed to Chicago for a summer of anti-war organizing. My dedication to peace and social justice wasn’t born out of anger or ideology. Rather, I was that subterranean queer kid whose favorite children’s book was The Story of Ferdinand, about a bull who sat amongst flowers rather than fight in the arena. Fittingly, in Chicago, I ended up working for a pacifist social-action organization established by the Quakers. My job was to help young guys file as conscientious objectors, an impossibly tough process that spared a few from the army and Vietnam.
On the stretch of road from Independence, Missouri, through Kentucky, Nick breaks the silence by singing some lilting Tagalog melodies he’d learned in the Philippines while assigned to a poor rural parish. There’s kindness in his voice, something I haven’t heard for quite a while.
I first met Nick at a secret meeting where everyone agreed to carry out an audacious act of protest against the draft. My first impression was that he looked like a bit actor in a Rossellini flick, a pint-size priest of Italian descent with slick black hair, sallow skin, and a badass expression. Underneath his leather jacket, he wore a stiff, white clerical collar.
When Nick finishes, Jack looks at me in the rearview mirror. “Your turn, ma’am.”
Out of nowhere, I recall the song I performed in a low alto voice for my astonished third-grade class, taken from a ’50s movie:
It’s a sad thing to realize
That you’ve a heart that never melts
When we kiss, do you close your eyes
Pretending that I’m someone else?
It reminds me that I’m the one pretending to be someone else. I wipe tears on my sleeve, turning toward the window.
Jack says he can’t think of the words to music anymore. Instead, he gives us snapshots of hell as a soldier in Vietnam — smoking the Vietcong out of tunnels, shooting indiscriminately into thatch huts, watching friends die. He ends his stories by saying, “That place haunts my life.”
One night in 1969, Nick and I, with sixteen others, hauled thousands of files from the draft board office on the South Side of Chicago and burned them in an adjacent parking lot. The pyre of paper consisted of records from draft-eligible men, mostly from black neighborhoods. We sang in a circle and were arrested one by one. I hope our action spared those men from Jack’s Vietnam.
We pass the Tennessee state line. Jack pulls off the highway to a secluded spot, switching to Alabama plates. Our car has no real identity either.
On a muggy evening, we arrive in Birmingham. Jack pulls into the driveway of a clapboard house with peeling yellow paint, a screened porch with two rusted chairs. I hear the whine of window air conditioners down the block.
Nick and I check out the place. He drops his suitcase and asks me what bedroom I want. I select the smaller one, which looks out on a seared patch of grass.
Jack warns us not to use the phone, except in an emergency. He writes down a number for us to call. We’re to ring four times and hang up.
The next morning, the front door opens. I freeze in fear. Jack rambles into the kitchen. Over breakfast, he runs through our cover stories. He hands me a gold band, telling me to wear it when I go out. Our aliases, Geraldo and Margaret, are engaged. Geraldo is on disability, so I’m the one who’ll work, a waitress job, after I get my hair dyed.
When I get back from the hairdresser, Nick says my new look is a great disguise. I stare into the bathroom mirror at my light blonde shag, streaked with honey brown, curled to my neck. Yesterday, I had straight brunette hair, parted in the middle, falling down my back. I don’t know this woman. In that moment, it’s unbearable to think I might never return to my own skin.
With Jack’s help, I land a job at an IHOP on the edge of the downtown. My shift is 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. The manager is a pudgy, fiftyish woman from Montgomery. I work the counter under her erratic supervision, the “Yankee girl” in a blue gingham uniform.
The metronome of my day, the blade fan on the counter, eerily oscillates back and forth. “Order up, Margaret!” I don’t react for a few seconds, not realizing that’s me. A pancake stack with dripping butter roosts on the ledge under hot lights. A daily blur of dirty dishes, drawls, Conway Twitty, grits, the “Roll Tide” fight song, full ashtrays. I don’t contribute much to the true confession chatter of the other waitresses.
Nick and I can’t go out after dark or appear in public other than for grocery shopping. The neighbors say “howdy” when they see us but leave us alone. We playact being engaged by holding hands when we walk over to the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. I try to think of it as reaffirming our pair-bond as fugitives, but I hate the pretense of being in love with a man. In the house, we’re friends, as always.
At night, Nick talks endlessly about revolutionary politics. He’s tired of being alone all day, reading, watching TV, and writing in his journal. Mostly I pretend to listen.
One evening, I push back. “Marxist revolutions have led to piles of bodies and another form of dictatorship.”
“Not in Cuba,” he says, flipping the hamburgers burning on a cast-iron skillet.
I laugh, taking a sip of coffee. “Freedom from exploitation isn’t the same thing as personal freedom.” I’m about to say something that would open up a completely different, revealing conversation. Instead, I fall silent and ask myself this question: Is sexual freedom permitted in Cuba?
Since I joined the civil rights and anti-war movements, I have had to conceal my sexual truth. So-called free love was strictly hetero. Even James Baldwin had to escape to France to be himself, while I’ve hidden away my heart. Maybe Nick guesses that I’ve no interest in guys, or maybe he hasn’t gotten farther than the label “comrade.”
“Revolution isn’t a bed of roses,” he replies.
“Look, Nick, I’m not cut out to be a guerrilla.”
I remind him that I’m willing to burn paper files like we did in Chicago, or to help draft resisters get to Canada, but I have my limits. He reassures me that my nonviolent beliefs will be respected. Despite his hardening views, I still trust Nick and believe that he has a good heart underneath it all.
At night, we watch the evening news. A sickening tide of right-wing ascendancy and no end in sight to the Vietnam War. Months pass like this, stretching into another spring, almost a full year from the start of our trial in Chicago.
Jack tells us that the underground leadership saw us on a wanted poster, so they’re delaying seeing us until the heat dies down. They’ll come by on the first Sunday night in May to lay out plans for our return to action. Nick’s like a child waiting up for Santa, while I’m relieved but apprehensive to finally learn who these people are who helped us escape, and what they have planned for us next.
On the day of the meeting, Nick paces around the house, chain-smoking, while I lie in my bedroom, reading Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, the spiritual autobiography of a Trappist monk. It resonates with my circumstances.
Whoever you are,
the land to which God has brought you is not like
the land of Egypt from which you came out.
You can no longer live here as you lived there.
Late that evening, there are four knocks and a muffled voice at the door: “It’s us, man.”
Nick hustles to the door. Two men enter in leather jackets with their collars up, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes. One of them greets Nick with a friendly hug. He introduces himself as Raheem, which must be another alias. He’s a young guy with a wiry build and long sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt, set off with a chain-link necklace. He knows Nick from his days as an assistant priest in an inner-city neighborhood of Milwaukee.
The other man, who calls himself Jamal, measures us from behind dark sunglasses. Raheem inspects all of the rooms in the house, turning the lamps over to check for wiretaps. With everything clean, Raheem sits down next to Nick on the couch, while Jamal and I take two straight-backed chairs.
“Our organization can use two white devils,” Jamal says, folding his arms across his chest. “But first, let’s see if you’re pussies or the real deal.” He reaches into his jacket, laying a blue-steel pistol on the coffee table. “We need bread to buy more of this shit.”
Raheem explains that we’re going to help them rob an all-night food shop that runs a big numbers operation. Nick will go inside with Raheem, while I wait in the car as a lookout.
Nick nods and says, “I’m cool.” My heart slams to the floor. He’s fine with armed robbery, the possibility of killing someone?
I glare open-mouthed at Nick, incredulous that his priestly collar and ideals have boiled down to this, just to prove himself to these dudes. This can’t be the man I linked arms with, singing “We Shall Overcome” as burning draft files crumpled into a mound of ashes. This can’t be the man I knew and trusted. Who is he really, and who am I?
Nick looks sternly at me. I can almost hear his thoughts: He didn’t hesitate a few seconds ago because in a revolution you do whatever’s necessary.
Now it’s my turn to reply. The room empties of air. My heart is pounding wildly as I try to think. I take a deep breath and squeeze my hands into a fist. I cannot let fear choke off my answer. “This isn’t the way, no matter what. I still believe in nonviolence, however foolish and futile that seems to you. Let me go off on my own. I won’t ever talk to the cops.”
Jamal’s face hardens. He calls me an MLK-loving pussy. Nick pleads for my life, saying I’d never betray them. Jamal takes his time thinking it over, squeezing his lips tight. He agrees to let me leave, on the condition that first thing tomorrow I get on a bus to anywhere.
Jamal orders me to return Margaret’s fake ID. I retrieve my wallet, handing it over to Raheem. All I want right now is to survive. Grabbing the pistol from the table, Jamal gets a few inches from my face and warns me that Nick’s life depends on my silence.
After they’re gone, I want to explode at Nick, but I realize he just saved my life. I bury my face in his leather jacket, breathing in the acrid smell of countless cartons of Camels. He clasps my trembling shoulders. My gut tells me I’ll never see him again.
“I’ve something for you,” Nick whispers. He goes back to his bedroom and returns, handing me a folded piece of paper. “It’s the birth certificate of a child who died of measles in my parish in 1949. She’s about the right age for you. Her name’s Judith Jablonski. I have another of a dead baby boy. I intended to use these IDs for my girlfriend and me if everything crapped out down the road.”
He tells me to follow him into the kitchen, where we sit at the breakfast table for hours. He lectures me on IDs and survival. How to create a fake résumé, how to avoid mistakes that could lead to my capture. I take feverish notes.
That night, I get only a couple hours of sleep, turning over and over what happened, how Nick must have believed all along that I’d agree to commit a brutal crime. That to him, I was just another dumb chick with no other option than to stay with him and his group. That I was such a fool to have come this far with them. What I wouldn’t give to be back with my friends in Chicago right now!
Jack arrives at dawn to drive me to the bus station. Nick and I hug briefly. I tell him to stay safe.
In the car, Jack flips on the radio, so he doesn’t have to talk. I know he likes me, but he’s a foot soldier in Jamal’s army, ever the military man. When he drops me off, he hands me $200. “It’s from Nick and me. Good luck, ma’am.”
I scan the board announcing the departing and arriving buses, as people hurry past. Servicemen, young mothers, students, runaways, minorities and working people use this as their means of travel. A din of voices, announcements, shouts of welcome and goodbye.
With little sleep, shock settling in, I must decide between the 7 a.m. to Dallas or Atlanta. I’ve never been to either city. I get a penny out of my purse — Lincoln’s face is Atlanta — and toss it in the air. Atlanta it is.
At the ticket counter, I buy a one-way ticket. My past is gone. I have nothing left but the emptiness of no direction in every direction, but I won’t fall apart or wallow in self-pity. I know that fear changes nothing, just as violence changes nothing. From now on, I’ll follow my conscience, rather than follow along. And somehow, I must find a way for my lesbian self to come out.
I’m Judith Jablonski now. I have my life, a few hundred dollars, and a dead child’s birth certificate. It’s enough to head to Atlanta.