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 let it 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.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.