“I walked right on up to him and said, ‘My name is Sue. How do you do? You may be a woman, but I know you’re my daddy.’
“Now, that remark hit him hard. But he recovered quick, pushed me straight out of the bar and outside into the street. I couldn’t tell whether he was crying or whether it was just drinkin’ tears I was seeing. I started yelling at him then, going, ‘Why did you name me Sue? Why? WHY?’ And he was laughing and crying and cursing and then smiling. ‘I’m Sue!’ I screamed. ‘I’m Sue!’ And finally he just looked at me and said, ‘I know you are, honey. I know.’”
Sue took a deep breath, then continued. “He said he knew this wasn’t an easy world, and he’d known all along that having him around would make it harder. He said he named me Sue because he wanted me to know all the things I could be inside. That when I was born he looked in my eyes and saw the deepest kind of reflection, which made him feel that everything he’d done wrong could be done right by me. He said, ‘I gave you that name to leave you open to anything. Plus, I figured if you didn’t like it, you could always change it. I’m guessing you must’ve kept it for a reason.’
“I’d never told anyone why I’d kept it, but now with this woman who was my daddy standing in front of me, I could finally admit that the name felt right. That even though I was a boy—still am—there were parts of me that liked being a girl. I didn’t want to become a full girl or anything, like some of my friends. But I wanted to be a boy named Sue. There are lots of us out there—we know the names we’re called don’t really matter unless we feel that they’re right. And I guess that’s why I knew I had to help Stein and Martinez. Because they’re boys called Sue, too. And I know my daddy would be proud of me for standing up for them.”
“We’re proud of you, too, son,” Virgil said. “And that’s the truth.”
At this point, I couldn’t believe that I’d even hesitated in considering whether or not to come. I realized how easy I’d had it, and how lucky I was. And what good was luck if you couldn’t pay it forward in some way? What good was good if you couldn’t make it last longer and spread it wide?
I needed words to fuel me. I didn’t need to be told what to do; I just needed to know that what I was doing had some worth. The words could be as simple as thank you or you’re welcome, or as complicated as a story or a speech. The words could come from Jimmy, or Janna, or Stein, or these random people who’d arrived on our bus.
It was enough to let me know that the words in my head weren’t alone.
They had a world in which to fit.
They would be understood.
On the news channels, Stein addressed us.
“We will demonstrate peacefully and positively. We will show our opponents the power of peace, and send the world a message that we are a country that loves peace above all else. Our presence—millions upon millions of us—will be enough. We will raise our voices, but not our fists. We will show strength through solidarity, not aggression. Like the saints, we will go marching in…and we will march, and we will march, and we will march until justice prevails.”
“I don’t know if I can ever trust her again,” Mira told Jimmy. I sat behind them, with Elwood napping on my shoulder. “What she did takes everything away.”
“You can’t just erase everything,” Jimmy replied.
“That’s easy for you to say. You have Duncan. You’re lucky.”
“I know,” Jimmy said. “I know.”
From the front of the bus, Mrs. Everett and Virgil started singing a song about how everything is everything, how what is meant to be will be.
“Change,” they sang, “it comes eventually.”
Clive drove the bus as far as he could take it—but eventually all the traffic became a standstill, and we knew we’d have to walk the rest of the way. We’d crossed through the ring of chainmarts that surrounded Topeka, all the familiar names from Anywhere USA greeting us with their usual indifference. Cars and buses filled all the parking lots, but nobody was shopping. They were all heading to the center of town.
The bus was parked in front of a sports store. We gathered the bare-minimum supplies, planning on a few hours’ stay. Virgil took the lead, with Flora and Mrs. Everett beside him. Sara said she’d take up the rear. It was strange to see her and Virgil split like that—we were so used to them working in tandem. I couldn’t tell whether the Keisha thing had thrown off that tandem or whether they were simply applying the basic kindergarten-field-trip rule of having someone in front and someone in back to keep the kids from getting lost.
There was a good chance of getting lost, because hundreds if not thousands of people were streaming past us now, each street a tributary uniting at the center of Topeka. There were individuals and couples walking, for sure. But mostly there were groups. Church groups and youth groups and work groups. Groups of friends, groups of family, groups of volunteers. Although it was clear (from signs carried, from comments overheard) that some of the people had come to protest our protest, most were Stein/Martinez supporters experiencing the power of arrival. No matter how far they’d traveled or what they’d had to leave behind, they were—like us—galvanized by the enormity and the intensity of our mission. It was as if the rally was a large and powerful magnet; the closer we got, the stronger the pull.
Sara’s friend Joe and some of the other college-age volunteers split off into their own camp. Although nothing had been said, I felt that Jimmy and I had inherited Elwood as our charge; because he was so young, we’d have to watch over him. We’d already made him call his parents to tell them where he was, and Virgil had assured them that Elwood would be okay. My own parents were less angry but similarly nervous when I called with my own updates. The first time, I’d expected my father to be miffed at me for defying the law that he and my mother had laid down. But she must have gotten to him somehow, because all I received was an order to stay safe and to come back home as soon as it was over.
None of us needed a map of Topeka to know where we were headed. We just followed the flow, merging in with the other groups. We didn’t mingle—most groups kept to themselves at this point, concentrating on sticking together rather than making new friends. Gus and Glen were a major exception to this rule. In just a few hours, they’d become unquestionably inseparable. If Gus’s hand wasn’t on Glen’s shoulder, Glen’s hand was on Gus’s waist. Or their sides were so close together that it looked like a three-legged race. Gary and Ross, walking four steps behind, seemed amused. I still couldn’t tell them apart.
“Did they really just meet?” Elwood asked Jimmy and me.
“Yup,” Jimmy said.
“Wow,” Elwood replied, admiring. But his eyes didn’t grow wide until a few minutes later, when Jimmy told him that I was Jewish.
“That’s ultra cool,” Elwood said, with the awed gasp that boys his age usually reserved for cars and tech games.
Soon he was barraging me with questions about Torah reading and Yom Kippur and becoming a bar mitzvah and the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. I answered him as best as I could—about reading without vowels and repenting by throwing bread into a river and chanting something you don’t completely understand and still not knowing what Jacob’s ladder really means. None of these things had ever struck me as out of the ordinary, but explaining them to someone who found them extraordinary made me suddenly see a little more of their meaning. While Elwood had struggled against being prevented from being a Jew, I’d been conscious of the things that I thought being a Jew would prevent me from becoming. Really, there weren’t that many—there had already been plenty of Jewish movie stars and senators and sports heroes and world leaders. The only office we didn’t seem able to come near was the Presidency…until Stein.
I wasn’t completely naive—I knew there were still some people out there who’d like to keep us out of their private clubs. But still—once you knew there were enough people out there to vote for a Jew for President, you couldn’t help but feel that anything else was possible. It had been the same with the first Catholic President and the first woman President. It would be the same with the first black or Latina or multi President. (Martinez, perhaps.) And it was definitely the same with the first g*y President, who happened to also be the first Jewish President…as long as we could make his election in Kansas stick.
The closer we got to the center of the city, the closer the people were packed together. Some groups started cheers and chants—
“One-two-three-four / We won’t take this anymore / Five-six-seven-eight / Good will triumph over hate.”
“People say all over town / No way to keep a Stein vote down!”
“What do we want? / FAIRNESS! / Where we gonna get it? / KANSAS!”
—while other groups sang hymns and protest songs. As we all pressed together and heard the skycopters overhead, I could also hear Janna and Mandy whisper-singing behind me, a private golden thread of “Amazing Grace” sung not out of protest but out of faith. They had said their Sunday morning prayers earlier, and now their voices harmonized effortlessly, since it was a song they’d summoned so many times before to underscore their beliefs. It was amazing, and it was graceful, and it was that most rare of things—a sound that makes us see.
When they were through, we turned on the news and heard that the number of people alongside us was definitely over half a million, possibly over a million, with more and more arriving every minute.
After about an hour’s worth of walking, we reached downtown. The buildings were unremarkable, municipal. The flatness of the land was mirrored in a flatness of architecture. The walls were bland or blank or brick, the windows empty or blinded. It felt like the kind of place that always seemed shut down. The locals looked shell-shocked for the most part, unprepared for this sudden invasion of easterners and westerners, northerners and southerners. A few, however, had decided to profit from the occasion and were selling bottles of water for thirty dollars each, more than twice what they would usually go for. At this point, they had very few takers.
We fell in step with a church group as we reached the street leading to the rally. The police had divided the street roughly in half, with the Stein rallygoers veering to the left and the Decent protesters roped off to the right. The opposition candidate had decided to have his own rally in Wichita at the same time as Stein’s in Topeka, but there were still thousands of anti-Stein people here, yelling and jeering at us as we passed.
“Don’t pay them any attention,” Virgil warned.
Still, it was hard to ignore them. No matter how loud we chanted, their dissonance was thrown at us. So I looked, and Jimmy looked, and what we saw nearly stopped us cold. There were only a few signs with Stein’s opponent’s name on it—these people weren’t pro-him as much as anti-us. So instead of mass-produced campaign posters, there were hundreds of handwritten signs, each one more vile than the last.
STEIN IS A SODEMITE.
THE MEAK SHALL NOT INHERIT THE U.S.A.
GOD SAYS FAGS SHOULD DIE!
GO HOME JEW FAGS—THIS COUNTRY ISN’T 4 U.
I recoiled, tried to back away from them. But Jimmy took my hand and held it tight. Held it so everyone could see it. Held it to defy them.
We got their attention. Suddenly the yelling was directed at us. Telling us to go home. Telling us to die. Telling us we had no right to be here.
I could sense Jimmy getting angrier and angrier. The pastor from the church group next to us tried to block us from the taunts, his face full of concern. One of the Decents decided to throw something at us—just a plastic juice bottle, not something that could really hurt. It hit the pastor instead, the leftover juice spraying the three of us.
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