Ever since high school, I’ve written a story for my friends for Valentine’s Day. For this year, I thought I’d share the story with readers as well. So, without further ado, I offer you . . . this year’s Valentine Story, “We”….
“I bet this would be a great place to pick up girls,” Courtney says to me, her eyes scanning the hundreds of pussyhats pouring by Coca-Cola World on the way to the march.
“If you say so,” I tell her. The only girls I ever pick up are friends like Courtney, who can bring a lesbian reality check to my flightier gayboy fancies.
“I’ve already given my heart away, like, five times,” Courtney tells me. “They just haven’t noticed yet.”
“They’re distracted by your sign.”
There’s pretty strong competition for best sign here. Since we’re in Georgia, there are a lot of creative suggestions for how to put the peach into impeach. (It helps that the president’s skin is the same color as a nectarine’s.) There’s an umbrella with an angry cat face on it that threatens This pussy grabs back. Another sign has Keith Haring figures spelling out MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN.
Courtney went full-Bechdel with her poster art, cartooning famous queer women in various protest poses. Gertrude and Alice hold hands and stand their ground. Frida wears a shirt that says I’m Kahling You Out. Sweet Ellen pumps a fist and calls out, “Nasty if I wanna be!” Audre grins and holds a sign that reads The Lorde is on our side, and that is all we need. Sappho gets a speech bubble and defiantly proclaims, “I will turn your lies into fragments!”
The problem is, it’s starting to rain, and while other people laminated their signs or covered them with clear tape, Courtney’s is entirely unprotected.
“Shit,” she says as a few drops start to make Susan Sontag’s hair streak.
I fumble open my umbrella as the spatter turns into a torrent. It’s not enough to cover us both. People duck into doorways for cover; we hug the Coca-Cola World entrance, but it only gives us a partial respite.
People continue to hurry toward the plaza outside the Center for Human and Civil Rights, where the march is set to begin. I worry if we delay too long, we’ll end up missing the speeches, including John Lewis’s kickoff. He’s the person we all want to see.
Courtney stares down at her poster. I know she spent a lot of time making it.
“I guess I’ll keep it under my coat for now,” she says. She’s wearing a pink jacket that will barely cover the posterboard.
“Don’t do that,” a girl next to us says. She looks like she could be Alice Walker’s teenage self, and she’s put down her own tape-covered sign, which reads We have been raised to fear the yes in ourselves – Audre Lorde.
“I like your quote,” Courtney says.
“Thanks,” the girl responds as she rummages through her bag. “Ah, here.” She plucks out a translucent square. “Take this.”
Emergency poncho, the label reads.
“It’s see-through,” the girl explains. “So people can still see that kickass sign.”
“Don’t you need it?” Courtney asks.
The girl gestures to her own yellow raincoat. “I’m covered.”
“But does this really count as an emergency?” I ask. “What if this poncho is meant to save a life?”
Courtney, who I’ve known for years, shoots me the look she deploys when something that falls out of my mouth gets relegated to Attempted Quip status without crossing the Effective Quip threshold.
The amusing part is that the girl I’ve only known for a minute or two shoots me the exact same look. Since both of them are shooting at me, they don’t even notice their identicalism.
“Thank you,” Courtney says, breaking away from me to look back at the girl. “I’m Courtney. This is Otis.”
“With an O,” I chime in. (It’s just something I do.)
“I’m C.K.,” the girl offers.
“Well, thank you, C.K.,” Courtney says with some enjoyment.
“Hey! Courtney’s initials are C.K.!” I realize aloud. “Your name doesn’t happen to be Courtney Khan, does it?”
I see something shimmer across C.K.’s face, but she quickly shakes her head. “Nope. C.K. stands in for my first and middle names – don’t ask, ‘cause I’m not going to tell. My last name is Hamilton.”
As soon as she says this, three people behind her start squeeing and saying how much they LOVE Hamilton. “I’m not going to throw away my shot!” they sing. Others join in.
“You must get that a lot,” I say to C.K.
“You have no idea,” she replies.
“Well, boys named Evan Hansen must have it worse,” I point out. “They must wake up and curse Ben Platt on a daily basis.”
Instead of getting a big laugh, this observation is greeted with a sheet of water that comes crashing to the ground.
“Well, that’s not good,” Courtney says. She unfolds the emergency poncho and attempts to put it on. The head hole is not immediately discernable from the arm holes. C.K. hands her protest sign over for me to hold, then helps Courtney straighten the poncho out.
“You’re an E.P.T. aren’t you?” I ask.
Both Courtney and C.K. stare at me.
“What?” I say. “An E.P.T. – get it?”
They start laughing. But it’s not at my joke. I can tell.
“An Emergency Poncho Technician?” I persist.
C.K. looks at Courtney. “He doesn’t have a clue, does he?”
Courtney looks at me like I’m a pug. “Nope.”
But . . . okay. Now they’re next to each other. Getting along. So at least I’ve done something right.
“Are you here with a group?” I ask.
“I am,” C.K. says. “But we seem to have scattered. I was going to try to find them.”
There’s a beat. I wait for Courtney to say it, since it would be better for Courtney to say it. But I also know that crushes tend to tie Courtney’s tongue, so I step into the pause.
“Want to march with us for now? It would be great to have an E.P.T. on hand. Just in case something malfunctions.”
“Otis! Stop!” Courtney says. Then quickly she turns to C.K. and adds, “I mean, with the acronym. Not with the invitation. You should totally march with us.”
“I’d love to,” C.K. says, taking her sign back from me. “Shall we?”
“Into the rain!” I say.
“Into the rain!” Courtney and C.K. echo.
The rain is falling too fast to sink into the ground, so the sidewalk is a mess of puddles as we join the throng heading to the plaza. And it is a throng now, a convergence. It feels like people are coming from all corners of the state to be a part of this. All ages, all races, big groups and individuals walking on their own. And the weird part is, none of them seem like strangers. We all have the fact that we’re here in common, and that’s enough to feel a deep and inspiring kinship. It’s been a rough two months since Election Day; we’ve had to question a lot of things we never thought we’d have to question, and the whole time we’ve had to worry that we’re more alone in our anger and sadness than we thought we’d be. It was a national election, but it also felt personal too – profoundly personal. When the breakage of the country occurred, it felt like we’d been broken as well. Now it feels like the pieces are coming back together. On the outside and on the inside. Just from gathering together and carrying signs and walking as one.
Plus, there are the hats. I taught myself how to knit in order to create my hat and Courtney’s. They didn’t come out quite as well as the YouTube tutorial promised they would. They are pink yarn creations with two cat ears each – but these particular cats are strays that have been in a few territorial fights, leading to a certain patchiness of fur and waywardness of ear.
C.K.’s hat, though, is up to my grandmother’s standards for knitwear. It’s stitch-perfect, its ears poised and alert. As she and Courtney get a few steps ahead of me, I see she’s even knit herself a tail, which mischievously pokes out of her yellow slicker.
I wonder if Courtney’s noticed it yet. She seems more intent on focusing on every word C.K. says.
The crowd is starting to coalesce around us, so that by the time we round the corner to get to the plaza, it’s a solid sea of people, and the only way to go any farther would be to bob and weave, leaving a trail of “excuse me”s in our wake.
I’ve made it back to Courtney and C.K.’s side, but it’s as if my umbrella is really an invisibility cloak for all I’m registered by their rapport.
“. . . my father actually used the phrase ‘Communist hordes,’ while my mother cloaked her disapproval in terms of my own safety,” Courtney is saying. “‘What if there’s a bomb?’ she actually asked. And I couldn’t help it – I said, ‘Well, why don’t you tell your side not to bomb us, okay?’ That really pissed my dad off – he said we were just playing into the enemy’s hands – and I had to ask, ‘Who exactly are the enemies, Dad? You did get the memo that Republicans love Russians now, right? So is it ISIS? Do you think ISIS is going to target the Women’s March in Atlanta?’”
“What did he say to that?” C.K. asks.
“My mother interrupted at that point, to say she only wanted me to be safe. And I said if my safety was really her number one concern, then maybe she should have voted to make sure I’d have health care after I graduated . . . and luckily that’s when Otis honked and I was out of there. To give her credit, there’s been some follow through – she texts every ten minutes to make sure I’m fine.”
“My mom’s marching in Washington,” C.K. says. “She lives up there. And I keep texting her every ten minutes, to make sure she’s fine.”
“I think our biggest threat right now is pneumonia,” I say. The wind has joined the rain, rendering my umbrella’s future precarious.
“I’m sorry I don’t have any more emergency ponchos,” C.K. tells me.
“How about a comforter?” I ask. “Do you happen to have a waterproof comforter in there?”
It’s nearly one o’clock, which is the time the rally is supposed to start. But now some people are saying it’s been delayed because of the rain. I try to check the website, but my phone can’t get any Internet – there are too many people using the signal at once.
“It doesn’t make any sense to delay,” Courtney says. “We’re all here.”
We hear a cheer – but it’s coming from behind us, not from the plaza. We turn and see a parade of six or seven people zigzagging through the crowd. They’re all holding the same sign – a photo of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, staring down the enemy with her hands calmly behind her neck.
We are the resistance, the caption on the posters reads in bold Barbara Kruger letters.
All the other posters – FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, F-ck this Sh-t, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, Our Lives Begin to End the Day We Become Silent About Things That Matter – part to let the Princesses pass.
“That’s what I’m talking about,” C.K. says, saluting.
“Can you feel it?” Courtney asks.
“The Force. It’s here.”
It takes C.K. a second to tell that Courtney is making a joke and completely serious. Because while it’s not the return of any Jedi, there’s definitely a Force unleashed here, the same Force that rises any time you strike back against an Empire. I think we all like to believe that Carrie Fisher would approve.
I notice that C.K. isn’t making any attempt to find her friends in the crowd. Possibly because it would be futile – there are just too many of us. But possibly because she’s finding Courtney’s company enough.
Since I know Courtney so well, I can see what C.K.’s attention is doing to her. She hasn’t expected it – she never expects it – and as a result she’s not quite sure what to do with it. The two pieces are clearly clicking together, but it has yet to be determined what the full shape of the puzzle is. All that can be known for sure is the click. Courtney’s been brokenhearted before, so she can’t help but feel the pain of the unclicking buried inside that initial click. But she can choose to ignore it, if she’s convinced enough.
All of this can be read in her face, in her posture. All of this can be read, if you know how to read her.
We’re close to the MAKE AMERICA GAY AGAIN banner again, and I can’t help but check out who’s carrying it. One is a muscled guy in a muscle T-shirt that reads I blocked Mike Pence on Grindr and this is his revenge. Another is a woman who looks like she could be a teacher in any elementary-school classroom in America, wearing a dress that would make Ms. Frizzle proud, covered in stars and planets.
As the rain continues and the wait goes on, there’s some shifting from foot to foot and more checking of phones. Every now and then, there’s a chant – “Rise up! Rise up!” and “This is what democracy looks like!” – but by and large, the feeling that pervades is . . . patience. In the context of a crowd, I find this somewhat remarkable. We, who are always in a rush, who always have more than a dozen things we need to do by the end of the day – we are okay with standing still. We are fine with talking to each other until it’s time to go. It’s as if the strength of the congregation has briefly turned down the volume of our obsession with time. This gives me hope; we have not only the power of our voices, but the power of patience on our side.
Courtney, C.K., and I are lucky we’re on the sidewalk; the people on the grass are beginning to sink into it, although they don’t seem to mind too much.
When Courtney’s poster folds a little under her poncho, C.K. reaches over to smooth it out.
“Thank you,” Courtney says. And I notice that C.K. doesn’t step back – she remains close. Courtney stays there, too. Even in the rain, even in the crowd, Courtney looks happy. And I think that this is the first time in a while that I’ve seen this. We’ve had our guard so far up about what’s happening to our country that I think it’s made it harder for us to let our guard down in our daily lives. Especially Courtney. I can believe in dancing my despair away, in singing loud even when your heart is dying. But not her. She won’t risk coming out of her shell, because she feels she needs to be in her shell in order to survive.
She stayed over with me on election night, because as the dumbfounding results unfolded, we both knew there was no way she’d be going back home to face her parents. This isn’t happening, we kept saying to each other, and while I found it funny that the newscasters seemed as gobsmacked as we were, Courtney couldn’t find anything funny about it. Funny had moved off to another planet. Exiled.
The morning after the election was like emerging from a dark, dark room into the glare of a spotlight. It was a shock so strong that I couldn’t walk steady, couldn’t make out shapes or colors. My thoughts were a startled cacophony of causes and effects, and no matter how quickly I blinked, I couldn’t sort them out, couldn’t get my eyes to adjust. In my sadness, I reached out. In my fury and my incomprehension, I reached out. And Courtney was there, just as I’d hoped she would be.
But even as I reached out, I could feel she wasn’t reaching back – not as much. She was retreating.
She might have disappeared altogether, into sleepless worry and unyielding despair
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. But I wouldn’t let her. I forced her out to movies. I went over every Saturday night to watch SNL. I rallied her around this march. I certainly understood the desire to pull back into a shell, to protect yourself from all the venom that suddenly filled the air. But I also felt that as safe as a shell may be, it also prevents you from moving, from uniting, from resisting in an active way. Trump and Bannon and all the other assholes wanted us inside our shells, so our voices would never reach them, would only be heard by our own ears. I just wasn’t going to let them win like that. And Courtney – well, Courtney took some coaxing. But this march gave her a reason to step out of the shell.
There’s a roar from the plaza – the speeches are beginning. Unfortunately, the loudspeakers sound like they’re underwater – we can discern voices, but not words. We can sense we’re being welcomed by speaker after speaker – that’s the tone. But as ten, then fifteen minutes pass, there’s a certain amount of restlessness brewing. It’s still raining, but not as much. Side conversations continue.
Then, all of a sudden, there’s a cheer much louder than any of the ones before. JohnLewisJohnLewisJohnLewis the crowd around us buzzes. “We love you John!” people call out. We can feel him stepping to the podium, even though we can’t see it.
The loudspeakers find a divine burst of energy and lift to loudness. Or maybe it’s just that all of us fall into an absolute, reverent silence. While the other speakers were clouds of voice, intimations of tone, John Lewis’s words round the corners and travel the lengths of the avenues. They are faint, but they are present. They persist.
“Sometimes you have to turn things upside-down instead of right-side-up,” he tells us. His voice bears the weight of the trouble he’s seen, and his words soar on the strength of the victories he’s shared. “When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have a moral obligation, a mission, and a mandate to say something, to do something. We cannot afford to be silent now. I just want to say thank you. You look so good! This is unbelievable. There’s hundreds and thousands of people, I tell you! I want to thank you for standing up, for speaking up, for getting in the way, for getting in trouble, good trouble, necessary trouble.”
The crowd erupts into a chant of Thank you, John! Thank you, John! Thank you, John! Courtney, C.K., and I all chant along.
Congressman Lewis says, “Thank you. Thank you. You’re wonderful.” Someone must cry out I love you, because he comes back with, “I love you, too. I love you so much. You’ll never know how much I love you.”
It’s almost childish how purely this affects me. Here we are, in 2017, and it’s still stunning and moving to me to hear a grown man talk about love so openly, so unashamedly.
I notice a guy about my age who’s leaning into an older group of protesters. They can’t hear what’s coming over the loudspeakers, so as Lewis’s words appear, the young man repeats them to the group.
“You don’t need to use social media,” he tells them. “Use your feet. Use your hands.” A few seconds after the rest of us, they cheer.
Courtney reaches out and takes my hand. Then she takes C.K.’s hand and holds it, too.
“I know something about marching,” Congressman Lewis tells us. “I know something about marching. When I was much younger, had all of my hair and was a few pounds lighter. I marched in Nashville . . . I marched in Washington . . . I marched from Selma to Montgomery. I’m ready to march again! I come here to tell you – don’t let anybody, anybody turn you around. And never, ever, ever give up hope. Never lose hope.”
We cheer some more. For him. For hope.
We barely feel the rain. I only feel Courtney’s hand in mine, and sense C.K.’s hand in hers.
“We’re fighting for our sisters, for our mothers, for our daughters. We’re also fighting for our brothers, for our sons, for those who are not able to stand up and fight for themselves.”
As I look at the multitudes around us, we are told that there are gatherings in cities across the nation just like ours, that there are over half a million people right now in Washington, D.C. alone. And it’s as if I can feel the alchemy of hope working, that transmutation of despair into determination.
Lewis concludes with a rousing proclamation. “I’m fired up and ready to march! I have on my marching shoes! So let’s do it!”
What does it feel like to hear your voice join tens of thousands of other voices in a wordless cry of pride and defiance? It feels like somehow you have attained a state of nature. It feels like your strength, which you have long limited to your body’s capacity for strength, now transcends that body and takes on the shape of a storm. You do not lose yourself – even in the enormity, you still hear your own voice the loudest, and those that are close to you are still distinct. But you are yourself and something much larger than yourself, all at once.
C.K. reaches her free hand back to me, and I take it. The circuit is completed.
“This is amazing,” she says. “This is everything we need.”
Courtney and I agree. I am the first to let go, but the two of them remain connected. I lean over to see if the marching has begun. It’s going to take a while for the movement to get to us – there are some people already hankering to go, but I figure it’ll happen when it happens. There are more cheers from the front of the crowd – Congressman Lewis and the others must be on their way forward.
I look at more of the signs: We Shall Overcomb. John Lewis Represents Me, Trump Doesn’t. Build Bridges, Not Walls. I look at more of the people carrying the signs: Teenagers with their parents. A group of older ladies who look like they just got off the tour bus on their way to see the Eiffel Tower, fannypacks prominent. Two men who can’t stop kissing each other. The rain has definitively ended, so the umbrellas have been folded and the pink hats are again the most prominent marker of our spirit. I’m Really Not Happy About This. Keep Your Tiny Hands Off Our Press. WE the People. Stronger.
The sun comes out, and almost immediately it feels warmer. C.K. takes off her raincoat and folds it around her tail, then looks at Courtney and says, “Here, let me help you out of that.” She reaches under the poncho and lifts both sides so it clears Courtney’s poster, then floats above her arms. Courtney gives in to the movement, holds her head straight so C.K. can lift the poncho free. For a moment they stand there, C.K.’s arms above them both, Courtney’s arms at her side, their faces inches apart.
“Thank you,” Courtney murmurs.
“Glad to be of some use,” C.K. replies, crumbling the poncho down so it becomes no bigger than a small plastic bag.
They couldn’t be like this in any crowd. But in this crowd, the intensity between them can emanate. Nobody else will question it or interfere with it. The moment gets to be itself.
Slowly, we begin to move. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more polite crowd. There’s a lot of You first, no YOU first, and eventually we are moving around the Georgia Aquarium and making our way to the plaza.
C.K. reaches into her pocket and takes out her phone. I’m hoping it’s because she wants to use the camera, but no – instead she’s checking a text. Then another.
As much as Courtney may think she’s hiding it well, I can see the concern on her face. The needle of bad luck is pressing hard against the balloon of her happiness. She was starting to think of C.K.’s time as hers, but now she’s feeling like she was only borrowing it from C.K.’s real friends, out in the crowd.
True friend that I am, all I can think is, Please may she not already have a girlfriend. Please may she not already have a girlfriend.
“What’s up?” I ask casually as she texts a response.
“Nothing.” C.K. puts the phone back in her pocket. “Some of my friends are over there.” She points to a building that has yellow construction-material walls. There have to be tens of thousands of people between here and there. “They want me to find them. But I was like, That’s just not gonna happen.”
“It’s okay if you need to go,” Courtney says. Because that’s what Courtney does, always providing the escape route from her own heart. I try to signal her to stop, to not give the out unless she wants it taken.
“I’m really good here,” C.K. says. “Assuming you guys don’t mind.”
“It wouldn’t be the same without you,” Courtney quickly replies. And I think, Good for you. Don’t worry about where it ends up; just keep it going.
We’re coming on the plaza outside the Center for Human and Civil Rights now, and nearing the new sculpture that lies at its heart. The crowd could easily go around it, but most of us are going through. The sky is lighter now, the weather beginning to feel like early summer, and volunteers are handing out free bottles of water for anyone who needs them. As we walk under the monument, Nelson Mandela’s quote plays against the glass, backed by white clouds and more than a hint of light blue sky.
THAT A SMALL
It’s as if Mandela is speaking to us across time. I stop to take a picture, already sensing that I’m going to need to collect moments from this day to get me through the next four years.
Pockets of people cheer at Courtney’s sign and C.K.’s sign. They hold them up proudly. People start to chant, “Hate does not make America great!” getting louder and louder with each repetition. We get to the stairs by the side of Coca-Cola World, and as we’re walking up, I turn around to see what I think will be a trail of people behind me . . . and instead find people for as far as the eye can see. Pink hats and baseball caps. The full skin spectrum. The future is STILL female and I’M with HER. And HER. And HER. And HER. And HER. and White Silence is Violence. Black Lives Matter. and All People Are Created Equal. Behind me, a woman in a black windbreaker holds a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg saying I DISSENT. We aren’t just marching through the plaza – we are surrounding it. Everyone is waiting her turn to march – and then everyone is taking her turn to march.
OUR BODIES. OUR MINDS. OUR POWER.
We skirt around Coca-Cola World. As we stride, the city watches over us. We find our way to Centennial Drive, which is now the main artery of the protest. We enter the bloodstream.
Courtney and C.K. are ahead of me again, are holding hands again, and from the way they lean in to each other I can construct the rough shape of a heart. Next to me is a twelve-year-old white girl in a white T-shirt with a similar red heart on it; she wears red lipstick and her hair looks like it was shaped by 1920s Hollywood. She isn’t carrying a sign; she is enough of a sign herself, walking purposefully with her mother beside her.
If you’re not ANGRY, you’re not paying ATTENTION.
Ctrl Alt-Right Delete
Women Made Me Who I Am.
Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere
I fall a little farther back. The woman beside me is carrying a Hillary sign. In front of me there’s a dark-skinned toddler on one of his mom’s shoulders – a black-and-white striped long-sleeve T underneath his orange T. He looks fussy, so his mom turns around and walks backward so he can face his other mom, who makes faces to cheer him up. He bursts into a cloudbreak grin, facing us all now like he’s conducting the crowd. Everyone around him welcomes this.
I spot a row of Porta-Potties and see a bespectacled guy with a bright pink Radical Queer Librarians poster. As I pass, a blond spitfire of a librarian joins him. I’ve noticed many librarian-related signs in the crowd today, although I can’t explain why. I am happy to be librarian-adjacent.
I catch up to C.K. and Courtney, who are now talking about the largest crowds they’ve ever been part of . . . which turns into a conversation about the first concerts they ever went to . . . which turns into a conversation about whether an affection for the Jonas Brothers is more or less shameful than an affection for Nelly. (The answer, of course, is that neither is particularly shameful.) Courtney starts to serenade C.K. with “Burning Up”. C.K. responds with “Just a Dream”. We’re passing the convention center (more librarians, cheering from the sidewalk) and getting close to the modernist monolith of the new stadium, which in its construction phase looks like something Darth Vader deemed too ugly for his own backyard.
We’re heading for the elevated length of MLK Blvd, and as we turn onto it, a brass band a few dozen feet ahead of us starts to play. I don’t recognize the song at first, but then the tune kicks in and I realize it’s “I’m Every Woman”. Courtney and a few other women in the crowd start to sing along. But C.K., for the first time, looks bashful. I don’t get it, but as the song goes on and the bashfulness persists, my gaytuition kicks in – in my case, it’s most useful for making largely useless pop culture connections.
“Holy shit!” I say to her, far too excited. “Your real name is Chaka Khan, isn’t it?”
Courtney, thinking I’m making a dumb joke, groans, “Otis.” Then she turns to C.K. and says, “Sorry about him. He was raised by goats.”
“No,” C.K. says. “Actually, he’s right. My mom is . . . a big fan.”
“No shit!” Courtney says.
“Mmm hmm,” C.K. confirms.
“Well then, dude, you have to sing,” Courtney says, pulling at her arm.
“After all, it’s all in you,” I add.
“Shut up,” C.K. and Courtney say at once, then sing along as the four tubas at the center of the brass band bring the tune home.
As we walk across the bridge made by the boulevard, we can see that the line of people continues long past where we were by the convention center. It could be 10,000 people, it could be 100,000 – after a certain point, it’s hard for the mind to map, since we’re so far beyond the realm of counting.
“This is what democracy looks like!” we call out again and gain as we continue down MLK. I can hear waves of cheers coming from ahead – when we get closer to the spot where the cheers are emanating from, I realize that the crowd is cheering the police officers who are watching over us. People are calling out thanks, and many of the police officers are smiling and waving back.
There are no protesters in sight.
My phone vibrates and I see it’s a message from my mom, checking to see if everything is okay. As I’m texting her back, I look at Courtney and say, “Hey, text your mom.” She turns to C.K. and says the same thing. C.K. then turns to the woman next to her and says, “Text your mom.” The woman says it to the guy next to her. And then, all of a sudden, people are starting to chant, “Text. Your. Mom! Text. Your. Mom!” People are pulling their phones out, taking pictures, sending them. I take a video for my mom of the chant, then send it to her with the message, You did this. We’re all good.
As we get to the edge of the Fulton County Courthouse, there’s an African American woman standing on a ledge above the sidewalk. She looks like she, too, could be a librarian – glasses, cool earrings, white t-shirt, black skirt. She is hoisting a sign above her head in a way that reminds me of that famous shot of Sally Field in Norma Rae. It proclaims, I AM MY ANCESTOR’S WILDEST DREAMS. We call our admiration out to her and she calls us forward.
The brass band pipes up with “This Land is Your Land.” Behind them, another sign is hoisted: Protect each other.
I turn around and face two women with matching Be a Good Human sweatshirts. Behind them, the streets are filled to the horizon line.
Repro rights not rape culture
You’re not Putin Your Hands on This Pussy
Unite with love. Resist with love.
And beyond that, behind other signs, I can only make out words.
There are rainbow flags. Star Wars caps. More and more pink hats of every shape and size.
It is a sea of people, and I feel one of the strengths of this is that it not only joins us to the other bodies of humanity that are forming in cities and towns across the world today, but it reaches back and unites with all the other marches in history that were about justice and fairness and resistance to those who would undermine equality and opportunity. It’s as if when we march today, we are retroactively marching behind John Lewis in the ‘60s and marching on the mall for gay rights and abortion rights in the ‘90s and marching to protest the war in Iraq in the ‘00s and the brutality in Ferguson only a short time ago. All of these histories overlap in us, and they are the fuel to our fire.
We are nearing the State Capitol, the end of our route. We have by now been out here for hours and our feet are starting to feel sore. But it doesn’t feel like enough, not nearly enough.
The Capitol is in view now. The band unexpectedly fills the air with “I’ll Fly Away” and we all start to sing along. People who learned it from their parents or their grandparents. People who learned it from church. People who learned it from Alison Krauss. People who learned it from George Jones or Johnny Cash. We sing it at the Capitol and then past the Capitol, right up to the heavens.
I’ll fly away, fly away, Oh Glory
I’ll fly away in the morning.
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I’ll fly away
As I watch, Courtney puts her arm around C.K.’s shoulders. C.K. reaches over and takes off Courtney’s hat. Then she reaches to her own hat, removes it, and places it on Courtney’s head. Next, she puts Courtney’s on her own head. They sing the whole time.
We strangers are all smiling at one another. We are so much louder together than we are on our own. I knew I was here to protest; I knew I was here to unite. But what I didn’t know was that I was here to remember why I am so in love with the world. As hard as it is, as difficult as it may be, I am deeply, unfathomably in love with the world that can have us here like this. I will always fear losing this world but I must always keep in my heart what having it is like, and what loving it can bring. I must remember that I am not the only one who loves it. This love is shared my multitudes. It is visible in tens of thousands of different ways right now. Because when you are in love with the world, you want the world to know it.
There is a sniper on the roof of the Capitol, watching over us. When we wave to him, he awkwardly waves back. John Lewis is probably on his way to a reception by now, or on his way home. This isn’t a race; there is no finish line. There is simply a corner where some people are going one way and some people are going another.
I’ll fly away
I’ll fly away
We cheer as the band ends the song, because music is a victory, and our march is a victory, and we love each other so much at this moment, all of us in this together.
I don’t want to breathe this in – breath passes through too quickly.
I don’t want to simply remember it – memory starts to feel unreal.
I want this in my DNA.
I suspect it’s always been in our DNA.
As we reach Capitol Avenue, we need to make way for all the marchers behind us. When we get to the corner, I will ask C.K. which direction she needs to go. When she says left, I’ll say I need to go right – and then tell Courtney I’ll catch up with her later, so they can continue their conversation wherever it may go. I will watch them walk away in their matching-yet-different pink hats, and then I will wander through the city as we marchers continue on, the glory remaining in our hearts. Were you there? we’ll ask each other. I was there, we’ll say. From this center, we will spread to the far reaches, go to our homes and to the places less welcome to us. We will not stop being together. Our love will endure.