I wasn't physically shaking, but my bones felt like they were rattling against each other. That and my spinning head made walking in a straight line a little more difficult than usual. I bet this is what a hangover feels like, I thought. What I needed to do was get outside by myself and let the fresh air clear my head a little and maybe I'd feel better.
Surprisingly, there were only one or two smokers in front of Welch. I didn't feel like standing around them, so I continued out to the grassy part of the courtyard and lay down a couple yards from this big oak tree.
The evening air was cool, but not freeze-your-lungs cold, so I took a deep breath and let it out all shudder-y. Maybe if I did those breathing exercises Chun had told us about last week in psych, or the visualization, or the progressive muscle-thingy. I am cool, I am calm, I am collected, I am not alone. I made the mistake of opening my eyes and finding out that last bit was true.
I shouldn't have been surprised that Paulus Klassen wouldn't be smoking with the others up front. He rarely emerged from his and Figgy's room and usually had his nose stuck in a book. Most people on our floor thought he had high-functioning autism; we didn't even know he could talk until around the third week of the semester.
Tonight was no different: he was sitting with his back against the big oak tree, a cigarette in one hand and a paperback in the other. If he noticed me, he didn't say anything, which I thought was just fine.
OK, so breathing exercises, I told myself, closing my eyes. In through the nose, out through the mouth; in through the nose, out through the mouth.
"Are you OK?"
My eyes flew open, and my voice cracked, "What?"
Paulus had lowered his book and was staring right at me. "Are you having some sort of attack?" He usually had this look on his face like he thought the whole world was a bore, but right then he actually looked concerned.
"Uh." I sat up and cleared my throat. "No. Why-Why'd you think that?"
"You collapsed on the ground and started hyperventilating," he told me. "What was I supposed to think?"
He ashed his cigarette. "You're all right, then?"
"I kinda," I mumbled. "Do you Do you believe in God?"
"Am I religious? No." He closed his book and set it aside. "Why?"
"'Cause, uhm." I dropped the pitch of my voice so he wouldn't notice how strained it probably sounded. "I was talking to Kenny an' Figgy and I mentioned my biology class and how we started covering evolution. I said I didn't believe in evolution 'cause God created the universe, an' Figgy started teasing me about being a Christian and junk. Then Kenny was like, 'My problem with creationism is, why did God make a whole universe if everyone would only live on one planet? Or why would he even make a huge planet if everyone was gonna just live in the Garden of Eden?' And then he suggested maybe God was planning for the world to fall into sin, and now-now I'm out here."
I took a deep breath. "And I'm just like, shit, y'know? 'Cause that's my whole belief system just poof, right there. What kind of God plans for his children to fall into sin? If creationism doesn't make sense, how can any other part of the Bible make sense? Is it all wrong?"
Paulus put his cigarette out on the roots of the big oak tree. "So it's an existential crisis," he summarized, lighting up another cigarette.
"Exis-yeah, I guess." I found myself getting up and sitting down next to him under the big oak tree.
"Hmm." As I mentioned earlier, Paulus wasn't quite like other people. When the semester started, I was under the impression that now we were in college, we would all be relatively mature adults and abandon our high-school ways of making fun of or ignoring weirdos. Sadly I was mistaken. He was usually victim to behind-his-back mockery or pity for his limited social skills, bookishness, and even sense of style.
He wore fairly loose-fitting clothes when the style of the day was all fitted T-shirts and narrow-legged jeans. Kenny and Figgy and a few others on our floor did too, but they didn't usually wear things that looked like they came from the dark corners of Goodwill. I usually saw Paulus wearing a Red Wings jersey or a blue kimono, and I don't think I ever saw him wear a pair of jeans. This particular day, he was wearing a green blazer, a T-shirt emblazoned with a buffalo and the words Modest Mouse, and brown cargo pants. Aside from his clothes, his hair was shaggier than the buzzcuts most guys wore, but shaved on the sides by his ears.
I wasn't sure why I was even talking to him about this. He wasn't an open, friendly guy. I wouldn't call him socially awkward, more closed-off. And whenever I did talk to him, I got the impression that he thought I was an idiot.
"I'm not a theologian," he started. "I guess I don't know exactly why people are religious. I've theorized about it, and this is what I think.
"Some people are religious because they were raised that way, and they don't know any other way of living. Others, especially later-in-life converts, want something to put their faith in. You can't trust anybody: politicians, newscasters, teachers, advertisers, parents. We have to question everything we're told; it's just how it is.
"But we get tired of that. We want someone we can trust unswervingly, someone we don't have to question. Everything they say is absolute truth. That's where religion comes in. God is presented as an omniscient, omnipotent being with unending love for all mankind. He would never hurt us without cause, and he never lies. He's someone we can trust.
"Your problem, Mikey, is that you noticed the cracks. You know how illogical God is and now you can't go back to your innocent faith. What are you supposed to do now?
"One thing you could do is find a new God. I don't necessarily mean a new religion; when I say God, I mean someone you can put unswerving trust in like your last God. The problem with that is, that's kind of tricky. Like I said, you can't really trust anybody. So what are you supposed to do?"
He ashed his cigarette again. "I guess you could talk to a priest and wait, are you Catholic? What type of Christian are you again?"
"Reverend, then and get steered back to the faith. Or another option is that I personally think is better to really think about the cracks. If that simple argument swayed you enough, I'm guessing you didn't have as much faith as you put forth. Were there any other cracks?"
"I didn't " Wait. I couldn't keep track of how often I secretly blushed and squirmed in my seat whenever Mom and Dad made racist remarks about Muslims. I couldn't deny the lingering shame I felt for being a Baptist in a predominately Catholic town. As far back as I could remember, most of my schoolmates had made snide remarks about any kids who didn't go to church every single Sunday. For the last few years, I'd felt a general unease during church services and Teen Bible Group meetings, especially when our leaders declared everything non-Christian as Satanic. I could never forget how awkward I felt whenever I saw my sister Lydia get left behind because of double standards.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and buried my head in my lap. "This sucks," I moaned.
"People are bastards," Paulus sighed, putting out his cigarette. "At least seculars are honest about it." He stood up and dusted off his pants. "I don't mean to leave you like this, but I need to get to the library before it closes."
"See ya," I mumbled as he picked up his book. He had started to walk back towards Welch when I lifted my head up. "Hey."
Paulus looked back. "Yeah?"
"Am I gonna be OK?"
He scoffed. "How the fuck should I know?"