Why I Am Not an Atheist, Part II

So my stereo works now, and I appreciate that in the same way I appreciate my health when I have just gotten over a cold – that is, I’m sure I’ll be taking it for granted by next week. And I just finished the third book in the Harry Potter series, and it rocked, even if it was a bit dismissive of the ability to see the future. And Brooklyn may not yet feel quite like Spring, but we can smell Winter’s fear; we know that it’s only a matter of time before the blustery cold fades like the storm over a Clinton pardon.

But when I got back to Harvard that Easter Sunday night eleven years ago I was shaken. Surrounded by scientists and liberal artists who had moved, like me, past religious practice in favor of a vague tolerance, I did not know what to do with my anxiety. To be sure, a large number of my classmates still practiced the religion of their birth, and others had converted into something more intense. But I had generally avoided such folks, and had made no attempt to connect to the Catholic community there. Now I felt alone.

I was sure that my friends would disparage my experience with Sascha the way I had disparaged Dean’s. Who, then, could comfort me about the sense of private unhappiness that I now feared would follow me throughout my life? Was anyone powerful enough to undo it, or convince me it would not happen? On the other hand, if I were truly destined for some level of fame or influence, was that influence inextricably linked to the private unhappiness — so that to tamper with the unhappiness would be to jeopardize the influence, and to jeopardize the influence would be to undermine God’s plan?

The previous day, I had disbelieved in God entirely. Now it seemed that He might exist, after all — and that His happiness and my own might be diametrically opposed. Years of programming by nuns and monks clicked on again, making me feel guilty both for wanting to improve on my fortune and for having it told in the first place.

Her cheating heart?

Before I could reach any conclusions about my soul, though, I had to figure out what to do about Judy. Sascha had said that she would “go out with somebody else, in two units of time – and she won’t tell you, but you will know.”

If I told her about this prediction, would my telling her make it more likely to come true? Or, if I didn’t tell her, would my insecurity lead her to look elsewhere for love? Did it make any difference whether I told her or not?

I could not answer these questions. I was ignorant of fate’s rules.

When I saw Judy that night, we hugged. After we had talked for a bit she tilted her head to the side and looked at me. “You look like you’re in a strange mood,” she said.

Then I felt certain that holding the story back would create a strained distance between us. I didn’t want that. More than ever, in fact, I wanted to feel close. I told her everything.

She soothed me as well as she could. “Why worry about such things?” she asked. “Either they will happen or they won’t.” She seemed more concerned about my worrying than about the predictions themselves.

She did not say the one thing I wanted her to say: “I have no intention of going out with anyone else.” But after my panic, touching her and sleeping with her felt so good that I did not dwell on that missing piece.

For the next several days I felt a form of paranoia that was new to me, as I wondered about the implications of what Sascha had said. I felt exposed to the eyes of beings whose intentions were neither particularly good nor particularly bad. In my conception of them, they had plenty of things to occupy their time — it was not as if they were fixated on my life. But if they wanted to, they could check it out, just as they could check out the lives of the people around me.

Someone watching me

I had not felt watched in that way for many years. And before, when I had felt it, I imagined the watchers as devils and angels. Sascha seemed to be neither.

I didn’t know about the future, but at the very least, Sascha had been right about everything that had already happened. If a Russian man I’d never met could know about my hurt dog and my dead Catholic father and my girlfriend’s short hair, then surely others could tap into the movie of my life if they wanted. I no longer felt so alone, when I walked to class on empty streets.

I wondered if there really is a Big Guy in the Sky after all, watching over the whole kit and caboodle. I reminded myself that the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle applies to very small particles only. At the macro level, Newton and Einstein still rule. Maybe someone really could predict my behavior — and Judy’s — just by knowing us thoroughly.

I convinced myself that the earliest Judy would date someone else was in June, two months’ time. Meanwhile I continued to love her the best way I could, hoping to please her to the point that she would not feel the need to go elsewhere. And continued to worry that no matter how much therapy I would go through or what I would achieve, I might always be privately unhappy.

Other people to whom I told the story wondered why I took the predictions so seriously. I did not know what to say to them. “Maybe they had to be there,” I thought. Maybe they had to experience, for themselves, the terror of imagining that a stranger could foresee a second death in their family. Even though he said he saw no such thing, I had shuddered at the possibility; such a death just then might have broken me. Maybe it was that element that had burned the rest of the fortune into my memory.

The Devil’s work

My mother had told me years earlier that to visit fortunetellers was to open yourself up to evil forces. She said that nearly all talk of the supernatural was from the devil, because it distracted people from the Bible, the word of God.

I had stopped believing in the devil shortly after I stopped believing in God, but now I wondered if my mother might have been right. Certainly the anxiety that I was feeling did not seem to have come from Heaven.

I decided to go to a priest. I would confess the sin of having my fortune read, in case my mother was right and it really was a sin – and in case the priest’s absolution could break the hold the fortune had on me.

I went to the nearest Catholic church that Saturday afternoon, and waited for my turn in the confessional. When it was my turn I walked in, shut the door, and walked past the screen that people use when they don’t want the priest to see them. I felt that I should handle this issue face to face.

My confession

I sat down and looked up. A balding priest, probably in his late fifties, gave me a genial smile.

“Hello, father,” I said. “It’s been about four years since my last confession. Actually, I haven’t gone to church much, during that time. A little while after my father died I kind of lost my faith.”

He continued to smile, so I went on.

“But that’s not really why I’m here. A man read my fortune, and it’s got me all confused, and my mother says that fortune-telling is from the devil and I’m worried she might be right.”

He looked appropriately concerned.

I told him what Sascha had said, and waited for his opinion.

“Well, I don’t believe the ability to foretell the future comes from the devil, necessarily,” he began. “I think some people can just do that – they have a gift, the way other people have a gift for hitting a baseball.”

My eyes must have widened, because he smiled again.

“I think that one thing that may have made you especially nervous about this man is that he spoke mostly Russian,” the priest said.

I hadn’t thought of that.

“Foreign languages and customs can really heighten the sense of mystery and power,” he said. “I think that a lot of the power of the old Latin Mass came from the fact that people didn’t really know what the priest was saying. It carried more weight – it seemed holier – than when they were able to understand every word.”

Wow. I really hadn’t expected him to compare Sascha’s fortune to the old Latin Mass. And I certainly would not have expected a priest his age to be anything other than nostalgic for those days — a time when priests had much more power over their parishioners than they have today.

“Rather than this being from the devil, I think it’s possible that your experience with this Russian man may have come from God,” he said. “After all, it got you to come back to church, didn’t it?” He laughed.

I laughed, too, even though I had no intention of coming back to the church again anytime soon. He asked me to say a few Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and to spend some time asking God what this was supposed to mean to me. I did as he asked, aware as I knelt in the pew that the others who’d been waiting to confess were wondering what on earth I had done that had taken me 40 minutes to explain.


I was glad that the priest hadn’t accused me of invoking satanic forces. However, nothing he’d said had broken the spell of the predictions. If anything, he had affirmed my hunch that some people could see the future. Still, at least I was absolved of the previous four years’ worth of sins.

That was the first Saturday after the fortune. The second Saturday after the fortune, Judy went home for the night to Framingham, Mass., to see her family.

She came back to the dorm at around 11 the next morning. When she came into my room and asked, “How’s it going?,” I sensed immediately that something was wrong.

I didn’t know what. Something about her, the way her face looked. She looked vaguely preoccupied – guilty, but not too guilty. She looked as if she had done something she thought I might not like, but had done it willingly, for reasons she understood.

“What did you do last night?” I asked.

Her eyes seemed light as she said, “I hung out with my brother, had dinner with my sister. What about you?”

“Oh, I talked with some folks on the phone, hung out with Scott and Adam,” I said, trying to keep my voice level by speaking of my roommates. “What else did you do?”

“Nothing, really,” she said. “What do you mean?”

“I mean I feel like you did something else. I feel like you saw John.” John was her ex-boyfriend.

“What makes you say that?”

I couldn’t say what made me say it, and I wanted her to answer before I became upset and stopped her from telling me the truth, whatever it was. “I don’t know,” I said. “But did you or didn’t you?”

“I did. But what makes you say it?”

Even now it hurts to remember this, but not as much as it did then.

A short time earlier, Judy had told me that she felt happier with me than she had ever felt in her life. Her words had thrilled me, because being with her made me happier than I had known I could be.

Now, defeated once again by her attachment to a man that I had never met, I looked away from Judy to the blank wall above my bed. I felt despair. As she tried to soothe me and I tried to ignore her, I remembered suddenly that it was now two weeks, almost to the minute, since Sascha had made his prediction.

Two units

Two units of time. Not two months as I had thought, but two weeks – much sooner than I had expected. Until that moment, it hadn’t even occurred to me that it was two weeks since the prediction. I had not given her visit home a second thought. Yet she had gone out on a date with someone else, and even though she hadn’t told me, I had known.

This was weird. I remembered the way the apostle Peter had three times denied knowing Jesus without remembering Jesus’ prediction that he would do so. Only when Peter heard that cock crow for the second time – only when the full prediction had come true – did he realize what he had done.

“Self-fulfilled prophecy” was too hollow a description of what had just happened between Judy and me. She had no interest in fulfilling Sascha’s fortune, and had not kept track of it. She’d never met Sascha, after all, and had no reason to want to prove him right. When she saw John, she did so for reasons of her own.

To the hurt of feeling betrayed, then, was added the thrill that there might be meaning in the betrayal.

As our graduation approached, Judy continued to slip away, and I continued to try to hold on. Unable to admit defeat, I gave her everything I had, hoping that if she really knew me, she might stay.

At around 6:30 a.m. on the cool, gray, misty morning of the ceremony, we woke in her room to the braying of a bagpiper, piping away from 15 floors down. Judy and I were both of Irish descent, and hearing the Irish pipes playing in this Ivy League WASP’s nest was a true and welcome shock.

When he paused between songs, I shouted a request for “Amazing Grace.” He went right into it, as if he never got tired of that particular request. Later, playing as he walked, he led our dorm’s seniors through the streets of Cambridge to a big lawn, where Judy and I sat next to each other in our black robes, hiding and then not bothering to hide a bottle of champagne. Even as she smiled I felt her leaving. All that I could do was have fun while she was still there.

Days later I was home in Schenectady. My mom held a graduation party for me, where I talked with some cousins I hadn’t seen in a long time.

More prophecies fulfilled

Later that week I visited one of those cousins to try to learn more about my father’s father, whom she had known quite well. I did this because Sascha had said, “You should learn about this man; he is your spirit guide.”

Whenever I had asked my father and my grandmother about my grandfather, they had said simply, “He was a good man.” You could feel their grief. It had remained frozen in time, and that rigidity seemed to prevent them from elaborating on what they knew of him.

My cousin Ann, however, found it easy to talk about him as we sat in her living room. In fact, she said, “It’s funny that you should ask me about your grandfather. Because you know, I haven’t seen you for years and years; you used to be smaller.” She laughed. “But when I was at your graduation party and I was talking to you, I don’t know how to explain it, but for a minute I thought I was talking to him.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “Like I said, I don’t know how to explain it. But you have his mannerisms — his whole way of being at a party.”

Well, that was more than I had expected to hear. I thought I had picked up my mannerisms by copying Jimmy Stewart and Jack Nicholson. I certainly didn’t get them from my father, who was stiff and uncomfortable at parties, even parties involving his own relatives. He didn’t like this about himself, but it was part of him, a shyness he had never been able to overcome. I did not have it in quite the same way. Maybe my temperament had skipped a generation.

Well, I had to say that Sascha was onto something with the paternal ancestor. I tracked down another old friend of my grandfather’s, and he confirmed what Ann had said. “Your grandfather loved parties,” he said.

I’d had no idea of this. I had assumed that he must have been as serious a man as my father was. But apparently that was not so.

So: Judy had dated someone else in two units of time, and my father’s father had turned out to be an extremely plausible ‘spirit guide,’ whatever that was.

Now the only parts left were the fame and the unhappiness.

Revisiting the psychic

As it happened I went back to visit Dean’s family in July, just three months after Sascha read my coffee grounds. Although I was afraid to raise the subject —- afraid to learn that more bad things loomed in my future —- I finally couldn’t stand not knowing. I asked Dean to ask Sascha to clarify what he had seen.

“Dean, please ask Sascha: What is the nature of this private unhappiness that I will feel all my life? What does it mean? Will my life be rocked by tragedy? Will I become depressed? What does it mean? And can I do anything about it?”

Dean nodded at my question, and began to explain my question to Sascha in Russian. I watched, wondering if it was a mistake for me even to ask about this. Would his answer throw me into new turmoil? I had been worrying for three months, and was now afraid that my worries might only get worse.

But something else was happening. Sascha looked angry, and seemed almost to be scolding Dean in Russian. Dean looked sheepish. Sascha continued to speak to him in harsh tones, and Dean’s eyes widened as he listened, his face serious and still. Dean said a few things back to Sascha, but they did not calm Sascha down.

I had to know. I wanted the whole truth, so that I could know what to do. “What is it?” I asked.

Looking apologetic, Dean said to me, “My uncle says that I mistranslated. He says that it is not that you will suffer great, um, private unhappiness, but rather that you will be disappointed by people, because they will not be as good, as nice, as you would like.”

I was skeptical, but relief was already making its way through my system. “That’s it?” I said. “The unhappiness is that I will be disappointed because people are not as kind as I would have liked?”

“Yes,” Dean said, and Sascha nodded.

“Oh,” I said, and sat back. “Well, I already feel that. That’s not so bad.”

I smiled. They did, too, but not as broadly as they might have.

So maybe they held something back. Maybe the severity is worse than I have experienced so far. Maybe some great betrayal is coming, sometime down the road, and I will hate it when it comes, and will curse my luck and curse humanity for the way it has disappointed me.

But at least I’ll be famous.

Originally published by The Guy Code, April 6, 2001.

Comments are closed.