As I sat down on an N train I took my backpack off to pull my drawing pad out. The car’s doors closed. The train started to move.
The woman one seat over leaned towards me and asked:
- Is Barclays Center the next stop?
It took a moment for me to mentally get hold where we were geographically, then said:
- Yes. Atlantic Avenue is the next stop.
To punctuate my information with good intentions, I smiled. Then turned back to the stubborn drawing pad that got stuck in the backpack’s pocket.
The woman, still looking at me said:
- It was a beautiful day, wasn’t it? The Sun came out and it wasn’t too cold.
I turned again, slightly irritated with the continuing interruption but determined to be kind.
- It probably was a nice day, - I said, - But I didn’t see any of it. I was working.
- Long day in an office, huh? – She said with eager sympathy.
I paused, considering if to correct the term “office” to “my own studio” but decided against it, as I wanted get to my unfinished drawing as soon as I could.
- Yes, - I said, turned back to my backpack and finally retrieved the drawing pad.
- May I ask you another question? – The woman asked. – It is a very simple question.
I was about to open my notebook and looked at her with a growing impatience.
- Go ahead.
- Have you read Bible?
It is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question that tricks one into a four-hour conversation.
- I have read the Bible but wouldn’t call myself an expert on the book, - I answered, hoping my curt reply would nip the four-hour conversation in the bud and turned back to what I really wanted to do. As I opened my book, the woman asked:
- Do you believe in God?
I closed the book and looked at her carefully. She was middle-aged, with a hopeful expression on her comely face. Like a Manhattanite she was dressed with sophistication yet here she was, in Brooklyn, trying to hook a stranger into a conversation about God. I have no time or patience for this. Make it abrupt. I said curtly:
- Why not.
- Because of where and how I grew up.
- I see – in Soviet Union, - the woman said with a knowing smile.
Well, at least she was good at placing people’s accents.
- But times have changed in Russia…
Although now I see, no – she didn’t get my accent that precisely, just very general geographic whereabouts.
- … and now you can believe in God in Russia.
- I can’t believe in God because God doesn’t exist, - I replied, my heart pounding. I hate to contradict other people. It stresses me out.
- I am here to tell you the good news - God exists whether you believe or not, - she said, while her eyes narrowed. She continued to smile.
- That’s exactly right – I don’t have to believe in God in order for you to believe that God exists.
- But God exists, - she insisted.
- You seem very certain about that.
- He sends messages. He speaks to me.
- Not to me.
- You have to be perceptive.
- Emma. My name is Emma, - she said with a slight nod.
- Look, Emma, I came to this world by chance and knowing it makes me appreciate every moment, and every person I encounter. I am connected with a larger community and do as much good as I can. I don’t need to believe in God to be a good person.
- You didn’t come to this world by chance. It was God’s plan. He gave you the office and your job and this beautiful day.
It was hopeless to tell her I created my own job and rented my own studio. But one must keep a conversation about God simple.
- I just don’t see the world the way you see it, - I responded. I didn't want to win this conversation, but didn't know how to get out of it.
- It doesn’t depend on how I see it. God is the absolute truth. I want you to know God exists. Why can’t you take the message? – she said with bewilderment.
In a 5-minute ride from Brooklyn’s 36th street stop to Atlantic Avenue she wanted to change every single of my 287 billion neural pathways that took half a century to form. She must believe strongly in her abilities. But so do I. Let me turn this around.
- Can I ask YOU a simple question?
She looked at me with an eager hope and immediately said:
- What prompts you to strike a conversation about God with a complete stranger? – I inquired.
- I want to deliver the message of God to every single soul I encounter.
- How would you feel if a stranger came to you on a subway and started to tell you that what you believe in is just a silly fairy tale and there is no God?
- I would feel sorry for them, - Emma said and put her hands together as if in a prayer.
- So, there. That is how I feel, for you.
That moment the train stopped at Atlantic Avenue. The doors opened. Emma got up.
- I will pray for you, - she said. Her smile covered mean tension.
- Thank you. My best wishes to you.
She walked out. The train moved towards Manhattan Bridge and I opened my notebook. Now I had only 5 minutes till the next stop to finish the commissioned beagle drawing. But Emma and her quest stayed on my mind.
I got off on Canal and walked towards 6th avenue. Why this Emma felt she had the right to barge into my very psychological core to try to make me into someone else? Argh, the arrogance of people who believe in God – they think they can snap their fingers and everybody will become like them. Why this is so maddening?
Deep in thought, I crossed Canal street without looking. From the corner of my eyes I saw a flash of headlights. I turned my head. Suddenly time slowed down. A car was about to collide with me. A jolt of panic stopped my breath and paralyzed my limbs. I knew I had to move either forward or fall backwards but was unable to move. Then, just as the wind from the car’s bumper brushed by my knee, a powerful muscle of unseen energy pushed my body out of the car’s way.
I flew backwards and landed on the sidewalk. People screamed. The car’s brakes screeched. I took a breath. I still felt the touch of the force that pushed me. It felt good. Then I knew what it was. God had saved me. God exists.
Emma walked out of the subway car alight with indignity. She seemed such a nice woman! But turned out to be so rude! Emma knew she would feel sorry for the woman and would pray for her eventually, but right now she felt anger. Those people denying God! So arrogant! So smug! The woman had insulted not only God but also the very core of Emma herself.
Deep in thought, Emma stepped from the curb to cross Atlantic Avenue when she heard a shout. She turned her head and saw a bicyclist about to slam into her. Time slowed down. A jolt of panic simultaneously urged her to run and filled her body with lead. Emma saw her own reflection in the bicyclist’s glasses. She was only able to raise her hands in a useless gesture of defense when the metal of the bicycle and the body of the bicyclist crashed into her.
The impact made bones that Emma’s whole life seemed to be fully integrated with her muscles and flesh to come apart in 206 separate entities just like sparks of firework separate from their container after explosion. Emma became aware of every molecule in her body. It made her feel utterly alone and at the same time - belonging to the larger world outside her that was made of molecules, too. Universe is indifferent, Emma suddenly realized as she was falling. Now I know: God does not exist.