I spent my whole life looking for God, in the place where belief meets reason.
He watched me from the other side of the table as he poured a measure of rum into the little brown glass next to him. He’d offered me some but I’d refused. His eyes were a watery blue, stark against his nut-brown skin and his fingers were long and bony. He didn’t speak as he raised the glass to thin lips and threw back the liquor. It was a hot, steaming day, and although we were sitting in an open-air bar and the sea was less than a hundred yards to my left, I felt stifled. And still he watched me, measuring, considering. My question still hung in the air between us. “Girl,” he said carefully in heavily accented English, “I’m not sure I understand what you’re asking me.”
I was patient. I’d learned to be. When I was kid I’d race off ahead of everyone else in the class – and my teachers and my parents too – and I’d get frustrated because nobody could ever keep up with me. I’d figured out over the years that I had to rein it in just to stop scaring other people. “It’s simple,” I said, “I’m looking for God.”
He smiled slightly, but I could see the doubt in his eyes. He was wondering what kind of person he was talking to. “And you started here?” he asked, gesturing around the bar. It was almost empty, just a few men about the same age as him sitting around, baking in the heat, drinking the same cheap white rum or a beer, barely even speaking to one another over the tinny Latin music buzzing on the edge of hearing from somewhere behind the bar. On one side was the beach where tanned white people strolled by, their eyes never resting on anything but each other, and on the other the dust and noise of the town, where brown people like my companion went about their normal days.
“No. I started a long way away.” It was a strange, complicated story. I didn’t want to bore him with the details, so I stuck to the important parts. “I was born in Alabama, the son of a Baptist minister. Small town, big church, real clear idea of God.”
“But something changed.”
“You lost your faith?” he guessed.
I shook my head. “Never. All that happened was that the town got too small for me. See…” How to explain it? I’d done it a bunch of times, but never found the right words. “I’m what folks call a polymath.”
“A what now?” He had a pouch of tobacco and was just beginning to make up a hand-rolled cigarette on the table in front of him. He’d paused and now his attention was on me again, blistering, intense.
“Sort of a genius. But for everything.”
“More or less.” I shrugged. “You name it, I can do it.”
He looked sceptical. “Is that so?”
“Uh huh. Look.” I pulled a notebook from my bag and leafed through the pages of densely-packed writing to find a blank one. His eyebrows climbed as he saw that. He couldn’t possibly understand it all, but it surely impressed him. When I found a clean page I set the book down on the table and took out a pen. Quickly, with just a few deft movements, I sketched out a picture of him, just as he was, sitting before me with that quizzical expression on his face. I turned it around. “See?”
“Damn. How’d you do that?” His fingers traced the lines. It was just a rough drawing, but the likeness was, I knew, perfect.
“I don’t know, but I could do it with my eyes closed.” I tapped the side of my head. “Eidetic memory.”
“Photographic. I can sculpt, paint, play music. Play me a song and I’ll play it right back on any instrument you care to name. I write, I have doctorates in…well, look, it’s not important…”
“Can I keep this?” he asked. He was still touching the picture of himself. It was just a handful of lines, really, scribbled down in seconds, but I could see he was somehow moved by it. People are strange.
“Sure.” I ripped off the page for him. “Ignore what’s on the back.”
He turned it over and frowned at the equations. “What is all this?”
“It’s not important.”
“It looks important.”
“It’s not, really. Once it’s written down, I don’t really need to keep it any more. It’s just a kind of thinking aloud.”
“Okay.” He looked at the picture of himself again and shook his head. “Damn.”
“So, like I said; a polymath. I grew out of the place I was born by the time I was ten years old, and they sent me somewhere I could get a real education. A place for gifted kids, you know?”
“I learned about math and science and history and everything else. I went to college at thirteen. Graduated at fifteen. Got a Masters, a PhD. I was in the newspaper and everything.”
“What did you study?”
“Physics. Astrophysics. Cosmology. See, I had this one obsession: to find God.”
He frowned at me again. I could see him trying to size me up. “You learned all that science stuff…”
“And I still believed in God? Yeah, that’s right. People said it was my upbringing. They acted like I was brainwashed. It took me a long time to get over that prejudice.”
“But…” He picked up the bottle of rum again and poured himself a big measure. Then he remembered his cigarette and for a second he seemed conflicted about which to do first. “You studied the universe, right? Space and planets and…”
“Yeah. And I know the math. I know the universe is fourteen billion years old. I know it started as a much smaller, hotter, denser place. I know we’re one planet, orbiting one fairly unremarkable star in one galaxy amongst possibly trillions in the cosmos. And when I did my biology doctorate, I saw that every living thing on Earth evolved from a common ancestor through natural selection. I saw how trivial it was to prove that, and how much sense it all made. I saw the great web of life, fitting together intricately around me. I took another doctorate in particle physics, learned about the fundamental building blocks of the universe, came to understand quantum uncertainty, published a revolutionary paper on string theory. If there is one scientist working today who can be said to understand the world from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest cosmological feature of the universe, it’s me. I have mastered every field there is to master. I know almost everything. That isn’t an exaggeration.”
He scratched his head. His cigarette remained unrolled. “So you came to a bar in Puerto Rico to find answers?”
I smiled. “I’ve been everywhere. When I outstripped all my colleagues in knowledge, I went back home and spoke to my father. He was no help. I travelled the world. I spent eighteen months with a Catholic missionary in Namibia. I worked as a community nurse in a drug clinic in Johannesburg. I helped build homes in the slums of Bombay. I spent a year in Tibet, learning the ways of Buddhist monks in the mountains. I travelled through South-East Asia and Japan. I pursued every path to enlightenment known to man. I trekked across the Mongolian steppe, looking for the Almas, the wild man, thinking that might yield some answers. I sought out people on the edges of civilisation, immersed myself in lives totally alien to my own. When that didn’t help me, I went to Europe. I visited the Vatican, spoke to the Cardinals. I went to England and met the scientists at Cambridge. I went to Barcelona and sat in a bar not so different from this one and drank sangria until I blacked out. I spent a whole summer in Paris, high or drunk, experiencing art and music and sex and life. I walked to the North Pole. I spent months watching the Northern Lights in Norway. I alternately indulged my every whim and subjected myself to unimaginable deprivation. I’ve been to the hearts of rainforests and deserts, seen mankind at its most base and its most ennobled. I have come to understand everything that can be understood.”
He looked totally bewildered, and I could hardly blame him. After a little while spent processing the strange story of my life he shook his head. “But why?”
“To find God. You see, as a scientist, I learned that all things could be quantified. Everything could be reduced to an equation.” I flicked through my notebook again, showing him the pages. “Here, on these pages, is all that can be known. I have hundreds more just like this one, filling up piles of boxes in a storage unit back home. I have a dozen more in my hotel room here. I write it all down. Everything I learn, and I do the math and I break it down to its component parts.”
“So you can understand it?”
“Exactly. I grew up being told God created the universe in six days less than six millennia ago. I quickly learned that wasn’t true – an equation proved creation was much older than that. I was told that the world was brought into existence exactly as it was now, that living things were unchanging and constant, but an equation proved that was a lie too. Every time I looked at a thing and saw the mathematics behind it, it chipped away at one more story I’d been told.”
“A lot of people,” he said slowly, “would abandon their faith in those circumstances.”
“I know. And I could even explain why I’d been told what I’d been told. I know the history of Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths. I know why they say what they say and how they came to be taught. I know the Bible is just a collection of ancient historical and genealogical records maintained over thousands of years, changed and adapted by the Israelites, the Babylonians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Italians, the English…I know the story of my parents ancestry, how they came to live in America, why they believe what they believe. I can explain everything.”
“Except God,” he surmised. He finally finished rolling his cigarette, licking the paper slowly and then popping it between his lips as he took an old-fashion book of matches from the pocket of his slacks and struck one on the edge of the table. He lit it and then puffed out a cloud of aromatic smoke that hung in the still air between us.
“Yes. Everything I studied disproved, conclusively, the existence of any kind of divine being. And so I searched for the thing I could not prove. I’ve travelled to every corner of the globe, looking for one single thing I can’t reduce to an equation, one single thing for which there is no rational explanation.”
He chuckled softly. “But even you don’t know everything. There are things science can’t explain, right?”
“There are unknown variables, but those aren’t God. There just numbers I don’t know yet.”
“Right. But isn’t it arrogant to assume that only something you can’t fathom is evidence of the divine?”
“Yes. But no one on Earth has a mind like mine. Believe me, I know. I’ve checked.”
“Okay then. So why come here?”
“I heard a story about you. They say you saved a girl from a burning building.”
He nodded. “It was a long time ago now.”
“You saved her life, but then you got into some kind of trouble?”
His chuckle was a soft rumble deep in his chest. “That’s one word for it. I got beat up.”
“But the papers say you were miraculously healed.”
“Something like that.” His eyes got far away for a moment. Everything was still. “I had two broken legs, a busted jaw, one eye half popped out of my head, cuts and bruises everywhere I had places and who knows what else. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t hardly breathe.”
“I read that, yes.”
“Then you also read that, one day, I woke up in bed and I was just fine.”
I leant forward. “Is it true?”
He nodded, very very slowly. “It’s true. One day I was on death’s door, the next I was a new man. The doctors couldn’t find any scars or anything. It was like it never happened.”
I took out my notebook, turned to another of the few and far between blank pages. “And when did this happen?”
“Is it important?”
“I have to know all the details. I have to try to disprove anything miraculous happened.”
“And if you can’t do that, you’ve found God?”
“I’ve found something. Please…”
He watched me again. His eyes were very pale blue. I could see pain etched there in his tired stare, and something else. “She was thirteen,” he said very quietly.
“The girl I saved. Thirteen. I was almost thirty. We were in love.”
I swallowed. “I don’t…”
“That’s why they beat me up, see? Because they thought I was a pervert. She wasn’t just some kid I saved. It was my house, and they set fire to it hoping I was inside it. I saved her life, and they tried to kill me again.” He stubbed out his cigarette on the table. The unvarnished surface was covered in black marks where he’d done it before. He sat in this same bar every single day. It hadn’t been hard to find him. “You think I performed a selfless act of heroism and then God healed me, is that right? I wish that was true, but it wasn’t like that. I was fucking her. She was thirteen,” he said again.
I fought down my instinctive urge to lash out at this man, or to recoil in disgust at what he’d done. “That doesn’t change the fact that…”
“If you’re looking for God in the things that happened to me, I think you need to ask yourself what kind of God you’re hoping to find. That wasn’t Him. He doesn’t save men like me, and if He does, I’m not sure He’s worth looking for.” He stood up from his chair stiffly, using the table for support. A cane was propped up against the table leg and he took it in his other hand and started to walk away. “I’m sorry for wasting your time.”
“You didn’t,” I murmured, too stunned to say anything else.
He turned to me suddenly, moving with surprising speed. “If everything you’ve told me today is true,” he said, “you’re an amazing person. You’ve done incredible things, and been to places most of us never dreamed of.”
“It’s all true,” I said.
“You’ve spent your whole life looking for something you can’t explain, but you haven’t looked at yourself? You have a mind that could shape the future, and a faith that could shake the world to its foundations. Are you sure there isn’t something better you could be doing with those things?” He held my gaze for a moment longer and then stumped away, leaving me alone in that hot, sticky bar, with the faint music still buzzing in my ears and the smell of tobacco smoke filling my brain and a notebook of equations in front of me.