7 years ago today.
Seven years ago today, I sat in a cold, windowless classroom, staring at a puddle of tears on my desk. I should have skipped class today, I repeated in my head. Today would have been the best day to skip class. Some of the other kids, boys mostly, were yelling back and forth about how we should just nuke them. We. Them. On an ordinary day, I’d be included in the we. But I was one of them that day, and the 20 pairs of eyes burning holes through my skin reminded me of that more and more with every passing second.
It wouldn’t have done much good to tell them that I wasn’t really a Muslim. I was an agnostic. Or a cultural Muslim. Or an I-dunno-what, but I certainly wasn’t a Muslim. I didn’t know what to say, so I sat there in silence, watching the puddle ripple as it grew bigger and bigger until it finally spilled over the edge of the desk and left dark spots on my jeans. For some reason, that was my breaking point. I grabbed my bag and walked out.
The grad student / teacher came running out in the hall after me and asked if I was OK. I’m not sure what I said to him — incoherent mumbles, I’m sure — but the next thing I knew, he was giving me a hug and apologizing. He said he thought asking the class to share their thoughts and feelings would help them cope. And he was sorry for what it turned into.
I wasn’t particularly close to this grad student, but I liked him. He was smart and witty, and he wore a corduroy coat with leather patches on the elbows the way cartoon professors do. When I pulled back, I realized I’d snotted all over the shoulder of that coat. And every time I saw him wear it after that, I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing.
That day, seven years ago, I walked out to the parking lot and found my tires slashed. All four of them. I used a payphone to call AAA. I was one of those people who adamantly refused to get a cellphone and only got one at my parents’ insistence when, at the age of 23, I moved to a different state. So I used a payphone to call for a towtruck and I turned down the driver’s offer to give me a ride. I decided to walk there instead.
“Thanks, but I have some stuff to work out. I’ll see you over there.” The guy must have thought I was nuts. It was freezing and the sidewalks were icy. My fingernails turned blue by the time I got there — I left in such a hurry that I forgot to grab my gloves from underneath my seat. I remember thinking it must be what your fingernails will look like when you’re dead, and that just brought on another outburst of tears.
It was a 3 mile walk, at least, and I had plenty to think about on my way over. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I’d been hiding behind the word agnostic for 2 years. The word atheist, at that point, just seemed so final. If I used the word atheist, it would mean having to give up my back door, my Plan B, my escape route. There was no way out. I realized that I was tired — really, genuinely tired — of lying to myself. I knew with every fiber of my being that I could never just go back to being a Muslim again. I’d crossed the line, embraced logic, reason & reality. And there was no looking back.
I’m an atheist, I thought to myself. An atheist. And then I whispered it out loud, just to hear myself say it: I’m an atheist.
I’m an atheist.
And there is no looking back.