Jamal shows up in the dream in three guises. He’s the bellhop at a ritzy art deco hotel, one you stay at for four decades, living in the penthouse, collecting antique postcards, buying Chantilly cream tarts on Sunday mornings. He is an iridescent goldfish cursed to shrink every time he’s moved to a larger bowl, until finally he’s miniscule, microscopic, in danger of sloshing over the brim. He’s the purr and reverb of the engine when you steal a convertible and drive it north two hundred miles, stopping at farms to eat turnips and purple carrots from the ground, spraying soil on the leather seats. In the Highlands the car breaks down and so do you.
The morning of the day you die is so normal it would destroy you to remember it, except you’ve stopped being a thing that remembers. You get up as late as you dare on a workday—seven-fifty, maybe seven-fifty-two. You wear a perfume angry with mastic and sandalwood because the weather is grey and your heart aches for symbols of protest. Your hair’s matted to your forehead. You slept on it wet.
In the mirror you muss your fringe and think about what Jamal sees when his eyes range over your face. Average grab bag of features, your skin a carbon record of stress. If you’d known you were looking at—really looking at—your face for the last time, you’d have quit grimacing to count your wrinkles; you’d have gone to find Jamal and on the way called DeVry, because she was right, two bottles of wine deep, Friday night: every moment must be the best moment we can conjure, to the exclusion of all else.
You go to work because this day is not precious yet. At lunch, the face of your smartphone counting you secretly down, you phone Jamal. His voice fixes the weather.
“You were in my dream,” you say. You tell it to him.
“Silly Aline,” he says. “Absurd Aline-brain.”
“It was nuts,” you say, because how do you say that you loved it all—the breaking of every rule, bellhop Jamal and engine Jamal and goldfish Jamal vanishingly small? That love was seeing someone in every damn thing? That nothing in the world didn’t hold at least some Jamal for you. How do you say this? You don’t.
You jaywalk across Tothill St; a cabbie toots their horn a vindictively long time. You’ve hopscotched to the other side, giggling sheepishly into your phone call, and you are immortal still, for another four hours forty-nine minutes. You buy an avocado pesto wrap: it’s the last meal you will ever greet with your taste buds.
You remember the dream again and again. It infiltrates the emails you compose, jamming your keys, it bids you quit programs you meant to save, open windows you’ve already got open. If you knew how close you were to running out of reel, would you have thought of the bigger dream, the game and act and illusion propelling your soft confederation of parts through space, your cells dancing you into new shapes, thoughts starbursting flamboyantly inside you, an always-New-Year’s-Eve?
Simpler: would you have thought of Jamal, five miles north-east in a box in a box in a box on another London street? Because even dead you would stand up for the truth that love should be the thing to survive impossibility. Love should be the thing to warble through the void.
It’s not like this, though. Today is a normal day. Pigeons huddle or hop lamely, peck at puddles and gutters, avoid you—you still loom and they are still governed by survival. You have no plans except the grandiose ones that you can never begin; there are leftovers or Jamal is cooking; you should run or do an Arabic lesson but you won’t. There’s just this incredible, indelible dream, and the dye of all the ways you live your life, the froth of being here, and this is a gift to you. Although you do not know it, your dream is a gift of love. Although you do not know it, you are a gift of love to yourself, and all your parts. This is the only love that stands up to tragedy. Life was never meant to be anything but a tragedy in the final act.
The night before you die, you have an incredible dream.
You’re in this dream at least a hundred different ways, and your lover is there, and the life you love is Technicolor. Jamal is the bellhop you kiss at dawn, your breath a fog of vodka, a giant rip in your tights, under your arm two hard-won Chantilly cream pies, so fresh they’d barely started cooling on the rack. You give one to the bellhop. He knocks on your door in the morning: a pack of painkillers and a pot of tea.
You’re a frond of seaweed eavesdropping on a loquacious goldfish. On and on about volume and pressure and Brownian motion, words footnoted by the popping of bubbles. You sway, delighted. You are sure the goldfish has rattled off proofs of unthinkable things. He’s not satisfied. There’s still a puzzle at the crux of his existence—the mystery of his ever-diminishing frame.
You’re a fugitive and the stolen convertible’s got five hundred more horsepower than you’re used to. When you get out to shake your legs, they’re weak with the delicious vibrations of your escape.
The next day you are thinking of Jamal as you take the stairs in twos and threes. These are the steps that lead to the door that leads you home. You are flushed with home.
An edge of carpeting catches your shoe. You stumble. It’s a very bad fall.
The clock on the face of your smartphone meets an impossible moment, a last best moment, and switches itself off.
You are nothing, then, except the multitudes of love that you have been.
Sara Saab loves warm croissants, crowded cities, and the sound boxing pads make when you punch them dead centre. She was born in Beirut, Lebanon, but now lives in North London. Her flat houses one wonderful human boy, two giant Lego heads, and a silk carpet as ornate as the ceiling of a cathedral. Sara’s a 2015 graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. You can find her on Twitter as @fortnightlysara and at fortnightlysara.com.