If he had remembered to meet her, it could have changed everything. What is uncertain is whether he would have been spared.
Saad had forgotten that he had meant to meet someone. So, as with most days, he went straight to the restaurant.
A few things conspired to make this day so very unremarkable. Let’s proceed in order. First, Saad—a passably decent, underpaid postdoctoral researcher—wondered what he would do if his sequencing results indicated his technique hadn’t worked. Second, he wondered about the best way to steal money. Things were getting desperate, financially speaking. Then, finally, these thoughts made him weary. So there were no other thoughts.
Later—as one often does when it turns out that an unremarkable day could have been remarkable—he would make it all up: It must have been a frenetic day; there must have been all kinds of thoughts, he would reason; he must have dwelled on the world quite a bit. After all, soon after he was meant to meet her, the electioneering would begin, and volunteers would canvass at homes, including his. Her being one of the volunteers—briefly, because her cause célèbre was imminent—meant she could have shown up at his doorstep. She never did. That was for the best. It probably bought him some time, because if he had opened his door and she had indeed been there, she’d have noticed the frame hanging opposite the door, a painting by a prominent National Liberation Front artist. (A very old acquaintance of hers, actually. Quite old, and not long for the world at that time.)
The volunteers who would actually show up: Manuel, a boy with a tattoo of a broken sickle covering his forearm, and Emily, a girl with short brown hair and sweat stains on the front of her gray shirt. They would be distracted, impatient; they’d figure it was a lost cause with him so they wouldn’t stick around for more than a minute. They would want simply to go home.
(Eighteen months later, Manuel would die of exposure, leaving the organization before it became the Party—after the service jobs disappeared with the stores, after the industrial jobs became inaccessible as border patrol agents fenced in the city to make sure no one got in or out, and well after the shelters got over-crowded and eventually evacuated.
Emily would tag along at the side of her leader for quite a bit longer. But when it would come to being labeled an agitator or a traitor, being irritating was good enough an excuse. And so—merely because she was a sycophant—Emily was purged from the Party, purportedly on the grounds of meeting with a member of the newly-formed BLS from the remnants of the National Liberation Front.
Technically, the allegation was true. Emily had a neighbor in BLS. His mail got mixed up with hers. She would ring on his door to return it. This wouldn’t matter because history would no longer matter, but still, it would be true.)
People look back. They think of other trajectories. Then a fake memory becomes more real than the actual one.
Anyway—in the restaurant, on the unremarkable day, Saad ate his sandwich. There was that regular sense of decrepitude from repetition that leached all emotional weight. Months later, he would go through the sequence again. This time, Clovis—a tall, blond boy with enviable arms and a disarming smile—would return with Saad’s bill and credit card. At a time when Clovis would ordinarily be playful and flirtatious to curry favor for a big tip, he would instead walk to Saad’s table looking confused, and ask: “Do you have cash?”
“Why, what’s wrong?” Saad would ask, and Clovis (who, a year later, would be left for dead with his sister in a stone quarry outside the city, riddled with eight ArmaLite bullets) would look baffled.
“None of them are working. None of the cards.” Clovis would look scared. “The system’s probably down,” he would say to Saad and to himself. The manager would walk into the dining area to turn on the TV and Saad would watch, with everyone else, the event that would be used as a pretext for the mass seizure of funds. People from restaurants all along the street would come spilling out.
(As an example of that strange moment: One of those people was an elderly white lady, Clara. Ordinarily, she would never have interacted with a member of the BLS, but on that day she would look stricken and turn to a boy wearing a BLS shirt: “But how would the banks know to freeze everything before?” The boy in the BLS shirt, Demetrius, would look back at her, stumped. Clara would begin to cry and move closer to him, and he would hold her as he would his mother.
“It’s fine. Everything’s going to be fine,” Demetrius would say to her, and he—who would be evicted from his house one week later by the police, take a bullet to the shoulder at the corner of Racine and Jackson two weeks later, hit his head on the corner of the pavement, and die by way of an epidural hematoma—knew then that nothing would be fine. A year later, Clara would contract the virus, and die a slow, painful death. As with all the elderly and infirm, nobody would feel the need to come by her house to apprehend her.)
In light of all this, it truly cannot be belabored enough: Nothing remarkable happened to Saad the day he missed that meeting. Ismael handed him his check when it was all over and sat down across from Saad for a minute and asked if he was okay, something Ismael was wont to do. Saad made a sound of tired frustration. Ismael patted his shoulder and offered: “Cheesecake? On the house?”
Saad said, “No, thanks though.” He got up, gathered his library books and loose papers, struggled to make them all fit in his backpack, and went home.
Interestingly, if Saad had met her that day, he would certainly remember these occurrences more than he did. It would not have been a pleasant meeting by any means. Regardless, one thing is certain. He’d have met her; she’d have known him. What is uncertain is whether he would have been spared because of it. On the one hand, it could have bought him some time. On the other hand, perhaps she would have cottoned on to his sympathies for the BLS and it would have lent him less time. This is the thing of probability, which is also useless now.
So, he hadn’t. Met her, that is. And whether in spite of it or not, he ended up in the Basement. Later, when he and Ismael were the only ones left (though Ismael could hardly be said to exist in any meaningful sense), Saad would decide that there was no such thing as cause and effect. He would quickly reason: If one experiences only the trajectory one lives, things just keep happening as they do, falling into one’s lap. And in a sense, this was good reasoning. Since no other trajectory can ever really be known, it’s hard to say: What had really been the purpose of history—if it couldn’t have predicted what could have been done differently?
Later, Saad would decide that there was no such thing as cause and effect.
Still later, after Ismael had drawn his last breath and Saad had wept himself dry, would he momentarily realize—just momentarily, an infinitesimal second—that he was the sole witness for the awful things that had happened in this Basement. This was true. If you’re the only person who remembers something awful, did it happen in any meaningful sense? Especially if you had to endure the humiliation of being disbelieved, or, in this case, being believed and meeting a swift execution? If a tree falls in a forest, et cetera, et cetera. The blind leading the blind, et cetera, et cetera.
But this is all rather beside the point, because things did happen in a meaningful sense—even on the day nothing remarkable happened.
For as Saad walked home, he kicked a few pebbles absentmindedly. That was meaningful. As with almost everyone almost everywhere, it was another day amongst many days where the damage was settling in, comforting itself, ready to be built upon. After all, what would happen to Saad later would explain perfectly what was happening to him then: the successful alienation of himself.
Kamil Ahsan has a doctorate in Biology from the University of Chicago, and is currently a doctoral student in History at Yale. He is also a journalist and writer whose work has appeared in NPR,The Nation,LARB, The Rumpus, The Baffler, and Hobart, among others. Follow him at @kamuleosaurus