Editor’s note: The Reads beat is publishing short fiction, poetry and other creative writing pieces. Send submissions to scotts7 ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Lunch is, actually, pretty early in the day here in America, thought Galal to himself as the bell rang and all the kids ran out of class. Some made a bee-line for the lunch-lines, hoping to beat the rush, while their friends with packed-lunch privilege staked out their regular tables. Galal had long ago guessed that lunch was probably earlier for the 7th graders than for the 6th and 8th graders so that they wouldn’t all be packed into that little quad at the same time. It was a crafty trick by the principal (who, in Galal’s mind, made all the decisions alone) to make the school grounds feel a little less like a sardine tin.
He didn’t really feel like sitting in the lunch hall with his classmates because he wasn’t sure if he could stand the sound of eating in his current state. His mom always told him the hunger was worst around noon but would only last for an hour or so. And in the few years since he had become old enough to start fasting “properly,” Galal had known his mother’s wisdom to be true. But, it definitely didn’t help that middle school had two breaks during the day for social eating.
It was a blistering Southern California day, too hot to sit out on the unshaded grass oval, but all the tables had been taken. Galal preferred to sit on the floor anyways, having been told by his father that it was how it was done in the old country. And though he had watched enough soap operas with his mother to know that at least some Algerian folks very much owned chairs and tables, he still liked to entertain the romantic fantasy of Turkish rugs and bejeweled cloths encircling a tasteful scattering of Ottomans and cushions. Because he knew the hunger of fasting came for the idle mind, Galal preoccupied himself by populating the nook in front of the gym where he had chosen to sit with the furnishings of his ideal sitting room. Everything would be different shades of muted and warm oranges and reds, with swan-neck silver teapots full of just-hot-enough mint tea pouring endlessly into fine crystal adorned with thin gold chains. There would be a cushion of the right size for each of his family and (mostly imaginary) friends, corresponding not at all to height or seniority, but rather getting bigger and softer depending on his love for the person it was reserved for. His mother, who would obviously have the most comfortable cushion, wouldn’t need to serve anyone tea as she did for his father and his friends because a small army of robot servants would —
“Hey. Why aren’t you eating anything? I know you didn’t have time to get lunch and eat it already because lunch just started five minutes ago.”
Annoyed at the rude interruption of his fantasy, Galal tried to match squeaky voice to face, but when he looked up he wasn’t sure who this kid was. Baseball-capped and basketball-shorted, whoever this kid was, he wasn’t gonna let prepubescent chub stop him from looking as sporty as possible.
“I can’t eat anything,” murmured Galal.
“‘Cause, I’m fasting.”
Where to start, thought Galal. After a moment, he decided on an analogy: “OK, so you’re probably Christian. So you know how for 40 days before Easter your parents give up something they really like. And also how you stop eating meat on Fridays?” He thought he remembered this all correct from the Wikipedia page but didn’t let that give him too much pause. “Well, I’m Muslim,” here his chest puffed with pride, feeling like he was showing this stranger one of his rare Pokemòn cards. “And for about a month a year, we give up eating from sunrise to sunset.” He knew this kid would be impressed because his aunties and uncles told him he was young to do the full fast, which isn’t required for boys until around 13.
“Oh, cool. Must be tough.” Sporty boy’s voice was armed with a nonchalance that knocked the wind out of Galal’s lungs. “Can I sit with you? My friend stayed home ‘sick’ today.”
Galal didn’t want to seem too excited, “Yeah, it’s alright. What’s your name?”
“Andrew, but you can call me Drew.”
“I’m Galal, which rhymes with ‘a tail.’” As Drew sat down next to him, criss-cross apple-sauce, he started to reach into his backpack. Galal didn’t want to jeopardize their budding friendship, but knowing what Drew was reaching for, he felt obligated to warn him.
“I just want to let you know, so you don’t get mad at me when it happens. My mom told me that if you eat food in front of someone you know is fasting, you’ll go to hell for being inconsiderate.” Galal had rushed through this, trying to mimic Drew’s nonchalance, to make it seem like a trivial aside, but now he held his breath in anticipation of Drew’s departure. Certainly no one would risk hellfire to eat pizza while talking to him.
“Oh…” Galal’s heart drops as Drew mulls over this new information.”Ehh, whatever. My dad always says we’re all gonna go to hell anyway because we’re born with sin and there’s nothing we can do except feel bad that’ll change anything. Plus, I’m not allowed to set stuff on fire at home anymore, so I think hell will be super cool.”
Galal thought this was a little dark and was under the impression that he would not enjoy hell very much, but he felt immensely relieved that Drew wasn’t scared away and chose to keep his opinion to himself.
“Plus plus, my mom says when we die we actually don’t go to hell; instead we turn into different animals based on whether we were good or bad.” This was new to Galal, who was only familiar with Drew’s dad’s style of Christianity.
“Wow, amazing. Like forever?”
“Yeah. Well, no. Sort of… This is where I get kind of lost.” Drew pauses to try to rattle his memory for the explanation from his mom he most remembered so this would come out right. “Once you’re a person, you’re pretty close. Poor people and servants are at the bottom, but once you’re rich you have a chance to graduate, kind of like we will in 8th grade. This one prince did it by seeing how hard life was for humans and by being nice to poor people. Once you graduate…” and this is where Drew really never got it, “you sort of turn into a tree or an ant hill, or something, and you like to blend into the whole… galaxy.” Drew felt pretty good about that summary.
It was definitely enough for Galal who showed his appreciation with a deep, mystical “Wooooooooooooooo o o oo o ow w w w ww wwww… THAT’S THE COOLEST THING EVER!” And Galal thought it was the coolest thing he’d heard since his dad had told him that Allah counted one good deed the same as 10 bad. Satisfied that he had exhausted everything there was to discuss on this topic, Drew started to munch on his now cold, personal pizza.
Though usually other people’s chewing was enough to drive Galal up the wall, he didn’t notice even a little. He was busy. His mom described them as “fasting superpowers,” the heightening and focusing of all your senses that comes and goes throughout the day when you are thirsty and tired. At that precise moment, a herd of elephants could have stampeded through the school gates and Galal wouldn’t have flinched because he was occupied with focusing his super senses on a stink bug. A disgusted shiver crawled between his numb-from-sitting butt and his neck as Galal watched the black, glossy six-legged horror wriggle along the large cement blocks in front of him. And as it moved, he noticed it getting older, which for stink bugs and humans alike could be seen through the deepening of wrinkles. When it reached the end of the paving stone, it simply keeled over, wiggling its legs to-and-fro then became quite rigid, ceasing movement altogether. Galal, who moments ago would have reversed his opinion on hellfire if he could have seen that bug as its victim, felt a bit of melancholy creep over him and so he searched around the floor to see if the stinkbug’s family was going to come retrieve the body of their beloved. As he turned his head to the other edge of the cement, a squirrel darted across his field of vision. He whipped his head around to follow the squirrel, but didn’t have to search long because the squirrel had stopped, as though petrified, right at the edge of the cement. He realized that the stinkbug’s family must have come while he was distracted because the squirrels’ bulging eyes were quite close to where the poor bug would have been moments ago. The curiosity of this disappearance was interrupted by a scything noise, and a blur flitting in front of him. In the brief pause required to pick up its prey, Galal recognized the bird as a hawk by its red tail feathers and hooked beak and as he watched it fly into the clean cloudless late-spring blue, he marveled at the rapid sequence of events he had just seen. He let his head fall forward so he could survey the scene again, and he realized he was starting to feel quite exhausted. Maybe that’s why he didn’t feel compelled to toy with the ants that were making their line across the cement as he usually might have. And as he watched, he began to wonder where ants were on Drew’s mom’s list of animals, when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Hey Galal, you ok? You kind of zoned out. You’ve just been staring at that stink bug forever.” Drew’s genuine concern made Galal even more compelled to jump to an explanation.
“Didn’t you see the hawk and the squirrel and…” and when he looked where he was now pointing, he saw only the stink bug skittering along, shiny, black hull full of its putrid stench. “Oh… I guess I’m just seeing things.” He couldn’t hide his disappointment that it had all only been a daydream.
“Oh, cool. Does that happen when you’re fasting a lot?” And though it was the same “Oh, cool.” that had deflated him earlier, Galal saw now that this was simply Drew’s way, and perked up a bit.
“Yeah, I guess so.” And with his guess, Galal realized that during Ramadan he did live in his head more.
“Cool. Maybe I’ll ask my mom if I can fast tomorrow, then I’ll get visions too.” Drew looked straight ahead and nodded firmly, resolving himself for the challenge he had just set himself.
“Ok, but…” Galal thought to tell Drew how hard it would be, especially that first day, but realized that if he could do it, so could Drew. “Yeah, ok. Perfect.” Drew set about finishing his lunch while Galal, with a warm contentment spreading through him, went back to his parlor.
Only now there was a new, extra-comfy cushion just next to his, with a baseball cap beset upon it.
Contact Omar El-Sabrout at omarel ‘at’ stanford.edu.