CUP HALF EMPTY

KAREN ZHANG

     “#1 Victory Royale!”

     Raviraj whooped when the words appeared, flashing on the screen the second his bullet cut through the last player’s health points. Immediately, his avatar began dancing through a series of pre-programmed moves. Grinning with satisfaction, Ravi leaned back in his chair, raising his arms above his head for a nice long stretch. Ravi’s avatar name ‘ravxge’ was the only one left on the side of the screen, confirming his third consecutive win. He was getting good at the game, even if Fortnite was different from the RPG and sandbox games he used to play. In Fortnite, there was no hunger or thirst. There was a new set of strategies and analysis to learn. There was a clear goal in the game— to defeat the enemy players. To win. It fed Ravi’s competitive side. He found himself spending much more time on the video game with friends than he initially anticipated.

     Now, I have to get to work, he reminded himself. 

     Ravi reluctantly closed the game, taking off his headset and opening up a fresh Chrome browser. As he pulled up Khan Academy, he checked the time. 

     It was 3:47 pm.

     Ravi chewed on the inside of his cheeks. There wasn’t enough time to complete a full SAT test, but he could power through some of the math sections before dinner. Thank god for Sal Khan, he mused as he fished out a blank notebook and his TI-nspire. Brown people represent, baby.

     It took Ravi around two and a half hours to work through various 'heart of algebra' and 'problem-solving and data analysis' sections offered by the website. He took quick breaks to eat a snack and scroll through his phone, but he managed to focus enough to get what he needed done. He was taking the SAT in a month, and he hoped it would be his last before senior year. After reviewing the last question he got wrong, Ravi glanced outside the window to see that the sun was almost completely set over the horizon. Soft, dusky pink clouds streaked the sky. Despite the sun’s absence, the southern Californian summer kept the air blisteringly dry. Even now, it’s much too hot to go outside.

     As if on cue, he heard a firm tap on his bedroom door. “Dinner,” his mother called through the door. “You said you’ll break Iftar with us.” 

     “Okay, Amma. Be down in a second.”

     Ravi turned off his desktop and stepped into his fuzzy slippers. Sanvi had gotten the slippers for him on his sixteenth birthday, and he had gotten pretty attached. They were super comfortable, and he wore them all the time around the house. Ravi headed down the staircase, his fingers skimming lightly across the banister. He could already smell the savory aroma wafting from the kitchen. 

     Dinner was the only meal he shared with his family these days. He still felt guilty sometimes, but he didn’t regret it. Sanvi is much more pious than he was— she still participated in Ramadan right beside their mother and father, but Ravi had a feeling she truly believed in Allah and the teachings of the Quran. Ravi really wished his family would stop fasting. Sure, it’s for a selfish reason, but a reason nonetheless. Besides, it wasn’t like he was against them just because he himself was now an atheist— no, he wasn’t petty like that.

     No, he sighed resignedly. It's the drought. The never-ending godforsaken drought.

     “Hey, Baba,” Ravi waved at his father, who looked like he had just returned from work. His father rubbed his eyes with fatigue, but managed to smile at Ravi, “As-Salaam-Alaikum, son. How was studying?” Ravi gave his father a thumbs up before pulling out a chair to sit. Sanvi was at the table already, chewing on dates and sipping water. “Nice of you to finally show up,” she huffed. “I’m starving.” She sighed dramatically, “And I’m super thirsty too. Even water tastes good. Ugh, it’s such a long walk to school.”

     “Yeah, sorry. SAT prep, you know.”

     Ravi helped himself to a date as well, chewing in brooding silence. It was a long walk to school. Even in the morning, it was rather hot. He had to keep drinking water throughout the day to keep hydrated, especially with running Track and Field after school. The heat was scorching. On bad days, it was suffocating.

     “Well, we are in the middle of a drought,” Ravi’s mother returned to the table, setting down a bottle of Rooh Afza. “I suppose we should thank Allah that we have enough water to drink and bathe in. Oh yeah— My treat,” she winked brightly, but Ravi suddenly could see her exhaustion seeping through her actions as well. Her eyes even seemed tired. 

     “Hey,” Ravi hesitated. “You guys doing alright? Everyone—” Ravi paused, trying to think of the word. “Everyone looks so… exhausted.” The dining room stilled as Amma faltered mid-sentence to exchange glances with Baba before turning away to rub the space between her eyebrows. What does that mean? Baba simply frowned at Ravi and said, “It’s just been a long day. Don’t worry, son; some food and drink will do us some good.” Before Ravi could reply, Sanvi broke the awkward silence by gleefully diving across the table for the bottle of rosy pink syrup— a staple drink during Ramadan. 

     “Share it with your brother, Sanvi!”

     It was like a spell broke. Amma hustled back to the sizzling kitchen as Baba jumped up to set the table. Sanvi began to pour half of the thick syrup in the bottle into her cup — what was wrong with her? — without hesitation. Ravi blinked, settling down into his chair and pouring himself a glass of water. Maybe I was overreacting, Ravi thought uneasily to himself. Everyone’s fine. Everything’s fine.

     Amma returned with bowls of dal and a platter of roti. “Mmm,” Sanvi exaggeratedly smacked her lips. Amma laughed, “We also have leftover malabar moplah kozhi ada if you guys want some! There’s some other small appetizers as well that the neighbor brought over.” His father’s eyes lit up, “Yes, please!” Ravi nodded vigorously as well, thinking about the delicious mutton-filled crisp pockets. 

     As they dug into the meal, their conversation shifted to lighter topics such as overdue library books, Ravi’s love of Reese’s cups, and Sanvi’s apparently ridiculous science fair project. “My partners are so useless,” she growled, shoveling food in her mouth, “I’m literally starving the entire day and I put out better work than they do. We’re monitoring humidity levels in our county and tracking the progression of the drought and wildfires, which is honestly such a cool topic considering what’s going on right now, but I feel like I could’ve finished faster without them.” 

     “Hey, hey,” His father admonished mildly. “We can learn from everyone, including your classmates. Collaboration is a crucial skill. This is a good way to learn teamwork.”

     “Teamwork,” Sanvi grumbled, “All I’m learning is to lose my faith in humanity.” She waved her fork around, “Just my luck. Assembly Bill 1668 is still limiting every person to 55 gallons of indoor water usage, and my classmates are idiots? Now that’s just depressing.”

     Ravi rolled his eyes again. There she goes again. Always the drama queen.

     “So…” Ravi’s mother chuckled, standing up to pick up Ravi’s empty bowl. “Does anyone want more dal?” Ravi nodded distractedly, picking at the crust of his malabar moplah kozhi ada before saying a quick “Thanks, Amma”. Maybe I should ask Sanvi about her project more, he mused. She might listen to me—

     “No problem, Ravi. I can get more in the kitch—oh—”

     Two steps from her chair, Ravi’s mother suddenly stumbled before grabbing the side of the table to steady herself. The bowl slipped out of her hand and hit the floor with the sharp CRACK, exploding into several jagged shards. Ravi’s heart pounded impossibly loud in his ears. All of their heads snapped to her as she weakly sank to the floor. “Huh,” she mumbled, blinking rapidly and giving her head the tiniest shake. Immediately, they were all standing, crowding over her.

     “You okay? What happened?”

     “Amma, what’s wrong?”

     “You want some water?”

     Ravi’s father gently helped her back onto her feet, easing her onto her chair. Sanvi glanced at Ravi, her lips pressed together with concern. Ravi kept staring wildly at his mother, a sinking feeling in his chest. Amma rubbed her eyes in confusion, “I-I guess I stood up too fast? I just got dizzy for a little bit.” She shook her head, “Oh, stop it guys. It’s just a little slip. I’m fine, don’t worry. It’s nothing.”

     Nothing, Ravi thought numbly.

     Ravi’s father nodded encouragingly, “Maybe you need to eat and drink a little bit more. It’s been a long and hot day; you probably need some electrolytes. I can refill the bowls if necessary. Take it easy, Nadiya.” His father fussed over her for a bit, fixing Amma’s shirt and inspecting her arm for any cuts or bruises. “Sanvi, go get the broom. I’ll sweep up the shards.” Sanvi bobbed her head and scampered away.

     Ravi swallowed, uneasiness churning his stomach. He brought over his glass of water and handed it to his mother. She took it gratefully. Ravi awkwardly stood there, studying the matching circles under her eyes and his father’s. 

     “Uh, Baba?”

     “Yes, Ravi?” Ravi’s father replied absentmindedly.

     “Maybe…” Ravi swallowed, “Maybe you guys should stop fasting.”

     Ravi’s father and mother froze, turning to stare at him in disbelief. Like he just said something sacrilegious, which he totally had.

     “At least until this drought ends,” Ravi amended. “I’m not asking you to stop practicing your faith or anything. It’s just that dehydration is a serious health risk! I-If there’s medical concerns, it’s completely fine to break the fast! I uh, I think I read that on Wikipedia.” Ravi self-consciously scratched his head before jumping back in, “Seriously though, losing 2.5% of your body weight in water loss can lower your efficiency by 25%. I learned in AP Biology that water carries nutrients to the cells… I-It metabolizes proteins and carbohydrates. It’s the principal solvent in the body! I studied it in Khan Academy and everything.” Ravi realized he was rambling, so he fumbled with his phone, hoping to bring up articles that were written about health risks of fasting during a severe weather period. 

     “Ravi—”

     He gestured wildly at his mother, “You heard what Sanvi said. It’s only going to get worse. Just listen to me! I also heard that Mr. Goel had passed out just a couple days ago because he was working for too long outside. He was found to be really dehydrated and had to be hooked up to an IV.” Ravi clasped his hands in front of him, hoping his parents would see reason. “Listen,” He pleaded, “I’m only saying this because I care for you guys.”

     Ravi’s father sighed, then responded evenly, “Raviraj, I know you have made your decision about your own spiritual journey—”

     “Baba, this is not about me not being Muslim anymore—”

     “— but fasting during Ramadan is a holy duty. It is one of the five pillars. I will not compromise my faith simply due to a rise of a few degrees in temperature. We have all done this before. Our ancestors went through worse; they knew the risks and so do we.”

     “You’re not listening,” Ravi curled his fingers into a fist. “You aren’t listening at all.”

     “Son, I’ll make sure we get enough salt and water and vitamins and whatnot. Trust me on this. I’ll take care of your mother and Sanvi. We cannot let this drought impede our faith. It is an integral part of us. I understand your concern, but we cannot just let go so easily.”

     “This is your life at risk!”

     “Ravi, please.” His mother shook her head.

     “I—”

     “Please.

     Staring at the resolute faces of his parents, Ravi chewed on the inside of his cheek, his frustration bubbling up to the surface. No doubt Sanvi would agree with their parents as well. Deep down, Ravi understood his parents’ reasoning. Their unwavering devotion and belief were one of the aspects he admired the most about his parents. The way they hold fast to their faith, even in a society that villainizes immigrants and Muslims, inspires him in ways beyond words. They weren’t wrong… but neither was he. 

     Ravi thought back to Khan Academy, to how a brown man was teaching kids all over the world math and science and logic. He thought about the thrill of playing Fortnite, where there was no hunger or thirst. Where there was a clear goal and a clear ending. 

     If only real life was that simple.

     Now, standing in the dining room with a floor full of glass shards and an unwell mother, Ravi has never felt so helpless. Even in the air-conditioned room, Ravi could feel the panicked heartbeats in his chest and the perspiration beading on his face. A constant reminder of the unforgiving desert heat undulating outside, threatening to swallow him whole.

     What should I do? How can I keep my family safe?

     He squeezed his eyes shut.

     Inhale. 

     Exhale.

     Pause.

     “Okay,” Ravi swallowed. “Okay.”

Karen Zhang is a rising college freshman who attended Episcopal High School, VA.

Contact

© 2023 by Two Degrees.