By LEO RÍOS
Good vibes started at Movida, my favorite paisa club in Bakersfield, because it was real. Other clubs were only restaurants during the day or warehouses on the fairgrounds. Movida was a big-time deal, built especially for visiting artists who came from everywhere—L.A., Mexico, sometimes Central or South America. It was the dance spot you took your girl to, if you wanted to be among the best dressed, the most beautiful.
All week, the radio stations announced the club’s Valentine’s Day promotions. For that Friday, they’d booked Viento de Oro, a banda that had recently toured with Joan Sebastian. His name alone was enough to convince us that the whole thing was urgent, didn’t matter that the foo himself wouldn’t be there. In the rural towns of north Kern County where we lived, tickets were sold at La Canasta meat market in Wasco, Tres Hermanos CD store in McFarland, and the State Farm insurance office in Delano. I bought ours at La Canasta.
The night of the dance, my friend Lencho drove us the thirty miles from Wasco to Bakersfield. It was me, him, plus two girls: Liz and Sam. They were juniors, a year younger. I had never actually talked to them before. In the car Lencho had stolen from his sister, we all swallowed vodka flavored like syrup. Walking slow in the parking lot afterward, Liz and I linked arms and huddled. Her curly hair brushed against my shoulder, and she felt so so soft against my bicep. I wanted to have a dance with her right then and there.
We waited in a long line on the sidewalk, the four of us hugging in a circle. It wasn’t even 10:00 yet and already a light fog had smoked the streets, obscuring the squat row of buildings on the other side of the boulevard. A green van cruised by and then left. Around us, East Bakersfield barked with hip-hop and corridos.
Behind us, a group of guys, paisas, were wearing cowboy hats, boots, belt buckles. One of them had the letter Z engraved golden on one of his front teeth. He was light-skinned and sunburnt.
In front of us, a group of girls were talking in Spanish. They were wearing pants and blouses with multicolored rhinestones. One of them, thick and morena, kept glancing past us toward the guy with the Z.
Our dates, Liz and Sam, were wearing black dresses. Liz’s was lace with a transparent mesh strip across belly and back. Her skin was brown—brown, brown, brown. A pendant hung from her neck. It was a blue jewel wrapped in silver latticework.
Her arm hooked into mine, Liz looked at me and said, “You guys look cute like that. Why don’t you dress like that at school?”
On game days, it was tradition at school for foos to wear their jerseys tucked into cowboy pants, especially the soccer players, the most popular paisas on campus. Every once in a while, you’d see a football player, one of me and Lencho’s teammates, dress like that—jersey and cowboy pants—but most of us football players weren’t paisa or, if we were, weren’t proud of it.
That night, my first night clubbing in Bakersfield, Lencho and I were suited and booted. He had on crocodile-leather boots and a black felt sombrero. I wore ostrich and a cream-colored palm one.
“The freaks come out at night,” Lencho said.
“We’ll see about that,” Sam said.
She was white, a softball player with calves that could obliterate eyes. I tried not to look at them ever. Even her biceps were big.
“You want me to take care of you right here and now?” Lencho said.
Liz leaned into me and said, “These two crazies are gonna get us in trouble.”
I turned toward her and scooted us away from them.
“Do you wanna dance?” I said.
We swayed in a two-step for a moment, then she kissed me. Everything started to feel like the Valentine’s Day I’d dreamed of. We were drunk, but the bouncers didn’t press us for being high schoolers. I think they knew: we just wanted to dance.
Lencho was a regular at Movida, would often go out dancing after football games on Friday nights. He told stories in the locker room about how easy girls from Delano were, how stuck-up girls from Bakersfield were, how trashed the girls from Wasco would get because they knew in the end he’d drive them home safely. He’d show up to practice on Mondays in a good mood that would slowly sour until game day, when he’d take his rage out on our opponents.
No one knew where his craziness came from. A lot of us knew his mom, who spoke English and taught kindergarten, and his older sister, who was kind of gangster but super cool with everyone. Even his dad, a foreman in the fields, seemed like a good person compared to other foremen, all of them assholes. What had made Lencho the way he was?
Before kickoff, he would say, “I’m gonna hurt someone.”
And then he’d do it. The most violent hits—Lencho’s specialty—were cause for foos to slap each other’s asses, hoping to channel that hit into our own hits.
Me, I was a decent hitter, but only because I needed to gain yards or stop the other team from scoring. A team captain, I led the school of skill: following blocks on offense, covering zone on defense, protecting teammates by yelling if a crack block was about to blindside them.
Lencho, on the other hand, was irresponsible, a foo who fought dirty. If the other team scored, he’d grab an opponent and bash his helmet into theirs. He seemed to like it when the guy fought back. The black and white zebra would tell him: “That’s a fifteen-yard penalty, young man. Do it again, you’ll get the same call.”
Lencho would do it again and again and again.
Onstage, the banda wore blue trajes—overcoats embroidered with curlicues, white floral designs infecting forearms, sprouting on shoulders and chests. Bright orange stage lights shone on their sixteen beards, sideburns, and baby faces. Some of their lips were blowing mouthpieces. Others mouthed the words. Their hands fingered tubas, trombones, trumpets, clarinets, drumsticks, microphones, and one sousaphone, whose bell loomed, wide and golden, above a big guy’s forehead.
On the dance floor, spotty beams of rainbows flashed on our heads. The crowd’s necks would sometimes turn toward a show among us: some foo in boots stomping out a nasty zapateada, or a sexisona in a skintight dress doing the most for a cumbia. Liz and I were just beginning to mix our sweat together.
When the banda started playing rancheras, we danced pressed against each other. It was like hugging while trotting a two-step waltz. Our legs were brisk, hips active, even our shoulders were shimmying.
We took turns leading, grazing blocks of people with the hairs on our forearms as we zoom-zoomed by. At the end of each song, I’d dip her, her back arching away from me, me nibbling on the inside cleavage of her breasts. Some people stared and filled their bodies with hate. We just kept on dancing. I think we were doing it for them, for the thousand reasons they had to be sad. Other times, I noticed, as they did, the other too-drunk couple on the dance floor. Lencho was yanking Sam around like she was a plaything. It was sloppy and uncoordinated, Sam’s head thrown back in laughter all the while.
During a break in a song, the tambora, tarolas, and cymbals stampeded to a sprint. The brass and clarinets followed, blasting in unison. The sound deafened us. Even the singers stopped singing, started shaking to the music. The change made us dance faster, yell things.
Liz and I held on tighter and spun into a whirl, revolving faster than all the lights and unseen things around us. Everything not our bodies blurred as we spun, our feet pivoting quickly inside the circle we had claimed.
After a final flurry, the music tempo slowed. We slowed too, a gentle glide.
“You dance crazy!” Liz yelled.
“You dance crazy!”
She smelled like something sweet I’d never smelled before. We kept dancing and smiling. We kept dancing.
I could imagine Lencho naked, because of all the times I’d seen his body in parts: thick calves showing between socks and football pants, hairy thighs exposed during locker room changes, even smooth butt cheeks had been flashed on occasion. Let’s not forget the great penis he’d pull out from his shorts whenever he felt especially happy, the brown-skinned cock even the coaches knew was big, too big for comfort.
I wasn’t surprised he was naked, standing outside the bedroom where I had just finished with Liz. I was naked too.
A good while before, we had all left Movida and driven back toward Wasco. The drive north from Bakersfield begins with a twenty-mile stretch of freeway—the 99. On either side are grapevines and dirt. There’s pungent garlic somewhere in a field. The exit is Kimberlina, a two-lane road perpendicular to the freeway. There are no gas stations or restaurants, only a dim overpass. You cross the overpass and drive west ten miles past almond orchards. Nights, the orchards are black rows of column-like trees. A few miles before town, we drove out into an orchard on a furrow barely wide enough for the car. Headlights were powerless to penetrate beyond a few trees, lined up on either side of us like angels.
Lencho parked the car at the end of the furrow, right before a clearing the size of a football field. The fog had lifted, and a super moon was pouring light onto the clearing, a glow that seemed to emanate from the dirt.
There was a house there, simple and painted white, probably in a time before we were born. Some farmers rented houses to fieldworkers to watch over the property at night, but this particular house looked abandoned. A pile of broken roof shingles sat by the door.
“Welcome,” Lencho said, “to Lencho’s spot.”
There were spots in the orchards foos claimed as their own, a place to park a car and get head, give head. I’d imagined these spots as checkpoints on a video game map, secret locations you had to search for and then defend. I’d never known anyone to claim a whole house.
Inside, there was a large living room and a hallway with a bedroom on either side. At the end of the hallway was an especially dank kitchen. The whole place smelled like a minty type of mold.
The bedroom Liz and I used only had a new-looking bed and a big mound of clothes in a corner. I couldn’t tell if the clothes were dirty or clean or what. They were just sitting there like a big pile of shit, insulting us with the truth about whether or not we lived there. We didn’t live there, but I wanted to never leave, though I wasn’t thinking about time while we were fucking.
Liz and I were naked and spent. It had been the natural thing to do. I was thinking of asking her to be my girlfriend. When Lencho knocked on the door and I opened it, what surprised me wasn’t his nakedness. It was his goofy grin. He clapped a hand on my shoulder and said, “Get ready, big dawg. She wants you.”
“Who wants me?”
“Who do you think?”
“Why are you naked?” I said, suddenly angry with him.
I tried to close the door but he stepped in and walked past me. I didn’t want to touch him. Whereas earlier I had enjoyed being able to see Liz’s body, I now resented the moon for being so bright. It was unblockable. Lencho was showing me his silhouette, his backside.
“Liz,” he said, “do you wanna switch?”
She was lying on her stomach, her butt cheeks pointing at us.
“Wait,” she said, and covered herself with a blanket.
“I’m gonna take a shower,” Lencho said.
“You,” he said to me, and pinched my nipple, “go in there and take care of that girl.”
I didn’t really want to. Switching was surely Lencho’s fantasy, his idea for how to push me toward his vision of himself. Or maybe Liz and Sam were regular players in a game which I was just now joining. I didn’t know.
“How are you gonna take a shower if the water doesn’t work?” I said.
“The water’s the only thing that does work, dummy.”
He walked into the adjacent bathroom and flushed the toilet. The showerhead started blasting.
If I was going to go with Sam, it would help to be clean for her. I hadn’t used a condom with Liz. She was still turned away from us, maybe sleeping, maybe thinking. I wanted to go to her but wondered: Did she feel what I’d felt for her? Or were we just fucking? What had I felt for her, anyway?
“Fuck,” I said. “I’m gonna shower too, then.”
Yeah, we’d showered together before in the locker room, no problem. What was it, then, when I saw him grow down there, while water sloshed on my lips and chest? It must’ve been that we were cleaning our penises, lathering our foreskins with soapsuds and scrubbing gently with our fingertips. That always feels good.
We were both running backs, at first. He was all power, pile driving past three or four guys. I was all finesse, dancing on the field like the king Reggie Bush.
But I hadn’t always been dynamic. Before, I was no one, a band nerd playing my oboe. I was good at it. Then my body changed: puberty. From chubby to lean plus muscle, like those scrappy foos you’d see walking around town—talking shit, taking girls, taking money, whatever they wanted. Lencho was one of those guys. He had always been one of those guys. And on the football field he was prodigious, a hard hitter who enjoyed hurting kids because he could. This alone made him a natural.
Me, I didn’t start suiting up with shoulder pads till the ninth grade, after my body basically begged for it. When the coaches tried me at running back—Lencho’s position—I ran like electricity, juking on the field according to what I felt-slash-saw: linemen moving this way, linebackers blitzing over there, a cornerback who didn’t really want to tackle me. Improvisation made me someone else, maniacal and supreme. As the ball carrier, I became addicted to the space between bodies. We called that daylight. It was green and shifting, always somewhere, waiting for you to find it. It was the path toward first downs, touchdowns, victories.
I got good at it, quick. First-string running back became my job. Over the next four seasons, I didn’t always follow Lencho’s blocks: he became my fullback, but because I was faster, I didn’t always need him, often sidestepping him altogether and breaking for the sidelines, sprinting toward the end zone.
I could tell that Lencho begrudged having to play second fiddle, as the white teammates would say. He sometimes gave me the look he used when stalking enemies on the field, especially when others compared our playing styles or academic standings.
Academics were not his specialty. They weren’t particularly mine either, but I worked hard, maintained decent grades. Our senior year, my post-graduation future was stamped with the names of Cal States and UCs, all of them far from our town. Lencho knew I’d move if any of the colleges I’d applied to said wassup. With no prospects other than joining his dad in the fields—hoeing weeds, harvesting grapes, moving irrigation lines—he seemed to know I was winning in a game he couldn’t compete in. Wasn’t even on the team.
It was dark and cramped in there with both of us. We had to keep switching in order to keep the rotation going on the showerhead. When it was my turn to bask, I’d absorb the water’s heat into my skin. When it was his turn, I’d hug my hands into my chest, my knees and shoulders shaking from the cold.
After a few switches, Lencho got touchy. It was playful at first, like it was with the guys on the team: he cupped a butt cheek, saying, “Damn, girl, wassup.”
I swatted his hand. “Don’t fuck around.”
Besides not wanting to face the frigidity, which I could feel more intensely standing on the cold side of the shower now, I didn’t really want Sam. More truthfully: I didn’t believe she wanted me. She orbited miles above me, had legions of admirers, older foos with jobs who would surely erase me if I so much as smiled at her. I was nervous.
“Sam’s a clown,” I said. “Why don’t we just keep it like how it is?”
“That’s not the game,” he said. “You’re gonna fuck Sam tonight too.”
“And what if I don’t?” I said. “What happens then?”
“I’ll fuck you up myself,” he said. Then he kissed me.
His lips and tongue were greedy. The skin on his body was feverish. Pressing my palms against it was enough to entertain the idea of something, but what? I didn’t know. So I let myself be kissed and felt his heavy hand guide mine toward his penis. I stroked him, because he was my best friend and we loved each other.
He started breathing like a tiger. He started gripping my shoulders with his hands like pincers.
“I’m not like you,” I said.
My knees, elbows, chest, everything was shaking.
“I’m so cold,” I said.
We danced our switch again, the hot water running on my back, warming me. From this side, I could see his face in the moonlight. He was handsome, truly. Gold studs shined on his earlobes. Eyebrows shaped into slots like hyphens. Water-smudged makeup on his cheeks.
“You’ve been wearing makeup all this time,” I said.
“Just a little eyeliner,” he said. “You finally noticed.”
I justified my actions with vague notions like normalcy and nature. At the same time, I felt ashamed. A panicky sensation was searing me. There had been an irrevocable transaction. Little time for reflection, though: the change had happened, and Sam was waiting. I went to her.
There was no interaction between us that wasn’t sex, except for when we’d finished and lay there on the bed. We were staring at the ceiling, gray from the moonlight, which was dimmer now on the other side of the house.
Sam curled up close to me. I wrapped an arm around her. She was as tall as me and a lot thicker, but she fit inside the embrace of my chest and arms. Her long, bleached hair nuzzled the side of my neck. I caressed her forearm, feeling how much stronger she was than Liz.
“Do you think,” she said, “you and me could be something?”
In her voice was sadness. I knew the answer to a question like that: I was going to move away to college. In the meantime, I might pursue Liz, even though I’d just met her. But with Sam, the way we’d kissed had felt forced. Everything had.
“Serious?” I said. I was surprised, is all.
She nestled more into me, flexing her arm across my ribcage.
“You don’t have to be a jerk.”
In that moment, I wanted to shower again, this time by myself at home. I wanted to go home. “We don’t know each other,” I said.
She sat up, muscles bulging on her shoulders, her triceps taut. She was all curves, her whole body accented with freckles.
“You don’t know Liz either,” she said. I didn’t feel her sadness anymore. She was angry. “I bet you want her to be your girlfriend now, huh?”
“What makes you think I want Liz to be my girlfriend?”
“Because of how you dance with her. You didn’t dance with me like that, when I finally asked you to.”
I didn’t tell her she didn’t know how to dance, but I wanted to. I felt like being mean to her. She deserved it for being white and beautiful, adored and venerated, wanted unconditionally. She had everything, and I felt like she was trying to take something from me.
“You were supposed to be my partner tonight,” she continued. “But you right away went for Liz. What’s wrong with you?”
She started groping my limp penis with her fingernails.
“Are we gonna have sex again or what?”
“No,” I said. “We’re not.”
We cruised past lonely light poles, faded yellow lines, occasional potholes. On the horizon, the sun was still behind mountains, but it wasn’t night anymore. Soft light shone through the almond trees, their bare branches a tapestry of snags.
To our right, a caravan of cars chugged slowly along on a dirt road. At the front of the line was a pickup truck with long bamboo varas stacked on its bed. The crew would use those varas like whips, shaking the branches so stray almond pods would fall to the ground. Lencho and I had done this work the previous winter break. Our first day, holding the vara above my head all morning, my triceps, shoulders, and neck tightened. By lunchtime, I could barely move my right arm. Lencho wielded his vara as if he were deranged—beating branches, freeing pods, rushing on to the next tree.
We crossed the train tracks and turned right on Highway 43. Liz’s house was first, near the labor camp, then Sam’s close to the high school. There were no goodbye kisses, only brisk walks to front porches, each of them turning to face us one last time, waving, smiling, then disappearing inside.
Lencho pulled up to my house last, on the west side, near the park. My parents’ old Cadillac was sitting in the driveway. It hadn’t moved in years. Parked a few feet away from a busted-up basketball hoop, the rim only six feet high, four feet shorter than regulation. It was difficult to play basketball there. The car was in the way. Lencho and I had tried anyway, ended up warping the rim from all the dunking. The car and hoop and house would always be there, my home. Maybe I’d visit sometimes. Maybe I’d call Lencho when I did.
I took off my seat belt, knowing the right thing to say was Later, foo, call me later. Lencho would slap palms, knuckle bump, respond with Alright then, ahí te wacho.
Waiting for one of us to start the goodbyes, the car’s engine idled. Our sombreros were on our laps. I noticed that on one side of Lencho’s head, the line that guided his skin fade spiked up near his ear, then straightened again. We had the same barber, the best barber in town. I wondered if, for Valentine’s Day, he’d gone to someone else.
Who fucked you up? I thought about saying.
I fucked myself up, he’d say. Borrowed some clippers trying to save money.
You might as well let me fade you up.
You’d fuck me up even worse.
You could always go bald.
Get out of my car.
Your sister’s car.
Call me later.
Ahí te wacho.
The sun fully out now, a merciful glow, we looked at each other, and the look was expectant, as if one of us could hurt the other. Lencho reached over, placed his hand on my thigh, rubbed his thumb against the polyester of my pants. His knuckles were calloused, dark brown. My own hand—a shade of brown like cardboard against the wet dirt of his—was smooth.
I leaned over to hug him. He adjusted his arms and embraced me. My nose and lips nuzzled his skin. He smelled sour, tasted salty. It was my first time hugging him like that, warming myself, our cowboy shirts pressed against each other, until one of us started shifting, pushing back against the other, wanting to be let go.
Leo Ríos is a fiction writer from Wasco, California. He studied English, Spanish, and Chicanx studies at UCLA and received an MFA from Cornell University. His work appears in The Arkansas International, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Joyland Magazine. He currently lives in Tucson, Arizona.