New Voices: “Now or Never” by Leo Ríos

January 30, 2023

We are pleased to present Leo Ríos and his story “Now or Never.” In a Denis Johnson-esque style, a man named Gordo accompanies our narrator to his old frat house for a party. Ríos’s prose is simple, terse but brimming with an earnest honesty, a deep longing for genuine human connection. This is a story you don’t want to miss.


That other time, with that neighbor kid, it had scared me—hearing him yell like he’d been shot, the wound on his thigh muscle red and sliced open. He’d tried to jump the fence and failed, impaling his leg on one of the metal spikes that lined the top. Peeking out from behind my living room curtains, I had stared at him agonize and bleed and curse his dumb luck.

Now I was the one on the wrong side of the fence. I couldn’t imagine pulling my body over because of that memory. So I just stayed there, not knowing what to do, until I saw someone across from me on the other side of the alley. Out of range from the alley’s orange lights, he was standing inside one of the parking garages. I had never seen anyone inside that parking garage. Usually, it was occupied with vehicles. Now this guy was in there. Big and tall, he had a glowing speck of red near his head. It kept dancing around like a sparkler. This guy, it seemed, was holding a cigarette and doing hand motions as if he was singing a hip hop song.

I thought to myself, This foo’s a paisa.

Our garages here were like small caves for beat-up cars. My paisa neighbors liked to kick it deep inside by the cars’ hoods. The diligent LAPD patrolled here like a virus. My paisa neighbors avoided the police because papers: They might not have them, reason enough for becoming invisible.

That was my working theory anyway. I wanted to write a feature article about it one day. Maybe our alley was just high school or college or prison, segregated groups consigned to specific locations: paisa foos posted up inside parking garages, neighborhood foos crawling where they wanted, all the overeducated foos inside their apartments, watching TV or playing video games.

Yeah, gentrification was happening in our neighborhood and young college graduates were moving in. That’s how me and my roommates—two foos I’d met in college—ended up here. But that’s another story. The dilemma of this night had me paranoid. I had no way in to my apartment. Some guy was intimidating me. Maybe gangsters were going to show up and ask me questions again. I tried acting cool but I could feel the paisa foo staring. He had a privileged position. It wasn’t fair. He could see me, but I couldn’t see him, except for that sparkling red glow, the vague outline of his body. I started feeling fearful, edgy, defensive and I guess for no good reason. I didn’t have anything valuable on me except for two twenty-dollar bills. If that paisa foo ended up being my enemy, what was the worst that could happen?

Wanting to keep the peace, I nodded my head upward as if to say hi.

He seemed to do the same.

After about a minute, I felt restless. The gate lock wasn’t going to unlock itself and I wasn’t brave enough to jump the fence. I walked over to the guy, crossing the broken slabs of concrete, smelling fumes of cat piss, stepping away from the glare of orange lights. The garage ceiling was low, but I wasn’t about to bump my head. I’m not that tall of a person.

The indoor space was wide enough for two cars. My paisa neighbor was standing in a corner. It felt humid here, like a basement. My eyes adjusted and I saw that the guy had a big beer bottle in his hand. It was a Corona. Unlike the clear twenty-four-ounce ones, this one was a caguama—thirty-two ounces in fact and dressed up in better marketing. Most importantly, it was a dark brown bottle that made the beer taste better.

“What’s up, cousin,” the guy said in Spanish.

He shook my hand as if we were in middle school, slapping palms and knuckle bumping. His hands were charred pork loins, tough on the outside but fluffy throughout.

“They call me Gordo,” he said.

I gave him my name.

He said, “Chincho.”

I didn’t know what that word meant, assumed it meant órale. I didn’t say anything in reply.

Gordo said, “You don’t have your key? Or what happened?”

“That’s how it is.”

He offered me a swig of his beer, but I said, “No thank you, sir.”



“Don’t talk to me about sir. I have twenty-six years of age. You?”

“I have twenty-four.”

“Well then it’s settled,” he said. “You and I are not sirs.”

“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.”

He laughed.

“Where you from?” he said in what I assumed to be one of his only English phrases.

“Originally from a town in the North,” I said. “It is called Shafter. And I have for several years now been living here in Los Angeles. My family is from Guanajuato.”

“Chincho,” he said. “I’m from Pachuca.”

After a few minutes, we were walking side by side down the alley, he smoking his cigarettes, watching the universe for cops, me feeling silly because I was wearing a business suit. We showed up to the liquor store on the corner of La Cienega and Sawyer, the one next to the mattress outlet. It was all my idea. I’d invited him to a drink. He’d accepted. Once there, I tried acting modest, but Gordo convinced me to buy us four caguamas instead of two. They were on sale.

* * *

By the time we finished our first caguama, Gordo had told me the bare essentials of his story. Everyone called him Gordo for a reason that might’ve been obvious when he had been a fat child. Now, his fatness was less obvious but the name had stuck. The dude was still big though, muscular now plus lean—six feet tall at least, broad bumpy shoulders, thick legs that made me think of football players.

Homie helped in kitchens doing grunt work: dicing vegetables, washing dishes, deep-frying battered meats. Inside our lovely neighborhood, he shared a two-bedroom apartment with nine other guys, one of whom was his uncle Leófilas. The way Gordo described Leófilas, I imagined him as a caterpillar-mustached dark-as-old-leather dude, filthy as all outside, like he’d been raised among animals and cornfields. I’d known foos like this in my own life. Gordo hated his uncle Leófilas for reasons he wouldn’t clarify. I suspected it was all about money. That was how most family pleitos originated in my world.

Inside the parking garage, Gordo and I were drinking our second caguama. I was buzzing, curious.

“Teach me how to make something,” I said.

“Like what?” Gordo said.

“I don’t know? Something from one of your restaurant jobs?”

“Chincho,” he said.

He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a new cigarette pack, not the kind he was smoking earlier. These ones were Faros from México, those rice-paper-wrapped shorties with no filter. He handed me one, then sparked his, sparked mine.

“You’re familiar with a Crab Louie salad?” he said.

“No,” I said, feeling light-headed from the cigarette. The thing was so toxic, it gave me a head change. Hadn’t felt a head change from a cigarette since I first started smoking them.

“What’s a Crab Louie salad?” I said.

“It’s a porquería,” he said. “Junk food.”

“I love junk food.”

“No. Forget about that. I can teach you how to prepare a Crab Louie salad that in truth isn’t a Crab Louie salad. I improvise it with my own hand.”

“You add things to it or what’s the deal?”

“Better,” he said. “I make it Mexican.”

* * *

I don’t remember the ingredients. They all sounded good, made me hungry for mariscos, a few tostadas of ceviche perhaps. I couldn’t wait to get inside my apartment and see what was inside our fridge. It was usually empty except for packets of Oscar Meyer weiners, days-old sandwich bread and ketchup. Not one person in our household knew how to cook.

In the time Gordo and I were out there drinking, neither of the cars of my two roommates had arrived across the way. Beautiful thing about standing inside that parking garage: you could hear the cars coming from either side of the alley but whoever’s in those cars couldn’t see you. You either saw the car cruise by or you peeked out to find out who it was. Worst case scenario, there was the back door that led into a courtyard. It was the courtyard where Gordo’s apartment building was. We didn’t go out there, but when Gordo flashed the door open to show me, I saw that his setup was way more firme than mine. The courtyard was well-lit and there were bushes of roses and other sweet-smelling plants and old trees making everything lush. The front gate to the street was low, chest level. I could’ve flown over it.

Around midnight, Gordo asked, “Do you have any weed?”

I told him, “I don’t.” Because I was kind of drunk, I added, “But we can get some.”

He said, “Chincho.”

We chugged the last half of our beers.

* * *

The medical shops on Venice had closed at midnight. There was only one place where I knew for sure we’d be able to pick up bud: Westwood. During the twenty-minute drive there, Gordo said he’d never been there. I told him I had lived there for four years.

“What were you working in?”

“I was studying,” I said. “At the university.”

“Chincho,” he said. “What did you study?”

“English. That which in México is called Philosophy and Letters.”

“No wonder you were able to buy this car,” he said. “Doesn’t matter that someone has scratched it up for you completely.”

It’s true: gangsters had keyed their letters and strange symbols onto the hood of my car. They’d done a merciless job with it. It was just a normal car, a four-cylinder sedan I’d bought because the windows were tinted. Its paint job was charcoal gray and—though I didn’t know it at the point of sale—was exactly like the car of a local rapper I would interview during the brief stint as a student journalist for La Gente de Aztlán. The rapper’s name was Sick Jacken.

A fellow English major named Victoria had invited me to his East L.A. studio for the interview. When we went inside the place was dark and foggy with the smell of weed. In the recording room, there were foos making music. Sick Jacken closed the door to that room then led us down the hall to another room. He closed the door behind us then sat on an armchair facing us. We sat down in front of him.

Hefty, light-skinned and baldheaded, his eyebrows were shaved. Or maybe his eyebrows couldn’t grow hair. In any case, he didn’t have eyebrows or any hair I could see anywhere. Appearing calm and composed, he reminded me of a less eccentric version of Uncle Fester, from that scary movie The Addams Family.

Victoria and I proceeded to ask him some questions. He was truly gangster, quite the literary mind. Feeling like I needed to respond to his answers, I was babbling like a fool. I was saying things that were trying to sound like things that rapper guys might say things about. Eventually, I let Victoria do the interview. She was professional. Tenía mucha experiencia. I sat there taking dictation with a notepad and a pen.

Then he decided it was over. He got up and escorted us to the entrance again. Before letting us out, he climbed a set of stairs to the studio’s loft, dug around through cardboard boxes then kicked down to us two T-shirts from his crew: The Psycho Realm. Mine had an image of Emiliano Zapata sitting next to Pancho Villa, surrounded by henchmen who’d been photoshopped to wear gas masks in the style of Psycho Realm’s logo. Victoria’s had green stems crowned with red roses. They were blossoming upward from the words WARRIOR RISE. The words were written in a gangster Old English. Hers was quality, calidad. Mine, I knew, was going to get its sleeves cut off and used as a workout shirt for the gym.

Afterward, we three stood in the parking lot under the fierce L.A. sun. It was at least ninety degrees that day in June. Sick Jacken was wearing Ray Bans. The man himself asked me, “That’s your car right there?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Looks like we got the same ranfla.” And it was true. His car was parked next to mine; they were identical. “I got it ‘cause the stock subwoofers are firme,” I said. He laughed. “Get yourself some better subwoofers,” he said. I felt embarrassed.

Victoria and I drove across the street to a Chinese restaurant. We talked a lot, not really about the interview. We talked about books and music, a play by Culture Clash she’d seen recently in downtown L.A. For a moment it felt like she was my girlfriend, but I knew what it was: she was engaged to some other Latino guy. That guy was a graduate student. He had a beard.

By the time Victoria and I finished eating, a monsoon or something had suddenly appeared, didn’t look like it was going to go away. We drove home. I was driving extra careful. It had been a while since I’d had someone else in my car. Victoria was holding the white cups of Chinese food in her lap. When I dropped her off at her apartment, she gave me the cup filled with yellow fried rice. It had egg and carrots and peas in it, all my favorite things. She took the chow fun, which had chicken in it.

After that day, I never knew exactly how Victoria had arranged that interview. She was one of those journalists who had connections to the most unlikely of sources. I’d been fortunate enough to have a class with her that quarter and she’d invited me to a staff meeting of La Gente de Aztlán. It was the Chicano newspaper on campus. I accepted her invitation because I had an interest in writing. At the meeting, when the time came for fishing story ideas, I spoke the name Sick Jacken. I’d read in an L.A. Weekly interview that Murs had dubbed him “the king of Latino hip hop.” It was the one blurb I contributed at that meeting, never went to a second one.

A few months later, Victoria found me and invited me to the interview. “It was your idea,” she said. “I want you to be a part of it.” I said yes and thanked her. I texted all my aspiring rapper friends the news. These guys were practicing every day to become rappers. Me? I was an English major minoring in Chicano Studies. I wanted to be a journalist but didn’t know how I would do it. I got to interview Sick Jacken, then didn’t help Victoria do the write-up. She told me she’d do everything herself. The interview was published that year with both our names on it. Copies circulated among colleges, universities and prisons.

In response to Gordo’s assessment about my car, I said, “This car I bought it with money from a scholarship.”

“Chincho,” he said. “The car is chido.”

* * *

We pulled up to my bros’ apartment building where I knew something would be going on. Sure enough, there was. On the sidewalk out front, a drunk girl’s hair was being held away from her face as she yacked into the gutter.

We walked up the concrete steps that led into the apartment complex and I noticed what we were wearing. Because it was Friday, I was in my work clothes: turquoise long sleeve tucked into loose gray slacks, faux leather shoes, everything conforming to the dress code of the newspaper office where I temped as an assistant. I’d left my baggy coat in the car and I was feeling it. It was abnormally cold for L.A. in December that night, but we weren’t in Mid-City anymore. We were on the Westside, close to the ocean. The smell of salt and seaweed was fanning us.

Gordo was wearing a faded black hoodie and matching black Dickies. He also had a little black backpack strapped around his shoulders. Homie smelled like cooking oil and hot sauce. Working in restaurants, I guess those smells become a part of you.

We pushed through the crowds of people in the courtyard toward the apartment at the back end of the complex. The smell of bud was coming from somewhere, but I didn’t know where and I didn’t recognize anyone so I couldn’t just ask.

“Oh shit! Long time no see, bro!”

One of the younger guys greeted me like this by the front door and then yelled, “What? Who’s your friend? Is he a little brother? Little brother! What are you doing here!”

“Wassup homie,” Gordo said in what I assumed to be another one of his only English phrases.

The guy’s eyes were almost sealed and he was already stumbling away.

“Don’t worry about that foo,” I told Gordo. “Follow me.”

We walked upstairs into a bedroom where I knew foos would be smoking. To my surprise no one was, but there were several bongs as well as small plastic cylinders full of weed on a coffee table, which was being used for everything but coffee. There were leftover In-N-Out wrappers, empty cigarillo packets, a sticky puddle of some sort of liquid that had dried, a bluebook exam with a red B written on the front cover, and small gray mounds of ash scattered like dirt piles. We sat down on opposite sides of a circle of chairs that surrounded this mess.

Gordo was impressed with the glass bong, the way the design allowed for smoke to seep through several chambers before rising to the mouthpiece. He hit it like a pro. Then it was my turn and I coughed for two minutes. Gordo laughed at me.

“And your buddies?” he asked. “Where did you meet each other?”

In Spanish, I tried to explain what a fraternity was. Gordo seemed to understand. I then tried to explain that my fraternity was a Latino fraternity, but I didn’t know all the details of our history. There was a rumor about the poet Alurista being affiliated, something about a word in Nahuatl, vague associations to the Chicano Movement of the 60s. I pretty much just vomited what I knew. It wasn’t graceful. What’s more, the purple stuff we had smoked was super potent. I started feeling off, disgusting, ashamed of something serious inside me. Chest feeling congested, eyes droopy, the voice I was hearing transmitted from my body didn’t sound like me. It was like a far-off person, droning on and on in monotone. Regardless, I kept trying to answer the question. What was the question? I couldn’t remember? What was it?

“The brain named itself,” I concluded in English. “I wasn’t ready to speak English with you tonight. My friend.”

Luckily, Pedro walked in.

“Oh shit,” he said. “Long time no see, bro.”

We gave each other our fraternity’s handshake. I introduced him to Gordo.

“You foos want some beers?” he asked.

He left before we could answer and came back quickly with three red cups filled to the brim.

Pedro adjusted the glasses on his nose and packed the bong’s bowl again before passing it around. He seemed more business-like than when I’d met him during his freshman year.

“I’m good,” I said when he tried to hand me that bong. “I’m fucked up.”

He and Gordo kept smoking.

Now a senior, Pedro filled me in on the pledges’ progress, ongoing beefs with the other Latino fraternity, dramas involving girls from the Latina sororities. I didn’t recognize the names of the people he was talking about, couldn’t understand why any of them would do the weird things he was telling me about. I didn’t know anything about their world anymore. All the people I was closest to had graduated. I missed them. We had grown to love each other. Now, a lot of us were unemployed. Most of us had moved back in with our parents, still believing we were gifted and born to one day rise from the clutter of our lives. Me, I thought that was true enough, didn’t matter that maybe the next day I wouldn’t have a job anymore.

I noticed that Gordo was sitting there real quiet because he didn’t understand what Pedro was saying.

“Everything good?” I said in Spanish.

As I knew he would, he said, “Chincho.”

“I’m sufficiently altered,” I said. “I can’t drive like this.”

“Don’t even trip, foo,” Pedro said.

He pulled out a clear plastic sandwich bag wrapped around a small ball of white powder.

“Coke?” I said. “I don’t do that.”

“What?” Pedro said. “All of us love it.”

“In my day, we used to just drink and blaze. Some foos got into shrooms and started listening to the ocean through seashells. Not me though. No way, José.”

“You’re not that old,” Pedro said. “Stop acting.”

He cleared a space on the table and arranged three thick lines. They were like the lines on the stones from the ritual site in that sci-fi flick The Fifth Element. Gordo went first, then Pedro. I held the dollar bill in my hand as if it smelled bad. Finally, I said, “Well, if you’re insisting.” I absorbed it into my nose.

A taste like soap settled at the back of my throat. Suddenly my sinuses felt so clear I was positive—really positive, clearly positive—I was like this about the fact that my eyes’ itchy redness had also gone away. I didn’t have a mirror on me though and I didn’t see any in the room, not on the ground lying around or stuck to a wall somewhere. It was just us three.

Gordo clapped a hand onto my shoulder. I could feel how damn heavy it was. He looked bigger than before and he had always looked big. Maybe the coke made him more confident? He didn’t seem as shy to be in an apartment with me and my brothers, most of us U.S.-born Mexicans while he was a paisa, a foo who’s actually from México.

* * *

I meandered through the party like a fiend, almost immediately losing track of Gordo—last I saw he was trying to get at Lisette de la Cruz, who like me had graduated but was accompanying her younger sisters out for a night in Westwood. In the kitchen, I was talking so fast, drinking so much, making strangers laugh. Coked out like a brother man, old and new ideas were flowing through me. I was Jesus Christ bleeding rays of light from my thorned heart for all to see. First thing I achieved was realizing I felt diferente. Panic! At my first frat party in the three years since I’d graduated! Then the question: what was a drunk, high and coked out foo to do? Answer: the drugs were already in me, mixing and gelling with volumes and kilograms of blood, shit and piss. I had no choice but to resign, accept everything as reality. Second thing I achieved, no ifs, ands or buts about it: finding Nicky Rodríguez. Or maybe she found me. I don’t remember who found whom. Tú sabes.

Three years younger than me, she was an angel I’d first seen at one of the only Catholic masses I’d attended during my senior year. Pedro was our pledge at the time and did whatever we told him to. He was with me. After Mass in the lobby, because Pedro knew her, he introduced us. Nicky was beautiful. I was smitten. But I didn’t say something about anything. We were at church after all and standing close to the priest, the wheelchair-bound Monsignor Murphy. He had a deep devotion to the art of contemplation, seemed to know things no one knew. Smelled like biscuits, forgave all sins, entertained ideas about the universe when I’d show up high to his office hours. Eventually recommended psychological services. He was an outstanding character, that man.

Now on the night of my derangement, Nicky was maybe not a church girl anymore. She had shed the pastel tones of modest blouses and denim jeans in favor of a forest green skirt, like the kind Catholic school girls wore. The rest of her outfit was accessorized free of leggings, baring her athletic legs. Sporting new sneakers that looked expensive, dangling silver bracelets from her wrists, proudly displaying a white halter top with a cross-hatched image of a large raven composed of the words from the poem “The Raven.” Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, and so forth and so on and so forth and so on. That was an excellent poem. Black eyeliner heavily accenting eyes, reddish streaks dyed into her hair, Nicky Rodríguez had become a theater major. This was the first thing she told me after we found each other in the kitchen.

Then she said, “Hey, I remember you from church.”

“I remember you remembering me,” I said.

She looked surprised and incredulous.

“Prove it,” she said.

“Power!” I said, throwing my hands up like the wannabe gangsters from our rival fraternity. In that moment, I remembered when I’d rushed for the two Latino fraternities on campus, one of which was stereotypically gangster and the other stereotypically paisa. The one I ended up committing to was paisa. Those other foos were gangsters. We were paisas.

We imitated our fathers, drank Mexican beer, hosted carne asadas during which the scene would change colors: we’d dance corridos, zapateadas, rancheras, cumbias with the girls we’d invite, sometimes with each other if we were drunk enough. Because all of us were high achievers in school, a feat which necessitates assimilation, our paisaness seemed manufactured, created, as if we were harkening back to places existing mostly in our imaginations: México, Colombia, El Salvador. Those other guys, the wannabe gangsters, they similarly donned masks and fronted as if they were the Kumbia Kings. Silver chains, baggy pants, an affinity for hip hop—they were cool. Sometimes, when both of our fraternities sat together in Chicano Studies classes, I’d imagine us as friends, estranged cousins reconciling after some historic battle waged between our uncles.

Nicky clasped her hands into mine, shook my arms back and forth, then said: “What are you gonna do with all that power, Mr. Philosophy?”

“I’m gonna give it to these people,” I said.

Then we broke our embrace and I mimed throwing loaves of bread to the masses. Nicky pulled the fridge door open and grabbed a plastic pack of sandwich meat. It was half-filled with white slices of turkey. She started nasty-fishing slices with her fingers, sprinkling everyone who was standing in the kitchen. Some people caught it in their face or on their shoulders. Most people just moved away and kept drinking.

“No es tán difícil being Mexican and vegan!” she yelled at them as if she was an old señora. “Rice, beans, salsas—”

“Tortillas!” I said to them, sounding like an angry grandfather. “Plátanos if you’re Central American—”

“Yucca, back to Mexican!”


We went on laughing like this until we found ourselves in a bedroom. It was just a random bedroom by the hallway. There was nothing special about it, except for the fact that it had a lock on the door. We went in there and started dancing.

* * *

We kissed, took our clothes off, got eager. It came to sex. We were trying. She moaning, me grooving, we dancing? Obviously, neither of us was feeling pleasure. After a while, I stopped the bustle and got off.

“Sorry,” I said.


“I’m not that hard.”

We lay side by side. I didn’t know what to do. We cuddled. She smelled good, like coconut shampoo or… tangerine, melons, strawberries, kiwis, mangos. I couldn’t tell the exact fruit I was smelling. All the coke had dumbed my nose. It was only one line though. It had done it. Felt like a fever blister, cankerous. Still feeling high though, halfway good, brain skin abuzz on my parietal lobes or frontal lobes or… occipital lobes, one of those, I don’t know. The rest of my body was dead. I had no choice but to check my pulse to make sure the heart was still bleeding.

After some time, Nicky said, “How come this the first time I seen you since my freshman year? Wutchu been doing all these years?”

I tried thinking through the years in that moment. My mind was like a blank slate. It was like the bare bark of a eucalyptus, the kind you carve letters into with a knife, making it bleed red goo on your fingers.

I said to her, “I don’t know what I’ve been doing. Working, I guess. Grinding.”

She started tickling the four or five hairs I had on my chest bones. I was skinny, had lost weight from worry.

“You make work sound depressing,” she said. “Dr. Doom.”

On my chest hairs, something strange had happened recently. A cana had sprouted. It was a single white hair. All the other hairs on my body were black. Nicky’s fingers worked their way down to my belly. She scratched me. My skin was warm. Then she moved onto the pubic mound. My pubic hairs had been kept trimmed to a bristle since I was twelve years old.

After a while of being gentle with my pubic hairs, Nicky said, “Do you wanna know what’s crazy?”

“What is crazy?” I said.

“When I have sex with someone new, I feel like I’m auditioning.”

I thought about my own life, how sometimes first times were good, but most of those times were bad.

“I feel like that too,” I said.

“Desafortunadamente,” I added in Spanish. “Unfortunately.”

“No te sientas mal,” she said. “Don’t feel bad. You’re just like those other guys.”


“All of them.”

I had not thought about sex things before, just kind of went along with whatever was happening with whoever, never assumed I was too drunk or too sober or just right or whatever. It was usually hit or miss, except for the rare ones whom I loved.

In the bedroom we were in, there were neon green figures on the ceiling. They were glowing in the dark. One of my brothers had reconstructed our solar system. It looked more or less like an accurate rendition. It was a vector for the image. All the eight planets were there plus an asteroid belt plus scattered stars.

“Hey,” Nicky said. “Look.”

“Look at what?”

“The sun up there.”

“I see it,” I said. “It’s very round.”

“You missed it.”

“Missed what?”

“A spider just crawled across it.”

“I missed it,” I said. “I wasn’t looking.”

“Hey,” she said. “If you could hold the sun in your hands, how would you hold it?”

I thought about it for a moment, then said, “If I could hold the sun in my hands, I’d hold it close to my chest.”

“You’d burn yourself.”

“I don’t care. I would still do it. I’d spread my arms wide and catch the sun in my chest.”

“You’re crazy,” she said.

“I know.”

It was close to four in the morning. We both wanted to use the bathroom. It was across the hall. Didn’t even put our clothes back on, just looked in both directions to see if anyone was there (lots of people were there) then she hurried across and I followed. We closed the door and locked it. After she took a shit, I peed in the toilet. Then I flushed the toilet and we both stood in front of the mirror. We were hugging each other and smiling.

* * *

One of Pedro’s roommates was using his room to sleep with his girlfriend that night, so he came with me and Gordo and fell asleep on the back seats of the car. The plan was for him to stay at my apartment.

We flew down the 10 freeway, going east toward more freeways—110, 710, 605. I didn’t plan to go that far though. The exit was just up ahead.

Impossibly tall light poles lined up on either side of us. They reminded me of palm trees. Actually, there were palm trees. Beyond the freeway’s pink walls, they were nestled in the shadows. Those shadows contained neighborhoods. I lived inside one.

A hip hop song was playing on the radio.

Everything’s changin’ around me and I wanna change too

After a while, Gordo said, “We should eat something. These vibes give me hunger.”

I revved my RPMs past five thousand then decelerated because I remembered the reality of cops. I wasn’t about to get pulled over for speeding. I set the cruise control to the limit. We were coasting at sixty-five miles per hour.

“I know a good stand,” Gordo said. “It’s far but worth it. They sell the best tacos al pastor in L.A.”

“The best?” I said.

“Absolutamente sí.”

I believed him.

A sense of calm began to settle. I didn’t have to pee anymore. Beneath the layers of fuzz that surrounded my head like a dirty sponge helmet, I felt a pang of recognition on my forehead. It burrowed through to the back of my brain. The connection was strong, as if a rod had been placed there.

* * *

On 69th and Central, Lencho’s sidewalk stand is lit by strings of lightbulbs hanging several feet above the griddles. The two griddles are wide and rectangular. On one griddle are mounds of sliced pork, red in color because of the marinade. The meat sizzles on puddles of oil that’s turned brown. An old man armed with spatulas rotates and turns the piles, making sure the searing isn’t too much. On the other griddle are some fixings: tortillas, spring onions and jalapeño chiles. These things are slightly charred. Their outsides show scattered spots of black.

On an erect pike there’s a peeled pineapple. The old man hacks a nub off with a machete. The yellow flesh falls, lands on a plate crowded with six. Tacos, that is. Tacos.

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 or is forthcoming in T
he Arkansas International, The Georgia Review, The Rumpus, Joyland, and The Common. On a good day, he makes pozole. You can read more about him at


At The Masters Review, our mission is to support emerging writers. We only accept submissions from writers who can benefit from a larger platform: typically, writers without published novels or story collections or with low circulation. We publish fiction and nonfiction online year-round and put out an annual anthology of the ten best emerging writers in the country, judged by an expert in the field. We publish craft essays, interviews and book reviews and hold workshops that connect emerging and established writers.

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