“I’ll be your girlfriend.”
That’s what she said,
so I haven’t needed
to define the relationship.
We make our feelings clear
all the little things that
speak louder than words.
Like when I meet her
outside of class one day
and bend down to tie
her loose shoelace.
Or when we’re walking home
and I step too close to the road
just as a semitruck speeds by,
and she yanks me onto the grass.
Or when we stop at the dollar store
and buy ingredients for spaghetti,
which we cook together at my house
because my family’s at the dentist.
Or when I find her standing alone
one morning, a block from school,
looking sad, so I hug her from behind
till she leans back into me, sighing.
Or when one of Snake’s minions
trips me in the hall, but she catches me,
and everyone applauds as she slowly
pulls me straight, looking into my eyes.
I’m a poet, but all these small gestures
say more than any words I could arrange. Sunday Morning at the Taquería
Our family is Catholic. Can’t eat before
Sunday mass because of the sacrament.
So we go to the early service,
and try to stay focused.
By 9:00 a.m., we’re hurrying
out of St. Joseph’s, piling into
Dad’s pickup. He almost peels out,
making Mom click her tongue
as he heads to Taquería Morales
a few blocks away.
Most Sundays, the mayor
and his wife are already eating—-
they’re Baptists, lucky ducks.
They can eat all they want
Mr. Morales seats us, serves
cinnamon coffee and orange juice
in cups bearing the green logo
of Club León, his favorite
We order. I get my usual, chorizo
and eggs, with its sides of
fried potatoes and beans,
which I spoon into fluffy
flour tortillas along with
By this time, other parishioners
come spilling in. Dad greets some,
ignores others, like his former boss.
Then in walks Joanna’s father,
Adán Padilla. I try a natural smile
as he nods at my parents.
“Buenos días, Don Carlos,
Doña Judith. ¿Qué tal, Güero?”
I give a shaky wave and nod.
“¿Y su familia?” my mom asks.
“En casa. I’m picking up taquitos.”
Mr. Morales hands him a paper bag
bulging with food. He pays and leaves.
Dad sips his coffee, shaking his head.
“A shame. That man should be a pillar
of the town. Güero, you looked nervous.”
Mom’s left eyebrow arches
the way it always does
when she gets suspicious.
“Does he not know you like his daughter?”
I shrug, my face going red. “Not sure.”
I check my phone. No text from Joanna.
My parents mutter about new scandals
and old gossip. I lean forward, trying
to catch snatches, till Mom frowns.
“Cosas de adultos,” she says, flicking me
back in my seat with her eyes.
“Do y’all know everyone’s secrets?”
I ask, still wondering why Dad
used the word shame. He laughs.
“It’s a small town, m’ijo. And the nosiest
folks are packed inside this taquería,
including you. Now, finish your almuerzo.”
So I take another bite. But my eyes
wander across the crowded tables,
and my ears strain to hear
past clinking and laughter,
the constant heartbeat
of my community.
The next day,
first Monday of May,
Joanna and I take a shortcut
through the orange grove
near my house.
“You know,” she says,
letting go of my hand
to wipe a sweaty palm
on her black jeans,
“there’s just a month
until school’s out.
It’ll be harder to hang out,
since my parents expect me
to help them all summer.”
I stop. She turns to look at me.
There’s something in her eyes
that I can feel with my chest,
which aches in a way I’ve never felt:
scary but good. Everything fades.
The sound of passing cars,
the harsh drone of cicadas—-
all drowned out
by the beating of my heart.
The glossy green trees
and bright, dimpled fruit—-
hazy, out of focus, until
all I can see are her lips,
a red I can’t even describe:
dark, almost brown.
The color of mesquite pods.
Taking a shuddering breath
that feels like it might
be my very last,
I ask my fregona,
“Can I kiss you?”
She nods, slowly closing
those big brown eyes.
“Sí, Güero. You can.”
So I do. Her Song in My Blood
My heart thunders
like a drum
when our lips meet.
Above that rhythm
I can hear
a new melody—-
notes from her soul
the measures of my heart.
When we pull apart,
all I want
is to share that music,
to stand on a stage
before the world
and make them listen
to the vibrant, beautiful,
of her song in my blood. They Call Her Fregona
Joanna Padilla Benavides.
That’s what her birth certificate says.
Padilla from her father, Adán,
who also gave her his love of cars
and lucha libre
Benavides from her mother, Bertha,
who also gave her that wicked smile,
those beautiful brown eyes,
a big heart with quiet love,
a talent for math.
She’s Jo to the twins,
Mama Yoyo to the baby
barely learning to speak.
“I’ll kick your butt if you tell anyone,”
Joanna assures me, eyebrow raised.
“My lips are sealed,” I promise.
She gives me a quick kiss to make sure.
At school, of course,
they call her Fregona.
Most girls avoid her,
except for her cousins
and a few other friends
who don’t quite fit in
because of gender norms
Most boys are afraid of her,
at least the seventh--graders.
“I hate that nickname,” she admits.
is positive. People think of beauty.
Even the sounds are soft and sweet. Fregona
feels rough. Ugly. Like mopping
or scrubbing grease from a dirty sartén.”
“You’re not ugly,” I tell her.
“And there’s no reason light skin
should mean beauty. That’s wrong.
When I hear fregar
, I think of the beating
you gave that loser Snake Barrera,
how you stand up for family and friends,
how you own the fresas in Pre--AP Algebra.”
Joanna takes my pale hand
in her deep--brown fingers,
calloused and beautiful,
like roots in sandy soil.
“Apá keeps pushing me to be tough—-
he’s seen what the world does to girls.”
She takes a deep breath. “He doesn’t want me
to end up like his mother or sisters. Mistreated.
Ignored. And my mom’s a fregona, too.
I have big shoes to fill. Can’t let them down.
“But, ugh, being tough is hard. So thanks.
Seeing myself in your eyes? It helps.”
She looks up, shyly at first, then smiling
like only she can smile. “And if Snake
ever bothers you again, I’ll put him
in the hospital. No one touches you but me.”
I put my free hand on the fist she makes,
giving her knuckles a gentle rub.
“Joanna, you don’t have to be tough
when it’s just you and me. I see you,
through and through, all the soft
and sweet parts, too.”
Her fingers unclench as she sighs
and lays her head on my shoulder.
Copyright © 2022 by David Bowles. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.