Damián León


Damián León is a writer and educator from the Salinas Valley. They are an alum of Vassar College and the VONA workshop whose writing has appeared in Hispanecdotes, the Good Men Project, and is forthcoming in Under The Gum Tree. They are working on a collection of short stories centering the poor immigrant community of East Salinas.


         You lost the first piece of yourself the night that Bryan told you he’d tried to kill himself.

         He sent you a text asking, Can we talk? Your throat dropped to the bottom of your stomach. Five minutes later he knocked on your door. He sat on the edge of your bed tenderly. You waited for him to speak.

         He pulled down his shirt to show you puzzle piece shaped holes on his body above his binder. “When I went to see my family over spring break. My dad kept saying I couldn’t decide to be a boy.” He sat calmly and looked right at you. The sunken pit in your stomach became a sharp pain that shot up into your chest.

         “Everyone’s born with holes on their body,” the words almost didn’t make it out.

         “I made these though. I was going to keep picking at my body, but I thought about you… and your dad. I knew you’d be mad at me.”

         “My dad was a drunk and a coward,” you remembered the pile of puzzle pieces that was once papi. The promise you’d made mami. You reached for the spot on your chest where you’d put the piece of papi that he’d given you. “You’re stronger than he was.”

         “What if I’m not?”

         “I’m the pathetic one between us. How would I survive without you?”

         “Carlos, please don’t hate me.” You couldn’t, but you didn’t know how to help. For all the chemistry you’d studied, you didn’t know a medicine that could heal the wounds of the soul. Bryan sat waiting for an answer. His eyes pleaded for forgiveness and hope. That look set off the feeling in your chest.

         You held him tight. You cried for him and for yourself. He pulled his arms out from your hug and put them around your shoulders. “Everything’s alright,” he lied. You wheezed and sobbed and repeated his lie back to him.

         Once you stopped crying Bryan got up to leave, “I’m sorry. I don’t want you to hurt because of me.”

         “Don’t apologize,” you said as you hugged him again, and then he left.

         The pain in your chest grew stronger after he was gone. You lifted your shirt: the piece that Bryan had given you looked swollen, its edges visibly clear. Bryan was the first friend you’d made in a place where you felt like a checkmark in the diversity quota. You tried pushing it back into place but it fell out. You picked up the fallen piece, and put it in the small jewelry box with papi’s cross.

         Everyone had holes on their bodies, you were fine.

         The next day you didn’t get up until noon. You tried to force yourself to read about oxidative addition and reductive elimination, but the box on the nightstand kept calling out. The hole in your chest throbbed. Your leg bounced and you chewed your nails. This was a staring contest you couldn’t win. You moved the box into your closet.

         You spent the rest of the day with Alex in her dorm. You made arroz con pollo together and talked about your days. (Well, her day. You didn’t say shit unless she asked.) It was good, at least it felt better.

         You moved to her room to do homework. You rubbed her back with one hand and took notes with the other. Every so often she’d stop highlighting and writing to throw a pillow at you. “Okay, listen,” she prefaced her thoughts. “This reading is talking about first generation college students.”

         “That’s for your education class, right?”

         “Yea, so it’s talking about how many of them –– us –– make it to college but then struggle to fit in. Specifically in prestigious institutions.”

         “I’m so surprised,” you rolled your eyes.

         “I’m serious!” She slapped your thigh. “Do you feel that way?”

         “Dude, when I talked about Salinas in my Soc class some white girl legit asked how I survived that. How I survived home.”

         “I try not to let stuff like that bother me,” her voice deflated.

         “I dunno. Those little comments are reminders that we don’t really belong.”

         “I want to prove to them that we can be happy here. As long as we have each other we don’t need to belong in their space,” she bit her lip and stared into your eyes. You kissed her and went back to writing down notes on the different oxidizing reactions. Alex slapped your thigh again and looked at you expectantly.

         “Sorry. I thought you finished talking.”

         “I did. Give me my pillow back.”

         She feverishly wrote down a full page of notes, and went back to reading. She only paused to reach back for your hand; she held it for a second then placed it on her back where you’d been rubbing.

         “We should sleep soon,” she said at 2 in the morning.

         “I’m gonna go home,” you yawned and stretched. “I didn’t bring anything to sleep in.” 

           She jumped up and rustled through her dresser. She put neatly folded jeans, thongs, and tops beside her.

         “Found it!” She handed you the silky piece of clothing and put the rest of the clothes back into stacks in the dresser. You spread out the skirt and laughed.

         “Put it on,” she said with a straight face.

         “I’m not wearing a damn skirt.”

         “I said put it on, Carlos.” Your face felt hot, but you took it from her.

         The skirt was loose and flowy around your skinny legs. You looked at the ceiling and the carpet and the bland textbook cover.

         “It looks good on you,” Alex lay on her bed and circled her finger in the air, directing you to twirl for her. You stared at her cross and spun quickly.

          “Happy now?” Your voice cracked and Alex giggled.

         “Mmm, you can join me in bed now.” She spooned you and played with your hair. You slept soundly with her arms around you.

         Over the next week you spent more time with Bryan. He came over to your apartment every afternoon, and some nights he slept on your floor. You offered him the blanket and Simba pillow pet that mami had sent you (maybe the happiness would rub off). You pushed him to tell you about his days. You wanted –– no, you needed him to be okay.

         “I don’t want to be a burden,” he told you again and again.

         “You’re not,” you responded every time. He smiled for you, but he was getting worse. His eyes were sinking and the skin on his face was taut. He always wore the same grey hoodie and baggy jeans. He wasn’t sleeping or eating unless you forced him to. When he left your room, you cried.

         Two weeks later you failed a chemistry test, and lost another piece of yourself. It left a small hole on your left forearm. “Shit was easy,” you lied when Bryan asked about the test. You felt him staring at your arm so you put on a sweatshirt; he shifted his gaze out the window. You couldn’t see the gold in his eyes at all anymore. When you asked him what was wrong he replied, “I’m sorry.”

         He didn’t do much work, but you didn’t want to pressure him. You did what you could of your own work, but stopped often to share any thoughts that might cheer him up. 

         “My professor said today that oxygen could be slowly killing us.”


         “I saw James trip in the cafeteria earlier. Spilled spaghetti all over.”

         “I hope he didn’t hurt himself.”

         “How often should you tell chemistry jokes?” When all else failed you repeated Professor Lopez’s chemistry jokes.

         “Periodically!” That got a hint of a laugh.

          “How are you and Alex doing?”

         The quiet moment might have been uncomfortable with anyone else, but Bryan gave you time to mull it over.  “I actually think we’re good. This one might work out.”

          “You mean you’re not going to overthink until you ruin it?” You swore you saw a gold flare in his eyes, but he blinked and it was gone.

          “I’ll find a way to fuck it up,” you said half-heartedly. “At least we still have each other, right?” You both laughed in your shared misery.

         He sat quietly for a while. You returned to your work and glanced over at him every chance you got. In that moment it was hard to believe that he was falling apart.

         “Thank you for being my friend. I’m sorry that… I’m sorry that you have to deal with me.”

         “You’re my only friend. I should be thanking you.” Bryan hugged you and left.         

         Your eyes felt heavy as soon as the door closed behind him. You rubbed them and the rest of your face. You felt exhaustion in the back of your eyes and the tingling of your arms. The red 35/80 on your test stared at you from the top of your desk.

         Alex asked about the hole in your arm that night in bed. She nuzzled her head into the nook between your right arm and chest. Her dark hair was strewn across, and strands of it fell through the gap left by Bryan. It looked as if shadows extended out from you and enveloped her face. With your left hand you grabbed her right hand and lifted both your arms towards the ceiling. Her fingers climbed down your wrist and settled around the gap in your forearm. 

         “Que te pasó?”

         “Nada. What do you mean?” Her eyes focused on your forearm. She looked deep into the hole, then your eyes. You wondered which told her more. She kissed you and rested her head on your chest. Her hair poured around and fell into the hole.

         In the morning you rubbed Alex’s back lightly until she woke up. She kissed you and asked how you slept.

         “I dreamt of you. Of us.”


         “Yea, we were old and happy with two kids.”

         “Please, you can’t even commit to whatever we’re doing now.”

         “That’s not fair. I’m clearly obsessed.” You propped yourself up on your elbow and caressed her face with your other hand. Alex didn’t have any visible holes on her body. You weren’t good enough for her.

         “I’ve never pictured myself married. Kids maybe, but I always figured I’d raise them alone since that’s what my mom did. You had a family. That’s why you want that.”

         “Well, my dad wasn’t really around either.”

         “Shit. That’s not what I meant, I’m sorry. Your dad wasn’t able-”

         “He chose to kill himself, Alex. He put mami and me through hell. I promised her I wouldn’t leave her like he did, and I’m making the same promise to you.”

         “Well. No.” She sighed and pushed you flat onto your back. “Can we talk about something else?”

         “What is it?”         

         “Being around is more than physical. You need to care about me as much as you care about Bryan.”

         “I spend as much time with you.”

         “But you don’t worry about how I’m doing.”

         “He’s been there for me since I got here. Before you, and he needs me.”

         “I need you too though. Especially if you want to have kids,” she rolled her eyes exaggeratedly and kissed you.

         Professor Lopez sent an email asking to see you. You hadn’t left your apartment in days, but Alex convinced you to go talk to her. You made the effort for her because you wanted to prove that you were fine.

         You walked past the old brick dorms that made up the quad and towards the ugly glass chemistry building. Professor Lopez was trying to tidy the perpetual mess in her office when you got there. The only clean space was around the picture of her family.

         “Why haven’t you been in class?” She had a small hole on the side of her neck where the chain from her librarian glasses hung. Her dark skin and hair made it hard to notice unless you were looking for it.

         You considered lying, but she knew you too well for that. You’d had a class with her almost every semester, and you’d been her research assistant for the last two. She was a loving dork, like mami. The two of you talked about family and home when you worked in the lab. She always tried to cheer you up with chemistry jokes. You didn’t feel right lying to her.


         “My best friend tried to kill himself. I’ve been trying to help.” You were fine, he was the one that needed help. She stood and pulled a chair up next to you. “You’re not a therapist.” You assured her that Bryan had set up appointments with a therapist and you’d come to class.

         You found Bryan’s room abandoned. He wasn’t responding to texts or calls, so you called his sister. Bryan’s family put him in a mental ward, but she said she’d keep in touch. (You wouldn’t hear from her for months.)

         In your dreams you saw him crumbling in a solitary white room: he picked pieces off of himself slowly. His body collapsed. Only his face remained whole on the floor, and his eyes stared back at you. The gold ring in the middle of the blue was brighter than you’d ever seen it, he was smiling. Someone swept him up and put him in your box. You woke up in the middle of the night and checked it, relieved when you found only yourself.

         The next day Alex texted you: Can you come over please. You said you’d be there in 20 minutes, but didn’t leave your apartment for an hour. You walked quickly across campus. It wasn’t even 50 degrees out, but there were people on the quad studying and playing frisbee. (Some were even sunbathing. Que locura.) It almost looked like home, but there were no brown kids playing futbol or paleteros or palm trees.

         Alex was sitting in her living room when you walked in. She was hunched over a pile of papers and her notebook. Her hair was in a messy bun and she held her golden cross in her mouth. “You’re late,” the words sounded too heavy for her voice.

         “I’m sorry, babe.”

         “It’s okay. I’m stressed and wanted to spend the day with you. We can make carne asada and some beans with chorizo for dinner?”

         You walked over to her and hugged her tight.

         “Are you okay?” She pushed you away enough to see your face.

         Your eyes were burning again. You bit your lip.

         “I’m fine, babe.” You started sobbing. You couldn’t be weak, you’d already failed Bryan. You tried to say you were fine; needed it to be true. “Bryan’s gone.”

         “Oh my God. I’m sorry,” she said as she reached for your face. You brushed her hand off and turned away.

         “Don’t touch me right now.”

         “How can I help?”

         “You can’t. What would you even do?”

         “I meant for you. I need you to talk to me.”

         “Talking isn’t going to do anything!”


         “No. I can’t do this right now.” You got up to leave, “Leave me alone for a bit.”

         Alex grabbed your wrist, “So much for not leaving.” She started crying. You tried to grab her, but she pushed you away.

         “You’re just like your dad.”

         You walked straight back to your apartment. You cursed the not-palm trees, the leftover piles of snow, and the pendejos sunbathing.

         You picked at the hole in your arm until another piece fell out. The same pain and emptiness enveloped you, but it felt familiar and reassuring. Alex sent you a text telling you to go to the counseling office on campus. She had no right to tell you what to do, especially after saying you were like papi. Real hombres didn’t cry; they didn’t fall apart.

         You spent time in the library pretending to work. In truth you sat and stared and listened. Not to anything in particular, but to everything at once. You saw the jocks in their loud groups, the first years flirting with their tutors, and the seniors with mason jars full of coffee and a pile of books almost as tall as they were. The proximity made it easier to pretend that you were living your life. You had to be careful though; you couldn’t take up too much space or others might notice you. They might see you wasting a spot at a table you weren’t really using. Every hour you moved to a different place where you could hide in plain sight.

         That Friday you wandered around the townhouses until you found a party. You didn’t know whose house it was, but there were so many people that no one would notice. You found the alcohol in the kitchen and drank with the sports bros. You poured out the first round of vodka and taught them the Spanish drinking chant, ‘Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa dentro!’. The group said they had to get you tequila, and one of them talked to you in surprisingly good Spanish: “Son pocos racistas, si?” You went to the living room and tried to dance with white girls you didn’t know, but they all walked away.

         You went back to the kitchen and drank with different groups until there wasn’t anymore alcohol. You stumbled into the bathroom and looked at yourself in the mirror. Your eyes and face were bright red. You peed (partially on your shoe), then walked out of the house.

         You sat at your desk with your trashcan in your lap (you didn’t remember how the hell you got there). Your mouth tasted of alcohol and vomit. You fell asleep in that position.

         In the morning you woke up in your bed next to Alex. She was already awake and offered you water. You took it and asked, “What happened last night?”

         “I saw you walking home drunk and came to check on you.” You sat up. You didn’t need her to take care of you. You’d been fine on your own. “Did we…?”

         “Well you tried,” she laughed. “I told you I was on my period and you offered to put a towel down.”

         “I’m sorry,” you looked down.

         There was a hole on her stomach.

         “It’s fine. I kind of expect men to disappear,” she kissed you, but you kept your eyes open. With your hand you rubbed softly around the gap in her skin. It was real. Her once perfect skin had a piece missing.

         “I missed you. Te amo tanto,” Alex said.

         “Te amo a ti también.” You felt like crying. You’d told her to leave you alone, but she’d hurt herself trying to love you. You did your best to love her physically; you owed her at least that for the burden of loving you.

         You decided to spend the summer on campus. You wanted to be alone. Alex promised that she’d call, but you warned her that you weren’t good at dealing with distance. It was true (you sucked at texting), but you weren’t sure that you wanted her to call anyway. You were putting her through hell, and she deserved better than you.

         “We’ll be okay as long as we have each other.” She hugged and kissed you before leaving. You responded to her texts as often as you remembered to, but you never initiated conversations. It felt comfortable to finally be alone.

         You tried to keep busy by helping Professor Lopez with her research. Occasionally she came into the lab to tell you a chemistry joke; she started laughing before she could finish telling it and wheezed through tears afterwards. Somehow the world was lighter and warmer around Professor Lopez. You stayed in the lab every day until she left, and sometimes lingered to feel her presence.

         You spent the rest of your time alone in your room. You hardly ate, and you didn’t sleep most nights. The dorm the school moved you to was set up as one long hallway that felt completely empty, so it was easy to go the entire weekend without seeing anyone. On Monday you’d show up at the lab and put on a smile even if you’d spent the entire weekend crying in bed.

         Professor Lopez invited you to dinner. Her esposo cooked carne asada and arroz while she made some frijoles with chorizo. (You’d told her it was your favorite thing that mami made). Her son told you about how he’d learned to swim faster than his sister, so she told you that he still wet the bed. He blushed and threw the Iron Man toy he’d been showing you at her. She slapped him. He glared at her (he would have cried if you weren’t there). Their dad suppressed a laugh, and Professor Lopez threatened both of them with a chancla. They apologized and she hugged them. They squirmed and tried to run away when she planted wet kisses on their cheeks. You smiled.

         A month into the summer Alex sent you a text, Can we talk? You agreed, and she told you to get on Skype. You answered and told her she looked great. She bit her lip and looked away.

         “Are you alright, babe?” you asked. She looked at you for a second.

         “I had to remind myself today that I have a boyfriend.” Her eyes were hard. You wanted to shrink away and hide. “You don’t respond to half my texts and we go days without talking. Sometimes... I want a ‘Good morning’ text.”

         “I’m sorry,” you forced out. “I told you I was bad at distance.”

         “Carlos, I need you to talk to me. I feel so alone.”

         She was asking for help, but you couldn’t even go a day without crying. Your leg shook. You tried to bite your nails, but you'd chewed them already. What could you do for her?

         “I don’t trust you anymore. I told you I needed space and you let yourself back into my life while I was too drunk to say no. And you had the nerve to compare me to my dad.” You hung up and got into bed.

         On Monday afternoon you got up. Alex had sent a single text that said, I’m done. There were a couple small pieces on the sheets. You stared at them and rubbed your chest. You stuck your finger into the hole where Bryan’s piece had once been and pushed out your papi’s. The edges formed and separated from the rest of your skin.

         You had been so focused on not falling apart like him, on trying to survive, that you hadn’t learned to love the people that loved you, and isolation felt like slowly dying. You considered pushing more out, but were too scared to commit to real death (Alex had been right after all). You knew mami and Professor Lopez would never forgive you.

         You cleaned off the sheets and added the new pieces to the box. You put on papi’s cross; you weren’t religious, but it reminded you of Alex. Of hope.

         You pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt from the dirty pile by the bed and walked out behind the dorm. You threw the box into the dumpster, you couldn’t keep holding on to things that you’d already lost.

         You turned and walked towards the chemistry building. Jesucristo swung in and out of the hole in your chest as you walked. What was the first step to return from death?


© The Acentos Review 2017