Ari goes to sleep one summer night hoping for a better world, but is disappointed when he wakes up. He reaches over to switch on the radio and doesn’t like the song playing. The DJ also annoys him with his comments, which incidentally let readers know that this story is set in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 1987. But despite Ari’s initial frustration, things start to look up when the radio starts playing La Bamba. He goes down to the kitchen, meeting his mother. She asks him why he took so long to get downstairs but isn’t angry about anything. Ari explains that he was listening to La Bamba, and his mom says it’s sad that the artist died so young, to which Ari replies that he wishes he had done something with his life. Considering that he’s fifteen, his mom thinks this is a bit unfair, which causes Ari to reply that fifteen-year-olds aren’t really people anyway.
His mom invites him to go out with her church group, but Ari refuses because he feels like they don’t see him for himself, and decides to go to the pool instead. On his way out, his mother comments on the shirt he’s wearing, which was a birthday present from his dad. Ari says that even though he was initially not excited about the present, he has become fond of it, even though a t-shirt is kind of a weird birthday gift. But, he muses, this is a reflection of the distance between him and his father. On his way to the pool, Ari runs into and antagonizes a group of boys a year or so younger than him; he’s not worried because most people don’t mess with him. But as they walk away, Ari begins feeling sorry for himself anyways—he thinks it might have something to do with the fact that, because he has two sisters twelve years older than him and an older brother eleven years older than him that’s in prison, he’s essentially a “pseudo only child.” In addition, Ari is the child that was born after his father returned from the Vietnam War.
Ari arrives at the pool and has to take a shower, which always makes him feel kind of weird since the boys all have to do it together and are expected to talk to one another all the time, about girls and stuff like that. Ari has never really gotten any of that, or related to other boys at all. Even though his mom insists it’s a phase, Ari’s not so sure. Unfortunately, since Ari can’t swim, and doesn’t have anyone to teach him, he basically has to stand on the sidelines and figure it out by himself (something which he’s proud of). This changes, however, when a boy comes up next to him and offers to teach him how to swim. Ari laughs at first, thinking that the boy is far too weak to teach him anything, but soon discovers he’s a competent swimmer and teacher. The boys bond over their unusual names—the boy introduces himself as Dante, which Ari finds funny since his full name is Aristotle. Over the course of the summer, they become friends as Dante teaches Ari how to swim.
Despite hitting it off immediately, Aristotle and Dante are very different people. Ari marvels at how Dante seems to be not even a little mean, while still being “funny and focused and fierce.” Whereas Ari is a comic book fan, Dante is very into literature, in large part because of his father, who is an English professor. Sometimes Dante admonishes Ari for being too dark, and there are times Ari finds Dante too naive. They dream about the world beyond what they know, so they begin riding the bus to try to explore it. They start riding the bus often, making up stories about other passengers as they go along. Ari muses that growing up, he was never really close to other people. He never could understand boys, watching them from a distance instead of becoming close. Even time in Boy Scouts didn’t change this, and the main emotion Ari feels from his father is his father’s concern that he might end up like his older brother who is incarcerated. But that changes when Ari meets Dante.
After their fourth swimming lesson, Dante invites Ari over to his house. He lives close to the swimming pool, so they walk over to his place, where Ari is introduced to Dante’s father, Sam. Ari is immediately struck by the differences between his father and Dante’s when Dante walks in and kisses his father on the cheek; that level of intimacy is something that he could never have with his father. Dante and his father banter for a bit, to Ari’s astonishment, who thinks he might be this close to his mother, but certainly not to his father. Close or not, though, Sam is still Dante’s father and tells him to go upstairs to clean his room.
Dante begins to clean his room but asks Ari not to leave, handing him a book of poetry. Ari is skeptical but finds himself enjoying it and the time that he and Dante have together in the room. Even though most of the afternoon is spent with Dante cleaning his room and Ari reading poetry, Ari feels more comfortable than he ever has with anybody else his age, and when he goes back home, he believes that he has learned the meaning of friendship.
Dante comes over and introduces himself to Ari’s parents. Happy to have his parents meet his close friend, Ari is simultaneously irritated at their happiness and (what he perceives to be) relief that he has made a friend. Ari thinks that Dante is always acting like an adult instead of a normal fifteen-year-old, something he feels is supported by the fact that Dante brings a book full of Mexican art as a gift for Ari’s parents. At first, Ari is worried about how they will react, but after an initial protest, his parents, especially his father, seem genuinely grateful for the book and treat it as something precious. Ari reflects that he can never predict how his dad will react to anything.
Dante and Ari have a conversation about Ari’s room. Dante remarks that there’s nothing on the walls, to which Ari says that he likes to look at the blank walls and think, which prompts Dante jokes that he’s like a monk. Ari confesses that he’s not really sure if he believes in God at all, and asks Dante if he thinks that’s okay. Dante reassures him, saying that he thinks it’s smart. Ari doesn’t think he’s very smart, but Dante disagrees, and tells Ari that his father tells him that being an intellectual is nothing to be ashamed of, but confesses that he still struggles not to be ashamed. Looking back, Ari realizes that while he knew what it was to be ashamed, he didn’t realize why—but Dante did.
From the book that Dante gave to his parents, Ari learns that his father used to study art. One day when they’re at the convenience store, Ari tells Dante he doesn’t like Coke, which Dante finds weird, and they talk about other weird things, like the fact that Mexicans seem to give everyone nicknames, or that Dante doesn’t really feel comfortable being a Mexican. They go out to the desert to sleep under the stars; Ari learns that Dante hates wearing shoes so much that he makes up a game to throw his shoes around just to get them beaten up so he doesn’t have to wear them. The section closes with a scene where Ari and Dante confront other boys for the first time in the novel. Dante sees that a couple of local boys have killed a sparrow with their BB gun and confronts them about it, shouting. The boys are about to fight with Dante, but Ari steps in, taking the gun from them and shouting for them to leave Dante alone. They leave. Dante comments that he didn’t know that Ari liked to fight, a statement that Ari initially denies but then agrees with. They have never seen each other that mad, although they were mad for very different reasons.
Dante goes over to the body of the dead sparrow and begins to cry. Ari stands there and watches him for a little bit, then they get together and decide to bury the bird, swearing to tell no one about what happened, and then deciding to meet up to swim the next day. Ari feels anxious because he feels that Dante has finally seen the “real” him, but thinks that it’s possible that Dante can like the hardness in him just as he likes how Dante isn’t hard. It seems to him that “Dante’s face was a map of the world. A world without any darkness.” (56)
The first thing we learn about Ari is that he is hopeful, but often finds himself disappointed. The disappointment he feels in life is represented, for him, by how even something as small as turning on the radio doesn't go his way. However, Ari doesn't lose hope, and when another song comes on, his disposition allows for the possibility that there might be a better outcome available than the one currently in front of him. His mom proves to be used to this kind of deep musing from Ari, and the conversation they have reveals that the reason Ari is so introspective may have something to do with the fact that he doesn't have a lot of friends—or perhaps vice versa. The talk he has with his mom also shows us that Ari is someone who feels controlled by the others around him, and feels that communication, particularly with his dad, often fails to be straightforward. But that doesn't make him scared either—he truly doesn't care what the boys around him think. Self-pity, however, is something Ari clings to as a way to make sense of the world around him—his time spent reflecting on his sisters says more about this than anything else.
Ari's reflections on his awkwardness around boys, in a foreshadowing moment, is interrupted by Dante. The way that the scene is structured is much like a standard meet-cute in a romance, and the two boys laugh over their unusual names. In many ways, their names function as a metaphor for how they will come to distinguish themselves from other boys around them. Both of them are named after famous men who did great things, and both of them are young Mexican teenagers from El Paso, Texas. This unites them more than the several differences Ari observes over the course of the chapter. From first glance though, it appears that El Paso might be one of the only things they have in common: Ari's cynicism contrasts sharply with Dante's almost endless optimism.
Their ability to dream of a situation beyond their own demonstrate how much Ari and Dante both love imagination. They're naturally curious and creative. Dante teaches Ari how to be a friend, which his time in Boy Scouts couldn't. The Boy Scouts incident is one of the first indications that the reader gets of something that becomes a big issue throughout the book: Ari's parents' fear for him, caused by the situation with his brother.
Given this tension in Ari's home, it isn't exactly surprising that Dante's home feels so different to Ari. Even this early in the novel, it's quite clear that secrets and being open are things that the Mendoza household struggles with. In contrast, Dante's house is welcoming and openly affectionate, and we see this right away between Dante and his father. The time they spend in Dante's house shows Ari an alternative to the way that he feels at home, especially around his father, and crystallizes how important Dante is to him. Dante makes Ari feels welcome and (even though he doesn't realize this until the very end) free—and because of that space that Dante creates, Ari doesn't feel pressured, even when they aren't talking.
Dante entering Ari's space is similarly shocking for Ari. Their visit to his home ends up being much more revealing than he intended. Proving himself to be perceptive, Dante chooses a great present for Ari's parents. Instead of his open upbringing making Dante less insightful, it seems to help him. The reflection Ari makes afterward that Dante knew why he was ashamed can be taken one of two ways first, that Dante understood why Dante was ashamed, which is true. From the beginning, Dante is very aware of how he feels about other boys. The second, however, is the possibility that Ari means that Dante knew why Ari was ashamed: something Ari himself does not realize, or acknowledge, until the very last chapters of the novel.
But Dante reveals things about people other than just Ari. His gift to Ari's parents leads Mr. Mendoza to share that he studied art in school, for example. As Ari and Dante get closer, they begin to share more and more. Dante's life isn't perfect, and while Ari admires him, many people don't. Dante is someone who occupies multiple worlds and struggles to feel at home in any of them. He is often caught in the middle between social situations, and like Ari, he longs to be free, a trait that is embodied in his hatred for wearing shoes.
As Dante and Ari face their first conflict together, the things that are the most important to each of them become evident very quickly. Dante is a bit of an idealist, and for him, fairness and kindness are essential: it would never occur to him to run away when principles (or a helpless bird) are involved. Ari's problem, however, is not that the boys were playing with the sparrow, but that the boys might hurt Dante. Dante is brave, but as he himself observes, Ari likes to fight. But these differences in both the reasons for their anger and the forms it takes don't mean that they cannot be friends. This confrontation teaches Ari that he can be honest about the differences between him and Dante because just as he likes Dante for his differences, Dante can also like him for his differences.