|Real Time by Daniel A. Olivas
Diana saw it. So did her two roommates, Avram and Raquel. And it saw them. For but a second, maybe two, their six human eyes widened and locked onto its wild but somehow controlled eyes. The gray sky muted the colors of the trees, grass, birds – everything – so that they weren't quite certain they were seeing what they were seeing. The three humans squinted in unison. Even it seemed to squint back at them.
“Oh my God,” said Diana. She held the platter of steaming Spanish rice in front of her like a mis-positioned shield. Her nose itched but she dared not put the platter down.
“Let's get closer to it,” said Raquel.
Without moving his head, Avram's eyes shifted over to Raquel. “No,” he whispered.
Realizing what the were looking at, Diana said almost as an apology, “I thought it was a possum or raccoon or something.”
With this last utterance, its ears perked, and its taut, golden body froze in mid-stride. The family of quail that only a moment ago scurried nearby was nowhere to be found. Raquel shifted her left foot towards the low metal fence that separated nature from their trimmed, conquered backyard but Avram grabbed her shoulder before she moved her other foot. He could feel Raquel's toned muscles through her thick, Gap Oxford shirt. Before Avram could offer a verbal warning, it turned its head from them and, with nonchalance so palatable that it seemed to mock the humans, the creature disappeared into the hilly shrub. Within moments, it was out of sight. A fat, noisy crow dove down from their roof and perched on the fence feeling brave now that the predator had moved on.
“A mountain lion,” whispered Avram still holding Raquel's shoulder.
“Let go,” growled Raquel but he didn't.
“In Los Angeles?” Diana murmured. “How can that be?”
“West Valley,” corrected Raquel. They all kept their eyes locked onto the spot where the animal had stood. “People haven't completely destroyed the natural habitat up in these hills.”
“Well, you're enjoying this beautiful house so how can you complain?” laughed Avram.
“I'm only renting, like you,” said Raquel as she shrugged Avram's hand off her shoulder. They all finally looked at each other.
Avram laughed again and reached for the large, blue plastic bowl of Doritos that sat on the overburdened card table. Popping a crispy triangle of fried, fake tortilla into his mouth with a crunch, he said, “Oh, that makes a difference. I must have missed that class taught by your favorite Commie professor. Velasco? Right? Professor Jaime Velasco?”
“ No se hizo la miel para la boca del asno ,” whispered Raquel. She turned quickly and went into the house. The crow let out an impossibly loud squawk and flew off into the gray sky.
“Nice job,” said Diana.
“What did she say to me?”
Diana sighed. “She said that you were the biggest jerk to get into UCLA Law School.” She put the platter down for emphasis. The plastic forks and knives rattled and the lemonade in the perspiring pitcher rocked back and forth in little waves.
“No she didn't.”
Diana's nostrils flared. “The chicken is burning. Go apologize to Raquel.”
“No.” Avram crossed his arms across his broad chest. He stood almost a full foot taller than both his roommates.
“Go and I'll pull the chicken from the barbecue before it's totally ruined.”
They stood in silence for six seconds. Avram uncrossed his arms. Now he could smell something burning. “Okay, okay. I'll say sorry to my little Communist roommate.”
“Good. And cut that ‘Commie' crap out. It's even beginning to bug me.”
Avram went into the house. Beads of perspiration formed on his upper lip and he grew angry at himself because he could feel his groin grow warm. The slight chance of being alone with Raquel still sent a thrill through his body even though they'd known each since their first year of law school and he knew deep down nothing would ever happen between them. Avram walked across the beautiful hardwood floor, past the kitchen, dining room, living room and towards the staircase. Renting this gorgeous, four-bedroom home was the smartest thing he ever thought of. It was their last year of law school, he argued during one of their last study sessions last year, and they should make the most of it, live in a real house together, not separately in identical, seven hundred square-foot Westwood bachelor flats for $1,000 per month, roaches included. Sure, the commute on the 101 and then, God, the 405, would be a pain, but imagine studying constitutional law or preparing for interviews up in the hills with a view of the Valley and a pool thrown in for good measure. Only $3,000, including utilities, split three ways. Imagine!
“A pool?” Raquel had asked in disbelief. “An actual swimming pool?”
Avram offered a smile hoping that he looked handsome to her. “Yep, a swimming pool.” He imagined what it would be like to sit back and watch Raquel in a tiny one-piece swimsuit just lounging about in the sun.
“How could it be so cheap?” said Diana rubbing her nose with a closed, yellow highlighter.
“The guy doesn't want to sell, yet,” said Avram trying not to sound too enthusiastic. “But he wants to move to a smaller place. His wife died a couple of years ago and his kids are out on their own. He's rattling around that place and just wants to make enough on a lease to maintain his puny mortgage payments.”
Raquel turned to Diana. “A pool, Di. A pool.” So, that sunny afternoon in May of last year, Avram convinced Raquel and Diana that his idea was nothing short of brilliant. He reached the staircase and started up but then froze. He heard something. And it scared him. The hair on his neck and arms rose in some kind of primal alarm. Avram cocked his head to the left, and then to the right, holding his breath to be as quiet as possible, and he listened. At first, it didn't sound human. It reminded him of something he had heard in a nature documentary: a high-pitched whine, like an animal in pain. What was it?
“Raquel?” he called out. And the noise stopped suddenly. He then heard footsteps, Raquel's bedroom door open, more footsteps, and then the smaller bathroom door shut. The noise started again. In slow motion, Avram walked backwards, down the steps, and got to the landing. The sound had come from Raquel. “My God,” he whispered. “My God.”
“ No se hizo la miel para la boca del asno ,” whispered Raquel. She turned quickly and went into the house. Early Eric Clapton blasted on the stereo (Avram's choice) which propelled her faster through the house towards the staircase. Why did he grab me like that? she thought. That innocent gesture opened something in her and she couldn't stop it. Raquel tried unsuccessfully to catch her breath as she grabbed the fine-grained banister with both hands. Why did he grab me like that? She hadn't slept much the last four or five days. She was at wit's end interviewing for jobs on campus. Raquel pulled herself up the stairs. Her mind entered a cloud and she could see her cousin Miguel, age thirteen, staring at her nine-year-old, naked body. Raquel shook her head, she tried to shake the memory like she had before, but it took over all of her senses. Miguel grabbed her shoulder with his left hand, hard and mean, and he used his other hand on her. Where were her parents? How could the let him watch her? Raquel suddenly fell into the present and found herself in her bedroom, curled up, sobbing, shaking, trying to breathe.
“Raquel?” Avram called out. Raquel's trance broke and she stopped crying in an instant almost as if she had pushed the “mute” button on the remote control. She stood up, opened her bedroom door, and went into her bathroom shutting the door behind her. She curled again into a ball, at one end of the dry bathtub, and started her sobbing again, full force.
Diana watched Avram's muscular neck and back as he walked into the house. She shook her head and smiled. I'm just a little horny, right now, she justified to herself. Me and Avram? No way! He's too close a friend. Diana carried a clean platter to the barbecue, opened its gleaming, stainless steel lid, and started salvaging the smoking chicken by maneuvering the clacking tongs tograsp the sizzling pieces of bird. As she filled the platter, she remembered how her father, as most dads did, ruled the barbecue. Outdoor cooking was his domain. He fumbled at most things in life, like making a steady living, or keeping his wife from leaving one early morning, when Diana was fourteen, the day the space shuttle exploded over America. But when he still had a marriage (at least in his mind), he used to stand with one hand on his narrow hip, the other holding tongs like an artist's brush, sunglasses hiding brilliant, blue eyes, and explain to his only child the intricacies of barbecuing. He had joked that the secrets of the art really should only be passed on from father to son, but she'd do. This made Diana laugh, understanding the joke, and she felt special.
Diana closed the barbecue, lifted the now-heavy platter, and turned to go back to the card table. But she stopped. She saw something in her peripheral vision. The mountain lion! It stood by the pool's edge, on the other side, not moving, just staring at Diana. The water rippled with the constant breeze that blew through the backyard. She knew that she should be frightened, but wasn't. Should it be frightened of humans? But there they stood, not more than ten yards from each other, neither one moving. She remembered that her father had said that mountain lions and pumas were, in all actuality, the same animal, just different names. But one sounded more dangerous, didn't it? Which one? Puma, of course. Puma is a more dangerous name, don't you think, my sweets? And which one was this? A mountain lion? A puma? She had automatically called it a mountain lion when they first saw it. But right now she wanted it to be a puma. It made her feel something. Was it a good feeling? She didn't know. She couldn't name that .
Daniel A. Olivas