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Res Judicata

The thing has been decided

By Daniel A. Olivas
Published on LatinoLA: April 21, 2003


Res Judicata


The summer Romero died, I?d just made partner in Walker, Elswick and Harkin, one of the premier law firms in Los Angeles. Romero and I met almost eight years ago when I was finishing my last year at UCLA Law School. I used to study at this little French bakery in Westwood Village. My routine was to hit my classes and then take the bus into the Village ? my tattered backpack heavy with law books ? and settle into the corner of the bakery with a warm almond croissant and a large cup of cappuccino. Every so often an undergraduate would try to hit on me but once he got an eyeful of what I was studying, he?d move on feeling a little intimidated by this cute little thing who wanted to be a lawyer. But Romero was different.
?Wow,? he said. ?Law. Cool.?

I remember looking up, expecting to see some skinny white kid in a Bruin sweatshirt, hands in his back pockets, trying to look in control. Instead, there was Romero: dark skinned, black hair and sharp angular features that reminded me of my cousins in Mexico. He wore jeans, white T-shirt and a paisley vest. Those were the pre-goatee days for him. I liked him better that way. His face gleamed, without a blemish, smooth like Indian pottery. I could smell his cologne, Chaps, a good clean smell. Romero carried his books loose on his right hip so he leaned to the left to keep balance.

?It?s all right,? I answered trying to look composed.

He then plopped his books down on the table shaking my coffee cup almost off its saucer and pulled up a metal chair with a loud squeak on the tile.

?Mind??

?No.? I didn?t, really, though I was surprised by his blatant attempt to start something. But I had been reading the same sentence, over and over, for the last twenty minutes or so. Something about the First Amendment and the three-part Lemon test. I was feeling restless, a typical third year syndrome, anxious to finish my last exams and focus on the bar. Then my real life could begin. My job as a first year associate at the Walker firm sat in the near future like the Holy Grail, years of busting my rear end finally paying off. Not bad for a poor girl from the Pico-Union neighborhood.

?I don?t have the discipline to do what you?re doing,? Romero laughed. I looked at his books: Great Latin American Novellas, Art of the Short Story, The Norton Anthology of English Literature, among others.

?I couldn?t do what you do,? I said. I suddenly realized that my voice shook a bit and my heart beat hard. He kept his large, brown eyes trained on mine.

He laughed again. ?Aren?t lawyers supposed to be great fiction writers??

Ah! So he had a good sense of humor on top of his great looks. I offered a weak touch? and closed my book with a snap. But that?s how it started. Simply and with a good lawyer joke.

----

?Agu?ntate tantito y la fruta caidr? en tu mano,? Papa said. We sat together on the rickety swinging bench that he had set up many years ago on our large cement porch. We could see everything in our neighborhood from that perch. Ardmore Avenue is not such an exciting street, mind you, unless you count the gang activity, as Mama used to put it, that bubbles over from time to time.

?What?? I asked. My Spanish was so-so but I had special problems understanding Papa?s dichos, those little aphorisms that amount to bite-sized bits of Mexican wisdom.

?You know, mija,? he said as he reached over for his coffee. ?Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand.?

I looked at him. Still so handsome even though he?d just turned sixty-five. Papa always reminded me of a darker version of Kirk Douglas. All those years working construction did nothing to destroy those looks.

?But I?m talking about love, Papa,? I said. ?We?ve been together for almost three years. With our schedules, we barely see each other. This is our solution.?

He furrowed his brow. I could see his pain as he tried not to boss his adult attorney daughter who had just told him that she planned to move in with a man without the benefit of marriage.

?I loved your mother, too, and we waited until we were married.? Mama had been gone for three years. I have no idea how scared he must have felt being left with three daughters to raise. Luckily, the youngest, Lucia, was fourteen when Mama died so everyone was pretty self-sufficient. It was this other stuff, his daughters? dating life, that offered the most heartbreak. He was lost at sea when it came to this.

?Well, Papa, it?s res judicata, as we say in the law.?

??C?mo??

?The thing has been decided, Papa.?

He looked down at his cup of coffee and let out a sigh. It was a beautiful Saturday morning and the sun shone brightly onto the porch. The only bothersome thing was Mrs. Reynoso?s music that blasted from her living room, windows wide open so the entire neighborhood could enjoy a rousing cumbia at 9:00 a.m. at the beginning of the weekend. Papa looked deflated, and I know he felt like a failure.

?I love you, Papa,? was all I could offer.

He let out another sigh and then looked at me. ?I love you, too, mija, with all mi coraz?n.?

Romero and I found a nice apartment in Silver Lake the next weekend.

---

We had carved-out a nice little life for ourselves. I worked horrible hours, as most of the young associates did, doing legal research, summarizing depositions, preparing witnesses, arguing a motion here and there, but never taking the lead on the appellate arguments or trials. That was for the partners. But I?d get there, eventually. In the meantime, I had to do the grunt work but that was okay. That?s part of the game and I knew the rules.

Romero was the happiest I?d ever seen him. He worked during the day at Starbucks to earn a few dollars and then he wrote in his free time. He eventually co-founded a literary journal on the Web. They called it Palabras and it featured fiction, poetry and essays in both English and Spanish. They made no money, of course, but it was beautiful and it meant so much to him.

We scraped together whatever time we could to enjoy each other. We slept very little back then, but things seemed right like someone else had planned it all for us and all we had to do was play our parts. The topic of marriage was the only sore point. It was like a scab that we kept picking. One conversation, in particular, sticks in my memory. We lay in bed after making love. Romero rested his head on my chest listening to my heartbeat. He said it calmed him like nothing else but this time, I could tell that his mind could not be calmed.

?So, mi amor,? he whispered.

?So?? I ran two fingers through his hair. He had grown it so long; it shimmered, limp and silky, and smelled like lemons.

?I love you.?

?I love you, too.?

After a minute, he said, ?Well, Yolanda, don?t you think it?s time, then??

?We just finished making love.?

He laughed which was my intended response. Romero had gotten so serious it made me nervous so I went into joke mode. He got up on one elbow and looked down at me.

?You know what I mean, mi amor. Marriage. It?s time, don?t you think??

We?d had this conversation on several occasions in the last two years. Usually, Romero started it and I always had an answer: wait until I get closer to partnership, wait until you finish your first novel. But these responses no longer worked. I was firmly on partnership track and was, in fact, one of the stars in the firm. Romero had finished his first novel and, after six months of looking for an agent, got one who really believed in his work. Things were great.

?Well, we?re not even engaged,? I ventured. This surprised him. He had expected one of my many excuses. Romero?s eyebrows arched and he grinned this silly grin. He jumped up and ran to the kitchen.

?What are you doing?? I asked.

?Wait!?

After a minute or so, he strolled back into the bedroom, naked as can be, holding one hand behind his back, trying to keep a straight face. He came close to my side of the bed and got down on one knee.

?Yolanda Mar?a Miramontes, will you marry me?? Romero then held out his hand.

Between his index finger and thumb, he held a ring made out of aluminum foil. The idiot made me cry. ?Is that a ?yes??? he said without moving the ring from my face. I nodded as I wiped my tears with the edge of our sheet. ?I thought so, mi amor,? he laughed and put the ring on my finger. ?I thought so.?

---

?Melanoma.?

As the word left Romero?s lips, our seven years together collapsed like so much shrink-wrap. He stood, tall and handsome in the doorway of our study. The only blemish on this beautiful man was a dark spot on his left eyelid. We both thought it was a sty but when it got too painful, I sent Romero to his doctor. I was bone-tired after a six-week jury trial in Orange County not to mention my numerous, middle of the night panic attacks because a decision on my partnership was only six months away. A cold December shower made our house seem safe and faraway from everything. But not after Romero uttered that word. I stood and walked over to him. I couldn?t breathe.

?Surgery,? was all I could choke out.

?Yes.?

?Even chemo, dammit!?

?Yes.? Romero reached out and pulled me close. ?Yes,? he said again. But the way the word came out of him made me shiver. He would go through it all but he knew as well as I that melanoma was an evil cancer. It moved fast and usually evaded the scalpel with great cunning. ?We will do everything that we have to,? he said and pulled me into his body even tighter. I wanted him to squeeze me until I passed out.

---

The smell now made me nauseated. I figured that I?d get used to visiting Romero at Cedars-Sinai. But with each visit, my physical reaction grew stronger. He had to be there. We tried to have him stay home until it all ended, but when his face hemorrhaged last month, we all knew that I couldn?t handle it. Now he was back at the hospital, the left side of his face swollen six inches deep with eight tumors and wrapped in gauze. The next hemorrhage would probably be his last, Dr. Choi had warned us. The goal now was to make him ?comfortable.? I sat in the metal chair next to him and held his hand.

?So,? I said trying to be matter-of-fact. ?The bastards finally made me partner. I?m one of them now.?

Romero squeezed my hand and he tried to smile but it hurt too much. ?I?m proud, mi amor,? he whispered.

Nine days later, Romero simply bled to death. There was nothing left to remove, no way to close off the blood vessels. He was twenty-eight. Now that I?m a partner, I can pull back a bit with my hours. I have young, eager associates working for me and they can stay all night at the office the way I used to. I now have a new goal. I will get Romero?s novel published. It will be done. I have no choice. The thing has been decided.


About Daniel A. Olivas:
Res Judicata appears in the forthcoming collection "Assumption and Other Stories". Pre-order at www.barnesandnoble.com. His children's book, "Benjamin and the Word," will be published next year. http://www.homestead.com/DanielOlivas/olivas.html.




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