ARLETA, Calif.—Since April 9, when Marine Pfc. Eric Ayon, 26, lost his life at a dusty intersection in the Iraq desert, time has stood still for his family.
His sister, Cynthia Ayon, 23, tells herself that her brother is just away on vacation. Henry Ayon, their father, tries not to talk about what happened to his son. His mother, Maria Ayon, visits his grave every day, and at home she talks aloud to him.
The silver Toyota Solara that Ayon promised to his teenage sister, Jazmine, if anything happened to him sits in the driveway. Sometimes, the family members climb into it, start the engine and roll down the windows, but they don't go anywhere.
Sometimes Cynthia drives it, but only as far as the car wash, "just so it can be ready when he comes back."
"It belongs to him," Cynthia said quietly, trying to explain things that have no explanation. "So, we're just waiting to see what happens."
The Ayon family is suspended somewhere between a past in which Eric cracks jokes, dances goofily and lectures his youngest sister on the virtue-less nature of boys, and that April day when two somber Marines arrived at their home in Arleta, a small Los Angeles County city of a little more than 100,000 residents where men push tinkling carts of shaved ice and fruit syrup along sun-baked sidewalks.
The Ayons would have preferred that Eric had never enlisted. His father, who has muscled arms, a shaved head and kind brown eyes, taught Eric how to fight, but he also taught him to stay away from the fight unless it came to him.
"Are you sure?" he asked his son, his companion in a household of women, after he enlisted.
Still, the Ayons were proud that Eric had followed through. He'd told everyone he met that he was going to be a Marine someday. He told his friend Debbie Gil in the seventh grade. He told his co-workers at Mid-Valley Community Day School in Van Nuys, where he had a job counseling gang-hardened teenagers before joining the Marines last year.
When he thought his son, Joshua, age 7, was old enough to grasp his words about what a Marine was, he told him, too. Then he signed up.
Each day during the week before he left for Iraq in February, Eric drove two and a half hours each way from his military base to the Ayon home so he could have dinner with his family and get his fill of his mother's chilaquiles, a homey Mexican dish of crispy tortilla strips drowned in a chile-based sauce.
He visited his former co-workers at the Mid-Valley school, where he said goodbye to student Ashley Mendez, a round-faced 17-year-old whose tangles with gangs and drugs have landed her in juvenile hall repeatedly since the age of 12.
He could garner respect from these hard-core teens, his co-workers said, yet they also considered him one of them because he acted like a big kid most of the time.
"He was a really good friend," Ashley said, a "Trust No One" tattoo around her neck. "I thought he was going to come back. But he never did."
His friends join the Ayon family every Sunday after church, and they visit the cemetery where Eric's remains are buried. Often his sister Cynthia isn't with them. She has trouble saying why she avoids those graveside visits.
Eric sent her a birthday card while he was in Iraq. He signed it "Wi-Wi," a family nickname she'd saddled him with because he'd always beat her to the bathroom when they got home from school.
He wrote: "Always know that when things get hard and you don't know what to do, I will always be here for you."
Things are hard now. She doesn't know what to do.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.