In Loco Parentis

by Domenika Marzione

Eleanor is pretty much the last person Manny Ortilla ever expected to end up with. Which is probably why, in the end, he didn't.

They meet cute at a grocery in Jacksonville. He lives on base, has access to the chow halls, and doesn't need to do much in the way of food shopping, but he's at Price Smart because they have mangoes. He still misses the street cart on 104th Street and Roosevelt Avenue, where for a dollar you got an unripe mango cut up and drenched in lemon juice, sprinkled with salt and pepper and served in a plastic sandwich baggie. He picks out his fruit, getting an extra few because he's gonna need to provide examples to the guys that not everything worth eating is made by Frito-Lay, and then wanders the aisles because it's a change of pace from the PX.

He sees her in the canned vegetables aisle, pushing over a flat of tinned tomatoes to use as a step-stool to reach something that's still beyond her grasp. Being tall has its advantages and, sometime between reaching over to get her a can of creamed corn and saying goodbye in the parking lot, he's got a phone number and a date for Friday night.

He figures she knows what she's getting -- he's got muscles, a high-and-tight, and this is Jacksonville -- but he's completely unprepared for what she does with it. Eleanor's a a professor at Coastal Carolina Community College and he barely scraped through Newtown High School and she doesn't seem to think it's that big a deal. And, in what becomes a pattern for their relationship, when Eleanor believes in something hard enough, it comes true.

They have nothing in common -- race, education, economic background, upbringing, skill set, music. They get on like gangbusters. He teaches her how to fix her sink, she teaches him how to make roast beef. They bitch about how much photocopying they have to do and exchange stories about the children (her students, his privates) they are trying to shepherd into adulthood, if not necessarily maturity. She takes him to the faculty party (he pretends to only speak Spanish), he takes her to the Marine Corps Birthday Ball (she makes him dance). He's gotten a gang tattoo removed; she's never even gotten a parking ticket.

He's not sure what the future holds for them. She's not going to be teaching at a podunk junior college forever and he's not looking to stay at Lejeune for his entire career. He wants a family at some point, she wants a career before she thinks about kids. That she's not Latina and that he's clueless about academia doesn't matter now, but it will at some point. Eleanor believes that it'll all work out in the end, that their path, to come together or go on separately, will resolve on its own. He doesn't like that ambiguity; the Marines have shown him that he thrives on having a goal.

The phone call comes the night before he leaves for a live-fire joint exercise at Twentynine Palms. He gets to spend two cross-country flights and five days of trying not to get shot (or blown up or run over by the fucking tankers) wondering what the hell to do with the news that his girlfriend is pregnant and (a) isn't sure she wants to keep the baby and (b) even if she does, doesn't think that marrying him would be wise. His first response had been the obvious one; the Marines didn't have to teach him that a man does the right thing when he's responsible.

By the time he gets back, Eleanor's decided to keep the baby (and he can't even come up with the words to describe how he feels about the fact that she had to think about it) and is more firm than ever that they shouldn't get married. They wouldn't have anyway, she says, and he wonders if that means that she thinks that he wouldn't have asked or that she'd have turned him down regardless. He doesn't know which one makes him feel worse.

In hindsight, this is the beginning of the end. He does everything he's supposed to as the expectant father, but it feels wrong for more than just the reason that she won't wear his ring. His parents, when he tells them, don't understand and he doesn't know how to explain it to them because he doesn't understand himself. They are so proud, so relieved that he's straightened out his life, that he's not hanging out in the parking lots of Flushing Meadow Park with his hermanos or off in jail, and this... arrangement feels like backsliding even though it's supposed to be compromise. He wants to do the right thing and Eleanor thinks that his chivalry is quaint and outdated and a little offensive because neither her person nor her honor need the protection.

Eleanor introduces him at the Lamaze class as "the baby's father."

Roberto Kevin Ortilla, named after both of his grandfathers, is born at 2:55 AM on 3 November 2001. He fits perfectly in his father's large hands.

Manny doesn't leave for Afghanistan until the week after Christmas. Afghanistan in January is colder than a witch's tit and just as welcoming. They are mostly guarding an airstrip in the middle of fucking nowhere while Army Special Forces does the work. It's unsatisfying and, for the first time since the dog days on Parris Island, he wants to be somewhere other than where he is.

He misses Robbie's first smile, but is there when Robbie decides to sit up on his own. Robbie has his mother's blue eyes, but otherwise looks just like his father. His parents visit with a suitcase of stuff just for their grandson. Eleanor's parents visit separately, with their separate spouses and suitcases of gifts and matching expressions of displeasure when they see their grandson's father.

Promotion to Staff Sergeant comes in the summer and with it a chance to be a platoon sergeant. It's a helluva lot more responsibility -- three squads to take care of instead of one, plus he's got to keep the lieutenant in one piece. Lieutenant Dervalle doesn't make it easy, certainly not once they get back to Afghanistan, because he won't keep his fucking head down when he uses the radio in the humvee. Ortilla and Doc Thanawale, their Corpsman, have a pool going with the radio operator and their gunner about where Dervalle will get hit first. None of them win because none of them picked the foot.

Once they're home again, it feels like it's only temporary. Everyone in Jacksonville knows without any orders issued that Iraq is imminent, that some of them are going just in case. Over dinner one night, after Robbie is down to sleep, Eleanor tells him that the constant deployments, the absences for training exercises, and the attention he has to dedicate to being the guiding force behind a platoon of young men are too much, that she can't do this parenting thing alone, not on the crappy salary she's making, not even with what he gives her out of his own paycheck (she fought him on this, but he won the argument). She is taking a job at a small private college in Northern New Jersey. Close enough for his parents to see Robbie regularly. Eleanor wants that, for him and for Robbie. He tries to be happy that it could have gone the other way, that she could have moved closer to her parents.

Robbie's first word is "car." Eleanor calls him, but Robbie won't say it again.

The next two years are more of the same. Deployments, training exercises, phone calls when he's Stateside and emails when he's not. Eleanor sends pictures, videos, and Robbie's first attempts at art. Manny spends all of his leave and as many free weekends as he can afford airfare up in New York. He stays with his parents, who have had Robbie for a guest so often that his son knows his way around his parents' apartment better than he does. He feels like a favorite uncle instead of a father. He feels like a father to the eighteen- and nineteen-year-old marines in his platoon.

Robbie likes his abuela's cookies, Thomas the Tank Engine, and swings. He knows his father's a marine, but doesn't understand what that means beyond that Daddy is keeping him safe.

He's on block leave in Corona when Eleanor asks him to have dinner with her. He shows up at the restaurant and she's not alone, instead standing next to a blond man who has an easy smile until he sees Manny, at which point it becomes a little nervous. This is Michael, Eleanor says. When Michael gives them a moment, she explains that they've been dating for eight months, that she thinks it's getting serious, that she doesn't need his approval but she wants him to be comfortable with someone who will probably become a part of their son's life. Michael is a hedge fund trader, makes a good living. He wants kids, loves kids, thinks Robbie's just the greatest.

Three months later, after Eleanor calls to tell him that Michael has proposed and she's accepted, Ridenauer, Gomez, and Vargas take him out and get him so drunk he can't remember to be afraid that he's just been replaced as Robbie's father.

The next deployment is the best before it becomes the worst. They run into an ambush, six humvees trapped on a street between two burning wrecks of what had been cars before they'd been detonated. They fight back with everything they have and the Cobras overhead help keep it from getting worse than it does until Second Platoon can get turned around and break through the flaming barriers to even the odds. But by the end, he is in the gun turret firing the .50 cal because Meecham's dead and Sivsky needs to stay on the radio, Thanawale is following every cry of "Corpsman up!", and he isn't letting Lieutenant Dervalle up there because Dervalle is still a fucking bullet magnet.

There will be silver stars and bronze stars and purple hearts galore, but there's also four downturned bayonets with covers and boots and dogtags and four marines who won't answer to their names ever again.

Robbie is with his parents at the Welcome Home area once they get back. He's smiling and doesn't understand why that makes his father cry.

When Gunner Watson tells him that there's a fellow who wants to talk to him and he might want to listen, he has no idea what to think. When the pitch comes -- yearlong deployment, classified up the yin-yang, multiple pay adjustments (all upward) -- he wonders where the hell they could be asking him to go. Especially because he's got twenty-four hours to decide. He doesn't like the idea of spending a year without seeing his son (the guy didn't say "no leave", but that was the impression), but... But. Robbie is happy, is well-provided for, is lacking for nothing. Michael is turning out to be the perfect step-father (Manny's own parents like him), Eleanor is still doing everything she can to keep Robbie close to the Ortilla clan, and he wonders, not for the first time, if maybe he should be leaving well enough alone. Because, under the circumstances, how could ask for anything more than what he has?

Eleanor sends Robbie (and his mother) down to Carolina for the month before he leaves for Atlantis.

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26 December, 2006