I heard someone come in the room, but it didn't register in my brain until she spoke.
"Excuse me, Mr. Thompson?" she said.
Looking up from my desk, I saw the biggest, most beautiful pair of brown eyes in the world. It took me a second to recognise the face.
"Angelina Benardo!" I made sure to pronounce the g as an h in her first name. "What are you doing here?"
My face broke into a broad smile. I stood up. She came around the desk and gave me a warm hug. My body tingled at her touch.
"Do you remember what you told me the last time we saw each other?" she asked in her perfectly melodic voice. "I'm here to collect."
That was my sixth year teaching at the small rural high school in eastern Kentucky. Angelina was one of the best students I ever had. She took my AP American History class when she was a junior and AP European History from me her senior year. I was fresh out of college and landed my first job without having to send out a single resume. After a rocky first year of teaching, Angelina came into my life during my second year in the county schools.
I had always wanted to teach; it runs in my adopted family's blood. My grandmother was an elementary school principal, my mother a university professor and my father a middle school science teacher. When I was in high school, I taught self-defense and taekwondo and took as many teaching assistant jobs in college that I could get my hands on.
After graduating with my bachelor's degree, I was offered a chance to have my student loans forgiven if I would teach in either an inner-city school or in rural Appalachia. The principal had gotten my name from a graduates list provided by the dean at the College of Education and he called before the ink on my diploma was dry. Even better, the school district was so desperate for teachers, any teachers, that they even paid me a healthy signing bonus plus my moving expenses. It didn't hurt that I was a minority coming to a community that was almost entirely white and predominantly poor.
Four years later, my loans were discharged, but I loved the small town I now called home, I loved the school where I worked, and most of all, I loved my students. I had the opportunity to move and find a better-paying job, but I couldn't stand to leave. That didn't stop me from using the prospect of going out of state to leverage the county into paying for me to go get a master's degree and start a Ph.D. program, though.
Angelina was her class valedictorian. Not only was she smart, but she was drop-dead gorgeous. I try not to stare at my students who look older and dress more provocatively than kids did when I was in high school, but Angelina stood out. And it wasn't because she dressed slutty. She was always perfectly groomed, wholesome without looking uptight. I don't recall her ever overtly flirting with me, but she was always ready to engage me in a conversation or debate in a way that was years ahead of her classmates.
She had an air of worldliness to her that was rare in a community where people lived on the same streets as their parents and few people, if any, ever left town for good. "Provincial" is how I would describe the people here. They're good folks, most of whom make a living off coal mining and farming, but they have a small world view. Angelina was different. It was as if she knew there was more to life than doing the same thing her parents had spent a lifetime doing.
Maybe it was because, like me, she didn't quite fit in. In a community where every fifth person's last name was Adkins, Lewis, or Jones, the Benardos were conspicuously different. Her parents were from Belize and came to the United States before she was born. Angelina's father worked for a while as a migrant farmer, but somehow got a job in the Kentucky coal mines.
He eventually quit working underground and founded a trucking company which became fairly successful. His wife opened an Italian restaurant and the two of them were living the American dream. Sounds funny, huh? A family from Belize serving manicotti, carpaccio and spaghetti. Of course, I don't have much room to talk; I'm a Chinese guy named Marc Thompson living in Kentucky teaching American and European history.
Despite having to overcome a noticeable accent and the fact that their skin was darker than everyone else's, the Benardos melded into the community because they were hard-working and honest, and that counts for a lot around here.
Angelina was the oldest of five. When she graduated, she got a scholarship and went off to school at the University of Kentucky. Quickly doing the math, I figured she was a junior, but knowing her, she probably had enough credits to be a senior. One of her brothers was in my AP American History class this year and another brother had taken it two years before. Both were smart, but neither of them could match their sister. She scored 5s on the AP American and European History tests and I think she got the same—or close to it—on the AP English test, too.
I held her for a second then let go. She hadn't changed much.
She had a full head of beautiful, soft dark hair that went down to her waist. Her big brown eyes twinkled as if she knew something you didn't. She had perfect skin. Her body was perfectly portioned. Angelina was quite simply the most beautiful Latina I had ever laid my eyes on.
Years ago, she had asked if I would take her out to dinner and I turned her down.
"Grading papers on a Friday afternoon?" she asked me in her cute southern drawl. Having grown up in Kentucky, she talked more like a debutante than a girl whose parents were from Belize. "And on Valentine's Day at that!"
It's not like I had anything better to do. I lived in a small town with few single girls that appealed to me, and although no one would ever admit to it, folks around here did not take kind to interracial dating, and that left me with lots of lonely nights.
Valentine's Day is one of those days I tried to forget about. Being a construct of the flower and greeting card industries, all it does is depress me and everyone else who is alone. The kids had spent the day passing candy, flowers and stuffed teddy bears around school. A couple of them even gave me the token Valentines you pass along to your grandparents, the pastor and teachers.
"Mid-terms are coming up and I have got to get these papers done before I get swamped with exams." My heart started to race as her fingers brushed my hand.
"Those can wait." There was something different in her voice. Forcefulness. The Angelina I remembered had been quiet, almost timid. She was different.
Angelina put her arms around my neck. My hands reflexively went to her waist.
Her cheek pressed against mine. I could feel her breath in my ear.
"Do you remember my graduation?" she whispered. "I asked if you wanted to take me out to dinner. I was eighteen. You were my favourite teacher. I was no longer your student. You knew I liked you. And you liked me."
I did like her, but it was in a platonic teacher-pupil way; I would not let myself be attracted to one of my students, especially one like Angelina who had so much ahead of her once she got out of the one-horse town where she grew up.
"You said, 'Come see me when you're twenty-one.' That was almost three years ago. Today is my birthday."
My stomach jumped and my hands tensed around her waist.
"You owe me dinner," she said softly.
There was a quiet desperation in her voice. Almost pleading.
I pulled back and stared into her eyes. I didn't know what to do. I took a deep breath.
"Umm ... Sure." My reply was nervous. "Let me finish up here and then I've got to go home and change. Can I pick you up in an hour and a half ... say, six o'clock."
"Well..." She fidgeted for a second. "That might be a little tough ... My parents don't know I'm in town."
"What—" I started.
"They think I'm at school. I just drove home today without telling them."
"Why?" My heart skipped a beat.
"Because I wanted to see you, Mr. Thompson."
"You can call me Marc now, Angelina." I gave her a puzzled look. Impure thoughts raced through my head. "Where were you planning on staying?"
"With you, Mist—um ... Marc." Her confidence faltered for a second.
I didn't know what to say. She seemed to have the whole thing planned out. Part of me said that I should have called her parents right then. But another part of me thought, She's an adult now. She can make her own decisions. Go for it!
"Okay, let me get my things and we'll go back to my house."
We let go of each other and I gathered up all the papers on my desk. I avoided making eye contact with her. I shut off the computer, locked all the file cabinets and turned out the lights in my room.
I led her out of the building and we went to our cars. She followed me back to my small house. All the while, I couldn't stop thinking about her alluring eyes and beautiful face.
Pulling into the driveway, I went into the house, dropped my stuff inside the door and then went back out to help Angelina with her bags. Before we left the school, I mentioned that if she didn't want anyone to know she was in town, she should probably park in the garage. Not that word wouldn't get around soon enough. It's a small town and my neighbours were sure to notice an extra car pulling up to my house.
Still, she parked in the garage so no one would notice who it was; her secret visit would be under wraps for a little longer.
.... There is more of this story ...