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It was yet another searing hot day in San Soldado, Arizona. Standing hunched under a tree in a park opposite his workplace, Dr. Gregorio Aquino was trying hard to enjoy his lunchtime cigarette. As a native of Honduras, he found the Copper State’s 40-degree summers a little easier to take than most, but it was his understanding that the arrival of autumn meant things were supposed to cool down. It was now mid-September and they certainly hadn’t so far. That said, these circumstances were a lot better compared to what he’d had to deal with in New York. The states both enforced draconian smoking laws, but the Empire State’s frigid winters meant he’d often had to retreat to his car to light up, just to avoid frostbite: no risk of that happening here.

Taking one last drag, Gregorio stubbed his cigarette out on the tree’s trunk and flicked it into the grass, which was looking suspiciously green considering San Soldado was situated on the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert. Crossing the road, he passed under an archway that marked the entrance to the grounds of his workplace, the Archbishop Zumárraga Catholic Preparatory School (Z-Prep to its students). The main school building, a palatial four-storey behemoth with a domed roof, looked more like a cathedral than a high school, but Z-Prep hadn’t been designed to look like one. Instead of some municipal draughtsman, a noted Slovenian architect had been brought in to design the place, and the Vatican Bank had picked up the tab.

Just a few years ago, San Soldado had been a town dominated by slums. Situated barely 100 miles from the Mexican border, it was the first port of call for many Latin-American migrants who, unable or unwilling to pay traffickers, crossed the border on foot. Many then moved on to Phoenix and elsewhere, but some, having barely survived the all-too-often deadly trek across the Sonoran Desert, usually lacked the will or energy to journey on, so simply stayed put. As such, over the last forty years, the town’s population had ballooned from 10,000 to 90,000. For whatever reason, Arizona’s legislature had been quite happy to ignore the town’s plight, even as shacks began to outnumber actual houses. Help finally came not from the state authorities, but the Catholic Church, after an influential cardinal paid the town a visit and saw tens of thousands of his church’s most devout followers living in squalor. Within months of that, a massive Vatican-funded construction project was underway.

Archbishop Zumárraga Catholic Preparatory School had been the centrepiece of this massive overhaul of San Soldado’s infrastructure. Besides English lessons, all Z-Prep classes were taught in Spanish, which considering the fact 95% of the town’s children spoke Spanish as their first language, had struck Gregorio as an excellent idea when he’d read about it in his New York parish newspaper. So much so in fact, he’d given up his position as an interpreter at the United Nations and applied for the post of English teacher at Z-Prep. A job offer came in under a week – apparently having a PhD in Linguistics spared him the need for an interview – and his first year had breezed by. As his many tactless aunts had noted in July during his annual vacation home to Honduras, he hadn’t looked so healthy (or happy) in years. Alas, the honeymoon had come to a screeching halt with the start of the fall semester.

A certain student, Xiomara Qinallata by name, had presented Gregorio with the first real challenge of his new career. Quite simply, she spoke almost no English, although one could hardly blame her for that. Peruvian by birth, the girl had apparently somehow escaped the human traffickers who’d smuggled her into Arizona. A local priest had found her curled up on the steps of his church, whereafter she was promptly granted special immigration status and placed with a foster family, and had only been enrolled at Z-Prep in March. For her own benefit, Gregorio had tried to arrange for her to take English classes with a lower grade, but admin weren’t interested. The fact she was scoring A’s and B’s in all her other classes probably didn’t help.

As he weaved his way round the clusters of chattering students on the school’s front lawns, the Honduran glanced at his watch. He had five minutes to avoid the post-lunch stampede. Quickening his stride, the good Dr. Aquino made it to his third-floor classroom with just seconds to spare. No sooner had he collapsed into the chair behind his desk that Z-Prep’s eighty-eight bells rang out, and within moments, his classroom door flew open and twenty-five schoolgirls (Z-Prep’s classes were gender-segregated) scampered in, seemingly racing one another to take their assigned seats. Xiomara, one of the last ones to arrive, quietly filed in and took her seat in the front row of desks, directly opposite Gregorio’s.

All the girls were dressed in the school uniform: a sky-blue polo-shirt with optional black cardigan and a royal-blue plaid skirt that, if worn properly, reached just above the knee. Inevitably, the actual length of the girls’ skirts varied considerably, but not Xiomara’s. Her uniform was consistently impeccable: her skirt always ankara escort unaltered, her polo-shirt always tucked in and fully-buttoned, with her silky black hair worn loose, draped over her shoulders. After the taking of attendance, the lesson proceeded as normal. Gregorio explained the day’s assignment in Spanish (today’s was a writing exercise) before distributing the worksheets personally, closing with the usual caveat than any questions the girls might have would have to be asked in English. Silence then fell as the teacher retook his seat.

The ninety-minute period elapsed without major incident. Throughout, Xiomara put on her usual convincing display of actually seeming to know what she was supposed to be doing. In due course, the bell rang and the girls began to vacate the classroom, placing their worksheets on Gregorio’s desk on their way out the door. Xiomara was the last to file past, handing her worksheet in face down.

“Wait, Miss Qinallata,” said the good Dr. Aquino as his Peruvian student neared the doorway. The schoolgirl froze. “Please close the door and come sit down. There’s something we need to discuss.”

It took a few seconds for the startled teenager to react. In complete silence, she gingerly closed the classroom door, and shuffled back to her desk, her head bowed slightly as if expecting to be severely berated. Eventually, she sat down, “What is it you want to discuss, Dr. Aquino?”

“It’s your grades, Xiomara.”

“Oh,” she muttered, biting her lower lip as she lowered her gaze. It looked to Gregorio as if she’d been expecting this conversation.

“I won’t lie to you, Miss Qinallata. Unless we can get your English grade up to a D-minus by Christmas, you’ll fail my class entirely.”

The schoolgirl’s eyes widened: “Does that basically mean I’m screwed?”

“No, Xiomara, it doesn’t.”

“Is that kind of grade turnaround even feasible?”

“It’s not like you can’t speak any English, is it?”

“Well no, but I never got taught any back home.”

Gregorio had suspected as much. Xiomara’s impeccable uniform wasn’t the only thing that set apart from most of her classmates. Unlike her predominantly mestizo peers, the Peruvian’s skin was much darker, indicating indigenous heritage. Such was the lot of South America’s native communities, she’d no doubt grown up in one of Lima’s poorer neighbourhoods, and as he’d once learnt from a Peruvian colleague, English teachers were in such short supply in Peru, it was usually only the privately-educated who left school with a working knowledge of the language.

“Anyway, I think I may have a solution,” said the Honduran.

“Like what?”

“Well, Miss Qinallata, I’ve spent the last week putting together some tutorials that should be able to save your grade.”

“Is there a catch?”

“There is one. There’s no time in either of our schedules to do these inside school hours, so you’d have to stay after.”

“For how long?”

“Two hours, three days a week, possibly for the whole semester.”

Xiomara paused, gently gnawing her lower lip, “Would I have to stay in uniform?”

“We’d be meeting on school property, so yes.”

She rolled her eyes, “Should I meet you here?”

“Are you sure you don’t want a day to think this over?” asked Gregorio. He had expected her to need rather more convincing.

The schoolgirl shook her head, “No, Dr. Aquino, I’m sure.”

“Okay then. Just meet me here after the bell. I have a classroom booked.”

Nodding, Xiomara glanced up at the clock hanging above Gregorio’s desk, said a quick goodbye then dashed out the classroom: she had all of thirty seconds to get to her biology class. Getting up to close the door, the good Dr. Aquino returned to his desk and spent the next ninety-minute period, which he had free, grading papers. He also began to feel little ambivalent about having extended his working week by six hours. Maybe he should’ve been the one to take a moment to think this whole tutorial idea over. Still, too late now.

Before long, the end-of-school bell rang, and as instructed, Xiomara knocked on Gregorio’s classroom door within minutes. Gregorio then escorted her to the venue of their afterschool sessions: a pokey little second-floor classroom in the school building’s east wing, specifically chosen to minimise the risk of them being interrupted by any of his colleagues looking for somewhere to vent. The tutorials were slow going at first. The Honduran found he’d underestimated quite how bad his student’s spoken English was, although her reading and ability were light-years ahead of his expectations. Thus, the sessions soon evolved into a series of prolonged discussions rather than intensive one-to-one lessons. Xiomara turned up to each and every tutorial without fail, usually beating Gregorio there by some minutes, and he gradually learned more about his enigmatic student.

In broken English, she told him about her childhood growing up in the barriadas of Peru’s capital Lima, and of how she’d lost her father, a labourer at Lima’s Callao port, in a freak accident in which he was crushed by a falling shipping container. ankara escort bayan Apparently, it was the drop in her family’s income caused by this death than had driven the 17 year-old Xiomara, then a college freshman – turned out Peruvians finish high school at 16 – to approach the men who’d smuggled her into the US. She didn’t talk about the journey itself or how she’d escaped.

In turn, the good Dr. Aquino shared some stories of his own. Initially, all Xiomara got were the same staple anecdotes Gregorio told pretty much everyone, mostly from his years at th United Nations. These included run-ins with various madcap dictators, most of whom were no longer in power, but most of these were lost on the Peruvian, who’s knowledge of international politics was forgivably rather lacking. After a month or so though, Xiomara found her English teacher’s divulgences became radically more personal.

As far as the people of San Soldado were aware, the good Dr. Gregorio Aquino was an eligible bachelor. Only the IRS and US State Department knew otherwise. Thus did Xiomara Qinallata, an 18 year-old girl he’d known for barely two months, become the town’s first resident to hear about the Honduran’s estranged Brazilian wife, Renata. When he’d made the decision to take the job at Z-Prep, his wife of five years hadn’t been quite so willing to uproot herself to smalltown Arizona. So, they’d separated, but hadn’t divorced. They still spoke often enough, but Gregorio hadn’t seen his wife since boarding the plane for Phoenix at JFK eighteen month ago.

As October gave way to November, Xiomara’s grasp of English continued to strengthen, culminating in the all-important grade of D-minus on a test halfway through the month. Gregorio could see that becoming a D-plus by the midterms and maybe even a C by finals if the tutorials continued. However, Vice-Principal Tancredo had only let the tutorials go ahead under the strict condition that they stopped the moment she made the grade. Tancredo had been concerned about Xiomara gaining an unfair advantage over her classmates.

Ludicrous as it sounded at the time, the speed of the Peruvian’s progress had convinced him of the merit of Tancredo’s concerns. With some reluctance, the Honduran chose the last Wednesday in November – their last tutorial before Thanksgiving – to give his student the bittersweet news.

That Wednesday afternoon, Gregorio waited the usual couple of minutes after the bell before setting off for what would be their last tutorial. True to form, Xiomara was already in the second-floor classroom, sat at one end of the two desks they pushed together to work at. Her uniform was pristine as ever, and she was smiling, almost beaming. It was a far cry from the nervous lip-gnawing of a couple months ago.

“Good afternoon, Dr. Aquino,” she said, in heavily-accented but otherwise perfect English.

“Good afternoon, Miss Qinallata,” replied Gregorio as he took his seat opposite her.

“How are you?”

“Well enough. Had a visit from your sister earlier.”

“Lucia?”

“Yes. She told me to stop working you so hard.”

“She can be very sweet like that,” said Xiomara in Spanish, smirking. An 11th-grader at Z-Prep, Lucia was the only child of the Viviancos, Xiomara’s foster family.

“I look forward to teaching her.”

“So, what are we doing today?” asked the Peruvian in English. As her teacher sighed, she frowned, “Is something wrong, Dr. Aquino?”

“Quite the opposite, Miss Qinallata. I never told you about my agreement with the Vice-Principal about these sessions. I’ve been under strict instructions to end them as soon as you reached the required grade,” explained Gregorio, switching to Spanish to ensure he wasn’t misunderstood.

“So, is this our last tutorial?”

Her teacher nodded. Straight away, the schoolgirl bit down on her lower lip. The Honduran frowned, “Is something wrong, Xiomy?”

“Dr. Aquino, it’s time I told you something.”

“What about?”

“About how I came to San Soldado.”

“You mean how you escaped?”

Xiomara shook her head, “There was never an escape, Dr. Aquino. My smuggler let me go.”

“After sneaking you halfway across South America? Why?”

“Because I paid him to.”

“I thought your family were poor.”

“They are. They still live in the barriada, too. I used the compensation money the port owners gave Mami after Papi died. I was able to pay a professional smuggler instead of some bonehead coyote.”

“So how the hell are you on file as a trafficking victim with special immigration status?”

“My smuggler knew who to pay. The immigration service is just as corrupt as the rest of this country’s government.”

Despite her earnest tone, the good Dr. Aquino wasn’t quite sure to what to make of these supposed revelations. He was no psychologist, but it sounded an awful lot like the sort of tall tale a troubled mind might concoct to help paper over a traumatic ordeal, such as being trafficked. Quite how composed Xiomara was didn’t help matters.

“Why tell me this now?” asked Gregorio.

“If this is our last tutorial, escort ankara I might never be able to talk to you like this again, and the man I love deserves to know the truth about me.”

“The man you love?”

The schoolgirl nodded, “Don’t worry, Dr. Aquino. I might have grown up in a barriada but I’m not some naive child. I don’t expect you to love me back. I’m not even sure I’d want you to.”

For several minutes, all Gregorio felt able to do was sit in silence, holding Xiomara’s calm but unrelenting gaze. The whole situation was wreaking havoc on his cranium. Again, he wasn’t sure whether to take what she’d said at face value, or to treat it as another symptom of a traumatised or unstable mind. Her apparent expectation and acceptance of her affections being unrequited only confused him further. That was unless there was something else at work here.

“Did I make a mistake, telling you about Renata?”

Xiomara sighed, smiling faintly at him, “Is there anything I can do to convince you I’m not crazy, Dr. Aquino? This is nothing to do with pity, or jealousy. I see very clearly you still love your wife and I respect that, but I can’t help the way I feel about you.”

Closing his eyes, Gregorio massaged his temples. Her lucidity continued to unnerve.

“Is that all, then?” he asked, somewhat hopefully.

“Well, there was one favour I wanted to ask.”

“Go ahead.”

“I would like for you to be the first man to make love to me, Dr. Aquino,” said Xiomara, in evidently well-rehearsed English.

Once again, the good Dr. Aquino went silent for several minutes before speaking, “Are you quite serious?”

The Peruvian nodded.

“Xiomara, you ought to know I could have you expelled simply for asking that.”

“Do you really plan on reporting it?”

The Honduran merely sighed at the question, “What if you were to conceive? What then? I’m afraid I don’t believe in contraception.”

“You don’t believe in contraception? How come you aren’t a father?”

“I said I don’t believe in it. Renata felt differently so we found a way round it.”

Xiomara shrugged, “A grandchild would a perfect gift to take home to Mami.”

“To take home?”

“San Soldado’s nice, but I miss my family.”

Conversation trailed off after that as Gregorio fought in vain to gather his thoughts as he cast about in vain for something else to say. He was beyond doubt that he didn’t reciprocate Xiomara’s affections, but he had yet to categorically rule granting her so-called “favour”. The spectres of automatic dismissal, probable prosecution and possible deportation all loomed large, but it had been so very long since a woman had shown interest in him. Was a brief tryst with an 18 year-old girl of uncertain psychological soundness worth the risk? It would take some thought. As such, he decided to play for time.

“Meet me here as normal on Monday, Miss Qinallata. You’ll have your answer then.”

“As you wish, Dr. Aquino,” said Xiomara. She smiled warmly at him as she rose to her feet, as if in no doubt what his answer on Monday would be, “Happy Thanksgiving, by the way.”

“And to you,” replied Gregorio, raising a hand in farewell until the Peruvian exited the room, suppressing the urge to scoff at her parting words. As if there was any chance of him passing a happy Thanksgiving with her request weighing on his mind, not that he even celebrated the holiday – he’d never quite understood it.

Despite the occasion, his weekend was as low-key as any other. His weekly phone call to Renata in New York on Thursday evening was the shortest yet. In fact, all he got was a recorded message telling him she was out of town in the Hamptons. Only a fool would think she’d gone there alone. It was a sore reminder that they were only really still married in the eyes of the law. Not that he felt particularly uncomfortable about her seeing other men in his absence – it just hadn’t really occurred to him to get back in the game himself. Part of it was probably the Catholic dogma he’d been raised on. Also, he’d long suspected Renata’s hesitation at filing for divorce had had something to do with the possible ramifications it would have for him. She knew how zealous his family in Honduras were. It was possible she’d just wanted to spare him the aggro a divorce would no doubt provoke.

As for Xiomara, the fact a part of him seemed perfectly willing to lay his job (and potentially freedom) on the line for a single sexual encounter terrified him. The chances of getting caught were slim. He knew from the janitors’ schedule, which he’d consulted when picking the classroom in the first place, that the room was cleaned in the mornings, not evenings, so the only potential interruption was another teacher barging in.

Then there was the truth of her tale about the professional smuggler to consider. Perhaps it was a delusion dreamt up by a traumatised mind, or even just a story Xiomara had concocted to try and persuade him he wouldn’t be taking advantage of a vulnerable victim. Frankly, he was amazed at how little it actually seemed to matter to him. If it were true, he guessed he should be happy for her, but even if it were either one of the other scenarios, maybe granting her favour would be the right thing to do anyway. Traumatised or not, the prospect of making a homesick young girl happy was strangely compelling.

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