I should have known I'd get caught. I'd never been a sneaky person, so thinking that I'd be able to come into class ten minutes late and not have the teacher notice was a bit naïve on my part.
"Miss St. Clare, please see me after class," she called out as I slipped into a seat near the back, dropping my tote bag to the floor as silently as possible.
I nodded, but didn't speak, because despite the fact that I didn't mind the attention, I didn't want to distract the rest of the class from the lesson. So I busied myself with removing a notebook and pen from my bag and jotting down the notes already written on the board, deciding I'd opt out of vocally participating today. I'd already made an entrance. I didn't want to be that obnoxious kid who hogged all of the teacher's attention.
We were two months in to my GED class and so far, I could say that it was much more difficult than I imagined it would be. I loved it, though. It was challenging and enthralling and gave me a social experience I'd never had before. Plus, the teacher, Dr. Kate Hutchins, was incredible. She was smart and poised and engaging and she made the material so easy to understand, yet so enjoyable as well. She made me want to come to class every week and that was something I never thought I'd say about school.
The fact that she made me feel so comfortable was one of the reasons I wasn't at all anxious when I approached her when class was over. "You wanted to see me, Dr. Hutchins?"
"Stella, yes," she smiled warmly, organizing the stack of in class quizzes we'd turned in a few minutes earlier on her desk. "I wanted to discuss the paper you wrote on women in the fashion industry."
"Oh," I said, my heart rate suddenly spiking.
The paper she was referring to was a free response essay on any topic we were passionate about. I'd chosen women in fashion for obvious reasons and I'd honestly really enjoyed writing the paper. The underlying point was that although the fashion industry seems to be more targeted towards women, it's shrouded in sexism and misogyny because of both the standards imposed on female models and the fact that the majority of the well-respected designers were men. I'd thought I'd done a pretty good job, but the fact that she wanted to talk to me about it had me doubting myself. Because I'd never written an essay like that before, so who was I to judge whether or not it was actually good.
"Did you hate it?" I asked, already apologetic. "Was it awful? I can do better if you let me re-do it."
"No, Stella," she shook her head, reaching out to touch my arm in hopes of calming me down. "I wanted to tell you that I thought it was fantastic."
I blinked, by heart still beating so loud that I could hear it wringing in my ears. "You did?"
"Yes," her smile widened and she squeezed my arm reassuringly. "It's insightful and well written and it sucks you in to the point that you're disappointed when it's over."
That was quite possibly the last thing I expected her to say. I'd never considered myself a great writer, solely based on the grades I'd gotten on every writing assignment I'd turned in before I dropped out of school. But I had worked my ass off on this one. I wanted to prove to myself and to Dr. Hutchins that I was willing to do whatever it took to get my degree. So there had been a lot of late nights and coffee refills and apologizing to Caleb because I was coming home at odd hours of the morning, but I was certain it would all be worth it. And with that one compliment, Dr. Hutchins had made sure every sacrifice I'd made so far was for something.
"Wow," I let out a shaky sigh of relief, my heart rate slowing down. "Thank you."
She smiled softly, retracting her hand. "Your writing and analytical thinking have improved so much throughout the past couple months and I just want you to know that I'm very proud of you."
"That means a lot to me," I replied and I wondered if she knew how much. None of the teachers I'd had before ever gave me this kind of encouragement. It was nice to know that my effort paid off and that at the end of the day, I was actually getting something out of this whole experience. It was nice to know that someone was in my corner because it made me believe that anything was possible.
"Go have some fun," she grinned, nodding towards the door. "You deserve it."
Thanking her again, I left the room in kind of a haze. In fact, the entire journey home was kind of foggy and I'm sure the other people on the subway were wondering what the hell I was smiling at, but I couldn't help it. I was happy. And for the first time in a long time, I didn't feel guilty about it, because I knew that Georgia would be happy for me too.
Cooper was already asleep when I arrived home, but Caleb was still awake, slumped back against the couch with his feet propped up on the coffee table as he watched reruns of Chopped.
"Hey, babe!" he called out as I entered, lowering his feet to the floor and sitting up a little straighter. "How was your class?"
I didn't respond, instead plopping down on the couch beside him, taking his cheeks between my palms, and kissing him long and hard. He was understandably taken aback, so it took him a few seconds to return the pressure, but he did, smiling against my lips as he kissed me and smiling even wider when we pulled apart, his eyes wide and beautiful and filled with joy. "What was that for?"
I shrugged, feeling warm and happy and completely alive. "I just had a really good day and I really needed to do that."
That's a pretty vague answer, but he didn't question me, leaning in to peck my lips once more. "Well, anytime you ever have a good day, feel free to do that."
"I'll keep that in mind," I grinned, thinking it was kind of unfair that my life could be this great.
Caleb laughed, leaning back into the couch and pulling me alongside him. "So what happened that made your day so good?"
"Remember that paper I was writing?" I said, kicking off my shoes and tucking my feet beneath me as I rested my head on his shoulder. "Well, Dr. Hutchins told me that she loved it and that she's proud of me and how much I've grown during this class."
I felt him smile against the top of my head before he pressed a kiss to my hair. "I'm happy for you. And I'm proud of you, too."
"Thanks, baby," I sighed contently.
I already knew that Caleb was proud of me. He had been nothing but supportive about me going back to school. Even when I came back at two in the morning because I'd been at the university library doing research or I was too busy or too tired to show him any affection, he'd completely understood. He knew how important all of this was to me and he'd been the world's greatest boyfriend as I tried to work through it.
"So what's next" he asked, his fingers lightly tracing up and down my outer arm. "Now that you got this whole GED thing on lock, what part of the world are you going to conquer next?"
I wasn't sure that I had the whole GED thing conquered at all. I still had to pass the final exam in a couple weeks and I'd never been a good test taker. Exams made me nervous and shaky and I always ended up completely blanking.
But I did understand what he meant. Because despite being worried about it, I did feel like I had it handled. And I knew how to study and how to work hard and how to put as much effort as possible into everything I did. At the end of the day, all that mattered was that I knew I tried my best.
So maybe it was time for me to start looking forward; to start thinking about my future and where I wanted my life to go from here. Tilting my head backwards so that I could look at Caleb, I smiled softly. "You."
"You already have me, Stel," he laughed quietly, holding me closer to his side.
"No, I know," I replied, tracing circular patterns over t-shirt covered stomach, my gaze following the motion of my fingers. "Do you want to get married?"
"What, like, eventually?" he asked. "Yeah."
The words had sort of just come out. I hadn't planned on saying them, but that didn't mean I hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about it. It seemed like a lifetime ago that we'd last talked about the possibility of getting married; after I'd found the engagement ring he was holding for Alex and I told him I loved him, but I wasn't ready for that kind of commitment.
At the time, the idea of being bound to someone for the rest of my life was absolutely terrifying. But now, I felt like we could do anything. We'd made it through three months of living apart and changes in both our careers and if I'd learned anything from being Caleb's girlfriend for the past almost year, it was that we were survivors. We'd faced every obstacle thrown at us so far and we'd faced them together, supporting each other and learning to love each other and knowing that no matter what happened, we always had somebody who had our back.
Surely that kind of love, that kind of commitment and dedication to each other couldn't come around more than once in a lifetime. Caleb and I had a future together. So why couldn't that future start now?
Lifting my head from his chest, I locked my eyes on his, my conviction growing with each passing second. "No, I mean like, to me. Now."
"What exactly are you saying, Stella?" he whispered and I felt his heart rate spike beneath my fingertips. He could tell this was a pivotal moment. Or at least, I hoped it would be.
"I'm asking you to marry me, Caleb." I said the words softly, but clear as day and loaded with love and sincerity.
"A-are you sure?" he stammered out, leaning forward and straightening his posture, his eyebrows furrowing in concern as he spoke. "Last time this came up, you were kinda freaked out about it."
"I know," I said, a smile kinking the corners of my lips, "But we've been through so much. If this past year has taught me anything, it's that we have to learn to make the most of the life we have and I want to do that with you." I took both his hands in mine, keeping my gaze direct because I needed him to believe me. "You're right, there is still so much of the world that I want to conquer, but I want to face all of those battles with you by my side. So what do you say?" My smile widened further. "Caleb Hanley, will you marry me?"
There were ten quickened heartbeats of silence as he came to the realization that I was being entirely serious and once it settled in his mind, a slow smile stretched his lips and his eyes lit with joy and he leaned forward to press his lips to mine and kiss his response against my mouth to make sure that I felt it in every cell of my body.