The day they met, she curled her long brown hair, put on makeup and her teddy bear pajamas with a pink tank top. For months, he had texted her from his Air Force base in Utah 100 times a day, she said. They were introduced through a mutual friend that he knew when he used to live in Wesley Chapel. At night, they talked until she fell asleep. Tiffany Aponte was 15 then; he was 18. She told him everything. "He was my diary."
He came to town for a brief visit and in time he became her boyfriend.
Then she started getting messages on Facebook, from other girls in Utah.
He had raped them, they said.
Police in Utah started calling her, too, she said. They told Aponte he was on trial for rape and wondered if she would testify against him. He had other children.
But she didn't want to believe them. She wanted her baby to have a daddy.
He booked a ticket to Tampa for the birth. But little Aliyah came early, so instead, he met his 6-week-old baby.
Outside her mother's house, she said, he pushed her into the back of his car and raped her.
But she didn't tell.
"I never would say the word rape," said Aponte, now 18. "When I think of rape, I don't picture it as someone I used to love or someone I had a baby from."
By the time Aliyah was born, Aponte said she could no longer live with her parents and moved in with a friend. When that family began having financial problems, Aponte and her baby were on the verge of being homeless. She was missing school. She had broken up with the father and he was busy fighting allegations of rape in Utah.
A school social worker referred her to Starting Right, Now, a nonprofit organization that works through Hillsborough County Schools to eliminate the cycle of homelessness among high school students.
The organization set her up in an apartment to finish her senior year at Armwood High School. A mentor takes her grocery shopping and helps resolve problems.
There are many. There is no bus line near her apartment, she said. Aponte sometimes has to miss school because the school bus comes at 6:30 a.m. and her baby's day care opens at 7 a.m. She hopes to get her driver's license, a car and insurance so she won't need to rely on friends for rides. She's planning to go to Hillsborough Community College or the University of South Florida and eventually become a social worker.
"A social worker is like the superhero to kids in, like, my situation," she said.
Aponte had planned a different route for her life. At the start of her sophomore year at Armwood, she wrote an essay on virginity.
I'm happy to be one of the few girls in school still virgins. I'm a Christian and plan to wait till I'm married. I want to save myself for that one person.
Her baby's father is serving a three-year sentence for a conviction on multiple charges of sexual assault on minors.
Aponte wants to terminate his parental rights. She wants to change their baby's last name to hers.
She regrets not telling on him.
She doesn't regret giving birth to Aliyah. "I wouldn't change that for anything," she said.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.