SOMEWHERE ON THE CENTRAL COAST, Calif. (ZP) -- The last time "Tonya" and I were alone in a room together, she'd just turned 16 and had successfully passed her GED exam.
I was 21 at the time, and, well, I'd managed to pull off the hat trick that day. As "Tonya's" tutor, I was utterly proud that, in the span of a month, one of the kids I'd worked hard to mentor now had her emancipation papers in hand, her high school equivalency complete, and she'd managed to stay narcotic-free for six months.
Against better judgment, she somehow talked me into going out with a few of her friends to celebrate. One of our mutual acquaintances lived on this beat-up, barely-afloat boat, and the plan called for six of us to head out into the Estero Bay darkness for an evening of drunken mayhem.
During the sail, she had to go down below to take a piss in the five-gallon bucket that was serving as an impromptu women's urinal (guys, well, just pissed astern into the fog and the boat toilet hadn't worked in months). For some reason, she asked me to go down below with her to stand guard by the hatch door.
I thought this strange for two reasons. First, there were only two guys on the boat - the Old Salt owner and myself. The rest of the part consisted of women. Secondly, the hatch door had a lock. She locked the door as she closed it, actually.
SoI just stood there, facing the door, standing guard, humming, waiting for her to finish her business. A few minutes went by before I realized what she, well, really didn't have to pee.
I felt her hand on my neck and turned around. I honestly thought, at the time, she just wanted to talk or to ask my opinion on something or to, I dunno, give me a gift or something.
I did not expect to have a kid I'd volunteered to tutor put her arms around me, smile and tell me how glad she was that I'd decided to come along for the ride, and kiss me.
We're not talking a friendly kiss here. I figure that's self-evident, but one can never be too sure...
* * * *We'd run into each other at a bookstore. She was shopping for marked-down children's books for her four-year-old. I was simply looking to buy myself a copy of The Wonga Coup, a book I purchased for my mother for Christmas and would finally have time to read myself on my way back to Oxford Fucking Ohio.
By the time I realized who she was, that strangely hot woman in the saggy, baggy camouflage pants and Vans who kept poking her head around the aisle staring at me, her four-year-old had already figured a few things out for herself. "Tonya's" little girl simply walked up, stared at me with her mom's big brown eyes, and asked, in that head-cocked-to-the-side curious, preschool way, why her mommy kept staring at me.
After exchanging some embarrassingly awkward reintroductions and greetings, followed by a series of even more awkward long pauses and false starts, I asked her if she'd like o grab some coffee across the street and play catch up.
After a quick call to her mom to arrange for Grandma to babysit for a few hours, she agreed to meet me there in an hour. (She had to drive her daughter to her parents house, out on the coast.) I told her I'd meet her there; I still had some After-Christmas shopping to do anyway and, well, I was on vacation.
She smiled and said she'd see me then. As she walked away, she looked over her shoulder and said something I hadn't heard in four years.
She stuck her tongue out, took her daughter's hand, and started to walk away.
She paused for a second and, without skipping a beat, gave me the finger as she headed out the door. Two old ladies - stereotypical SLO-Town NIMBY retirees - looked at her in disgust.
Rather than continue shopping, I wandered round the downtown in a daze for the next 30 minutes. My palms were sweaty, my knees a bit uncertain, and my mind filled with a billion lost thoughts.
* * * *
The last time we'd seen each other was in 2002, right before I headed off to grad school in Louisiana. I swung by her job to say goodbye and to wish her well in life, just in case our paths never crossed again. At that time, we hadn't spoken more than ten words to one another since the night on the boat.
Actually, I hadn't said more than ten words to her in that six months. I ignored her calls. I deleted her voicemails at work, without even listening to them. I avoided her like the the Plague.
Every time I was in the town where she lived, I tried to ignore any spot where I knew she'd be. Somehow, she'd find me; she'd ride by on her skateboard and wave, kick up the board and want to talk about anything but that night. And I'd make excuses to get out of the conversation.
Part of me was embarrassed, part of me was afraid - downright terrified - that one of my former station's advertisers would see us together and would somehow know what had happened out on that boat, that one of those old ladies who always seemed to want to pester me to mention their grandchildren in my sportscasts would walk up and blow the lid off my shame.
"Tanya," after all, was the same age - or younger - than most of the high school athletes I'd covered daily before I left my journalism career behind.
Guilt is a powerful drug, addicting and simultaneously revolting. It drove me to finally suck it up and track "Tanya" down at work, if only to say goodbye.
She barely spoke as she stood behind the counter as I explained my situation, my moving to Baton Rouge to get a master's degree in some bizarre alchemy called Library and Information Science, my wanting to say goodbye.
As I turned to walk away, she came from behind the counter and gave me a hug.
Later jailbait. You take care of yourself and stay out of trouble.
Send me a postcard or something from Mardi Gras.
I never sent that damned postcard.
* * * *
As we chatted away over coffee in SLO's downtown, she reminded me that, well, it was I who'd pushed her away that night; I was the bastard who'd, well, refused to risk breaking the time-tested rule of Under 18 Equals Ten to Twenty and who'd crushed her with my excuses.
At one point, she asked me, point-blank, if that had been the only thing that had held me back, if I hadn't really rejected her because I unattracted to her.
Without even thinking, I blurted out that attraction wasn't the problem and that I was fairly certain that she was one of the most attractive, seductive women I'd ever met. In fact, I added , I dreamt about that kiss for months afterwards and had second-guessed my actions that night about a billion times.
As soon as I said that, I regretted admitting it aloud. "Tonya" just stared down into her Americano, stirring it slowly. I thought I'd brought up some painful memories for her.
Then, without looking up, she asked a simple - but obviously very difficult - question.
So you liked it?
I couldn't answer. I just bobbed my head up and down like an idiot.
She looked up and grinned.
I liked it, too. You were the first boy I ever kissed like that.
I wanted to say something, something about how, years ago, I'd done the right thing, about how I had to be an adult, be mature, professional. I was a reporter who was, simultaneously, a year away from finishing his undergrad, an adult of legal age who was oh-too-aware of what could've happened to my then-career, my life, had anything happened. Emancipated or not, she was still just 16 back then; her brother hadn't paid me whatever money he could panhandle to be her boyfriend.
Instead, I stared down into my black coffee like some emo kid coming down off the Xanax after a My Chemical Romance concert.
* * * *
The last time "Tonya" and I were alone in a room together, thins happened, things beyond our control, passions exposed that couldn't be put back into their proper place in a clean, tidy box.
It was Dec. 28. Mom's birthday. I'd promised my parents that I'd make it home in time to go to dinner to celebrate. My sister had already picked out a gift for her from me. My only deadline in San Luis Obispo County Fucking California was to make it home by six that night, to make it home in time to spend an evening with the fam.
I stretched out on the bed in the motel room. Not a bad for 30 bucks, I thought. The motel had changed owners since the last time I was here, during my undergrad days, for what my then-friends and I called our "Wild Bunch Man Retreats," our irregular three-day poetry/prose writing orgies of ink and booze where we channeled our the ghosts of Bukowski and Steinbeck and Kerouac into typewriters and laptops and empty bottles of Southern Comfort.
Somehow, though, even nostalgia couldn't save me from fate, couldn't pull me back from the thresholds of a destiny I could no longer fight, a retreat into that kind of reckless decadence.
"Tanya" made the trip to the drugstore for certain necessities; I'd left the car I was driving in the parking garage back in SLO. When we'd left McCarthy's, a former hangout of mine, I was buzzing from the two shots of Jamesons and the Irish Car Bomb.
I'd intentionally chosen not to get drunk - without even consciously planning out my choices, my actions, I knew this is where we'd end up for the afternoon.
I looked over at the nightstand. There, in a plastic cup next to a bottle of water, rested a diamond ring.
And a wedding band.
And they weren't mine.
To be quite honest, I couldn't have cared less.
I knew I was about to make a mistake, a mistake that couldn't be simply swept from memory by four years of distance, a conversation over coffee, and a few drinks at a bar.
Some mistakes you just know you're going to make. Some choices you know you're not going to be able to take back, to change any which way you choose to take them.
I turned on the TV, flipped through the channels as if I didn't have a care in the world.
Sometimes, one cannot change the inevitable, no matter how hard one tries.