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I like to think I’ve mentally blocked out most memories of my adolescence. Like many, the years of my life between ages 10 until very recently were an awkward, dark, embarrassing time.
The mortifying nature of being a tweenager in itself is unfairly amplified by the influx of hormones, emotions, acne, and new body parts. Because my life is one long, drawn-out, and poorly written joke reserved for the leading lady’s less-cute and much more klutzy best-friend character, puberty seemingly lasted the entire duration of my tween and teenage years rather than a short spurt in middle school. Everything came late. I didn’t grow a single hair in my armpits until I was, like, 15. And my boobs declined to make an appearance until I summoned them via hormonal birth control at age 21.
Even without those bits, though, being a tween was horrifying, and I try not to think about my more tender moments too often — except for one story, which was probably the most humiliating moment of my young life. But, in hindsight, it’s also the most hilarious.
When I was 10, that tender age between the single digits of carefree childhood and the vulgar pangs of puberty, my family traveled to a tropical, picturesque resort in Cancun for a mid-winter holiday. Growing up, my parents were frugal and pragmatic in most things; my sister and I never received fancy clothes, cosmetics, or material things. Instead, they instilled in me a joy of traveling, and their one big splurge every few years was a fancy vacation to somewhere warm and wonderful. It was always a much-needed escape from the bitter Baltimore cold, and some of my childhood’s best memories are from these trips.
This trip, however, holds a special, terrible, hysterical place in my mind and my heart. One day, bored of the poolside bar and all-inclusive fitness classes, my family made an excursion to Xel-Ha Park, where you can hang at a spa, snorkel, ride a zip bike or even swim with dolphins. It was, of course, that last activity that attracted my family, especially my eight-year-old sister, who dreamed of being a marine biologist at the time. (It’s worth noting that while her oceanic ambitions never did come to fruition, she’s become quite an astounding human. Between cycling 4,000 miles across America to raise money for cancer patients and landing a killer job at one of the nation’s best hospitals, she’s an amazing woman. Still, I blame this entire event on her. You owe me, sissy.)
When it was our turn to swim with the dolphins, we were all given life vests and some brief safety instructions. It was simple things like, “Don’t stick your hand in a dolphin’s mouth,” and other things that probably prompted a duh-like response from 10-year-old baby Rachie.
In real life, dolphins are bigger than I expected. Their skin is rubbery and slick, and they’re loud as hell when they make those squeaky noises. Before getting in the water, we “warmed up” the dolphins by giving them fish and petting them. They were fun and playful like big, giant, slippery puppies.
Then it was time to get in the water with the dolphins, and I was excited! Finally, my chance to truly befriend a sea creature had arrived! I’ve always suspected I might be capable of some sort of Free Willy-esque connection to marine wildlife.
The dolphins did jumps over us, splashing us with the salty water of the park’s deep, wide lagoon. They swam quickly in circles around us, creating a supercool but also safe whirlpool of waves. They made bubbles under the water, they “sang” for us, and they hugged us with their big, funny fins.
And then it came time for “The Push,” the big stunt they’d been getting us pumped for the whole day. I was excited! Basically, each dolphin comes up under each of your two feet and pushes you through the water super fast. It’s like there are powerful jet streams of water under each of your feet and you can fly through the water! I watched my sister get pushed first and, though I was nervous, I raised my hand when the instructor (who was, in my memory, a hot dude, but when you’re 10, every dude grown enough to have a job but not grown enough to be your dad is hot) asked who wanted to go next.
I swam out into the water, smiled up at the camera (oh, did I mention that a video recording was being made of this as a fun souvenir VHS?), and waited for the magic. The dolphins swam up, and it was every bit as awesome as you could imagine. I was flying! Rose in Titanic style! I held my arms out like I was in a soulful '90s music video and felt the wind blow through my hair. The crowd (oh, did I mention a crowd was standing on the observation deck above the lagoon?) cheered, and I knew this was the peak of my young life. I was one with the dolphins for a fleeting moment.
It wasn’t until I’d reached the other end of the lagoon, adrenaline rushing through my veins, that I felt something was wrong. Or not wrong so much as…missing. At 10 years old, of course, I was only vaguely aware of my nether regions, but in that moment, I’d never been more cognizant of them, or the fact that they were totally exposed.
The momentum of the dolphins pushing me, as well as the rushing water, had pushed my bikini bottoms right down.
I was obviously humiliated, but also too ashamed to yell from across the water to my family and the cute (?) instructor, “HEY, I’M TOTALLY FREE-ASSING IT OUT HERE IN THIS SCENIC LAGOON. THAT DOLPHIN STOLE MY INNOCENCE.” Instead, I sort of frantically treaded water for a few moments while I tried to decide my plan of action.
Are you there, God? It’s me, Rachel. If drowning is by any chance in your big life plan for me, please just do it now. Please drown me. Right here. Now. Please. Thank you. Amen. P.S. World peace please also.
And here’s where my memory gets a bit fuzzy. I guess all those endorphins messed with me, and I entered some sort of mortification blackout, but here’s how I think I remember the rest of the story:
Everything began to move in hazy, magic-hour slow motion like the intro to an indie movie. I spun around in the water, flailing beneath its dark blue crest, and found myself staring right into the eyes of that damn dolphin, my fuchsia boy-short bikini bottom perched atop its stupid, adorable nose.
With as much stealth as a lanky, 5'7" tween can muster, I snatched my bottoms back and told that dolphin he should be ashamed of himself. Cursing the ocean and physics, I shimmied back into my bottoms and swam back to shore.
My mom still assures me that the water’s spray blocked my lower body and my dad assures me he can barely remember yesterday let alone the year 2000. My sister was unable to be reached for comment because she’s busy having a career and going on dates and not feebly dwelling in the annals of our most formative years.
I think about that day sometimes, whenever a friend brings up dolphins or skinny-dipping (two conversation topics that 10-year-old Rachel would be disappointed to find out don’t come up more often). It was obviously humiliating enough to be permanently scarred into my memory, but it makes for a good story at parties, and now on the Internet forever!
I guess, in a way, I’m thankful to that dolphin for teaching me an important lesson about embarrassing moments and how they aren’t the end of the world. At least, not for very long. I’m also thankful to him for providing me with the title of my future memoirs, Naked With Dolphins: The Rachel Perkins Story.
But most of all, I’m thankful my parents have no idea where that VHS is.