Growing up, there were two kinds of kids in the world: kids who had been to Disneyland and kids who hadn’t. If you were in the first group, we poor kids naturally hated your guts.
My own family’s version of a vacation was a 13-hour non-stop drive to Salt Lake City to visit relatives twice a year. And by non-stop I mean non-stop, the kind of car trip that necessitates the special cup you just do not spill if you value your life, but which my brother once spilled anyway and the car never smelled the same again.
My mom tried to convince us that Salt Lake was exciting by calling it Mormonland! While it was indeed fun and creepy to watch them grin around their abnormally large white teeth and see them refuse to drink Coke (as a kid this was a sure sign that they were all weirdoes), and while the Salt Lake Temple did resemble a deranged Disney castle if you squinted at it in the right way, I knew that Salt Lake City was no Disneyland. I was getting shafted.
I was so jealous of those kids’ Show and Tell pictures of riding in the teacups (who wouldn’t want to sit in a giant teacup?!!!) that I actually sabotaged some of them with my rapier wit. Lucas Mucus went home crying when the rest of the school began using the new last name I gave him. I feel no remorse, even now. Lucas Puke-us earned it when he bragged about how you really thought that boulder on the Indiana Jones ride was going to crush you. I wanted to almost be crushed! I wanted the magic, the thrill, the ridiculously expensive plastic souvenirs. I didn’t go to Disneyland, Disneyworld, Six Flags, SeaWorld, you name it, we didn’t go. The only thrill I got was when that cup of pee spilled on my brother.
So when I find myself at the Ocean Adventure water park in the Philippines, it doesn’t matter in the slightest that I am well above their target age range. I have the chance to realize my childhood amusement park dreams, and I do it. I purchase the dolphin experience.
Since I decide at the last minute, I’m late to the mini-seminar about safety in the water and respect of the dolphins. There are a few kids and some adults standing around. Thank God, I’m not the only adult.
I’m more prepared than them too, they don’t even have their swimsuits on. And why are they standing over there? They’re going to miss the life-jacket instructions. Oh. They’re the parents.
As I crouch awkwardly on top of one of the tiny plastic chairs in the seminar room and wonder if my compromised position is scandalizing any of the youngsters, I notice that the adults are looking at me with curiosity, and something else I don’t recognize at first. Wait, is that, are they looking at me with pity?
Oh my God.
They think I have a terminal illness. They’re exchanging sad, knowing glances with one another. I imagine them pointing me out to their families later during their two hour vacation slide shows. Cancer, must have been. She was so pasty white and flabby-skinned, like she didn’t even have bones. Poor thing.
As the realization sinks in, I smile beatifically at the other adults. I let the smile fade as I turn to look pensively out at the ocean. I purse my lips in fortitude, in acceptance. One woman whispers to her husband. Jerks.
At the shore, the kids and I line up and wait for the dolphin to come fetch us and carry us on her belly to the trainer waiting at the dock. The parents are taking pictures behind us.
The kids trying to decide whether I’m terminally ill, or just mentally undeveloped
Our trainer at the shore explains how to grip the dolphin’s flippers firmly, with our arms outstretched. The trainers let the kids go first, of course, so I stand and watch as she ferries them one by one, until I’m alone with the trainer, who merely says to me, “Are you ready, champ?!” He clearly isn’t used to speaking with adults anymore. I imagine he says the same thing to his girlfriend when he’s feeling frisky.
When it’s my turn, I don’t see Kyra until she slides up out of the water, facing me as if we were about to dance. She looks bored. At the trainer’s signal I reach out and take her fins, and she leans back into the water, her head dipping under. As she begins to swim, I slide around on her stomach, which feels like soft slippery rubber. OhmygodIamridingadolphin!!!
She moves haltingly, as if she’s tired.
Me: Ohmygod this is really happening!!!
Kyra: I’m bored. You’re heavy.
I didn’t flinch when the parents were staring at me with pity or when the kids were looking at me as if I were some overgrown child with arrested development. When I realize that the dolphin is tired and certainly not used to lugging around my extra 70 pounds, that’s when I feel like a real jack-ass.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “I shouldn’t have done this.”
It’s just a job, she says.
It’s fine. She is tired of having this conversation. My shift is almost over. You could have paid for the extra ticket, though. More sales equals better fish, it’s simple math. You didn’t have to cheat.
“What are you talking about?” I start to say, because at that point I hadn’t yet put the ankle swelling and the tiredness together to realize I was pregnant, but now we’ve arrived at the dock and the trainer must have overheard me because he’s looking at me with his head tilted to the side.
I notice that he places me on one side of him and the kids on the other. Great.
Kyra is now lying on her back so that the trainer can point out the different parts of her body. He strokes her belly next to her pectoral fin.
That tickles, you jerk!
I wonder if anyone else can hear our cynical dolphin, but I also wonder if it I was supposed to take half a pill for each hour of the flight or half a pill total. Best not say anything.
Soon it will be my turn to “dance” with Kyra, and I start to swim over to her awkwardly. My life jacket is made for a child and my eyes are bulging out of my head as I pant and gasp. The parents on shore are fidgeting. They’re probably worried that I’m going to expire in front of their children. She just died, right there in front of Billy! I mean can you believe that, going out when she was obviously about to keel over? Selfish, right?
I don’t care, I’m euphoric. I’ve almost reached Kyra. Now who’s cool, Lucas? Have you ever danced with a dolphin? Huh? Have you? Stupid teacups. I stop in front of her to catch my breath.
Aren’t you a little old for this? she says.
“This is my dream and you’re ruining it, you bitch,” I gasp.
The trainer looks at me, shocked and appalled. I’m thinking, come on, it was just a whisper, when I see that he’s looking at the little girl who passed me on the way back from her dance with Kyra. Oh God. He thinks I was talking to the little girl. He’s torn between kicking me out to protect the kids’ innocence, and the guilt he’d feel about denying a terminally ill person her last wish.
I cough phlegmatically, and spasm a little bit in the water, which seems to do the trick. The trainer doesn’t look happy, but he stays put.
Now I’m holding onto Kyra’s fins and we’re facing each other again. I’m imagining being whisked around and around like the little Mermaid under the sea. It’s perfect.
I get bitten by a shark and now I have to dance with idiots for a living, Kyra says. I hope you’re enjoying your demented fantasy.
I close my eyes. “Shut up and let me enjoy it then,” I mutter. Luckily the trainer hasn’t noticed me talking to the dolphin this time. He’s looking up toward the shore. Or maybe he has noticed and he’s waiting for backup.
When we’re done dancing, which involves Kyra pulling me in circles and groaning like my weight is about to drown her, she does some other tricks for the kids. I’m glad they can’t hear her stream of sarcastic remarks. I mean really, I know it can’t exactly be fun for a dolphin, but they’re just kids for heaven’s sake.
That’s the problem, she says. All you kids are filled with these unrealistic dreams of magic carpets, true love, talking animals. Then dolphins like me have to pay for it by entertaining you with these stupid tricks.
I raise an eyebrow. Talking dolphins?
I’m aware of the irony, she says.
Kyra scoffing, me grinning like an idiot
We’ve reached the climax of the experience, when Kyra will now jump up into the air for each of us when we give her the signal the trainer taught us. I can practically hear her panting with exhaustion, but I don’t feel as bad for her since she’s been so rude about it.
I’m last, as always, and I see that two more trainers are now standing behind the main trainer on the dock. I wonder if they’re here to prevent me from doing anything crazy, like trying to escape with Kyra into the sea. I don’t blame them, I thought about it.
I pretend they’re not there. I’m too excited about my moment of triumph. The main trainer nods, and I throw my hands into the air. Kyra explodes out of the water in front of me, and I shout the only thing I can think of.
I throw her the fish the trainer has given me.
Fish!!!!!! She yells.
“Everyone dreams of something!” I yell at Kyra. “For me it’s Disneyland, for you it’s freedom. Same diff!”
The other two trainers are now approaching me. The main trainer has already herded the children back to their parents. I assume they’re going to escort me up the dock, and make sure that I’m delivered safely into the hands of my care-taker, who has hopefully brought restraints.
Good riddance. Don’t come back unless you have fish. Or just don’t come back. Have your kid and grow up. She disappears under the water.
I cough at the parents as I pass, and they back away slightly. I know that part of the reason I haven’t been ready to admit to myself that I’m pregnant is because I don’t identify with parents yet. I’m still a kid who’s jealous of the kids who went to Disneyland. I still have so many rides to go on! I’m not ready! I’ve never been to Disneyland, but I just got to dance with a dolphin! “I can die happy now,” I whisper at the parents, whose faces light up with mortification. Maybe I’ll take my kids back here someday.
My Free Willy moment