Then: reality – of course not; of course they have to do it like this. Of course. Hot sun on my shoulders as I stop walking cold, stand on wooden planking, having passed through the entrance to my DOLPHIN ADVENTURE, hot disappointment in my throat as I see: the man-made “lagoon” of dock and cyclone fencing in the water; dolphins swimming tight circles in tandem in a tight space; two blond boys fighting over a Coke; the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.
I stand, mostly naked, with mostly naked strangers, in a concrete room as Jose (I shit you not) takes us through our orientation: Stand this way for “The Kiss”, hold your palms this way for “The Hug”, and the most important thing? Always smile for the camera. Let’s practice! Hold your hands out, palms up, now turn to your right, look up: and smile! Good, good.
“Last time I did this, I picked up a dolphin and I THREW it.” The kid can’t be more than 11, and there is quite possibly something mentally wrong with him.
“Did not!” His brother.
Jose (I shit you not) quiets them down and then we practice “The Wave.” I know how my face looks right now but I can’t seem to change it.
My life jacket must’ve been made for a toddler and I tug it down while my flip-flops flip and flop over the wooden walkway. We are up high and there is a breeze and we walk in a line, kick off our shoes, and ease down a metal ramp into the water (cold at first but then okay) where we meet Giovan, Ramses and Jupiter ($5 if you guess which ones the dolphins are). They swim back and forth in front of us, responding to Giovan's whistle and pocket fulla fish. We "Touch", we "Kiss", we "Hug", we smile for the camera man standing above us – and in spite of everything, the whole place starts to change. Jupiter is the dominant male in the pod, which is why he has all those scratches. The metal underneath us hurts mom’s feet so she bobs like a baby in the water, knees to her chest, bouncing against the algae-covered cyclone fencing, giggling. The dolphins are fucking amazing. Their bodies like warm rubber silk, they glide under my fingers. Their snouts are banged up and their undersides transparent in some parts. They are very real. And yes, Ramses is flopping, prone, into my arms (“The Hug”) because he wants that fish from Giovan, but he is very real and I realize I’m smiling.
The best part? I swim, alone, into the middle of the pen (maybe 50 feet from Giovan and my family) and lay on my belly in the water, legs straight behind me, feet flat, arms straight in front of me. I see Giovan snap his arms and Ramses and Jupiter disappear. My heart beats and I can hear my breath off the water, the sun in my eyes. Then: two dark shadows underneath me and then pressure and they are behind me, they are at my feet – they are using their strong, banged-up bottlenoses to push me, and they’re pushing in unison, and they’re so strong that I am propelled straight up and out of the water until I am a flying X, entire body out of the water, arms straight up, and I am standing on dolphins. I am standing on dolphins. I am having a goddamn Dolphin Adventure, and my smile for the camera is real.
Later, even the sales pitch as we stand dripping on the concrete floor of another concrete building back on land can’t bring me down. We watch a video, complete with inspirational music, of our Dolphin Adventure (cut together in the 10 minutes it took us to get out of the water by a squadron of Mexican AV technicians in a windowless room – no seriously, I saw it), and it’s not as good as the feeling of those noses on my feet, that warm rubber silk under my palms. Really: don’t watch the video. We skip out on the subsequent picture sales pitch in favor of the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet, which really isn’t that bad. We recount – the power! the grace! the rows of teeth!! – and we find ourselves a cab and I feel like the whole place is a strange cosmic accident of goodness, a hall of mirrors where good is bad is good again, a wildflower growing despite the trash heap it’s growing in.