Ten

Hanauma Bay was the place for snorkeling. The mere sight of it took my breath away. Two protective rock arms jutted out into the ocean, black in contrast to the sparkling aquamarine of sea meeting sky. They cradled a gleaming sphere of turquoise water protectively in their embrace. The vague shadow of a winding and expansive coral reef was barely evident within.

Cole and I packed our rented snorkel gear down a seemingly endless stone staircase to the beach below. We suited up and stepped into the calm, warm water which lapped gently at our bare feet. The translucent azure liquid reflected our images back at us like a mirror. This gear made my swim-galoshes idea seem sexy. We pulled on our flippers and waded backwards into the water, torrents of sand billowing up around us as we moved.

When the water reached our waists, we slipped beneath the surface. I had expected to go in search of marine life, but there was no need. I was instantly surrounded. Schools of brightly colored fish swarmed around us. Clown fish flitted merrily through the porous coral. Angelfish wafted dreamily by. Hundreds of tiny, metallic fish sped by in mass, darting in and out between our paddling appendages. Schools of fish skirted our bodies, tickling my skin mischievously with their nearly invisible fins. Some danced around my mask, peering in at me as I gazed curiously out at them.

Time lost all meaning as we explored the bay. We swam above forests of sea urchins and an evil looking Moray Eel leered up at us from the black depths of his hiding place. I had never seen so many fish in all my life. I’d often gone fishing in Montana, but my catches there were the standard northwestern hues of grey, silver, brown and the occasional wildcard combination of all three. The tropical beauties surrounding me now were adorned in a rainbow of undiluted hues. Witnessing the vibrancy of their colors glinting in the diffused sunlight was an existential experience. Even those I recognized from pet stores back home outpaced their far flung cousins in vibrancy and size.

A quizzical puffer fish startled me as it buzzed up to take a look in my goggles. I slowed and stared back, wide eyed. A stray strand of my hair tickled its tiny body. It backed up, eyeing me thoughtfully, then turned and hummed busily away.

When we finally trudged out of the water, happy and famished, the exhaustion washed over me. I was suddenly aware of how heavy my flippers had become. We collapsed together and lay in the sand, recuperating and letting the sun dry our luxuriously depleted bodies.

On the way back to La’ie, we stopped at Walmart. While Cole stocked up on junk food, I wandered aimlessly around the store. I soon found myself awash in a sea of color-saturated spandex. Skimpy swimwear surrounded me on all sides. It felt like forbidden territory…

I had never owned a bikini, as wearing one was against church standards. Our church had strict regulations about, well, everything. Of these rules and guidelines, several applied directly to dress and appearance. In essence, one could only wear clothing that covered everything from the upper arm to the kneecap. There was an exception for swimwear, thankfully, but even these could not be cut too high or too low and should definitely conceal the midsection.

As a teenager, I usually ended up with one of those form-molding, all-encapsulating, one-piece “athletic” swimsuits. You could run a triathlon, scale a mountain and wrestle a bull in those things and still end up with one very firm set of tan lines. Most of my swimsuits were intensely rigid, yet somehow managed to be so tight that I could see my own spleen. Also, they were ugly.

I’d been so jealous of all the blissed-out kids frolicking around me, the sun soaking through their amply exposed skin. While my friends rocked perky bikinis of all cuts and colors like something out of a Capri Sun commercial, I sulked by the pool with my shoulders tied to my crotch.

Yet here I was, miraculously surrounded by rows upon rows of cute little suits, with no one to answer to but myself. I didn’t hesitate. I reached out and grabbed the first one that caught my eye – yellow with bright pink flowers.

I ran to the register and paid for it, looking feverishly around to ensure that no one was watching. I took the receipt from the cashier, rolled the bag up tight and stashed it nervously at the bottom of my backpack. As I walked back into the dorms that night, I could feel the heat of my contraband radiating around me. I was wearing a cocaine lined dress to the Policeman’s ball.

That night, alone in my room, I tenderly unwrapped the plastic bag like its contents might evaporate at my touch. I felt the soft elasticity of the fabric running through my fingers and smiled. At last, I tried it on and thanked God above that it fit (all the while hoping that he would withstand the urge to punish my shameful act of immodest consumerism by inflicting me with a Lycra allergy). Then I draped the suit artistically across my dresser, sat back and stared at it, soaking in the gratification of what I had done.

It’s hard to do this experience justice in the retelling, especially when viewed in the grand scheme of things. I hadn’t had my first run in with true poverty, had a near death experience or met Oprah. Selecting a bikini wasn’t even remotely revolutionary. It was just a piece of clothing, one that I would come to view in later years as objectifying rather than liberating. Even to me then, a bikini, in and of itself, was no holy icon of youthful freedom. But it wasn’t about the swimsuit. The item was not what struck me then, nor what stayed with me since. It was the action. It was that first step down the long road of finding and defining myself. The impact of this act was profound. This was possibly the first time in my life that I had made such a decision with no other consideration than my own desires. It was wildly liberating. The freedom was intoxicating.

This is the latest installment in my story. If you haven’t yet read the previous entries, click here to start at the beginning. Then continue to read each post in numerical order.

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