When I was seven years old, my parents took me to see “Rocky.” Inappropriate? Maybe. But I was a skinny asthmatic kid in a house full of smokers and this “underdog triumphs over adversity” story spoke to me in a way that nothing else ever had. Whenever the going got tough and things seemed impossible, I invoked the Italian Stallion to get me through.
My first date was when I was a senior in high school. Late bloomer.
You should know that I am Irish-American and I grew up in a mostly Italian town. Italian boys hit their full height in third grade. I was 5’11″. I was like Godzilla walking through the lunch room. All the boys would run for cover.
My date was with my friend Rachel’s older brother, Fred. Fred was tall. Taller than me. And he was smokin’ hot. He looked like he just stepped off the cover of Scandinavian Hunks magazine. He had bleached blonde hair, fair skin and cheekbones that could cut glass. My friends and I had rented a house for a week at the Jersey Shore and Fred came to visit. We shared a few drunken kisses at a few beach parties and when we got back home, we thought we’d see what it was like to do something sober. Big mistake.
It would’ve been fine if we were engaging in some normal dating activity like going to the movies. But our outing was a double date with Rachel, his sister and my BFF, and her boyfriend Scott. Rachel was the kind of girl that could’ve made a John Hughes movie a one-woman show. Not only was she beautiful — blonde hair, crazy high cheekbones and built like a Playboy centerfold — but she was also the athletic girl, the smart girl, the girl who worked with handicapped children, and the goofy, super fun girl. She was sincerely embarrassed to be voted “Best Looking” our senior year.
Then there was me. At 5’11” and 110 lbs, I was too tall, too thin, and growing at a rate my coordination could not keep up with. I was more like a baby giraffe than a centerfold. And I’m not particularly athletic. Freshman year I tried out for the softball team, had an asthma attack during the first set of drills and had to be taken to the emergency room. Junior year I tried out for the track team, had an asthma attack … You get the idea.
Rachel was a state-ranked gymnast. Her boyfriend Scott was varsity everything and could do an iron cross on the rings in gym class. So instead of going somewhere normal for a date, Rachel and Scott wanted to go to a place called Action Park. I know it sounds like “Makeout Point,” but it was actually the furthest thing from steamy, groping romance that you could get. It was a water and “thrill” park where people did things like drive mini-race cars 100 miles an hour, dive off 50-foot cliffs with dozens of people swimming below, and catapult down a water slide called the Kamikaze that had a vertical drop so severe it caused your body to actually come away from the slide and be airborne, producing such an inexorable wedgie that even guys in long board shorts had trouble finding their bathing suits.
Action Park was the last place I wanted to go, but I wasn’t going to rock the boat. Eighteen. First Date. Clearly I knew nothing about life and should keep my mouth shut.
In anticipation of my first real date, I set off to the mall on an impossible quest: To find a bathing suit that made me look like I had breasts. I looked in Macy’s. I looked in A&S. I looked in Bloomingdales. I couldn’t find breasts anywhere. This was before the Miracle Bra was invented. There were no suits with molded cups unless you were in the plus sizes and your boobs were the size of a rib roast. Then I came upon a new place called California Sunshine. An entire store filled floor to ceiling with bathing suits.
“Hello, welcome to California Sunshine! Is there something I can help you find?” the cheery saleswoman asked as I entered.
“No thank you …Well, actually yes. I need a bathing suit. I need a bathing suit that will make me look a little less … Um, make me look a little more… I need boobs. Do you have a bathing suit that can give me boobs?”
She assessed my chest the way a civil engineer might examine a dilapidated suspension bridge. Then she squared her shoulders and fixed her eyes on mine with a look that said, “This may just be my Waterloo, but I went to F.I.T., damnit!” She grabbed a black floral bikini off the rack and led me to the dressing room. “Why don’t you start with this. I’m Nancy, by the way.”
I went into the dressing room, stripped down to undies and put on the suit. There was a soft knock at the door.
“How’s that one working for you?”
The top had ruffles strategically located where my boobs should be, which did help my cause. But the black was severe against my transparently white skin, making me look more salamander than swimsuit model. I opened the door to show Nancy.
“It’s a little too black I think. I’ve got a few more for you, honey.”
There was something about a woman calling me “honey.” I knew it was just a generic colloquialism that some people use, but there was something so soft and caring about it. It made me feel all caramel-y inside. Nancy was my Mickey and she was going to get me through this.
I reached over the top of the door and grabbed the cluster of hangers she offered. I tried on about a dozen suits, which were all bikinis because my torso was too long to fit into a one-piece. Then I came to a beautiful sunny yellow suit that looked like it was right out of a Coppertone ad. It was a cotton blend so it wasn’t your typical shiny swimsuit material. It was open at the stomach but the top and bottom were buttoned together on the sides with stretchy cording that allowed for my long waist. I stepped into the top of it and slid the suit up my legs and onto my body. The fabric was textured like a cross between bubble wrap and a honeycomb which gave me a little extra bulk. The top was a tank top with a high neck which miraculously gave me … boobs! I had boobs! Not ruffles or ruching where my boobs should be, but actual boobs!
The suit was $55, which I really couldn’t afford working part-time as a cashier at Grand Union. I calculated in my head and figured I had to work about thirty hours to pay for it. But you can’t put a price on boobs.
We headed to Action Park. Our first ride: The Tarzan swing.
Rachel went first. She stepped up on the platform in her perfect fitting red one piece. She took the rope in her hands and swung down, performing a double back flip and finishing with an Olympic caliber dive into the water that was so graceful it made almost no splash. Even the German judge would’ve given her a 10. Next up, Scott. He swung through the air and did a single back flip, also finishing with a perfect dive. Now it was Fred’s turn. He dropped off the platform, clutching the rope, did a good old fashioned cannonball and splashed water everywhere. OK, I thought. I can do that. In sixth grade I set the NJ State record in the Flexed Arm Hang. That’s right. Two minutes and 53 seconds, baby. This is going to a piece of cake.
What we were instructed to do, and what every previous diver had done, was swing down toward the water and past it, letting go of the rope at the highest point in the arc and diving into the water. Only the centrifugal force combined with gravity was too much for me. My arms and stomach muscles struggled to hold my body in the fetal position but at the lowest point in the arc I felt my freakishly long toes dragging on the water, and from there I unraveled like a wad of string until my arms were almost pulled out of their sockets trying to hold on to the rope. I finished with an incredibly painful full body flop.
As if all this was not embarrassing enough, the lifeguard jumped from his chair and yelled into his bullhorn, “Are you alright? Do you need help?” The hundred people on line around the water went silent. I was stunned, but gave him the OK sign and side-stroked to the ladder.
“Don’t worry about it,” Rachel said. “It wasn’t that fun anyway. Let’s try something else.”
Scott and Fred politely looked away. I looked down and discovered that once wet, my $55 bathing suit had become a wet white t-shirt – clingy, deflated and completely see-through. You could see everything. As if this weren’t bad enough, hitting the water so hard at a horizontal angle had caused the front of my body to turn bright red from head to toe. I looked like a strawberry Twizzler punctuated by two red nipples and a dark triangle.
“I don’t know what happened. I mustn’t have been holding on right.” I put on the black T-shirt Fred offered. “I’m going to try it again.”
My friends watched with pained expressions as I climbed the stairs. “Gonna Fly Now” played in my mind. I grabbed the rope, jumped off the platform and held my legs up to my chest with all my might. Again I felt my toes drag on the water, my arms go slack, and WHAP! Full body flop.
I swam to the ladder and shakily pulled myself up. My friends offered me a towel. I had to make a choice. When Apollo Creed knocked Rocky to the mat, bloody and battered, people yelling at him to “Stay down!” did he do it? No. Rocky mustered the strength and courage to stand up and be named the Heavyweight Champion of the World. I turned and got back on the line again. My friends were speechless.
As I stepped onto the platform, all eyes were on me. I threw my shoulders back, grasped the rope, and jumped.
I held on with all the strength I had. Which as it turned out wasn’t much. I immediately slid off the rope and into the water like I’d been shot. It was so messy and pathetic the lifeguard had to turn away.
This time I accepted defeat and took the towel. Scott said, “Let’s go cliff diving!” Fred asked if I wanted to sit this one out, but I was looking for redemption.
For this “ride” they lined up a bunch of people on a cliff and had them all dive at the same time. It was really high. Much higher than the highest diving board at any pool I had ever seen. How could this possibly be legal? I decided to just go first and get it over with. I took a deep breath, jumped and did a cannonball. A half hour later I hit the water feet first, and when I did, I felt this incredibly sharp pain, like I’d just been hit in the face with a hammer. Then I sank down, down, down. So far down that as I was swimming furiously toward the light I start running out of air. I was about to inhale water when I finally broke the surface. My friends were frantically searching for me. Apparently I’d been under so long my friends thought I was dead.
“Oh my God! Are you alright?” Fred asked.
Ignoring the excruciating pain, I said, “I’m fine.”
As I opened my mouth to say this, a look of horror came over Fred’s face. “Oh shit! You’re bleeding!”
It looked a lot worse than it was because we were in water, but blood was all over my teeth and running down my chin and neck. I felt around in my mouth and discovered that I’d hit the water so hard, I’d gotten a bloody lip.
It was at that point, having suffered one of the strangest and most loser-ish injuries imaginable, that I realized I was never going to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World, or a gymnast or a basketball player or even a decent cannonballer. And that was OK. Fred and I dated for a few more months and found that it was more enjoyable when beer was involved. Then it was off to college, where I grew another inch in height and much more into myself.