The prompt in my writer’s book of days instructs, “Write about a chronic failure.” The slip of paper from my prompt jar (I’m greedy, I know: I always take two prompts, in case one is just awful) suggests “sun.” The two converge, and, I realize, this is the story prompted, needled out: that tale of a youth spent chasing a suntan.
This summer, for the first time in decades, I pulled on my granny bathing suit and went to the swimming pool.
I was visiting a dear friend, a swimmer, who lives in a town with a community pool. And that community pool has what I like to call a ‘maturity hour,’ from 5 till 6 PM, when everyone under 18 is ejected. The ejection of children means the young parents leave, too, and the ejection of pretty young women means all the interested young men exit voluntarily, as well. What’s left is the senior contingent, a gentle, friendly, group, non-taxing in terms of fitness or fashion.
While there were some eye-rollers–like the saggy, 80-year-old scrawny man in a Speedo–in that group, mostly there were people in modest suits, people of indeterminate body shape, varied skin tones, and different degrees of outdoor exposure. There were a lot of people, I was gratified to note, whose legs, like mine, shone pale and white when we climbed out of the pool and into the shaded Adirondack chairs as the youthful horde was re-admitted at 6:00 on the nose. It was nice to be in company with some proudly pale–nice, because it certainly was not always thus.
“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”
Someone would say that, and my mother’s head would pop up smartly. She’d march over to where I sat in the comfortably fuzzy red armchair, reading, maybe, one of those little biographies of historical people, or the story of Mrs. Mike, or a compelling tale about Freddy the Pig. She would pluck the book from my longing hands and point me abruptly outdoors.
Somedays, I’d be able to smuggle a book outdoors with me. I’d read in the shade of the scrubby old tree by the old brown, rickety garage–positioning myself BETWEEN tree and garage, so if Mom looked out, she wouldn’t see that I’d just moved my activity of choice to a place with rough bark and biting spiders.
Somedays, there’d be a wiffle ball or a kickball game in full play, and I would be allowed in, allowed to join the game that took place in our backyard ball field, where the base paths and pitcher’s mound were irrevocably pounded clean of grass and dandelions–bare dirt paths, always, despite determined seeding.
Somedays, friends would come over, and we would venture into the fields out back, to a little rise we called “the island,” and we would act out stories from books–Swiss Family Robinson adventures, maybe, or the lives of made-up lady explorers patterned on people we’d read about in our aging geography texts at St. Joseph’s Catholic School.
But it didn’t matter. I could be outdoors from dawn till dusk, and the next day, a visitor might say it again.
“Gosh, you’re WHITE. Don’t you ever get outdoors?”
I didn’t care about my paleness until the summer after eighth grade That year, I lost a great deal of weight. That summer I became aware of rules of attractiveness and attractivity.
That summer, in the waning years of the 1960’s, a time of Coppertone ads and aggressive tanning all based on the actual sun,–that year, I began to want a tan.
Back then, my red hair was natural, and I had a redhead’s pale, milky-blue skin. One of my brothers told me that I was actually a rare kind of albino–there are only a few, he said, that have red hair and pigment in their eyelashes; only a few, and they tend to die very young. Probably, in fact, he said, around age 14,–and I, of course, was almost 13 then.
As gullible as I was ashen, the knowledge of my doom kept me awake for about a week. Finally, tiredness etching purple circles even more deeply under my eyes, and my mother wondering if perhaps an emetic of some sort might be in order, I confessed to her my imminent demise. She went tearing through the house in search of my helpfully informative brother. Relieved to know my paleness didn’t signal an early death, I went back to yearning for a golden, sun-kissed glow.
It was not a time of SPF’s or sun-blockers; it was an era of baby oil and foil reflectors. We made the reflectors ourselves, covering torn chunks of folded cardboard boxes with aluminum foil filched from the kitchen cupboard (“PAMELA!!!! Where is my foil???????”), holding them under our chins so the friendly sun would bounce up to warm our winter-white faces, intensifying the tanning purportedly taking place, unenhanced, every place else.
Maybe those foil reflectors worked. Some of my friends had perfectly tanned faces. Some had batches of freckles (“the map of Ireland,” my father called those friendly spots) that intensified; they threatened to connect, they were so dense.
My face burned a bright vermilion. I would take off my glasses at night, and the shape of those glasses would still be there, crisp white lines etched perfectly onto the burned skin. I would rub Noxzema lotion into my hot red cheeks. Friends told me not to worry; their burns always morphed gently into tans.
Two days later, my face would once again be pale. My legs remained resolutely white.
Someone suggested, or a book somewhere opined, that mixing iodine into the baby oil would call out a tan. I used babysitting money to buy a bottle of iodine at West Drug, walking downtown one exciting morning on this quest. I mixed my potion and placed my blanket down in the backyard–scrupulously regular, in those summers before working obligations messed with tanning time–between 11 AM and 2 PM each day. I wanted the sun’s peak rays. I wanted to evenly offer up both sides to the possibility of sun-kissed skin.
Sometimes, I imagined Looney Tunes vultures circling high above, squinting at my oil-soaked body and trying to decide if what they saw was indeed a giant slice of well-marbled bacon. I endured the visits of the boy next store, a nice guy with a unibrow (“He has a crush on you,” my mother insisted, but I knew he pined deeply for my dear friend Sandi), who always threatened to get the hose and soak me.
The iodine seemed, maybe, to increase my chances of burning. And I never seemed to get the equal toasting of each side correct. Often my front would be raging red, while my nether parts were forlornly white. Sometimes my shoulders would burn so badly they blistered, and the wearing of dainty underwear was a socially necessary torture.
The summer before my sophomore year in high school, I discovered tennis. I became passionate about the game and about the nice group of people who hung around the tennis courts. They were mostly a year older than I; they were oh-so-nicely tanned–some had natural sun streaks in their flippy hair. They were mostly boys, cute and smart and funny. I spent hours on the tennis courts, falling in and out of love.
The courts were new. They glinted in the sun, reflecting its rays–someone told me they were an environmentally friendly mix of paving materials and ground up glass. A miracle happened: by the beginning of July that summer, my legs had warmed to a soft creamy beige. My friends still laughed as they stretched their bronzed limbs beside mine. But there was color there–color like the hue of a teaspoon of coffee mixed with a cup of skim milk.
It gave me hope. See? I thought. If I just work diligently enough, sun-warmed color IS possible.
There followed years of foolish pursuit–of nights, in the college years, spent working at the ice cream factory, and days falling asleep beside my good friend’s swimming pool. Water, they say, intensifies the burning power of the sun. I would wake up hours later, the baby oil baked away, in pain and howling. One side would be neon, with the other side looking like unbaked dough. And then I’d rush home to pull on painful white polyester work clothes and go to the land of popsicle packing.
One night during that particular summer, after a long day of sun-sleep, parboiled and aching, we went to dinner, some of us, at our friend Polly’s. Polly was a complete original, short and round and fearlessly magnetic. Long before it was a practice, she was living with her fiance, and too bad if her parents didn’t like it. You didn’t dare Polly, and you knew, if there was a new and dangerous thing to be tried, she’d be the first in line for the trying.
That night,–that humid, 90-degree night,–she had decided to cook a full-out turkey dinner in her stuffy upstairs, un-air-conditioned, apartment. And we, because being in Polly’s circle was so much fun, we trooped up to eat turkey, despite our sweaty trepidations.
I was especially taken by the stuffing, which had a zingy herbal shimmer, and Polly, glinty of eye, delighted in spooning more onto my dish.
We ate the dinner; we quaffed, unwisely, a chilly glass of wine or two, and we took it in turns to don our work clothes in Polly and Ken’s tiny bathroom. And then Polly asked, moments before we trooped down the stairs to work our graveyard shift, just how we’d liked the stuffing.
“It was good!” I said. “It was different. What kind of spices did you use?”
Polly beamed. “Marijuana!” she said. “I sautéed marijuana in the butter with the onion.”
I thought about the six or seven helpings she had scooped onto my plate. A little bubble of panic rose.
“Ah,” I said.
And then the panic bubble softly popped. Behind it rose a cluster of giggles. We bustled down the stairs; we punched in at the factory floating a few inches above the popsicle-slicked floor.
“Ladies!” greeted our brusque, rough boss.
“Ah,” I replied softly and I positioned myself in front of the rows of marching popsicles. That evening I played those pops like a Fantasia symphony, flipping and packing them, gentling them beautifully into their boxy cardboard cradles. When people spoke to me, I smiled and answered with a whispered, “Ah.” The work shift floated by, and I went home to sleep, and then to wake with a horribly raging sunburn I hadn’t much noticed the wafty night before.
I decided against repeating the pot remedy for sunburn pains; I was smart enough, at least, never again to report for work, in that scary place of immense sharp chopping things, under that kind of influence.
At last I determined, instead, to try to fake a tan. Coppertone’s QT–that was the product then, guaranteed to turn legs a satisfying shade of beautiful bronze. One rubbed it on; one waited a mere three hours. Color began to bloom.
Permanent and un-staining, the color was guaranteed to last a week.
Don’t do it! friends warned. It will turn your skin an awful shade of orange. And they cited sad examples.
I looked at the tube. I looked at the mushroom white of my uncooperative skin, and I thought that ANY color would be better than no color.
I slathered my legs with QT, and I waited to orange up.
Three hours later, my legs were the same sheltered shade of white they’d been when I had started.
It was time, I finally realized, to give up. I was never, by any means, going to achieve a glorious golden tan.
And then the connection between skin cancers and overtanning became widely evident, and I could feel a little justified in my white, white tones. I cultivated gauzy, soft, pants; I explored floaty shirts with three-quarter length sleeves. I swam, of course, with kids and students and at family get-togethers. I swam, and then I covered up.
And then the vortex of the middle-aged years swept in, and even family swimming in the midst of busy summers ceased happening. Reasons to be abashed by my whiteness in a sea of healthy tans just up and disappeared. The quest for even a pale, fine tan: it fizzled out and faded away.
Until this summer, when swimming in the company of other unconcerned people brought those memories roaring back.
It is good, I think now, good to be at an age when I can gently laugh at my young yearning for some kind of physical perfection,–something, of course, that is always out of reach. How nice–how wonderful–to be so far beyond those days that the things that were the underlying pleasure–like the splash of chilly water on a muggy, scalding day–can be appreciated without self-consciousness. Enjoyed merely because it’s refreshing–and not because I look good doing it.
What I had then, my friend, was a failure to tan, and an unwise worship of an unrelenting sun. My quest was always doomed to failure. I think I must have learned something from it, something about individual style and being happy with who I was–and something about always asking Polly for a list of ingredients before eating anything she fixed.
Now I enjoy my outdoor times early in the mornings and in the last warm glow of summer nights. I can sit and listen to the cicada harmonies and smell the spice of Ohio outdoors after a lovely summer rain; I can stretch my long, white, battle-scarred legs, propping my feet on the coffee table Mark made from an old swinging door, and I can be content. I am who I am; we glow how we’re made. It’s enough.
And anyway. I’ll always have that one, glorious, tennis-playing summer when I, actually and proudly, achieved beige.