My family and I are in South Padre Island for our first vacation in years. It is relaxing and awesome and beautiful. I’ve done nothing for four days besides play in the sand, drink margaritas, and obsessively read Game of Thrones (crack, those books. Crack). Today we went to the Schlitterbahn Water Park, which I firmly believe is the greatest place on Earth because all you have to do is ride around on an inner tube all day and also there’s a float-in bar. So! My husband and kid and I had the sort of day you’d imagine on a Schlitterbahn TV commercial or brochure – happy, smiling family; screaming down the water slide – except afterwards, now, there’s the sunburn. The OH MY GOD SCREW YOU NORDIC ANCESTRY sunburn. The I SPRAYED ON SPF 80 LIKE TEN TIMES WHY THE HELL AM I ON FIRE sunburn.
I can melt the snows of Winterfell.
Sitting here, boiling, I remembered writing something at some point about sunburns, and a quick search of my hard drive pulled up this little gem from – get this – 2007, written on a plane back from Texas, during which I sorely abused the caps lock key. It’s called Ow. I was such minimalist in 2007!
A few quick updates: my current sunburn is worse than Port Aransas but not near as bad as Whitehall; now that I have experienced childbirth, I can say with great certainty that it does hurt more than a sunburn; luckily, my son inherited his father’s skin and is happily tan and watching the Muppets as I type this; and look at how fancy I got with the parentheticals!
The short version is this:
I have an excruciating sunburn, it’s the worst on the back of my thighs, I’m on a plane from Houston to Chicago and I can’t, like, SIT without wanting to scream and OF COURSE they confiscated my Solarcaine during security check because SUNBURNED GIRLS ARE REALLY TERRORISTS and also there’s a very big guy sitting behind me with his head thrown back snoring in a very loud, obnoxious way with much choking and gasping and SNORTING and what I’m going to do now is write about my sunburn in order to distract myself for the next two hours as opposed to the other alternative which is jumping out the emergency exit into the cool blue sky below.
Here is the long version:
When I was in elementary school we were talking about albinos in science class—I have no memory of how this discussion began. This was BEFORE the sheep that was conceived in a test tube (Dolly?) (usually, when blogging about something that I don’t know anything about [re: often], I google it right quick so it APPEARS as though I know what I’m talking about. Which, of course, I don’t. I mention this because under normal circumstances I’d google SHEEP CONCEIVED IN TEST TUBE and then ramble on about said sheep for a while and everybody reading this would be all “She’s full of knowledge!” [or “She’s full of shit!” depending on how well you know me] but the thing is, I CAN’T look up the sheep right now ‘cause I have no wireless up here in the sky) and also BEFORE some farmer grew a cucumber-rutabaga (cucerbaga?) (rutacumba???) or a pumpkin-zucchini (pumpkini?) (which is a good name for a martini. Jeff? New martini at Bistro? I’M A GENIUS) or whatever they did with combining vegetables so my POINT is this: genetic experiments weren’t widely publicized when I was a kid, especially those that a third-grader could wrap her brain around and therefore be used as a jumping-off point for discussion (like that teacher I had who used Seuss’ If I Ran the Zoo as a way into talking about the upcoming presidential election—“What would YOU do, boys and girls, if you ran the zoo?” “What would YOU do, boys and girls, if you ran the country?”—which was an awesome exercise, I think. I have all SORTS of ideas on how I’d run the zoo!) about genetics or genetic mutation or genes in general (gggggggggggg alliteration!!! it’s SEVEN A.M. AND I’VE BEEN UP SINCE FOUR!) so why we’d all be talking about albinos is BEYOND ME. HOWEVER. WE WERE. The teacher described the thin white hair and sensitive eyes and white white skin. “An albino’s skin is so translucent you can see their veins running everywhere!” she said. “Like blue rivers on a map!” and, in unison, thirty-two little heads turned and looked at me.
I doubt my teacher knew what she started in that moment. The names I was called. Aaron Stien tracing lines in blue magic marker on the backs of my arms. The movie Powder—but all that’s irrelevant now. What IS relevant is this: I BURN. LIKE A FUCKING RING OF FIRE.
It wasn’t so bad when I was a kid for one reason and one reason only: MY MOTHER. I wasn’t allowed out of the house without liberal coats of SPF 40+ which was reapplied every three hours and/or sooner if I’d been swimming. ALSO: I had to wear hats at all times ‘cause my hair is so thin (the backs of shampoo bottles say FINE which I think is super-funny: HA. HA!) that my scalp burns and I can’t run a brush through my hair without DYING (I’m exaggerating. I don’t DIE. I say OUCH OUCH OUCH and jump up and down, which just is NOT as effective). ALSO: long sleeves. ALSO: socks so my toes don’t fry. ALSO: SPF in all face moisturizer in the winter ‘cause I WILL get sunburned in the winter AND check-ups every six months where I go all hypochondriac and make my doctor inspect every mole. Of which there are a lot. Between the moles and the blue veins my back is a topographical map of … somewhere with many rivers (note: once again, my lack of google up here at _______ thousand feet).
But then! I was eighteen! I was a grown-up! I was out of my mother’s house and away from her watchful eye and free to live my life as I saw fit and what THAT meant, in the early Nineties, was I WOULD GET A TAN.
It is simply not possible, my dear friends, to document all the sunburns I’ve had over the past decade—we are short time, space and most assuredly patience. To whit: what follows is a brief list of my more MEMORABLE burns. In ascending order of STUPIDITY.
1. Albuquerque, New Mexico; 1994
It was my freshman year of college and I visited my friend Molly for spring break. We went shopping and I got these really nifty sunglasses—big plastic tortoise-shell bug-eyed jobs that made me feel super-cool (as opposed to the book-dork I really am) so I wore them everywhere (without any sunscreen) and at the end of the day, when we got back to her place and I took the sunglasses off, my face was bright electric red except for two ginormous white-white bug-eye squares around my eyes and FYI: when I burn, it does not go away, no, not for months, it’s like a permanent stain on my skin, like Lady Clarion that doesn’t wash out until like the seventy-fifth shampoo. So I spent not only the whole TRIP with white bug-eyes on my face, I spent the last three months of my FRESHMAN YEAR with white bug-eyes on my face, as well as half the summer after several horrible/ill-founded attempts to either A. shade IN the white with make-up and/or B. cover the burn on my face awkwardly with towels and lay out with my eyes closed so maybe the bug-eyes would burn, too; this resulted in several days of near-blinding red whenever I shut my eyes and a face that resembled a patch-work quilt.
2. Gayhead, Martha’s Vineyard; 1994
My boyfriend-at-the-time and I were hitchhiking across Martha’s Vineyard, a truly beautiful place with bright blue ocean and bright blue sky and easily accessible drugs. It wasn’t too long after the bug-eye incident so I was especially cautious: sun block on my face and arms, baseball hat, leggings under my dress. The boyfriend and I stayed up all night and walked for hours, feeling very adventurous, very On The Road, soooo very dangerous hitchhiking across that island of rich people golfing in polo shirts! anyhow, we arrived at the Gayhead cliffs, kicked off our shoes and laid down on giant red clay rocks for a nap. “Do you need more sunblock?” he asked before we passed out, and I (AM SO STUPID!) said no. “I’m wearing this hat!” I said. “And long sleeves and leggings!” except that the leggings were FOOTLESS, a fact I realized three hours later when I woke up and my bare feet were scorched. Tops and bottoms. Peeling up the leggings showed the blue-veined white skin stopping at a perfect line around my ankle and everything below was red-paint red: it hurt to high hell and I couldn’t walk for three days. As though we were settlers and I’d been wounded by a bear, the boyfriend took care of me. He went off to forage for food (Cheetos and root beer from a convenience store a mile back) and I read Tom Robbins novels and listened to the Indigo Girls on my walkman, my feet stained until November with permanent socks.
3. Cannes, France; 1995
I did my sophomore year in Italy and spent my last month overseas backpacking around Europe by myself. I stayed alone in hostels most of the time but occasionally met up with people in bars or cafes who I’d travel with for a while, crashing at their flat or in their tent or their Euro-rail car. I ended up in Cannes ‘caused I wanted to see the film festival, not realizing that you needed, you know … tickets (sometimes my stupidity is ASTOUNDING) or something to wear besides overalls, hiking boots and a giant Gortex backpack packed heavy with everything I owned. Literally, EVERYTHING over the past year jammed into one backpack: clothes, books, journals (this was before the laptop, folks, so all writing was done in journals. Technically, this was before I was a writer, as well, or at least before I actually admitted I was one. I just wrote in journals all the time, and read books, but didn’t learn to put the two together until the following year at Columbia. I really need to go back to those journals, now that I’m thinking about it. There’s some good stuff in there. Like the dumpster diving stuff. Can somebody remind me to write something about the dumpster diving in Italy? That’s some good shit, people) sleeping bag, knife (you could travel with knives back then), carton of American Spirits (I was a smoker that year [hi Dad!]. I landed in Italy having never smoked a cigarette and BAM—I smoked. Then I got off the plane a year later in Boston and never had another. Smoking might be my only true regret. I mean, there’s lots of things that were just dumb or whatever, but I can chalk them up to, “I learned something from that,” or, “That mistake helped me realize blah blah,” but the smoking? What a waste). Where was I? Oh yes—unshowered nineteen-year-old Americans without tickets are generally not allowed in the Cannes Film Festival so what did I do? I went to the beach! and built a sand castle (?????) (I would DEARLY love to recall my logic for that one) and there were these two French boys, a really cute one who spoke barely any English and a not-so-cute one who spoke slightly more than that. “He buy beer!” said the not-so-cute one, pointing at the cute one, who smiled very cutely and proclaimed, “RUN FORREST!” After an essentially indecipherable conversation with the not-so-cute one translating what I said to the cute one and what the cute one said to me (if you haven’t seen the movie Bottle Rocket you should rent it immediately. It’s Owen and Luke Wilson before they were OWEN and LUKE WILSON and there are these really killer scenes between Luke and the girl from Like Water For Chocolate where she’s a maid and this busboy has to translate) so ANYHOW I came to understand that the cute one thought either A. I looked like Jenny from Forrest Gump or B. I WAS Jenny from Forrest Gump and could he please buy me a beer? and what YOU should come to understand is A. I’m saying REALLY CUTE but what I mean is TOTAL FOX and B. I hadn’t had sex in like four months (Dad? You should just skip this post entirely) so of COURSE he could buy me a beer! Or two or five! and by the time we were good and sloshed and ready to go back to his place, we’d already been in the sun for like four hours and my bathing suit was firmly tattooed on my back. It was this black strappy number and when Total Fox got me out of it he said a lot of French very loudly and quickly and then put cold washcloths on my back. Which was very sweet. He was very sweet.
What a nice memory.
What ISN’T a nice memory is going back to the hostel the next morning and having to GET INTO THAT BACKPACK.
4. Whitehall, Michigan; 2002 (?)
My friends Casey and Jeremy have a cabin on the beach on Lake Michigan. When I was fourteen and they were sixteen we’d sneak away to this cabin on the weekends—the three of us went to Blue Lake, an arts camp in Western Michigan where everyone wore light blue shirts and navy blue pants and played in the band and made out with each other behind the theater building. Band kids making out! For EIGHT WEEKS EVERY SUMMER! I never made out with Casey or Jer, though. They were my friends, and we’d make out with other people and then go to their cabin and make bonfires and their friend Dave would play Morrisey songs on his guitar and we’d sing along BECAUSE WE WERE DORKS. So we’ve been friends since then; in fact, when my high school boyfriend and I broke up two weeks before the prom, Casey and Jer drove all the way to Chelsea in matching tuxedos and took me. And did I mention that they’re twins? With red hair and freckles? And yes they auditioned for Doublemint commercials but no they didn’t get it and it’s a bit of a sore spot, actually; what I’m trying to say is nothing’ll make you feel better about being dumped than going to the prom with red-headed twins in identical tuxedos. And also Dave came and he made his own tuxedo. Out of newspaper—are those good friends or WHAT? So anyhow, a few years ago we decided to go to the cabin ‘cause we all needed a little R&R and whatnot, so we get there and lay on the beach and, like a total jackass, I didn’t put on any sunscreen at all so I end up fried, like head-to-toe crispy, it’s easily the worst burn I’ve ever had in my life. Now, if you’ve ever been severely sunburned you know it’s not just your skin—you also feel really hot and nauseous and sick and nothing could be worse.
Except: Red Lobster.
For some insane reason, Casey and Jer thought going to Red Lobster would make me feel better and for some equally insane reason, I went along with it. FYI: Whitehall Michigan is not a pantheon of culinary opportunity. There is a Denny’s, a Big Boy and a Red Lobster. Granted, we could’ve driven the thirty miles South to the Dominoes pizza in Muskegon but we were all worried that by then I’d sizzle into ash and blow away, not unlike those movies where vampires walk into the sun. Also FYI: I’d never been to Red Lobster before, nor will I EVER GO AGAIN because as I was sitting there boiling in my own skin, Casey cracked open his lobster—which like ten minutes before had been alive in the tank with fifty other panicky lobsters and now is lying dead and slimy on Casey’s plate and where this REALLY gets disturbing is that sometimes (say, one out of every hundred, we were later told by a very distressed waiter) when those lobsters are taken from those tanks to be killed and cracked open and eaten, THEY ARE IN THE PROCESS OF SHITTING. AS IN, THEIR INTESTINES ARE FULL OF SHIT. WET. GREEN. LOBSTERY. SHIT. And when Casey took the little lobster-cracking pliers or whatever they’re called and broke that thing open, shit poured out onto his plate and my already red-hot nausea just exploded everywhere.
I’ll end the imagery there.
5. Port Aransas, Texas; 2007
(this one might be anti-climactic after the whole lobster shit thing)
What happened was I was lying on the beach reading Miranda July’s new collection and I kept saying, “I’ll finish this next story and then I’ll go in. Okay, I’ll just finish THIS story and then I’ll go in. Okay, okay: ONE MORE, I swear” (Dear Miranda July Who I Love: You’re super great. I read your book and now I am a chicken-friend steak which I have recently learned is very, very Texas. Chicken-friend steak and also chicken-friend chicken which I don’t know about the grammar of that but some things you just need to let go of). Anyhow, people: you can see where this story is going, right? We’d been very smart and coated me with SPF 45, but ONLY FROM THE WAIST UP. Why? I have NO idea. It’s like I momentarily forget about an entire HALF OF MY BODY but I tell you what, that half of my body is making sure that will NEVER happen again. From the little skirt on my bikini bottoms down I am bright, stupid red. Press me with your fingertip and you’ll see your prints, FBI-quality, white on red and people, it HURTS. The mere act of SITTING DOWN feels like the skin on the backs of my thighs is being torn apart—and seriously, I try not to complain. I try to look on the bright side! I can deal with pain! The tattoo on my back took five hours of being bent in a very precarious position and it was all good! And back when I did kickboxing everyday and had to lift my leg up over my head like fifty times consecutively IT WAS FINE. I have Maker’s Mark and a 200 ct. bottle of Advil on me AT ALL TIMES, there’s NOTHING I CAN’T HANDLE!
Except for this.
(and probably childbirth. I don’t know personally but I’ve heard stories)
AND SO: I will complain. Loudly. I will slam these keys! I will overuse the CAPS LOCK button! Also, I will swear! (shut your eyes, dad) like this: when I finally get off this fucking plane I’m going to buy like forty tons of that Banana Boat green-gel aloe vera and put it in a big vat like how that Matthew Barney Cremaster Cyle guy (????? NO GOOGLE ON THE PLANE!) puts all the petroleum jelly into tubs on whale boats and then it coagulates into billion-dollar jiggly sculptures and I’m going to dive in so I’ll be green instead of red and cool instead of hot and even though it’s just my lower half that hurts I’m going to dunk my head down in it, too, so I WON’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS FUCKING GUY BEHIND ME SNORT-SNORE ANYMORE!!! AND DID YOU NOTICE THAT RHYMED??!!!!