Confessions of a White Wench
Tragic factoid about this Wench of Aramink: her skin is so pale it’s translucent, and she’s never had a suntan in her life.
It doesn’t bother me until someone says something like, “Dang, girl! Didja just crawl out from under a log or somethin’?” Or, “You need a little color to look healthy.” Or, “Put on some pantyhose. Those legs are blinding me!”
Every year I let myself get bullied into going to the beach the week after school breaks for the summer. It’s not hard to bully me into it – I love the smell of salt water and I like to snorkel. In fact, I like swimming so much that I’m going to put a pool in my back yard. The plans are drawn and the bids are rolling in! I feel a little inadequate next to the already-tanned sun worshippers surrounding me. Slathered in sun block I play in the surf and then I hide in the shade under the beach umbrella to read my book. Since even the reflection from the sand can give me a burn, I can’t stay out long. I head to the condo and read some more, and sleep, and feed my 360 addiction.
Sometimes I just feel a little silly spending money for a week at the beach when I can’t be in the sun more than a couple of hours a day without getting second degree burns. Even with SPF 5000 I can only stay out an hour or so at most without painful results.
I have ended up in the hospital with second degree burns from the sun on not just one but two occasions. For that reason, I am really, really careful.
The first time it happened I came down to Fort Walton Beach, Florida, with a couple of friends from college over spring break. It was my sophomore year of college. From Hamilton, New York, we drove first to Arkansas. These two friends of mine were from Auburn, New York, and Springfield, Massachusetts, and had never been in the South at all. We stopped in Memphis and went to Graceland, which had just been opened to the public for the first time. We toured the Sun Records studio and went to Beale Street, home of the blues. Then we crossed the Mississippi River into Arkansas.
Several things of note happened to my friends in my hometown. They ate fried catfish and tasted okra for the first time. They were surrounded by southern accents and for a change it was their way of speaking that make people say “huh?” And they met Bill Clinton. It was primary season, and after losing the office two years before he was running again for his second term as governor. My dad was a rather influential politico even though he never ran for office himself, and Clinton stopped by my parents’ house while we were eating pizza. He joined us and we had a great visit talking about the difference between college life in the Northeast and real life in Arkansas, education, and what we all wanted to be when we grew up. Not surprisingly, Bill said he wanted to be president.
Ten years later when Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, one of the girls who had come home with me that year for spring break called me. “Isn’t that the same guy we ate pizza with?” she asked.
“That’s the one. Remember he said he was going to be president someday?”
“Yes! I didn’t think he really meant it, though!”
“Oh, he meant it. He’s always meant it.”
But I digress. On with the sunburn story:
From Arkansas we headed due south to New Orleans, another one of my favorite places in the world. I showed my friends what live oaks look like when their spreading limbs are hung with Spanish moss, and what Bourbon Street sounded like before the street musicians were banned. We rode the streetcar down St. Charles Avenue and strolled in Audubon Park. We saw cockroaches so big they sounded like 747s when they flew at your face. We went to Cooter Brown’s to sample some of the exotic beers. Then we headed back east along the coast for some quality beach time.
We bypassed the Mississippi and Alabama gulf shores and headed across the border into Florida. We stopped about 40 miles into Florida and pitched our tent in a state park on the beach. I showed them what sea oats were so they’d be sure not to pick them. They were amazed at the whiteness of the sand and at the whiteness of my skin.
We hit the beach early our first morning there. We only had two days to spend in Florida before we had to head back to school. The ground back at Colgate would be white, too, but with snow, not with sand made of quartz crystals. We wanted to make the most of our time.
After about four hours on the beach, we decided to find food and a movie. I changed from my bathing suit into shorts and a t-shirt. I was a little pink, but not red. By the time we finished eating I was shivering. By the time the movie was over I was nearly crying with the pain. We went to sleep in the tent and the next morning I woke to see a blister the size and shape of a baseball had grown on my upper left arm.
The three of us spent that morning in the emergency room of the local hospital. Every inch of my exposed skin was bubbly with burn blisters. After declining the doctor’s invitation for me to stay as his guest in the hospital, we decided to head back toward Colgate a day early. We stopped in three more emergency rooms on the way back. Each time my skin was punctured, drained, smothered in salve, swathed in bandages, and treated as gently as possible. Each time I was granted stronger painkillers. Each time I was advised to check in for an extended stay. Each time I declined.
We got back to Colgate in the midst of a blizzard. Clad only in my bathing suit and unable to put on shoes, I limped from the car to my apartment through the wind and snow. I missed a week of classes and finally went to the campus medical clinic. Once again, I was punctured, drained, smothered in salve, swathed in bandages, and treated as gently as possible. This time I was given antibiotics as well as painkillers. My entire body was puffy and swollen from the burns.
After another week I was able to put on clothes and go to class. I swore I was done with the sun. Anything that could hurt me that much was to be avoided. I came out of the experience with lots of new freckles and a permanent hypersensitivity to the sun.
I didn’t remember for long, though. The summer between my junior and senior year in college, my friend from Auburn, NY and I loaded a couple of backpacks and headed to Europe with our Eurail passes and our passports. On the Amalfi coast of Italy, near the Island of Capri, I did it again. My friend and I had separated to travel with different people we had met along the way and were going to meet up again at Brindisi, Italy, where we’d cross into Greece. I sent her a telegram at the American Express office, the place we had agreed would be our contact point: “REMEMBER FLORIDA STOP I DID IT AGAIN STOP MEET YOU IN VENICE TWO WEEKS STOP”
No, I don’t mind all that much that I don’t have a suntan.
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