(Ultimately they divorced, and no one bought a beach cottage in Panama City or anywhere else.)We would pack up the station wagon and make the two hour drive from rural Alabama, while my baby brother slept in the way back and my younger sister alternately played with her dolls or pestered me. I willed the car to go faster because once we arrived I had one goal and one goal only: to get tan.
It might be 55 degrees and windy, but I was on the sand in my bikini and slathered in suntan lotion within minutes of the car pulling into the driveway.I was cursed with very, very pale skin, the kind of skin that refuses to tan. Think of an Albino polar bear dancing on the moon in a wedding dress. Okay, a little whiter than that.
I had always been teased in school about my fair coloring, earning such original nicknames as “Ghostie.” No one wants to be called Ghostie.Any opportunity to go to the beach was my shot at being tan and accepted. I didn’t really care about bragging to my junior high friends that we vacationed someplace exotic like the gulf coast of Florida; I cared about them noticing my tan when we got back.
I had read in a magazine that baby oil works better than sun tan lotion for tanning purposes, so one time I decided to give it a shot. I greased up and dozed under the cloudy sky listening to my Walkman radio while the rest of my family played inside and ate lunch.When I went back in a few minutes later, I rushed to the bathroom mirror to see if I was tan yet. It took my eyes a moment to adjust. My face did look tanner, in a red-Indian-tan sort of way.
I waltzed into the kitchen to get something to drink. My mother gasped. “MOV! You are so sunburnt! Are you okay?”“I’m not burnt, I’m tan,” I said proudly, as if my white skin could easily be swapped with another color on the spectrum. “See? Tan.”
My step-dad walked over, a look of true concern contorting his features. “How long were you outside?”
“I don’t know … maybe, like, half an hour?”
“What time did you go out?” he asked suspiciously.I paused. “I think around 10 or so?”
“MOV, it’s 3 o’clock! You are burnt to a crisp!”I put my hand on my shoulder. I could feel the heat radiating from my skin.
“We need to get you some sort of cream to put on that,” said my mom, her voice brimming over with worry. “I’m going to drive you to the pharmacy right now.”We went to the pharmacy and I could sense people staring at me. I wanted to believe it was because I was so tan, but I could no longer deny that it was because I was red. My skin actually ached.
The pharmacist took one look at me and asked who our doctor was.“We don’t live here, we’re just on vacation,” replied my mother.
“Ma’am, she’ll need something stronger than over-the-counter lotion for that burn. I have a special cream, but it’s prescription only.”After some back and forth negotiations culminating in me crying because my skin hurt so much, the pharmacist went ahead and sold us the cream under a different name.
I went home, took an ice-cold bath, then slathered the thick, soothing cream all over my skin.The next morning, my skin started to bubble up. Two days later, it blistered and began to fall off in huge, ugly chunks. Only the areas my swimsuit covered were spared from the molting ordeal. I stayed inside next to the fan for the duration of our vacation, seeking relief from the heat of my own body. I cringed when I saw my reflection in the mirror: I looked like the victim of a nuclear explosion.
At least when I went back to school, no one called me Ghostie anymore. My new name was Peely.