OCTOBER 13, 2019
IN FOURTH GRADE, my class read the abridged version of Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana Jr., who in 1834 boarded a merchant ship traveling from Boston to California. This was meant to teach us about a vital part of California’s history: that a number of “tall ships” had made the daring journey around Cape Horn in the 17th century, that trade had taken place, and that in our town’s very own harbor they’d brought in the tallow to light the candles that Catholic priests and cowhands had set by their bedside tables each night.
In the end, Richard Henry Dana Jr. went home to Boston, and Herman Melville read his work and was inspired to write Moby-Dick. As we know, Melville got a permanent place in the literary canon while Dana got the abridged version of his masterpiece peddled to children as part of the statewide curriculum. But it wasn’t Melville who led me to the tanning salon this summer — it was Dana. And it wasn’t Melville who I thought of as Ke$ha blared at me from the inside of the tanning booth, my body glowing purple — it was the flaxen-haired sailor I met on a field trip that year aboard a reproduction of Dana’s ship.
When I say “flaxen-haired,” I’m not just talking about the hair on this man’s head. I’m talking about the wiry golden hair around his nipples, which caught the light every time he looped a long rope or dashed across the poop deck. Imitation sailors are required, apparently, to wear loose linen shirts cut to the beltline, knee-high boots, and brown polyester leggings. The cut of these linen shirts makes nipple sightings inevitable, a fact that had our suburban mom chaperones sneaking sidelong glances at the gleaming trail of hair that led down from his navel and into mystery.
My class had arrived at the harbor that morning in a fleet of minivans, our sleeping bags and packed lunches in tow. As soon as we boarded the ship, a mock first mate began shouting in mock anger at us, his new crew of pint-sized sailors. It was October, and the morning was hot, and as the first-mate yelled and the ship swayed back and forth and back and forth, I vomited with one convulsive retch into the ocean below. My classmates gathered around to watch the current carry away my half-digested bag of Cheetos.
This seasickness relegated me to the back of the boat, where I sat recovering with the hairy-nippled sailor and one lucky mother. The sailor was young, maybe 30, and his skin was so tanned that it looked decayed at the elbows. They sat close, and he put a sinewy arm around her as I choked the last of my Cheetos over the stern. “You’re so strong,” she said, and I looked up from barfing to say, “Thank you,” the way my parents had taught me, but her eyes and hands were locked on our wayward sailor. I crouched down again, this time to become invisible, and watched them engage in a strange push and pull. “Look at you,” she cooed. “So tan.”
While my classmates learned to tie ropes and make biscuits, the mothers ogled the sailor’s taut and bronzed chest, and I spent the rest of the field trip at the back of the boat, watching and vomiting. On the way home the next morning, my dad took me for french fries downtown. We sat together and watched people going to and fro with their shopping bags, and I told him about the fun I’d had tying ropes and making biscuits as if I hadn’t spent the whole time puking over the deck.
At a certain point, I glanced up from the basket of fries and was startled to see a familiar face. He’d shed his linen for cargo shorts and a T-shirt, and his legs shone brown and bright in the sun. “That’s the sailor from the boat!” I cried out, pointing wildly with half a fry.
“That can’t be him,” my dad said. “He’s walking out of the tanning salon!”
I had forgotten about this moment and about those shining calves until a few months ago, when I began to browse the web for cost-effective ways to become more beautiful. I wasn’t in California anymore but in Iowa, and I’d just survived my first six-month-long winter by gorging myself on bread and crying softly into my pillow each dark morning. As my colleagues boarded planes for the two coasts, I found myself alone in the expanse of an emptied-out college town, teaching an undergraduate summer course in rhetoric.
This would have been fine, except that I was set to go on an all-expenses-paid holiday to Italy in August with a chiseled investment banker. This was, after all, why I’d signed up to teach the summer course — to cover my rent while I waited patiently to be whisked away to distant shores. But the thought of myself flopped out on the beaches of Italy like an undercooked hot dog sent me into a panic. With each passing day, I prayed that I would wake up golden and lithe, and with each passing day my prayers remained stubbornly unanswered.
I recalled the image of the fake sailor dry humping my classmate’s mom on the boat, his leathery neck straining toward her in the sun, and wondered about desire. With five days left before my trip, I marched up the hill from the English building to the Old Capitol Mall, looked both ways for passing students, and ducked into Sunkissed Tanning Salon to purchase the 10 Session Ultra Package. The night before I’d browsed a few online tanning forums to reassure me that 10 tans would not bring forth a plague of disease upon the blotchy pink surface of my body. “You only get cancer if you go to the booth for 20 minutes at a time,” one post offered. “Ur gonna be totally fine as long as u don’t tan every day for more than a year,” another read. I was all in.
The salon’s walls were painted in alternating swathes of teal, purple, and hot pink. A sign propped up against the back wall advertised the Sorority Tanning Package — Prepare for rush week! Five spray tans for $75! Behind the counter, a teenaged girl leaned back in an office chair, tapping her long nails against the formica.
I walked up. “I’d like to purchase the 10 Session Ultra Package, please,” I’d practiced saying on my way up the hill. But instead, faced with the high-ponytailed teenager and the rows of tanning rooms stretching down the hall behind her, I lost track of all of my faculties and remained silent.
“First time?” she asked. I nodded. “Package or single session?”
I pointed to the 10 Session Ultra Package on the services list, and she handed me a questionnaire that would determine the optimum number of minutes that I could lie in the tanning booth without getting burned. Across the top of the page stretched a bold print warning from the FDA: “Exposure to UV radiation, whether from the sun or indoor tanning beds, can cause skin cancer, skin burns, premature skin aging, and eye damage (both short- and long-term).”
I skipped down to the first question.
Mark your eye color:
Light Blue Dark Blue Green/Hazel Light Brown Dark Brown Very Dark Brown
Uh-oh. I looked around the room for a small mirror, but there was none. How could I know with such specificity what color my eyes were? Would the wrong answer lead them to send me into the booth for a full 30 minutes, which would calcify me into a charred pulp and certainly kill me?
The girl behind the counter had gone back to tapping her nails. I tried to gather the courage to ask her to gaze into my eyes to help me determine the best fit, but instead I left the question blank and moved on to haphazardly assess my sunburn history, the quantity of freckles on my face, how many days I spent outside in a given month, the last time I went to a tanning salon.
She took my questionnaire and entered my answers into the computer. My prognosis: seven minutes. “The maximum is 40,” she told me, “but you can work up to that.”
“How about five minutes?” I asked. She raised her eyebrows.
I signed a release form, pressed my index finger against a fingerprint scanner, and then followed the girl back to Room Two. The tanning bed looked ancient, like a big ugly clam whose children had long since stopped visiting.
“Is it possible to get trapped inside?” I asked.
There was a heavy pause. Ke$ha blared from the speakers on either end of the bed, and I pictured myself emerging from the booth with my flesh melting away from my bones.
“I’ll come check on you if you don’t come out,” she promised.
Alone in the room, I studied the bed. There was a small panel where I could adjust the music. I dialed it down to a three. I knew from the forums that tan lines were unacceptable, so I took off my clothes and left them neatly folded on the floor.
Finally, I slipped on the miniature pair of safety goggles I’d bought at the counter and clambered into the bed, pulling it closed around me. With one final prayer, I reached up to press the big green button marked GO and then as an afterthought wrapped a towel around my head to protect my brain. The machine whirred to life. A tiny fan at the end sent a weak, dusty breeze over me as the UV bulbs began to heat up. My skin prickled, a subtle ache that stretched down to my toes, and I wondered if this was the feeling of my body becoming more beautiful.
A minute passed. Two minutes. Three minutes. Surely this was nearly over. I unwrapped my head from the towel and peered through the tiny goggles at the control panel. 1 MINUTE, it read. I wrapped my head back up. Five minutes. Six minutes. Ten minutes. I unwrapped my head again. 2 MINUTES, the panel blinked. The purple light of the UV lamps made my pupils twinge. I wrapped my head up once more, certain that I would have to show up to teach the next morning with my skin burned to a sickening shade of mauve.
At last, the machine gave a final violent whir and stopped. I’d done it. I pushed the lid open and lurched out of the bed, my legs wobbling. As I got dressed, I surveyed my arms and legs for signs of change. They looked the same.
That’s normal, I told myself. It takes time for a tan to develop!
The next morning, I woke up and rushed to the mirror to check on the status of my tan. It was nowhere to be seen. Once again, I marched up the hill from the English building after teaching and this time, when the girl behind the counter asked how many minutes I’d like to go in for, I asked for seven. She smiled at me. “Room Two again.”
The routine was the same, only that this time as the machine whirred beneath me I turned my body like a rotisserie chicken for a more even bake. After seven minutes, I climbed out of the bed, got dressed, and left.
In the morning, I carefully looked for signs of a developing tan. Still nothing. I repeated my dash up the hill, ready to go in for a full 12 minutes. I’d read online that I could purchase a small packet of lotion that would accelerate the tanning process, so before heading to Room Two I asked the girl behind the counter if they had anything like that. “Tinglers, you mean?”
She handed me a green plastic pouch that looked like a soy sauce packet. When she left the room, I tore it open and slathered the lotion on.
Sure enough, my body began to tingle. I lay in the booth, sticky and hot, as the machine hummed and glowed around me. My skin pulsed. Was I getting a rash? I unwrapped the towel from my head and lifted my arms for inspection. Nope. No rash.
After 12 agonizing minutes, the machine stopped and I pushed open the bed. The surface of my skin felt blistered and raw. I got dressed and hurried out, sure that I had been maimed beyond recognition, but when I stared down at my legs they were unchanged.
That evening, I headed downtown to have dinner with a friend. “You look so tan and healthy!” she told me, looking me up and down. A rush of joy came over me. Healthy! Tan! My skin still felt tight and uncomfortable, like it was going to tear right open and scatter globules of Jell-O blood across the room, but at least I had cracked the code. I was tan. I was golden, even. I pictured myself stretched out on an Italian beach, beautiful and at ease, with the investment banker on hand to feed me forkfuls of ravioli.
Only that the next morning, when I woke up and stared at myself blearily in the mirror, I wasn’t tan, I was sunburned. Not the regular kind of sunburned, where you’re a little pink and your skin is warm to the touch — this was a patchy, almost violet burn that spread across my chest like a fiery rash. It had spared my arms and legs and instead crept across my torso, up my neck, and blazed against the small of my back. The overall effect was of red wine spilled on a beige shag carpet or of a butcher’s apron at the end of a long day.
I was scheduled to hop on a plane to Naples the next morning. Perhaps, I reasoned with myself, I could just keep my clothes on and the banker wouldn’t notice. Or we could swim after dark, when the low light would make the burn look less like a disease and more like the contours of my nonexistent six pack. Had this ever happened to the imitation sailor at the beginning of his long journey toward beauty? Would I ever use my seven remaining sessions at the salon?
But of course, I took my clothes off, and the banker was politely revulsed, and I told him that the burn was just a reaction to the long flight, sort of like an allergy, maybe. On a boat ride along the coast, an old Italian sailor held out his hand to help me up the stairs to the upper deck. He was naked but for a miniature speedo, and his body bore no small resemblance to a pumpkin left out on the porch long past October: leathery, bloated, collapsing in on itself. Above all, he was tan. A real sailor with a real tan. I took his hand and smiled. Sei bellissima, he said to me. Ma hai bisogno di un po’ di sole.
I apologized, my hand still resting in his — Non parlo italiano.
“Ah, scusi,” he beamed. “I said you need more sun.”
Lulu Dewey is a writer and teacher living in Iowa City, where she’s a third-year MFA Candidate in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She moved to the Midwest by way of England and California and holds a BS in Society and Environment from UC Berkeley.