Please, if you would be so kind, when I tell you I grew up in Miami, don’t say, “Really? You’re from Florida? Then how come you’re so pale?”
The pallor is not a choice. It never has been. In high school, I didn’t dye my hair black and walk around frowning, listening to Bauhaus and The Cure on my walkman. I should have, I see that now.
Instead I sported Ron Jon Surf Shop t-shirts and shell necklaces and Vans. I dated a surfer guy. I smelled of cocoa butter lotion and permed my hair. I wore, it pains me to remember, blue contact lenses.
My skin did not cooperate. It burned, leaving me blistered and feverish. Then it freckled and peeled. Despite my efforts, I remained so pale that people couldn’t even tell when I had sun poisoning.
“I thought you went to the beach this weekend,” they said, holding their tan arms against mine.
I pulled the neck of my shirt to the side, revealing a line of still-more-pallid skin that had been shielded from the sun by my bathing suit strap. In contrast with this white line, my skin was reddish-purple.
“Fuck, you really can’t tan, can you?” they said.
This realization, which trickled slowly through the drama crowd I hung out with, did not stop the seniors from bequeathing me “a bottle of suntan lotion” in their year-end roast of the junior class.
Despite the fevers and the pain of showers and the unbearable scratch of clothing, I wasn’t sorry when I burned. I was only sorry the burn never faded into a tan. If someone had told me I could get a tan by covering myself in donkey excrement, I probably would’ve tried it.
It might have stopped boyfriends’ parents from pulling me aside to ask, quietly, “What’s wrong, darling? You don’t like the beach?”
I’ve said it before, but my legs are so pale that in the sun they take on a bluish hue normally associated with corpses and old mimeographs. On a few occasions I used self-tanning lotion on them. They turned bright orange and smelled like vinegar, but I didn’t mind. It was an improvement. Then I waded up to my knees in salt water or dove into a pool laden with chlorine, and the fake tan was washed away.
I finally started to tell people I was from Vermont.
Nowadays, here in New York, people try to put a positive spin on my paleness. “Oh, it’s great that you stay out of the sun,” they say. “You won’t have wrinkles when you get older.”
I explain how many times I’ve burned myself in search of a tan, that I’d still be on the beach every day if it would help, but people don’t listen. “You have beautiful skin,” they say.
Kids in Brooklyn aren’t afraid of the truth. They trundle by on their bicycles, singing the “Casper the Friendly Ghost” theme song and laughing maniacally.
And when I visit Miami, as I walk through Coconut Grove or South Miami, my skin elicits whispers.
“What’s wrong with that girl?” someone will ask a friend, in English, in Spanish. “Do you think she’s from here? Do you think she’s sick?”
The friend will answer, as people always have, “She must be a tourist.”
Now that I’ve lived in Brooklyn for four years, I sometimes interrupt them to say, “Yeah, I am.”