I turned the page of my book, but before continuing onto the next page, I threw my head back and pointed my face, eyes closed, towards the sky. I could feel the sun beating down on my face, its light and heat enveloping me like a thick blanket.  Feeling the tops of my legs start to prickle in the sunlight, I rolled onto my stomach and propped myself up on my elbows, positioning my book beneath me.  I continued reading for a few more minutes before realizing that the prickling was happening on the back of my legs as well.  Sitting up once more, determined to finish the chapter I was on, the prickling in my legs became a burning.  The heat of the sun was sending a pulse through my legs, a fiery warning that I may have overstayed my welcome.

Sure enough, as I stood up, my shorts shifted up my leg a little to reveal a stark white contrast to my already-reddening thighs, just above my knees.  Pressing my chin to my chest, I pulled back the strap of my tank top to reveal another distinct line between the exposed and protected. Thinking ahead to the tan this would form, I happily packed up my things and headed for the train.

Hours later, I am much less happy. I thought I had caught it in time. I thought I left early enough to avoid this. Alas, I’m fairly certain I could pop popcorn on my legs. I can feel the spots where it’s worst.  If I shift my shoulders slightly, I can feel the skin at the back of my neck stretch and sear with an almost satisfying discomfort. I made the mistake of hoisting myself onto my bed by placing my knee down on the edge and I might as well have knelt in a bed of hot coals. I move carefully, so as not to disturb the sensitive areas, but it’s hard. The aloe I [fortunately] store in the fridge provides relief, however short-lived. Everything smells like cucumbers, everything feels like it has a thin film over it.

I still remind myself that this will be a lovely tan, in time. Though it was not my intention to resemble bacon by the end of this excursion to the park, I had been hoping to rid myself of the ghostly pale shade I had been sporting all winter and spring.  I am lucky I don’t have any intention of being in a bathing suit any time soon, and that I was wearing the only pair of shorts I own, because I look like I was lying out in the sun wearing one of those old-fashioned swimsuits since my midsection was covered.

I also remind myself that it could be worse. I’ll never forget the worst sunburn I ever had. It was during a camping weekend with my father, brother and some of my father’s friends, who had also brought along their children. There were nine of us in total – ten if you counted the dog.  We did it every summer – in fact, if we don’t do it this summer, it will be the first since we started almost ten years ago – and it was always structured somewhat similarly.  We would drive up on a Friday and leave on Sunday, spending all day Saturday on the Saco river, canoeing. Some of the other kids would take turns in a kayak also, but the first time I tried to get in one, I capsized before I was fully sitting down and abandoned that sport for good.  This particular trip we had been fortunate to have clear skies and cool breezes. The year before it had been rainy and windy the whole time, so we were thrilled at our luck.  Due to my pale nature, my father had suggested I put sunscreen on before we left. A stubborn teenager, I insisted I needed some color, and would put some on when we stopped for lunch in a few hours.

Unfortunately, by then it was too late.

I, of course, was ecstatic that only a few hours in, I already had unmistakable tan lines. I would gently press my fingers into my shoulder and was delighted to see the white imprints take a few extra seconds to disappear.  At lunch, I applied a thin layer of the lowest SPF sunscreen I could find, just to appease my worried father. When we finally reached the spot on the river where we always pull out, hours and hours later, I was beginning to feel uncomfortable. I was still not worried by this – I’ve suffered sunburns before, they’ll surely be a tan in no time. I did take cover under my cool, damp towel in the shade of a nearby tree, because the sun’s beams, though now lower in the sky, seemed to be pressing on my skin like a hot iron.

We got back to camp and I sat through dinner, becoming increasingly uncomfortable. I had covered myself up with sweatpants and a sweatshirt, but the heat of the campfire seemed to be tormenting me, as if the flames themselves were licking my skin.  Finally, I told my father I was going to be in the car, just for a little while, to get out of the heat of the fire, but not ready to encounter the rough floor of the tent I shared with my friend.  I tried to get comfortable, but I was burnt on every part of my skin my bikini hadn’t covered.  My skin was burning hot and I felt myself radiating heat, but my insides were freezing and I was shivering in spite of myself.  It was similar to the sensation of having a fever- being impossibly hot and unbearably cold all at the same time.  It felt as though my skin was tightening around me, sure to burst at any second, only agitated by my inability to keep still while my body shook uncontrollably.

At one point, I wondered how I was going to make it through the night. I had never experienced such agony, and I had to fight back the tears because, they, too, burned my skin and felt like hot oil trickling down my face.

Somehow, I managed to fall asleep – possibly from the sheer exhaustion of bearing the pain – and woke the next morning feeling stiffer than ever.  The chills seemed to have faded, but every movement, every brush of fabric against my skin, sent a flash of pain through my body.

I learned my lesson, that’s for sure. Every camping trip thereafter, I applied sunblock before we set out on the river and at the lunch stop — and sure enough, I still got minor burns every year.  Now, I try to make sure I apply something with some semblence of SPF in it before I go out for long adventures in the sun – but sometimes these things aren’t planned. For example, I didn’t expect to be out in direct sunlight for so long today. I also underestimated the extent to which I could get burned in three hours in the middle of a summer’s day.

Yet, once again, I have learned. And I am ever grateful that I have never experienced a sunburn quite that horrible or that covered as much of my body since that weekend, though I have had one or two close calls.

While we’re on the subject…isn’t it strange how no one ever seems to want to touch you quite as much as when your skin is on fire? Suddenly everyone wants a hug or to slap you on the back or grab your leg in excitement while you’re sitting next to them. It’s like some twisted law of physics. And the look on their face when they wince and say, “Oh, I forgot, I’m so sorry!” always has a hint of amusement behind it.  Always.


~ by Valerie Anne on 06/19/2011.

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