by Mary Gaitskill
In the summer of '68 I got my first suntan. I got it not because I wanted to,
but because I desperately wanted to overcome my dread of the gaudy "fun" that
constituted summer for 14-year-olds, and because I was sick of being ugly.
Dread of fun may sound eccentric, but as presented, fun just didn't look like
my kind of thing. Fun was a screeching game of volleyball, it was diving into a
chlorinated pool head-first, while others screamed and cavorted, it was
tormenting a retarded girl until she wept, it was standing around with a bunch
of gum-chewing girls twittering over who was cool.
Even when it didn't involve
obvious cruelty, there was something cruel about this "fun" because it
absolutely denied any experience outside its squeaking cute self. It was a
hopping, skipping pop song cranked up full blast; intensity with the guts
stripped out. It made me want to curl up in a ball and put my hands over my
But I knew I couldn't go through life that way, and in my heart I didn't want
to. As bad as it looked, it was what was happening, and I longed to join in.
Getting a tan seemed a logical first step, and besides there was the ugliness
factor. Short, bespectacled, flat-chested and generally graceless you could get
away with, but put pasty-faced on top of that, forget it.
The problem was, tanning seemed pretty arduous. I would look at my sister,
supine in the yard in her bathing suit with a wet rag over her eyes, exuding
grim concentration, and decide to put it off until tomorrow. Then my best
friend moved from her squalid apartment complex into the new "development"
where they had a swimming pool everybody could use. Excited by her new
opulence, she invited me over to swim. Finally, here was my chance to take part
in summer fun.
At first it seemed okay. There were a lot of people there at the pool, all of
them new to the development and, it seemed, vaguely grateful to have the pool
bestowed upon them. Girls paraded, guys smirked and loafed, children ran around
in their mysterious world of cuteness, adults looked on and dozens of
transistor radios emitted song after pop song in a layered slur of preposterous
happiness. The Beach Boys, The Archies, The Monkees, The Supremes, 1910
Fruitgum Company, all of them talking about being fine, holding hands, proving
their love, sealing it with a kiss and sugar, sugar, sugar.
Pat and I swam, she
competently breast-stroking while I awkwardly dog-paddled. Then we got out and
lay there, she looking profoundly satisfied to be warm and secure in the
knowledge that she was having fun. Aretha Franklin came on the radio, singing
"Respect." Pat said, "I like soul music," and magnanimously conferred approval
on the foreign culture thousands of miles away in Detroit. Yeah, I thought.
Soul music! The heat was voluptuous and embracing as a friendly animal. I
thought, this could be alright.
I went home after three hours and was so tired I went to sleep immediately
after dinner, still deeply warm and satisfied. I woke a few hours later,
opening my eyes to a darkened room, yet seeing, in ghastly technicolor, pink,
grinning faces, wet limbs, flashing water and grossly vibrant beach balls. My
head hurt and it felt huge. I was nauseated and my thoughts were swollen,
primary-colored and feverish. Fragments of pop songs tormented me.
I held my
hands up; it seemed they were three times normal size. I became aware that my
skin hurt terribly. Aretha sang like a fiend. I got up and went to the
bathroom. I discovered that I was red and blistered and that my eyelids were
swollen. I leaned over the toilet and puked. I spent the rest of the night in a
sun-sick delirium in which the burn and its attendant misery took on the
proportions of a disastrous metaphor, a harbinger of mishap and error and
Which, unfortunately, it kind of was. During the next two years, Pat dumped me,
I was removed from one school and kicked out of another. I ran away from home,
was briefly committed to an institution, was kicked out of another school and
ran away again.
Many years later, when things were better, I had a boyfriend who, enraptured by
the idea of my "midwestern childhood" wanted to look at family pictures. Among
others, I showed him one of a neighborhood barbecue depicting tanned, smiling
teenagers running around. "Where are you?" he asked. I pointed to the corner in
a bespectacled ball, so pale I'm almost invisible. "Oh dear," he said after a
pause. "Oh dear."