You can tell that my sons are real Seattleites when you ask them how they feel about sunshine and summer weather. "It's too crazy!" beefs Finn. "It was 68 at school the other afternoon and I was dying!" Fred rides around in the back seat on sunny days, grimacing and shouting, "My eyes!"
I'm deep Seattle myself, so on the one hand this deformity in my children pleases me. If I had to choose between cloudy forever and sunny forever, I'd pick cloudy, because that's reading weather. I don't like the sun berating me when I'm caught up in a novel. But I spent my first few years in New York, where the summer sun wasn't kidding, and except for on the most extreme, humid days, we loved it and it was good. Beach, pool, popsicle, sprinkler. The Official Weather of Childhood Fun. So I'm a touch bummed that my boys don't have the sunshine bug, especially since summer vacation is a long stretch when bitching replaces wonderment.
When we moved to Seattle, just as I turned nine, I found out that the summer sun wasn't such a guarantee. On a summer morning, I'd be up at dawn checking things out. You knew right away if it was going to be a good one, a hot one. And you also knew if you were shit out of luck, if it was pouring and there was no hope. And then there was the middle kind of sky—overcast-lite, cloudy with a glow—that could develop either way. The trick there was to exert your will on the sky as much as possible while also managing your expectations and being ready for disappointment.
But when it was a good one and I stood outside in the dawn with the sun flexing its muscles already, an outsized promise-thrill rolled through me, hinting at something better than any actual day could probably deliver.
I learned as a girl that you're supposed to stay out of the sun between the hours of 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, because the sun does the worst damage then. Good to know! Those became my most prized teenage sunbathing office hours.
It was a job, getting tan, or trying to. And you had to get tan. There wasn't a choice when I was young. Or, sure, duh, there was a choice, if you knew who you were and didn't care about fitting in and loved yourself unconditionally and other wondrous, far-fetched things. Like I said, there was no choice. And I had vampire-pale skin—I began more at light blue than white—so I had miles to go before I slept on a summer day if I was going to move the dial to ecru or, if heaven allowed, gold.
Back deck or yard where the sun was brightest
Coppertone (SPF 4 in a slight nod to danger, a reluctant 6 or 8 if it was a scorcher, baby oil if fuck you)
Lemony-smelling tan accelerator (?) in a spray bottle
Bowls of water/strips of tin foil to set around me for their reflective powers
Walkman, once I acquired one
Before I had my Walkman, because I was too clueless to bring a watch with me outside, I had no way of figuring out how long I'd been out there. I'd oil up and close my eyes and just wait. The first few seconds were fine. Then I started getting bored and hot and irritated and twitchy. But I'd grit my teeth and dig in, lying there doing nothing but willing brownness until I couldn't take it anymore and I had to dash into the house to check the time. Surely it's been an hour, or at least half an hour. No. Fifteen minutes max, every time, that I'd been out there before cracking. Fuck! And the house felt so cool, felt so good. No sun headache, lots of entertainment. The TV right there, all tantalizing. Refrigerator full of drinks. Fuck. But I'd go back out.
After I got my Walkman, though, I was a force. I could lie on my back in the sun for an hour or even an hour and a half without flinching. My eyelids went hot orange and everything was Duran Duran or Van Halen (which was a little sexier) and the sun on my skin didn't feel like a test but something else, something sensual and, okay, maybe a test, but a good one, more like a dare.
When I'd put in all the time I could stand, I was free once again to relax in the Great Indoors. Time to pop a Fresca and curl up in the cool, wading through reruns of Three's Company, enjoying vicarious television sunshine. There was a bathroom run at every commercial to check my tan lines and see if anything good was developing. Sometimes I felt guilty, like I should be out there fighting for it while the sun was still up, but the fan was on and The Love Boat was next, and there was always tomorrow, maybe, if the weather held.
One time I was on the back deck—bowls of water everywhere, tan accelerator accelerating, skin heating up, "Panama" pumping in my ears—when I became aware of a hubbub in the air above me. I opened my eyes and there were 20 or 30 or who-knows-what-horrible-number of crows in a crow-cloud about fifteen feet up. They were cawing and flapping and beating the shit out of each other, and it was the worst thing I'd ever seen. I yelled and fell over myself to get inside, spilling some bowls of water on the way. Work day over. Tan as I'm going to get. But once I got inside, it was great, because the crows had removed the television guilt.
The first time I went to the beach with the girls from my new school, I woke up excited and nervous. It was great to be invited, but I was a disaster of whiteness. But I had a plan. I would rise at dawn, sunbathe and use my new bottle of QT. Quick Tan. This was the answer to my prayers. A tan could come out of a bottle. I would never have to worry again. The air was still cool when I set out my towel at 8:00 am, but those were sunbeams, so something could happen. I was covering my bases. I spread the QT with an emphasis on my legs, stretched out on my towel and waited, until it slowly became clear that the shade I was going to take to the beach was partially-eaten Creamsicle: my regular vanilla, with streaks of sherbet-y orange. Scrubbing didn't help.
Nobody said anything at the beach, and it got cloudy pretty soon so we didn't stay long anyway, so I guess I got lucky.
My bathing suit that year was a one-piece in skinny royal blue and white diagonal stripes that aimed down in a V-shape. What promise the early mornings held was whittled away by the feeling of lying next to the other girls, whose bodies looked perfect. I wasn't fat, but I was so pale, and I had stretch marks from developing too fast. Nobody else had those. I stole glances down at my body while we all lay in a row, and tried to find the parts that looked nice.
When I was a little girl in New York, my problem was my shoulder blades. My best friend, Allison, had blonde hair and golden skin, and her shoulder blades jutted out in a cool way in her halter tops. My shoulder blades didn't do that. I used to try to stick them out, but that was uncomfortable/unsustainable and I never knew if it was working. At thirteen, non-jutting shoulder blades seemed like a dream dilemma, now that my pale skin was such a problem, and these marks.
For years as an adult, I disliked the noonday sun. It was so battering and obvious. But one summer day in my late twenties I was walking through my neighborhood to a coffee shop a couple of blocks away, and I had a change of heart. The sun was beating down from straight above, but everything looked good. The clouds were high and light and the sky seemed taller than usual, and the blue was pale and hazy, like the sunbeams were almost visible. And the sun was hot but it felt therapeutic. I flashed on the Aztecs and their sun gods, and in that moment the light and heat on my head felt both personal and impersonal, like receiving a blessing in a crowd. It was for me because I happened to be here and I received it, but it was for everybody. And here was the sun, a god I could see right up there, giving us everything in plain view, making the planet habitable, giving us life. I felt acutely grateful for it, and when the gratitude gets that acute on the receiver's side, it seems as though something like love is implied on the other.
It's always summer in Hawaii, basically. I went there on my honeymoon for my first marriage, and then again with a couple of girlfriends a few years after that marriage ended. And then I went again a couple of years after that, and that's where I met Dave, which I'm going to talk about just a little, but first I have to sing the praises of Hawaii for a second. In Mexico (I'm suddenly dragging Mexico into it), the sun feels challenging and masculine, but in Hawaii, everything feels lush and feminine and maternal, splashing out with the luxuries and the wish fulfillment and the TLC.
I met Dave on a yoga retreat. We were in a little group of people in a rented house on the North shore of Maui, and five days into the ten-day retreat, after five days of wanting to, we got together. On the sixth morning, I woke up with the sun, with Dave right there. The light was streaming into our room around the corners of the shades, and I knew as I watched him sleep—I didn't hope, but knew—that I was going to get to keep him. I got it, I got all of it; I was good just how I was, and loved how I was, marks of all kinds and all, and I was getting what I'd hoped for, exactly, like this was the kind of thing all those bright, balmy mornings of my youth were hinting at. I sat up on my elbow beaming at him, until he woke up and beamed back.
When I got back to Seattle, I visited my folks, and told them I'd fallen in love, and showed them pictures of Dave. There was one photo of me and Dave on the beach in our bathing suits, standing and embracing and smiling at the camera under a blue sky. My dad took the photo and disappeared upstairs a while, and when he came back he'd blown it up into an 8 x 10 print. "I played with the color a little," he said. "Is this close to what it was like?"
Who knows if the color was right? How could I say if it was like that, if the sun shining on us gave everything that exact tint and brightness? But his instinct to try and bottle it, the generosity and impossibility and hope of the gesture, I got it and loved it and said that it was.