Disco Inferno

I can tell it's summer because my left arm resembles a relief map of Utah. In middle age I've developed an aversion to sunlight, which causes my skin, after a mere five minutes outdoors, to burst with angry red welts that itch like mad for a week. I threw caution to the wind the other day and drove to the post office in a short-sleeved shirt. Now, it's all I can do not to claw the skin from my arm, which is burning with fever and looks like an especially nasty strip of jerky.

"It's because of all that time you spent in the sun as a kid," my genius of a dermatologist tells me whenever I call him to plead for more anti-itch cream. "Sure, you had a great tan, but look what it cost you."

He's right about one thing: I did have a glorious tan, once upon a time, long before the word "melanoma" had entered my vocabulary, back in the late '70s and early '80s when "You'll get cancer from all that sunbathing!" was something my mother shouted at me (and at which I'd roll my eyes) as I headed outside for another afternoon of teenage skin-baking.

I did most of my sunbathing stretched out on a Roller Disco beach towel, my Paul Michael Glaser hair slicked back with a fistful of Caryl Richards New Improved Extra Balsam Conditioner to keep it from frying. I'd slather my spindly frame with Johnson's Baby Oil that I'd spritz occasionally with a combination of lemon juice and hydrogen peroxide, because I'd read in a back issue of Collier's that this promoted better tanning.

I baked myself for hours, spinning like a pig on a spit for maximum coverage and snoozing through two or three hours' worth of Top 40 hits. The Trammps sang, "Burn, baby, burn! Disco inferno!" while I spun like a rotisserie, rousing myself every fifteen minutes to rearrange my limbs into another yoga-like contortion to ensure uniform sun exposure. On Thursdays, I'd take my tanning routine to my friend Susan's. Sue had a pool, a pantry crammed with junk food, and a friend named Scott (whom I only ever called Bill, for reasons I can no longer fathom) on whom Sue and I both had adolescent crushes.

Bill had big, brown eyes and even bigger muscles, which is probably why Sue and I overlooked the fact that he was bossy and a bit of a pyromaniac. Bill had theories about how we could accelerate our tanning, which would give him more time to set fire to things like the toothpick sculpture Sue had made in Girl Scout camp when she was 10 and, on one memorable afternoon, a full box of tampons.

He felt that having a suntan wasn't enough, and he'd devised an intricate routine he called "sun tattooing" that involved snipping strips of masking tape into five-pointed stars (the only shape he knew how to make with a tape and scissors) and pasting them all over his chest and shoulders. Every hour or two, he'd remove the stars and apply new ones, overlapping them so that at the end of the day he'd have a pointy yoke of pink and brown blotches. The effect was mottled and unattractive and made Bill's shoulders look like they were peeling off a bad sunburn, but we couldn't persuade him to stop.

It was Bill who'd persuaded us the previous summer to try Coppertone Sudden Tan, a foamy fake-tanning product that had turned our skin Oompa Loompa orange, and to fry our hair with Sun In, whose TV jingle promised, "Sun In/And sunlight/And you'll be blond-er/To-night!" Why we, a trio of brown-haired suburban teens, wanted to be "blond-er" I can't recall. I suppose we thought we'd look sexy, our skin all golden brown, our dark hair tousled and sun-streaked. We wound up looking instead like Cheese Doodles in crispy Farrah Fawcett wigs.

Sue swears it was my idea to baste ourselves with powdered fabric dye, but I would like to blame Bill, in part because he's no longer around to defend himself. The summer after we were Cheese Doodles, we'd been lying by Sue's pool for weeks, but our tans weren't getting any darker. School was starting the following week and we, determined to turn up with the best tans on campus, whipped up a bowl of RIT "Warm Chestnut" Fabric Dye and, using Sue's mother's pastry brushes, carefully painted every inch of ourselves a deep mahogany that dribbled onto our beach towels and into our hairlines. After a half-hour, we were stunning, with tans as uniformly dark and glowing as any George Hamilton had ever sported. We were also hot as hell and, humming the Sudden Tan jingle ("Got a minute? Get a tan!"), we hurled ourselves into Susan's pool.

We spent the last days of that summer standing at the bottom of Susan's pool, which her father drained the day after we lost our lovely tans in it. We weren't cooling off; we were slowly scrubbing off the Warm Chestnut residue with which our fleeting suntans had stained the surface of the now-empty pool. Because we'd neglected to wash off the slippery baby oil we'd been basting in, our RIT tans hadn't actually stuck, and our lovely darkness became a queasy brown oil slick the moment we hit the water. Sue was grounded for life and Bill was forbidden to sunbathe with us ever again, but by then, we'd tired of our quest for the perfect tan. Bill moved away not long after that, and Susan and I moved on to other crushes and avocations that kept us mostly out of the sun.

"Maybe you're not allergic to the sun at all," Sue said when I called her recently to complain about the heat and my scaly, itchy skin. "Maybe you're allergic to fabric dye. Or stupidity!"