Mr. wOw’s Big Sunburn

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The summer of ’72 begins a love-hate relationship between our Mr. wOw and le soleil.

Now that beach weather is really upon us, Mr. wOw offers this little tale of ultraviolet rays gone wild.

Picture this – as Sophia Petrillo often declared – Jacob Riis Park, 1972. A very pale Mr. wOw accompanies friends to the beach. Mr. W., even as a child, has never been friendly with the sun. With pale Northern Italian/Irish skin he has always suffered when exposed too long. Going red almost instantly.

However, this was a lazy summer afternoon with pals. I was assured umbrella protection. Silly Mr. wOw. Once we arrived at the beach, no umbrella materialized. “Oh, come on, you need a tan!” said my friends, all of whom were already a rich shade of walnut. Eh, OK. (God forbid we challenge our ruthless peer group.)

Mr. W. stretched out on the blanket. He was whippet thin and the color of milk. He was also wearing a bathing suit the size of a handkerchief.

Although I splashed in the surf and wandered around a bit, I was continually encouraged to lie down and “get some color.” Not only that, I was instructed to “turn with the sun” as the day wore on, so I’d be evenly tanned. I turned with the sun. No sunscreen was offered. Only “tanning oil.”

Four o’clock PM. Mr. wOw and friends had been beaching since noon. Now we headed home. Mr. W. felt … funny. Tingly, a little lightheaded. In the car, back to Manhattan, I noticed my friends had fallen strangely silent and unusually concerned with my well-being. “Uh, wOw, how do you feel?”

“I feel OK. Ha! A little red, right? But that’s no big deal, huh?”

Silence, from a car full of screaming queens.

I was let out of the car, and rather unceremoniously, too, on 71st Street and Broadway, near my hotel. “Feel better!” said my friends. Well, I felt fine. Feverish, but fine. Zoom! They were gone. When I got to my room, the gentleman I was staying with screamed. “JESUS! What the fuck have you done?” I calmly said I’d been to the beach. “Well, take a look at yourself, you idiot.”

I looked. Not since Scarlett O’Hara put on that red dress to Ashley Wilkes’s birthday party had I seen such a vivid color. This was unnerving. Remember, every single part of my body, including my feet, my underarms, were flaming. Only the itsy-bitsy bikini line was a reminder of my former ghostly tone. Also, I was beginning to hurt. But, how bad could a sunburn be? I’d had them as a kid. This would pass.

Not! An hour later I was writhing and almost delirious. My gentleman friend packed me into a cab and we sped to the nearest emergency room. Incredibly, even though I wasn’t spitting blood (the big ER attention getter), I was ushered almost instantly into the hands of a very nice doctor. “You are an asshole!” (Idiot, asshole – I was getting a message here.) “How long were you in the sun?” I told him. “Well, just 15 minutes more and I think I’d have to admit you for second-degree burns. Are you insane?” (No comforting adjectives were coming my way.)

The doc gave me a huge bottle of Darvon, the great painkiller of the time, and said, gravely: “You are going to have to ride this out. You are going to have a hard time.”

My gentleman friend took me back home, and I then began a week of agony. No amount of painkiller helped. I was literally paralyzed on my bed for four days. My skin tightened so that I could not bend an elbow. I couldn’t shower, eat or go to the bathroom. I pissed the bed. When I was finally able to move I insisted on being put into an ice cold bath. Nothing else could relieve me, I was sure. It did, but only momentarily.

Two weeks later, and ten pounds thinner, I was able to move. I had blistered spectacularly and was now peeling. One week later I was out again. I went down to the Village. I was immediately set upon. “My God, you look fantastic! How did you clear up your skin?” Yes, indeed. The pale and pimply Mr. wOw now sported a warm tan and a pristine complexion. Not since age 13 had I seen such unblemished skin. I’d given myself a great big dermabrasion.

All who encountered me were complimentary. My beach friends said, “See, wasn’t it worth it?”

Naturally (but you know your Mr. wOw) I thought it was worth it. For many years after, though avoiding sun poisoning, I baked – hoping to control my persistent acne. It didn’t work. Nothing did. (Not even sunlamps, which I can’t even believe I used on myself!) My acne was chronic and resistant to sun and the efforts of most dermatologists. Oily skin. I still break out. (Currently I am trying to control something popping up on my nose! Disheartening.) But … no wrinkles! Yet.

Eventually, I got out of the sun. Today Mr. wOw is like a vampire. Slathered in sunscreen, walking on the shady side of the street. Incredibly, my face doesn’t (yet) show the effects of decades of sunny battering. My arms and hands (right hand especially) are something else. What used to be adorable freckles are now the infamous “liver spots.” I investigate all remedies to fade these marks of youthful sun abuse. Nothing works, natch. My hands are so Miami Beach.

I have myself checked over every few months by my dermatologist – head to toe. That one savage sunburn back when I was 17 – that’s the one that could kill me today.

If only I’d taken the advice of one of my idols, Miss Monroe: “Look what happens to fruit when you put it in the sun. It dries out! I don’t think tanned skin is any more attractive than pale skin. I don’t enjoy tanning because I like to feel blonde all over.”

Mr. wOw isn’t blonde (OK, a few years around the turn of the century I had some fun with my hair!) but these are words to live by. Almost literally.

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