The Magazine

Here Comes the Sun

Katherine Mangu-Ward, Snow White.

May 24, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 35 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THE SUN and I are in a Mexican standoff. In Cancun, appropriately enough. He glares down from his cloudless perch, unblinking. I am more furtive, peeking out from protective cover to squint up, determined not to let UV rays fry my tender flesh.

Every beach excursion of my adult life has ended in an agony of sunburn and blisters. I seem to lack melanin of any kind, and, with it, the ability to tan, or spend more than a few minutes in the sun without dire consequences. I also seem to lack the good sense to give up and resign myself to ghostly pallor. So each summer the battle is joined anew.

This time my old nemesis will not prevail.

Scampering off to Cancun with my mother in tow for an exotic beach vacation seemed like a great idea when we booked the trip at the chilly, rainy end of a Washington winter. I knew it wouldn't quite be Girls Gone Wild, but I had visions of my bikini-clad self frolicking in the sand and surf, hobnobbing with beautiful people who, like me, were lucky enough to be on vacation.

How foolish I was. Of course, the enemy was waiting for me here, stronger than ever thanks to the proximity of the equator.

Don't think I came here unprepared to do battle, however: I am armed. A trip to the dermatologist yielded special formula sunscreen, SPF 45, thank you very much. "Reapply at regular intervals and after swimming." You bet I will.

My mother, from whom I inherited my fish-belly pigmentation, was up at the crack of dawn our first day to claim a cabana. Like cigarettes in prison, cabanas are a resort trading commodity. They are few and far between--and thatched in palm fronds--for reasons knowable only to the elite brotherhood of beach landscapers.

We set up our defensive position under this hard-won cabana, sticky with sunscreen, swathed in sarongs, broad-brimmed hats, and sunglasses. A generous observer might say we have an air of mystery. In truth, we look more like the Bathory family vacation.

Yet I can't stay under our cabana forever. Sure, there is plenty to do. When paging through magazines full of people with glowing, sun-kissed skin gets dull, I watch as other beach-goers (including the single topless specimen of Eurotrash in my line of sight) interact with each other, in the process of turning various shades of gold and bronze. And I won't starve--rum-based drinks and octopus ceviche are delivered to my lounge chair with astonishing regularity.

(On the topic of beach ceviche, by the way, this word from a friend who hates not just the sun, but the sea as well: "Isn't there something invigorating about consuming ocean creatures at the very boundary of their domain? It is an affront to the ocean. Excellent.")

But from beyond that bright strip of burning sand fraught with peril, the water beckons, clear and beautiful. I venture out. I try to leap across. Each time, the enemy swoops down upon me, unbearably bright and hot. Game over and back to the beginning, to the safety of the shade.

It has always been thus. Childhood photographs of visits to our grandparents' house near the beach show one golden child, white-blonde streaks in her hair, face upturned like a sunflower. This child, favorite of the sun god Ra, is my sister. Off to the side, in the shadow of the beach umbrella or palm tree, you can see me, a blue-white Madame X junior--a splatter of freckles the only evidence that my pale flesh had ever felt the warmth of the sun's rays.

In an effort to console her distraught photophobic granddaughter, my grandmother promised me that if I got enough freckles, one day they would merge into a tan. After years of trying to coax the pathetically few spots of color to merge, I figured out she had been pulling my leg and became the cynical and bitter person I am today.

So far so good. I am determined that in the end my vigilance will pay off. When I return to the office, my coworkers are sure to scoff--You were in Cancun for a week and your skin is still so white we can almost see your internal organs? Shows how little they know. When I look into the mirror, I'll see my pallor for what it is: the glow of victory.

--Katherine Mangu-Ward