It’s a humbling experience being the least coordinated person in a high intensity interval training class otherwise entirely attended by Baby Boomers with variations on the name “Cheryl.” Every woman in the class, my own mother amidst the bunch, mountain climbed and jump lunged and butt kicked to the tune of P!nk’s greatest 2006 hits while, yes, breaking a sweat but doing so in a manner that seemed poised and ascetic. Like Amazons in a Lamaze class. I, meanwhile, was one more failed attempt at a burpee from screaming at every person in the room, “I burn at least 700 calories on the elliptical at least 6 nights a week! Every single week! I almost have abs! Look!”
Fearing what two weeks spent living with my parents, and living amongst the contents of their kitchen pantry, would do to my waistline, I eagerly joined my mom to this class at her gym. She’s a bonafide fixture there—tight with the instructors, congenial with her fellow class takers, familiar enough with the work-outs to know what to do when “plank jacks” is shouted aloud. She’s also clearly in better shape than me. No less than 15 minutes into the class, I turned to look at my mother with primal fear and pity in my eyes as she, thirty years my senior, wiped away a single perspirant pearl from her brow.
“What’s wrong with your calf?” she asked.
Once again preparing myself to rattle off the work-out regimen that had given me these legs, my mother, Kristine, responded to my angered brow, “That mole. You’ve got a dark spot on the back of your leg.”
Despite the risk of putting myself into a position I might not be able to get out of, I twisted my gaze to the back of my leg to see, indeed, a dark spot. A growth that had planted itself on my calf who-knows-how-long ago. It never expanded in size and it never caused me pain so I never thought to take it up with a doctor. Not to mention putting in the effort of getting a referral to see a dermatologist. Cause, then more than ever, it would have proven complicated. I’d just moved away from Boston at the end of May and was spending that first bit of June in New Hampshire before taking flight out to Chicago, where I’d spend the summer living on the enclosed porch of my friend’s Swedish grandmother’s Lincoln Square apartment. Everyday is a winding road, as another woman with a variation on the name Cheryl once sang.
A few days later, tanning on my parents’s back deck and avoiding the contents of the pantry, my mom called. I said “hello” even though my mother never, not even once, has initiated a phone call with anything besides a thesis statement.
“They usually book out about a year in advance so consider yourself lucky I was able to get you an appointment for next week,” Kristine rattled off. “The dermatologist is down in Bedford but you wouldn’t want to see anyone around here anyway. I made sure to get you in at 9 a.m., that way if it’s nice, you’ll still have all day to lay out.”
Perhaps there are some moms out there that, concerned enough about a sarcoma on their child’s body to call a specialist on their behalf, might demand said child no longer roast in the sun with nothing but SPF 8 blocking them from cancerous rays de la sol. But, thank God, that’s not my mom. Everything I know about summer, I’ve learned from her. Epigenetics suggests one can inherit the traumas of their ancestors. I don’t doubt that. But if there’s an epigenetics that posits one can inherit the tanning complex of their mother, I’m case study.
There’s this photo I love of Kristine, taken on Huntington Beach in the early 1980s. She was on a family vacation, visiting one of her older sisters who’d moved out to California. I’m not sure who took the picture but, in it, my mother is reclined in a beach chair, her purple one-pieced body positioned—obviously—in perfect alignment with the sun. Her eyes are closed, her hair naturally blonde, and there’s an expression on her face that can only be interpreted as “pissed” but in a predictably teenaged kind of way. I still see that look on her face sometimes. There also isn’t a book or radio or friend anywhere to be found in the shot. Kristine is tanning and seemingly that’s all she wants.
Whether it was nature or nurture that made me into the sun disciple I’ve become, “nurture” might be too generous a term. We grew up going to a beach in a New Jersey town called Spring Lake. Unlike the hepatitis-ravaged vision most people have associated with the Jersey Shore—a Dantean tableau of boardwalks and fur slides and Staten Island exiles—Spring Lake is puritanical. It’s sleepy, the goers skew geriatric, and, though the rules might have changed over the last twenty years, you’re not even allowed to eat on the beach. So come lunch time—when my four-year-old self would Oliver Twist for the tuna fish sandwich my mom had packed for the 11 hours we’d be there—she’d raise one solitary eyelid, cock her head in the direction of the street-front pavilion where food was allowed, and then return to sun bathing. If I was lucky enough, my two sisters would join me there. But, as they got older and embarked on summer social lives of their own, it was up to me to occupy myself. It was also up to me, in a world before cell phones and my mom accessorizing with a watch, to ask the lifeguard what time it was.
“We’ll leave in a half-hour,” said Kristine, after I returned with news that it was 6 p.m. and the beach was now closed.
“Somebody’s tan,” said my dermatologist as she entered the examination room, introducing herself by first name: Didi.
Fearing a dermatologist commenting on a tan was akin to a proctologist inquiring whether you ate corn last night, I stifled my usual canned response of, “That’s the sweetest thing you could say to me.” And though I eyed Didi with suspicion, positive she was moments away from sentencing me to a sunless summer, she seemed genuine in her compliments.
“Orange?” she guffawed. “Please! I hardly see any tones of red in your complexion. A total bronze tan, if ever I saw one.”
Prodding and plying with the spot on my calf, Didi smacked off her surgical gloves and assured me it was just scar tissue, a cut from years ago that I must have forgotten—nothing to worry about. Blossoming with the jinxed joy of someone narrowly avoiding his rightful comeuppance, I walked out of that office and into the summer. And by week’s end, I was in Chicago, settled onto the porch where I’d be living—rent free—through the end of August. A summer that would prove, embarrassingly, only slightly cushier than those that had preceded it.
Cause though I might have been paying rent in Boston, my two post-graduate summers were spent getting tan, debatably, for a living. I was dog walking, working for a little company owned and operated by a woman who would text me every morning with my schedule, meet up with me at the start of my 11 a.m. shifts with snacks and house keys, and then collect said keys at work day’s end: a cool 3:30 in the afternoon. Wearing next to nothing for my four work days per week, I greeted the same dogs, walked the same 30-minute-long loops of the South End, and concluded all the same text messages to owners with an emoji-ed “arf arf.” And I adored it. The monotony of it all proving to be anything but. Because it’s a unique kind of hell, walking at any other time of year, clothes and dogs alike soaked to the bone with the snow or rain of Boston’s remaining nine calendar months. So once I had the sun, warm as an opiate, casting that delicious sheen of sweat and oil and city grit on my limbs, cooking me as I trekked five miles home to Allston after walking ten miles with the dogs, it was enough to make me forget.
I knew a good thing when I had it and didn’t expect the new dog walking company I’d work for in Chicago to be quite as Leave It to Beaver as my prior experience. But still. It was a legitimate start-up, my first interview taking place in an office with espresso machines and views of the Riverwalk. And once I got my scheduled dogs, I had to download this app that tracked my routes, emailing its screenshot results to owners along with a message detailing their pet’s #1s and #2s, some artfully captured photos, and a 15-second-long video. And, in the process, charging my years-old phone in every last outlet I came across, boasting a 9% battery for, I swear to God, the entirety of summer 2018.
“Hi Brian, I hope this email finds you well,” corresponded a boss of mine, a couple weeks into my tenure. “While we appreciate your creative approach with the pupper videos, we have a request. We’re gonna kindly ask that you keep quiet during them. Most of our clients watch them while they’re at work and it might prove a little distracting if you’re talking to the dog during the clip. Let us know what you think. You’re totally rocking it out there! We appreciate you!”
“You’ll be sorry,” I typed before backspacing and compromising with a curt, “Got it!”
But missing solace one place, I sought it in another. The first time I visited Chicago, I was shocked, just shy of disgusted, to find people swimming in a body of water lapping at the shores of the third largest city in the country. But Lake Michigan is pristine, a total drag queen of an ocean, making Chicago into something almost Mediterranean. Milk-fed and distinctively-middle-American but, still, Mediterranean. From my porch, I’d get on the 81 bus, then onto the Red Line, getting off at Bryn Mawr—thirty minutes all that separated me, every day I could, from the beach. I may not have liked my bosses and I might have hardly made any new friends and maybe I came all this way to find that, what do you know, there I was. But, despite all that, I could lay passive in my beach chair. My eyes closed and my ears headphoned. Earning my preferred currency, with every passing hour, of tan lines more drastic than the day before. So certain that in my doing nothing, I was accomplishing something.
And as for this summer. From the get-go, my airfare to Chicago was round-trip. A purposeful beginning and end to my time in that city, knowing that even if I liked it—especially if I liked it—I owed myself the challenge of calling another place home. Moving to Brooklyn in October, this has been my first full summer spent in New York City. And while I’m still working a criminally part-time schedule, arguably justified by my criminally cheap rent, it’s not dogs I’m working with anymore. Guiding tours through a history museum, I have a job that keeps me indoors for the first time in years. A job that I love, a job that makes me feel smart and surrounds me with coworkers who make me feel dumb but—I’m inside. Every chance I get, I steal a couple minutes of sun but the dress code prohibits shorts and buildings cast shadows. It’s hardly worth the effort most of the time.
There’s always been something sad to me about August. A total denouement of a month, a wistful sigh, 31 days of golden fields at sundown incarnate. And so on. I was working on the first of August this year but I hardly felt anything at all. Summer seemingly nearing its end before it even started. Even though I make it to the Rockaways as often as I can and spent a week on a North Carolina beach with my boyfriend’s family and have responded to more than one colleague commenting on my tan with the tried-and-true, “That’s the sweetest thing you could say to me.” My previous summers have always yawned before me: lonesome, languid months that, like poems, were lovely enough to break a heart. And here I am, for the first time on all fronts, gratefully challenged at work and in love with someone so sweet and surviving in a city that felt, still feels, impossible. And maybe because of all that, because of the very agency that all implies, it’s hardly felt like summer at all. I guess I haven’t decided if that’s a good thing or not.
My mom ended up having this entire summer off from work. She suffered some really serious back pain for much of the last year, so severe that I found myself crying on the phone with her one morning. Sympathetic that she was in so much discomfort, of course, but more than that—wrecked by this vision of Kristine becoming a person who couldn’t throw parties or take a gym class or do nothing at all during a day spent on the beach. But she had her surgery back in May and, thankfully, she’s recovered nicely, reveling in her newfound life of leisure before she’s expected back at work on the first of September. She’s kept busy, gardening and catching up with friends and doing whatever else my empty nester parents do when we aren’t around. And, of course, she’s tanned. Spending just about every sunny day on Lake Winnipesaukee, sometimes with friends, sometimes on her own. I like to call her during my breaks, shooting the shit about whoever I just dealt with during my most recent hour-long tour or which of my high school teachers she ran into at Hannaford. And as I sit on a shaded bench in a hot city that seems so far away from summer, I listen to my mom on the other end of the line, knowing she’s facing the sun, and I can hardly hold it against her when she says, “I hate to rub it in—but it’s a top-ten day.”