I'm never so grateful for my close proximity to the Jersey shoreline as I am on a week like this, when temperatures never dip below the nineties. My wife and I love loading the beach chairs in the car after 3 p.m, when the sun relents and the crowds thin out a bit.
On one such night last week, I spotted my daughter walking away from the friends that weaved through the crashing waves. Her bottom lip was quivering as she plopped onto the beach chair.
“I hate my body,” she grunted.
Since preteen female self-esteem issues are my wife’s concern, I looked over the top of my book at her and nudged my head in my daughter’s direction.
“Everything okay, honey?” my wife asked Maura gingerly.
“I hate walking near Olivia on the beach,” she cried. “I’m so pale next to her, we look like a black and white cookie when we walk together!”
I suppressed a laugh to myself, wondering when I could next weave that killer line into a story (here’s my chance!) and tried to empathize with the child.
Olivia is an exotically beautiful girl with Portuguese blood that toasts her skin into a dark almond color when exposed to the sun, and my daughter is a stereotypical Irish kid with dense patches of freckles on each round cheek.
We live in a part of the Jersey Shore called the Irish Riviera, where the whiteness of the beaches is matched only by the paleness of our skin. The Irish race might be known for our wit and intelligence, but we fall short of that tan and trim aesthetic image of summer.
At least I’m not trim. I usually park my beach chair as close to the shoreline so that no one sees me topless because I look like uncooked pizza dough that someone used to mop the floor of a barber shop when I take my shirt off.
The red berry skin tags that dot my ribcage and the congealed white sunblock crusting around the nipples of my B-cup man-boobs add to the beach blanket fright fest that is my disrobing.
As usual, I deflect the uncomfortable situation with humor, which is why I usually wear a shirt that says either “winning the war against anorexia” or “preparing for famine” that I bought in every color to coordinate with each bathing suit in my wardrobe. Being a plus-sized narrowback might be unattractive, but not being color coordinated is a crime punishable by death!
The green salt water becomes translucent as the hot sun beats down on it, making my pale belly look like a wonton in broth as I backstroke my way out of a rip current.
When the waves overcome me on this day of rough surf, I get batted around by the angry sea before being unceremoniously tossed around with the empty black mussel shells slithering on the shoreline like the emotionally wounded beluga that I am.
Despite this pasty humiliation, I somehow feel good about giving my kids an ocean full of beach memories from their childhood that I never got.
My parents took us to Ireland, where the sun hasn’t been seen for a week straight since Charlie Haughey was leader. In the years we didn’t go overseas, we parked ourselves by a pool in the Catskills to beat the heat of Jersey City because my parents reasoned that “the sun at the beach is more savage than the sun in the mountains.”
We now know that the damaging rays of the sun are inescapable, no matter where they beam down on you. Sunscreen technology wasn’t what it was back then; we didn’t have the benefit of alcohol sprays that dry instantly on your skin.
I vaguely remember occasional slatherings of white lotion that would only work if it was allowed to dry into your skin. That time period would be an eternity for a kid itching to go in the pool, and I usually dove into the water long before the sunblock would take effect.
My folly was rewarded in the evenings with scorched red skin and heat blisters that made my arms and shoulders look like a McDonald’s Braille menu. Mom would apply aloe after the fact, sending me to sleep in the throes of alternating shivers and heat flashes.
“You get the skin you deserve,” a friend of mine said recently. If that is the case, I am entitled to the best.
I now moisturize with a shockingly expensive SPF 30 face lotion and apply a different blocking agent for my scalp. My dermatologist says this 44 year-old face has the skin of a 30-year-old on it, but he wasn’t so kind about my skin’s condition by the time he got to my underwear line during my last visit. It was there that he gauged away the margins around a few pre-cancerous lesions and stitched the holes left behind.
I sigh and return to my book on the beach, but not before telling my daughter that God never intended the Irish to be tan.
That’s just the way the black and white cookie crumbles.