Given the unrelenting bleakness of the winter of 2015, it’s no surprise that May 1 will come and go without a viable beach day on the coast of Massachusetts. At this rate, July may get underway before Gloucesterites once again savor the charms of Good Harbor—most of all, the heady feeling when one slips past the “Residents Only” sign, the fee kiosk, and a queue of overheating Cherokees stuffed with lax bros from Peabody. A potent mixture of self-congratulation and Schadenfreude, this feeling never fails to make me swoon.
Compounding my general impatience to hit the beach is a worry that seems to afflict me alone. It is rooted in my modest knowledge of science, as well as the habits of my fellow citizens. To wit:
1) The high temperature on May 1 could register, technically speaking, as colder than the dark side of a newt’s ass. Nevertheless, the Ultraviolet Index, which measures the strength of the sun’s rays, may peak at almost 9.0. This is roughly the same number it will reach on always sultry August 1.
2) Many residents of Gloucester project a rather laissez-faire attitude when it comes to sunburn. That is, even though they will have packed the Grand Caravan with six kids, four folding chairs, two sets of Paddle Ball, and a cooler the size of a magician’s trunk, they will leave the sunscreen at home. In fact, the only sunscreen they’ll have at home is an ancient two-ounce sample they once picked up, mistaking it for a travel size tube of Aquafresh.
This combination of factors means that, once the droves do come to Good Harbor—exposing their delicate, winter-pale skin for the first time—it is certain that most will poach themselves scarlet.
I can vividly recall the first beach day of 2012. It was only mid-March, but the mercury was holding steady at 80 degrees when I arrived at Good Harbor in the late afternoon. Cresting the dunes and observing the scene below, I was reminded of a favorite painting by Hieronymous Bosch: “An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell.” Often hanging on the nursery walls of evangelical Southerners, it depicts the damned lying about in states of undress, their skin tinged an angry red by Lucifer’s sulfury fires. The only difference is that, in Bosch’s version, these individuals are quite conscious of their doomed condition; their postures indicate a certain writhing agony. In contrast, the Good Harbor beachgoers seemed either oblivious or simply unconcerned. They moved only to shoo a pesky gull or to apply a fresh coat of Crisco.
[Good Harbor, March 2012]
I have a neighbor named Al, a retiree and a native of Gloucester, who exemplifies this insouciant approach to sun protection. He spends all of his daylight hours in his sizeable vegetable garden, perhaps the most fecund quarter of an acre in the city. And each day he conducts his efforts in nothing more than a pair of fraying denim shorts whose cut is so brief and yet so roomy that little is left to the imagination. Al happens to be blessed with a manly tunic of hair on his torso and arms, good for at least SPF 20 by my back-of-the-envelope estimates. Yet he always burns savagely on his first full days outside. After a few weeks, he has developed a mahogany carapace that, in addition to functioning as a UV barrier, deters mosquitoes, horseflies, and the fangs of your lesser snakes. Last July, I asked him about this technique. Thrusting his head from between the vines of a summer squash, he replied with perfect matter-of-factness: “Just like seasoning a cast iron pan.”
When I go to the beach, I am generally more circumspect than most Gloucesterites—indeed, more than most people with albinism. I favor the early morning or late afternoon shift, when the light is gentle and golden. Moreover, I drag along a garishly striped umbrella that could shelter an entire Bedouin caravan. Steeped in shadow and the sea breeze, things can get a little chilly, so I end up wearing a long-sleeved shirt and—sometimes—a towel over my legs. Suitably mummified, I am free to plow into a novel or perhaps to enjoy a nap untroubled by the specter of an uneven tan.
I do not pass judgment on my lobster-toned neighbors. Nor do I shy from the sun for the usual reasons: a melanoma scare or visions of future wrinkles and liver spots. Rather, it’s that I have absolutely no faith in the capacity of my skin to protect me from harm—and a corresponding impulse to avoid offending it in any way. For the same reason, I’ve never considered a tattoo for myself, despite my self-consciousness at being the only ink-free man under sixty at my gym. I’m aware that this may sound a little kooky. But the mistrust arises from two decades of betrayals, circumstances when my skin was my worst enemy.
The first and most painful treachery came to pass during the summer after my freshman year in college, when I was working as a camp counselor in the deep woods of western Virginia. One morning in the shower, I noticed a small red bump at the lowest, dangliest point of my scrotum. Initially, this wasn’t particularly concerning. The deciduous Southeast is home to all manner of spiders, flies, and biting insects of which New England is blissfully unaware—for instance, the noble chigger, a species of mite that likes nothing so much as the moist, clement depths of a college boy’s underpants. I assumed I had a few days of awkward scratching to look forward to—but nothing serious. This outlook changed the following morning, when I woke up with a hot, leaden sensation between my legs. Visual inspection revealed a testicular pouch the size, firmness, and hue of a ripe mango.
I was driven posthaste to the nearest emergency room and subjected to a series of medical examinations, which included vigorous palpation of the affected region, as well as an exceptionally unpleasant ultrasound. The technician was an older woman with ropy forearms and a smoker’s cough, and as she varnished my balls with conductive gel, the following exchange took place:
Her: “They say scrotums get this big on chimpanzees.”
Her: “Mm hmm.”
Ultimately, I was diagnosed with high-grade cellulitis, an aggressive skin infection that I must caution you against Googling. But, amazingly, this was the least harrowing phase of what turned into a six-month cascade of horrors. I will not recount them all here. To do so would require a waiver indemnifying The Clam for trauma inflicted on its readership. But I will say that, at my lowest point, I considered whether surgical castration might be a sensible plan of action. Instead, the doctors opted for a cocktail of antibiotics, fungicides, and ’Nam-era defoliants, capped by an intensive course of topical steroids that left my scrotum as soft and smooth as a flapper’s chemise.
[One of my specialists, Dr. Kilgore]
It turns out that all sorts of cysts and nodules can grow on the human epidermis, and I have been beset by most of them. Indeed, if I were to wake up tomorrow morning with something truly bizarre germinating from my shoulder—a tiny cartilaginous bust of Jimmy Durante, let’s say—I would not be the least bit surprised. Still, when that first beach day arrives and I am stuck beneath my giant umbrella, I will inevitably feel a pang of envy. A flush may even come to my wan cheek as I watch the scantily clad masses frolic in the surf and sun—imperfectly safe, but perfectly comfortable in their own skin.