Issue 57: Spring 2022

How to Heal a Sunburn

Once, I fell asleep on a beach. It was the summer before my final year of college, and I hated myself. I got a sunburn.

Once, I fell asleep on a beach. It was the summer before my final year of college, and I hated myself. I got a sunburn. I had been wearing cropped yoga pants and a sports bra. The sunburn covered my face, arms and chest, but on each calf, I had a tube-sock burn, from the tops of my toes to mid-shin. The burns on my legs were uneven, because my leggings had ridden up on one side.

That summer, I was living alone in a secret, illegal sublet at the USC dorms. Every weekday, I took the metro blue line from my dorm to Santa Monica, where I was completing a fellowship for my undergrad. On the Saturday I got the sunburn, I woke up before sunrise and took the train to Santa Monica to attend a barre Pilates class, which I had been doing six times a week since moving to California. After that, instead of taking the train back to my empty dorm, I went to the beach, where I stretched out on the sand, turned on my music, and fell asleep. I slept for three hours. 

The sunburn didn’t start hurting until I showered that night. The pain started when I patted myself down with the cotton t-shirt I used to dry off. I had no towel and no shower mat. I could’ve bought those things, but they were so small. I wanted the money I spent to be important.

There was a sense of deep wrongness everywhere I went, a wrongness that emanated from the core of who I was.

The illegal sublet cost $400 a month, and my apartment back in Phoenix cost $500 a month, and my metro pass cost $100 a month, and I made $1200 a month after taxes. I had a credit card for emergencies, but sunblock and towels didn’t feel like emergencies. I used my slim margin of disposable income on cereal and a Pilates class. Every spare dollar, like every spare thought, went towards the things I needed to change about myself. That meant becoming small and strong. Comfort was a luxury I hoped to earn. I would not wear sunscreen or dry myself with a towel, but I would work out and eat one cup of cereal, twice a day. 

I hated my body: cluttered with freckles, clumsy in the Pilates studio light. I hated my writing: good enough to land me this fellowship, not good enough to make me feel like I deserved it. I hated myself, broadly and specifically, hated my inarticulate attempts to name the revulsion I held. There was a sense of deep wrongness everywhere I went, a wrongness that emanated from the core of who I was. No one could convince me it didn’t disgust them.

The sunburn striped across my body in a wide chevron. When I bent my arms, it hurt my armpits. When I bent at the waist, it hurt my stomach. When I walked or sat, it hurt my legs and hips. When I went to bed, it hurt my whole body, and my face, pressed against the naked mattress with no sheet or blanket or pillow. I would not buy those, either, and simply washed my pajamas over and over instead.

Most sunburn remedies do not work. I know this because I tried them all. Aloe vera helps if you can put it on every ten seconds. Lidocaine spray, included in most first aid kits and meant for short-term relief of severe burns, feels really good, but it makes your blisters worse. Tea baths and vinegar soaks soothe you until you have to get out of the bath, and if you are in an illegal sublet with just a shower, they don’t work at all. I was still trying to find a way to heal the sunburn when I got sick.

I did not get sick because of the sunburn. One morning, I awoke with a chest infection. It was easy to ignore, because there was so much pain to keep me occupied. First, the achy muscles from walking everywhere and signing up for workouts far outside my comfort level. Of course, the sunburn. Then, I lost a filling and didn’t have time or money to fix it. I sucked a dull pang from the rotten socket all summer. 

Over those months, I went to the doctor twice, once because I fainted at work, and once because I just couldn’t breathe. Both times they told me it was allergies, combined with the forest fires, combined with smog. They, and everyone, reminded me I was new to Los Angeles, to take some Benadryl. When I fainted, I took a taxi instead of the train. My mom told me to ask for antibiotics, and I asked, but I didn’t get any, so I didn’t get better. I put the doctors’ visits and the Benadryl and the taxi rides onto the emergency credit card. I considered “not breathing” an emergency.

The emergency lasted a long time.

I had to leave the USC dorms. By the end of July, early move-ins were starting. When I sneaked out with my suitcases, the university’s housing staff had started ripping out the carpet in the hallways, and cockroaches were caught in the old carpet glue, still trying to cross the sticky floors. It looked like they were swimming in slow-motion. You had to watch for a long time to determine which ones were dead. 

I was going to stay at my co-worker Rachel’s house, in a tiny room off the kitchen. She told me her home was historic and in a nice part of town. I was too sun-numbed to be happy, and though I should’ve been grateful that I had a place to stay, my body was so sore that the relief couldn’t sink in. When I stood up to transfer trains on my way to Rachel’s, there were big, pale sheets of skin stuck to the vinyl seats. I stayed standing up for the second ride. My sunburn was peeling.

Rachel’s house was old and beautiful. If I hadn’t been coughing up or peeling off endless tissue, the house would’ve made me feel kind of sexy. It had a gorgeous, bright kitchen, where a bowl of limes was always sitting on the counter, not quite rotting, covered in flies. The dining room was huge, with no overhead light, and the only things in it were a formal dining table, an enormous mirror propped against the wall, and a highchair that had been Rachel’s mother’s as a child.

In Rachel’s house, I had a dark, hot room. On my first night there, Rachel had plans with her high school friends, and I was secretly grateful for the solitude. At first, I turned on The Office, which my friends had been trying to convince me to watch. Concentrating was too hard, so I sat with the lights off and tried to breathe. Before I showered, I had to scoop roach bodies out of the tub. Some were dry, hollowed out, but others still had little roach parts rattling around inside them. Rachel got home late that night, and I heard her speaking to her mother in the kitchen. Her family spoke German at home. Their voices echoed through every room, no matter how softly they spoke. I never met them.

I felt bad, but I didn’t feel bad for myself. I felt bad for everyone who knew me.

Rachel and I got along great for the few days she was there with me. Under other circumstances, we could’ve been real friends. One time, we sat on the kitchen floor in front of the open fridge and talked about Joan Didion for an hour, and another night she told me about the time a squirrel came in through the window. After a few days of me being in the house, she and her mother left for a planned trip. Then it was just me, and the long mirror in the dark, and her brother’s lonely German moving softly through the house, and the sunburn. 

I did not get any sympathy for my sunburn, which is good, because I did not deserve sympathy. You cannot feel bad for someone with a sunburn. It is no mystery that the sun will fuck you up. I felt bad, but I didn’t feel bad for myself. I felt bad for everyone who knew me.

I would go in to work early whenever I could, so I could be home and sleeping through the heat of the endless evening. When I walked to the train, coyotes would pace the sidewalks with me, sharing the morning silence. I missed fun group events at work. I would walk to a different drugstore in a different neighbourhood and buy the same cereal, then not eat any of it because my empty tooth hurt. I slept when it was hard to breathe, which was usually. 

After three months in Los Angeles, I went back to Arizona at the end of August, to finish school. I attended classes, walking to and from the campus in desert heat. When I could breathe, I worked. When I couldn’t, I used the credit card. The emergency continued.

My sunburn faded to an ugly red scar on my calves that outlasted the summer. You can see the tube-sock burns on my legs in my last-ever first-day-of-school photo. I was sick into mid-September, when I went to visit my parents. They listened to my persistent, rattling cough and hauled me to urgent care. They made a doctor give me an x-ray and she told me I had pneumonia. I got antibiotics and I didn’t even have to beg.

When I went to the doctor again, on my own, in the late fall, it was to ask about my chest pain. There were pink sunburn scars on my arms and belly and legs. By spring, when I went to the doctor to ask why it was still hard to breathe, the sunburn was all gone. The doctor pressed on my chest, and inflamed, puffy tissue swelled through my ribs. The pneumonia had left me; the damage was done. I couldn’t go up or down stairs without the pain forcing me to sit, and when I ran my fingers over my ribcage, I could feel the hot, tender muscles poking out, trying to get free from me. Every doctor I saw told me to take Advil if necessary.

After college, I moved to New York. What else had changed? My chest only hurt sometimes. My missing filling had not been replaced, but I grew used to using one side of my mouth. My work sent me to many glamorous events, and I was gifted valuable products on a regular basis by companies I had no intention of writing about. 

When I lived in Los Angeles, I felt stifled by the impermanence of my life. My job and my apartment and my friends weren’t real. Everything was borrowed, including my pedigree. I never thought I would have a career as a writer. When I moved to New York, I got a magazine job right away. Every night, I saw my friends, or my boyfriend, who moved across the country to join me. I was busy doing everything I’d ever hoped to do. Anytime my parents called, I only had happy news to share.

Then, the day before leaving to visit my family, I got laid off. During my week with them, I played it cool. I made exaggerated references to my ample savings and gratefully let my parents pay for things. I almost believed it was not a big deal. The day before I needed to fly back to New York, I gave myself the worst sunburn of my life. I didn’t fall asleep this time. Instead, I sat in an inner tube on a lazy river for three hours with no sunblock. I knew what I was doing. I am an expert in sunburns.

On the lazy river, I had time to think about myself and the sun. Unemployed, I had more time than I’d ever wanted.

This sunburn ran from the top of my shoulders to the tops of my toes, on only the front side of my body. It was most severe in my armpits, and on the sides of my breasts, and in the little spots on my belly where I had folded in half. I was visiting my family and we went to the water park, and I was asked if I applied sunblock and I said yes. That was a lie. Then I left my family and flew home, watching my body grow pinker and pinker on the airplane.

I didn’t have a job. I called the credit card company and tried to explain this. My sunburn made it hard to do anything. I had time to think about how I didn’t like myself at all. Usually, I only thought a couple of mean thoughts every day, in short bursts. On the lazy river, I had time to think about myself and the sun. Unemployed, I had more time than I’d ever wanted.

In New York, I stayed in bed. This sunburn was much worse than the one from Los Angeles. I tried not to move because that would make my blisters pop, and there were so many of them. I was living with my boyfriend, who would bring me water and ibuprofen and then leave me alone. The curtains in that bedroom never quite closed. It felt like the sun didn’t want me to forget what I’d done. There was a door leading out to a balcony, two nightstands but no shelves, and the small TV I’d used since college. We only really decorated the rooms people would see. The bed was big and cold and clean. When I could, I slept. I had already learned how to stay still for hours.

In my mind, I left the big cold bed in New York. I went back to my old sunburn, to the kitchen floor at Rachel’s house and the bowl of fly-speckled limes, to the Pilates class where I watched my face redden and sweat in the mirror. The months I spent in California were bad, but they were bad because they were temporary. The only thing that belonged to me there was my body, and once my chest and my skin caught fire, even that felt misunderstood. In California, I exercised for hours every day, listened for whispers of German through the air vents, and waited for it to be over. 

In New York, there was a life I wanted badly, outside the apartment. When one piece of it fell away, it reopened the pit of dread. This life was meant to be permanent, and wasn’t. What else was I certain to lose? The problem had to be me. The life I’d wanted was right there. I couldn’t bring myself to believe I deserved it.

I loved my life and I hated myself. I hated my body: no matter how much weight I lost, it was built onto bones I couldn’t fix. I hated my writing, which was always for someone else. I hated myself, broadly and specifically, and hated how ungrateful and spiteful and afraid I was. I couldn’t even hurt myself correctly. I laid on my back and waited for the sun to do it for me.

The problem with hating myself was that other people didn’t realize they shouldn’t love me, either. They loved me and just wouldn’t stop. They loved me enough to let me stay in their house while they went out of town, and they called me when I got scared walking aimlessly in the middle of the night. They had food delivered to my office so someone would watch me eat it, and they made sure ibuprofen was waiting on the bedside table when I woke up. They promised my mother they’d keep an eye on me. They sent me articles about sunburn remedies.

Sunburns hurt until they don’t. The first week, you wake up every day wondering when it will stop hurting. That makes it hurt more. You wake up on a different day, and your sunburn is in the bed with you. It has started flaking off. 

When you see your friends, they hug you gently. They remember that you’re raw.

You laugh and text a picture to your friends, and ask them, “Isn’t this gross?” It is​ gross. They are happy to hear from you. When you shower, the skin peels off in thick sheets. You look at the skin underneath your sunburn. You miss being at your worst, instead of just bad. In some places, it’s sore and clammy, and in other places, you look like the same person as always. When you see your friends, they hug you gently. They remember that you’re raw.

Today, I live alone, and I keep my limes in a basket in the fridge. I have this weird thing about flies. My friends smile when they recognize the freckles on my legs. I always keep sunscreen in my bag. Some days, I feel swollen muscle spilling out of my chest like dirty bathwater. Advil helps. I had my filling replaced without issue, and my dentist made a point of saying I have nice, strong teeth. I still have a few more payments to make on the emergency credit card. I have learned to be gentle, even when it’s all my fault. The only way to heal a sunburn is to wait.