Sunburn

My mother always told me to wear sunscreen. I guess I should have listened to her.

I took a vacation to Mexico a while ago. I didn’t wear sunscreen. I don’t need to wear sunscreen – sunscreen is for pussies who are worried about their delicate skin, their pale complexion turning bright red like a tomato, and those horrors looming ominously in the future of skin cancer and melanoma and basal-cell carcinoma.

Not me; I’d rather burn like an egg in an ungreased pan the first day and get it over with, then let my bright right burn fade into a perfect dark brown tan. I never peel. Peeling is for the weak. So I don’t peel. But that wasn’t the case this time.

I got one of those truly horrible burns you only ever hear about from your friends, one of those burns where you burn and it peels and then you burn under the peel and it peels again. I guess I should have stayed off the beach after that but it had stopped hurting by then.

When I got back after my week of vacation my skin was still peeling, mostly on my back and shoulders.

“Geez, that’s a bad burn ya got yourself there,” one of my co-workers ventured the day I got back. “No shit.” Douchebag. “Glad to have you back, Chuck.”

After a week when it was still peeling was when I started to worry. The top layer had long since peeled away and the layer beneath was peeling too. And the layer beneath that. It didn’t itch. It didn’t hurt. It just kept peeling. How many layers deep could I have possibly burned myself on that beach in Mexico? Christ, how many layers does a person’s skin have anyway?

I went to the doctor but he didn’t have much to say.

“Wow, that’s a bad burn you got yourself there, son.” No shit. “Just get back yesterday, did ya?”

“No, I’ve been back for a week.”

His face wrinkled. “Hmmm. I would have expected the peeling to stop by now. Try some aloe.” Thanks Doc.

The following night I stood in the mirror and pulled a long strip of the deepest dry, peeling layer back. It just kept coming and coming off my shoulder, a giant wide strip that grew as it travelled downward. It was an oddly satisfying experience, like taking the plastic wrap off the screen of a new TV.

That is, until I noticed that beneath it there was no more skin. There was no blood. There was no pain. I wasn’t afraid. I watched with a sort of morbid fascination, like someone burning an insect under a magnifying glass, as I peeled the last layer of my dry, burnt skin off and revealed the red corduroy of my shoulder muscle beneath.

I stared at the exposed muscles in my back in the mirror for a long time that evening.

I wore three undershirts to work the next day, to soak up the blood, but there was none. That night I peeled the burned skin off my calves and chest and revealed the muscles underneath. It was strange, to see my insides in the bathroom mirror, bright red, but without a drop of blood. I looked like a drawing in an anatomy textbook, or like one of the bodies in that travelling science exhibit where they plasticized the cadavers and displayed their horrific bulging muscles in frozen poses of action: a dead man throwing a frisbee; dead people playing cards around a table; a dead woman atop a rearing horse cadaver, with its skin missing and muscles also pulled tense in exertion.

It’s only a matter of time before the last layer of skin on my face starts peeling too. It’s been another week now and there’s no skin left anywhere else on my body. I can’t go back to the doctor, not now. After he got over his disbelief he’d surely commit me to scientific research somehow – a medical oddity for study. He’d become famous and I’d become a prisoner, a walking cadaver, a freak show like those I’d seen on display in the travelling exhibit.

That’s not what worries me though. What worries me is the other day the muscle on my right hand started to come loose. Last night I grabbed a portion and started to peel it back and it all came away, muscles, tendons, nerve, everything. I could see the white bone of my fingers below.

What worries me is that I have no idea just how deep a burn can go.

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