We don’t get many trick-or-treaters out here. But if we did, Tom and I weren’t worried about giving out much candy this year. Our zombie impressions would have scared the kids right off the porch. And we weren’t even wearing masks.
“Do I look any better today?”I asked on Halloween morning.
Like any good husband who’s been married forever, Tom tried to put positive words around what I’d just seen in the mirror. “Ah…well…a little bit of pink, smooth skin is better than bright red and scabby, right?” He closed his eyes and gave me a feather soft good morning kiss, careful not to rub his sore spots on my sore spots.
“I guess,” I said. It was hard to believe I’d stop looking like Blotchy Bemis Boogeywoman anytime soon. And how much longer before this Creature from the Black Lagoon would turn back into the handsome man who normally shared my lakeside bliss?
Any day now, supposedly. That’s what we bargained on when we carefully blocked out enough time for our once-in-a-lifetime “his and hers” facials. “Apply twice a day for two weeks to exfoliate sun-damaged skin,” the directions read on the tube of innocuous-looking white cream. We knew we wouldn’t look our best but, after all, what was a few weeks of paying the price for decades of fun in the sun? Once a fair-skinned blondie, I was a “sun worshiper”—faithfully lying prone and lifting my face to its rays from May till September. “You’re nice and tan now,” my dad said when I was a teen, “but you keep laying out there like that and you’re gonna look like an old hag when you’re my age!” Tom, on the other hand, happened to be a red-headed fish worshiper and, therefore, bowed his bare face toward sun-drenched trout pools for hours on end.
“Got good color on my face today,” I’d often say to myself in the mirror. Not too pale, not too red. And no shriveled old hag yet either. Heck, how could I be a hag when I barely ever got a zit, when (according to my girlfriends) I didn’t have my rightful share of crows feet, frown lines, or lip puckers? But what I did have, underneath the good color and plump tone, was really, really dry skin. And, although I could feel it more than see it—flaking off my forehead and parched around my lips—I was pretty sure that, under the right light, I looked like the Sahara.
When I finally went in to get a professional opinion, the dermatologist agreed. “I’m glad you enjoy such a healthy, outdoor lifestyle,” he said. “And I’m really glad you’re wearing sunscreen.” He was a ray of sunshine himself, glad about pretty much everything, which came as a big relief. Not that I usually go to grumpy doctors. But in my limited experience with dermatologists, I found them to be dour and callous. “How long have you been digging at that?” they’d ask before dispensing whatever salve I wanted badly enough to subject myself to their scorn.
My new skin doc was compassionate, funny, and totally cool with the fact that I had just come from Florida and was rounding out my Rangeley wind-blown winter with a trip to Hawaii. “Not to worry. This didn’t happen overnight,” he said, pointing to my forehead. “Lots of people your age get this kind of sun damage. I’ll give you a cream that bonds to the damaged cells so your immune system attacks and kills them before they turn into something worse.” Eventually, after the dead skin sloughed off, I’d have baby soft skin again, he promised. But the Pac-Man on my face application phase…that could be rough.
That’s when he showed me a picture of an actual patient. The poor sucker was two weeks into his treatment and calling him a “pizza face” would have been merciful. He looked like an extra pepperoni pizza that got run over by the Domino’s delivery van. But much better, I reminded myself, than the examples of “something worse” the doctor had toward the back of his picture book.
Tom, who was waiting in the other exam room, got the same diagnosis and prescription for the blotchiness on his temples just below the shade of his fishing cap. “No huge hurry,” the dermatologist said. “You can share a tube of cream whenever it makes sense to stay close to home for awhile.” So we filled the prescription and stashed it in the medicine cupboard till after summer but before holidays and traveling—a good time, we figured, to “get this one done.”
By the week before Halloween, we were looking pretty scary. The “good color” on my forehead had gone from a neutral desert beige to red, scorched sandstone after a relentless drought. Neglected bits of cheek epidermis were now an inverse road map of half-assed sunscreen application. And I had a serious red wine mustache. From a rare Scabernet vintage.
“Someone set our faces on fire and stomped ’em out with football cleats,” I moaned. “Yeah,” Tom agreed, “we’ve been charred up good and stabbed with a fork.”
I was glad I’d seen the in-progress picture in the doctor’s office so I wasn’t shocked stupid. Tom was grateful he didn’t see the picture, and solemnly declined my offer to Google one up for reference. “Next time I go to town I’ll have to wear a baklava,” I whimpered.
“You mean a balaclava, a ski mask,” he said. “Baklava is a flaky pastry.”
That, too. After the longest stretch of “PJ days” in my adult life, the front of my pajama top reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d upend the last of the bag of potato chips toward my mouth and cover myself with crumbs. Mesquite barbecue chips. Crumbling off my face. Perfect timing, though. I was exfoliating right along with my favorite white birches. And by the time I heard my neighbor rev up his leaf blower, I wanted to run over and borrow it. Not for my yard, though. There’s a reason why the universal symbol for fall is leaves swirling every which way in the wind. A leaf blower is just high-powered artillery for waging a futile lawn battle against nature. But I suddenly wanted one—for my face—to blow the fallen remnants of my red and brown visage into oblivion.
We were closer to hideous than healing when someone knocked on the back door. Not ready to show myself yet, I made Tom answer it. Jehovah’s Witnesses had come to call, making their rounds way past where trick-or-treaters bothered to venture. “Are you religious?” they asked Tom. “No, but I’m spiritual,” he said. “Do you believe in a Divine Creator?” they asked. “Sure,” he said, gesturing to his surroundings in the Church of the Great Outdoors. After eyeing the raging scourge on his face, they bowed heads and offered a prayer—blessing the Bemis castaway.
“Did you tell them all that stuff on your face was penance for trout worshiping?” I said. We had to laugh. And except for stretching all the boo-boos around my mouth, it felt really good.