The other day at lunch, I realized that I was envying my friend Gerald. It was never supposed to come to this. Gerald has red hair. I, on the other hand, am a person who can tan. Throughout my entire life, I have taken pride in my stored-up, stock-piled, available-whenever-I-wanted-it brownness, ready on command like the brownness of Cary Grant, Robert Redford, Gary Cooper, and Randolph Scott, the sort of brownness that led Max Factor to invent Burnt Egyptian No. 18 in the first place.
I have looked upon people like Gerald, and I have felt sad for them. I have envisioned them, sitting under beach umbrellas throughout their summer vacations. I have envisioned them freckling and pinkening and never quite getting rid of their baby fat. I have pitied them for having to go through life being called “Red” and “Carrot Top” and “Pinky.” I have tried to have compassion on them, given their inferior count of hair follicles. I have tried to imagine what it would be like to look forward to an old age of wispy, vaguely blond off-whiteness. I have considered such things, and I have frequently thought of my own red-headed brother. I have come to understand why, at age 2 and a half, he held his breath until he turned blue. I have come to understand his red-headed temper. I have been told stories of his pink-cheeked, oxygen-deprived, resolute stubbornness, and I have come to comprehend it. I have come to understand why a 2-and-a-half-year-old with a head full of red hair would find no reason to live.
I have, on occasion, challenged myself to come up with even one seriously red-headed movie star who was not a woman. I have come up with Nelson Eddy, Mickey Rooney, andmaybe, while he was still playing ruddy-faced boy-saving priestsSpencer Tracy. Otherwise, the best I could do was Dan Dailey, Van Johnson, Red Skelton, Durwood Kirby, and Mr. Greenjeansall of them character acts, all of them nice guys, song-and-dance men, sidekicks, Reubens, fun-at-a-party but nobody’s idea of a date, the kind of men who, at age 36, can still get a laugh by walking into a drugstore and asking where to find the condoms.
The other day at lunch, Gerald told me I was wrong. He looked through the restaurant window to the awning-covered sidewalk, where pale-faced people were lined up in the autumn-afternoon shade.
“I’m never trying for a tan-line again,” Gerald said, slathering mustard across the edge of his club sandwich. “I have decided that it is a perfectly acceptable thing for me to be pale.”
I said, “Gerald, it’s easy for you to say that sort of thing now. It’s the middle of September. People are supposed to have skin the color of oatmeal.”
Gerald said, “No, it’s not just about autumn. It’s about the 1990s. It’s about the millenium.” He took a bite of his sandwich and chewed it quietly. “And, no matter what you are thinking,” he said, letting his sandwich drop into his side order of cole slaw, “it does not have one thing in hell to do with the ozone.”
I said, “Gerald, history is filled with famous red-headed people, many of whom lived successful, eminently fulfilling lives.” I said, “Think of Queen Elizabeth the First. Think of Thomas Jefferson.” I took a bite of potato salad and said, “It didn’t hurt them at all that they had to get up every morning and put on a wig.”
Gerald said, “This is some sort of Southern European, hot-blooded Latin-lover thing, isn’t it?”
I said, “Gerald, I’m just being realistic. Who would you rather beAntonio Banderas or Conan O’Brien?”
Gerald said, “You mean to say that you think Arthur Godfrey got any?”
I said, “Gerald, people make allowances. Arthur Godfrey had his own television show.”
Gerald was dragging his fork around in his cole slaw. He said, “I had sex seven times in the last month.” He paused. “With the lights on.”
Gerald picked up the pepper grinder. “And so,” he said, cranking a shower of pepper flakes out over his baked beans, “tell mehow’s your love life?”
I said, “Gerald, are you going to finish your fries?”
Here in the autumn of 1996, then, I have been abandoned by my body once again. This time I have been forced to accept the fact that I cannot even trust my own skin, my own pores, my own scalp. Once I had thought darkness spelled mystery, lust, and enchantment. Now I have learned that it wreaks havoc with the colors in a really high-class tattoo. I have learned that skin that has been touched by sunshine does not look like skin made wise by the hardening, late-night life of the city. I have learned that tan skin is the skin of somebody who obviously not been spending enough time on the net.
I have learned that, if you want to dye your hair green, red hair is really good at taking the color. I have learned that nose-rings look really dumb with a tan. I have learned that, when you shave your head, red hair leaves a particularly nice baby-bird-like fuzz.
I have learned that, for years, I have been wasting money on bronzer. It is money I could have been spending, much more wisely, on sunblock, emollients, and antiseptics to ward off infection from a newly inserted lip ring. I have learned that I have been wasting energy being embarrassed about my pale legs, when, all the while, I could have been wearing baggy shorts and black tennis shoes with impunity, even the first weekend after Easter.
On the way home from lunch the other day, I stopped at the record store. I had decided I needed to hear music, something that reminded me of autumnmaybe Lotte Lenya singing “September Song.”
The guy behind the record-store counter had a ring through his nose, a ring through his lip, and a ring through each of his eyebrows. He was wearing crocheted tam and a T-shirt advertising a band called “Your Mother’s One 2.” Fluffy bits of scraggly red hair were peeking out from under the edge of his tam.
I put down the Lenya CD, and the guy behind the counter turned it over. He took a look at Lenya’s picture and said, “Wow, what a great-looking pale-skinned old lady.”
I said, “Yeah, she was German. She smoked a lot of cigarettes. Some of the time, I think, she dyed her hair red.”
The guy behind the counter said, “Man, I bet she was hot before she turned 40.”
I put my credit card down on the counter, but already the guy behind the counter was not paying attention. Instead, he was talking on the telephone. He was making a date for that very evening. He was saying, “I’ll bring this album. It’s by this old broad with red hair. She’s got really white skin.”
I did not need to ask the guy behind the counter how he had spent his summer vacation. I did not need to ask him what he had been doing while he was staying inside in the shade. I did not need to ask him about his sex life or his fear of premature balding.
I looked down at my hand and realized that a new liver spot was forming. I did not need any more indignities at that particular moment. I could not imagine that, if the guy behind the counter had wanted to tell me anything, it would have been anything I would have wanted to hear.