I touched my kneecap, and then, gingerly, my thigh. Just as I feared: My finger left a ghastly white imprint on my lobster-red skin, and it hurt. It more than hurt. It felt as if my skin was on fire, literally singed and about to start peeling off in big, crispy, bacon-like slabs. Gross.
J,. and I were on vacation, and it was my thirtieth birthday. We’d just kayaked back from a beautiful secluded island, on which we’d spent the past few days lying in the sun, drinking Caribbean beer and floating in the ocean. Oh, and accidentally searing my epidermis until it turned the approximate color of a tomato. I’d worn sunscreen but clearly not enough.
And now J. was looking at me expectantly. He’d planned on taking me to a romantic restaurant right on the water. But I looked like a lobster, my skin was about to peel off into weird crisp bacon strips, and I actually felt a bit nauseous.
It was the whole reason J. planned the trip—my stupid birthday—and I officially had the worst sunburn of my life.
J. assured me that we didn’t have to go out to dinner, though I knew he’d been planning it. I fought this off, determined not to let him down and ruin the evening. And then I took a shower, which felt like a billion tiny daggers piercing my skin, and promptly decided that I’d rather eat my own weird bacon skin than put an article of clothing on my body and sit through dinner at a restaurant.
I imagined my family and friends at home imagining us on vacation. Right now they probably thought that we were in some dimly lit restaurant, sitting on silk pillows and feeding each other exotic things. Instead, I was plopped on our bed with cold wet towels draped over my limbs, and J. was making pasta in the kitchenette of our villa. Surely this was not the romantic sexed-up evening he’d envisioned. I looked like a freak and he was scared to touch me.
The next day we met another couple by the pool. I’d seen them previously on the beach—they were beautiful. They had long, bronzed limbs that probably never got sunburned, exactly zero body fat, and they moved with an impossible-to-fake grace. I hated them instantly.
They both slid gracefully in the pool, and we started talking. He was a former dancer turned attorney; she was a ballerina with the New York City Ballet. Figures: I’m a weird lobster in a headscarf sharing the pool with a ballerina goddess.
I bet they’ve had sex ten times today already, I thought to myself. I bet they can’t keep their hands off each other. I bet last night they sat on silk pillows and fed each other fruit and lettuce and then pliéd in the sand. Naked.
I asked her the basic questions you have to ask professional ballerinas when you meet them: Is it really like Black Swan? and Do you get to keep the tutus? I started to like them. Then we got on the topic of the restaurants we’d visited on the island.
“We had this one dinner last night,” Ballerina Goddess began. “They offered us the best, most romantic seat in the house.”
Of course they did. I hated her again.
“The table was outside on the edge of this beautiful dock, literally right on top of the water. And…”
“It was horrible,” her boyfriend cut in, grimacing. They started laughing.
“Oh my God, bugs everywhere, and it was so dark we literally needed to pick up the candle on the table to see our plates.”
“Ew, the bugs! There were at least three in your water glass at all times.”
“And they were eating us alive …”
“It was the worst dinner we’ve ever had.”
Aha! Romance gone awry! We weren’t the only ones! I relented and told them of my sunburn mishap, and how we’d had to spend one of our very few nights in paradise sitting in our room watching the Olympics narrated in a language we couldn’t understand.
I thought back to our honeymoon—10 days in Hawaii—and how sick we’d gotten after an all-you-can-eat pig roast. The sixth night of our honeymoon was spent alternatively running to the bathroom and lying on the bed groaning. Aloha.
But then, it isn’t usually the romantic stuff that sticks out. It’s the mess-ups that make things interesting, the self-photo of us in our post-pig-roast state, glazed eyes, pale foreheads, hands on our bellies, the hotel bathrobes lazily draped around us.
It’s also the mess-ups that end up becoming unlikely sources of romance. The night we canceled my birthday dinner, we ended up quickly running out to the local grocery store to buy food. J. managed to sneak a surprise into the bag. While I was in the bathroom coating my skin with thick globs of aloe, J. had set up a picnic, complete with a plastic Joyeux Anniversaire! banner draped across the bed and a few balloons. He affixed a pointy birthday hat to my head, and caused a big ruckus with a whole bunch of blow-out noisemakers. It was our own version of romance, unexpected, unfussy, and unplanned, and—unlike my sunscreen—it worked.
Have you ever found that times you never thought would be romantic ended up being the most—and the other way around?