Tempted by Flesh
There’s a reason we condemn pleasures and temptations of the flesh; there’s no mention of genitals, but we know the sight of skin can excite the very body parts we’re too polite to mention in public. Schools send female students showing too much skin home to change because minds are wont to wander when a skirt slides up a thigh just before the last bell.
Skin, in fact, is part of what attracted me so much to a young man who had planned to become a priest when I was abroad. After a week in the campo, Carlos came back gleaming, the sun trapped under his skin. He would be warm to the touch, I thought. The first day back, he wore a stark white polo shirt that only offset his color even more. I spent the next three hours staring at the spot where the collar met the skin, imaging how tight his neck would be if I bit into it gently and the warmth that would meet my fingers if I ran my hand along his forearm and up under the sleeves.
Every summer, it happens; I sit outside eating lunch or ice cream, I drive around aimlessly, I walk the extra blocks instead of taking the bus and my skin takes on a deeper shade. By the end of August, I’m what Clinique calls “Cocoa Glow.”
First, some facts: I’m black, the child of parents from Central America and the Caribbean. My mother is dark-skinned; a complexion so deep, most Stateside Latinos don’t bat an eyelash speaking what they think is a foreign language in front of her. My father is somewhere in the middle of the spectrum; I take after him. I’ve spent my whole life in the Northeast—unlike my parents, I didn’t grow up eating just-caught fried fish under Caribbean skies, but I love sun. I love to tan; and while my starting point is way past the requisite Hollywood hue, I love the golds and deeper browns that appear each summer.
I don’t always feel it, but I know I got lucky. I inherited my mother’s dry skin, but her psoriasis and eczema skipped me. I hardly get pimples, but my skin is sensitive enough that the most delicate touch excites something in me. Everything tickles, and I dissolve into giggles that bring tears to my eyes and leave The Boy and I breathing hard and smiling on the bed.
Having someone tell me I have beautiful, soft skin, is a special compliment because I know, for the moment at least, that I’ve outsmarted genetics. I don’t have the time, patience or funds to keep up with manicures, but digging into my shallow students’ pockets for the money to buy a luscious body butter is worth it.
I spend a lot of time caring for my skin, but I rarely wear foundation. The bottle of Cocoa Glow foundation is the same bottle I bought when I was sixteen, when a family friend decided it was high time I became a lady and wear makeup. I sometimes mix a few drops of foundation into my moisturizer when I’m going out, but I’m lucky enough not to need it; I’ve had girls ask me if I were wearing foundation on days when I’d just slapped on moisturizer and lip balm before running to class. What’s most interesting about foundation is the names they come up with for the colors. I wear foundation in the winter to bring my face to my late-May tones—because, for all my melanin, I do get pale in the colder months. Clinique calls that color Toffee Bronze. I don’t know what exactly what toffee bronze means no matter how much I step back from the mirror and look at the color. I don’t know how to describe my skin tone, especially when I rule out the irritating food comparisons, but it’s intriguing to see the experts don’t really know what to make of it, either.
Showers before bedtime are often my favorite part of the day because I slick myself up with baby oil gel—so thick, it hardly moves inside the bottle—before I pat my skin dry. This is my one way to fight the dryness of the cold and the dryness of the heat inside apartment buildings, and even then, it takes weeks of soaking in the oils before I stop itching. Looking at my thighs after applying the gel, my dissatisfaction with my body (too little hip, too much belly) disappears almost as quickly as the steam from the shower. With one foot on the side of the tub, I take extra time smoothing the gel over my legs because they’re the driest but also because the gold tones pop out once I start to shine. Exfoliation, too, becomes a labor of love. It gives me an excuse to spend extra time under the hot water, touching my skin. It’s the same sense of peace I get from poking at the sand in my mini Zen garden.
Even as my skin flakes when Indian summer suddenly turns into winter, I take the time to appreciate the bits of skin that are always welcoming and soft. It always surprises me how soft my inner thighs are, or how my breasts, spilling out of a too-small bra on laundry day, are always so smooth. It isn’t always a sexual act; it just feels nice to my rough fingertips.
Those same fingertips wander carefully over the soft, smooth back and shoulders of the
Boy when we’re together, during the languorous kissing. As we get more excited, I dig my nails into his back, secretly hoping I’ve created a network of red marks, just like when we first started. He has incredibly soft skin, even without diligent moisturizing; I love burying my face in his neck when he’s on top. We switch positions, and I remind myself to open my eyes so I can look down and see how my hips and thighs sparkle with sweat, and the beautiful contrast between my brown skin and his white skin (because though he, too, is a first-generation American by way of the West Indies, his father’s New York Italian tones speak the loudest). The sound our flesh makes when it slaps together is an extra auditory bonus, even though it seems so vulgar in porn. There are times when I ask him to rub lotion on my back and butt before he starts because I know how uncomfortable my dry winter skin feels once I start to get hot from moving around. It feels taut on my body and prickly. He’s playful, though, laughing at the loud sound of a hand, full of lotion, smacking a butt cheek, but takes the time to massage any tension out of my back.
I hate that, in the days when I was still painting, I never learned to paint people. I always stuck to still-lives; there was less to screw up. I wish I had learned to capture the colors and textures of skin, to study all the shades in one person and put it on canvas. Gauguin saw how tropical sunlight can fuse with the skin. I missed his Tahitian paintings when they came to town, but I still found myself fingering the museum postcards, wonder, how bumpy would this canvas be if I touched it? What colors did he mix to render a woman who isn’t so different from me? Cocoa Glow, with all its minerals, doesn’t show true radiance.