V.C Chickering is the author of the new novel “Twisted Family Values” and has written for Comedy Central, MTV, Lifetime, Cosmo, and other publications. She started her writing career in her mid-forties. Please enjoy this excerpt from her book.
Like so many others I finally got the wake-up call when my dermatologist told me I had some precancerous cells on my cheek. “I mean it about sunblock,” she said. “Okay, okay,” I replied. My dad was always getting basal cells removed from his face, so I knew she meant business. Down at the beach for the summer, I noticed that all of the women in town already had a warm toasted-almond glow. It was only June twenty-seventh. How could they already be tan? Then I remembered that many of them start using Jergens self-tanning cream in April. But I was too late; I’d never catch up. July was a week away and old-school tanning via the sun was definitely and permanently out. There was, however, another option.
My girlfriend texted me the name of a tanning salon in Point. Now, if you’re going to get a fake tan I would argue that Pt. Pleasant, N.J., is possibly ground zero for fake tans on the Eastern seaboard. If they can’t do it, no one can. Then it dawned on me. If she knows the name of a tanning salon she must use a tanning salon. And if she uses a tanning salon, maybe everyone I know is using a tanning salon and not talking about it. I became hilariously suspicious of every deep tan I saw, then thought, “What the heck.”
I was told I could only have an appointment when the owner was in to do the spray application. Quality control, I liked that. I was not told, however, that I should make the appointment for an evening when I have no plans. I could either plan to wear a lower undergarment or be in the buff and I wouldn’t be able to shower for four hours. No prob, I thought. The owner could not have been older than twenty-six. She was tall, lithe, tan—obvi–and lovely, with a Jersey accent—also obvi. She barely looked up to say hello—the typical Jersey Shore shop-owner greeting—then took me back to a room slightly larger than a shower stall.
There was a small raised platform on the floor, a box fan on the floor, and three clothes hooks on the wall. On a tiny table stood an odd collection of lotions. She asked me if I had an event. “I beg your pardon?” I said. “You know, like a wedding.” Oh, right, an event. Is dinner out an event? I thought to myself. It’s pretty darn exciting in my book. “No,” I said, “I’ve got pre-cancerous cells on my face so I can’t go out in the sun anymore but I want a little color, just the healthy kind, not too dark.” I realized at this moment how ridiculous this all was and how I had crossed over some line I had never before considered needing to draw. Was spray-tanning a gateway drug to botox? A chin lift? Couldn’t I muster enough moxie to find myself attractive in the summer without looking golden? Was I really a slave to societies’ shallow expectations of what constituted breezy summer beauty? Could I be that pathetic? Don’t answer that. Apparently.
She handed me a gauzy paper hair cap and told me to strip down. She pointed to a pot of cream and explained that it was a blocker and that I should put it anywhere I didn’t want to tan—on my finger and toenails and in the crevices between them. I briefly considered writing a friendly, “Hi!” on my stomach. When I was about nine I had a summer live-in babysitter who tanned her boyfriend’s initials onto her stomach with masking tape. At the time I hoped that one day I, too, might have that option. Here it was, One Day had arrived. Alas, I turned it down. Not because I don’t think it’s totally hip to be a middle-aged woman with a dude’s initials tanned into my muffin-top stomach, but because I don’t have a boyfriend. Thank heavens, otherwise, I might have.
She told me to face her and shut my eyes. Before I did, I saw her pick up a hose with a wide spray nozzle. I felt a fine mist cover me from the feet up and then, turning around, from the neck down. The last thing she did was my face, wax on, wax off—once in either direction. I opened my eyes and saw my skin covered in a fine, shiny, semi-oily cocoa-colored mist. I looked reddish-brownish, like the color of a beaded leather Native American souvenir belt. She must have seen the look in my eyes because she told me that it would calm down after I showered, which I could do in four hours. But I was heading out to dinner and would be seeing about forty folks I knew for the first time since last summer. Would they understand? Be suspicious? Would they know what was up and elbow each other? I would find out in about thirty-seven minutes.
As I re-dressed in my loose-fitting clothing I thought I should probably ask what’s in the recipe. It seemed the right thing to do, however late in the game, to show concern for the potential toxins I might be purposefully leeching into my skin. She answered with petro-floro-carbons-diode-phosphates or some such random chem-speak., “The same stuff they put in self-tanning lotion.” Not wanting to ask her to repeat herself so that I could write it down and Google it later, I just smiled and nodded as if that old chemical composite and me were familiar friends. What an idiot, I thought to myself. Why even ask her at all if the deed’s been done. Then I remembered, hey, I’m a Jersey girl at a Jersey tanning salon; It’s my birthright. And part of the Jerziness of it all is that I shouldn’t know or even care what’s in it, not laundry detergents and hair conditioners. So as any other native to this region might do, I just said, “Okay, cool,” and didn’t give it another thought.
The color did settle in nicely but not until the next morning when I showered. I went out the same night looking so freakish my son couldn’t look at me. “Seriously, Mom?” He started in. “Don’t worry about it,” I quipped, eyes averted, and kept moving. I’m sure the women at My Event all knew exactly what was up but no one mentioned it, thank gawd, which might have been worse. Who cares, I reminded myself over and over as I appraised the other women’s golden glows. We’re all in this together, aren’t we? Or are we. I still haven’t asked them if theirs is real or fake. But now I’m secretly suspicious and make guesses. Yes, no, no, yes, as they wander by. It’s a new pastime of mine, in addition to arguing with myself over whether to ever do it again.
About Twisted Family Values
Twisted Family Values is an unpredictable and entertaining tale of secrets, desires, and forgiveness spanning four generations of an American family and their family values.
In WASPy Larkspur, New Jersey, social expectations and decorum rule, and Marjorie and Dunsfield Thornden are the envy of their neighbors. Their daughters Claire and Cat set the small town’s social calendar by throwing tastefully lavish family parties year-round. Because it’s 1977, underage debauchery is to be expected—and Cat and Claire’s children, Bizzy and Choo, are at its very center.
Underneath their well-maintained veneer, the Thorndens are quite dysfunctional but have always had their entitlement to fall back on. And while some are finally ready to accept what they’re willing to give up for the life that they think they deserve, secrets that should’ve never been kept—especially not from each other—are bubbling unattractively to the surface.
So when a scandal threatens to unravel this tight-lipped family and their secrets, the Thorndens will have to decide how much they’ll let decorum rule social mores dictate their decisions and how far they’ll go to keep some secrets just that. Any choice they make could mean freedom from expectations but will change the course of their family’s legacy forever.
Did you experience any twisted family values when you were growing up? Please leave a comment below.