When I was younger, my parents and I would go to the beach on the hottest days of the summer. My mother didn’t always like it because she hated staying out in the sun too long, but my father showed me all the reasons to fall in love with it. I loved the sky: how bits of scarlet would mingle with splashes of orange, and in the center, where ocean met air, everything was tied by a golden ball. I loved how the colors would reflect off the water and make it look like I was dancing in a pool of lava. My father would tell me I looked like a princess in my purple bathing suit with the pink flowers, even though the arm holes were slightly big and I’d have to keep fixing the straps, and I could feel the heat seeping through my pores and soaking into my blood until my skin burned red. I loved the beach because it was beautiful, and it made me feel beautiful, too.
There was a time, however, when my father called me for a picture. My mother stood from her tent of umbrellas, arms wide open, and I forced myself through the steaming waves to leap into them. She tossed me into the air and I shrieked, just as the camera flashed. I thought I was going to slip through her arms from all the lotion she’d been applying, but I could feel her bones squeezing after catching me, suddenly tightening their hold as she studied me for a couple of seconds behind her sunglasses. Her nose crinkled.
One of her hands tugged at my strap that had begun to slip off, and when I glanced, we could both see a faint line on my shoulder that was paler than the rest of my body. Without warning, she dropped me onto the sand.
“I thought I told you to put on sunscreen??” she demanded. “Now you’re all dark and won’t ever be pretty!”
I watched as she stormed back to her seat, not knowing how to react. There was a pit in my stomach that I had never experienced before and I felt my chest heaving.
Meanwhile, my father dropped the camera and quickly came over to scoop me up. “Don’t listen to her,” he murmured after giving her a look. “You’re beautiful.”
“She’s sunburnt,” my mother pressed, but he ignored her.
“Sunkissed.” His gentle eyes bore into mine as his fingers weaved my hair out of my face. “We’re naturally dark, baby.” His lips found their way to the top of my head, but unlike the water, unlike my mother’s glossy arms, it actually soothed.
Yet, as sweet as his words were, I couldn’t bring myself to believe him. Because the more I stared at my shoulder, the more I thought about what my mother said. Because if we were naturally dark, and I was darker than naturally dark, what did that make me now?
MULAN MATTHAYASACK is a Fiction major at Columbia College Chicago. She likes writing young adult pieces with themes of beauty standards, mental illness, alcoholism, and Asian representation, specifically of the Southeast. Her previous works can be seen in the first issue of Mental Papercuts as well as The Vignette Review.