I had always figured that all tanning salons were created equal.
There’s a dingy waiting room, right — with two folding chairs. There’s the crinkly red/brown receptionist: hair dyed platinum blonde, lips thick with Malibu Barbie lipstick. There will be piles of Cosmopolitan and Racing Cars magazines, all dog-eared, none of them more recent than three years ago. And after you pay your eight dollars, you will wander down a narrow, office-carpeted hallway, searching for “Aruba” or “Puerto Rico” or whatever your closet happens to be named. The door will be like cardboard, the signs simultaneously ornate and cheap. The floors will shake each time the receptionist paces to the supply closet. You will remove your clothing like a prisoner of war, and pull the coffin lid tightly over your body, anxiously anticipating the click and whir before sudden, total immersion in beautiful white light.
It is all it takes to get through February, March, maybe even some of April. You could have taken up another hobby years ago instead, but now you need it, this particular thing.
Having recently moved, I needed to find a new salon near me, but finding Sm@rt T@n was like being on a secret service mission. It’s located behind a thick password-protected metal door, at the end of a twisting hallway, at the top of the stairs, all hovering above business offices, a bookstore and a Starbucks in the middle of Somerville. I burst in, certain of myself as a woman simply running errands, then stood there for a moment, unexpectedly out of place.
“Hi . . .” I said, approaching a golden man, who was busily polishing a glass countertop. “I’m, uh, I’m new here?”
“Ah.” He smiled an unwavering, solid brick of white, and leaned forward. “Let me show you,” he said secretively, “how these beds work.”
There are five levels to “Sm@rt T@nning” and you should know about all of them. Unfortunately this will cost you quite a bit of money, since level I costs 8.00 per session, and they increase from there until level V is 35.00 per session; also you need at least four sessions before you’ll see any “results”, assuming results are what you’re after.
“Basically, the difference between the beds is the percentage of burning ray,” he told me, as if this were actually a thing. “So the level I bed is your standard tanning bed, with fifty percent tanning ray and fifty percent burn ray, and it’s harsh on the skin, it’s not as good for you. We really only keep these around for comparison’s sake.” The room was spotless and white, gleaming like the tip of Donald Trump’s nose. He closed the door quietly, and we padded down the blue velveteen halls to see the level II, III and IV beds: each of which was slightly bigger than the original bed, and with this alleged 25% less “burn ray” for each level.
“Now this,” he said majestically, throwing open French doors, “is the level V bed.”
It was a massive, ink black monster sitting quietly in the middle of a large tiled room. The bulbs were glowing a soft, neon blue, casting the room in an electric sleep. There were buttons and flashing numbers blinking urgently on the ceiling of the bed, making it look more like a time machine than a reasonable appliance. In the corner, a fake fireplace cackled.
“This is the safest, highest quality bed you can find. It has the most tanning ray, the least burn ray. Instead of fans to cool you off, this bed has air conditioning. The bed is contoured to your body and completely surrounds you with light, from top and bottom, and the sides too. You see these buttons on the top? Control the amount of light hitting your face. Turn the temperature up and down. Adjust the volume of the speakers.” We both stared for a moment in reverent silence. “The Hilton sisters use this tanning bed,” he added.
I had one free-use coupon in my hand. “I’ll . . . take this one,” I said.
At this the Golden Man expressed great pleasure; he stepped behind his glass counter and said that all we would need now, to complete my registration, was a fingerprint.
“Press on this electronic pad four times with your index finger, like so.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. It blinked an ominous, digital scarlet each time, as if to say gotcha.
They squeezed a dollop of green, fruity accelerating lotion into a plastic container, told me I had eight minutes to undress, and the French doors swished shut. I was alone with the monster.
Well la dee dah, I thought, accustomed to what I like to call “the three minute dash.” I wandered around the room a little, investigating the yellow glow of the plastic fireplace, the Hilton pouts on the posters above. Smiling doctors were pictured on pamphlets, giving this tanning system the thumbs up. Glossy magazines rested on the tables, with headlines like “Why Your Dermatologist is Wrong About Tanning” and “Fight the Blues! Improve Physical and Mental Health! Look Great Naked!” I futzed with the radio until I’d found a station that was not dance or electronica.
Finally, pale and reeking of guava, I crawled into the bed, and heaved its massive lid shut over me. I was completely encased, as promised. I stared through the bronze metallic stickers on my eyes and found the “start” button.
Tap. No go, what the —
Tap, more insistently this time. Then click, and the monster whirred, opened its blinding eyes.
“Welcome to the Sm@rt T@n Tanning experience!” a male voice boomed through its speakers. I jumped. “This will be your self-guided tour through the – ” cliiiiick.
There was a moment of abrupt silence, and I could hear the radio behind me.
Then, suddenly, a beat was being pumped through the bed’s speakers. I squeezed my eyes shut as the brightness intensified, and suddenly a wind shook through, pulling my hair back.
“What do you see, when you sleep?” a robotic woman’s voice sang. “What do you see, when close your eyes? (eyes eyes eyes)?”
Well that’s an odd coincidence, I thought. I gripped the plexi-glass beneath me.
“I want to knooow, everything baby (everything everything everything)
Where do you go, what have you done, where have you been, what have you seen
Where do you go, when you’re all alone, what do you see, what do you see? What do you seeeee? (see see see)?”
The beat pummeled through me like UV rays, burning and tanning in measured percentages, and that refrain repeated, over and over as the bed whirred contentedly.