Golden shoulders, orange thumbs

There comes a time when we must accept our limitations. David Blaine couldn’t hold his breath under water for nine minutes, the Kings didn’t make it through the playoffs, and I, apparently, am not smart enough to tan.

Yes, tan. The act of staying still and waiting for one’s skin to brown.

In my defense, the tan I attempted was of the Mystic Tan ilk, which requires a bit more skill than lying under an open sky for 30 minutes and then flipping over. Instead, I stood upright for 14 seconds of misting with a nontoxic skin-staining agent and then turned around. Recommended by such celebrities as Hilary Duff’s older sister and some chick from Access Hollywood, Mystic Tan seems to be the leading advancement in humanity’s endless quest to look outdoorsy without actually going outside.

When the SummRTan receptionist told me I had to watch an instructional video before I tanned, I wanted to laugh. How hard could it be? I barely paid attention as the video described a variety of tan-maintenance products, but once it started speeding through instructions, I wished I’d brought a notepad. The tips flew by: Rub tan blocker on your palms and between your fingers and toes—but not on the soles of your feet! Wear goggles, a nose plug, lip balm, a shower cap—none of which I’d brought. Remove clothing and jewelry. Stand with legs shoulder-width apart, bend elbows, spread fingers, shield palms from jets, don’t inhale, towel off from feet to head, and so on.

“You’ll be fine. I promise,” the receptionist said, as she led me to a tiny room dominated by a silver tanning stall. The shower cap, towel and blocking cream were provided. She assured me I wouldn’t need the goggles or nose plug and added more tips to the list I’d already partially forgotten: Rub blocker on your elbows and knees because dry skin there turns darker than the rest, pull the shower cap back from your hairline to avoid forehead marks, etc.

When she left, I undressed and applied the blocker, immediately forgetting her advice about elbows and knees. I waved my hand in front of the electronic sensor that opened the booth. An automated voice instructed me to stand on a metal plate in the center of the electric-blue stall and counted down to the jet blast, which was both colder and louder than expected. Startled, I accidentally inhaled the medicinal-tasting liquid. Imagining the cilia on my lungs turning a sun-kissed brown, I turned and braced myself for the back jets.

Then I toweled off and looked in the mirror. There was no noticeable difference, but the clear solution was supposed to darken over the next several hours. Feeling sticky and self-conscious in sweats, shower-cap-dented hair and an overpowering herbal aroma, I scurried by the bustling Tokyo Fro’s crowd—many of whom looked to be Mystic Tan regulars—and headed home to bed.

The next morning, I inspected my skin as soon as I woke up. My arms looked naturally tanned, but my hands and palms were shockingly orange, my cuticles dark brown. Though I’d covered them with blocker, my hands must have gotten soaked in tanning solution from the towel as I dried off. Because the solution was clear, I’d had no way of knowing until it “aged.” I kicked my legs out from under my covers and was disappointed to see dime-sized maroon splotches along one ankle and two orange heels. White streaks ran around my knees and along my thighs. I crept cautiously to my bathroom mirror and was relieved to see my face was the one place where my Mystic Tan had dried evenly.

I definitely didn’t have “the look of confidence” promised by the Web site, but as long as I wore long pants and socks, hid my hands and ignored the co-worker who took to calling me “orange thumbs,” I’d be fine until the tinting wore off. Of course, my embarrassment at being overwhelmed by a simple spray-on tan might last a little longer.