(Photo: Elle Moss)
I’m sitting at Starbucks and there is a little girl looking at me. She’s probably about three, wearing a flowered skirt over rainbow leggings with big snow boots. As I type this she is looking at me so intensely that she doesn’t notice she’s shoving her arms through the wrong armholes of her impossibly tiny pink coat.
I’m sitting here with a cup of hot tea and I smile across at her. She doesn’t smile back, just keeps staring with a look on her face that is halfway between terror and wide-eyed fascination. This has been happening a lot lately, or maybe I’m only noticing it properly for the first time. I smile back. I always smile back.
I so vividly remember being a little girl that sometimes I’m still astonished that I wake up in the morning and I’m twenty-six. There’s no more “kind of” about it: to three year olds in flowered skirts and the world in general, I’m a grown up. To use the parlance of my three year-old self, I am a big girl.
I remember being little and staring in awe at big girls. They were so impossibly cool with their high school uniforms. I was sure they were living amazing, perfect lives. Young as I was, I wanted so much to be them. I wanted what I imagined they had: fascinating lives, perfect bodies, pretty things.
When my family would go to Perth for summer vacation, I would get my only tastes of glamour. I would sit at the Clinique counter with my mother as beautiful young women in white coats fussed over both of us. I’d pretend to be a fashion designer and advise Mum on what jewelery to buy, shyly letting shop assistants with neon blue eyeshadow slip brightly coloured rings on my baby fingers. Walking down the street, looking up at big girls wearing their beautiful clothes, holding hands with beautiful boys, sitting outside and drinking coffee with their beautiful friends, laughing. I admired them, I envied them, I wanted to emulate them. These girls are so glamourous, I thought, and they make it look so easy. I couldn’t imagine ever being beautiful or having anything be easy, not even back then, but I could imagine growing up. Someday I’ll be big like that, I thought. And when I am, I am going to do exactly what they do. I’m going to be glamourous just like they are.
I will. I will. I will. When I’m big, I’ll be beautiful and it’ll be so easy for me. Everything will be easier when I’m grown up.
And here I am, a glamourous big girl, all grown up and smiling back at little girls who are looking at me. I wonder what this particular little girl is thinking. I wonder if she is as hungry for beauty as I was when I was her age. I wonder if she’s imagining an adult life full of excitement and fun and being cool. I wonder if she imagines my life, cuts fantasies to fit, somehow knowing that I’m in that safe harbour of adulthood where everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.
As a kid, I wanted to be an adult and I didn’t give any thought how I’d get there. It was a flag in the distance, a goal I desperately wanted to reach. I had no idea that the road from little to big would be so hard, and I never suspected that the finish line I’d been so desperate to reach would turn out to not exist. Growing up is so hard, but it’s made easier when you think that someday it’ll be over. Someday, everyone around you will be mature and kind. Someday, you can make your own rules. Nobody tells you that “someday” never comes.
Growing up I thought that one became an adult in a similar way that one became a licensed driver. You passed a test, you survived a trial, you were given your official grown-up status, a list of answers to all of life’s question and a suit of armor. I really believed that adults were all-knowing and invulnerable, but boy do I know better now. Adults are fragile things, more fragile than kids in some ways, with hearts that break, lives that ache, mouths that don’t always know what to say.
But the thing about adults is that they pretend that they do. We all pretend that we do and it’s not because we like to lie or feel superior. We do it because that’s what allows the people that we love, little or otherwise, to feel safe. Like glamour, adulthood is largely an illusion. But it’s a kind illusion, one that we create anew every day and strive to live up to with everything we do. Like a coat that we hope to grow into, a shoe we hope someday will fit.
Now the little girl is pulling a bright pink hat over her face while her mother zips up her coat. Its a little hard, though, because she keeps weaving around and bobbing like she’s dancing to the formless, aimless coffee shop music. Finally, now correctly zipped, hatted and mittened, mother takes daughter’s hand and leads her out into the snow. Halfway out the door, the little girl turns around and waves to me. Hard. Grinning. Like she finally want me to see her.
I wave back and I smile to myself, feeling a little sad and wistful. Good luck, kid.
Good luck to all of us.