You're walking down the street alongside a strip mall one day when you hear a woman speaking to her daughter. The child is still small, young enough to be out of school at eleven in the morning, and her mother explains their every action to her with careful consideration.
"We're walking because it's nice out," she emphasizes to the little girl, who skips along holding her hand and freezes in mid-step at the crosswalk. She is like a trained dog in pigtails, or perhaps just the miniature person she is, looking both ways for cars and then up at her mother for reassurance that the road is, in fact, clear. You look away, but still catch her next words. "We walk as much as we can because it's healthy."
That holds your interest, for some reason. You think about how you very well may be witnessing something that will shape the child's entire life. She may spend the rest of her life walking as much as she can because it's healthy, and you will never know, but you passed her during that sentence that may determine the transportation she takes throughout her lifetime.
Earlier another little girl of the same age had sat down with her parents and a baby sister. You pretended to read and listened to her childish conversation as you munched on your French fries (an out-of-place order at ten-thirty a.m. in a restaurant filled with over-friendly seniors). It's strange, but those two little girls set off a lengthy train of thought in your mind. It jumps from one topic to another until you suddenly realize with bewildering clarity that once you were that young.
You can't say why this seems like news to you; it's hardly a revelation to know that you were small once. But you catch your reflection in the shop window and see yourself, taller than the child by at least two feet, walking alone. That child isn't allowed to go anywhere by themselves, and once, you were like that. Once, you weren't allowed to play in your fenced-in backyard the kitchen windows overlooked unless the family dog or a significantly older family member accompanied you. Now you are blocks and blocks away from your house, making your way down the street by yourself with your jacket clutched around you and a purse slung over your shoulder. It seems significant in a way you don't fully understand.
Looking at your reflections in shop windows proves to be a trigger for introspection, and after months of it you've realized that when it all comes down to it you are just a collection of body parts that have been described in some way at some time by some person. Sometimes you feel that so strongly it overwhelms you entirely. You can't help but feel as if you are just some assorted jumble of odd leftovers; the "strangely long" legs and the "rounded" hips, the "great" ass with your "kitty-soft" hair, "tiny" hands, and "incredibly long" eyelashes. Your faults are forgivingly left out of it; the asymmetry of your "so blue" eyes is overlooked. You're passable in a pretty sort of way, and if sometimes you look in the mirror and wish your thighs were slimmer, or that your face would just cooperate, well, you're fairly content with whom you are. You're you. You won't magically turn into the epitome of female beauty, so you hold onto that contentment with a quiet sort of resignation.
Physical improvements aside, growing up sucks, you decide one day, but the problem is no one realizes it until they are teetering on the precipice of it. Your entire childhood is spent wishing you could just be oldenough. You are not old enough for a job. You are not old enough to go out alone. You are not old enough to attend parties. You are not old enough to leave school. You are not old enough to drink. You are not old enough to date.
By the time you are, you work all week, nursing hangovers and broken hearts in between. A job is a novelty in the early ages of employment; it's money in your pocket for frivolous teenage things. Later on you start realizing this is no temporary thing. You'll have one for nearly the rest of your life, which will be spent clawing and reaching for a better one. Frivolous teenage things are gradually pushed out of the way until your income is wasted on ridiculous things like grocery shopping and the endless bills the government insists you pay. Your nieces and nephews complain about not being old enough and you find yourself repeating the horrific mantra of all adults: "Why can't you kids just enjoy being young? Stop trying to grow up so fast."
You understand that it's official then. At seventeen years old you're stuck between high school and university, and your mistakes are still times infinite, but you've grown up and you're stuck with it. Later you make a joke about Peter Pan having had the right idea, and get so many blank stares that you hyperventilate in the bathroom about having turned into one of those old people who think they're funny. At that moment it doesn't seem to matter that you still fit size-zero jeans and medium T-shirts from children's stores.
You had never wanted to get old. You had never wanted to grow up. Staring through shop windows on a not-so-extraordinary day, listening to a child's early experiences, you suddenly realize that it's already much, much too late.