Looking Ten Years Younger

This past June, I went to stay with my mom for a week after she had hip surgery.

Her first physical therapy appointment was at the end of the week.  Since she wasn’t able to drive yet, I took her to her appointment.

When the therapist came out, he introduced himself to my mom, who in turn introduced me as her daughter.  The therapists’ eyebrows knitted together, and he looked from one of us to the other.  “So…who did the driving here today?” he asked, obviously concerned.

“Oh, I did,” I said.  An odd question.

His eyebrows were almost touching now.  “How old are you?”

I smiled.  So that was it.  “I’m almost twenty-five.”

“Oh!”  he exclaimed.  His eyebrows had reversed directions, and were now trying to meet up with his hairline.  “Well, you have got to be the youngest-looking almost-twenty-five-year-old I’ve ever met!”

I wasn’t certain if he was mocking me or not–“almost twenty-five,” yes, that had sounded pretty stupid–but he seemed nice overall, so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and kept smiling.  “Thank you,”  I said.

He helped my mom up onto her crutches and began guiding her towards the therapy room.  Before they rounded the corner he looked back over his shoulder and said, “You really are very young looking!”

I laughed and turned back to my book.  Yes.  Yes, I know, thank you.  Later on, my mom told me that the therapist had continued talking about how young I looked through the beginning of her appointment.  Apparently he just couldn’t get over it.

***

So yes, I look very young for my age.  Judging by reactions like the one above, I guess that I look to be about 14 or 15–which is up from a few years ago, when people seemed to assume that I was about 12.

Before you start in with a knowing, “Oh, but you’ll appreciate it when you’re older/when you get to be my age,”–which I hear a lot, and which is nonetheless probably true–I’m not entirely complaining.  Not entirely.  It can be pretty irritating to be patronized.  Mostly what puzzles me is the extreme reactions people have when they find out that I’m almost a decade older than they assumed, like with the therapist above.  Is it really that crazy for a twenty-something to look like a teenager?

Probably the most extreme reaction I’ve encountered happened a few years ago, when I was working my summer job at the local library.  I had just graduated with my B.A. in history a couple of months before, so I was twenty-one (or, by my reckoning, “almost twenty-two!”).  I was checking out a patron’s books to her account when she asked me what grade I was in.

I smiled (I do a lot of smiling in these situations), because I had an idea of what was coming.  “Oh, I actually just graduated from college.”

It turns out that actually I had no idea of what was coming.  The lady SLAMMED both hands down on the counter, her mouth dropped open and her eyes popped wide.  “Are you serious?”

The smile remained pasted in place while I tried to recall where the police “panic button” was located.  “Yes, I graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree.”

The lady’s eyes were still popping, but I decided that at least she didn’t seem likely to leap over the counter at me.  “I didn’t think you were even a senior in high school!”

I laughed lightly.  “Actually, I’m engaged, I’ll be getting married in a few months and moving to Texas.”  This was meant as additional evidence to convince her of my true age, but I’m probably lucky she didn’t have a stroke on the spot.

“Oh…but you’re so young!”  she said, a little breathless.  She looked as though her life was flashing before her eyes, and I had a sudden intimation that the problem was not my age, but her own.

“Well…” I faltered.  I hate it when people say that.  What do you say to that?  “No, actually, not really.  People used to get married a lot younger.  My grandmother got married at eighteen and had my dad at nineteen.  Anyways, if I’m really lucky and live to be one hundred years old, I’ve already used up about a quarter of my lifespan.  Why wait around just to use up more?  That probably would have made the poor woman catatonic.

I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but the lady did eventually recollect herself, and sincerely, if a little dazedly, congratulated me on my graduation and wished me well in my upcoming marriage.

I don’t know what happened to her after she left the library, but I’m hoping I didn’t cause a trip to the emergency room.

***

I’m going to do some complaining at this point.  It really is annoying to not have people take you seriously just because they think you are or aren’t a certain age.

There are times when I want to wear a sign around my neck, proclaiming to the world my actual age and accomplishments as proof that they don’t need to treat me like I’m a kid.  “I AM 25 YEAR OLD. I have a bachelor’s degree, I am married, my husband and I own a house, we are landlords.  WHY ARE YOU TREATING ME LIKE I’M A 10 YEAR OLD?!?”

The memory that grates on me most is another incident from when I was working at the library. This time, I was probably a sophomore in college–so about eighteen or nineteen.  I was helping a man at the front desk when he asked abruptly, “Are you even old enough to work here?”

Snarky come-backs flashed through my mind.  “Are you always this rude?”  “No, I just snuck back here while they weren’t looking.”  “Would you prefer that I stop and find someone else to help you?  It’s a pity they’re all extremely busy right now.”  But I was representing the library, and more would be accomplished by trying to keep a professional demeanor.  So I smiled that smile, looked him in the eye and calmly replied, “I’ve been working here for four years.”

His question didn’t deserve an answer, quite frankly, but I think that was probably the most effective reply I could have made.  In any case, he shut up and let me continue doing my job.  But I can tell you that having my competence questioned solely on the grounds of my perceived age has been a pet peeve ever since.

I have, unfortunately, another pet peeve that’s developing:  being called endearing names by strangers.  Usually, this doesn’t really bother me.  Yesterday, however, it seemed like this was happening to me all day while I was out shopping.  I started wondering if I was being trailed by a five-year-old with pigtails, or if I had suddenly turned into a walking bag of sugar.  By the time the fourth cashier called me “sweetheart,” I was smiling (yes, that smile) through gritted teeth.

Alright, so I was probably over-reacting.  It’s a very small thing, and as I said, normally it doesn’t bother me.  Yesterday, though, it got under my skin.  It felt like a concentrated dose of condescension.

You know where things like that don’t happen?  On a military post.  Not in my experience, anyways.  It was rather disorienting, when I first got married, to go from the discourtesy of some of the situations I have described, to have people “ma’am”-ing and “Mrs.”-ing me without batting an eye.  People in the military seem to assume that I am an adult, with adult responsibilities.  I’m not sure why this is.  People in the military do tend to get married younger than in in the civilian world, and young people often have adult responsibilities.  But why people don’t seem to assume that I’m a teenage army brat, I don’t know.

On the other hand, in the civilian world, people seem to assume that I am a teenager, and treat me accordingly until they find out otherwise.  There really is a change in demeanor when people find out that I’m older than they thought I was.  It’s a little hard to describe, but, for one thing, they tend to minimize the “dears” and “sweeties”.  For another, they become a little more focused and serious in whatever they are doing, with a little more air of respect.

Which makes me wonder, among other things: assuming I was a teenager, why would I deserve less respect and serious attention than someone just a few years older than myself?

***

I have plenty of stories about people mistaking my age.  Thankfully, most of them are amusing.  There’s the time I went to the dentist when I was nineteen, and the hygienist got my file mixed up with another “Ashley” who was was fourteen.  The hygienist didn’t even suspect the mistake until I pointed out a discrepancy in the file (besides the birthdate).  I had thought there was something a little strange going on when she had entered the cleaning room the first time.  There was a birth-story show on the TV, and the woman was in the middle of labor.  “Oh, you don’t want to watch that,” she said, and turned the channel.  Which was true, I didn’t particularly want to hear a laboring woman shrieking while I had my teeth cleaned, but there was something funny about how she said it.  Later, when she discovered the file mix-up with the fourteen-year-old, she got a little sheepish.  “Oh,” she said, “That’s why I turned the channel when I came in!”

There’s the time in El Paso a couple of years ago, when I went to the eye doctor for a follow-up on my new contact lenses. He asked if I was getting them in and out okay, and I said yes, although it was taking some practice.  He laughed and said, “Don’t worry, soon it will become as easy for you as catching the boys!”  I smiled and said, “Well, I don’t know what my husband would think about that.”  His smile faltered for a moment, and then he laughed a little nervously.  “Oh!” he said.  “I was wondering where your parent was.  You are supposed to have a parent with you if you are under sixteen.”  (Actually, that one creeped me out a bit.  I was glad there was a female assistant in the room with me.)

Then there’s the time last winter, when I was grocery shopping and the teenage male cashier had to ask me for my ID.  He shook his head and sighed melodramatically as he punched my birthdate into the computer.  “Your age just about breaks my heart.”  Uh…….thanks?

***

Someday, I will look like I am old enough to drive.  Someday, I will look like I am old enough to have graduated high school, and maybe even college.  Someday, I will look old enough that teenage boys (and creepy older men) won’t want to hit on me.  Until then, I’ll just keep smiling and laughing off the silly things that people say to me, and try not to get too mad about the stupid things.  I’m not wishing away my youth or my youthful looks, but I would appreciate being treated like an adult.  Also, if you could keep the hand-slamming, jaw-dropping, and eye-popping to a minimum, it would be probably be better for both of us.

And to that wonderful employee at Wal-Mart, who, when she had to verify my age so I could buy a tube of super-glue last year, gave me a good squint and said, “Nah, I don’t need to see your license.  You look eighteen to me”:  thank you.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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