For the first six weeks of my life I seemed completely normal. I know. Hard to believe. Soon, though, my parents began to notice something strange. Aside from being super cute, I was growing incredibly fast. Soon I was so tall that people began to have unrealistic expectations of me.
In order to save others from embarrassment, and herself from their judgmental looks, my mother took it upon herself to teach me skills that made sense for my height instead of my age. I was toilet trained by 14 mos (I can’t even imagine the dedication this took) and I was reading and writing by four. The woman’s dedication to my appearing normal ran so deep that I was actually angry when I got to kindergarten and all we did was play all day. I was so angry at that I grabbed a piece of chalk off of my teacher’s desk and secretly wrote all of the words I knew on the back of the toy kitchen in our classroom. I got away with it for thirty six years, but now, if your name is Mrs. Schmidt and you used to teach kindergarten in Madison Wisconsin, I apologize. Also, I think the real lesson I learned that day is that I really needed to be careful, lest I end up immersed in a world of crime. Obviously I would be fantastic at it.
It turned out that crime suited me so well, that I could accidentally cause others to unknowingly attempt to commit crimes.
When I was fifteen, my family went on a trip to San Diego. It was for a conference for my father’s work but I was still excited to go swimming in the ocean and see the zoo. The first night we went to some sort of meet and greet where we met all of the other families. My parents pushed me together with a girl my age named Jennifer who was tiny and cute and blond and outgoing. Nothing like me. We were told that we should be friends and spend all of our free time together. The idea was that we would keep each other out of trouble.
As I sat around listening to Jennifer babbling about things like boys and cheer leading, the bar tender walked up and offered me a drink. I asked for a Coke. Please note that I did not trick this poor man into serving me alcohol. He looked at me a little funny and said “You don’t look like an FBI agent.”
“I’m not,” I said “my dad is. I secretly think my parents just brought me along to watch my little sisters.”
His eyes opened wide as he looked at Jennifer and said “You must be quite a bit older than they are!”
“Yes,” I said, oblivious “I’m six years older than the one and seven years older than the other. They’re a little over a year apart”
He smiled and relaxed and introduced himself to Jennifer. “And how old are you?” he asked her.
“Sixteen” she replied and giggled hysterically.
I then spent the next few hours chatting with the guy. He was very kind and incredibly interesting. He told me about his mother who was very sick and his dreams of owning a restaurant. When he was done with his shift he asked me if I’d like to walk down to the beach.
“Oh I’d LOVE to!” I said with all the enthusiasm of a child who wants nothing more than to go to the beach but is stuck at a boring meet and greet with her parents “But, I’d have to bring Jennifer with.”
“I suppose we could keep an eye on her.” he chuckled.
So I went and told my parents that Jennifer and I were headed outside so a hotel employee could show us where the beach was. This is honestly how I viewed the situation.
I admit I was a bit confused when this bartender kept holding my hand, but then I remembered that we were at the ocean and Jaws happened at the ocean. Sharks are scary and he was probably making sure I didn’t run into the surf. He also kept commenting on how free spirited I was. It was not the worst thing I had ever been called so I took it as a complement. He then asked if he could take me shopping the next day and I agreed, reminding him that I had to bring Jennifer.
The next day Jennifer and I hopped into his brand new red sports car and headed to some stores. She kept wanting to look at clothes and try on swimming suits, and I kept rolling my eyes.
“Give her a break, she’s sixteen!” the bartender said. “Where would you like to go?”
“Um, that book store, the candy store and then the zoo!” I cheered.
He laughed, kissed the top of my head, and called me his free spirit. I was about to say “You are NOT my dad.” but then Jennifer bought some clothes and I dragged everyone to the candy store.
At the candy store I was incredibly enthusiastic. It was heaven to me. They had every flavor of jellybean you could imagine, even though it was August and Easter was nowhere in sight. I had never seen anything like it!
As we left the candy store and I was going on and on about jellybeans, the bartender chuckled and joked “How old are you again?”
“Fifteen.” I said casually, shoving a handful of jellybeans in my mouth.
Suddenly he looked sick. I remember feeling super confused as I watched the color drain out of his face as reality set in. “Fifteen?” he whispered.
I nodded and offered him some jellybeans.
“FIFTEEN?!?” He screamed.
Now I was a little scared. I could tell that something was very wrong but I couldn’t figure out what it could possibly be. I had jellybeans, after all.
“Yes, fifteen.” I said slowly “How old did you think I was?
“Twenty-two or twenty-three!” he was still screaming “SIX OR SEVEN YEARS OLDER THAN JENNIFER! YOU SAID THAT YOU WERE SIX OR SEVEN YEARS OLDER THAN JENNIFER!”
“No I didn’t.” I said with all the annoyance a fifteen year old can muster. “I said I was six and seven years older than my sisters. My nine and eight year old sisters. They’re back at the hotel. Why does it matter?”
“BECAUSE I WAS TRYING TO DATE YOU!” the bartender screamed some more.
Jennifer started giggling, because that was mostly how she communicated. “I knew he was trying to date you.” she snickered.
“But that’s disgusting!” I said “I mean, how old are you?”
“I’M TWENTY-NINE YEARS OLD!” he announced “AND I’M LYING ABOUT MY AGE BECAUSE I DIDN’T THINK YOU’D DATE A THIRTY-TWO YEAR OLD!”
“I wouldn’t even date a nineteen year old.” I assured him “I don’t think my parents would allow me to date anyway.”
He stood there, speechless with his mouth hanging open as I continued to casually snarf down jellybeans.
“Can we go to the zoo now?” I asked.
“WE are not going to the zoo!” he said “WE are going right back to the hotel which you are not to leave again without your parents!”
I then received a twenty minute lecture on human trafficking, which was called sexual slavery at the time. Any time there was a pause in his lecture I would start to say “I don’t see what the big deal is…” which would start him screaming again. I was so incredibly naive that the very real seriousness of the situation simply could not work it’s way into my brain.
As Jennifer and I were discretely dropped off at the back of the hotel, all she said was “My mom would totally not let me hang out with you if she knew about this, but you’re kind of fun, so I won’t tell her.”
By the end of the trip she realized that I wasn’t fun. Just kind of stupid, socially. She still didn’t tell.
In my parents’ defense:
A. It was 1988. Helicopter parenting hadn’t been invented yet.
B. It was 1988. As long as you were in a decent neighborhood, you felt pretty safe letting your 15 year old walk down the street with her friend.
C. It was a conference of FBI agents. The crime rate was expected to be exceptionally low.
Never in their wildest dream should my parents have been expected to need to have a plan in place in case their socially awkward fifteen year old daughter accidentally and unknowingly started dating the bartender.
I’d like to say that people mistaking me for someone older ended there, but it didn’t. It got worse. More on that next time.