I felt old for the first time because of a pair of shorts.
I bought them — my shredded Levi’s denim cutoffs — in 2003 from the vintage section of Urban Outfitters on Melrose (FWIW, that place used to be a gold mine). Since then, I’ve worn them everywhere. Over the years, the artful thigh rips have widened and, in certain instances, comingled to create even bigger holes. With every spin cycle, their washed-out blue has faded and their fringe gotten wilder. The overall thrashed messiness is tempered by a perfect, relaxed, high-waisted fit. I had them on while moving into my freshman-year college dorm room. I wore them over an ill-advised American Apparel bodysuit to a Lower East Side bar on my 26th birthday. They’ve come with me to Fire Island, Cambodia and everywhere in-between. I’d never dream of not packing them.
So naturally, into my suitcase they went while I prepped for a recent trip, this time to Argentina. But when I put them on one morning, as I had hundreds of times before, something was different. I stared at myself in the mirror and fixated on the combination of pale, exposed thigh and drippy fringe. Words like ‘inappropriate,’ ‘sloppy,’ and ‘Coachella’ floated to the forefront of my brain. My very favorite shorts, which I’d paired with everything from silk blouses to bikini tops, looked wrong. I couldn’t imagine leaving my hotel room in them. I thought, ugh, I’m too old to be wearing these.
I’m 31 and have never been so aware of my age. It’s not the number itself that concerns me, it’s that I’ve begun to notice that I am aging. I started to really see and feel it after my 30th birthday: fine lines emerging on my forehead and around my eyes, my skin decidedly not glowy, my hair a listless, Barbie doll-like texture (though, to be fair, I blame the New York City water department for that one). I just felt a little…off my game.
The shorts took this feeling to a new place. Somehow, in this foreign country, seeing my 31-year-old body in my 15-year-old Levi’s felt even more blatant than deepening forehead crevices. My coolly ripped-up, don’t-give-a-fuck jean shorts seemed so specifically tethered to my younger self. That singular realization sent me spiraling down a rabbit hole of age-related self-criticism.
While on gorgeous hikes in the mountain ranges of hippie backpacker village El Chaltén and long drives circling Patagonia’s famous seven lakes, I plunged not into the shocking beauty before me, but backwards into the depths of my own personal history. Something about the stunning foreignness made me particularly wistful. The more awesome the scenery, the more lucid my recollections of adolescent details. In my mind, I replayed tracks from the mix CDs my best friend used to mail me, recalled half-ass high-school English papers, felt the heaviness of my lids during late-night drives home to my parents’ house after a party.
I criticized and agonized over younger me’s choices. Should I have done more? Kissed more boys, tried more drugs, worked harder in high school, been badder in college? I cursed myself for not learning more languages and taking more camping trips, for having too little ambition and confidence. Should I have done then what I’m doing now — planted myself in a foreign country for a couple of weeks? Would it have been better in my early 20s, with less money in my pocket and without the security of a job and comfort of a loving relationship? What could I have gotten out of it? An idea for a book or a blog, maybe? A sense of purpose that would’ve laid out a better, sounder course for my life?
My stupid shorts made me realize something: Aging makes it really hard to live in the moment, because the moment always seems to trigger ones that came before. Yes, getting older shows in your face and energy level, but at the heart of aging is a sense of intense retrospection and self-comparison. I never knew my skin was glowy until it seemed lackluster. I didn’t know I had sort-of-silky hair until my ponytail felt like hay. l didn’t know that cutoffs were a younger-me thing until I was an older me. It’s the activation of that strange, pervasive awareness that makes me feel if not old, than certainly older.
Towards the end of my trip, I gave my shorts another chance. I threw them on for a casual morning bike ride, avoided the mirror, and headed out to pick up my cruiser and helmet from the rental shop. Of course, I quickly forgot about my age-cutoff cutoffs crisis and slipped back into the ease and familiarity of my beloved Levi’s. In photos from that day, I appear happy and relaxed. I don’t look particularly old or young. I look like me. And I’m sure, 20 years from now, when I’m 51, I’ll look at those photos and I’ll think, jesus, she was really young. She had no idea. And she really didn’t.
Illustration by @CrayolaMode.