Age 1: You’re in your mom’s arms. The picture is dated. The 80s. Your mom’s hair is wacky and good. Your dad has a moustache and is, for some reason, wearing bell bottoms. They’re both grinning. They’re sitting on a burnt orange couch, which sits in a living room of brown shag carpet and poor lighting. The scene hurts a little.
Age 2: You’re in a high chair. It’s your birthday. Cake is all over your face and your arms are outstretched. You have literal fistfuls of cake. You’re grinning. You’re wearing one of those Burger King crowns that come in kids meals. The background of the kitchen is vintage, darkened, crisp, and soft at the same time. Your parents were still young.
Age 3: You’re presumably on your back porch, looking confusedly at the camera. You don a diaper. You’re on a red tricycle. Behind you is a small, green lawn, fenced in by high wooden planks. A garden hose and lawn furniture can be seen. The light is soft and it feels like a long time ago. It is mid-afternoon. This picture hurts for the levels of innocence and fragility it displays. You are prompted to feel endearment toward the photographer, who you expect is your mom.
Age 4: You’re on the beach, in a small pair of swimming trunks. You are directly behind a terribly constructed sand castle. You’re smiling harder than you ever smile now. Your dad is in the background, wearing a blue tank top and neon pink trucker cap. He’s tan and looking at the sea while discussing something with someone out of frame. You are tan and pretty. The overall aesthetic is one of health and future sadness.
Age 5: You are with your kindergarten teacher, after class, in her classroom. She’s actually holding you. Your hands are wrapped around her neck. You are delighted. Now you can remember her name, the smell of her classroom, the smell of pencils and erasers, the smell of looseleaf paper and the insides of books, the feel of your first cat, and the fear you had of your basement. You remember your old house.
Age 6: You are on the beach again. This picture has the LED-like readout of the date in the bottom right corner – the kind the newer-wave early-90s film cameras began to include on each picture. For some reason imposing an aesthetically incongruous element into memories was desirable during this time. But the picture is an action shot of you kicking a beach ball. You’re grinning wildly, as you never grin anymore. The sound and smell of the beach are somehow apparent, as are the gulls circling overhead, out of frame, and the nights you spent inside the beachside condo, eating sunflower seeds and playing cards with your dad.
Age 7: Another birthday. This time you’re at one of those places that features pizza as its main fare and a large arcade. It is a child-party place. Parents in early 90s attire form smiles of a particular aesthetic/ innocence that’s hard to put your finger on, but perhaps can just be explained by categorizing them as taking place when even all the adults were young. All a little fat, they stand gaudily behind their children, who all have seats at a large, rectangular table. The photo reminds you of the machine at that restuarant; the machine with all the dollar bills inside. You stood inside it, and when the attendant turned it on, creating a whirlwind of money, you tried to grab as many dollar bills as you could. You did poorly. Your second-grade girlfriend was there that day. She was the first girl you kissed.
Age 8: You’re at a petting zoo on a school field trip. You’re hugging a chicken. It must have been autumn, because your cheeks and nose display a healthy element of bitter-cold pink in them, and the picture is focused primarily on you, on your smiling face, as if the photographer was gazing in adoration. Seeing this reminds you catching frogs at the lake, catching tadpoles in a jar, and the one day you ran down the middle of the street with a jar full of them in your hands and accidentally dropped them. You watched as they all died. This snapshot hurts a little for its display of a boy with so much disregard for the fact that he’s holding a live, struggling bird with sharp claws. The photo further recalls the smell of apples and hay.
Age 9: Peewee football. You’re wearing your football pads, visibly nervous before the start of some away game. You were always nervous when it came to away games. Now you remember the smells of fall, fresh-cut grass, the bus that took your football team to away games, and your friend’s house. This photo is darkly lit, as if filtered by a deep nostalgia that when experienced makes one feel doomed and irredeemable. You are motivated to think about the photographer of this photo, who must feel lonely, or sad, or happy in the way that feels painful.
Age 10: You’re beginning to look a little awkward. You’re in front of the Christmas tree in your living room, hugging your dog, standing next to your dad. You look innocent. It’s obvious. You only love your parents. Now you remember the dog better, and how once it bit you; how it surprised you. The feeling of this photo is that of complication, things starting to feel off, an inauthentic innocence, future betrayal, and tragedy. The overall feeling is tragedy, actually.
Age 11: There is no candid photograph of you at this time in your life, and so you’re looking at your laser-themed school portrait. The uncertainty is seething out of your not-yet acne-ridden pores. Your hair is in a way that you’d never style it again. Your hair is styled by your mother. Now remember the intimidation of losing your innocence to interesting concepts such as fire, cigarettes, culture, and sex; the pre-knowledge of those concepts, like bad influences waiting, your parents signaling warning. The aesthetic of this photo is uneasiness, the kind of uneasiness you experienced the first time you saw two people your age making out, the first time you detected signs of puberty in other males.
Age 12: You are on an indistinct sidewalk, wearing… a headband, and, conversely, an R.E.M. t-shirt. You are a very awkward mash-up of a wigger and grunge fan. Your blue cords are baggy and embarrassing. You were so young, having just discovered the allure of bands, fashion, authenticity, and the intimidation of said cultural entities. You were scared of the vast expanse of knowledge and experience they symbolized. Regarding this photo is almost humorous, but sad, too. You would hug the boy in this photo. This photo is naïve.
Age 13: Still you look so young, but it is obvious here that you are trying to be old. This is a strange photograph of you, in a park, on a hill, or something. You’re not looking into the camera, and you look almost disturbed. You’re wearing a baseball cap with graffiti writing on it. Sticking out of your pocket is a pager. You’re looking at the ground, and it is the late 90s. The photo has the lighting a Polaroid would have, dark and soft, crisp so that it defines these vulnerable sorts of edges, and ultimately nostalgic and worrisome, like you gave up on something. Your khakis show the healthy gaunt of your legs, and your face is sharp, somehow conveying the concept of accuracy.
Age 14: Here you can see you have begun your first sincere attempts to assimilate into a world not mitigated by your parents. You’re standing with your friend in front of his house. Both of you have skateboards. You’re wearing a hemp choker a girl made for you. The world of this photograph is alien and exciting and, most important of all, not your parents’ world. Recall 8th grade embarrassment and puberty. Now recall immersing yourself in television shows, the smell of wood chips, and the tires on your 8th grade recess field. The tone of this photo is not good; for some reason, you still have not recovered from the embarrassment of your early teens; but it is also innocent and light-hearted, as if those pictured in the photo hadn’t yet carried any sort of significant guilt or weight, and so maintained a pristine quality.
Age 15: You are upset in this photo; upset or stoned. Actually, you are stoned. You’re in front of a TV, playing Bond on Nintendo 64. The aesthetic is clearly late 90s, clearly large-living-room-in-suburbia. You aren’t sure who took the picture, and it feels as if the photographer who took this picture actually didn’t care. Not pictured but felt are the family portraits around the living room, the Glade air-freshener plug-ins, the large kitchen stocked with non-perishable food, the suburb that held the house.
Age 16: Predictably, there is no photo of you at this age. Something happened. There were more drugs, more metaphysical status issues, more alienation, and way too much reality. You got your first blow job and had your first sex this year. You did things of which you felt acutely ashamed. It was messy. If a picture of you was taken at this age, it would be sigh-inducing.
Age 17: This final picture is a picture of you in front of your friend’s red Acura. Your friend is behind the wheel, a teen who would soon become a Normal Person. You are one month away from graduation in this photo, as you are graduating high school a year early, because you can’t stand high school. Your parents have divorced – it happened during your obsessed-with-Pink-Floyd’s-The-Wall stage. You later got into acid, then depression. You’re moving out soon, and looking at the photo, you can’t say that the person pictured is a child anymore, but you can’t say that he isn’t, either.