Sweet Sixteen

Your daughter turns 16 once, so youd better do it up right

"She's the best thing in Orange County," says Dominico, a well-built, well-tanned man who is reminiscent of a larger Sylvester Stallone.

"I'm the Godmother," Nina asserts.

"Show me your ring," he says, kissing her left hand.

With Dominico's head in the way, I can't see if she has a ring or not.

"That's nice, but that's not going to get you off," Nina says. "I need the menu."

It doesn't come, but with gentle nudges from Rand, we are able to ascertain other information: that the guest book will remain out a short time after guests arrive; that Abbrarose will enter to the strains of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely," but that song will give way in about 40 seconds to Pink's "Get the Party Started," after which everyone will dance. There will be a getting-to-know-you game (the oldest teens here will be 16) and dinner, followed by more games, a candle-lighting ceremony and heartfelt speeches, then the cake-cutting and much more dancing.

It all sounds luxurious, maybe even excessive, but that's all a matter of perspective—which is to say, as Nina most emphatically does, that Abbrarose's party will be no My Super Sweet 16, that histrionic MTV series against which all contenders will now forever be judged. "I think [that's] over-the-top," says Nina. "Even if I was in that economical background—I might well be—I think it's over-the-top. I think it's ostentatious." Instead, Nina prefers to think of Abbrarose's party as a somewhat alluring coming-of-age, which it is.

*   *   *

Saturday arrives quickly.

My invitation—printed in cursive script on a neat, off-white rectangle of thick paper wrapped in a delicate sheath of floral vellum and tied with a seafoam-green ribbon—requests "the pleasure of your company" at 6 p.m. But Nina tells me to get there at sunset, near 5:30. I'm on time.

In near-dark, I find Valentina transported beyond its strip-mall origins: its capacious interior dimly lit, velvet drapes bracketing canvases of Venice, whose gondolas and sun-spotted streets so impressed Abbrarose during last year's family vacation that they became the theme of her Sweet 16. "It's something memorable, so people can step away feeling enlightened," the girl had told me Tuesday. "I've been to Venice, I've been to Italy, I've seen all these things—and I want to share them with people."

The real guests start arriving within minutes: 15- and a few 16-year-olds, plus two adult couples who are family friends. The boys are bigger than the girls now, but they're still wary and awkward: hobbled by the unfamiliar formality of the black suit and the dress shirt—collars still too big for their necks—and unduly relieved to see one another. "Have a joyous birthday," one writes in the guest book. The girls are more relaxed in simplistic cocktail dresses, realistic temporary tattoos on shoulder blades, body glitter and perfume. They deposit silvery gift bags and engage in hushed, same-sex chatter—a rerun of the seventh-grade dance.

Soon Rand summons them to the dance floor for the "Getting to No You" game. Everyone receives two plastic Mardi Gras-style necklaces with instructions to fool one another into answering questions with "No"—at which point, the loser surrenders a necklace. The volume level in the room spikes in minutes as partiers rush about brandishing trick questions like "Were you born in the ocean?" and "Have you been to Russia?" (no one has) and knocking over votive candle holders, which shatter on the stone floor.

"Having an icebreaker at the very beginning—and I hate to call it that—it releases the formality of it," says Rand's business partner, Erik Furuheim. "And that's our job: to make it fun. And to make the parents think it's elegant."

No trickery there. The Bellagio Room, where we will eat, is a maze of starched white tablecloths sprinkled with Hershey's kisses. A mask imported from Italy to Costa Mesa, a hand-written place card, a tightly-rolled white napkin looping out of a glass, and a menu are at each of 50 place-settings—though the restaurant, I see, has misspelled Abbrarose's name with just one "b." Nina, who has been at the restaurant with Karamia since midafternoon, introduces me to the first arrivals: "This," she says, "is our journalist."

Slightly later, Weekly contributor Sarah Callendar and I scrutinize the place cards and realize our names are nowhere to be found. "I don't have you in here," Nina says. She gestures toward the dance floor in the adjoining room, which is ringed with buffet tables. "You'll be in there with the DJ"—and various other hired hands, all waiting for Abbrarose's car to pull up. When it does, at 7 p.m., exactly as planned, we are on the dance floor again: primed, having rehearsed our cheering twice.

"She's just pulled up with her father in the Lexus," Rand says in an announcer's voice—the brand-name mention of a luxury car somehow jarring at a time like this. "She's going to walk in through that door."

And . . . here's her father, Wayne, resplendent in cutaway and matching waistcoat and bow tie. And . . . here she is, Abbrarose adorned in a sleek strapless gown of a goldy taupe silk that bells out just enough in the body to provide an effect not unlike Elizabeth Taylor in A Place in the Sun.After all those years of planning, she is finally here. All grown up. At her own party.

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