Nina Link, a petite Mission Viejo housewife of southern Italian ancestry and New York upbringing, confesses she's been preparing for her daughter's Sweet 16 party since she was 2—since her daughter was 2, she meant, although she's been working herself up to an unforgettable birthday event for nearly as long. "I wanted so badly to be 13 that my mother gave me a surprise birthday party," Link recalls. "Sixteen went by real fast. All of a sudden, I was 19 . . . 20." Now that her oldest daughter's 16th birthday party is only five days away, Nina sounds ecstatic, almost desperately so.
"When you're 18 and you're a girl, it's already over—you drive, you're approaching college," she declares, although in a tone that softens the harshness of those words. "This is just something that's passing so fast. It's nice to stop and appreciate it."
Abbrarose Link, Nina's daughter, will have her 16th birthday appreciated in black-tie extravagance—with an elaborate dinner, an extensive guest list, exquisite cake, expensive presents . . . It sounds, well, exhausting. But Nina seems positively energized. Big moments seem to do that to her.
For some reason, this week has her remembering the Beatles' sold-out 1965 show at Shea Stadium, how she scored 10 tickets, and then wangled her way backstage. She was 8 years old. "It was crazy!" she tells me and Collin Rand—the guy she has hired to help her plan Saturday's big party—as we snack on the Pillsbury cinnamon rolls she baked us. "You couldn't hear anything!"
Neither could the Beatles, which was partly why they stopped playing concerts. But Nina must have realized she had a certain flair for pulling things off . . . whether that meant getting a call back from Beatles manager Brian Epstein or giving Abbrarose a Sweet 16 party they'll both remember for the rest of their lives. On the other hand, she's not perfect—she never did get to meet the Beatles.
Nonetheless, Nina is determined there be no such shortcoming on Abbrarose's big night, which has already involved more planning than most weddings and invasions of Iraq. That's why, after polishing off the Pillsbury, we get back to it, at Valentina Ristorante—Nina, both her daughters, Rand and me—where Nina is emphasizing to Dominico, the owner of Valentina, that she really needs a menu . . . now . . . which happens to be 11 o'clock on Tuesday morning.
Abbrarose agrees. The young girl observes that so many other Sweet 16 parties don't amount to more than cake out by the pool. "They're really homely," she says, before charitably adding, "but still fun."
At her party, dessert will be as it should be—icing on the cake. Guests, who were mailed engraved invitations in January—will choose one of three main courses. Their cake, two sophisticated rectangles of tiramis, will be made by It's All About the Cake, a studio of baking design in Dana Point. Flowers will arrive from Bloomers Flowers in Laguna Niguel. And after an updated version of the Hot Potato game, someone will win the centerpiece!
According to Rand's calculations, the five-hour event—the first black-tie, sit-down-dinner, Venetian-gala-themed Sweet 16 he's overseen—will cost more than $10,000. It will, he says, be very similar to how the custom is practiced back East.
"I've done Sweet 16s," he says reassuringly (although perhaps Rand's hottest credit is the low-profile wedding he planned for fashion designer Paul Frank last year). "Out here, [they're] just more informal. It's a more relaxed affair. But the East Coast [influence] is becoming a much bigger thing on the West Coast. I wouldn't be surprised if this sort of thing caught on out here."
Rand says Southern Californians now seem to realize that a real party costs money, no matter what the occasion, and they are prepared to spend whatever is necessary. He predicts future examples of the Sweet 16 may one day stand alongside its predecessor—the elegant, extravagant bar and bat mitzvah. That's hallowed ground.
"I'm getting butterflies already," Nina says as we check the place out.
But she looks cool and composed in a sheer black mohair sweater, tight black slacks and pointy flats. A silvery, jangly belt punctuates the ensemble.
"I'm excited," says Abbrarose.
But she and her 10-year-old sister, Karamia, seem just as calm as their mother. And just as well put together in nice jeans, pink jackets (leather double-breasted for Abbrarose, a sophomore at Capistrano Valley High; faux-fur-collared tweed for Karamia) and dressy shoes (pointy leopardy flats for Abbrarose, black brogans for Karamia). They'd blend right in at Sutra.
Abbrarose is up to speed on every detail of the preparations—her sugar-cube corsage (a Sweet 16 standard), the individual imported party masks that will be given (as attire as well as gifts) to each of the 50 guests, how the evening will begin with the requisite father-daughter dance (to Neil Sedaka's "Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen") and end with a ballad (Billy Joel's "When You Wish Upon a Star"). "This is a real New York thing," says Abbrarose, "and I've always prided myself on being raised by two New Yorkers."
Her father, Wayne, is a corporate headhunter who helped bring the Circuit City chain out west in the '80s. Her mother, Nina, is a homemaker, who tells me later, "I'd like to do something with my life. I know I have something inside me that most people don't have"—although what she would like most at this moment of her life is a menu, which she is again demanding from Dominico.
"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.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce to you Miss Sweet 16, Abbrarose Link. She is 16, and she is beautiful," Rand says breathlessly, and we cheer.
There's just one beat too many of silence—it recalls someone's Sweet 16 pool party/seventh-grade dance—and then the music starts, our photographer taking pictures that will show Abbra, the queen all lit up in the light reflected from her dress, silhouetted against all of us, her court in our funereal formality.
It goes quickly, now: Abbra, her mom and her sister the giddy center of the dance floor for a few quick spins until they're whipped off the floor to dinner, marched in by a regiment of waiters.
"Sixteen is a big age, you know," says Luanne Sofka, who came to the party from Anaheim Hills with her husband and two sons; they've been friends of the family since the Links arrived from New York, "and parents want to treat them special."
"Plus," says Alexa Kries, Abbrarose's classmate, "they see it on TV."
Another classmate confides that for her 16th birthday, dad is taking the family to the Bahamas.
"When I was 16," Abbra's dad says to me, "I don't think I had a tie. I played baseball, and that was about it." Then he sits down to a very adult dinner with his slip of a 16-year-old daughter in her metallic gown, her long, dark hair pinned up on her head.
Although Wayne and Nina Link have waited a lifetime for this moment, Nina confesses she has planned a few moments after this one: like the one where Abbra goes off to college, taking with her the enlarged winter-formal portrait she sat for earlier this year (it now rests on an easel at the entrance to the Bellagio Room).
"I want her to remember this for the rest of her life," Nina says. Abbra says she will, and she is believable—if only because it will be so difficult to top what we are seeing now.
"It's like she's getting married to herself," says Callendar, my colleague from the Weekly. Good line, and as the evening proceeds, I realize it gets truer and truer—that Abbrarose is getting married to all sorts of things that the plan says she was born to be.
I watch the ritualistic games—"hot potato" being played with a piece of silverware and ending not unlike a Rotary Club meeting: "Turn to the person next to you. Now shake that person's hand and say, 'Congratulations! You've won the centerpiece.'" I see Abbra thank her parents and different groups of friends—her wrestling teammates, the shoppers ("my three gal pals"), the study buddies ("my super-brainiac friends")—and summon each of them to help her light thin tapers on a candelabra. There are 16 of these candles. Sixteen candles . . . get it?
There is a different song for each clique. When the smart kids file up, a few seconds of "All Star" by Smash Mouth comes over the PA. We are all stars now, planets in her orbit, and we move to the dance floor to watch a video montage on the TV overhead. It's Abbra: her baby pictures (just born, all dressed up, naked toddler), shots of her Halloween costumes from the '90s, her vacation snaps (on a Jet Ski, parasailing with dad) set to more music. We watch her grow, and "My Girl" by the Temptations segues into the Steve Miller Band doing "Abra-Ca-Dabra": "I feel magic when I touch your dress/Abra-abra cadabra/Abracadabra."
Rand is on the mic, and he is gurgling emotion as he soaks up these images and thinks of Abbrarose's future."We want to see 16 times four for her life!" he says, obviously not doing the math. Sixteen times four is only 64—but, yes, at times like these, you probably should think that it's the thought that counts. "So let's give her a big send-off!"
And as they start to dance again, I think of Abbra's father, whom I saw trying to do a head count earlier to figure out how many dinners they had added to the bill.
"Now they have everything," he'd said—the man who hadn't owned a tie when he was 16—but he didn't seem too sad about it; his hours of hard work had changed all that. And in less than six years, Wayne Link will be repeating the entire process for his younger daughter Karamia's Sweet 16—an event she is already planning and has decided will be themed after the Grammy Awards. "I know," Wayne Link said, resigned to his fate. "She's not going to let me forget it."
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* * *
As a non-member of the immediate family, I am not allowed to forget it either. I don't talk to the Links for most of a week after the party, but then Nina calls and wants to know how I'm doing/how's the story going/how can she get copies of the pictures/can I go to lunch the next week. I can—go to lunch. But after Karamia's confirmation during a rustic weekend in Julian, complete with harrowing bus ride, Nina comes down with something. When she phones to cancel, she sounds vaguely nasal. "It was like being in jail," she says, describing a bucolic summer camp atmosphere with cabins. "They didn't even have bottled water."
We kick that around, and then she asks me a question. "You're not going to do one of your cynical twists in this story are you?" she wonders, and I instantly regret writing for a newspaper with a website. I say I'm shocked—shocked! I also say—and she agrees—that the Weekly believes that the world is not always a place of shiny, happy people laughing, and so we try to tell it the way it is. That's the way we leave it: we'll go to lunch another time. And, according to Weekly policy, after the story runs, our photographer will sell her some photos of Abbrarose Link's Sweet 16 party.
Freelancer Sarah Callender contributed to this story.