Bittersweet Sixteen

I do not want a Sweet Sixteen party. I am supposed to want a Sweet Sixteen party. I am supposed to want to wear a pretty dress and invite my best gal pals over for presents and cake and do whatever it is girls in pretty dresses do at parties. Melissa, my older sister has offered to host my Sweet Sixteen party, despite my objections. Our history tells me that she does not want to throw a party for me. What she wants to do is put on a show that I call “Love’s Baby Soft presents Every Girl’s Dream Sweet 16 Party as Seen in a Magazine Advert or Perhaps a Popular Television Show About Teenagers.”

I am not pretty. I do not like frilly dresses. I do not have a close-knit gaggle of adorable girlfriends who like pretty, girly things. I have a terrible attitude towards all the trappings and traditions of what my sister considers normal but are really materialistic. These are not new developments. Yet, here we are, having this party.

Melissa is ten years my senior, but she sees herself as perpetually sixteen. Melissa is now a homeowner and wife and mother-to-be, which should make her behave more like a grown up, but the more life experience she gains, the more immature she becomes. She may be downright infantile by the time she becomes a grandmother. She’s always eager to talk about the cute high school football players, but only about their physical attractiveness and what it might be like to kiss them and not about how the quarterback recites the Pledge of Allegiance using only armpit farts. Yes, that put me off idea of kissing the quarterback, too, sister dear.

We are always feuding over the Right Ways of doing things. I am strongly opposed to the traditional way of doing things. Simply because people have been doing things a certain way for a very long time, does not mean it is good or right or appropriate. Our family life was nontraditional in a time and place where following traditions had a great impact on your social standing. Melissa bore the brunt of our broken home and lower-class life in a middle-class town. She craved conformity and normalcy and looked forward to doing things the way they’ve always been done and assimilating into white-bread suburbia. Nontraditional is the norm and most of my friends also have tired, single moms and care nothing about Gloria Vanderbilt jeans.

My sister turned sixteen during our mother’s separation and divorce from my father. We were broke and in a new town far away from her friends. Her social network consisted solely of fellow teens who’d been coerced into attending Jehovah’s Witness meetings with their parents, too. There was no way she was getting a Sweet Sixteen party like her old friends were having. Now she has the means and opportunity to throw a nice party. Too bad her kid sister is such an impossible jerk about it all.

When Melissa was sixteen, the wholesome fresh-faced teen had evolved into a liberated, sexy young adult. Ponytails and poodle skirts were replaced with tight pants and stilettos. Despite her own desires of growing up to be Sandy at the end of Grease, she seems to be under the delusion that she’s giving a party for Sandy at the beginning of Grease. Without taking a magazine quiz, I know that I am fully a Jan.

I am definitely not sexy and prefer combat boots and flannel shirts to stilettos and poodle skirts. I am still on the other side of the milk commercial mirror, waiting for my grown-up self to tell me how great teen life is, even after a short lifetime of drinking carbonated soft drinks instead of whole milk. I have accepted that teen life is not a John Hughes movie. It is not Saved By the Fast Times of Parker Lewis 90210. The realities of sixteen are far from the fantasies of sixteen, where 25-year-olds play 16-year-olds.

The party is doomed from the start. A Sweet Sixteen party is supposed to be something akin to a debutante ball for middle-class girls, a coming out, an announcement to the gentlemen of society that this girl will be a woman soon. It’s the celebration of an arbitrary age chosen by men of a certain age, with the perception that growths had spurted, figures had filled out, and consent could be given freely, with minimal grumbles from rolling-pin-wielding mamas. Hello, boys!

Our mother, the pacifist is staying out of the fete fracas. She is not concerned about rites of passage and comings of age or celebrations of any kind, but she is too tired to fight Melissa. Instead, Mumsie sighs whenever I complain about the party. “Just give her what she wants, Christine,” she says. “She’s just trying to give you a nice party. It’ll be over before you know it. And she’s already bought the decorations for her kitchen.”

This is a party for a 16-year-old girl that Melissa imagines is her sister — the little girl who likes wearing pretty dresses and make-up and enjoys shopping and talking about boys and daytime television dramas and loves all things cute and feminine. Melissa’s house has been transformed into a “Barbie Throws a Birthday Party for Skipper” playset. It is a “Sweet 16” party-in-a-box, with pink banners, pink plates, pink candles, and pink sheet cake. Of all the colours in all the palettes, she had to choose my least favourite in the spectrum. It was not a party put together for me, but a party held in my honour. It’s like when someone makes a donation in your name instead of buying you a gift. It’s a good deed, done with the best intentions, but do you really get anything out of it? It’s more saccharine than sweet.

We were never going to be debutantes, but this is underwhelming for what was supposed to be the marking of important milestone. Even by “nice party” standards, it’s lamesville. Why, this is the apex of my life. This is the age that pop songs and movies and television and serialized young adult novels have romanticized for decades. Since the invention of the teenager, crooners have extolled the virtues of the sixteen-year-old girl. These are the halcyon days when your knees don’t hurt and you don’t have to balance a bank book. Sixteen is the perfect age, when you have a modicum of freedom — you are capable of independent thought and opinion but you don’t yet have any of the responsibilities that come with living in the modern material world. Maybe you have a car, maybe you have a little job. You are thin, you are supple, you have hair in all the places where society expects you to have hair without mocking you for it. You have a lifetime of opportunity stretched out in front of you.

My friends are a rag-tag mixture of genders and classes and races. We’re a bunch of lumpy, bespectacled, spotty, gawky teenagers who will not be speaking in two or three months time. If Melissa had wanted to lead an underdog sports team to unlikely victory in a sporting event championship, she certainly put together the right bunch.

My guest list is small and subject to host approval, which means I will be surrounded by people my sister has met and approved of, regardless of whether they and I are more than casually acquainted. She is disappointed that this boy-girl party will not include any of the popular, attractive people she’s seen around our football games. She is not impressed that we’ve got the crème de la crème of the high school newspaper and the award-winning marching band.

I don’t have a boyfriend. I had a boyfriend during the previous school year and then there were boys I was “talking to” but not “hanging out with.” One of three boys I’ve been “talking to” this summer gets invited because his mom is work friends with my mom. We chat on the phone in 15-minute increments, but it’s mostly my saying weird things and his responding with monosyllabic grunts. I’m not convinced he likes me, much less “like-likes” me, but he keeps calling and Mumsie won’t let me change my telephone number. So, here we sit in awkward silence on Melissa’s dusty rose sofa. I keep a safe, platonic distance from all the boys in attendance because I do not need my sister to attach romantic significance to them, even though she has vocalized her distaste for them because they are not cute.

Instead of an inseparable group of friends, I am surrounded by friends, acquaintances, and future enemies, most of whom do not know each other. Everyone is polite but conversations are stilted because most of us are barely on speaking terms. I dropped one too many truth bombs with my on-again, off-again best friend recently and we are currently off-again. She’s here out of spite, although I’m secretly glad she came. When we are on-again, we will laugh about this terrible party for months. My best guy pal brings his girlfriend, to the chagrin of Mumsie, who had hoped guy pal was boyfriend material for me because she thought he was cute. One of my new friends brings her younger brother, who turns out to be well-versed in Monty Python, providing me with some rare moments of levity in what feels like an eternity but is actually only two hours. No one is leaving this house with new friends and a broadened worldview.

I hid Melissa’s compilation CDs of party music that I call “Now That’s What the Hit Parade Thinks Teenagers Like and is Definitely Not an Excuse to Sell Soda-Pop and Deodorant”, so she’s retaliated by making us sit in her living room without ambient music-like sounds of any kind. Mumsie offers to sing The Crests’ “Sixteen Candles” except that she only knows the first bit, so it becomes a medley of all the oldies songs that she can remember that mention “sixteen” somewhere in the lyrics and she trails off with the chorus of “Que Sera, Sera.”

Sensing failure, Melissa switches from passive chaperone to bubbly social director.

“Let’s do the cake!”
“Okay, everyone squeeze in for pictures! Smile, y’all!”
“Let’s open presents! Ooh, what’s that? Who’s it from? Oh, that’s so sweet!”

She falls back on clunky conversation starters, like, “How do you know Christine?” and “What do you study in school?” and “What’s your favourite scene in Grease?” and “Do you know Jason the Quarterback?”

I’m ready to go home and start the process of turning the day into a distant memory, never to be revisited. Mumsie tells me that it’s rude for the guest of honour to be the first to leave. She also tells me not to do anything to upset my sister. So I endure Melissa’s last-ditch attempt to liven the party, when she says, “Why don’t we go around the room and say something about Christine?”

What could have been a series of pleasant speeches, toasts, or roasts turns into a quick mumble of “She’s nice. Yeah, and funny. I don’t really know her well, but I hope we keep in touch. She did a thing one time that was okay.” Real yearbook quality stuff, guys.

After the brief extemporaneous comments, I suggest a round of Spin the Bottle to pass the time. Everyone laughs. And then we sit quietly for the last 20 minutes of the party, with only the sounds of masticating sheet cake filling the air. What I wouldn’t give for an armpit fart sonata right now.

It’s my party and I’ll be in the bathroom crying if anyone needs me.

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