WHEN YOU LOOK UP AT the sky in Los Angeles, all you see is a strange film of smog, like the whole city is filtered through the lens of your dirtiest sunglasses. You can’t see any stars. And if you’re really unlucky, there’s a blimp up there writing the words “Happy Birthday, Heidi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” in the sky in pink. Yes, with sixteen exclamation points, one for every year of my former best friend Heidi Javadi’s life.
I was at the rented mansion hosting Heidi’s sweet sixteen party, wishing I was anywhere else. Seriously, I would rather have been dissecting a bat or listening to my mother lecture me about how there’s nothing shameful about Spanx.
Caroline led Joy, Kurt, and me inside. I turned my gaze down from the sky toward the mansion the Javadis rented for Heidi’s party. Beautiful cocktail waitresses in pink dresses stood at the entrance of the event, holding pink champagne for the grown-ups and pink “Heidi-tinis” for us, welcoming us to this very opulent version of hell.
“You guys know this is exactly what Iran was like before the revolution, right?” I asked.
“Obviously,” Kurt said. “Everyone knows all of Iran was painted pink until those mullahs stepped in.”
“And Heidi’s name was permanently emblazoned over the skyline of Tehran,” I added.
Caroline laughed, slapping me on the shoulder a little too hard. Caroline did everything in her life with a little too much passion. She was the most outspoken member of our group of friends. If someone was leading the way, it was usually Caroline.
Kurt, Joy, and Caroline had been their own little posse since junior high. I joined the crew when high school began, so I was still the newbie. But I was the one who had dubbed us the Authentics, because my new friends were the first people I’d met more concerned with being who they were than with who others wanted them to be. We weren’t the coolest kids in school, or the most popular, but we were the realest. At least that’s what we thought.
“Wow,” Caroline said, looking at the pinkstravaganza around us. “Is this the most Persian party in the history of parties?”
“It may be super-Persian,” I said, “but it has nothing to do with being Iranian.”
“Semantics,” Caroline said. Being my friend, she knew that Persian and Iranian were terms the same exact community of people used to describe themselves. Persians felt pride in their ancient empire and shame about the current regime of their homeland, while Iranians believed in accuracy over pride and shame. “This is who you are, Daria. Embrace your truth. You do you.”
“You do you is a really gross expression,” Kurt said. “It’s trying to be about self-empowerment, but doesn’t it sound like it’s about masturbation?”
“Ew,” Joy said. “Seriously. I do not want to picture you doing yourself, Kurt. And can we stop? This is actually Daria’s culture, so can we all be a little less judgy?”
Joy got it since her parents were from Nigeria, which is nothing like Iran, but which is still somewhere different. She got that living in one world in your home and in a completely different world outside your home was like being two puzzle pieces that didn’t really fit together.
We found a cocktail waitress holding a pink tray of Heiditinis, and grabbed some.
Caroline gazed around the room. Pink balloons, pink disco balls, pink tablecloths, pink cupcakes. “This is color fascism,” she announced drily.
“Or tint totalitarianism,” Kurt said, and Caroline high-fived him.
But I was still stuck on Iranian stereotypes. “I mean, my culture basically invented poetry, math, and rice,” I said. “But all people seem to care about is that some of us have tacky taste, wear too much cologne, and build really ugly McMansions.”
“Hey,” Kurt said. “At least you have a culture. The only culture in my house growing up was homemade yogurt.” Kurt’s mom was an actress or therapist (depending on what day you asked her), and she was all about growing her own vegetables and fermenting kombucha.
Kurt had a point, but I hated that most people who heard the words Persian, fifteen, and Beverly Hills would immediately assume I was a spoiled Persian princess. They would’ve thought I was one of those girls who pouted until her father hired One Direction to perform at her sweet sixteen party. For the record, I liked One Direction . . . when I was nine.
The girl you’re imagining—the beautiful Persian princess—that’s Heidi, who stood in a circle with her Persian posse, aka the Nose Jobs. Heidi looked up at me and smiled. Her just-whitened teeth were perfect. She was wearing a skintight pink leopard-print dress. Her hair looked like it was straightened on an ironing board, and it had pink highlights for the occasion. Basically, she looked like a cross between Kylie Jenner and Hello Kitty, and by the way, she was the kind of girl who would’ve taken that as a compliment.
Heidi gave me a small wave with her left hand, and I noticed how perfect her manicure was. She had turned into our mothers, and I had turned into a chunky girl with dirty fingernails. I gave Heidi an awkward wave with my left hand, and then I quickly tried to hide my hands in my pockets. But the poufy pink dress I wished I weren’t wearing didn’t have pockets, so the gesture just felt weird and unfortunate. I knew better than to bother walking over to Heidi, and she didn’t come over either. It was hard to imagine that Heidi and I used to be best friends, but that was a long time ago. Now she was beautiful and popular, and I was, well, authentic.
Heidi’s mother, basically a grown-up version of Heidi, approached her and whisked her off to another room, no doubt to greet some elderly Persians. Respecting your elders is a really big thing for us.
As the Authentics and I did a lap around the room, I realized this was the first time my two disparate worlds—high school and Tehrangeles—had been brought together. To my left were the drama kids. To my right were my father’s golf buddies. To my left was our high school soccer team. To my right were my mother’s rummy ladies. And then I saw my parents gliding toward me, looking sophisticated as ever. We had arrived separately, since I’d gotten ready at Joy’s house.
“There you are,” Baba said. “You look beautiful.”
He was lying. I looked fat and pimply, though the dress Joy had picked out for me was cool in a throwback kind of way.
“Thanks, Baba,” I said.
“Hello, kids,” my mom said as she took in our colorful outfits. Caroline was wearing a pink bow tie with a vintage white polyester suit. Kurt was wearing a pink checkered shirt, white pants, and his signature fedora. Joy wanted to be a designer, so she’d picked all our outfits, but obviously hers looked best, a fuchsia disco dress she found on Melrose that she swore once belonged to Bianca Jagger. Joy was good at dressing us, but an expert at dressing herself. True confession: I had to Google Bianca Jagger, but I didn’t tell Joy. She took her style icons very seriously.
“It’s wonderful to see you all,” Sheila said to my friends. My mother liked me to call her Sheila, probably because it allowed her to pretend she was my older sister.
She was lying too. I mean, my mother liked the Authentics all right, but she wished I were still best friends with Heidi. She got Heidi, and she had no idea what to do with the Authentics. Maybe it’s because my mother valued being fabulous way more than being real. If my mother still believed in the Persian Empire, then she also believed she was its Cookie.
“Did you see the aquarium of pink goldfish in the bathroom?” Sheila said. “They’re so beautiful.”
We all laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Sheila asked. “I thought it was clever.”
“Beauty is in the pinkeye of the beholder,” I said, and my mother gave me that look she gave me when she thought I must be an alien she birthed.
“LOL,” Caroline said. Caroline’s goal in life was to skip college, move to New York, and become our generation’s preeminent lesbian performance artist. In her last piece, she vowed to incorporate an internet acronym into every sentence she spoke. IMHO, it wasn’t her strongest piece (that was definitely the one with the rats and the stilettos), but it did get people talking about communication and technology, and how we had all stopped really listening to each other.
Baba grabbed a pink meatball from a waiter’s tray. “Is this meatball undercooked or color-treated?” he asked as he popped it into his mouth.
Sheila laughed and threw her hair back. She turned to me and asked, “So, any ideas for your party yet?”
“We’ve talked about this. I don’t want some gross sweet sixteen party,” I said. “I just want to invite my friends—my real friends—over to the house.”
Perhaps sensing a tense mother-daughter moment, Caroline announced, “I think I’m gonna go try some pink fondue. The line doesn’t look too bad right now.” Joy and Kurt followed Caroline, and though I wanted to go with them, I stayed behind with my parents. Sometimes I felt like so much of my life was an obligation. There were so many things I had to do that it was hard to remember what I really wanted to do. But that’s what I loved most about the Authentics. They were the first part of my life that hadn’t been curated by my parents.
“Daria, please understand,” my mother pleaded. “We can’t throw a party without inviting the Ghorbanis, and the Palizis, and the . . .”
As Sheila continued rattling off the names of every Iranian family within a ten-mile radius of Beverly Hills, I caught Baba giving me a sympathetic glance. “Sheila djoon,” Baba softly interrupted, “I think Daria already understands that you would like to invite the entire Persian community to her sweet sixteen.”
“It would be rude not to,” Sheila said, as if we had no choice in the matter.
“Yes, I understand,” Baba said. “But since it’s Daria’s birthday, perhaps we can all compromise . . . and only invite half of the Persian community.”
And to my surprise, my mother threw her hair back and laughed again. This was her physical cue that she was having a good time. She did it when she was dancing, watching reruns of Seinfeld, or winning a round of rummy. Her hair was her tell. Kurt, whose mother had instilled in him a very deep love for astrology, said it was because she was a Leo. He said Leos needed their manes brushed all the time. I think Kurt meant that Sheila needed to feel admired, and Baba had figured out exactly how to do that. As for me, I wasn’t much of a mane brusher. I was the girl who’d chopped the hair off every Barbie doll I ever had.
“Well, I love parties,” Sheila said. She wasn’t lying. Sheila was always telling me to dress up more, go out more, put on more makeup, and have more fun. Sometimes, when I was in the library studying, I would tweet that I was having a dance party with friends just so Sheila would get off my back.
“So, Daria, if you don’t want your sweet sixteen to be the party of the century,” she continued, “then how about we focus on my forty-ninth birthday party next summer. I’d like everything to be lavender.”
“Even the goldfish?” I cracked, and to my shock, Sheila laughed and threw her hair back. Had I brushed her mane without even meaning to?
“Okay, we’ll throw you a lavender forty-ninth birthday,” Baba said, with a smile my way. In truth, she was fifty-two, but we let her get away with shifting her age as she saw fit. “It’ll be a party to remember,” Baba said. “We’ll paint the house lavender, and have lavender fondue, and lavender meatballs, of course.”
Sheila laughed and slapped Baba’s arm playfully. He pulled her close to him and gave her a kiss. And by kiss, I mean he went for it.
“You guys, get a room,” I said. “Preferably soundproofed.” Their passion was a cruel reminder that I had never even kissed anyone.
Luckily, a slide show began, diverting my parents’ attention. The whole party oohed and aahed as photos from Heidi’s past appeared on-screen. There was baby Heidi, smiling a gaptoothed smile in her mother’s arms. There was toddler Heidi, in ballet class, obviously. There was seven-year-old Heidi, randomly sitting on Kelly Ripa’s lap. There was tween Heidi, riding a roller coaster with her father. There were Heidi and her new friends, looking airbrushed and blow-dried, posing on top of Heidi’s dad’s car like they were Bravo reality stars doing a Carl’s Jr. commercial. And there was Heidi and me. We were twelve years old, lounging by her pool. Heidi, of course, looked adorable. I, on the other hand, looked frightening. My skin was covered in acne, my hair was frizzy, and I was wearing a too-tight bathing suit that made me look like a raspberry muffin.
All around us, the Persian parents commented on how cute Heidi looked and how beautiful she always was and how she looked just like her mother. I hated myself in that moment, because I wanted their approval as well. I wanted to be cute and beautiful and to look like my mother. The picture was up there for all of five seconds, but by the fourth second, I felt like I was being suffocated by it.
“Can we please leave?” I begged my parents in an urgent whisper.
“They haven’t even cut the cake,” my mother replied in a hushed tone. “It would be rude to—”
But I didn’t wait for her to finish the sentence. Instead, I walked out, causing a few of the guests to turn their attention away from the slide show. My parents followed me outside, and I could feel my mother’s annoyance radiating off her.
Once we were outside and alone, I turned to my mother ferociously. “You know who’s rude, Sheila?” I asked. “Heidi is rude. She makes me feel awful.”
“She’s your friend,” Sheila argued.
“If she’s my friend, then the shah and the ayatollah were besties.”
“Who is the shah in this situation?” Sheila asked.
“Obviously, she is,” I said.
My mother rolled her eyes. If anyone was going to be the shah in this analogy, it would be her daughter.
“Maybe you’re the queen,” Sheila said.
“Fine,” I said, “I’m the queen.”
Sheila placed a hand on my shoulder and looked me in the eye. “Now you just need to believe it.”