It's too late for a Sweet Sixteen, but what if Mahalia had a coming-out party? A love letter to romantic comedies, sweet sixteen blowouts, Black joy, and queer pride.
“A perfect ode to romantic comedies, wrapped in a dazzling rainbow dress.” —Rachael Lippincott, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Five Feet Apart and She Gets the Girl
Mahalia Harris wants.
She wants a big Sweet Sixteen like her best friend, Naomi.
She wants the super-cute new girl Siobhan to like her back.
She wants a break from worrying—about money, snide remarks from white classmates, pitying looks from church ladies . . . all of it.
Then inspiration strikes: It’s too late for a Sweet Sixteen, but what if she had a coming-out party? A singing, dancing, rainbow-cake-eating celebration of queerness on her own terms.
The idea lights a fire beneath her, and soon Mahalia is scrimping and saving, taking on extra hours at her afterschool job, trying on dresses, and awkwardly flirting with Siobhan, all in preparation for the coming out of her dreams. But it’s not long before she’s buried in a mountain of bills, unfinished schoolwork, and enough drama to make her English lit teacher blush. With all the responsibility on her shoulders, will Mahalia’s party be over before it’s even begun?
A novel about finding yourself, falling in love, and celebrating what makes you you.
“Mahalia’s story lives, breathes and glows. I’m in love with it every day of the week!” —Becky Albertalli, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Simon vs. the Homosapiens Agenda
An Excerpt fromFriday I'm in Love
CHECKING ACCOUNT BALANCE: $300
-$50 for Naomi’s present
It’s Mom’s idea to drive me to Naomi’s Sweet Sixteen.
If you’re thinking it’s because I can’t drive, the San Diego Department of Motor Vehicles would disagree--it doesn’t matter that I had to take the test three times. I have my license. And yet, I still barely get to drive when I want to. Like right about now.
“You know,” I say. “If I’d had a Sweet Sixteen, Naomi would have driven to it by herself.”
Mom presses her lips tightly together. She never takes her eyes off the road when she’s driving, so I can roll my eyes all I want and get away with it. But honestly, it’s just not as fun when she’s not looking at me, so I stare down at my lap instead. Naomi’s gift is at my feet, shoved in a sparkly bag we got from the dollar store. It’s just a dress from Forever 21, but I had to use a good amount of gas money to buy it. I hope it doesn’t look as cheap as it feels.
“We’ve discussed this multiple times,” Mom adds. “There wasn’t any money for you to have a party. Not this year.”
Don’t be a brat, don’t be a brat--
“But you said I could have one,” I say, folding my arms. “Remember? You said I could have a gigantic party when I turned sixteen because you never got to have one.”
“When you were six,” Mom fires back. “Things were different when you were six.”
I duck my head again, chagrined. Mom is right. Things were different when I was six--we had way less money. It’s taken her a long time to get us to where we are. But sometimes I want more. And I always feel like a total asshole about it.
A strand of hair blows into my mouth and I spit it out. The windows are down because Mom is anti-AC, and I like the way the breeze blows my hair everywhere. It’s not coarse enough to stick up in an Afro, but not soft enough for me to wear like white girls do, so it’s sort of this frizzy mop that I braid every night to keep contained and take out every morning. At least I had the sense to wear a headband.
“Anyway, a girl doesn’t need a party,” Mom says. “There are bills to pay, Mahalia. Rent and electric and heat and food, all these bills. Would you rather have had your party and then starved for the rest of the year?”
I mean, it would’ve been nice to have the party.
“It doesn’t sound so bad,” I finally settle on, trying to coax a laugh out of her. “We wouldn’t be out on the street or anything. We could live with Dad.”
Mom makes this sound like pshh.
“Okay,” I say. Maybe not the best joke. When Dad and his girlfriend had my younger half sister, Reign, he “forgot” to pay child support for six months. I doubt he’d feed us for a year. “But I’m sure it wouldn’t have been a big deal. You always say the Lord provides, right?”
“Not for foolish things,” she says. “The Lord provides us with what we need.”
“Does He?” I try to make my voice light, but it’s hard. “Then why don’t we have a house? Or a college fund for me? Or money for you to go back to college?”
Mom’s hands tighten on the steering wheel.
“God isn’t a genie. You know that,” she says. “You don’t rub a Bible and wait for three wishes.”
I snort. She looks at me out of the corner of her eye and smiles a little. For a second, I think it’s over, we’ve moved past the whole God thing. But then--
“The Lord gave us bodies to work,” she says. “He led me to the nursing home job when I--when we--needed it most. He gave you the brains to find a great scholarship for next fall. The Lord helps those who help themselves. Remember that, okay?”
I kind of hate talking about God with Mom, mostly because it seems like the rules change all the time; from person to person, even from Sunday to Sunday at the church we’ve been going to since I was little. Everything about it feels too convenient. The Lord will provide, but not too much. The Lord forgives us for our sins, but sinning is bad and we should never do it.
At church, when Pastor Solomon says, “The devil is alive in this country today,” Mom’s “Amen” is just as loud as the word of God. She always says the devil is the cause of temptation and the one who tries to lead us away from the Lord and that’s why she got pregnant when she was seventeen. Not because Dad was convincing and Mom was horny.
Part of me wants to say Mom is the reason why she got that job, not God. But I know that would just start a fight. Instead, I reach for the radio. She smacks my hand away and switches on one of her Christian hip-hop CDs. I groan dramatically.
“Oh please,” Mom says over the funky beats. “I know you love this.”
Some of the songs are catchy. But then I have Bible verses stuck in my head for the rest of the day and feel like a heathen for not believing in them.
Thank God the big, ornate columns of the restaurant are coming up on the left--an all-white building right on the water. Gigantic windows look out over the beach. It’s the type of venue only Naomi’s parents could afford. The type of venue I wish I could’ve had for my nonexistent party.
But it doesn’t matter anymore. It’s too late for me to have a Sweet Sixteen and there’s no such thing as a Sweet Seventeen. The next-best big party to look forward to is, like, a wedding or funeral.
Mom stops in front of the restaurant and I’m pretty sure I’m gaping. There are people dressed up in uniforms, taking coats and parking cars. It’s crazy.
“Be good,” Mom says, pinching my cheek. “I don’t want to hear that you were being disrespectful to Mr. and Mrs. Sanders. Understand?”
I stick my tongue out at her. She’s mostly kidding--I’m at Naomi’s house all the time and I’m pretty sure I see her parents more than I see my own mother, but I don’t say that. It’s not her fault that the nursing home gives her these insane hours. She’s wearing her scrubs now, and for a second, my brain flashes forward, seeing the way she slowly shuffles into our apartment after a twelve-hour shift like she hasn’t had the chance to sit all day.
People dressed in high heels and suit jackets are already heading inside. I barely recognize any of the faces, but I’m pretty sure they don’t shop at Forever 21. My spine stiffens. This isn’t going to be like hanging out at Naomi’s house after school.
Mom nudges me forward.
“Be good,” she says again as I open the door. “I love you.”
“Bye, Mom.” I force myself to swallow. “Love you, too.”
I step out of her beat-up car and don’t look back.
CHECKING ACCOUNT BALANCE: $250
When Naomi and her parents first started planning her party, I was so excited, it could’ve been my own. I wanted to go with her to try on dresses and pick out invitations and talk about what music she’d play. Along the way, I guess I forgot that I wouldn’t be the only guest here.
Naomi is my best friend, but she’s a lot better at the social part of friendship. I know a lot of people because we go to school together, but they’re not exactly friends--more like people I’d be lab partners with.
This room is full of potential lab partners. Naomi has friends of different races and genders and ages. There are round tables draped in white cloths where people nibble on appetizers. Then there’s the big wooden dance floor, where a few brave souls are trying to get things going.
I plant myself at a table and stay there, even as more people migrate to the dance floor. I’m sitting with strangers: an older woman with hair like a bees’ nest, a married couple, and a girl I recognize from school. Maybe every ten minutes, there’s a Naomi spotting, and I can’t keep my eyes off her dress.
I was there when she bought it with her mom--I still remember the saleswoman gushing, using terms like plunging V-neck bodice and natural waist that didn’t really make sense to me. One thing was--still is--easy to understand: Naomi looks beautiful. The dress is long and lavender. If I ignore the spaghetti straps and the lace-up back, I could totally see Naomi hitching up her skirts and running through the countryside after some forbidden lover in a Jane Austen movie.
I try to wave to her, but she only notices me once. She’s like a queen with hundreds of subjects swarming around her at once, appearing genuinely excited to talk to aunts and uncles and cousins.
I jump at the booming voice. Behind me, Mr. Sanders is looking down with a grin. His forehead is sweaty and there’s a dark spot on his blue dress shirt. I can’t help but smile back at him.
“I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” he says. “Why aren’t you dancing?”
“Oh,” I say, glancing at the dance floor. There are little kids chasing each other and squealing. “I was. I just, uh, needed a break.”
He doesn’t even call me out on the obvious lie. Instead, he practically yanks me out of my seat and in for a hug. I rest against his shoulder before realizing it’s sweaty, too. It’s hot in here, like the AC can’t keep up with all the people dancing and singing on the dance floor. Naomi hasn’t done any of the traditional Sweet Sixteen stuff--no court, no fancy shoes, no speeches. The only thing that’s happened is a lot of good food and a shit ton of dancing.
Mr. Sanders rocks us back and forth. “Are you sure the musical selection is up to your standards?”
I frown before I can help it.
“I don’t know what the DJ is doing,” I say. “He should just play, like, classic hits. Half of the people here don’t know any Doja Cat songs.”
And rightfully so, honestly.
“Ah, that’s my girl,” he says. The grin stretches even wider. “I told Naomi we should play something old-school, maybe a little Luther Vandross--”
“Oh no, Mr. S,” I say. “There’s no way she was gonna go for that.”
He laughs. I don’t think he’s drunk, just happy. It’s almost odd to see a parent so happy. Sometimes Mom is okay, but I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her happy.
“I hate to see you sitting here all alone,” he says, sobering. “I’m sure Naomi would love to hang out with you.”
“Oh yeah,” I say, glancing behind me. “I was trying to find her, but she has a ton of people to talk to. It’s fine. Seriously. I’ll track her down later.”
Familiar piano notes catch my attention. My head snaps to the dance floor. Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ’Bout a Thing” filters through the speakers. All the Black adults have migrated to the center of the room, swaying and cheering. My hips start moving softly to the beat. It’s sort of impossible not to move to Stevie Wonder.
Naomi’s mom is getting down with another woman near the DJ’s station. Mrs. Sanders looks like she could still be in college, even though she has three kids and is a big fancy lawyer. She giggles with her friend like she’s in high school. Suddenly, she looks so much like Naomi that my heart clenches. I want to dance with my best friend, too. Not her dad.
“You’re welcome to mingle with Mrs. Sanders and me,” he offers, twirling me. “We’re trying to figure out how to dance to this music together.”
“No, I’m fine,” I say, shrugging away from him. “I was actually headed to the bathroom. Thank you, though. I’ll catch up with you later.”
“Sure thing.” He smiles. Mr. Sanders is always smiling. I wonder what it’s like to be genuinely pleased with every aspect of your life. “I’ll see you later, Mahalia.”
He says my name the way it’s supposed to be said, all full of soul and swing. Mom makes it sound flat and businesslike.
I ask a waiter where the bathroom is before heading down the hallway. The late-afternoon sun streams through the high windows, lighting the way to the bathroom at the end of the hall. I’m not wearing a long princess dress like Naomi, but a cute skirt. My legs feel bare.
There are usually a ton of women in the bathroom, but I’m surprised to find this one empty. I glance at myself in one of the mirrors. I did my makeup at home with YouTube tutorials; usually I get Naomi to help me out, but she was busy getting ready for her own party. When I left the house, I could’ve walked straight out of a prom picture, but now my face looks like I’ve sweat almost everything off. And I didn’t even dance. It’s not fair.
“Do you need some help?”
I turn my head. It’s a light-skinned Black girl who may or may not be mixed. Short, messy curls frame her head like a crown and a million brown freckles crowd her cheeks. There’s something serious about her brown eyes, like she’s studying me, but there’s a soft smile on her lips. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her at school before. If I had, I definitely would’ve noticed.
Because I’m so articulate around pretty girls, I choke out, “What?”
“You were touching your face.” She steps forward, close enough that I can feel the warmth of her arm against mine. “Like you were worried about your makeup?”
“Oh.” I feel like I can’t breathe. There’s a slight accent to her words, but I can’t tell where it’s from. “Yeah. I was--it’s hot.”
God. It’s getting worse the more I talk. I just don’t think I can stop. If I do, she might leave, and I want her to stay as long as possible.
“Here.” She reaches into the small pink purse at her side. “Easiest just to wipe it off at this point.”
She pulls out a bag of makeup wipes. I stand there, not moving, just watching. I want to say something flirty or funny, but there’s nothing in my brain. Her purse closes with a click.
“It doesn’t look bad,” she says, eyes roaming over my shakily applied liner and blush. I’m frozen. “But I still think it’s an awful idea to party when you’re worried about your makeup the entire time. What do you think?”