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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Grounded

Melissa Rakowitz Threw a Party While the Parents Were Away. Her Secret Was Safe, Until Mom Noticed the Thermostat.

April 22, 2001|ALLISON ADATO | Allison Adato last wrote for the magazine about the late singer Darby Crash

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.

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Melissa Rakowitz is grounded.

Two months, with the possibility of parole after six weeks if she writes eight pages on "The Dangers of Being a Teenager." Her crime? Throwing a party while home alone, and lying about it.

As a prison, her room isn't spartan. Its outlets are juicing a stereo, computer, TV, VCR, cell phone, regular phone and answering machine. On the ceiling, phosphorescent stars. On the floor, schoolbooks. She loves science, and would like to become a psychologist, but not before dancing in music videos. On one wall is a calendar, with Xs marking time served. On another hangs an artificial lei. "I've never been to Hawaii," explains the 14-year-old ninth-grader. "My mom threw a Hawaiian party once."

Melissa's mom, Cindy, knows the value of a well-timed party. As corporate vice president of public relations and promotions for Playboy, she's helped make a septuagenarian's bachelor pad hip again by throwing bashes there for Limp Bizkit and Howard Stern. But don't think that that atmosphere extends to her home in a gated Calabasas community, where Melissa is allowed no more than three friends over at a time, and no boys in the bedroom with the door closed.

On the weekend in question, her mom and stepdad, David Adelman, were in Las Vegas, and Melissa was in the care of her father, Mark Rakowitz, who lives just 15 minutes away. Though she had permission to sleep at a friend's, she instead returned to her mother's empty house, and by 7:30 Friday evening, she was greeting the first of 15 guests.

"I don't know if I want to say everything that happened," she offers cautiously. "People started blasting the music, and got really hyper, sliding on the hardwood floors in their socks, having pillow fights." For refreshment, she served up the contents of the pantry least likely to be missed. "My parents wouldn't notice if the doughnuts were gone." But then people helped themselves to real food. "Chicken, cheese, tortillas. My mom knows I wouldn't eat a whole chicken by myself."

She declared the party a success, though two guests got sick. "They didn't throw up, but one had to go to sleep." She can't say for certain, but allows that drinking could have played a part. "I stayed completely clean that night, because if I wasn't aware of what happened, I'd wake up the next morning and things would be broken."

Most people left by midnight, though a few slept over. On Saturday, Melissa returned to her father's apartment. Her mother came home Sunday to find a very clean house, save for a few details that drew suspicion, which she recounted in a conversation with Melissa and a reporter a few weeks later at the scene of the crime.

Mom: Usually the baby-sitter . . .

Melissa: Housekeeper, not baby-sitter.

Mom: Oh, OK. The housekeeper usually turns off the heat. It was up to 75. And Rosa always takes out the garbage. I called Melissa and said, "Something went on here, I want to know right now what happened." I didn't know I was on the speaker phone. But then I heard her dad's voice saying, "I want to know too." Oh, God. I would rather have talked to her alone instead of the two of us ganging up on her. What's a father's worst nightmare? Having a teenage daughter have boys sleep over. I knew Melissa and I were going to have to have a girlfriends talk later.

Melissa: I don't have a problem telling my mom about this, but any other parent in my life, no.

Mom: I wanted you to learn the lesson of responsibility. If they were drinking or smoking cigarettes--it's not the act of smoking that would upset me, because some teenagers smoke.

Melissa: Not my friends. It's, like, way not in style. It's so '80s, you might as well have a part on the side of your head. The only people I've seen smoking are, like, 46.

Mom: So if it was cigarettes or pot, it's not so much the act itself, as the consequences. My concern would be for the house burning down, not because of the house burning down but because they could get hurt. Safety first.

Melissa: Mom, you sound like a fire-person.

Mom: There were, what, seven kids here?

Melissa: Uh, yeah.

Mom: Am I going to read in this article that there were 20?

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