When I was fifteen years old, I got my first car: a white Audi. It was the product of wishes that I had harbored for many months. I had scoured the Internet, meticulously filtering engine searches for a find that would camouflage among the luxury cars of my friends. For months I had watched as my peers either toured dealerships or sat behind the wheels of their brand new Range Rovers. Some were annoyed that their dads didn’t let them just inherit one of their six figure-priced cars. Others excused the fact that they drove Chevys with their parents’ wishes for “a safe first car.” They made sure to mention that in a year they would get the convertible they had always wanted.
The first time I drove in my Audi up Chadwick hill, I felt one with the stream of Mercedes, BMWs, and Teslas. I fit in seamlessly, and I was willing to do anything to preserve that facade.
“When did your parents surprise you with it?”
“The day after I got my permit they parked it on the driveway.” I was the one who found it after searching weeks online.
“What year is it?”
“Um… I think 2015 or 2016.” Most likely 2014.
“I can’t believe you drive a more expensive car than your mom!”
“Right, I can’t believe they got me an Audi.” Her Prius is brand new and probably costs more than the Audi.
On the first day that I drove my new car to school, Jordan came up to me, asking whether my car was an Audi S Line. I had no clue what he was talking about but assumed it was some sort of expensive upgrade.
“Does it have a tiny red ‘S’ on the back?”
“No,” I said, clueless.
“Oh…. ok. Nevermind.”
He abruptly turned away from me, as if all of a sudden bored with the conversation. Somehow my Audi had lost all its allure in his eyes, and even though I knew better, it slightly rubbed off on me as well. Later that day I googled what Jordan was asking me about. I found out that it was a top-spec trim that’s available on all Audi models. It usually costs $3,500 more than the regular model and includes bigger alloy wheels, sportier front and rear bumpers, lower suspension, and leather-upholstered seats. I felt an initial pang of frustration. I had an Audi, wasn’t that enough? But I felt even more anger towards myself for allowing his judgment to affect me. After all, I knew better.
A couple of months after I got my license, I was driving outside the realm of Palos Verdes and accidentally took a right turn that I should have yielded to another driver. I slammed on the breaks and mouthed “I’m sorry” to the approaching Honda. “F***ing rich kid,” the driver muttered under his breath as his car passed, as if being a teen girl driving a white Audi explained my irresponsible behavior. Somehow, when outside the bubble, I was no longer average but rich and spoiled. No one cared that my Audi wasn’t an S Line, and when I really thought about it, I didn’t either. It was only when I made my way up Academy Drive that the lack of that little red “S” bothered me.
I can distinctly remember the first time I felt that sense of insufficiency. In elementary school, I had a friend over for a playdate. It was the first time she’d ever been to my house, and when we went up to my room to play, she giggled, “Your room is so small!” It was more of a matter-of-fact observation than a judgement. I knew that she didn’t have a filter, and she was too young to realize the true implications of such a remark. I didn’t really know how to respond. After a couple of seconds of silence, our six-year old minds got instantly distracted by some dolls sitting on my shelf. Although she probably forgot about what she said, it somehow stuck with me. I never thought of my room that way, but when I went over to her house, I understood why the disparity was so shocking to her. Her room was large by any standards, with a walk-in closet, couch, and flatscreen. Now, looking back, it was a ridiculous setup for a six year old, but at the time I established her lifestyle as the norm. She didn’t care about how big my room was, but all of a sudden I did.
I remember when I first visited a truly rich house. Not the “small” one million dollar homes but a truly remarkable one. I was in sixth grade and had just moved to Chadwick. A new friend had invited me to a sleepover. The walls were pearly white, and the ceilings were endlessly high. Not a single pillow was out of place, and frames of professionally-taken photos of the family were plastered all over the walls: black and white snapshots of the family joyfully jumping on a beach, wearing coordinated white shirts and jeans. The pantry was larger than my bedroom, full to the brim with perfectly organized snacks. Everyone’s dietary needs were taken care of: gluten-free, dairy-free, and vegan options. Her mom checked up on us every 30 minutes and brought us strawberries and cucumber waters. The house was immaculate, and her relationship with her parents seemed seamless. Her father came back from work in the evening and kissed her on the forehead. “How’s my princess doing?” We sat down to eat dinner at their impossibly long ebony dining table, and I silently watched as the entire family laughed about their day. After eating vegan popcorn in front of the flatscreen, we comfortably settled into her king-sized bed. Before falling asleep I went downstairs to the kitchen to pour myself a glass of water and saw the two parents snuggled on the couch watching football. I felt like I was trespassing on a special moment, but I stood there on the marble floors with my water a little longer than I should have. There was something about the atmosphere of the house that made me feel as though nothing bad could ever happen to me. I absorbed all the small details that day: the marble countertops, the Hermès blankets, all the tangible things that made the house seem so safe. I started to cry on the way home the next morning. I felt as though something inside me had broken. When I came home, the ceilings of the house seemed lower, and my room felt cramped and stuffy. But more importantly, my life felt messier.
In the years that followed, I found myself trying to emulate that same sense of comfort and safety. I painted my room the same eggshell white as the countless beach house mansions of my friends. I bought silk pillowcases and filled my vanity with Chanel and Dior products. Yet somehow the ceilings were still low, my room still felt small and stuffy, and my life was still messy. Over the years I understood that I couldn’t attain what I sought with money. Yet I still yearned for it the way Gatsby blindly yearned for Daisy, throwing extravagant parties every day in the hope that she might stroll in one day.
Just like Gatsby, I never felt truly a part of my surroundings. My parents were born in Bulgaria and moved to the US in their 20s. My dad was a Cold War refugee. Palos Verdes was their West Egg, and their foreign nature was well concealed yet discernable. My parents didn’t have annual Superbowl parties. They didn’t know a friend of a friend that could get them free tickets to see a Lakers game. They didn’t go to golf courses over the weekend and sip mimosas while discussing charity leagues and the school board. No Ivy League alumni connections or sorority reunions. Instead of untouched coffee table books, they have well-loved stacks of paperbacks in every room. Some of them were bought from antiquarians back in Bulgaria, others were given to us by great uncles. Our bookcases hold feathery pages of 1920s poetry first editions, bought during summer trips to Europe. My parents keep found objects like sprigs of heather from the moors in Devonshire or thistles from the Scottish Highlands. My mom treasures a mysterious stone with a hole drilled in it that she found near Stonehenge because she cannot figure out what it used to be. And then there is the ancient Grecian-looking black ceramic cup and bowl that sailors found in a shipwreck in the Black Sea and gifted to my engineer great-grandfather, who was overseeing their work. My parents keep it in the house, not knowing its exact age or value. These objects tell my story, yet their otherness reminds me that I am an observer to the rest of my environment.
In high school my friends started to reveal to me the broken nature of their lives. The palatial fortresses that I had grown to simultaneously admire and loathe harbored many secrets. What people see first is the Christmas card version of their lives. The girls wear tight cocktail dresses and the guys sport suits, standing in front of the columns of their front porches. Later, I learned that the dad goes on four-month-long business trips and is suspected of having an affair. One mother disappears every other weekend and stumbles back home from trips to Sonoma. The sister is never home because she’s in a treatment facility in Florida, and the brother who goes to an Ivy League is on the verge of dropping out. Their lives were just as messy as mine, but their Christmas cards seemed to give a certain elegance to their disjointed world.
Yet sometimes I think that the world I live in isn’t all that superficial. Maybe my perception of their materialistic lives is simply a reflection of my own internal conflicts. I realize that we are all going through the same insecurities and messy family problems. After all, it isn’t more elegant to be tragically shot while swimming in a marble pool than to be run over by an expensive car on a dusty road in the Valley of Ashes.
Last Christmas I got a Rebecca Minkoff purse. When I first wore it to a New Year’s Eve party, a drunk friend screamed that she loved my purse. “Thank you, I got it for Christmas,” I said. “No way,” she screamed. “You’re so lucky, it’s gorgeous!” As she came closer to look at it, she quickly realized her mistake. “Oh, I thought it was Chanel...” As she stumbled away, for the first time ever after such a remark, I laughed.