There are only a few ways a 13-year-old male can be guaranteed to attract the interest of the opposite sex.
Making it onto the honor roll is not among them. In another culture, in a more enlightened time, that might work. But not in the place called America at the dawn of the third millennium.
No, if a boy wants girls to fall for him, he is far better off treating another girl so shabbily that her friends will see him as a dark and brooding challenge. He can become the class clown. He can get himself suspended or do something else to earn a dangerous reputation.
Or, if he doesn't feel like doing any of these things, the boy can strap on a guitar and walk on stage with his band.
It doesn't matter if this boy and the rest of his friends can really play. Or if they've chosen a name for their group that makes them sound like the house band on Barney.
In the weeks after the concert, the Pink Dinos bask in the glow of seventh-grade fame. Almost instantaneously, they have vaulted to the upper rungs of the social pyramid. As they move through the crowded halls, a buzz goes with them. Their movements are observed, analyzed, appraised. Their jokes, even the misfires, are met with coquettish smiles and giggles. Suddenly they are the object of sotto voce discussions among girls who stare hungrily in their direction. They are appreciated for all their ragged splendor.
As the band continues with the lunchtime practices, a growing number of kids have begun making daily pilgrimages to watch. Mr. Dickson is not sure how much longer he'll allow it; the band room is getting too crowded.
"We're like the rock stars of the school," says Sean, the bass player. "So we have our following."
This is not boasting. Sean is not the boastful type. In many ways, he is the most level-headed member of the Pink Dinos. He is not given to flights of fancy; like so many bass players, he prefers to stand back and quietly lay down the foundation. He's the adviser of the group. The guy who listens to everybody else's problems.
He admits he's enjoying the band's newfound cachet. Who wouldn't? Every man, at one point or another in his life, should know what it is like to walk the earth as a Pink Dino.
But Sean understands that the glow is not going to last, and so he doesn't make too much of it. If he were so inclined, he could easily find himself a girlfriend; many would gladly apply for the position. He had a girlfriend last year in sixth grade. He does not speak fondly of the experience.
"The biggest mistake of my entire career," he says.
For the moment, Sean prefers to stay single. Cameron, the drummer, feels the same. He insists his only true love is his skateboard.
"I don't want a girlfriend," says Cameron. "They get in the way of everything."
Other members of the group have chosen a different path. Ricky has been swept away by Brittany, an older woman. He keeps her name written in ink on his left hand.
"She's hot," says Ricky. "She's in eighth grade."
Then there is Brett, the band's leader. Brett is easily the most serious, buttoned-down member of the Pink Dinos; he's never received anything lower than an A on his report card, even in elementary school. But now Brett has found a new subject to study. Her name is Clarissa.
"We've kind of liked each other for months," he says. "She had a boyfriend, and she didn't want to just dump him."
Brett's mom is under the impression that Clarissa is the aggressor in this relationship. Penny Gardner, a nice woman who still bakes brownies for her children, hasn't really accepted that there is a relationship. She is convinced that Clarissa is far more into Brett than vice versa; she talks about how Clarissa calls the house, leaving long messages. She seems to believe that Brett is merely humoring the poor girl.
This is understandable of Mrs. Gardner. It is exactly what mothers, especially mothers of straight-arrow sons, prefer to believe about their boys.
Yet if she could become invisible and follow her son to school, she would see him flirting nonstop with Clarissa. She would see him squeezing into a seat with Clarissa every day at lunch before rehearsal, beaming with secret joy as the two of them hold hands on the way to class. What Brett feels for this girl is the definition of innocent devotion. Still, if his mother knew, the shock of it would knock her and her brownies straight to the kitchen floor.
Brett's friends know their boy's in deep. They are exerting pressure on him to make his move.
"You've got to kiss her," Cameron tells him. "It's been, like, three weeks. You're wasting your time."
Brett is not ready yet. Soon maybe, but not yet. For now, it is enough for him to walk down the hall beside Clarissa, feeling the touch of her hand and drinking in the blue-green of her eyes.
Since that wondrous afternoon when Brett and the band seized their moment on the stage, nothing has been quite the same for the Pink Dinos. They have been bathed in a golden light of adulation, respect, glory. All of them, in one way or another, have been transformed.
All of them, that is, except for their manager and first backup guitarist.
The lost and lovesick Carlo.
Another day of yearning behind him, another bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats before him.
He is at home, perched in one of the tall chairs at the kitchen counter. Outside it is dark and the crickets are singing. Inside it is cool and the refrigerator is humming.
The Mini Wheats, his usual bedtime snack, are growing soggy. His hand keeps ferrying spoonfuls toward his mouth, but he barely seems to notice. He chews slowly, absent-mindedly, all the while staring into the pages of a massive book splayed open beside the cereal.
"Carlo," says his dad, walking by and wanting to remind him of something or another.
The boy does not answer. He's not being rude; he simply does not seem to have heard his father. He's too engrossed in the Complete Book of World War II Combat Aircraft, studying a drawing of a Consolidated B-24J Liberator, his favorite bomber from that era. He has memorized every line of the craft, every propeller and gun turret; he can almost feel its vibrations and hear the drone of its engines, carrying him across the English Channel for another midnight run over Germany.
He has it all figured out. When he's done with middle school and high school and college and whatever else they throw at him, he'll join the Navy and become a pilot. He wants to fly one of those fighter jets that screams off the deck of an aircraft carrier. Or, if that doesn't work, he'll become a firefighter. He loves those big trucks, their shape, their color, all those thick coils of hoses. His third choice, the fallback career, would be to become a doctor. Preferably a surgeon, making ninety thousand a year.
His dad passes by again, moving from room to room as he straightens up. From another part of their Temple Terrace home come the murmurs of two voices; Carlo's mother is talking to Vittorio, his 11-year-old brother, getting him settled for the night.
Carlo remains oblivious. He has gone somewhere far away, out of his family's reach. He sits with his eyes fixed to the page, cycling through the sequence of his thoughts. His free hand is pressed against his light blond hair; his body is at rest except for the rise and fall of his breathing. He has always had this gift for concentration. An ability for directing his attention onto something so completely that the rest of the world disappears.
Carlo closes the book, rinses out his cereal bowl and stretches his arms above his head, growling. He heads for the computer in his father's office. He does not turn on the lights. Instead he sits in the dark, his face lit by the glow of the monitor.
He signs onto AOL and checks his mailbox, hoping. He sees e-mails from Sean, from his good friend, Eric. But nothing new from the person he wants to hear from more than anyone else. Not a word from KTigger1011.
That's just Kalie's screen name. Her real name is Kalie Wells, and yes, she is beautiful, and no, he will not hear a word against her, even from Sean and Eric and all the rest of his well-meaning friends who think he is throwing away his young life on a dream.
Carlo has had a thing for Kalie from the first day he saw her, back at the beginning of sixth grade. Ever since he has been trying to find a way into her heart. At the urging of his mother, he has been careful not to push too hard. He doesn't want to bug Kalie, doesn't want to be seen as some kind of stalker. He'd just be happy if she'd notice him once in a while.
His dad again. He wants Carlo to go get Flora, the family cat, who has wandered out by the pool.
"She's got to learn to swim," he says.
His dad smiles back, but in a way that says this time he means it. Carlo sighs, signs off the computer, saves the cat from a watery death.
He goes to his room and plops onto his bed. All around him are relics of the childhood he is almost ready to leave behind. His bedsheets and pillowcase are adorned with rows of teddy bears. His walls are decorated with academic ribbons, black light posters, a Harry Potter poster. His shelves are lined with spaceships, soccer trophies, an armada of Lego vehicles. Hanging from the ceiling, flying above it all, is a miniature skeleton of a pterodactyl with its bony wings spread wide.
By almost any standard, Carlo's life is a good one. He does well at school, has lots of friends, fits in. He has a nice home, a room of his own, plenty of video games and other electronic distractions, a pool, a cat, not to mention Vittorio, who can be irritating but is still fairly tolerable compared to most little brothers. On top of all that, he has two loving, attentive, not entirely embarrassing parents. Fraser Ottanelli and Giovanna Benadusi are history professors at the University of South Florida. Both of them were born and raised in Italy - Fraser in Florence, Giovanna in a village just outside Florence - which explains why they gave their sons Italian names and taught them to speak their native language even before English.
About those names: When their friends at school say "Carlo" or "Vittorio," it sounds a little flat. But when their parents speak the names, the syllables take flight, rolling upward between the "r" and the "l" in "Carlo" and through the entire "tor" in "Vittorio." It is a beautiful thing, hearing their sons' names float out of their mouths.
Every summer, Fraser and Giovanna take the boys back to Florence to see their families. At one point, when Carlo was in third grade, they lived there for a year. Consequently, Carlo remains a thoroughly bicultural, bilingual child. He speaks to his friends in English, but speaks to his parents in both English and Italian. Sometimes, this creates problems. Sometimes, the two languages get jumbled in his head, and he thinks in Italian when he means to speak in English, and then suddenly he can't find the right words to say whatever's on his mind.
When that happens, he struggles and stutters and just says "oh."
Lots of things make Carlo say "oh." He says it when he's flustered, when he's stressed out over a homework assignment, when his braces are bugging him and his lips won't move over his teeth as smoothly as he'd like them to. Mostly he says "oh" whenever he's at school and the fates allow him to catch sight of Kalie.