13 St. Petersburg Times: Interactive Special Report
Love. Identity. Secrets. Loyalty. Sex. Betrayal. Power. Grades. Rivalry.  Glory. Parents. Subterfuge. Divorce. God. Guitars. Life at the edge of everything.
 
 GLADIATORS
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Thomas French talks about the boy's sleepover.

There’s not a word from KTigger1011. So Carlo decides to write her: “Lets get together sometime so we can talk and get to know each other better so then maybe you will consider me as your boyfreind.”

Gladiators

The week before spring break, the Pink Dinos get it into their heads to go see Peter Pan.

Not the original version from 1953. Disney has released an animated sequel - Return to Neverland, it's called. Brett and Sean and Carlo and some of the others are organizing an outing for that Friday, after the final bell. As it happens, Sean is having a sleepover that night to celebrate his birthday. The plan is for them to go see the movie, then head to Sean's for cake, pizza, whatever.

The gang's interest in Neverland is curious. These are adolescent boys, well schooled in the art of smirking. Do they just want to sit in the theater and roll their eyes? Or is there some small part of them that truly longs, if only for an hour or so, to hang out on a mythical island where nobody ever has to grow up? Why exactly do they want to see a G-rated cartoon?

Ask Brett, and he'll shrug.

"We just do," he says.

That Friday afternoon, Sean and Carlo and six other boys show up at the AMC Westshore 14, along with Sean's mom, their official escort. Monica Simpson has barely paid for the tickets before her eight charges tumble away. They explode down the hall that leads to the theater, laughing, bumping, grabbing one another's hats, snatching each other's shoes, loading their cheeks full of water from a fountain along the way and then spitting it onto each other's necks. A couple of them are dropping to the carpet and rolling toward their destination like logs on a hill.

By the time they make it into the theater, the opening credits are running.

"Is this the end?" one of them cries out.

"This is the beginning, stupid," says someone else as they make their way up the aisle.

The Pink Dinos and their friends seize control of the top row, directly under the projector. As they settle into their seats, their bodies jut in every direction, their elbows invading their neighbors' rib cages, their long colt legs dangling over the tops of the empty seats in front of them. Mrs. Simpson plants herself at a safe distance, a couple of rows down.

On screen, the saga is unfolding. Wendy has grown up and is married with two kids of her own, daughter Jane and her little brother, Danny. Both are soon swept away to Neverland to join Peter and fight Captain Hook.

From the back row, Sean and Brett and the others make jungle bird calls during the quiet parts and fake cry during the sad parts. They pass items of each other's clothing down the row and throw candy and critique the dialogue and rag on the Lost Boys, who have seen better days.

"I like that fat kid!"

"This is a tear-jerker."

"She's lying! Don't listen!"

When Peter Pan flirts with young Jane, the guys feign outrage.

"Isn't Peter going out with her mom? That's nasty."

When Tinker Bell flits into view, they eye her like she's a Hooters waitress.

"She's hot!"

Finally the nightmare is over. As the credits roll, the birthday boy and his friends file out of the theater, shaking their heads.

"Now whose bright idea was it to see this movie again?" one of them asks.

Mrs. Simpson smiles patiently.

"Don't anybody try to fly," she says.

Sean and the other boys head outside, jostling for position. Behind them, somewhere over the gulf, the sun is disappearing in a watercolor wash of melting pinks and reds. Jetliners, making their final approach into Tampa International, descend lazily across the horizon, silhouetted against the glowing sky.

The guys pay no notice. They spy a banister leading down some stairs, and spontaneously decide that they all need to slide down it at once. Within seconds, five of them are perched on the top rail, laughing, trying to knock one another down. There's no meanness in any of this; this is simply what they do.

***

The rest of the night plays out like a series of gladiatorial exhibitions.

At Sean's Carrollwood home, the boys put on their swimsuits and jump into the backyard pool, where they instantly begin beating one another into submission with pool toys and floats and whatever else isn't bolted down.

"Die!" one of them shouts. "Die!"

They head for Sean's room, where they explore new options for wreaking havoc. Two of the boys fight with what appear to be massive hunting knives, pressing the blades against the soft exposed skin of each other's throats. It turns out the knives are fake and the blades are dull, but the effect is still impressive.

When it is time to serenade the birthday boy, Mrs. Simpson supervises the lighting of the 13 candles on a chocolate chip cookie cake.

"Sing, my little monkeys!" says Sean.

They gather around the flickering candles, their faces radiant. Mrs. Simpson watches them, happy that her son has such a close circle of friends. It won't always be like this, she knows. Soon they'll head their separate ways to different high schools, different futures. Tonight, though, they are still together.

The boys tear into the cake with their bare hands, destroying it. When they're done, Sean and some of the other Pink Dinos get out their guitars to work on their songs. Cameron, whose drum set is back at school, pounds away on an upturned bucket and an array of Girl Scout cookie boxes.

While they play, Carlo signs on to a nearby computer and checks his e-mail. There's something from his dad, but nothing from KTigger1011.

So he decides to write her. Using two fingers, he slowly types:

Lets get together sometime so we can talk and get to know each other better so then maybe you will consider

A pause. Then:

me as your boyfreind.

He sends it and signs off his account. Immediately he signs on again, this time under his friend Eric's account, and writes another e-mail.

Go out with Mister Carlo Ottanelli! Do it for me!!!!
Eric

There's no way the ruse will fool Kalie. She'll realize both e-mails are from Carlo, no question. But maybe it will make her laugh. Maybe she'll appreciate his creativity.

Carlo is walking along the edge of a cliff, and he does not care. He smiles and hits enter, sending his plea into the void.

***

 
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