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.
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Sincerely, Nelson Renderos

Thursday, lunchtime. The band room is almost quiet.

In the practice booth in back, sitting with a girlfriend, the hippie girl strums her Stratocaster. Today Kirsten Austin is wearing a Chinese character on her cheek symbolizing happiness. Her nails are painted metallic blue; the polish is slightly chipped from who knows how many hours of playing her guitar. She is working on a new song, perfecting her chord changes, listening to her friend talk about the persistent stupidity of parents.

"My mom and my dad are so paranoid," says Sarah. "They have no clue how many boyfriends I have. I've had five boyfriends, and they've only known about one of them."

Kirsten knows her friend is just getting warmed up; her rant is the accompaniment to Kirsten's guitar.

On and on Sarah goes. She's talking about how her mom called the other day, trying to be subtle as she probed for details on her daughter's love life. First she asked if there was anything "exciting" going on. Then, when that didn't work, she asked if Sarah had met any new boys. Finally she came right out and asked if Sarah had a crush on anyone.

"She's so evil," says Sarah.

Kirsten stops for a second to talk about her dad. She doesn't think he's evil; in fact, she loves him dearly. Kirsten's close with both her parents, even though they're divorced and have both remarried.

Her dad got her into music. They take guitar lessons together, at a State Farm office in Brandon; their teacher leases a spare room there. Kirsten's dad is always making up little songs for Kirsten and her younger stepsister. When Kirsten's at his place, he still gets out her Mr. Bear hand puppet and uses it for his Elvis impersonations, singing how he wants to be her teddy bear and wear her chain around his neck.

As fathers go, Kirsten's is the best. Still, she agrees with Sarah that it's funny watching him trying to piece together the details of her life. It happened just the other day, when she was talking about Brett Gardner and the other Pink Dinos.

"And my dad is, like, are they all your boyfriends? And I'm, like, Dad!"

"Yeah," says Sarah, "you're going out with five guys at once."

Kirsten didn't really know how to explain it to her dad. She told him she's just friends with Brett and the others, but he didn't seem to believe her.

"He said, you're just going steady and you don't want to tell me about it."

Laughing, Kirsten returns to her practicing. She likes her new song. It doesn't have a name yet, but it's about a boy who's out of reach. She stares at her lyrics, hand-printed on a piece of paper, and tries out the first verse.

These dreams I've been having about you near
Makes the crowd seem to disappear

Kirsten likes the chorus.

And I'll cry for you tonight
Oh and my heart will want to take flight

Sarah says her dad tried to get her interested in playing guitar, too, but it wasn't for her.

"I just don't get the whole guitar thing," she says.

Kirsten smiles and keeps playing, not even trying to explain. How can she describe what it means to hold her Stratocaster? The way it makes her feel safe, the way it makes her stronger. She can still remember the first time she strapped on a guitar, back in elementary school. She looked in the mirror and knew that this was her, this was it.

Her dad has this thing he tells her. He says that creativity takes us to the heart of it all. He says that when we create something, we touch the hand of God.

Kirsten doesn't repeat this to Sarah. Instead, she talks about how she's staying with her dad right now. She's on a rotation. She's with her dad for two weeks, and then goes to her mom's for two weeks. The next handoff is this weekend. On Sunday, at 5 o'clock, she'll pack her things and her mom will take her.

"That must be hard," says Sarah.

"Yeah, it is," says Kirsten. "But you get used to it."

She doesn't try to explain this, either. She doesn't talk about the feeling in her stomach every two weeks, when she's about to go from her mom to her dad or back again. What it's like when she hears the knock at the door.

Instead she plays her guitar.

Everywhere I go I think about you, and how could you have known
Everything I say somehow relates to you and your ways
I know that somehow everything will work out

She likes this song. It's not finished yet, but it's getting there.


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