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.
 
 SINCERELY, NELSON RENDEROS
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 


Danielle is wondering if she has embarked on a fashion disaster, trying out this new hairstyle. Will the kids at school like it? Will everybody think she is trying to be black?

Sincerely, Nelson Renderos

All the long way to school, Danielle worries.

Over the weekend, she did something radical. She asked a friend to divide her long brown hair into tiny plats of land and then braid each section. Colored beads -- blue, pink, white and purple -- were then threaded onto the end of each braid.

Now it is Monday morning, and Danielle is seated with her friends in the back of bus No. 4. The braids swing heavily from her scalp; every time she tilts her head, the beads click and clack.

Danielle is wondering if she has embarked on a fashion disaster, trying out this new hairstyle. Will the kids at school like it? Will Nelson like it? Will everybody think she's trying to be black?

Her friend Crysta tells her to calm down.

"Do you like it, Danielle?" Crysta asks.

"Yeah."

"Then who cares what people say."

But at school the braids set off an immediate chorus of reactions.

"Jennifer Lopez!" a boy teases.

"Beyonce!" says another.

"She black," notes a third.

The barrage goes on all day and into the next. People are calling her a ghetto wannabe; someone tells her that even one of her friends is saying the new hair makes her look stupid. That night, Danielle takes out the braids.

Wednesday morning, she returns to school with her old hair but with a new host of bristling insecurities. She sees two of her girlfriends whispering in her language arts class and wonders what they're talking about. Are they gossiping about her?

"She's having an everyone-hates-me day," says Isela.

Naturally, Isela is standing behind Danielle. In a display of solidarity, she has also decided to be mad at the friend who said the braids looked stupid.

"That was mean," Isela says. "It hurt my feelings, too."

To Danielle, it feels as though her world is crumbling. Everyone thinks she's dumb, Nelson is out of reach, and she has yet to identify the author of the I loveNelson message left in the girls bathroom. Something about the message troubles Danielle. She has long since accepted that Nelson goes out with many girls and flirts with many more. Still, the message is different. By not declaring herself, the author has exerted a special claim.

Danielle can't stand it. Determined to solve the mystery, she has begun an inventory of all the girls who may or may not have a crush on Nelson. She's even suspicious of Isela.

"It was you, wasn't it?" Danielle asks her.

Isela denies it, vehemently. But Danielle is not convinced. For months, the two of them have worked through their Nelson crush together. Now their equilibrium has been shaken. Danielle isn't sure she trusts her best friend anymore.

One day at school, it all boomerangs on them. As usual, the halls are buzzing with rumors; only this time, one of the rumors is about Danielle. The way she hears it, Isela has been saying she's always flirting with Nelson.

"What did you say about me?" she asks Isela.

"Nothing."

For the next 15 minutes, through the end of third-period class and then out into the halls, Danielle grills Isela, pressing her to find out what exactly she said. Isela acknowledges that someone asked her about Danielle and Nelson, but insists she didn't say anything bad. Danielle's sense of betrayal mounts.

"Isela was talking crap about me," Danielle tells someone else, "saying I flirt with Nelson and all that."

"I did not, Danielle!"

By now they've moved to their critical thinking class and Mrs. Borchers is telling them to get to work. But it doesn't stop them. Even under Mrs. Borchers' gaze, Danielle is hissing accusations.

The intensity of Danielle's fury is hard to fathom. Isela hasn't disparaged her friend or spilled any secrets. But Danielle is reacting as though her life has been ruined.

Isela keeps defending herself. She says she wasn't gossiping.

"You swear?" says Danielle, her eyes narrowing.

"Yes!"

Danielle wants Isela to make a vow. She is never, ever to use Danielle's name and Nelson's name in the same sentence to their friends again.

Isela agrees to the terms of the treaty. But Danielle needs more.

"Pinky swear?" she says.

"Pinky swear," Isela answers.

They lock little fingers and pull.

***

 
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