A quiet Friday night at her dad's place in Seffner. Mr. Bear at her side, keeping her safe. Her favorite tie-dyed pillow beneath her head, softly exploding in hallucinogenic waves of red and green and purple.
In the darkness of her room, Kirsten Austin practices being brave. In the top bunk, her 6-year-old stepsister, Sarah, is talking in her sleep again.
Sarah is funny. Sometimes she'll ramble on about McDonald's, her favorite place in the world; other times she speaks her mother's name. Whatever Sarah's dreaming tonight, Kirsten doesn't hear much of it. The volume on her CD player is turned up all the way; she keeps listening to the same Incubus song over and over.
- I lean against the wind,
- Pretend that I am weightless
At school, she tries so hard to pull it off. She projects inner serenity, speaks with a crystalline certainty she wishes were true. She thinks about the weeks ahead, the band she's forming for the talent show, the moment when they walk out on stage.
- The world's a roller coaster
- And I am not strapped in
Only a month or so more and the ride will be over. She can almost feel the wind in her hair, the car at the top, ready to plunge. In her mind's eye, the car is red.
- I wish you were here
- I wish you were here
- I wish you were here
Kirsten thinks about a boy. Black hair, black eyes. Every day at school, he walks beside her. Still, he has no idea she likes him; she has made sure of that.
She has told only six people his name. She needs to keep her feelings underneath everything else that's happening between them. Actually, underneath is not hidden enough.
With this boy, she needs to stay under the under.
That same evening, as Kirsten nurses her secret, Nelson Renderos plots a first kiss.
Not his first kiss ever. His first kiss with his new girlfriend, Shakyra. They've officially been a couple since last Tuesday afternoon, when he waited until his parents were gone so he could sneak onto the phone to call her.
Now it's Friday. Nelson knows he'll see Shakyra tonight at a dance rehearsal at his family's church, St. Francis Episcopal, just off Nebraska Avenue in Tampa. Both he and Shakyra are getting ready for a quinceanera, a formal dance held in honor of a girl's 15th birthday. The birthday girl is a friend of Nelson's and a cousin of Shakyra's. The quinceanera is a few weeks away. In the meantime, the girl's young guests have been rehearsing every Friday, learning how to salsa and meringue. That's how Nelson and Shakyra met.
Lots of teenagers will be at the church. Lots of parents, too, keeping an eye on the teenagers, which means that Nelson will have to wait for the right moment to kiss Shakyra. But it will happen. The two of them have already talked about it on the phone.
"I want to kiss you before the night goes," Nelson tells her.
He takes nothing for granted. Before heading for the church, he shaves, brushes his teeth, remembers to bring along an extra stick of Winterfresh gum.
He and his two sisters, Silvia and Alejandra, and their parents arrive at St. Francis just before sunset. When Shakyra walks in, Nelson greets her with a peck on each cheek. He asks how she's doing, tries to make small talk. But it's no good. Now that they're officially going out, both have suddenly grown shy.
The two of them join the teenagers on the floor. Girls with glittery eyes line up on one side, boys with slicked-down hair line up on the other. For a moment, the two lines face each other, waiting for the music to begin. Beneath their nervous smiles, there is a quiet sense of formality. They stand at the edge of something solemn.
Someone presses play on a tape deck, and salsa fills the room. The two lines converge; the boys reach for the girls' hands. At first they move awkwardly. But soon they are smiling, relaxing into the steps. Nelson and Shakyra move together, watching their feet. Standing so close, he is intoxicated with her. He wants to kiss her right here. But her mother is watching.
Finally, after several hours of rehearsing, Nelson sees his chance. When he thinks no one's looking, he takes Shakyra's hand and leads her outside, under a tree. He's just about to kiss her when she asks him to get rid of his gum.
Out goes the Winterfresh, and Nelson tries again. Then he hears a noise from somewhere behind them. He looks up to see Silvia and Alejandra and other kids, spying.
"Go away!" he yells.
At last the two of them are alone. Holding Shakyra close, Nelson inhales the scent of her skin. He closes his eyes, leans in, makes his final approach.
Carlo Ottanelli's mother waits for the right moment. Then, at home one Saturday, she ventures the question of questions.
"Do you still like her?" she asks.
Carlo looks at his mom. If he wanted, he could tell her about his latest e-mails to Kalie, or the Gio incident, or even the shakeup in the Pink Dinos. But Carlo does not. Instead what he says is:
Giovanna and her husband Fraser know Carlo needs room to figure things out on his own. Still, they wish he would let them in just a little. To gain some insight, Giovanna has been reading Real Boys, a book on the interior lives of young males. She tells Carlo that, if he wants, she'll listen. Maybe, she says, she could shed some light on Kalie's point of view.
"I'm a girl, too," Giovanna reminds him.
But Carlo declines the invitation. Whatever is inside him, stays inside him.
His parents make sense of things as best they can. Sometimes, in the evening, Fraser will say goodnight to Carlo, and then step out of his son's room, leaving the door open just enough that he can stand in the hall and watch Carlo for a moment without his knowing it.
Once in a while, Fraser goes out into the yard and walks around the house so he can gaze through the window at Carlo as he does his homework.
Fraser never stays long. He doesn't want to intrude. He just wants reassurance that Carlo's okay. A glimpse of who his son is becoming.