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
ROLLERCOASTER
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 HAPPYTRAILS
 
 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Pinch Me
From the Album "Barenaked Ladies
Disc 1: All Their Greatest Hits
(1991-2001)."
2001 Reprise

Kirsten and her stepmom turn the shorts around and see the letters in back, designed for prominent display across the wearer’s behind: BOOTYLICIOUS

Rollercoaster
photo
ON A MISSION Kirsten shops at the Brandon mall with her stepmom, Kristina Austin. They are looking for two things in particular: a birthday present for Kirsten’s dad and a special top for Kirsten to wear at the talent show.

The burgundy dress calls out to Kirsten. She is walking through Rampage, scanning the racks, when suddenly she comes upon the dress, shimmering on its hanger, speaking her name. Allegedly she is looking for a shirt, but still.

"I could wear this," says Kirsten.

Her stepmom, standing beside her, isn't so sure.

"I don't think your dad would go for strapless."

Another dress catches Kirsten's eye. Her stepmom squinches her face.

"I'm thinking that anything that ties in the back is not a good thing," she says, not even having to explain why.

Kristina Austin is not a prude. But her husband, Kirsten's dad, is having some difficulties adjusting to his little girl growing up. He has a rule about Kirsten not wearing anything with spaghetti straps unless she puts something over it. Actually, he has a thing about wearing any item that might attract any attention from a certain group of unsavory people.

"You know -- boys?" says Kirsten, zipping a finger across her lips.

Kirsten and her stepmom have been trying to get the poor man to relax. But so far peace eludes him. Which means that, for the moment, his wife and daughter have to keep his fragile sensibilities in mind as they consider outfits for Kirsten.

Together, they are shopping their way through a Saturday afternoon, scouring the offerings at Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon. According to their mission statement for this excursion, they are looking for two things in particular: a birthday present for Kirsten's dad and a special top for Kirsten to wear at the talent show.

Understanding the importance of attitude, Kirsten wants to find a T-shirt emblazoned with the words Rock Star on the front.

The talent show is a few weeks away, but Kirsten wants to be ready. She and Dana and Clarissa haven't settled on a name yet, but they're leaning toward using their first initials and calling themselves KDC.

"It's not an official band," she says. "We're just playing together."

Kirsten understands that the Pink Dinos have experience on their side. They have been practicing off and on for a couple of months and have already played at two concerts. She and her friends have never performed in public. Still, she thinks they can hold their own.

"I've got high hopes," she says as she and her stepmom tour the mall. They linger in Afterthoughts, checking out the temporary tattoos and the mood-sensitive nail polish. They circulate through B. Dalton's, make extended forays into Rave and Rampage and Wet Seal.

"It was very foolish of your dad to give us his ATM card," says Kirsten's stepmom.

They come to a fountain, flowing among the traffic, and pause while Kirsten tosses a dime into the water.

What did she wish for?

"A unicorn."

In one of the stores, the Barenaked Ladies undulate from speakers in the ceiling. Kirsten plants her feet, sways, sings along.

Pack the car and leave this town
Who'll notice that I'm not around?
I could hide out under there
I just made you say "underwear"

When she gets to that last line, she laughs. The wordplay makes her so happy, she seems to levitate.

Roaming through Body Shop, they consider a top, also strapless.

"That would require some serious negotiation," says Kristina.

They see another dress.

"Your dad could go for that," says Kristina. "It covers you from head to toe."

They are excited when they spy a fuzzy pair of Soffe shorts, hanging on another rack. Then they turn the shorts around and see the letters in back, designed for prominent display across the wearer's behind:

BOOTYLICIOUS

Kirsten laughs. "I don't think so!"

In Rave, they find a shirt that says Angel, another that says Princess.

"Everything but rock star," says Kirsten.

"It figures," says her stepmom.

Finally Kirsten's gaze falls on a blue T-shirt with a butterfly printed across the front. It's perfect. Blue is her favorite color; also she has a thing about butterflies. Kirsten takes it off the hanger, hugs it, jumps up and down.

"This!" she cries.

Kirsten's stepmom hands over the Visa and contributes $10.69 to the American economy.

"I'm happy now," Kirsten says, levitating again.

For all her father's fears, she has lost none of her innocence. She is growing up, yes. Soon she will be transformed. Hulking boys will appear at the door to take her away.

But not yet. As she leaves the store, her purchase clutched at her side, Kirsten remains a schoolgirl who loves unicorns, who cracks up over the word "underwear," who wants to wear a butterfly.

For the moment, she is still theirs.

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