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
 HAPPYTRAILS
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 PERSPECTIVE: A COLUMN BY TOM FRENCH
 

Stay Together For The Kids
From the album "Take Off You Pants and Jacket" by Blink 182
Dammit
From the album "Dude Ranch"
by Blink 182

Happytrails
photo
THE ELECTRIC MRS. LA ROSA Hardly anyone takes the floor at Booker T’s last dance of the year till the DJ cues up the Electric Slide and Mrs. La Rosa seizes the moment. Soon, the kids are forming lines behind the assistant principal, swiveling their hips, clapping and laughing.

Faster and faster now. Every moment hurtling forward into the next.

In class, Jackie fights for every point in her teachers' gradebooks. Exams are coming up; all she can do is keep pushing.

Danielle and Isela soak up their last days together, no longer caring when Nelson tells them about the latest news of his girlfriend Shakyra. They know he will soon move on to someone else. Nelson's girlfriends come and go, but his friends he keeps close. And Danielle and Isela are two of his best friends, ever.

How unpredictable, the way these things work out. By sticking together, Danielle and Isela have ended up getting more of Nelson's time and attention than any of the girls who allegedly won his heart.

Taking a deep breath, Kirsten and Dana and Clarissa audition for the talent show. Listening to them, Ms. Williams clearly has her doubts. The girls sing so quietly, she repeatedly has to ask them to turn up the volume.

"A little louder," she says. "I can't hear you."

To encourage them, she dances beside them.

"Come on now," she says, swaying her hips. "Come on, give it to me."

But it's just not in them. Clarissa sees Brett at the door, watching on, and that makes her nervous; Kirsten sees him, too, and struggles to hold on to her resolve. Can she do this? Really?

Ms. Williams can tell these girls have good voices. But they've got to punch it up. Get an amplifier, she says. Find some backup dancers. Anything to break through their shyness.

"I really want you to be in the show," she says. "But you got to move."

Then there is Carlo. Poor, steadfast boy. Either he is the most patient suitor in the history of the world, or the most deluded. All year he has waited, hoping that Kalie would finally agree to be his girlfriend. He has asked her so many times, he has lost count.

One night, on the phone, he asks again.

"Will you go out with me?"

"I don't know," says Kalie.

Wait. What? She doesn't know? Does that mean maybe? Until now, he has never heard anything even close to maybe.

"Fine," she's saying now.

Carlo's not sure he's hearing this right.

"Really?"

"Why not?" says Kalie.

Normally, Carlo is a good listener. But tonight he is so shocked by this sudden change that he doesn't pick up on the weariness in Kalie's voice. The quiet but unmistakable sound of someone giving in.

All Carlo knows is that Kalie Wells has just agreed to be his girlfriend.

***

The lunchroom, overflowing. Kids squeezed around every table, along the walls, in throngs at the back.

Off to the side of the stage, Clarissa is having a mini-meltdown.

"I'm nervous, I'm nervous," she says.

"It's okay," says Dana.

As the minutes pass, Clarissa grows more anxious. "Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness."

Kirsten is already up front. She's one of the models from the school's EMMA club, gliding across the stage this morning during the Spring Fashion Talent Extravaganza.

"Doesn't she look wonderful today?" says an eighth-grade girl who's one of the show's emcees.

As another model approaches from the opposite direction, Kirsten moves to center stage. She looks calm. This is what being in the EMMA Club is all about: exhibiting grace under pressure, remembering how to walk properly even when the earth is opening beneath your feet.

The messages Kirsten is juggling today are confusing. Is she supposed to be the fetching embodiment of traditional femininity, parading herself across the stage as an object to be appraised? Or is she supposed to be the enlightened avenger who uses her guitar and her creative spirit to wipe the boys off the stage?

Kirsten seems to be handling the contradictions just fine. She is wearing flared jeans and her brand new blue butterfly shirt, the one she and her stepmother found at the mall. She bought it for her performance during the talent portion of the extravaganza; now it's doubling as an outfit to show off on this makeshift runway.

As she and the other model meet in the middle of the stage, each executes a perfect turn. Kirsten raises one hand, flips her brown hair toward the audience, then makes her exit.

The show moves quickly. First the models strut and preen. Then a musical act performs. Then more models, in more outfits. Then another act.

Finally it's time for KDC. Kirsten turns on her amp, and Dana hands someone the Michelle Branch CD so the trio will have a beat to follow. For a moment the three girls are talking quietly on stage, and then suddenly, before they're ready, the CD starts up. Kirsten throws herself into the first verse as quickly as she can.

I don't know whose side I'm takin'
But I'm not takin' things too well

Only 20 seconds into the song, and already everything's going wrong. Clarissa can't figure out how to keep the microphone turned on, and Kirsten's scrambling to find her place in the music, and then when they hit the second verse and it's Clarissa's turn to sing, she's so overwhelmed by the glitches and by the fact that Brett is watching that she barely sings at all. Then comes the third verse, and still they can't get the mike to work, and Dana and Clarissa are looking at each other in panic, and their voices are growing softer, and soon the only thing the audience can hear is Kirsten and the CD.

"Wasn't that great?" says the emcee.

The audience applauds, but the girls know better.

"We sucked," cries Clarissa.

Kirsten's face is bright red. Disappointment clouds her eyes. She looks like she wants to flee. But she stays and watches the Pink Dinos.

The show's organizers have saved the boys for last. The moment the emcee mentions the band's name, the audience erupts. People are jumping up and down. Girls are screaming.

Brett and his comrades barely bother to look at the audience as they plug in their guitars and dive straight into Stay Together For the Kids.

They sound immeasurably better than they did two months ago, in their debut on this same stage. Brett, in particular, plays like a man possessed. He's good. No one, not even Kirsten, would deny it.

The emcee invites the Pink Dinos back for an encore, and the room shakes with more screams. Brett starts them off, and suddenly they are playing their old favorite, Darn It, and not just playing it, but playing the best they have ever played.

This is their pinnacle, their moment of moments. They have been through it, these boys, and at last they have emerged on the other side. They are older now, more experienced, a little tougher. Their year is over. They have nothing to prove. All that's left for them to do is live inside this instant and feel the music coursing through them and lean into the beat like there's no tomorrow.

***

That night, Kirsten is crushed. She feels like a failure. Like she has allowed the mouse to take everything.

John Austin sits down with his daughter and tells her she's wrong. She and her friends, he points out, got up on the stage and finished their song. No, it didn't go like they wanted. So what? They were up there, under the lights. They did it.

She and her dad have a routine they do. A couple of lines they borrowed from Josie and the Pussycats. Now, when Kirsten needs it most, her dad asks her their favorite question from the movie.

"Who's a rock star?"

Kirsten looks at her dad and smiles.

"I am."

"Who's a rock star?"

A bigger smile.

"I am."

That night, she's bent over her Stratocaster again. Back at it.

***

For Carlo, the end of the semester passes like a dream.

At last, Kalie is his girlfriend. He doesn't get to see much of her, because they have no classes together and have different lunch periods; also, they live far from each other. But they say hello in the halls, and they talk on the phone, and one day at the end of school he gives her a quick hug.

There is talk of seeing a movie together. Maybe over the weekend. Then Kalie sends him a note.

Carlo, I don't know if I can go to the movies with you but I'll ask my mom. Which movie would you want to see? Im sry 4 being so immature & running away from you. Its just ... I'm ... nevermind. I'll call you today. OK?

If Carlo read it closely, he would know what comes next. That Friday, before the movie idea goes anywhere, Kalie calls him at home. She makes it quick. She tells him things aren't working out. It would be better if they were friends.

Carlo asks her why. Kalie says she doesn't want to talk about that. Before he can say anything else, she hangs up.

Click.

Carlo looks at a calendar and counts. Nine days. He and Kalie were together for exactly nine days.

***

 
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