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Sometimes, what you don't know can hurt you

In second grade, I had my first boyfriend, Philip Cologne. He didn't know that he was my boyfriend, but that wasn't important. What was important was the way he smiled at me when I handed him half of my Coca-Cola at lunchtime, or the chills I got when my friends and I would giggle during sleepovers, calling his house and hanging up when his increasingly annoyed mother would answer.

Around the same time, my dad informed me that all boys had cooties and promised me as many Barbies as I wanted if I decided to become a lesbian or a nun. Barbies were far more appealing than boys at this point (Phillip, after all, was not so willing to be dressed in a parade of pretty pink gowns), so I readily agreed, despite not being entirely aware of what, exactly, nuns or lesbians were. Had I known that nuns' outfits are about as far from a pretty pink gown as could be, I might have went back on the deal earlier. As it was, I waited until the ripe old age of 15 before I first found myself involved with a boy, kissing him for hours on his couch while my parents thought I was doing extra work for student council. And it wasn't until I was 19 and sitting on the crackly paper-covered bed in the cold light of my doctor's office that I realized the truth of my dad's statement -- boys did have cooties. And cooties, my doctor was telling me, could kill you.

Well, that shouldn't be a surprise, you might say. And it shouldn't. I am, after all, a product of the post-STD generation, with movies like "Gia" and "Mean Girls" ("Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!").

I took sex-ed every year from third grade through the end of middle school, and during that time was lucky enough to witness the miracle of childbirth (a cause of nightmares for the entirety of sixth grade) and an extreme close-up of the herpes virus. I could spell chlamydia, even if it conjured up images of an exotic spider (Maybe a purple one? From the rain forest?) rather than a dangerous bacteria.

My mom has been doing volunteer work with AIDS patients for as long as I can remember; Daniel and his partner, Jacob, had been fixtures at my birthday parties since there were six candles on the cake. I knew, first and foremost, that they were in love, and somewhere behind that I knew that Jacob tended to get sick a lot, but it wasn't until I was standing in the desert heat watching his casket be lowered into the dirt that I thought to ask what, exactly, AIDS meant.

Still, I was informed -- I was smart, I knew what a condom was, I knew the repercussions that not using one could have. And yet you never think it will be you. That only happens to gay people, or poor people, or people in Africa, or people far, far away from here; that doesn't happen here, that doesn't happen to me. Because -- and while this is the worst reason possible, it is the only reason there is -- it simply cannot.

So when I came out of my drug haze, came back to America and came to my senses, reality knocked me sideways. Under my doctor's penetrating gaze, I was forced to relay stupid stories, stories of one-night stands and mornings when I woke up, unsure of what or who I had done the previous evening.

You have to wait three days for the results of an HIV test, three days in which you ponder how you would spend the rest of your life once the rest of your life no longer infinitely stretches in front of you. You think about how you will be tainted, how you'll never again be able to flirt carelessly with a boy at a bar, never again be able to laugh and fantasize about honeymoons with your friends. You contemplate running away to Hawaii, learning how to hula and never talking to anyone from your past ever again. You think about how such brief moments of stupidity can change the course of your entire future. You pray, not me, not me, not me.

My test came out clean. I was lucky.

Liz Moody, a 2004 graduate of Johansen High School, is a student at the University of California at Berkeley. She can be reached at lizmoody@berkeley.edu.

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