Rene is talking to me from the edge of her seat, in bursts of nervous energy, about things that you just don't talk about with anybody. That's why she asks that I not use her real name.
She is a senior in high school with plans for college in the fall. She's a dancer--jazz, tap and funk--and it shows in her body. There's a certain way that it moves.
Rene has stopped by a Planned Parenthood clinic in South Orange County on drop-in "Teen Tuesday." She was thinking maybe she'd get a test for the virus that causes AIDS, but in the end, she chickened out. She's already got enough stress to carry around.
So now she's talking about "kind of like a fad-type thing." This is more commonly known as teen-age sex.
Naturally I have heard about this before. And I've read about it too, in objectively worded news accounts that nonetheless shock someone like me with their graphic component. These pie charts alarm.
By the time they graduate high school, most American teen-agers will have had sex, several times. Just say no? Rene and every other teen-ager I've talked to say it doesn't work. Many just laugh at the thought.
But stay with them long enough and their smiles will fade, or at least if we are talking about the girls. They volunteer something that I don't expect.
"I'm, like, totally contradicting myself, but to keep the pride of it, of being a virgin . . . " Rene says, trying to grasp the right words.
"To be 18 and not have sex is really good . . . . If you don't, it's, like, cool. At least with the people I know."
Except here's the catch. Hardly anyone knows girls who are that "strong."
The 18 year-old talks about "a lot of subliminal pressure," especially three years ago when she first had sex.
A 15-year-old I'll call Tiffany talks of that first time two years ago when "it happened" to her.
"There were a whole bunch of people at my house, and one thing led to another. . . . " she says. "Everybody was saying, 'Go ahead.' Afterward, I wish that I didn't. I was scared the whole time."
Tiffany's hair is long and blondish, braces are on her teeth. Her face is sweet and unlined, but it is blank, confused. The boy who claimed Tiffany that night? He was her ex-boyfriend's brother.
"He was just doing it to show his brother," Tiffany says she figured out later on. They haven't talked since.
There is a hole in these intimate conversations with these girl-women, something that just doesn't come up. The talk never once turns toward sex as pleasure, or at least, not their own.
Sex for these girls is something to be done, because.
As they describe it, it sounds like smoking. They wish they hadn't started. They know it is damaging to their health. But, you know, they keep doing it. Everybody does.
"We don't think anything bad of it," Tiffany says. "We know it's wrong, but we think a lot of things are wrong."
But, Tiffany, I prod, "Have things gotten so out of control?" Now her words come fast.
"I totally feel like they have. I think that everything has. I think, personally, the world is not going to last much longer. And I'm a Christian, and the Bible says that when things are going bad, the world's going to end. There's cancer, AIDS, all the shootings, the gangs . . . " her words trail off.
Listening to Tiffany's soft voice, watching her gestures, it doesn't take long to recognize the hopelessness that family planning experts talk about, the maddening "What else is there?" echoed by so many teen-age mothers-to-be.
Take it outside this white, middle-class setting, and you also hear it from gangbangers showing off their guns. To fight it, you need a lot more than "Just say no."
Tiffany is here today to get birth-control pills, for the first time, after a pregnancy scare. At 15, she says she has had sex with four different boy-men.
Susan Leavy, Planned Parenthood's counseling manager, says she calls these guys "sperm donors," only it takes the girls a while to catch on to what she means.
As part of a state grant called the Expanded Teen Counseling program, Tiffany will get someone like Susan to talk to her too. Maybe then Tiffany can understand the serious message behind the sperm donor joke: Don't let yourself be used.
Another girl I'll call Jackie has a very different timbre to her tone. Where Tiffany might have hesitated, looking at the ground, Jackie talks crisply, staring you straight in the eye. At 17, she says sex is "not a big deal" at her school. That is, it's become routine.
"I always thought I would wait for marriage," she says. "I went to Catholic school for eight years, and they were always real strict, and my mom told me what a good experience it was for her to have waited."
But on the night of her junior prom, when she was 16 years old, Jackie and her date had sex in one of the hotel rooms that a group of friends had booked for the night.
"I didn't \o7 not\f7 enjoy it," she says. "If he wanted to do it, it was OK."