The first time Nikiya saw the gold diamond cluster and matching wedding band displayed in a Georgetown jewelry store, she told herself she had to have them.
She bought the rings right then, slid them on her left finger and promised to wear them forever. But Nikiya wasn't married, engaged or even dating.
She wanted the rings to ward off potential suitors. Maybe then, she figured, she would never have to face telling a lover her most painful secret: She is among the thousands of black women infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which is spreading at an alarming rate among young women of color.
"When I saw the ring, I thought, `Oh, this is so pretty,' " said Nikiya, 25. "Then I thought, a wedding ring -- that should do the trick."
Seven years ago, Nikiya -- who asked to be identified only by her middle name -- was a high school senior planning her future when she learned that her boyfriend had infected her with HIV.
She felt she was the only young woman on earth experiencing such horror. The reality is much grimmer.
In just over a decade, the number of women with AIDS has increased dramatically -- from 7 percent of the total number of AIDS cases in 1985 to 22 percent in 1997, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
African American women have been especially hard hit, accounting for 60 percent of the AIDS cases reported among women in 1997. In recent years, sex has replaced intravenous drug use as the main source of exposure for women, the CDC data indicate.
Federal health officials say the trend shows no signs of abating. A CDC analysis of HIV and AIDS data collected in 25 states over three years shows that women make up a greater proportion of newly diagnosed HIV infections than AIDS cases. Between January 1994 and June 1997, women in those states represented 17 percent of the total AIDS cases but 28 percent of HIV infections.
That means that women probably will make up a larger proportion of future AIDS cases. In the District and its suburbs, the situation is even more severe, with African American women accounting for 86 percent of the AIDS cases among women.
"That is why we are focusing more of our prevention initiatives on women," said Ronald Lewis, administrator for the D.C. Department of Health's Administration for HIV/AIDS. "There is still a lot of denial in the community from people who think [women] don't have anything to worry about."
With the increased availability of powerful new drugs, the AIDS death rate nationally has declined across the board. But for African American women, as well as African American men, ages 25 to 44, AIDS still is the leading cause of death.
After her diagnosis, Nikiya prayed for a quick death. But her life began to change when she sought counseling at Family And Medical Counseling Service Inc. in Anacostia, one of the few black-owned clinics that provides a full range of medical and mental health services.
The clinic excludes no one, but its patient population is about 99 percent black. Nikiya said she felt less alone when she saw the black, brown and beige faces of other HIV-positive women at the clinic. With their support, she is learning to live with HIV.
But some of the scariest parts of her new life, she said, are the delicate issues she never imagined facing again -- like dating, sexual intimacy, falling in love.
Two months before high school graduation, Nikiya was awaiting the results of an Air Force medical exam when a recruiter called and asked, urgently, that she report back to the military doctor.
Her body trembled when the doctor told her she was HIV-positive.
"I was thinking, God, I'm just graduating, and my life is over," Nikiya recalled.
She had been infected at 15 by her boyfriend, Steven, who was 21 and her first love. He was a hemophiliac who had regular blood transfusions. But she had been naive about how HIV is spread and had not insisted that he use condoms.
In Nikiya's mind, AIDS was a disease of white gay men -- a fairly common notion among African Americans at that time, even as the disease claimed a disproportionate share of African American lives.
Part of the problem, black AIDS activists say, is that influential African American institutions, such as churches and civil rights organizations, have been slow to address AIDS prevention and education.
When Nikiya heard her diagnosis, she rushed home and swallowed 20 of her mother's painkillers. Two years later, her brother stopped her as she crawled out a third-floor town house window planning to jump.
Through it all, Nikiya and Steven clung to each other. Then, just months after her diagnosis, Nikiya made a decision that health professionals say is fairly common among young HIV-positive women who suddenly face their mortality: She began trying to get pregnant.
"It was a conscious decision," Nikiya said. "I figured I may as well do everything I can now."
Despite the virus lurking in her blood, she still felt healthy. There was about a 15 percent chance her baby would be born HIV-positive.
"I figured I'd leave it in God's hands and take my chances," she said.
Six years later, in 1998, researchers would discover that treating a pregnant HIV-positive woman with the drug AZT significantly lowers her chances of passing HIV on to her child.
But Nikiya had no such proof. Fearful of AZT's side effects, she refused the therapy. She would have to wait 18 months after her daughter's birth -- the time it takes for a newborn's immune system to develop fully -- to learn that the infant was healthy.
Nikiya, Steven and their daughter lived together in the District, but in January 1994 -- when their baby was 1 year old -- Steven got sick again. He died eight months later.
A case worker at Georgetown University Medical Center, where Nikiya has received medical treatment since she was 17, referred her to Family And Medical in Anacostia for counseling.
Depressed and isolated, Nikiya needed to know that she was not the only young African American woman living with HIV. She needed to see others, to hear their stories. And she needed a tough-talking counselor who could push her without the question of race clouding the approach.
Diane Jones, then 29, fit the mold. She recalls her first meeting with Nikiya: "She was very young, and very angry and feeling very sorry for herself," said Jones, the mental health coordinator at Family And Medical. "She had no concept of life with HIV or beyond HIV."
In an early session, Jones confronted Nikiya in that girlfriend, sisterly language that bonds black women -- even those who don't know one another's names: "Girl, you need to get your life together. If you keep on thinking you're going to die, you are."
In that moment, the counselor connected to the part of the patient that wanted to fight.
Picture Nikiya today: the color of rich tea, about 120 pounds, with a slim body that sometimes draws double-takes from men. For the moment, her hair is strawberry blond, shoulder length with long bangs. But her styles change on a whim.
She has won battles with pneumonia, stomach viruses and a skin rash that left faint blotches on her face. Nothing about her appearance says she is sick. Her energy fluctuates, but since 1997 she has suffered little more than a cold.
She sinks into the cream-colored sofa in her stylish Prince George's County apartment and reflects on her love life. The sun burns fiercely outside, but the air indoors is cool and sweet with the scent of burning candles.
She hadn't expected to date again. After watching Steven suffer, she vowed never to let anyone see her that weak. She bought the wedding ring set. She developed a hostile demeanor. And she could burn a hole in a man's intentions with one hot glare.
But in a vulnerable moment, she lifted the steel around her heart, and a new guy slipped in.
They met at an auto parts store. He told her he was a mechanic and offered to install her car alarm. She flashed her wedding ring and said her husband wouldn't like that. He said her husband didn't have to know and slipped her his card.
She kept her condition secret for months, even after they slept together for the first time in January. She made sure he used a condom. She liked him. Then, he started asking her to move in with him.
In her own place, she easily guarded her secret and followed the regimen that was keeping her alive: five pills in the morning on an empty stomach, three at mid-day and five more at night. It was time for him to know.
But, given the AIDS paranoia she sometimes witnessed among fellow African Americans, she wondered how he would react. Even her doting grandmother still boils the dishes after Nikiya eats a meal.
"I knew if I ever got in a relationship, I would tell," Nikiya said. "Once I got to the point where I felt like the relationship was going somewhere, I just knew I would tell."
So, as they were driving to dinner one spring afternoon, she blurted it out.
"I'm positive," she said from the passenger seat. "I'm HIV-positive."
He seemed more hurt than angry: "Why didn't you tell me?" he asked.
"Well, I'm telling you now," she retorted in her feisty mode.
Tension filled the car like gunpowder. But the mechanic moved quickly to defuse the moment.
"So, when are you moving in with me?" he asked.
They never discussed it again, Nikiya said. Instead, he began babying her, giving in to her every demand.
"I was like, yell at me or something," she said. "I'm not gonna break."
"He changed," Nikiya said. "He turned into such a sucker."
In May, Nikiya asked him to stop calling. She had been weak once, after Steven died, when she was so despondent she couldn't lift herself out of bed. But she is that woman no more.
With Social Security income and money Steven left, Nikiya and her daughter, now 6, live comfortably. She earned an education degree from the University of Maryland, and she expects to receive a master's in child psychology from Howard University next year.
It took years before Nikiya allowed herself to imagine a future. But she is trying hard to live up to the Swahili middle name that her mother chose with such care: Nikiya, "Little Warrior."
"I'm thinking of starting my own private practice counseling kids," she says with ease.
That is what motivated Nikiya to do the thing she never believed she would be able to do: Stand in front of a crowd and tell her story.
On a scorching recent Tuesday morning, she sat behind a desk in a stuffy classroom at Phelps Senior High School in Northeast Washington. The teenagers were wide-eyed as Nikiya rose to tell them how she got infected with the virus that causes AIDS.
She didn't tell them to avoid sex -- convinced that that advice would fall on deaf ears. But she believes that she -- someone who looks like them and is young enough to relate to them -- has a better chance of planting information that could save lives.
"Half of y'all guys in here were trying to talk to me when I came in here," she said.
A few students giggled.
"What you don't know is I'm HIV-positive," she added. "And I have been positive for 10 years. You can't look at somebody and tell if they're positive. . . . Use a condom. Don't let decisions you make today ruin your life tomorrow."
When she was finished, the students applauded. Nikiya strolled out, climbed into her green Ford pickup truck and headed home. It was a long journey to get to that stage, she realized, and there are still miles to go.
Her small hands rested in her lap. And there, she saw the tool that she hopes will protect her from too much pain.
It is the wedding ring.
CAPTION: Nikiya, 25, learned when she was in high school that she had the AIDS virus.