There was a time when I’d wished we would cancel all our gigs so I could go home and rest. But once we cancelled the holiday shows, I realized I would rather be on the road. Touring had always been an escape for me. When things were bad at home, I liked being able to hop on a bus and leave all my problems behind. Without the tour to distract me, all I could do was dwell on them.
I spent the next two days sitting at home, waiting for Dr. Stark’s office to call with my test results. Finally, on Friday, my phone rang. The number was unfamiliar, but I recognized the area code and answered right away. “Hello?”
“May I speak with Nickolas Carter, please?” asked a woman with a pleasant, perky phone voice. I knew she had to be from the doctor’s office; no one else would call me Nickolas.
“Speaking,” I said.
“Hi, Mr. Carter, this is Teresa from Dr. Stark’s office. I’m calling to tell you that we have your test results back from the lab. Dr. Stark would like you to come in at your earliest convenience so he can go over them with you.”
“Can you just tell me over the phone?” I asked. I wasn’t in the mood for bullshit.
“I’m sorry,” the woman said. “He said he would prefer to talk to you in person.”
I guess that’s when I knew the news wasn’t good. Why else would he insist on telling me in person, instead of over the phone? He had to know how busy I was. Hell, I was supposed to be in Chicago that day. But I sighed and said, “Fine. I can come this afternoon, if that works.”
“Yes, he’ll be available. Come in anytime.”
When I hung up, I went and found Lauren, who was finishing her workout on the beach out back. “Hey, babe, I gotta run out for a bit. Impromptu meeting with the movie producer. I’ll be back later.”
She looked up from her stretch in surprise. “Oh… okay. See ya later then,” she said, sounding unconcerned. She didn’t even change her pose.
I felt bad about lying to my fiancée, but I figured it would be better to find out exactly what I was dealing with first, before I told her the truth.
I drove myself to the doctor’s office, where I was met by Dr. Stark himself, wearing his white coat and a grim smile. “Nick, nice to see you again,” he said, shaking my hand. “Thanks for coming in on such short notice.”
“No problem,” I replied uneasily. “I ended up having the day off.”
“Let’s step into my office so we can go over your test results,” said the doctor, putting his hand on my shoulder. He steered me into a small room with bookshelves on one wall, framed diplomas on another, and a big desk in front of the window. I sat down in front of the desk, and Dr. Stark took a seat behind it. “So, I got back the results of your labwork,” he started, opening a file on the desk in front of him. “Unfortunately, your blood tested positive for HIV antibodies, which means you do have the virus.”
My heart sank. Somehow, I had already known what he was going to say from the moment he called me into his office, but it was still a shock to hear the actual words. My heart was hammering hard. My stomach felt sick. “You’re sure?” I said, my voice cracking. I was still clinging to the hope that maybe there had been a mistake, even though I knew that wasn’t the case.
Dr. Stark nodded. “When the initial test came back positive, we confirmed the results with a second test. Both showed that you are HIV-positive.”
I sat there in disbelief, letting the doctor’s words slowly sink in. This was the worst case scenario, the diagnosis I’d been dreading since Howie had told me he was infected, but even though I had been exposed, I hadn’t really expected to test positive. “The odds of that happening are really, really small,” Howie had told me. “I’m sure you’re fine.” Here I’d thought I was just taking extra precautions, getting tested so I’d know I wasn’t going to pass something on to Lauren, but now it turned out that I wasn’t fine. And when I thought of all the times I’d had sex with my fiancée since the cruise, I felt even sicker. Unknowingly, I had put her at risk, too.
“What am I gonna tell Lauren?” I whispered, more to myself than to Dr. Stark, but of course he overheard.
“Your girlfriend?” he asked, sounding sympathetic.
“I’m sorry.” Dr. Stark cleared his throat. “If you’ve engaged in any kind of unprotected sex since your exposure, she’ll need to be tested. You’re welcome to bring her here, or, if you’d like, I can refer you to an HIV specialist, someone who has more experience in treating people with HIV and AIDS.”
I nodded. “Sure… that’d be great,” I said hollowly.
“Unfortunately, Cedars-Sinai has cut funding for their HIV/AIDS program,” said the doctor as he turned to his laptop and started typing something into it. “UCLA, on the other hand, continues to be on the cutting edge of AIDS research. I’m going to recommend a colleague of mine, Dr. Cynthia Usako. She works for the UCLA CARE Center, their AIDS clinic in Century City. Here’s her contact information.” He wrote down a name, address, and phone number onto the back of one of his business cards and passed it across the desk to me. “Just give that number a call to schedule an appointment for you and your fiancée. I’ll get you a copy of your test results to take with you to the appointment.”
“Thanks.” I took the card and tucked it into my wallet, still wondering what I would say to Lauren when I got home.
I didn’t have to wonder long. When I walked in the door, Lauren took one look at my face and knew something was wrong. “Hey, you… what happened?” she asked, her forehead creased with concern.
I’ve always been a shitty actor. I knew I couldn’t hide the truth from her any longer. “I gotta tell you something, babe,” I muttered, taking her by the hand. “Let’s go sit down.”
I led her into the living room, where we sat side by side on the couch. But as soon as I opened my mouth to speak, I realized I had no idea where to begin.
Lauren was getting impatient. “Nick? What is it?” She squeezed my hand. “Say something, baby; you’re scaring me.”
I took a deep breath and turned to face her. “Baby, I wasn’t being honest with you before, when I told you I was meeting with my producer.”
She frowned. “Why? Where were you really?”
“I was…” I started to tell her, then changed my mind and decided to start from the beginning. Shaking my head, I said, “Before I tell you, there’s some other stuff you should know. Stuff I’ve been keeping from you for awhile now.”
Her eyes widened, as the furrow in her brow deepened.
I went on, “Something weird happened on the cruise. I didn’t wanna talk about it, but… you have a right to know. On the second night, Howie and I got really drunk at the deck party, and…”
“Wait.” Lauren pulled her hand out of mine and held it up to stop me. “You know how you guys always say, ‘What happens on the Backstreet Cruise stays on the Backstreet Cruise?’ If you’re about to tell me you and Howie had some kind of sex orgy with a bunch of groupies on that boat, or something like that, just stop. I don’t wanna know.”
I swallowed hard. My mouth felt so dry, but my palms were sweating like crazy. I wiped them off on my pants. “Lauren, I swear, I didn’t hook up with some other woman.” I paused there, closed my eyes, took another deep breath, and then let the truth come pouring out. “I hooked up with Howie.”
I heard her sharp intake of breath and opened my eyes to find her staring at me with a strange look on her face, a look of total disbelief. I could tell I’d blown her mind, even before she exclaimed, “What?!”
It was so embarrassing to have to tell her the whole story. “Like I said, we were really, really drunk. I could hardly stand anymore, so he walked me back to my cabin, and… I don’t really know how it happened or what all went down, but one thing led to another, and we woke up in bed together.”
Lauren was still staring at me in dismay, her mouth hanging half open. I could tell there were a lot of things she wanted to say, but all she asked was, “Why are you telling me this now?”
I sighed. “When Howie found out he was HIV-positive, he told me I should get tested… so I did. Baby, I’m sorry, but I tested positive.”
Lauren’s face fell, as her eyes filled with tears. “Oh my god,” she gasped softly, and then she leaned forward and flung her arms around me. As she held me, I’m not sure she was thinking about what this could mean for her. Her initial reaction was all about me. But inevitably, it must have occurred to her that if I was infected, she might be infected, too. I saw the look on her face as she pulled away, and I knew.
“You wanted to know where I was.” My voice shook as I looked into her scared eyes, which were still swimming with tears. Struggling to keep my composure, I continued, “I was at the doctor’s office, getting my test results. He said you should get tested, too.”
Lauren closed her eyes, and although I could tell she was trying to collect herself, I saw the tears sliding out from under her long lashes, leaving trails of mascara in their tracks. As I watched her, waiting nervously for her response, I thought about how I had treated Howie when he told me to get tested. But Lauren’s reaction was totally different from mine. She didn’t fly off the handle, didn’t scream or shout or try to throw me out of the house. All she did, when she finally opened her eyes, was reach for my hand again. Lacing her fingers through mine, she gave it a reassuring squeeze and said, “It’s okay, Nick. Whatever happens, we’re gonna get through this. Together. All right?”
I nodded, my heart lifting a little. “Together,” I repeated, relieved that she seemed willing to stand by me, despite what I had done. But the truth was, I hoped we wouldn’t have to go through this together. This was my battle to fight. I didn’t want it to become hers, too.