The day after our show in Sacramento, I flew home to Florida. Our head of security, Q, had booked the same flight, along with his brother, Mike, who was also one of our bodyguards. As we sat at our gate at the airport, waiting for our boarding call, I said to Q, “I bet you’re glad to be going home, huh?”
Q’s wife, Angela, was almost five months pregnant with their first daughter. I could tell he was thinking of them when he smiled and shook his head. “Man, it’s always good to get to spend some extra time at home, but not under circumstances like these. You know I’d rather be out on the road with you right now.”
I nodded. “Me too.”
Q clamped his hand down on my shoulder. “That’s a rough hand you been dealt, but I know you, D. You’re gonna get through this. Backstreet be back before ya know it!” He gave me a cheesy grin, and I couldn’t help but smile back. That was Q, always smiling, always saying something to make a stressful situation more bearable. His optimism was infectious, and by the time we boarded the plane, I felt better. When I got home, I was going to do whatever it took to get my life – and me and my wife – back together. I was not going to let this virus ruin my life, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it rip apart my family.
After we’d landed in Orlando and picked up our luggage, I turned to say goodbye to Q and Mike. “I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes,” I told Q, as he gave me a hug. “Never cheat on your wife, and never take her – or your kids – for granted.”
“You don’t gotta tell me twice, dawg,” he replied. “I hope you and Leigh can work things out. Y’all are too good together to call it quits.”
“Holla if you need anything. You know I’m only a few miles away,” said Q, grinning, as he hoisted his heavy backpack over one shoulder. I watched him walk away, wheeling his bags behind him, unaware that it would be the last time I ever saw him.
I hadn’t been able to get a hold of Leigh before I left Sacramento, so my brother gave me a ride home from the airport. When I walked into my condo, I was surprised to find it dark and quiet.
“Boys?” I called. “Daddy’s home!” I listened for the familiar sound of little feet running across the floor; James was always right there to greet me whenever I came home from a trip or tour. But all I heard was the sound of my own voice, echoing through the empty house.
Frowning, I called Leigh’s cell phone, but of course, she didn’t answer. I was disappointed, but didn’t see any reason to worry. When I checked the garage and found Leigh’s SUV gone, I told myself she was out running errands with the kids or spending time with her friends. It was good that she was getting out of the house, I thought, after spending so many days holed up inside it with Holden.
But when the boys’ bedtime came and went with still no word from my wife, I was definitely beginning to worry. I called my mother, wondering if Leigh had dropped James and Holden off at her house. “No, Howie,” she said, sounding concerned. “I haven’t seen them all week. Why, where is Leigh?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I replied, my heart starting to race with panic. “I’ve gotta go, Mom; I’ll call you back when I find out.”
I tried Leigh’s number again next, but it went straight to voicemail. This time, I left a message. “Leigh, it’s me. I just got home from Sacramento to find the condo empty. Where are you guys? Call me back, please; I’m starting to get worried here.”
My phone rang a few minutes later. When I saw my wife’s name, I sighed with relief. “Hey, honey,” I answered the phone. “I’m so glad you called back. I’ve been worried sick about you guys. Where are you?”
“We’re fine,” she said shortly. “We’re with my folks.”
I frowned. “In New Jersey?”
“Uh-huh. Since we missed Thanksgiving with them, I thought it’d be nice to bring the boys up here for awhile.”
“Oh.” I couldn’t believe she would take our sons on a trip without telling me, but I decided not to say anything about it then. I didn’t want her to hang up. “How did Holden do on the flight?” I asked instead, wondering if she would read between the lines and realize I wasn’t happy with her putting our baby on a plane a week after he got out of the hospital.
“We didn’t fly. We drove.”
“You drove?” I asked incredulously. “All the way to Jersey??”
“Well, not all in one day,” she said, sounding exasperated. “We left on Saturday and made it here by Monday night. Both boys did fine in the car. I figured it would be healthier for Holden this way – fewer germs than on a plane.”
“I guess that’s true,” I admitted. “So… do you want me to meet you there? I could fly up tomorrow…”
There was a long pause. A part of me knew what was coming, but it still felt like the wind had been knocked out of me when I heard her say, “No, Howie.” Her voice was quiet and almost eerily calm. She had known this was coming, too, had probably already planned out what she was going to say when I asked. “I don’t want you to fly up here. I think it would be better if we spent some time apart.”
I sank down onto our bed, the phone shaking in my hand as I looked around the room. For the first time, I noticed that the top of her dresser had been cleared off considerably. Her jewelry box and some of her knick-knacks were still there, but all the little lotions, perfume bottles, and picture frames that usually lined the dresser were gone. I got up and walked over to it, opening the top drawer. It was empty.
All the air rushed out of my lungs, like a balloon being deflated, and for a second, I could hardly breathe. “H-how much time?” I asked shakily, gripping the edge of the dresser to keep my knees from buckling.
“I don’t know, Howie.”
It was an honest answer, as far as I could tell, but it didn’t make me feel any better. “Well, we don’t have all the time in the world, you know,” I said, somewhat sarcastically. “What about Holden? He needs medical treatment – hell, we all do! The sooner we get started, the better.”
“I saw a doctor out in L.A.,” I continued quickly, “an HIV specialist. I did some research; he’s one of the best in the country. He could help all three of us. We just need to go back to L.A.”
“I don’t want to go to L.A.,” said Leigh quietly. “I researched, too, Howie, and I found a pediatric AIDS specialist in Philadelphia, only an hour from here. Holden has an appointment with her next week.”
“What about you?”
“I’ll find a doctor up here, too. Don’t worry about me.”
“But I do! I do worry about you. We’re in this together, Leigh,” I insisted. I knew I was starting to sound desperate, but I didn’t care. “We need each other.”
“What I need,” said Leigh, slowly and deliberately, “is time away from you. Time to think. Time to figure out where my life is going. I don’t want anything else from you, Howie; all I’m asking is that you give me that time. I think you owe me that much, don’t you?”
I sighed, knowing she had me beat. What else could I say? She was right. I did owe her that and so much more.
“Alright,” I whispered, wiping a streak of dust off the dresser where one of her picture frames had been. Closing my eyes, I could still see the photo in the brushed gold frame. It was my favorite from the shoot we did for People magazine after Holden was born, the one of Leigh and I looking lovingly down at our son, who fit perfectly in my two hands. I wondered if it was a good sign that she had taken it with her. “I want what’s best for you and Holden,” I went on, “so if time’s what you need right now, then take it. Take all the time you need.”
“Thank you, Howie,” said Leigh, and she hung up.
The next day, I got a text from Nick. It was two words long.
When I read those words, my heart nearly stopped. I stared down at my phone in disbelief, mouthing the words to make sure I hadn’t read them wrong. “No way,” I whispered, shaking my head. How could Nick have HIV? The odds of him contracting it that way were so slim. Everything I’d read said so. The main reason I’d encouraged him to get tested was to ease my own mind, to make sure I hadn’t spread the virus to someone else. I had never really expected Nick to test positive.
It made me wonder, what if I wasn’t the one who’d infected him? What if he already had it, even before the cruise? What if he had given it to me?
I stopped and speculated about that for a few minutes, but I soon realized there was no way it could be true. The timeline just didn’t add up. If I had contracted HIV on the cruise, Holden couldn’t have had it for more than three weeks before he was hospitalized with pneumonia. That simply wasn’t enough time for the virus to wipe out his immune system to the point of making him sick. It had to have spread through my family long before then.
That meant if Nick really was HIV-positive, I had infected him, and not the other way around.
“Oh, god,” I groaned, still holding onto my phone so tightly, I’m surprised the case didn’t crack. Those two words seemed to stare back at me like a pair of accusatory eyes. “Please, no.”
I kept waiting for a follow-up text: “Just kidding!” But my phone stayed eerily silent.
So I called him.
My heart hammered in my ears as I listened to his phone ring. I could hardly breathe. Several times, I almost lost my nerve and hung up, but I forced myself to stay on the line. Still, a part of me was hoping he wouldn’t pick up. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say if he did, but I knew I had to say something.
The phone rang several times, and just when I thought it would go to his voicemail, as it had so many times before, there was a pause… and then Nick’s voice croaked, “What do you want?”
I could tell he had been crying, and my heart ached for him. He, of all people, didn’t deserve this. Not that any of us did, but Nick had been through enough in the last decade. And just when he’d finally gotten his life together, I’d gone and shattered it.
“Nick… I’m so sorry.”
The words weren’t enough, not nearly enough to make up for what I had done, but in that moment, I didn’t know what else to say.
“You should be,” he spat. The hatred I heard in his voice stung, but I knew I had it coming. “What the fuck am I gonna do now? What the fuck am I gonna tell my girlfriend?!” His voice rose with panic on the last word.
He hadn’t told anyone else yet, I realized. I took it as a good sign that he’d texted me first. Maybe he didn’t totally hate me. There must have been some part of him that still saw me as an older brother if he was seeking my advice. Then again, I was the only one who knew what he was going through. Who else was he going to ask?
“I don’t know, Nick. I’d say tell her the truth, but what do I know? My wife left me.”
I’m not sure what I expected from him – sympathy, maybe? What I got instead was scorn. “Well, what the fuck did you expect, Howie? You cheated on her – with a dude – and then infected her with HIV. Of course she left you. Lauren’ll probably leave me, too, when she finds out.”
“Aww, Nicky… you don’t know that,” I said, but a selfish part of me half-hoped he was right. I didn’t want him to be unhappy, but with Lauren out of the picture, maybe he would open his eyes and see me in a different light. Maybe he would finally realize that he had feelings for me, too, feelings that went beyond friendship.
“I told you not to call me that,” Nick growled. He was angry, but over time, his anger would fade. One day, I hoped, he would find it in his heart to forgive me for what I’d done.
In the meantime, I would be the best friend I could. I knew he needed me, even if he didn’t realize it yet. We were in the same boat now, Nick and I. It would be better to embark on this journey together than travel it alone. I guess that’s when I decided to go back to L.A. by myself.
“Whatever happens, I’m here for you, Nick,” I said, ignoring his angry tone. “You’re gonna get through this. We both are.”
I don’t know if he heard me or not. The silence on his end told me he’d already hung up the phone.