Chapter 13


Howie

On December 8, 2007, I married the only woman I ever loved.  On December 8, 2013, I celebrated our anniversary alone.

I tried to remind myself that I would have spent the day away from my wife, anyway, since I was supposed to have been playing a show in St. Louis that night.  But I couldn’t forget the real reason we were apart, so it didn’t make me feel any better.

Although I had a huge bouquet of flowers delivered to her parents’ house in New Jersey, I didn’t hear from Leigh at all.  The only person I talked to all day was Kevin, whom I’d called to see if he could pick me up from the airport the following afternoon.

“Sure, man,” he agreed.  “I’ll bring Kristin’s SUV.  It’s big enough for everybody and has the car seats in the back for both boys.”

“No boys,” I said quietly.  “Just me.”

“Oh.”  I could hear the awkwardness in Kevin’s voice.  “Well, in that case, I’ll bring the Beamer.”

I forced myself to chuckle.  “Sounds good to me, man.  Thanks.”

The next day, I flew back to L.A.  Kevin picked me up, as planned, and crammed my luggage into the back of his BMW.  “So… just you this time, huh?” he asked, as he got onto the 405.

I sighed.  “Yeah.  Leigh and the boys are staying with her family in New Jersey.”

He glanced over at me, his eyebrows raised.  “For how long?”

I shrugged.  “I don’t know.”

“That’s rough, man,” said Kevin, shaking his head.  “I’m sorry.”

It was so nice to have someone to talk to that I actually considered telling him everything, the whole truth, right then and there.  Kevin and I had always had a certain camaraderie that came with being the oldest ones in the group.  We also had a lot in common, with similar families and lifestyles.  I thought he might be the most sympathetic to my situation.

But then I heard Nick’s voice in my head, going, “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.”

I knew Kevin would never be so cruel, but I couldn’t help but worry that he would judge me if he knew.  Especially if he knew about Nick.  So all I said instead was, “Thanks.”

Kevin must have sensed there was more on my mind that I wasn’t saying, though, because after a few seconds of silence, he said, “Hey, why don’t you come over for dinner tonight?  I don’t know what Kristin has planned, but we could always throw something on the grill, kick back with a few beers, and just catch up.  Whaddya say?”

“Sounds great,” I said gratefully, before I could stop to reconsider.  It had only been a few days, but I felt desperate for human contact, something besides being poked and prodded through sterile gloves at the doctor’s office.  Hanging out with Kevin that evening was just what the doctor ordered, I decided.  Hopefully it would help take my mind off my doctor’s appointment the next day.

Kevin drove us back to his house, where Kristin and the kids were waiting.  “Hi, Howie,” Kristin greeted me, giving me a big hug.  “How are you doing?”

“Not great, but okay,” I answered honestly.

She nodded, giving me a sympathetic smile.  “And how’s Holden?”

“He’s doing well, from what I hear.  I haven’t actually seen him in over a week.  He’s in New Jersey with James and Leigh, visiting her family.”

“Oh,” said Kristin, her smile fading.  I saw a significant glance pass between her and Kevin.

I cleared my throat, eager to change the subject.  “Gosh, he’s getting big!” I exclaimed, looking past Kristin to baby Maxwell, who was sitting behind her on a blanket.  “Sitting up by himself already!”

“He’s strong!” Kristin agreed, smiling again.  “Gonna be an athlete, like his dad.  I can already tell.”  She winked at Kevin, who was grinning broadly with pride.

“Hey Howie, watch what I can do!” shouted six-year-old Mason, running into the living room to show me how he could do a handstand off the arm of the couch.

“Mason, how many times have I told you not to do that in the house?” Kristin scolded him, but I could tell she wasn’t really mad.  Shaking her head, she gave me an exasperated smile.  “He treats the furniture like his own personal jungle gym.”

“Now he reminds me more of his big cousin Brian,” I said to Kevin, who nodded emphatically.

“Ohh, yeah.”

We went out to the back yard, which had a beautiful view of the ocean.  Kevin and I sat by the pool and watched Mason run around, while Kristin plopped down in the grass to play with Max.  It was a pleasant scene, but it made me miss my own wife and kids so much.  We should have been at home together, watching our own boys play on the beach behind our condo in Florida, not on opposite coasts of the country, barely speaking to each other.  Despite my feelings for Nick, I still loved Leigh.  I loved the life we’d built together, and I hated myself for letting it fall apart.

Once the sun started to sink in the sky, it got too cold for the kids to stay out, so Kristin took them both inside to start dinner.  Kevin fired up the grill, and we both scooted our chairs closer to it, grateful for the warmth.  While the grill was heating up, we sat and watched the sun set over the water.

“So how are you doing, really?” Kevin asked me in a low voice, as he looked out over the ocean.

I sighed.  “Horrible,” I admitted.  “I feel so guilty.  I had a great life, and I fucked it all up.  How could I have let that happen?  How could I do that to my wife and kids?  Especially Holden.  That’s what kills me the most.”

He glanced over at me, his green eyes sympathetic.  “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.  I know the guilt must be getting to you, but you can’t blame yourself for everything.  You made a mistake… the same mistake a lot of other men have made.  I’m not saying it’s okay, but it happens, you know?  We’re guys.  We don’t always think with the head that God put on our shoulders.  How could you have known that one lapse in judgment would lead to all this?  That’s not your fault; that’s just bad luck, man.”

I nodded.  He had a point, but still, I was pretty sure I would never stop hating myself for hurting my wife and son.

“So you’re starting treatment soon?” he asked.

I nodded again.  “I had some tests run last week, and I’ve got an appointment tomorrow to go over the results and talk about my options.”

“You want me to go with you?  Sometimes it helps to have somebody else there to take in all the information.”

I considered his offer for a few seconds before I shook my head.  “Thanks, but I think I’m good.  I appreciate it, though.”  I loved Kevin, but this was personal.  It just seemed like the kind of thing I should do on my own.

It was a good thing Kevin didn’t come, considering who I saw as I was coming out of the clinic the next day.  None other than Nick Carter.  Lauren was with him, which meant he must have told her the truth, but as far as I knew, he hadn’t told anyone else yet, and if Kevin had been there, we both would have had some awkward questions to answer.

Luckily, I was alone when I heard Lauren say, “Hi, Howie.”

My mind was still on CD4 counts and viral loads and triple cocktails and everything else Dr. Iverson had talked about during my appointment, so you can imagine my surprise when I looked up and saw her and Nick coming toward me.  “Hey!” I squeaked.

Nick looked at me like I was a leper.  “What are you doing here?  I thought you were in Florida.”

I cleared my throat uncomfortably.  “I came back here to start treatment.  This clinic is supposed to be one of the best in the country.  But I guess you already knew that,” I added, giving him a pointed look, “or you wouldn’t be here.”

The muscles in his face tightened as he clenched his jaw.  “I got a referral,” he said stiffly.

I nodded, wondering if he had the same doctor I did.  What were the odds of that happening?  Probably greater than the odds of me giving him HIV, but that had happened.  Dr. Iverson hadn’t mentioned anything about seeing a second Backstreet Boy after me, but I guess he couldn’t – patient confidentiality rules and all.  “How are you guys doing?” I asked, to see if Nick would elaborate.  When he didn’t, I looked at Lauren, who was standing awkwardly at his side.  She hadn’t left him yet, which made me wonder about her status.  “Have you… gotten tested yet?” I asked her.

She shook her head.  “Today.”

“Oh.”  I could tell she was nervous and tried to give her a reassuring smile.  “Well, I hope everything turns out okay.  Let me know, will you?” I added, looking at Nick.

Nick ignored me.  “Come on, Lo, we don’t wanna be late,” he said, slinging his arm around Lauren.  Then he brushed right by me, as if I wasn’t even there.  I watched them walk away with a heavy feeling in my heart.  Lauren gave me an apologetic look over her shoulder, then whispered something into Nick’s ear as they went into the clinic.  I could tell they were talking about me, and I tried not to care, but it hurt worse than the needles that awaited them inside.

Days later, though, I did get a text from Nick.

“Lauren tested negative.”

Finally, it seemed, someone had escaped the deadly curse that seemed to have claimed the rest of our lives.  I took it as a good sign that things were about to get better.  It wasn’t like they could get much worse.  But I was wrong.  Five days before Christmas, I found out one of life’s cruel truths:  things can always get worse.

***


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