Chapter 15


Howie

Five days before Christmas, I got an early morning phone call from our bodyguard, Mike.  He was crying.  “Q’s dead,” he told me through his tears.

I couldn’t believe it.

Mike said it sounded like a heart attack, but that didn’t make sense to me.  Q was only forty years old.  Sure, he was a big guy, but he was strong and in shape.  He had to be, in order to do his job well, and Q was the best bodyguard we’d ever had.  Having been with us since the early days, he’d become more than just a bodyguard.  He was a good friend.  The news of his death devastated me.  I didn’t understand it.  How could someone like Q just drop dead all of a sudden, while people like me could live for decades with an incurable illness?  None of it made any sense.

I’ve always been a believer in God, but on days like that, when life seems short and cruel and meaningless, it’s hard to believe in a higher power, a greater good.  I was glad I called Brian first.  He was the only one on the east coast, three hours ahead of the rest of us, but he was also the biggest believer I knew, other than maybe my mother.  Talking to him helped.  “He’s in a better place, Howie,” Brian said, toward the end of our conversation.  “He’s in Heaven now.  God just got himself one hell of a new head of security.”

I snorted, sending flecks of snot flying across my bedroom.  “Brian, did you just say ‘God’ and ‘hell’ in the same sentence?”

“I guess I did,” he admitted, chuckling.  I could tell he was smiling, and for just a second, it made me feel better.  Then the reality of the situation returned.

Sighing, I said, “Well, I better break the news to AJ before he hears it from someone else.  He and Q were close, you know?”

“Yeah,” Brian said sadly.  “I can call Kev, if you want.”

“That’d be great,” I replied gratefully.  Mike had left it up to me to let the rest of the group know.

“You need me to call anyone else?”

Nick, I thought immediately, swallowing hard as his name popped into my mind.  “Could you… could you call Nick for me?”  I couldn’t bear the thought of giving Nick any more bad news.

Brian didn’t seem to mind.  Why would he?  They’d once been best friends, although for awhile, I thought I had sort of taken his place as Nick’s closest friend in the group.  But if Brian thought it was weird that I would ask this of him, he didn’t say so.  “Sure, I’ll call him,” he agreed.  “Keep me posted if you hear anything about arrangements and whatnot, okay?”

“Will do.  I’ll talk to you later.”

After we hung up, I called AJ, then my wife.  It was still early, even on the east coast, but I knew Leigh would be up with the baby already.  Of course, she didn’t answer, so I left her a message.  “Leigh, it’s me.  Call me back, please.  It’s important.”

She called a few minutes later, and when I told her what had happened, it was like we had never fought.  “Oh my god!” she exclaimed, sounding as shocked as I felt.  “Poor Mike!  And poor Angela!  I’m so sorry, honey.  Is there anything I can do?”

It was nice to hear her call me “honey” again, with sympathy, instead of hatred, in her voice.  “You can come home,” I said hopefully.  “I’m guessing the services will be sometime after Christmas; they probably won’t have time to plan anything before.  Bring the boys home for Christmas and stay for the funeral.”

Leigh sighed.  “Howie, that’s not going to happen.  We’re spending Christmas here, with my family.  But I will fly down for the funeral; it’s the least I can do.”

It wasn’t enough for me, but I knew better than to argue with her.  “Okay.  I’ll let you know when I find out more.”

“Thanks.  Hey, I better go – I’m trying to get breakfast ready for the boys.”

“Oh, okay.  Tell them Daddy loves them.”  I felt a lump swell up in my throat.  “And, Leigh?” I added, before I got off the phone.  “I love you, too.”

But when my wife hung up without saying the words back, I could tell she didn’t believe me anymore.

***

That Christmas was the worst one ever.  Even though I spent it with my family in Florida, I had never felt more alone.  The people who mattered to me the most – my wife and children – were missing, and it was all my fault.

“She’ll come around, Howie,” my oldest sister, Angie, tried to assure me.  “She needs some time to deal with all of us.  You have to admit, it’s a lot.  Just show her how sorry you are, and eventually, she’ll have to forgive you.”

As much as I appreciated my sister’s support, I wasn’t so sure she was right.  After all, Angie didn’t know the whole story.  None of my family knew about Nick.  They didn’t know I was struggling with my sexuality.  How could I explain that I had feelings for Nick, but still loved my wife?  It didn’t even make sense to me.  I couldn’t handle being asked if I was gay again, even though I knew that, eventually, I would have to come clean and answer that question, once and for all.  It was only a matter of time before Nick started confiding in others about his HIV status.  He couldn’t hide it forever, and once everyone found out he was infected, the truth would come out, and I would have to come out, too.  No one would expect Leigh to come back to me then.

She did come down to Florida the day after Christmas for Q’s funeral, just like she’d promised.  The services were scheduled to take place the following morning.  When I picked her up from the airport that afternoon, I was disappointed to see that she was alone.  “You didn’t bring the boys?” I asked, looking around, as if I actually expected to find James lagging behind her.

She shook her head.  “No.  They’re having plenty of fun at my parents’ house, playing with their new toys.  Why would I bring them all the way here, just to see people grieve and hear their parents fight?  They’re better off up there.”

I knew she had a point, but I couldn’t hide my disappointment.  “I miss them,” I said, sighing.  “I’m surprised James didn’t beg you to let him come.”

Leigh shrugged.  “Like I said… he’s pretty content playing with all his Christmas presents.”

“Don’t you think he’d want to see me more?” I asked angrily.  “Doesn’t he wonder why I’m not with you?”

“He thinks you’re on tour,” she replied casually, hitching her back up higher on her shoulder.  “That’s where you were supposed to be, so… that’s where I told him you are.”

She started walking so briskly toward the exit, I struggled to keep up.  “So you lied to him?” I said, as I finally fell into step beside her.  “Nice, Leigh.”

“Well, what was I supposed to tell him, Howie?  That his dad slept with another man and got himself infected with HIV, which he then passed on to me and Holden?”

“Shh!” I hissed, looking around to see if anyone had heard her.  Thankfully, everyone else in the airport seemed too engrossed in their own business to pay any attention to us.  “Does he even know I’m sick?” I asked, holding the door for her as we went outside.

“God, it feels good out here!” exclaimed Leigh, leaning her head back to look up at the sky.  The sun was hidden by gray clouds, but at least it was warm.  “It was in the thirties when I left Jersey.  And no,” she added, as we walked to the car, “he doesn’t know about either of us.  I don’t want him to worry any more than he has to.  It was hard enough having to explain about Holden.  He’s too young to really understand what’s happening.”

I nodded, knowing she was probably right.  It was better that James be left out of this.  Still, I wished Leigh would at least let me see him.  I missed him and Holden so much, it hurt.

“So what did you tell him about Holden?” I asked, once we were in the car.

Leigh sighed.  “I told him his baby brother’s sick, and that’s why he’s been going to the doctor, to get medicine to make him better.”

“So you did see that specialist you were telling me about?  He started Holden on medication?”

“She,” Leigh corrected.  “Her name is Dr. Parr.  We’ve been to her practice in Philly twice in the last two weeks.  She’s very nice, very knowledgeable.  She put Holden on a couple of different drugs.  He hates the taste of them, so I’ve had to find new and different ways to get him to take them every day this week.”  She laughed, but when I looked over at her, I saw tears in her eyes.

“Oh, Leigh… I’m so sorry, honey.”  Remembering what Angie had said, I reached out and rested my hand lightly on Leigh’s thigh.  “I hope you’re taking care of yourself, too.  Have you been to a doctor yet?”

She nodded, wiping her eyes.

“And?” I prompted.  “Have you started treatment yet?”

Leigh shook her head.  “My doctor said she doesn’t recommend starting treatment until my CD4 count drops below 350 because of the side effects.  It was over 500 at my first appointment, so I’m holding off for now.  I don’t want to have to deal with side effects when I’m trying to take care of Holden.”

I frowned.  “But honey, don’t you want to stay healthy so you can take care of Holden?  The medication is supposed to help keep your CD4 count up.  My doctor put me on this all-in-one pill that has three different drugs in it – a triple cocktail, he called it.  I only have to take it once a day, so it’s not a big deal.  I’ve been on it for over two weeks and haven’t had any real side effects so far.  You should ask your doctor about it.”

Leigh sighed and rubbed her eyes again.  “Is this really what our life has become?  I’m so tired of talking about doctors and drugs and this damn disease.  I really don’t wanna go there right now.  I just wanna go home.”

I took it as an encouraging sign that she was still calling our condo “home,” but when she insisted on sleeping in James’s bed that night, I realized she might as well have booked herself a hotel room.  As I lay awake, alone in the bed we used to share, the question she’d asked in the car echoed through my mind.

“Is this really what our life has become?”

It made me sad to reach across the bed and feel nothing but empty space between the sheets.  I missed the warmth of my wife’s body.  But when I finally fell asleep, I dreamed of a different body filling my bed, and a life that could have been.

I dreamed of Nick.

***

I saw Nick for real at the funeral home the next day, when Leigh and I went to pay our respects to Q’s family.  There was a two-hour visitation proceeding the funeral, and the line was out the door.  Details about the services had been made public, and I was worried that fans might show up.  Some would want to support us; others would just want to see us.  Either way, if there were enough of them, they would cause a scene.

Q’s family, anticipating the same problem, had already come up with a solution.  On the way to the funeral home, I got a text from Mike.  “Come find me when u get here.  We got a private room.”  When Leigh and I walked in, Mike looked up and saw us.  He stepped out of the receiving line and came over to us.  “This way,” he said in a low voice, leading us to small room that had been set up for the family.  There were places to sit and a spread of food that looked mostly untouched.  “Help yourself,” he added, waving his hand vaguely at the food.  “We’ll come back here before the funeral.  Y’all can just chill here until then, so you won’t have to worry about bein’ bothered by fans.”

“Thanks,” I said, reaching out to hug him.  “I’m so sorry, man.”

Mike nodded, smiling tightly.  “Thanks.”

“How’s the rest of the family doing?”

“They’re hangin’ in there.  Angela’s devastated, as you can imagine.”

My heart broke for Q’s widow.  I knew how hard it was to be separated from my wife, but I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to lose her forever.  Thanks to my thoughtlessness, that was a very real possibility someday, sooner than I would have predicted.  I swallowed hard, trying not to think about it.  I wanted to keep my mind on Q.  Today was about him.

But when I looked around and saw Nick and Lauren sitting with the rest of the guys and their wives, I knew it was going to be hard not to let the awkwardness between us get in the way of our grief.  The glare Nick gave me was intense enough to push all thoughts of Q to the back of my mind, even before Mike had excused himself and left the room.

Once he did, Leigh went straight to Lauren and hugged her.  The two of them had always gotten along well, but in their black dresses, they looked more like sisters than friends, sisters who shared a dark secret.

I greeted all of the other guys before making my way over to Nick.  In my dreams, he had looked divine, with a white sheet draped across his godlike body, the morning sunlight making his blue eyes sparkle and giving his blonde hair a golden glow.  But in real life, he looked like hell.  A well-tailored suit can make any guy look good, but Nick’s suit seemed about a size too big, giving him a slightly shrunken appearance.  He hadn’t bothered to put any product in his hair; it just lay flat over his forehead.  Beneath it, his face looked pinched and pale, and there were bags under his eyes.  He didn’t look well at all, and the change in his appearance worried me.

“How’s it goin’, Howie?” he said robotically when I approached him.

I held out my hand, and he reluctantly took it.  “How are you doing?” I asked him, squeezing his hand.  “You look like shit.”

“Gee, thanks,” he replied sarcastically.  “Then again, I’d rather look like shit than look sexy to you.”

I glanced around quickly to make sure no one else had heard him, then pulled him into a hug.  “Seriously, Nick,” I said softly, speaking so only he could hear me.  “Are you okay?”

“No, I’m not fucking okay!  Not since you gave me HIV!” he hissed into my ear.  I couldn’t help but notice that he was no longer calling it “AIDS.”  Actually having it changes your vocabulary.

“I know, but… it’s not just that, is it?”  I released him slowly, holding him at an arm’s length so that I could look him in the eye.  “What’s going on with you?”

He rolled his eyes.  “I’m having trouble adjusting to my meds,” he mumbled, barely moving his lips to avoid being overheard.

My heart ached with sympathy for him.  “Side effects?” I asked softly.

He nodded.  “I don’t wanna talk about it,” he muttered, pulling away from me.

“Nick, wait!” I said, when he started to walk away.  “Walk with me.”  I put my hand on the small of his back and started to lead him to the safety of a corner, away from the others, where we could talk more openly.

“Don’t touch me!” he snapped, and as he whirled around, his fist collided with my face.

I stumbled backwards, clutching the side of my face.  I could feel my cheek starting to swell underneath my fingers.  Who knew Nick had such a strong right hook?  Apparently, no one else did, either.  When I straightened up, I saw them all staring at us in shock.

“Holy shit!”  AJ was the first to speak.  “What the hell was that for, Nick?”

“Ask him,” Nick spat, as he stomped across the room, throwing himself into a chair as far away from me as he could get.

“I’m sorry!” I called after him, even though it was really he who should have apologized for hitting me.

All he said back to that was, “Yeah, you should be!”

***


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