Q’s death really shook me up. He was mainly AJ’s bodyguard, but before that, he’d been mine. Q had been a part of the Backstreet family since the height of our fame in the nineties, and I could barely remember doing a tour without him. He had always been there to protect us. But on the day of his funeral, it was Howie who needed protection.
I don’t know why I reacted the way I did. I mean, sure, I’d been wanting to hit Howie for awhile, but normally, I have more self-control than that. I guess all the emotions I’d been trying to contain – the anger, the grief, the resentment – finally boiled to the surface and got the best of me. Before I knew what was happening, my hand had made contact with his face.
“Holy shit!” shouted AJ, looking at me like I was insane. “What the hell was that for, Nick?”
“Ask him!” I stalked over to the other side of the room and slumped down in a chair, massaging my sore knuckles.
“I’m sorry!” I heard Howie call.
“Yeah, you should be!” I shot back, without looking at him. I immediately wished I hadn’t said any of that. I didn’t want the other guys asking questions. I knew I would have to tell them the truth at some point – we were too close not to – but this wasn’t the right time or place. It wasn’t at all the way I would have wanted them to find out.
Then Kevin said, “Nick, you’re bleeding!”
I looked down at my swollen hand and saw beads of blood shining through the broken skin over my knuckles. “Man, Howie has one hard head,” I said, forcing a laugh. I was trying to make light of the situation, but Kevin was looking at me seriously.
“Here,” he said, reaching for my hand. “Let me see.”
When I saw his fingers come within inches of brushing against my bloody skin, I panicked. “No!” I pulled my hand away, holding it tightly to my chest. “Don’t touch it!”
Kevin recoiled. “What the hell, Nick?” he asked, looking at me with the same annoyed expression I’d seen on his face a thousand other times. “I’m just trying to help! You need to wrap up that hand before you get blood all over your suit.”
“I know, but…” I shook my head, still cradling my hand, as tears sprang to my eyes. “You can’t touch my blood. It’s poison.”
Kevin stared at me. “What are you talking about?”
The tears started to stream down my face, as I let go of everything I’d been holding back and allowed the truth to come pouring out. “I have it, too.”
I looked past him to Howie, who was standing still on the other side of the room, looking back at me. Our eyes locked for just a second before he closed his, as if bracing himself for what he knew was about to come out my mouth. The whole room had fallen silent. Everyone was staring at me. I saw Lauren nod her head, giving me the strength I needed to say it.
For a few seconds, no one spoke, but their reactions said it all. Leighanne Littrell’s mouth dropped open so wide, it was almost comical. She looked so scandalized, I felt the insane urge to laugh. Meanwhile, Rochelle McLean kept looking from me, to Howie, and then to her husband, her eyebrows raised, as if she was silently asking AJ, “Did you know about this?” But AJ was as visibly shocked as everyone else. Brian and Kevin both just stared at me, struggling to understand.
How? It was the obvious question on everyone’s mind, yet no one had the guts to ask it out loud.
Then Baylee whispered, “Mom, what does that mean?”
Leighanne looked down at her son, then up at me. She closed her mouth and opened it again several times before she finally said, “Come on, Bay, let’s take a little walk.” She took him by the hand and led him out of the room.
I half-expected Brian to follow her, but he didn’t. Instead, he asked me, “How long have you had it?” I could tell he was still trying to piece together how I had gotten infected. It was a more tactful way of asking, “Who had it first?”
But I was tired of being tactful, just as I was tired of hiding the truth. “I’ve had it since the cruise,” I said, “since Howie fucking raped me!”
There were audible gasps that time. Even Howie looked shocked. He shook his head wildly, his eyes wide. “I did not rape you!” he sputtered, clearly horrified that I would say such a thing.
“Yes, you did,” I insisted, my heart starting to pound as vague recollections of what had happened that night raced through my head. “I didn’t give my consent. And I sure as hell didn’t tell you to put my dick in your mouth. You just went ahead and did it.”
“You told me to keep going!” said Howie, his voice shaking. There were tears in his eyes now, too.
“I was drunk out of my fucking mind!” I shouted, standing up from my chair. “I didn’t know what I was saying; I was barely conscious!”
“I was drunk, too!” Howie yelled from across the room. “I didn’t know-”
“Oh, don’t even try to tell me you didn’t know what you were doing!” I interrupted him. “You knew! You had to fucking know, because it wasn’t the first time you’d done it! Oh yeah,” I added, looking around at everyone else, “Howie told y’all he cheated on Leigh while we were on tour, but what he didn’t tell you was that it was with a dude.”
They all looked at Howie, their eyebrows raised – everyone except Leigh and Lauren, who already knew.
“Is that true?” AJ asked Howie. “Are you gay, man? ‘Cause, you know, if you are… that’s okay…”
But before Howie could answer, Brian interjected, “It’s not okay if he’s going around giving people AIDS!”
“HIV,” Howie and I said at the same time, then looked at each other. In hindsight, maybe we just should have said “Jinx,” smiled at the absurdity of our situation, and apologized to each other. Maybe then, we could have moved on. Maybe we could have prevented a tragedy from happening. But in that moment, things were still too heated. I had just been humiliated in front of my closest friends, and I’d hurt Howie’s feelings. There was no way we could laugh it off then.
It was Kevin who calmed everyone down. “Guys!” he shouted, his deep voice rising above the rest of ours. “Are we really going to do this right now, right here, in the middle of a funeral parlor? Don’t forget why we’re here. We’re here for Q and his family. This day should be about them… not about any of our drama. If y’all aren’t willing to set aside your differences for Q, then get the hell out. We are not gonna fuck up his funeral.”
That shut us up. We sat in silence on opposite sides of the room until it was time for the funeral. If anyone from Q’s family wondered about Howie’s shiner or my bandaged hand, they didn’t ask.
When it was all over, Howie and I went our separate ways without another word to each other. It would be days before I heard from him again, but when I did, it was a phone call I would never forget.