The fight at Q’s funeral left our group fractured. AJ, as someone who knew how it felt to screw up, was sympathetic towards me, but Brian had sided with Nick. Kevin seemed to be somewhere in the middle. He wasn’t as judgmental as his cousin, but he did have a soft spot when it came to Nick. I knew he wasn’t happy with me for letting something like this happen to Nick or to the group. It was hard to believe that after celebrating twenty years together, we had never been closer to completely falling apart.
After the funeral, we all went home without even talking about the tour. We were supposed to fly to Europe in February, but somehow, I didn’t see that happening. I wondered what we would tell our fans. We had always tried to be honest with them, but I couldn’t imagine how humiliating it would feel if we had to tell the truth about this. The media would have a field day with it. Our faces would be all over the tabloids, and the paparazzi would never leave us alone. This scandal would ruin everything we had worked for over the past twenty years. It would tarnish our legacy.
Maybe we should just go on tour and get it over with, I thought. We could always go our separate ways afterwards, if it came to that. No one would think it was a big deal if we did it quietly, without canceling a whole tour. But it was hard to think about going back on the road when my home life was still in shambles.
Leigh left the day after the funeral and flew back up to New Jersey to be with our boys. I hadn’t seen them in a month, and I missed them like crazy. I thought about following her up there, but I didn’t want to make a scene. I had too much respect for her family. Still, the separation was starting to get to me.
It hit me the hardest on New Year’s Eve, as I sat alone in our house in L.A. with a bottle of tequila, watching the festivities in Times Square on my TV and worrying about what 2014 would bring. The future had never seemed so uncertain.
Seven years earlier, on New Year’s Eve, I’d proposed to Leigh at her parents’ house in New Jersey. We’d been dating for over six years by that point, and I was feeling the pressure from both my parents and her to finally pop the question so we could settle down and start a family. Leigh was thirty-three and could hear her biological clock ticking. I was thirty-four, the youngest of five children. My mother, who was already in her seventies, wanted more grandchildren while she was still able to enjoy them. Unbeknownst to us, my father had less than two years to live. If I had known he would never get to meet my sons, I would have married Leigh and gotten started much sooner. But you never can predict the future.
One year ago, I’d been looking forward to 2013 and all the exciting prospects it held: the birth of my second child, a new album with the Boys, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and a world tour to commemorate our twentieth anniversary. All of that had happened, and it had been wonderful, but as the year came to a close, my whole world seemed ready to implode. Q was dead. Nick hated me. Brian blamed me. Leigh wanted nothing to do with me. My sons weren’t allowed to see me. And worst of all, my wife, baby, and best friend were sick because of me. I couldn’t blame any of them for hating me. I hated myself.
If that wasn’t bad enough, I could hear Nick’s in my head voice shouting, “Howie fucking raped me!” I couldn’t help but cringe every time I relived that conversation – if you could even call it a conversation. It felt more like an attack on me, and his words hurt worse than his fist. Was that really how he saw it? I wondered. Worse yet, was that really what had happened? I knew I had taken advantage of Nick that night on the cruise, but until he called me out, I never would have considered myself a rapist. The word repulsed me; it made me feel dirty, depraved. Those who knew what I had done would see me the same way, as a despicable person.
As the ball dropped in New York City, my cell phone alarm went off, reminding me to take my pill. I took it at the same time every evening, after dinner and before bedtime, so I could sleep off any side effects. My doctor had warned me that the medication might cause dizziness, headaches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and rashes, but so far, I hadn’t experienced anything severe. Not like Nick, who had looked so sick the last time I saw him, or Holden, who hated the taste of his medicine so much, Leigh had to force it down his throat. Even Leigh was so scared of the side effects, she refused to start treatment, and yet here I was, taking my one pill every day with no trouble. It wasn’t fair. Why should they be having such a hard time while I had it easy, when I was the reason they needed medication in the first place? They didn’t deserve this. I did.
“Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind,” sang the people partying on my TV screen, as I popped the pill in my mouth. “Should old acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne.” I washed it down with a shot of tequila. “Should auld lang syne, my dear, should auld lang syne. We’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”
“I’ll take another cup of kindness,” I muttered to myself, laughing bitterly at my private joke as I poured and downed another shot. I knew it was stupid to mix medication and liquor, but maybe it would make me feel as shitty on the outside as I did on the inside. If it did, I’d deserve it. And if it didn’t, I could at least drink enough to dull the pain I felt on the inside. Then I would feel nothing. I would be numb.
The thought was appealing, so I threw back another shot and then another. The more I drank, the worse I felt – about myself, about my life, about everything. It was depressing, sitting there alone with a bottle of booze, realizing I’d driven away my family and destroyed my life. Not just my life, but Nick’s life, too. And, by extension, the Backstreet Boys. If this broke up the group, I’d be to blame for that, as well.
Maybe they’d be better off without me, I thought, my hand shaking as I filled my shot glass once more. Maybe the whole world would be better off without me.
I swallowed the shot. The numbness was starting to set in by now. The drink didn’t even burn as it went down. My head was swimming, and my thoughts were muddled, but somehow, it seemed to make sense that if I could just make myself disappear, it would solve all the problems I had caused. The Backstreet Boys wouldn’t have to break up, but if they did, they could blame it on my death. The world would never need to know about Nick’s illness if he decided not to tell. Leigh could sell my estate and use the money to buy a nice house in New Jersey, near her family, where she and the boys could live out of the limelight. James would miss me, but he was so young, he would get over it and grow up a normal, happy kid. Holden wouldn’t even remember me, which would be for the best. With any luck, he’d get to grow up, too. My mother and siblings would have the hardest time dealing with my death, but they could take care of each other. They would be comforted by the thought that I was in Heaven with Dad and Caroline, even though I knew I might be destined for Hell.
Once my decision was made, I felt so much better. Finally, I’d found a solution, a way to make amends. I finished off the bottle of tequila, then staggered into the kitchen to find another. Thankfully, my liquor cabinet was always well-stocked. I rummaged for another bottle of tequila, which I took into the bathroom with me. I pissed a stream of clear urine that must have been mostly alcohol, then reached into the medicine cabinet for my bottle of HIV medication. The bottle was mostly empty; I only had a week’s worth of pills left. I wasn’t sure it would be enough, so I grabbed a bottle of Tylenol P.M. to supplement it with. Then I trudged back out to the living room and sat down on the couch.
While the TV continued to show shots of New Year’s revelers partying in Times Square, I started popping pills, washing each handful down with a swig of tequila, straight from the bottle. This triggered my gag reflex, so I slowed down, trying not to throw up. If I puked up the pills, I would have to start over, and I wasn’t sure I would have the guts to try again.
When I’d taken as much as I could stomach, I lay down on the couch. The whole room seemed to be spinning, and there were weird lights dancing before my eyes. My vision was so blurry, I could barely make out the faces on my TV anymore. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the faces of my children instead. I should have written a note, I realized, so that, someday, my family would understand why I’d done this. I opened my eyes again and struggled to sit up, looking around for a piece of paper or something I could write with. But by now, my hands were shaking too badly to write anything legible.
I considered calling Leigh and leaving her a message. She would be in bed by now, and even if she was still up, she probably wouldn’t answer the phone. It would be better that way, I told myself. But then I thought about how upset she’d be when she heard my message in the morning. I didn’t want to put her through any more pain.
So I called Nick instead, knowing he wouldn’t answer either. I had a hard time finding his name on my phone; my fingers felt clumsy and kept hitting the wrong keys. I finally put the call through and listened to the phone rang. It rang four times before it went to his voicemail, and it was there that I left my final words for him and my family.
“Hey, Nicky,” I started, then remembered how touchy he’d been about that nickname lately and corrected myself. “Sorry, I mean Nick… I know you hate when I call you Nicky, but I do it out of love, man. Listen… I just wanted to say I’m sorry. Sorry for what happened on the cruise. Sorry for putting you through all this shit. I know you must hate me. I hate me too.”
Tears filled my eyes, blurring my vision even more. “I never meant to hurt you,” I went on. “I love you, Nick… as a brother and a friend. I hope you know that. Please tell Leigh I love her too. And tell James that Daddy loves him… and that I’m sorry for leaving him. And tell Holden… that I love him more than he’ll ever know, and that I’m sorry…” I sniffled loudly, as my nose started to run. “…sorry for making him sick. I never meant to hurt him either. I never meant to hurt any of you. God… I’m so sorry…”
I trailed off, letting the message end there. It seemed like there should have been more important information for me to pass on, but I didn’t know what else to say. I should have planned this out ahead of time, I realized, but my brain felt fuzzy, incapable of organizing my thoughts any further. I knew I didn’t have much time left.
I pulled up the photos on my phone and scrolled through them until I found a picture of James and Holden on Halloween. James was grinning in his hammerhead shark costume, while Holden sat in his infant seat, happily playing with his toes. That was how I wanted to remember my boys: healthy, happy, and having fun. I stared longingly at the picture until my eyelids grew heavy and the phone slipped out of my hand.