The alarm on my cell phone woke me up after only a few hours of restless sleep. “What the fuck?” I mumbled as I rolled over and reached for my phone, wondering why in the hell I had bothered to set an alarm. It was New Year’s Day – in other words, National Hangover Day – and I had nowhere to be.
But like a chain reaction, this thought quickly triggered a whole bunch more thoughts. As memories came flooding back into my brain, I snapped out of my sleep-deprived stupor and sat up straight. I shut off the alarm, then looked more carefully at my phone to see if I’d missed any calls or texts. No one had tried to contact me in the four hours since I’d finally fallen asleep, which I took to be a good sign. I knew Kevin would have called if Howie had taken a turn for the worse.
When Lauren and I had left the hospital around two in the morning, Howie was stable and, quote, “resting comfortably” in the ICU. Kevin and AJ wanted to stay until he woke up, but I was in no rush to see him. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to look at Howie the same way again after everything that had happened.
I looked over at Lauren, who was lying next to me in bed. “Sorry, Boose,” I said, realizing I had just been sitting there, spacing out. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
“It’s okay. Don’t forget to take your meds.”
I groaned, remembering the reason for the alarm. This new medication regimen of mine still hadn’t become routine. I had to rely on the alarm to remind me to take my meds every morning and again at night. It wasn’t the way I wanted to start my day, but I didn’t have much of a choice. Lauren stayed on my back about it, making sure I took the prescribed pills on time.
“I will in a minute.”
“Do it now,” she said sternly, and so, with a heavy sigh, I hauled myself out of bed and padded into the bathroom. “Any news on Howie?” I heard her call, as I took my pill organizer out of the medicine cabinet.
“No… nothing,” I answered, grabbing the glass tumbler off the counter and filling it with water from the faucet. I opened the little container for Wednesday AM and shook two pills out into my hand.
“I guess no news is good news?” Lauren said uncertainly.
I popped both pills into my mouth and swallowed them with a swig of water. “Yeah,” I agreed, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. “We would have heard if something was wrong.”
“Are you gonna go see him today?”
I set the glass down harder than I’d meant to and looked at my reflection in the mirror. My eyes were bloodshot from the lack of sleep, but beyond that, they looked haunted by the memories of what I’d seen the night before. I would never be able to forget the sound of Howie’s voice on my phone as he pleaded for me to pass his final words on to his family, or the sight of his lifeless body lying among the bottles of pills and booze, or the taste of his tequila-infused vomit making me gag as I breathed into his mouth. Even if I managed to get that smell out of my car, I would never be able to get it out of my mind. I felt nauseous just thinking about it, as if the stench had been burned into my senses. I hated him for what he’d done to me… and for what he’d forced me to do for him.
I shook my head at my mirror image, ignoring its accusatory stare. “No.”
“That’s alright,” Lauren said, as I walked back into the bedroom. “You don’t have to.”
“After last night, I can’t imagine anything more awkward,” I admitted, climbing into bed beside her.
“Imagine how he feels. It’s gotta be awkward for him, too,” she pointed out, but she didn’t push the issue. When I rolled onto my side so that my back was to her, she stopped talking and let me sleep.
My phone woke me up for the second time an hour or so later. This time, it was Kevin calling. “God, why won’t you just leave me alone?” I groaned, but, remembering our earlier conversation, I answered anyway. “Hey, Kev.”
“Hey, Nick, did I wake you? I tried to wait till I thought you’d be awake.”
I pulled the phone away from my face and squinted at it. “Dude, it’s only nine o’clock on New Year’s Day. What makes you think I’d be awake? Especially after last night. I left the hospital at, like, two a.m. It took me forever to get to sleep when I finally got home.”
“I can imagine,” Kevin said dryly. “I just got home about an hour ago. I can’t sleep either, not with two kids who were up at the crack of dawn, so I figured I’d call and give you an update. Sorry I woke you up.”
“Sorry you haven’t slept,” I replied, frowning. “So you stayed at the hospital all night?”
“Uh-huh. AJ and I both did. We finally got in to see Howie around six a.m.”
“Is he… um, how’s he doing?” I asked awkwardly.
“As well as can be expected, I guess,” said Kevin with a sigh. “He was alert and talking, anyway. He said he was sorry. He still thinks you hate him.”
“I do hate him,” I muttered.
“Oh, Nick… no, you don’t. You just think you do.”
“Oh, Kevin, shut the fuck up!” I snapped, sick of being patronized. “What do you know about how I feel? You’re not the one he came onto on the cruise. You’re not the one who got HIV from him. You’re not the one who had to hear the fucking suicide note he left on my voicemail, who had to break down his fucking door and drag his unconscious ass out of the house. You’re not the one who had to turn his head so he wouldn’t choke on his own vomit, or blow air down his fucking throat because he stopped breathing. You didn’t have to see him in the emergency room with all those doctors and nurses working on him, trying to save his sorry ass. He scared the shit out of me last night! But you wouldn’t know because you weren’t there, because he dumped this all on me, not you. I have every right to hate him. It’s none of your goddamn business how I feel about him, anyway!”
My rant shut Kevin right up. He got so quiet that, after a few seconds of listening to my own ragged breathing, I thought he must have hung up on me. But when I lowered the phone to check, I saw that the call was still connected. “Kev?” I said, raising the phone to my ear again. “You still there?”
“Yeah…” He sounded breathless, like the wind had been knocked out of him. “God, Nick, I’m sorry. I had no idea it was that bad. Why didn’t you tell us all that last night?”
I shook my head. “I couldn’t. It was bad enough having to relive it over and over again in my own head. I didn’t want to go through it all again out loud.”
“I don’t blame you,” said Kevin, “but you should try to get back up to the hospital to see him sometime. I’m sure he looks a hell of a lot better than the last time you saw him. Maybe it’ll help. I know it would help him.”
“I don’t wanna see him. Honestly, I don’t want anything to do with him.”
“He’s your brother,” Kevin said softly.
It was a good thing he was on the other end of the phone and not standing a few feet away from me because I probably would have punched him in the face, the same way I’d hit Howie. “No, he’s not, and you’re not my fucking father. Butt out, Kevin.”
Kevin sighed. “Okay, Nick. I’ll talk to you later.”
I hung up on him without a goodbye and sat there, seething with anger. Leave it to Kevin to try to tell me what I should do and how I should feel.
“Are you okay?”
I looked over at Lauren, who had heard the whole thing – well, my side, at least. She sat up, her long tangles of hair spilling over her shoulders, and put her arm around me.
“You’re shaking,” she whispered.
I turned my head, trying to catch a glimpse of the ocean outside our balcony doors, but the sky was so hazy, I couldn’t see a thing. I suddenly felt claustrophobic. I wanted to throw open the doors, run out of the room, and lose myself in the mist. But Lauren and I were trying to work on our communication, and I knew that withdrawing into myself and shutting her out wouldn’t solve anything. So I tried to be honest with her.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m not okay. I’ll never be ‘okay’ again.”
“You don’t have to be.” She leaned into me, her lips brushing softly over my bare skin as she kissed my shoulder blade. “I love you either way. Like I said… we’re gonna get through this, babe.”
I wanted to believe her, but I felt like my whole world was falling apart. In that moment, I knew how Howie must have felt and why he’d done what he did. It was unforgivable, but understandable, nonetheless. Neither of us would ever be okay. Our lives were ruined. No wonder he’d decided to end his. If I didn’t have Lauren, I might have done the same.
But, luckily, I did. She was the only stable thing left in my life, my rock in the middle of a stormy sea. Turning into the safety of her embrace, I wrapped my arms around her and, like a drowning man clinging to his lifeline, held on tight.