“This is the shittiest start to a new year ever,” I ranted to Lauren as I got dressed the next day, “including the year I got arrested right off the bat.”
Standing in front of the full-length mirror in our bedroom, she suppressed a giggle as she pulled back her wet hair into a messy bun. “The DUI? Did that happen over New Year’s?”
“No, not the DUI. That was the second time I got arrested.” It made me feel like such an asshole to admit that. “The first time happened twelve years ago today.”
At the time, it seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I was twenty-one and had never been in any real trouble before. I remembered crying in the cop car on my way to the county jail, as I apologized again and again. All I could think about was what they would say about me in the tabloids. But that was nothing compared to the humiliation I would face if the truth about Howie and me ever came out. We could have kept it quiet, if he hadn’t tried to kill himself, but that was going to be a lot harder now that he was in the hospital. It was a miracle that much hadn’t leaked already.
“Ohh, at the club?” Lauren was looking at me in the mirror, freshly showered and already finished with her morning workout. Meanwhile, I had barely dragged myself out of bed.
“Yeah.” I pulled on a hoodie over my t-shirt. What a loser, I thought, as I saw my own reflection standing behind her. Even without makeup, she was so beautiful, and I looked like shit. I felt like shit, too. “I mean, that was bad and all, but this seriously fucking sucks,” I said, dragging the heels of my hands down the sides of my face. My cheeks felt sunken, but maybe I was just imagining that. I had scared myself reading about the side effects of my medications. One of them was something called lipodystrophy, which led to fat loss in the face and weight gain in other areas. I had worked so hard to get myself in shape and was still self-conscious about the way my body looked even before I got HIV. That was enough to make me want to stop taking my meds, but I knew Lauren wouldn’t let me. She was better than my alarm at making sure I took my prescribed pills, every damn day and night. I loved her and hated her for it.
“I know,” she said as she turned around, still in her towel. She took me by the shoulders and looked me right in the eye. “It’ll get better, though. It’s got to, right?”
“Well, it can’t get a whole lot worse,” I replied, wrapping my arms around her waist. I ran my hands over the towel, feeling the firm contours of her body beneath its plush softness. As she leaned into me, resting her head on my shoulder, I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of her shampoo. It had a calming effect on me. When I finally pulled away, I felt better. I actually believed what I’d said, that things couldn’t much worse, but of course, they could, and they would. “I guess I should get going,” I said with a sigh. I would have been content to spend the day in bed, but it was time to go do some damage control.
“Good luck.” Lauren leaned in and kissed my lips, leaving them with the taste of toothpaste. “I love you.”
“Love you, too,” I echoed, as I grabbed my keys and left.
We weren’t normally so clingy with each other, but what we’d experienced together on New Year’s Eve had brought us even closer together. I know it sounds creepy, but seeing Howie on the brink of death made me think about what it would be like to lose Lauren, and I’m sure it made her think about me that way, too. After all, Howie’s situation wasn’t so different from mine. Under a different set of circumstances, I might have tried to take my own life, too. I hadn’t told Lauren that, but I think she knew. I had come close to killing myself a few times, though never on purpose. She was the light that had pulled me out of those dark days, and she was the only reason I was coping as well as I was with my HIV diagnosis – which wasn’t really that well at all. I didn’t want to think about what it would be like without her support.
I would be like Howie, I thought again, as I climbed into my car. I could still smell vomit in the back seat, even though Lauren had taken it to the car wash to be cleaned. I decided I was going to have to get it detailed – either that, or buy a brand new car. “Maybe I’ll make Howie buy me one,” I muttered to myself, as I backed out of the garage. “He owes me.”
I should have been going to see him in the hospital or, better yet, to the gym to work out, but first I had to pick up Brian from the airport. He had called the night before to ask me, after he’d finished booking the first flight out the next morning. Kevin wanted us all to sit down together and talk through what we were going to tell the public about Howie. Personally, I was still hoping we’d be able to keep the whole thing private, but Kevin seemed to think we needed to release some kind of statement.
I didn’t expect Brian to be on board with that. There was a time when he would have wanted to distance himself from something so scandalous – the “Blurry Brian” years, we called it behind his back, in reference to his refusal to show his face on my stupid reality show. I didn’t blame him for that anymore. While I was out getting arrested and filming the hot mess that was House of Carters, he was launching a successful solo career in Christian music. He didn’t want me to mess that up for him. It hurt at the time, but looking back on it with some hindsight, I could see his side of it. We’d become closer again since then, but to me, it still seemed like Brian lived in his own little bubble back in Atlanta. He liked having his own life out of the limelight, and he didn’t like to leave it to come to LA, especially during a break. Frankly, it surprised me a little to see him taking this Howie situation so seriously. As far as he knew, Howie was going to be fine, thanks to me. He hadn’t been there to witness what Lauren and I had. I wondered if Kevin had filled him in on the gory details that had come out in our phone conversation the day before.
I hadn’t talked to Kevin since then, but I’d heard it through the grapevine – the grapevine being Brian – that he’d invited us all over to his house for lunch to work out what we were going to say. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but at the same time, I wanted my say in the decision, so I had no choice but to go.
When I got to the airport, I found a place to park and waited in the car for Brian to come out. LAX is always crawling with paparazzi, and I was in no mood to be bothered. I texted Brian to tell him where I was and rolled down the windows to air out the car some more. It didn’t help. “Dang, your car reeks!” Brian exclaimed as he opened the door, tossing his bags into the back.
“Yeah, I should have warned you, Howie puked all over the back seat,” I said. “You might wanna move your stuff.”
Brian wrinkled his nose, and I popped open the trunk. Once we were on the road, with the windows still down and all the small talk out of the way, Brian looked over at me and said, “So… it was bad, huh?”
I shook my head. I didn’t really want to talk about what had happened, but I felt like I had to fill Brian in. “It was horrible. I dunno what all Kevin told you, but Howie almost died. He didn’t… but he could have. That’s how bad it was. He drank so much, he stopped breathing at one point. If we hadn’t gotten him to the hospital when we did, he’d be dead right now.”
“Jesus…” Brian let out his breath in a low whoosh. “Thank God you went over there, Nick.”
“I know. I didn’t want to… but I’m glad I did. I’m glad he’s gonna be okay.” It made me feel better to say that out loud. Even if it meant that Kevin was right, it was nice to know that I didn’t really hate Howie, at least not in a “I wish you were dead” kind of way. But that didn’t make me any less pissed at him for putting me through all of that.
“I hope he will be, but he’s not out of the woods yet. It’ll depend on how bad his liver’s damaged.”
“What?” I looked over at Brian in shock. “When did you hear anything about liver damage?”
Brian looked back at me, seeming equally surprised. “Kevin told me last night. What, he didn’t tell you?”
“No. I talked to him yesterday morning, and he didn’t say a damn thing about it! What the fuck?” I felt so stupid. How could Kevin have kept something like that from me the whole time I was ranting about hating Howie? That would have shut me right up.
“I don’t think he knew yesterday morning. He went back to the hospital in the afternoon and saw Howie again. He said they were going to run more tests.”
“Oh. Well, did it sound serious?”
Brian shook his head. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll wait and see when we get to Kev’s house, huh? I can’t believe he didn’t call you.”
“Well, I was kind of a douche to him on the phone yesterday,” I admitted. “He was doing the whole ‘Dad’ thing, trying to tell me what to do, and I went off on him.”
“So, the usual,” said Brian, and I laughed.
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Brian smiled briefly, but his face quickly turned serious again. “So… how are you doing?” he asked, and I knew we were done talking about Howie.
“I’m…” The word “okay” formed and died on my lips. Brian had been my best friend for twenty years; I didn’t have to lie to him. “…not great.”
Brian put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Nick. I should have reached out to you sooner after Q’s funeral, but everything that happened was so…”
“Awkward?” I supplied. “Embarrassing?”
“I was gonna say ‘unexpected.’ I just didn’t even know how to react the other day, when you told us. I didn’t see that coming at all.”
I snorted. “Neither did I.”
“That whole scene at the funeral home just felt so surreal,” Brian went on, shaking his head. “Afterwards, it all seemed like a dream or something. I couldn’t believe it had actually happened. How long had you been carrying that secret around?”
I shrugged. “A few weeks. I found out not long after Howie did. He flew out here a few days before that show we did in Sacramento and told me to get tested.”
“So you knew then, and you didn’t tell us?” His tone wasn’t accusing, just sort of sad.
“I didn’t know the results yet. I didn’t wanna worry you guys for no reason. And, honestly, if I’d tested negative, I wouldn’t have wanted you to know at all.”
Brian nodded. “I can understand that. I’m glad we know now, though.”
“Really? Don’t you just wish you didn’t? I mean, doesn’t it make things awkward?”
“Not to me. You’re my friend, Nick. So is he. Nothing about that has changed.”
I sighed. “Everything else has.”
He was silent for a few seconds. Then, very softly, he started to sing, “I know we’ve changed, but… change can be so good…”
It took me a second to recognize the song as one of our own. As soon as I did, I burst out laughing. “Really, Brian? You’re gonna bust out that shit?”
He gave me a cheesy grin. “Couldn’t resist.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, well, there ain’t nothing good about this. This sucks.”
“I know,” said Brian, “but at least it made you smile.”
There wasn’t much to smile about once we got to Kevin’s house. As soon as we sat down around his kitchen table, things turned serious again.
“The news isn’t good, guys,” Kevin said, looking around the table at AJ, Brian, and me. “Howie’s showing signs of liver damage, which could be life-threatening. They don’t know how bad it is yet, but I think – and Howie agrees – that we need to release some kind of statement before it gets any worse. If we don’t, the paparazzi will find out eventually, especially with us going in and out of the hospital, and who knows what kind of bullshit rumors they’ll start.”
I snorted. “I don’t think they could make up anything that’s worse than the truth. I mean, what are we supposed to say? Howie slept with some random dude in Europe, got himself infected with HIV, gave it to his wife and baby – and me – and then tried to drink himself to death? Do you really want all that out there? ‘Cause I sure as hell don’t.”
“That’s what we need to figure out,” said Kevin. “What do we say, and what do we leave out?”
“Well, leave me out of it.” I scooted away from the table, crossing my arms over my chest.
Kevin gave me an annoyed look. To my surprise, AJ seemed to side with him. “It’s not about you, anyway, Nick. This is about Howie. We should stay focused on him.”
“Okay, looks like we’re leaving Nick out of it!” Brian announced, clapping his hands together, before I could think of a comeback. “What next?”
“Well, what information do we really want our fans to know?” Kevin asked. “They’re the ones we’re really doing this for, right?”
“I think they’d want to know that Howie’s in the hospital,” said Brian seriously. “We’ll get their prayers and support if we say that much.”
Kevin nodded. “But they’ll want to know what for. How much do we tell them?”
“What did Howie have to say when you talked to him, Kev?” asked AJ.
“He said he didn’t care, as long as we show him a draft before it goes to press, but he wants his family left out of it.”
“See, Nick?” said AJ, smiling at me. “Howie’s on the same page. He doesn’t want anyone else thrown under the bus.”
“Where is Leigh, anyway?” asked Brian, frowning. “Is she in town?”
Kevin shook his head. “I talked to her yesterday. She’s not coming.”
Brian and AJ looked at each other, obviously taken aback by that news. I was not as surprised. Maybe they thought it was shitty of Leigh not to come see her husband when he was in the hospital, but I knew better than either of them how she had to be feeling about the whole thing. Howie had screwed her over even worse than me. I didn’t blame her one bit.
“I know she’s been in contact with Howie’s family,” Kevin added quickly, trying to clarify. “They were going to keep her updated on his condition. But she said she can’t just pack up the kids and fly across the country, and she doesn’t want to leave them again so soon.”
“What if Howie gets worse?” AJ asked quietly. “You think she’d come then?”
Kevin shrugged. “Let’s just hope we don’t have to find out.”
A few seconds of uncomfortable silence passed, in which we all must have been imagining the worst-case scenario. Eventually, AJ cleared his throat and said, “So what we really need to decide is whether or not to say this was a suicide attempt.”
Brian blanched at the words. “Look, I know we’ve always tried to be honest with our fans,” he said slowly, “but don’t you think telling them the truth about this is only going to hurt them? Not to mention Howie’s reputation – and maybe even his career.”
Blurry Brian’s back, I thought, suppressing a smile. This time, I was actually glad he was so conservative. In this case, I happened to agree with him. “Yeah, and if the fans find out Howie tried to kill himself, they’re going to want to know why, and that would open up a whole ‘nother can of worms that would involve not only his family, but also me.”
“For the last time, Nick, we’re not going to tell the fans your HIV status, so chill the fuck out already!” AJ said in exasperation. “You just better hope the stalkerazzi never catch you coming out of the AIDS clinic.”
I rolled my eyes, trying to act like I didn’t care, but his comment made me break out in cold sweat. My worst fear was being found out that way. I could only imagine the media frenzy that would follow if I was ever photographed in front of the clinic, especially if they knew Howie was infected.
“I don’t think we should say anything about Howie’s HIV status, either,” I said, trying to sound like I cared about protecting Howie’s privacy just as much as my own.
“We can leave that out,” Brian agreed. “That’s not why he’s in the hospital. Not directly, anyway.”
“So do we call it an accidental overdose, then, or do we just say he’s suffering from some liver disease?” Kevin asked.
We all liked the liver disease idea, but weren’t sure how to word it. “Why don’t we all just go to the hospital after lunch and ask Howie?” AJ suggested. Kevin and Brian agreed, but I couldn’t bear the thought of setting foot in that hospital again or seeing Howie that way.
“Actually, I think I’m gonna head home,” I said. “I’m not feeling that well.” I knew I wasn’t fooling anyone, but I also knew I could use the side effects of my medication to my benefit if they called my bluff.
“Aren’t you gonna eat first?” asked Kevin, raising his eyebrows. “Kris made chicken salad.”
I shook my head, clamping my hand over my mouth to hide my amusement at the fact that Kevin thought Kristin’s chicken salad would convince me to stay for another round of awkward conversation. “Thanks, but that doesn’t even sound good to me right now. My HIV meds make me really nauseous, and I haven’t had much of an appetite.”
Seeing the sympathetic looks Kevin and AJ gave me, I knew my excuse had worked.
“I’ll walk you out,” Brian offered. “I need to grab my bags out of your trunk anyway. Kev can give me a ride back to my place later.”
I told Kevin and AJ goodbye, then followed Brian outside.
Once we were out of earshot of the other two, he turned around and said, “Ya know, I don’t think driving home in your barf-mobile’s gonna help much with your nausea.”
I returned his wink with a sheepish smile. “I just really don’t want to go back to that hospital, Brian,” I admitted. “I’m not ready to see him.”
“I know. It’s okay. You don’t have to,” said Brian, slinging an arm around my shoulders and giving them a squeeze. “I am gonna go see him with the other guys. Anything you want me to tell him for you?”
I shrugged. “Uh… tell him to hang in there, I guess.” It was a pretty lame message to pass on, but after everything that had happened, I just didn’t know what else to say.