Everyone deals with stress in different ways. My fiancee’s way was making lists. Lauren loved to make lists: to-do lists, grocery lists, workout lists, playlists. When I got home from my meeting with the guys that day, she was waiting for me… with a list, of course.
“Look at this list I found online!” she said excitedly, thrusting a printed piece of paper toward me. Foods That Boost Immunity, I read, before she snatched the paper back and announced, “We’re going grocery shopping! We’re gonna get your immune system in fighting shape. I’ve been reading about how to stay healthy with HIV, and the key is to keep your immune system strong.”
Inwardly, I sighed. Sometimes, I found Lauren’s endless energy exhausting. Still, I appreciated what she was trying to do for me, so I made myself smile and say, “Sounds good, babe.”
She beamed back at me.
On our way to the grocery store, she asked, “So, how’d it go with the guys today? What’s the latest with Howie? How’s Brian? Fill me in.”
“How ‘bout one question at a time?” I laughed, wondering how many cups of coffee she’d had while I was gone. I could tell this whole thing with me and Howie was taking its toll on her, too, no matter how hard she tried to hide it. She just handled it differently. “Brian’s fine. Howie’s… I dunno… not so good, I guess. The guys said he might have fucked up his liver, but they didn’t know how bad yet. They were gonna go visit him in the hospital later.”
“What are you gonna tell the fans?” Lauren wanted to know. I was glad she didn’t ask why I wasn’t going to the hospital to see Howie. I guess she knew better, by that point.
“I dunno, something about his liver, but nothing about the suicide attempt or the HIV. The guys were gonna draft a statement and get Howie’s approval on it before they gave it to our publicist.”
She nodded. “That sounds like a good plan.”
“Yeah…” My stomach growled. In spite of what I’d told the guys, I guess I was hungry after all. “Hey, you wanna grab some lunch before we get groceries?”
Lauren gave me a look, like I’d said something stupid. “How about we get groceries first and then use them to make lunch at home instead?” she suggested. “You never know who’s been handling your food at a restaurant.”
“What are you, the Germ Nazi now?” I muttered, rolling my eyes.
“No, but it’s a new year, and my resolution is to help us both stay healthy,” she replied, as if this was just about living a healthy lifestyle and not living with HIV. “One way we’re going to do that is by cooking more healthy meals at home and eating out less.”
Like I said: shittiest start to a new year ever.
But I couldn’t complain, at least not out loud. I knew how lucky I was to have Lauren in my life. She could have left me after she’d found out I had HIV, the way Leigh had left Howie. But she’d stayed by my side and seemed determined to prove she was in it for the long haul. I didn’t deserve a woman like her, but I was sure glad to have one.
I was glad I wasn’t Howie.
So we went straight to the grocery store and stocked up on all the items on Lauren’s list: citrus fruits and berries, lots of different vegetables, some seafood, spices, and several types of tea. I was relieved to find that it wasn’t all that different from our usual shopping list, since Lauren liked to eat healthy anyway.
“Are oysters actually on your list, or are you just trying to seduce me?” I asked, smirking as I picked up the package of oysters she’d put in our cart.
“For your information, oysters happen to be high in zinc and… something else your immune system needs; I forgot the name. Not to mention protein,” said Lauren matter-of-factly. Then, with a wink, she added in a whisper, “Of course, they’re also an aphrodisiac.”
For a second, I grinned, looking forward to getting laid. For a second, I actually forgot I was HIV-positive, probably for the first time since I’d found out. But a second later, I remembered, and my heart sank, as my face turned red. We hadn’t had sex since my diagnosis. I knew there were ways to be “safe,” but why take chances? The thought of infecting Lauren, like Howie had infected Leigh, terrified me. I wasn’t ready to risk it, and I couldn’t imagine she would want to either.
I walked ahead of her, pretending to be interested in picking out some fresh salmon so she wouldn’t see my face. I felt her come up behind me. “We’ll have to cook them, though,” she said, without the sexy whisper. “You shouldn’t eat anything raw; it’s not safe.”
Swallowing a sigh, I just nodded. I could tell she understood what had just happened and was trying to communicate that to me without saying the words. It made me feel a little bit better, but not much, because I knew it would come up again. Someday, we’d have to deal with it. But not then. There was too much else to worry about then.
On our way out to the car, we were stopped by a paparazzo with a camera. “Nick!” he called, after snapping our picture walking across the parking lot. “Hey, Nick, how are you today?”
“Just fine,” I muttered, pushing the shopping cart faster. Lauren stayed close to my side, her head down.
“How’s Howie doing? I heard he’s in the hospital.”
Lauren’s head snapped up. I tried to hide my surprise as I glanced over at the guy. Had the statement been released already? I hoped so; otherwise, how had he found out? “Howie’s hangin’ in there,” I said shortly. Thankfully, we got to the car before I had to say anything else. “Have a good one,” I told the guy as we quickly loaded our bags into the back, hoping he’d take the hint and scram. Instead, he hung around, taking photos even as I pulled out of the parking space.
“God, they’re relentless,” said Lauren, shaking her head. Even though she had grown up in L.A., she still wasn’t used to the paparazzi. It was only since we’d started dating that she’d had to deal with them. I, on the other hand, had been photographed for so long, it didn’t faze me anymore. I had learned it was best to be polite, but brief – keep it short, and keep walking.
But that day, it bothered me. It bothered me that the guys had released a statement behind my back, without even sending me a draft. Unless they hadn’t, in which case it bothered me that the paparazzo knew Howie was in the hospital. It bothered me that Howie was in the hospital to begin with, and it bothered me that I didn’t know how he was doing. I stewed about it the whole way home and even after we’d finished unloading the groceries.
As I chopped the broccoli while Lauren washed the fruit, I found myself wondering what was going on with Howie and wishing one of the guys would call with an update. I knew I could call, myself, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to talk to him yet. Still, I wanted to hear how his tests had turned out. Liver damage sounded serious, but then, I had done some serious drinking and drugs back in the day, and my liver – as far as I knew – was fine. It was my heart that I’d fucked up, but over time, that had healed, too. Other than the HIV, I was healthy. And hell, Howie had always been able to hold his liquor better than me. He would be fine, too, I told myself. He had to be.
But in the back of my mind, I remembered how bad he had looked when we’d brought him to the hospital, how he’d stopped breathing in the back of my car, how close he had come to dying. Even in my wildest partying days, I had never come that close. What if he wasn’t going to be fine?
The thought rattled me, and the knife slipped in my hand. Instead of sawing through the stalk of broccoli, it sliced into the finger that was holding it steady. Wincing in pain, I hissed a sharp breath through my teeth and pulled my finger back to look. The cut wasn’t bad enough to need stitches, but it was already starting to bleed. “Shit!” I shouted, as a drop of blood rolled down my finger. I didn’t want to, but I stuck my finger in my mouth and sucked on it to keep my blood from dripping onto the counter or floor. I could taste it, bitterly metallic on my tongue. I imagined the little HIV particles mixing with my saliva, swishing around inside my mouth. It made me want to spit, though I knew it would do no good. I was already infected. It would still be inside my body.
“What?” Lauren whirled around at the sink, looking at me in alarm. “What’s wrong?”
“I fuckin’ cut myself. I’m fine!” I said quickly, holding up my hand to keep her at bay. “I’m bleeding, though, so stay back.”
She sighed, reaching for a towel. “Sweetie, I’m not gonna get it from standing within three feet of your blood. Let me see.” She finished wiping her wet hands and reached out to me. I stubbornly held my hand back and shook my head, refusing to let her come near me. “Fine,” she said finally. “I’ll at least go get you a Band-aid. Try not to bleed all over the broccoli.”
I let out a sigh of relief as she left the kitchen. It was short-lived. She had only been gone a few seconds when the doorbell rang. “God damn it,” I swore, hurriedly wrapping my hand in a towel as I went to see who was at the door. There were only a certain few people who knew the code to get through the gate, so I knew it had to be one of the guys. Sure enough, I opened the door to find AJ standing there. “Your timing sucks,” I muttered, as I stepped back to let him in.
“You suck,” he shot back, but it wasn’t with his usual vigor. “What’d you do to your hand?”
“Cut my finger. Just a few seconds ago. Hang on while I take care of this, will ya?”
He followed me into the kitchen without a word, watching as I washed my hands and used the clean part of the towel to dry them. By then, Lauren was back with the box of Band-aids. I made her set it down on the counter instead of handing it to me directly. I wasn’t going to take any chances. I carefully wrapped a Band-aid around my finger, then added a second in case the blood soaked through the first. Then I washed my hands again, making sure to keep my bandaged finger dry, and threw the bloody towel into the trash. “We got any bleach, Boose?” I asked Lauren, looking at the blade of the knife I’d been using. I could see a little spot of blood near the tip.
“Nick… babe, you are being way too paranoid about this. Just put it in the dishwasher; it’ll be fine. The hot water will kill anything left on it, I promise.” She gave me a look, waiting for me to do as she’d said. Reluctantly, I picked up the knife and put it in the dishwasher, making sure it was a safe distance away from all the other utensils. When I closed the door, she said, “Thank you. Now, you guys go talk while I finish up in here. If it makes you feel better, I’ll wear my Hazmat suit.”
“Ha, ha,” I said sarcastically, but I couldn’t help but crack a smile. I knew I was probably overreacting, but better safe than sorry. If I’d been more careful with Howie that night on the cruise, I wouldn’t be in this mess. But I knew better than to say that part out loud, especially with AJ standing right there. He wasn’t smiling, which should have been my first sign that something was seriously wrong.
“C’mon, man, let’s go sit,” he muttered, leading me into the living room.
I flopped down onto the sofa with a sigh. “So what’s up? How’s Howie? I take it you guys sent the statement out already, ‘cause some guy stopped me at the grocery store to ask about him.”
AJ nodded. “Yeah, we did, but…” He shifted his weight awkwardly. “There’s something else you should know.”
“What is it?” In a way, I guess I already knew the gist of what he was going to say, but it still shocked me to hear him say it.
“Howie’s in liver failure.”
My heart sank.
AJ’s voice shook as he continued, “His doctor told us he needs a transplant. If he doesn’t get one soon, like within a week, he’s gonna die.”
My heart stopped. Well, not literally. But for a second, it felt like the whole world stopped. I stared at AJ in disbelief. “Seriously?”
He nodded, pinching the bridge of his nose. For the first time, I noticed that his eyes were red around the edges. He’d been crying on the way over. “I mean, you can only live so long without a working liver, you know?”
“Okay, so… he needs a new liver. And once he gets one, he’ll be fine, right?” I kept trying to tell myself this couldn’t be as bad as AJ was making it sound. Howie couldn’t die.
But AJ shook his head. “He doesn’t want one.”
“He doesn’t wanna have the transplant. His doctor even said they do them in HIV-positive patients now, that his status wouldn’t matter, but Howie told him no. He wants to die.” AJ’s voice broke, and he bent forward, burying his face in his hands to hide the tears in his eyes. I just stared at his crumpled body, not sure what to do or say. I was still trying to process what he’d told me.
He wants to die.
Well, Howie had wanted to die on New Year’s Eve, too, and he would have, if Lauren and I hadn’t gotten him to the hospital in time. Apparently, we had just delayed the inevitable. Maybe it was meant to be.
“Yeah, I guess so,” I said with a sigh.
AJ looked up. Through the tears, his eyes flashed angrily. “What do you mean, you guess so?”
I shrugged. “I’m just sayin’, he did just try to kill himself two days ago. I guess he really does want to die.”
“Well, we’ve gotta stop him!” AJ sputtered. “We’ve gotta change his mind!”
I raised my eyebrows. “AJ… c’mon. You’ve been there, bro. We both have.” I was thinking back to the dark days of addiction. The other guys couldn’t relate, but AJ and I had that in common. As far as I knew, neither of us had ever seriously considered suicide, let alone attempted it, but in the midst of the downward spiral of depression, drinking, and drug use, we’d both come close to killing ourselves accidentally.
“Yeah, and thank god we had good people around us to keep us in check.”
I looked at him skeptically. “You really think there’s anything we could do or say that would change his mind at this point? It sounds like his mind’s made up.”
AJ stared back at me, tears streaming down his face. “Seriously, Nick? I thought my mind was made up, until Kevin broke my damn door down and made me to go to rehab. And you… you were a hot fuckin’ mess, until Lauren came into your life and helped you turn it around.”
I saw a shadow shift in the doorway and knew Lauren was standing on the other side, listening.
“Here’s your chance to pay it forward, Nick. You need to go talk some sense into him. If there’s anyone who can change his mind, it’s you.”
“Me? Why me?” I asked, even though I knew the answer.
“You’re half the reason he’s in the hospital in the first place. I’m not saying it’s your fault,” AJ added quickly, before I could get angry. “I’m just saying, Howie feels really bad about what happened, about what he did to you. He thinks you hate him. You need to convince him otherwise, give him a reason to live. Nothing his family or the other fellas have said seems to be enough, and Leigh’s made it pretty clear she’s not coming. So it all comes down to you.”
“Gee, thanks. No pressure or nothin’,” I muttered sarcastically.
“So does that mean you’ll do it?”
The thought of seeing Howie in the hospital with all those wires and hoses again made my stomach hurt. “I dunno. Just lemme think about it.”
“What’s there to think about?!” AJ stared at me incredulously. “Are you completely heartless? This is Howie we’re talking about here! If he doesn’t get the transplant, he’s going to die! Don’t you get that? The doctor said he’ll be dead within a week. You don’t have time to dick around and ‘think about it.’ You need to go there – now – and talk to him. Tell him you don’t hate him. Tell him you don’t want him to die. Tell him whatever it takes to get him to consent to the surgery!”
As much as I didn’t want to do it, I knew AJ was right. I had to. I had to at least try.
With a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Alright. I’ll go.”