Chapter 31


Howie

Some would say I was living a lie, but the truth was, I loved my wife and the life we had before this happened.

It wasn’t like it all happened out of the blue, though.  I had been struggling with my sexuality since I was a teenager, but I’d tried to stifle the feelings I felt for other boys, knowing I would face disapproval from my parents and condemnation from my Catholic faith if I dared to pursue them.  So I didn’t.  In fact, I went in the opposite direction, fashioning myself as a ladies man, the “Latin Lover” of the Backstreet Boys.  Once the group got going, I felt I was expected to live like the cheesy love songs we were singing, so I found girlfriends all over the world.  We would hook up whenever I was in their country, and I would whisper sweet nothings in their ear one night and be gone the next morning, off to wherever the tour took me.

When I met Leigh in 2000, everything changed.  She had been hired to work on our website, and we became fast friends.  She was fun and easy to talk to – and yes, easy on the eyes, too.  Even though I was still having feelings for guys, I found her attractive.  It didn’t feel like a lie when I finally asked her to marry me on New Year’s Eve, six years after we started dating.  I wanted so badly to be in love with a woman, and Leigh was the one – the only woman for me.

She was already five months pregnant with James when my feelings for Nick developed.  That didn’t happen out of the blue, either, but I do remember the day when I first realized I felt more for him than friendship.

It was February of 2009, and we had flown to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a few days of rehearsal before we started our South American leg of the Unbreakable tour.  Up until that time, Nick had always been like the annoying little brother I’d never had and never wanted.  He loved to play pranks on me, taking pictures of me and putting things in my mouth while I slept, licking my face and telling everyone I tasted like hot sauce.  Brian and AJ may have thought he was funny, but I found him obnoxious.  Of course, I loved him like a brother, but we weren’t particularly close back then.

Our world tour for Unbreakable was a rough one for all of us, both professionally and personally.  It was our first time touring without Kevin, and it followed an album that was a critical and commercial failure, only reaching number 7 on the Billboard chart, a far cry from the success of our earlier albums, like Millennium.  We had always known how fickle the music business could be, but it was still disappointing to see our star power fading.  To make matters worse, AJ was drinking again, my father was diagnosed with cancer, and Nick… well, Nick was a hot mess.

At the time the tour started in 2008, he was still acting like an immature college kid, hanging out with a group of friends who were no good for him and partying way too hard, while I was dealing with grown-up stuff.  I was too busy trying to be a good husband to my new wife and a good son to my dying father to worry about Nick.  When he was off in his own world, doing drugs and drinking too much, he didn’t want me around anyway, so I just left him alone and focused on my family.

After my dad died that summer, exactly one month after our last show on the European leg of the tour, we still had another month off before the North American leg began.  I didn’t see or hear much from Nick during that time off, but as I later discovered, he had spent the break trying to get his life back together.  When we reunited at the end of July, he looked better – healthier – than he had the last time I’d seen him at my father’s funeral in June.  He had lost some weight and was sober for the first time in who knows how long.

In all honesty, I didn’t think it would last, at least not at first.  It never had before with Nick; he would change his ways for awhile, then slip up and fall back into his old bad habits.  But something had happened to him over that break, something truly life-changing.  He had finally gotten the wake-up call he needed when he was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy.  The doctor warned him that the damage to his weakened heart would worsen and lead to an early death if he didn’t adopt a healthier lifestyle immediately.  So he did.

The effects of his lifestyle change weren’t instantaneous, and while I was seeing him every day on our U.S. tour, I didn’t notice the subtle changes in his appearance as he started slimming down.  But after another three months apart, when I picked up a copy of People magazine at the airport and opened it to the article about him, my mouth dropped open in disbelief.

Damn, I thought, as I stared down at the photo spread that showed off his dramatic weight loss.  Nicky looks good!   I felt the familiar stirring of forbidden feelings as I admired the shirtless photos of him flaunting his chiseled new physique.  It wasn’t just his trading the six-packs of beer for six-pack abs that turned me on; it was that, for the first time in a long time, Nick looked happy, healthy, and… okay, fine, I’ll admit it:  hot.

But I had never felt that way about Nick before, and it scared me.  I had always been able to keep my feelings for other men a secret, shoved down deep inside me where they could be safely suppressed, but it wouldn’t be so easy if I felt that way about my friend, especially not while I was spending every day on the road with him.

When I saw him at the hotel in San Juan, I said, “You look great, Nicky!” and gave him a hug.  For the first time in as long as I’d known him, I could feel not just fat and bone, but actual muscle rippling in his back and shoulders as I wrapped my arms around his lanky frame.  He still dwarfed me in height, but he really wasn’t much bigger around than me anymore.

“Thanks.”  When I released him, he was grinning from ear to ear.  Even his face had changed.  I could see his cheekbones and jawline, which had been hidden for years by his puffy face.  His eyes, no longer bloodshot and clouded by whatever controlled substance he was high on at the time, were clear and shone with pride.  I’d forgotten how crystal blue they could be.  It sounds cheesy, but for the first time in a long time, Nick just seemed high on life.

He was actually pleasant to be around on that leg of the tour, and his positive new attitude rubbed off on the rest of us.  Until then, I hadn’t been happy about going back on tour; I’d been in a funk since my father’s death, and although I was looking forward to the birth of my first baby, it had been hard leaving my pregnant wife back home while I flew off to a completely different continent.  But once I was with my Backstreet brothers, I started to enjoy myself.  Nick and I spent a lot of time together on that leg of the tour.  Brian had brought Leighanne and Baylee along, like always, so they had a bus to themselves, and AJ was all obsessed with his new girlfriend, Rochelle, so while he would go back to his bunk and Skype with her, Nick and I would sit up at the front of the bus and talk to each other.

One night, after we’d gotten tired of eavesdropping on AJ having phone sex with Rochelle, I asked him, “So, are you still seeing that girl you had the blind date with before our last leg?”  I remembered him talking about some woman his sister had set him up with.

“Who, Lauren?  Actually, yeah, we hung out a lot over the break.  We’re taking it slow, but so far, things are going good.”  He kept his voice casual, but a little smile tugged at the corners of his mouth that told me things were more than “good.”  I could tell this girl made him happy.  But then, so had Paris Hilton, at the time.

“Slow is good,” I said, with a note of warning in my voice, “but hey, I’m glad to hear it.  You seem genuinely happy.”

He nodded, letting the smile spread all the way across his face.  “I am.  To be honest, I haven’t been this happy in a long time.”

“I know.”  I patted his arm.  “Not to sound like Kevin, but I’m proud of you, Nicky.”

And for once, he didn’t roll his eyes or crack a joke.  All he said was, “Thanks, bro; that means a lot.”

I smiled back at him.  It was nice to have this new, more mature version of Nick on my side, to be able to sit and talk with him like two adults instead of always being the target of his stupid jokes.  Suddenly, the six or so years that separated us in age seemed like nothing.

Then he said, “Be right back” and went into the tour bus’s tiny bathroom.  He was in there for a few minutes, and when he finally came back out, the smell that wafted with him was like something out of one of the horror movies he always made me watch.  Seriously, it was one of the worst things I’ve ever smelled in my life, and since I’d spent about fifteen years of it onstage with four sweaty guys, that’s saying something.

“Good god, Nick, did something die in there?” I gasped, opening the window to try to let in some fresh air before we all died of methane poisoning.  “You know you’re not supposed to do that on the bus!”

Nick shrugged.  “I was just going to piss, but then I got in there and felt that feeling coming on –  you know, when you think it’s only a fart but you aren’t quite sure – and then-”

“Okay, enough!” I yelled, holding up my hand to stop him from saying any more.  “I get the idea without you going into graphic detail.”

He grinned.  “Hey, you should be thanking me, bro; I’m just trying to prepare you for the smells you’ll have in your house once Leigh pops that kid out.”

I laughed.  “There is no way my baby’s worst blow-out will ever smell as bad as this bus does right now.  God, what did you eat?”

“Heh,” Nick giggled, “Lauren’s got me on this wheatgrass kick, and it kinda gives me diarrhea.”

“Way to overshare, and sorry I asked,” I said, looking at him in disgust.  “So that’s the shit you’ve been drinking in those shakes that look like… well… shit?”

“Yup,” he replied proudly.

“Ugh,” I groaned, pressing my face against the glass window to try to get a whiff of fresh air.  “You better not have busted the toilet.”

“I didn’t!  I mean… I don’t think I did.  Guess we won’t know for sure until the next flush.”

“We’ll let AJ test it out,” I said, and we both laughed.

I don’t understand how I fell for Nick – someone who, even at his best, was still pretty obnoxious and so unlike me.  Opposites attract, I guess.  Despite our differences in age, maturity, and lifestyle, I was struck by how attracted I suddenly was to him.

Obviously, I never told Nick this, at least not until the cruise, but he enjoyed all the attention he was suddenly getting from me.  We spent more and more time together as the tour rolled on, and when it ended a few weeks later, we were better friends than we had ever been before.  Back in the day, it was always Brian and Nick, Frick and Frack, and I hung out with Kevin or AJ.  It was nice getting to know Nick as the person he was now, not the crazy kid he’d been then.

Of course, I knew the secret feelings I harbored for him had the potential to change our friendship forever.  I just never imagined it would happen this way.

***


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