First thing Monday morning, my phone rang. When I saw Brian’s name and number pop up on the screen, my heart dropped into my stomach.
“Howie’s dead, isn’t he?” was how I answered. I held my breath, bracing myself for what I was about to hear.
“No, Nick, it’s good news!” Brian said. “They found a liver for him.”
All of the air rushed out of my lungs, as I let out the breath I’d been holding.
Lauren and I got to the hospital just as they were getting ready to wheel Howie out of the ICU. He was already on a gurney in the hallway; that’s how close we came to almost missing him.
“I’m glad you guys came,” Pollyanna greeted us, giving AJ, Kevin, Brian, and me big hugs. She looked exhausted, poor thing, and I wondered if she and her family had just beaten us there themselves or if they had been there all night. “Someone from the transplant team told us the liver isn’t here yet, but it should be soon, so they’re gonna go ahead and get him prepped for surgery. We’ve already said our goodbyes, so you guys go for it. We’ll be in the waiting room.”
Her voice sounded shaky, and even though she was smiling, I saw tears in her eyes. As she put her arm around her mother to walk her back to the waiting room, I could tell she was trying not to cry. Angie and John went with them, leaving the four of us guys and Lauren alone in the hall with Howie and the two orderlies who were supposed to be taking him into surgery. They stood out of the way as we each took a turn with Howie.
Brian, Kevin, AJ, and Lauren all went ahead of me. When it was my turn to step up to the gurney, I didn’t know what to say. Howie was still unconscious, looking the same way he had the night before. I wrapped my hand around his and gave it a squeeze. “Hang in there, Howie,” I whispered, and then I stepped back and watched as they wheeled him away, fully aware of the fact that it might be the last time I saw him alive. This surgery was supposed to save his life, but he had to survive it first.
“The doctor said it can take anywhere from four to eight hours,” Polly warned us when we joined the Dorough family in the waiting room. “Don’t feel like you have to hang out here the whole time.”
The guys and I exchanged glances, shrugging at each other. Kevin spoke first. “We’ve got nowhere else we need to be,” he said, and Brian and AJ nodded in agreement. I looked at Lauren, and she nodded, too. It was settled. We were staying.
And so, we waited.
For the first hour, we sat and speculated about the donor of Howie’s new liver – who he or she was, where he or she lived, and what had happened to him or her. We said a prayer for the donor and one for Howie’s doctors and another one for Howie himself.
In the second hour, the storytelling started again. “Kev, you remember the apartment we shared with Howie back in the day?” Brian asked.
Kevin chuckled. “How could I forget? He probably hated living with the two of us. He was such a neat freak, and we kept that place a pig sty. He was always goin’ around cleaning up after us.”
“Yeah, and complaining about your cat’s litter box,” Brian added with a grin.
“Quincy!” Kevin smiled. “God, he hated that cat. Quincy could tell, too, and would always jump up onto his lap just to piss him off.”
Everyone laughed at that.
“Howie never was much of an animal lover,” said Angie. “He was afraid of dogs when he was little.”
“I think he was even afraid of my chihuahuas!” exclaimed Brian.
When the laughter had died down, AJ said, “How about Howie’s Jesus hair?”
“Hey, now, don’t knock the Jesus hair,” Kevin protested. “Long hair was in back then!
That led to a heated debate over who had the best and worst hair for Black and Blue.
After the third hour, AJ said, “Hey, is anyone else hungry? I could go on a donut run.”
No one else seemed too interested in eating, including me, but I jumped on the opportunity to get out of there for awhile. “Good idea. I’ll go with you.”
Lauren gave me a look, probably because donuts weren’t on her list of immune-boosting superfoods, but I ignored it and followed AJ out of the waiting room. “I couldn’t stand sitting in there for another second,” he confessed, once we were a safe distance down the hall.”
I laughed with relief. “And here I thought it was just me.”
“No way, man. Waiting sucks.”
“Feels good to get out of there and stretch my legs,” I agreed.
“Yeah. Let’s find the furthest doughnut shop within walking distance, okay? We can kill some time that way.”
Our definitions of what qualified as “walking distance” were different, but we ended up going to Bob’s Doughnuts, about eight blocks from the hospital, which killed almost an hour and gave the two of us plenty of time to talk.
“So, where do you and Howie stand these days?” AJ asked as we walked. “Have you forgiven him?”
I frowned. “Forgiven him? For giving me HIV? Dude, I don’t know if I can. I mean, I don’t hate the guy anymore, but I dunno if I forgive him either…” I shook my head; it was too hard to talk about this stuff. “Look, can we just not talk about Howie for awhile? I thought that was the whole point of this, to get away from all that bullshit back at the hospital.”
“Whatever floats your boat, man,” said AJ. “For what it’s worth… I’m sorry this happened to you. Both of you. And whatever was going on with you guys before, I won’t judge. I just want you to know that.”
“I’m not gay,” I said quickly, “if that’s what you’re thinking. He came on to me, and I was too drunk to do anything about it. That’s how it happened. But seriously, dawg, I don’t wanna talk about it anymore.”
“Okay, okay, I get it. Let’s talk about something else.”
But as it turned out, there was nothing left to talk about. Everything else seemed trivial to us while we knew Howie was in the hospital, having his liver replaced. We walked the rest of the way in silence.
When we got back to the waiting room, Lauren looked at us incredulously. “What took you so long?? We were getting worried.” I could tell she was speaking for herself; she had been worried – about me, specifically.
“We didn’t feel like driving, so we walked,” I said, shrugging. “Anything happen while we were gone?”
She shook her head. “Nothing.”
“Shouldn’t we have heard something by now?” asked Polly. “I mean, at least an update of some kind? It’s been almost four hours.”
“I think no news is probably good news at this point,” replied Kevin. “If something had… happened, they would have come to talk to us by now.”
“Donuts, anyone? “asked AJ, opening the box. Kevin looked at him in disgust. He passed the box around, but only he and Brian and I took one. None of us were able to finish. I nibbled at the edge of mine, but it tasted too sweet. It made me feel sick to my stomach. I tossed it into the trash, just as the door to the waiting room opened and two women walked into the room.
One of them was wearing blue scrubs, while the other had on a suit and heels. Since the second one obviously hadn’t been in the operating room with Howie, it occurred to me that she might be a grief counselor or something, and what little I’d eaten of the donut threatened to come up again.
“Are you all here for Howie?” asked the woman in scrubs, smiling around the room at us, and that made me feel a little better. Surely she wouldn’t be smiling if she’d come to tell us that Howie was dead. We nodded, and she said, “I’m Erika; I’m a nurse on Howie’s transplant team. I know you guys have been waiting for awhile, so I wanted to give you an update.”
Out of the corners of my eyes, I saw everyone sit up a little straighter, leaning forward in their chairs. I never took my eyes off Erika’s face, trying to read her expression.
“Everything is going as expected so far. The donor liver looks great, and Dr. Parker, the surgeon, is in the process of attaching it as we speak. It’ll probably take another two hours or so.”
“Oh, thank God,” I heard Howie’s mother murmur.
Erika smiled. “While you’re waiting, I wanted to introduce you to Amanda Knight. She’s a social worker on our team.”
Ms. Knight stepped forward. “Hi there. It’s nice to see such a large support system here for Howie. He’s going to need that support after the transplant, and that’s what I came to talk to you about today. Would you mind if I took a few minutes of your time?” she asked, looking around the room.
“Go ahead. We’ve got plenty of it,” said John.
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, it’s quite the intricate process, isn’t it?” At that point, the nurse, Erika, excused herself, and the social worker sat down in a chair across from Howie’s family. “I wanted to give you some information about what to expect after the surgery. Assuming the new liver is functioning properly, Howie will probably spend at least another two weeks in the hospital. It could be longer. We don’t know how Howie’s body will react to his new organ. Episodes of rejection are a common complication. Even after Howie is discharged, he’ll need to stay here in L.A. so he’s close to the hospital in case he does have any complications. He will need to have a support system in place. He won’t be able to drive for at least four weeks and will be limited in what other daily activities he can do, so he’ll need someone to stay with him and help out. From what I read in his file, I understand that he and his wife are estranged?”
I saw Howie’s siblings exchange awkward glances. “Yes,” said Angie. “She’s living in New Jersey now.”
Ms. Knight nodded. “Then have you given any thought to who will be taking care of Howie?”
They looked at each other again. “I’m sure one of us will stay,” said Polly, but I noticed she didn’t volunteer herself right away.
“I’ll stay,” said Howie’s mother. “He’s my son.”
John cleared his throat. “I’m not sure that’s the best idea. No offense, Mom, but you’re… well, you’re not as young as you were when Caroline or even Dad was sick. What if Howie were to fall or something? You wouldn’t be strong enough to lift him off the floor.”
“Well, then I’d call for help,” Mama D replied.
“That’s silly, Mama,” said Angie. “One of us will stay.”
“And what about your families? Your careers?” Howie’s mother looked around at her three children. “You all have lives back in Florida; you can’t just up and leave them for weeks, maybe months at a time. We don’t know how long this will last.”
“The total recovery time takes about three to six months,” Ms. Knight put in helpfully.
“See?” said Mama D. “That’s much too long to uproot your lives. I’ll stay.”
“Mrs. Dorough, you don’t have to do that,” Kevin spoke up suddenly. “None of you should have to stay that long. Why don’t you let us help?” He gestured to himself and us guys. “We all have homes here; Howie can live with one of us until he’s back on his feet. Right, AJ?” I saw him give AJ a significant glance and was glad he’d left me out of it.
“Oh, uh- sure!” AJ replied, though he had obviously been caught off-guard. He recovered quickly, though, and added, “Paula, Howie’s my oldest friend; you know I’d do anything for him. He could crash at my place.”
“You guys have little kids!” Lauren exclaimed. I looked over at her in surprise, but she ignored me. “That’s not gonna be good for them, having someone in the house who needs so much of your attention. It might even be scary for them. And it may not be good for Howie to be around them either. I assume he’s going to be taking immunosuppressant drugs, and little kids can be germy. We don’t want him to get any sicker. That’s why I think he should just stay with Nick and me.”
I coughed loudly, almost choking on whatever donut crumbs were still stuck in my throat. AJ, Kevin, and Brian all looked from me to Lauren and back again, their eyes bugging out, but no one said anything because neither Howie’s family, nor this social worker, knew about me and Howie.
Ms. Knight looked at Lauren with interest. “And how are you related to Howie?”
“He’s a good friend of the family,” answered Lauren. “My fiancé Nick here is his best friend.”
With Howie’s mother and siblings looking at me, I had no choice but to nod my head, as if I agreed. I tried to think of some excuse why Howie couldn’t stay with us, but I couldn’t think of anything except the truth, and I knew better than to let all that come spilling out. It had been bad enough at Q’s funeral, but here at the hospital, in front of Howie’s family, while we were waiting to hear if he’d made it out of surgery or not? It would have been the worst time imaginable.
“And you live here in L.A.?” asked the social worker.
“Yes, we have a beachfront condo with plenty of room for Howie,” Lauren said with a smile.
What are you doing?? I asked her silently, my eyes boring into the side of her head, but she wouldn’t look at me. She obviously knew exactly what she was doing, but I wondered why she would do this to me. To us.
“And Nick, are you in agreement with this as well?” Ms. Knight asked me.
There was my chance, my one opportunity to be honest and say, “Hell no!” But then I saw the way Mama D was smiling at me, her eyes – Howie’s eyes – full of tears, and I knew I couldn’t say no. I sighed, pretending to stifle a yawn, and said, “Yeah, sure. Why wouldn’t I be?”
As soon as I was sure no one was looking, I shot Lauren the meanest glare I’d ever given her. She caught my eye for just a second, smiled at me, and then looked away.
What the fuck? I wondered.
After the social worker was done with us, I stood up slowly and said, quite calmly, “I’m gonna get some air. Wanna come with me, babe?” I looked down at Lauren.
She smiled sweetly up at me. “Sure, babe.” She took my arm and said, “We’ll be back,” over her shoulder as we walked out of the waiting room.
I waited until we were alone in the elevator, and then I exploded on her. “What the fuck, Lauren?! Why did you do that??”
“Don’t you dare scream at me,” she snapped, holding up her hand. “I’m doing this for you.”
“What?! How do you-?”
“Stop. You need to get over this, Nick. This whole thing with Howie… It’s going to ruin your life, not to mention our relationship, if you don’t let it go.”
“HE GAVE ME HIV, Lauren!” I screamed. “That isn’t gonna fucking go away! My life is already ruined!”
“Oh, really?” She raised her eyebrow. “Well, if your life’s ruined, then I guess mine is too, huh? Is that what you’re saying?”
At that moment, the elevator doors slid open on the first floor. Lauren stalked out into the lobby without waiting for an answer, while I chased after her like a pathetic puppy. We didn’t say another word to each other until we were in the car with the doors closed, and then she turned to me with tears in her eyes.
“Tell me, why should I be with you if you’re going to let this ruin both of our lives?”
I blinked in surprise. Why was she acting like this was some decision I’d made, like I’d had any choice in the matter? It was already done; my diagnosis wasn’t going to change.
But then I realized I did have a choice. I could do the right thing. I could choose to let go.
Swallowing hard, I took a deep breath. “You shouldn’t,” I said. “You shouldn’t be with me.” I saw her eyes widen, but I went on, “This may have destroyed my life, but it doesn’t have to drag you down with it. If you don’t have the virus, you shouldn’t have to stay with me. And, god forbid, if it turns out that you do… then I wouldn’t blame you for leaving me, like Leigh.”
“But I don’t want to leave you, Nick,” Lauren insisted. “I love you! I’ll be with you through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. Isn’t that what we agreed to when we got engaged?”
“We haven’t taken those vows yet. You don’t owe me anything, Lauren.”
“No, you owe me. For the last month, I’ve had to listen to you whine about how much you hate Howie, how he ruined your life, yadda, yadda, yadda. I’m sick of it, Nick! You have every right to be angry, but enough is enough! You can’t go on like this, or it is going to ruin you. You’ve got to find a way to move on with your life. I just opened a door for you to do it.”
I looked at her incredulously. “You think living with the man who gave me HIV is gonna help me get over it?”
“You think avoiding him will?” she countered. “You’ve got to face this, Nick. Face him. I figured this would force you to do it.”
“Oh, so now you’re forcing me?”
Lauren shrugged. “Think of it as exposure therapy. I’m exposing you to the thing that makes you uncomfortable to help you get over those feelings.”
“Sounds like a bunch of bullshit to me,” I scoffed.
“Well, we’ll see, won’t we?” she said with a little smile, and then, wiping her eyes, she opened the car door and climbed out. I watched her walk back across the parking lot toward the hospital, and after a few seconds, I knew I had no choice but to follow. With a huge sigh, I got out of the car and slammed the door as hard as I could.
When we walked back into the waiting room, Howie’s mother stood up and gave us both big hugs. “Thank you so much for your kindness,” she said tearfully, squeezing me tightly. “Howie’s had such a hard time lately with everything that’s happened, but he’s lucky to have friends like you.”
“You’re welcome, Mrs. Dorough,” I mumbled, forcing a smile onto my face as I reminded myself that what she didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
As it turned out, Howie was lucky. After seven hours in the operating room, the surgeon finally showed up to tell us that Howie had pulled through. “He’s not out of the woods yet,” the doctor warned us. “We’ll continue to monitor him closely in the ICU for the next couple of days to make sure the new liver takes and see if his kidney function returns. He’s still got a rough road to recovery ahead of him, but hopefully the worst is over now.”
“Thank you so much, Doctor,” said Mama D. “God bless you for saving my son. May we see him?”
“He’s still in recovery, but once he’s been moved back into ICU, immediate family members may visit one at a time, just for a few minutes each.”
Once the surgeon left, Howie’s siblings started talking all at once, trying to organize the visitation order of who was going to see Howie first, second, and so on. I tuned them out and sat back in my chair, finally able to relax for the first time all day. Howie was okay, and since I wasn’t considered immediate family, I wouldn’t have to face him again right away. For the time being, I was off the hook. The sense of relief I felt was overwhelming.
Even so, it was only a temporary reprieve. Now that Lauren had volunteered us to take in Howie after he left the hospital, I knew we’d be seeing a lot of each other soon enough. I wasn’t sure how I was going to handle that, but at least I had a few days to figure it out.