Chapter 35


Howie

Two weeks after my transplant, I finally got to go home from the hospital.  Except I didn’t go home.  I went to Nick and Lauren’s house, where I would live until I was able to be on my own.

The two of them picked me up on the day of my discharge.  I was doing a lot better by that point, but I was still pretty weak and sore from the surgery.  Even though I was perfectly capable of walking (slowly), Nick had to push me in a wheelchair all the way down to the patient pick-up area, where Lauren was waiting with the car.  Hospital policy or something.  I also had to wear a surgical mask so I wouldn’t catch anything while my immune system was suppressed, which made it hard to fly under the radar.

Our publicist had released another statement, announcing the news that I’d recently undergone a liver transplant, so it wouldn’t have surprised me to see some paparazzi skulking on the outskirts of the hospital property, trying to take pictures.  Miraculously, though, we managed to make it to Nick’s car without being spotted.

He threw the bag my mom had packed with clothes and things from my house and a box full of stuff from the hospital into the trunk and then helped me into the back seat.  “Dude,” I said, sniffing the air as I buckled up, tucking a pillow between the seat belt and my body to protect my incision.  “Your car stinks.  Did somebody puke back here or something?”

“Uh, that would be your puke, Howie,” Nick replied matter-of-factly, as he slid into the front passenger seat.  “Once you’re recovered, you can clean the upholstery for me.”

He shot me a quick smile to show he wasn’t being serious, but I felt my face heat up as I looked down and saw the stain on his seat.  I’d always been able to hold my liquor before, so seeing the evidence of my uncontrollable vomiting made it hit home just how bad of shape I must have been in when he brought me to the hospital.

“Hey, Howie, you know he’s just kidding, right?” Lauren called from the front, looking at me anxiously in the rearview mirror.

Realizing I hadn’t responded to Nick’s comment, I quickly replied, “Oh… yeah, I know.  But seriously, you guys… I am so sorry.”

“I thought I told you to stop apologizing already,” said Nick.

“And I told you to stop being such an asshole!” I heard Lauren hiss at him under her breath.

I ignored their bickering, still staring at the stain on the back seat.  Up until that point, people had spared me most of the gory details, but there was no doubt in my mind that if Nick and Lauren hadn’t gotten to me when they did, my suicide attempt would have worked.

I still wasn’t totally sure whether or not I was glad that it hadn’t, but I was happy to at least be out of the hospital.  I rolled down my window, inhaling what I realized was my first fresh air of 2014, seeing as how I had been hospitalized since the start of the new year.

I could smell the ocean as we got closer to Nick’s condo, which was really not a bad place to recuperate.  He and Lauren had their guest room all set up for me with fresh, clean sheets on the queen-size bed (Lauren’s touch) and a PlayStation 3 connected to the flat screen TV (Nick’s).  She helped me unpack, putting my clothes away in the dresser drawers, while he showed me a selection of video games.  I’d never been a big gamer, but playing Madden together was one way to avoid any awkwardness or tension between us, since it required no real conversation (trash-talking was acceptable), so that was what we did.

Eventually, I got tired and told Nick I wanted to take a nap.

“Okay.  Get some rest, man,” he said, as he got up to leave.  “You, um, need anything before I go?”

“No, I’m all right.”  I smiled, and Nick nodded, shutting the door behind him on his way out.  He was being unusually nice to me, especially under the circumstances.  I knew I didn’t deserve it.

Based on what I’d overheard in the car, I assumed Lauren had a lot to do with Nick’s new attitude toward me.  He’d already admitted this whole living arrangement had been her idea, and I wondered what she’d done to persuade him to go along with it.  Withhold sex, probably, I thought, smirking to myself.

But then I had to wonder, were they even still having sex?  They seemed happy enough together, and Lauren had sure been supportive of Nick since he got his diagnosis, but I wondered how that would work out, long-term, with him being HIV-positive and her testing negative.  What would Leigh and I have done in that situation?

Unfortunately for us, we would never have the opportunity to find out.

My wife and I were as estranged as ever.  Other than the get well card I’d gotten in the hospital, I hadn’t heard a thing from her since my surgery.  I was pretty sure at least some of my siblings were staying in touch and keeping her updated on my situation, but it still hurt that she hadn’t reached out to me herself.

As long as Leigh was on my mind, I decided to send her a text and tell her I was out of the hospital.  She took a long time to reply; I was half-asleep by the time I heard my phone beep.  Her return text said, simply:  I’m glad to hear that.  Take care of yourself.

I swallowed hard, looking sadly at those two, short sentences.  There was no emotion in them, no words of love or encouragement, not even an emoji or XO.  Nothing to suggest she still loved me or even cared.  I had always thought we’d find a way to work things out, but now I was beginning to wonder if we ever would.

***

The days passed slowly at Nick’s place.  There wasn’t much for me to do, except watch TV and play video games with Nick.  Lauren brought me some books, but I couldn’t read for long without getting distracted or dozing off.  I took about as many naps as I walked laps around the condo, and I would sit out on Nick’s balcony, which overlooked the beach, and watch the ocean for what seemed like hours at a time.

I avoided the internet, not wanting to see what people were saying about me on social media.  The only information we had released was that I had been diagnosed with acute liver failure and undergone a transplant, but there was so much more to the story, I worried about what else would eventually leak out.  Nick would read me well-wishes and words of support from our fans, which I appreciated, but still, I had to wonder what they would say if they knew the whole truth.

I wasn’t used to spending so much time sitting around inside, so it was actually a relief to get out and go to my first follow-up appointment at the hospital, one week after leaving it.  It happened to be the day before Nick’s birthday.

Nick, staying true to his word, took me to my appointment.  We didn’t talk much on the way there; he had his music turned up so loud that I couldn’t even attempt to make conversation – not that it would have mattered much.  While Nick was definitely being much nicer to me than he had been before, he was still pretty distant.

It was easy enough for him to avoid having an actual conversation with me while we were just watching movies or playing games.  Not so much when we were sitting in a waiting room.  First I had to wait to have my blood drawn.  Then I had to wait until my labs were back to meet with my transplant surgeon.  The whole time, Nick sat next to me and played on his phone, barely saying a word.  I picked up a magazine and flipped through it, wishing he would at least make small talk.  The silence was starting to get awkward.

“So… anything special planned for tomorrow night?” I asked at one point, in an attempt to strike up some kind of conversation.

“Nope,” said Nick, not taking his eyes off his phone.

“Oh.  Well, do you want to do something special?”

“Nope.”

I frowned.  “We should do something for your birthday.”

“It’s just another day.  It’s not a big deal.”

“But it’s your birthday!”

“Yeah… my thirty-fourth.  Big friggin’ whoop.  I don’t need to have a party for turning thirty-four.”

“Says the guy who went to Vegas for his last two birthdays,” I reminded him.  “So is thirty-four, like, the cut-off or something?  Thirty-two and thirty-three we can celebrate, but thirty-four?  Hold the phone!  You’re in your mid-thirties now; no more celebrations for you.”

Nick rolled his eyes.  “God, shut up about it already.  It’s not your birthday, so why do you even care?”

Because I care about you, I thought, watching him sadly.  He was in a similar place in life as I had been at thirty-four:  engaged to a longtime girlfriend and just a few months away from getting married.  But while Leigh and I had looked forward to our future with hope and happiness, Nick and Lauren were dealing with an incurable illness that threatened to shorten their time together.  Maybe that was what was weighing on his mind, as we sat there arguing over whether or not he should celebrate his birthday.

“I dunno, Nick, I just thought it would be nice to focus on something happy for once.  We haven’t had a lot of that lately.”

“Gee, whose fault is that?” he replied, flashing me a wry smile.  Whether he was kidding or not, I wasn’t sure, but the comment hurt.  Maybe Nick was getting to the point where he could joke around about this, but I just wasn’t there yet.

Sighing, I said, “Well, at least let me do something for you, then.  Is there anything you want?  I’d love to get you a gift.”

Nick snorted.  “You’ve already given me a gift, Howie… the gift that keeps on giving.”  He looked up at me and grinned again.

I guess I walked right into that one, but it still stung.  The worst part was, even though he was smirking, there was something in his eyes that made me think he had wanted to hurt my feelings.  Well, he’d succeeded.

I stood up suddenly – and instantly regretted it, since any sudden movements made my incision scream with agonizing pain.  “I’m gonna go to the bathroom,” I managed to say, as I started to walk away, slightly hunched over, with my hand on my abdomen.

“Hey, wait – you need any help?” he called after me.

I wheeled around – slowly this time.  “Why, you wanna hold my dick for me?” I hissed, keeping my voice low so the people sitting on the other side of the waiting room wouldn’t hear me.  “Don’t bother – you already pissed all over me, so what difference would it make at this point?”

Nick’s eyes widened; he wasn’t used to me going off on him like that.  I left him like that and went to find the men’s room, where I could hide out for a few minutes.

Did I really have the right to be mad about Nick’s snide little remarks? I asked myself, as I stood at the sink, looking in the mirror.  Probably not.  I had done this to him.  He had every right to be angry at me, and if he was using his sick sense of humor to work through that anger, who was I to stand in his way?  I had to learn to laugh along with him and not let it get to me.

When I got back to the waiting room, Nick glanced up and said, “Sorry, dude.  I shouldn’t have said that stuff.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“Yeah, you did,” I said, as I sat down next to him.  “But it’s okay.  I deserved it.”

Nick shook his head.  “No, you don’t.  Not anymore.  You’ve already suffered the consequences, and now I’m just rubbing salt in your wounds.  I’m sorry.”

Struck by this sudden show of maturity, I smiled and nodded.  “Thanks, Nick.  I appreciate that.”

“No problem,” he replied and picked up his phone again.

So much for making conversation, I thought.  We went back to sitting in silence until the nurse finally called my name.  “You can come with, if you want,” I said to Nick, as I stood up.

He shook his head.  “I’ll wait here.”

“Suit yourself.”  I wasn’t surprised, though; of course he would be uncomfortable coming into the exam room with me.  And once Dr. Parker took off the sterile dressing and started poking around at my incision, I was glad Nick wasn’t there to see it.  It was pretty gross-looking, an upside-down Y that went from the center of my chest to the bottom of both sides of my ribcage.  With the staples still in, it looked like I had train tracks running across my torso.  I felt like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn back together with parts from dead bodies.  Really, it wasn’t that far from the truth.

Dr. Parker, however, seemed pleased with how the incision was healing and said, “Everything’s looking good, Howie.  How would you like those staples removed?”

The thought of him taking out the only thing holding my skin together scared me a little, but I replied, “Sure, if you think I’m ready.”

“It’s been three weeks since your surgery, right?” he asked, and I nodded.  “Then, yup, I’d say you’re ready.”

It hurt less than I would have expected.  He replaced the staples with tiny strips of tape and said, “The Steri-strips should fall off on their own, but if they’re still there in ten days, you can peel them off.”

“Okay, thanks.”

“Now, let’s talk about your labs,” said Dr. Parker next.  “Everything looks fine so far:  no signs of rejection or infection, and your liver enzymes are in the normal range, meaning your new liver is working like it should.  Your CD4 count did drop, which we expected after stopping your antiretroviral therapy and starting the immunosuppressant regimen, but before it goes any lower, I’d like to revisit our conversation about your medication.”

He asked me all kinds of questions about my meds – how well I’d been following the dosing schedule, what side effects I’d experienced, and so on.  Apparently, he had already been in contact with my HIV doctor, and they had come up with a plan for putting me on new anti-HIV medication that wouldn’t interact with the immunosuppressant drugs I was already taking.

I left the hospital that day with several more prescriptions, doubling the total number of pills I’d be taking per day.  Up until that point, I hadn’t realized how good I’d had it with the one-a-day triple cocktail I’d tried to overdose on.  I couldn’t take a combination pill like that anymore because of the possible drug interactions, which made everything much more complicated.

“Holy shit,” said Nick, as he handed me a bulging bag of prescription bottles in the pharmacy drive-thru.  “And here I thought I had a ton of pills to take.”

“Well, don’t take too many and destroy your liver, ‘cause lemme tell you, this really sucks,” I replied, tucking the bag between my feet.

“I don’t doubt that.  Anything else you need to do before we head home?” he asked, as we pulled out of the parking lot.

“Actually, yeah.  Take a left up here,” I said, pointing.

“Where, at the car wash?”

“Yep.  I decided what to give you for your birthday:  a full detail on your car, inside and out.”  I glanced over at him and smiled.  “We’ve gotta get rid of that puke smell.”

***


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