I had been home for about a week when Nick called.
He and Lauren had been checking in with me every day since I’d left their condo, making sure I was still doing okay, so I wasn’t surprised to see his name pop up on my phone. It was weird that he was actually calling me, though. While Lauren liked to talk on the phone, Nick would usually just text. I should have known then that something was wrong.
“Hey, Nick,” I answered uncertainly. “What’s goin’ on?”
“Hey, sorry to bug you, but I need a ride,” Nick said. He sounded upset. “I’m at the AIDS clinic. Can you pick me up?”
I assumed the worst when he said where he was. Something horrible must have happened to him: he was sick or having some kind of reaction to his meds, or he’d just gotten bad news and was too devastated to drive. Whatever was going on, it couldn’t be good if he was calling me for a ride. Where was Lauren? I wondered suddenly. Had something happened to her?
“Sure, bro, I’ll be right there,” I said, my heart racing as I reached for my keys. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I’ll explain when you get here. Just do me a favor and don’t park in the lot, okay? Pull into the alley behind the building, and I’ll come find you.”
“Um… okay,” I said uncertainly. There was definitely something sketchy about Nick asking me to meet him in the alley behind the AIDS clinic, but I owed him the favor, so I didn’t ask any more questions. I just got in my car and drove to the clinic.
I had to circle the block a couple of times before I found the alley he was talking about. When I pulled into it, he was nowhere in sight, so I put the car in park and climbed out. As soon as I started walking toward the clinic, he came out from behind a garbage bin. “Dude, what are you doing?” he hissed. “Get back in the car!”
“Sorry, I didn’t see you,” I said, giving him a weird look. He appeared to be perfectly fine, aside from the panicked expression on his face. “What’s going on, Nick? Why are we sneaking around?”
“Howie, please, just get in the car!” he insisted, climbing into my passenger seat.
I walked back around to the driver’s side and slid behind the wheel. “Okay, we’re in the car,” I said, turning to him. “Now will you tell me what the hell is going on?”
Nick sighed. “I just left Lauren, and I didn’t want her to see where I went.”
“What?!” At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. It took me a second to process what he’d said. “This whole time, you’d been hiding from Lauren? And here I thought you were just worried about paparazzi or something – like they’d be hanging out here, of all places.”
Nick shrugged. “Hey, stranger things have happened.”
“Yeah… like you leaving Lauren? What do you mean, you left her?”
“I mean I literally got out of the car and walked away and left her sitting in the lot over there.”
I gaped at him, as I imagined him doing what he’d just described. It sounded downright silly – and immature, even for Nick. “Why??” I asked, still stunned.
He shrugged again. “She tested negative,” he said.
“But… that’s good!” I exclaimed, struggling to understand how he could see that as a bad thing. Then it dawned on me that maybe he hadn’t done the actual leaving. “Did she… did she not want to be with you now that she knows she doesn’t have it?”
“No…” He scowled. “Exactly the opposite. As soon as we heard the test results, she started talking about sex and trying to start a family and…” He trailed off for a second, shaking his head. “We can’t. We can’t get married.”
“Why not?” I asked gently, although I was starting to see what he was getting at. “You’re worried you’re gonna give it to her? Like I did Leigh?”
He swallowed hard and nodded. “Everyone keeps saying it won’t happen, we can be safe, the risk is so small, blah blah blah, but I know it can happen, even if we’re careful. It happened to me, and it happened to you, and then you gave it to your wife, and she gave it to your son. I can’t let that happen to Lauren. I won’t.”
I’m sure anyone else would have told him he was being overly paranoid or irrational, but I didn’t. I could have reminded him that the only reason he and I were infected is because we hadn’t been careful, but I didn’t. I could have tried to convince him that he and Lauren could avoid the mistakes I’d made, that they could be careful, and that they could make it work… but I didn’t.
I didn’t tell him any of those things because I knew they wouldn’t make any difference. Nick wasn’t dumb; he already knew the facts, but that didn’t change how he felt. No matter how much I tried to ease his mind, he would always worry about putting the people he loved at risk. Had I known I was infected sooner, I’m sure I would have felt the same way. It was too late for me and my family, but not for Nick and his. He was doing what he felt he had to do to save the woman he loved from the same fate, and I couldn’t fault him for that.
“I understand,” I said, putting my hand on his shoulder. For the first time in four months, he didn’t pull away from my touch. “I wish I had walked away. God, I’d give anything to go back and reverse the bad decisions that got us both into this mess. But I can’t.” I gave his shoulder a squeeze. “I’m sorry.”
Nick nodded. “I know. I’m sorry, too. But I’ve learned from our mistakes, and I’m not about to let them happen again with Lauren. I love her too much.” He shook his head, staring out the window. “I know I’m hurting her by doing this, but I’d rather hurt her feelings than her health, you know? At least a broken heart can heal. In the long run, she’ll be better off without me. Hopefully she’ll be able to look back someday and realize that, too.”
I could have told him how wrong he was… but I didn’t. Because at the end of the day, misery loves company, and now, Nick and I were both in the same boat.