I stayed at Howie’s house that night, and in the morning, he dropped me off at my condo so I could pack some things and pick up my car.
“Thank god you’re home,” said Lauren as soon as I got inside, hurrying over to give me a hug. “I was worried about you. Where the hell did you go?” She glanced out the window next to the front door, watching Howie drive away. “Have you been with Howie this whole time?”
I shook off her embrace. “I told you I was fine.” I’d texted her once to tell her that, just so she would know I wasn’t still out wandering the streets of L.A.
After I’d left her, I had walked around the block and ended up in the alley beside the AIDS clinic, where I hung out behind a garbage can (which was probably full of biohazardous waste) like a little kid playing hide and seek, until Howie came to get me. It was pathetic, but I didn’t know if Lauren was still waiting in the parking lot or driving around looking for me, and I didn’t want her to find me. I had already said what I needed to say; there was no point in rehashing it all again. I’d ignored all of her calls and texts, except to send the one letting her know I was okay, and eventually, she had stopped trying to contact me.
“Can we please talk about this?” she asked, following me back to our bedroom. I should have known she wouldn’t give up on me that easily.
“What else is there to say?” I walked into the closet and pulled a suitcase down from the top shelf. “I don’t wanna marry you anymore, end of story.” I knew I was being an asshole, but that was part of my plan: I had to make her so mad, she wouldn’t want to marry me anymore, either.
“Well, I don’t accept that!” She moved out of the way as I walked past her with the luggage. “What are you doing?”
I laid my bag out on the bed. “I told you,” I said, as I started unzipping it. “I’m leaving.”
“Well, where are you going?”
I shrugged, sidestepping her again as I went back into the closet. “I dunno. Haven’t decided yet,” I said, pulling clothes out at random and piling them up on the floor. “Don’t worry, though, you can keep the condo. I don’t need it.”
“I don’t care about the condo! I care about you,” said Lauren, as she stood in the doorway watching me destroy her carefully-organized closet. “I love you, Nick, and I know you still love me, too. Don’t even try to tell me you don’t, because I won’t believe you.”
“I do love you, Lauren,” I admitted, walking out with an armload of clothes, which I stuffed into the suitcase. “That’s why I’m doing this. You deserve better.”
“Better than what? You? Because you’re sick?” she asked. “What about our wedding vows? ‘In sickness and in health’ – sound familiar?”
“We haven’t taken those vows yet,” I pointed out, squashing the pile of clothes so they’d fit. “You don’t owe me anything.”
“Well, I don’t need to wait another six weeks to say those words. I’ll say them to you right now.” She grabbed me by the arm and spun me around so that we were face to face. With her hands on my shoulders, she looked into my eyes and said, “Nick, I promise to love you, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part. I do.”
I let out my breath in a shuddering sigh. Then I took both of her hands off my shoulders and squeezed them in mine. For a second, it felt like we were actually standing at the altar, about to become husband and wife. But only for a second, because I knew that was as close as we would ever get.
“Thank you. But I don’t,” I said and dropped her hands. Lauren gaped at me in disbelief, but I quickly dropped my gaze. I couldn’t stand to look at her and see the hurt in her eyes. It’s for the best, I told myself, turning away from her.
“What if the situation were reversed?” she asked, as I went into the bathroom to pack up my meds. I could hear her voice shaking and tell she was close to crying. “If I was HIV-positive and you weren’t, would you leave me then? Or expect me to leave you?”
I shook my head as I came back out of the bathroom. “It doesn’t matter because that’s not how it is. I’m the one who’s infected,” I said, cramming the prescription bottles into an inside pocket of my suitcase, “and unless they find a cure for it in my lifetime, I’m never gonna get better. I’m only gonna get worse, and then you’d be stuck dealing with it. You’d be the one watching me slowly die. I’m not gonna do that to you, Lauren. I’m not gonna marry you only to make you a widow someday.”
Lauren laughed scornfully through her tears. “Do you know how stupid that sounds? In every marriage, someone ends up widowed. We’re all gonna die someday, and one of us has to be the first to go. It could just as easily be me. Hell, Nick, I could drop dead the day after our wedding, and then you’d be a widower. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to marry you. To me, love is worth taking a little risk.”
“Well, not to me,” I said, slamming the suitcase shut. “I won’t risk it, Lauren. The wedding’s off. I’m leaving.”
Then I walked out, dragging my baggage along with me.
I went back to Howie’s house because, of all people, I knew he would be the most understanding. That was why I had called him in the first place.
“You can stay here as long as you like,” he said, helping me unload the car. “I owe you for letting me live with you after my surgery.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Speaking of which, you shouldn’t be lifting that.” I shot him a quick smile as I grabbed the handle of my suitcase out of his hand. “You can get the door.”
“Got it.” He grinned back, seeming genuinely happy to have me there. He probably saw it as a sign that we were friends again. And by that point, I guess we were.
We went inside, and I dropped my stuff off in his spare bedroom, where I’d slept the night before. The little neat freak had already remade the bed for me. I arranged my medications across the bathroom counter, realizing I’d already missed both my morning doses and the ones from the night before.
I popped open my pill organizer, which Lauren had helped me fill every week since I started treatment. It had become a part of our Sunday night routine to set all the prescription bottles out on the kitchen table and sort my medication for the upcoming week into the fourteen compartments. I was going to miss my fiancée tomorrow, when it came time to refill all those compartments by myself. Truthfully, I missed her already.
I shook the Saturday morning meds out into my hand and swallowed the whole mouthful with a swig of water from the tumbler Howie had left out for me. Over the past two months, I’d gotten pretty good at taking a ton of pills at a time. My gag reflex was all but gone.
I took another drink of water to get rid of the bad taste in my mouth, then went to find Howie. He was sitting outside on the patio, playing with his phone.
“You back from your internet vacation?” I asked.
“Yeah…” He sighed. “The media found out Leigh filed for divorce, so I gotta do damage control and make sure the fans aren’t dragging her name through the mud too much. Without knowing the whole story, it’ll look like my wife just up and left me after my liver transplant, which doesn’t exactly paint her in the best light. But she doesn’t deserve to be harassed.”
“Oh man… I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that had leaked out.”
“It just happened yesterday. You had other things on your mind.” He glanced up at me, offering a grim smile. “Anyway, Leigh’s pretty private and doesn’t follow fans on social media, so maybe she won’t even see the nasty comments. It’ll be a lot worse for Lauren when it gets out that you broke off your engagement.”
I sighed, a sickening feeling settling into the pit of my stomach. “Oh, I’m sure it will. I should tell her to change her privacy settings now.”
I actually took out my phone to text her, but Howie said, “You know, maybe you should wait a few days before you say anything. Give yourself and Lauren some time to come to terms with this before you guys give people a reason to start speculating. Trust me.” He held up his phone.
“Yeah… you’re probably right.” I put my phone back in my pocket and sat down.
“You want anything to drink?” asked Howie.
“You got anything with alcohol?” I answered without thinking. Then, almost immediately, I realized where I was and who I was talking to, and my face got red. “Sorry, dude. Dumb question.”
He let out a little chuckle. “It’s okay. But yeah… my family got rid of all the liquor that was left when they were here, so you’re in a dry house now, my friend. I can’t drink anymore… big no-no after a liver transplant.”
“Yeah, I know… I’m not supposed to either,” I replied sheepishly, remembering that I had just taken my medication. Even though it was starting to become a routine, there were times when I still forgot how much my life had changed in the last three months.
“I have soda,” Howie offered. “Or I could make coffee.”
“A soda sounds good,” I said. “I’ll take whatever you’ve got.” I watched him get up, wincing slightly as he rose out of his chair, and realized what an asshole I was being. Here he was, still recovering from major surgery, and I was letting him wait on me. “Hey man, you don’t have to get it for me; I can find my way to your fridge.”
“No, I’ve got it,” Howie said, smiling. “It’s good for me to get up and walk around.”
“Well, if you insist… thanks.” When he went inside, I sat down on one of his deck chairs, propping my feet up on a nearby planter. While I waited for him to come back out, I pulled out my phone again and searched his name on one of the celebrity gossip sites, wondering what the internet was saying about him and Leigh.
The first headline that popped up had nothing to do with his impending divorce, but the giant picture that accompanied it made my jaw drop and my heart sink.
“Oh shit,” I said out loud, as I stared at the photo. “Shit, shit, shit!”