Once the admission paperwork was complete, Lauren and I accompanied Nick upstairs to his private room. I waited in the hallway while she went in to help him change into a hospital gown and get settled. While I was waiting, I sent a group text to the guys to fill them in on what was going on. Their responses were typical: Kevin asked all kinds of questions, Brian offered prayers on behalf of the Littrell family, and AJ called Nick a bunch of names, including “dumbass” and “shithead,” then said to tell Nick he loved him.
After a while, Lauren came back out and sat down beside me in the hall. “He’s gonna try to get some sleep,” she said, and then she let out a huge sigh. “God, I can’t believe how stupid he is. Why would he stop taking his meds?? He was doing so well!”
It was the first time we’d had a chance to talk out of earshot of Nick since we had found him in the house. We’d whispered some in the ER, while Nick was faking sleep, but since we’d both spent enough time around him to know when he was really asleep, we hadn’t said anything we wouldn’t have wanted him to overhear.
“He screwed up,” I said, shrugging. “What else is there to say? People do stupid things sometimes.” I could tell I was going to be more sympathetic toward Nick than she was. I felt like I understood what he was going through, maybe because I’d been there before. I had messed up much worse than Nick, misused my meds and alcohol to the point of almost killing myself. At least we had gotten to him before he’d gone that far. “Let’s just be glad he’s gonna be okay and hope he’s learned his lesson.”
Lauren shook her head. “After everything that’s happened in the last few weeks, I don’t know if I trust his decision-making abilities anymore. He’s acting irrationally, Howie. First he breaks off our engagement… then he leaves town, doesn’t talk to anyone, stops taking his meds, starts drinking again, and skips his doctor’s appointment. It’s like he’s trying to sabotage his own life by getting rid of every good thing he had going for him.”
“I don’t think that’s what he’s doing,” I said. “He just didn’t want to hurt you. That’s why he left.”
“Well, he did hurt me,” she snapped. “And now he’s hurting himself.”
“He didn’t mean to. Did you see the look on his face when the doctor said ‘AIDS’? That scared the shit out of him. He won’t go off his meds again.”
“No, he sure as hell won’t. I won’t let him,” said Lauren, squaring her jaw. “If he won’t come back to L.A. with me, then I’ll stay here with him.”
She looked determined, but I had never heard her sound so desperate. It seemed like Lauren, the fiercely independent woman Nick had won over, was now holding onto him for dear life, afraid to let go. I wasn’t sure this was as much about making sure Nick took his meds as it was Lauren wanting to be needed by him and needing to have a place and a purpose in his life.
It made sense to me, of course. She had sacrificed so much of herself to be with Nick, and even though she’d stuck by him, he had hung her out to dry and left her with nothing except the condo in L.A. She had no real career, no money of her own, no life outside of the one she’d built with Nick. So of course she was clinging to him, hoping he would come back to her. But I knew Nick better than that.
“You know why Nick fell for you?” I asked, looking over at Lauren.
She frowned, clearly wondering where I was going with that. “Why?”
“Because,” I said, “you were the first girl who didn’t fall all over him. You thought he was an arrogant prick the first time you met him, remember?”
Lauren laughed. “Yeah… for a few minutes, anyway. He seemed so standoffish at first. But then we started talking, and we hit it off right away.”
“Yeah, but even then, you weren’t a fan. You liked him, but you didn’t go all gaga over him like other girls. You were never the clingy type… which is a good thing. Guys don’t like clingy girls.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Are you trying to tell me I’m acting clingy now?”
I held up my hands in defense. “All I’m saying is the tighter you try to hold on to him, the harder he’s going to push you away.”
“This isn’t even about Nick and me as a couple,” she insisted, shaking her head. “This is about his health and wellbeing. All I want is for him to be happy and healthy, and if he’s happier without me… well, then so be it. But I’m not just going to sit back and watch him self-destruct. I still care about him, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he takes care of himself.”
“Hey… we’re on the same side here,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. “We both want what’s best for Nick. But honestly, what I think he needs most right now is some space. He left L.A. because he wanted to be left alone.”
“Yeah, and look what happened to him!”
“I know, but like I said, I don’t think he’ll make that mistake again. Either way, we can’t make him take his meds any more than we could keep him here in the hospital if he really wanted to leave. Nick’s a grown man, and he’s gotta figure this out for himself. Neither of us can live his life for him.”
Lauren sniffled. I looked over at her again and was startled to see tears trickling down her cheeks.
“It was supposed to be our life,” she whispered, wiping her eyes. “Together.”
I swallowed hard, squirming with guilt over my role in ruining their relationship.
“Do you know what today is?” she continued. “It’s the day before what would have been our wedding day. We were supposed to have the rehearsal dinner tonight. It was going to be Moroccan-themed.” She sniffed again and took another swipe at her right eye. “I have a white kaftan hanging in my closet, along with a custom wedding gown I’ll never wear. I had to cancel all the vendors and venues we’d booked and send back everything I could. I had to tell all my family and friends to forget about the ‘save the date’ cards they got in the mail. Do you know how hard that was for me? How humiliating?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, knowing it was my fault. Nick was the one who had left her, but I was the reason he’d felt he had to. “I’m so sorry, Lauren.”
She shook her head regretfully. “So am I. But you know what makes it even worse? The whole time, I was hoping he would still come around, that we could just reschedule. I mean, look at me – I’m still wearing my engagement ring.” She held out her left hand so I could see the seven-carat rock sparkling on her finger. “He walked out on me, and yet, here I sit, outside his hospital room. I guess I am being clingy, huh?” She let out a harsh sound – half laugh, half sob.
“You’re not,” I assured her, rubbing her shoulder. “You’re still in love with him. I get it. But you know something? He still loves you, too. He told me so.”
“Then why won’t he marry me?” she cried, throwing up her hands in frustration. “Why does he have to be such a fucking martyr? Does he really think we’ll both be better off alone and miserable than we would if we were together? This is what I’m talking about, Howie – he’s not thinking rationally.”
“Here’s what I think: You know that saying, ‘If you love something, set it free?’ That’s the belief Nick’s operating under right now – that because he loves you, he has to let you go. He thinks you deserve better, that you should have a life that doesn’t revolve around his HIV.”
“My life doesn’t revolve around his HIV,” she argued.
“And yet, here you sit, saying you’re going to move halfway across the country to take care of him if he won’t come back to L.A. with you. Yes it does, Lauren. Like it or not, your being here is just proving his point – to him, at least. You and I both know it’s not true, but this is Nick we’re talking about – that same, self-absorbed asshole you fell in love with on your first date.”
Lauren snorted as she continued to cry-laugh.
“In his mind, it’s all about him,” I continued. “You need to show him otherwise. It’s your turn to walk away. Go home. Have a life without him. Make him regret that he’s not a part of it anymore. Make him miss you. Then maybe the second part of that saying will come true. ‘If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it was meant to be.’”
She sniffed and nodded. “Maybe you’re right,” she said, rummaging through her purse for a tissue to blow her nose.
“Trust me. Nick’s always been needy when it comes to love. He’s kind of like a temperamental cat: if you just leave him alone and ignore him long enough, he’ll come crawling back to you eventually. But not if you keep coming after him.”
Lauren laughed. “Yes, I heard you have experience dealing with temperamental cats.”
That seemingly random comment caught me off-guard. “Huh?”
She smiled. “When you were in surgery, Kevin was telling us about this cat of his that you hated.”
“Oh! Yeah… Quincy.” I chuckled. “Yeah, that cat was so annoying… never left me alone.”
“So you’re saying I should do the opposite and leave Nick alone.”
She sighed. “I just feel bad. You know, Nick’s been abandoned by just about every person in his life. I don’t want to be the next name on that list.”
“You’re not abandoning him. He left you,” I reminded her. “Besides, he won’t be completely alone. He’s got the guys and me. You know none of us would abandon him.”
Lauren nodded. “I know. I still worry about him being out here by himself, though. I’d feel better if he were back in L.A., where at least I know he has friends around to check on him.”
“I don’t think he’s gonna wanna go back to L.A. right away. Hell, I don’t wanna go back to L.A.”
She looked over at me. “Really? Where would you go instead? Florida?”
I nodded. “Florida’s home for me. All my family is there… well, except for Leigh and the kids. But I think she’d bring them back there to see their grandmother before she’d bring them out to L.A. Maybe it’s time I found myself a doctor in the Orlando area and moved back.”
It was something I’d been thinking about ever since my mother and siblings had flown home. I needed the support of my family, but there was no way I could have traveled that far so soon after my transplant. Now that I was mostly recovered, though, I had more freedom to go where I wanted. My mind was already at work, weighing my different options, when the idea suddenly came to me.
“Nick could come with me,” I said. “Then I could keep an eye on him… make sure he’s taking his meds.” I winked at her.
She raised her eyebrows skeptically. “You think he would go for that?”
I shrugged. “I dunno… maybe. I mean, he has roots in Florida, too. My condo in Cape Canaveral has an ocean view; he would love that. And we’ve been on a lot better terms lately. I think he’s finally starting to forgive me and accept the fact that, like it or not, we’re in this together.” Selfishly, I hoped I was right. I loved the idea of leaving the drama in L.A. behind and having Nick all to myself somewhere else.
Lauren nodded. “Well, whatever you think. I guess I shouldn’t worry about it either way, huh?”
I flashed her a reassuring smile. “He’ll figure it out, Lauren. He always does. It just usually takes him a little longer than the rest of us because he has to screw up a few times first.”
“Hm, well, let’s see – he’s already broken off our engagement and made himself sick,” she said sarcastically, ticking Nick’s most recent screw-ups off on her finger, “so by that logic, he should be close to figuring things out already. Third time’s the charm?”
I laughed. “We can only hope. With Nick, though, you never know.”