Lauren left for L.A. the next day, on what would have been our wedding day. Instead of watching her walk down the aisle, I watched her walk out of my hospital room.
“Take care of yourself, Nick,” she told me on her way out. That was all she said. No “I love you.” Nothing else. I have to admit, that stung a little, but I knew I deserved it. At least she seemed to be moving on with her life. That was what I’d wanted, wasn’t it? For her to be happy and healthy without me? I tried to be happy for her, but truthfully, I felt miserable.
Meanwhile, Howie stayed with me in Franklin. For three days, he hung out at the hospital, while my fever hovered around 103. On the fourth day, the fever finally broke, and they sent me home, with strict instructions to keep taking my HIV medication and to follow up with my doctor as soon as I got back to L.A.
I was finally starting to feel better by then, and I definitely didn’t want to end up in the hospital again, so I promised to take my meds as directed. The problem was, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to L.A. Lauren was there… and so were the paparazzi who had scared me away in the first place. I didn’t want to face them again. I didn’t want to deal with the drama. I wanted to stay far away from it all.
“You know, I was thinking the same thing,” said Howie on the way home from the hospital, when he asked what my plan was and I told him what was on my mind. He was driving while I sat in the passenger seat, a pharmacy bag with a fresh supply of prescription drugs tucked between my feet. For the first few days after I’d decided to stop taking them, I’d felt so free. Now I just felt overwhelmed.
“You mean, you don’t wanna go back either?” I asked, looking over at him.
He shook his head. “Not particularly. I’ve been stuck there for the past four months because that’s where my medical team is, but it’s not like Florida doesn’t have doctors.”
I shrugged and nodded. “So you’re going back to Florida?”
“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking,” he said, scratching his head. “My family’s there, and… well, there’s not really any other reason for me to stay in L.A.; it’s not like we’re working right now.”
“True.” I wondered if we would ever work together again. I supposed that was up to Howie and me to decide; the rest of the fellas would follow our lead. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that yet. I’d written some songs before I got sick, but it was all solo stuff; I hadn’t given much thought to the group.
“You could come with me, if you want,” Howie added casually. “You’d like Cape Canaveral. It’s a lot smaller and quieter than L.A., that’s for sure – and there’s no paparazzi there.”
“There’s no paparazzi here, either,” I pointed out, watching idyllic, green pastures roll by outside my window as we neared my neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Florida would always feel like home to me, but I had fallen in love with Tennessee, too. Life moved at a slower pace there, and the people were friendlier. It was a peaceful place. The only thing it was missing was an ocean, but the beauty of the mountains more than made up for the lack of beaches.
“No, but… I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for you to stay here alone, Nick,” said Howie, giving me a quick sideways glance before returning his eyes to the road. “I mean, what would have happened to you if Lauren and I hadn’t gotten here when we did?”
I felt my face flush. “It won’t happen again. I made a stupid mistake, learned my lesson; I’ll stay on my meds from now on,” I muttered, hoping he wasn’t about to lecture me like the doctor at the hospital had.
“Okay, but what if you start having severe side effects again or… I dunno, some other kind of complication-” I saw his knuckles whiten as his fingers tightened around the steering wheel. “-and there’s no one around to take care of you?”
“I can take care of myself,” I said flatly. “Take a left up there.”
Howie made the turn into my community, then looked over at me again. “I know you can. It’s just… you took care of me after my surgery, when I wasn’t supposed to be living alone. I’d like to return the favor.”
I rolled my eyes. “That was all Lauren. You don’t owe me anything, Howie.”
“I owe you everything,” he countered quietly.
I sighed impatiently. “No, you don’t, Howie, you-”
“If it wasn’t for you, I’d be dead,” he interjected. “And if wasn’t for me, you’d still be living with Lauren, perfectly healthy and happily married by now. So… either way you look at it… I owe you.”
I couldn’t really argue with that, so I didn’t say anything. Neither of us spoke again until we were pulling into my driveway. Then, as the car slowed to a stop, Howie said, “At least think about it, will you? There’s plenty of space in my condo now that Leigh and the kids have moved out, and the complex is right by the beach – my balcony overlooks the water; you’d love it – and the Kennedy Space Center is so close, we could watch the rocket launches…”
As Howie babbled on about how great Cape Canaveral was, I realized how lonely he sounded. Maybe he wasn’t so much worried about me living alone as not wanting to be alone himself. For the first time since he’d told me his HIV status, I didn’t think about the fact that it was his fault he was alone. I actually felt sorry for him, and something in me softened. “Yeah, okay, I’ll think about it,” I said, as I scooped up my bag of prescriptions and reached for the door handle.
That seemed to satisfy Howie for the time being. He smiled at me as we walked into the house. I wrinkled my nose; it smelled bad inside. I hadn’t realized how funky it had gotten while I was holed up in there. I guess I’d gone nose-blind, like in those Febreze commercials. Compared to the sterile cleanliness of the hospital, my house seemed filthy.
“Sorry for the mess,” I said, as I continued into the kitchen, where the sink was full of dirty dishes, the garbage overflowing with empty liquor bottles and take-out containers. I set my medicine on the counter, then turned to see Howie standing in the middle of the kitchen, staring around at the clutter. He caught my eye and raised his eyebrows.
“You sure you can take care of yourself?”
“Oh, shut up. I’ll clean this shit up,” I said with a sigh, shoving the trash down into the bag so I could pull the drawstrings to close it. I heaved the bulging garbage bag out of its can, surprised by how heavy it was. Even though my fever had broken, I still felt weak, like I was recovering from the flu.
Howie watched me struggle with the bag for a few seconds, a slight smile on his face. Then he walked over to the sink and turned on the faucet. “I’ll help,” he said. When I came back in from taking out the trash, he was rinsing dishes. “Sit down for a few,” he said, without looking at me. “I’ve got this.”
“You don’t have to-” I started, but he cut me off.
“Nick. I’ve got this. Sit.”
So I perched on a stool at the breakfast bar and picked at my hospital bracelet while I watched him load the dishwasher and wipe down the countertops with soapy water. Smirking, I couldn’t help but think, Maybe I should let him take care of me. Suddenly, moving in with Howie didn’t sound like such a bad idea.
I would definitely think about it.
A few more days passed before Howie brought up the possibility of my coming to Cape Canaveral with him again. By that point, I was feeling better and starting to get my strength back, although the medication I took twice a day served as a depressing reminder that I might never feel like my old self, pre-HIV.
“So, Nick,” Howie said, watching me shake my morning pills out of several prescription bottles that lined the counter while he made coffee. “Have you given any more thought to Florida? I only ask because I need to book my flight out of here in the next few days, and… well…”
“…You were wondering if you should reserve one seat or two?” I finished for him, organizing the pills into a perfectly straight line across the countertop to avoid making eye contact.
I picked up one of my prescription bottles and pretended to study the dosing instructions on the side to stall for time. I’d been home for several days and still hadn’t gotten around to filling my pill organizer, like Lauren had always helped me do. Faced with the prospect of figuring it all out for myself, I missed her more than ever.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it,” I said slowly, setting the bottle back down. The truth was, while I’d considered his offer to come to Cape Canaveral, I hadn’t yet made up my mind. On one hand, I felt bad for the guy, having to go home to the empty condo where his wife and kids no longer lived. No wonder he wanted my company. But it would be weird for me to go and live with him, and besides, Franklin had always felt like sort of a sanctuary to me. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave Tennessee. So, to avoid answering, I shuffled over to the fridge and took out a carton of orange juice. “OJ?” I asked, holding it out to him.
Howie shook his head. “Can’t. Too much potassium.”
“Oh.” I carried the carton back to the counter, opened an overhead cupboard, and took down a glass. As I poured myself some juice, I said, “You’re going back to Florida, and you can’t even have orange juice? That sucks, dude.”
Howie snorted. “Yeah, well… it’s a small price to pay for a second chance at life, I guess.”
That statement sort of surprised me, coming from him, after how hard I’d had to work to convince him to consent to having a liver transplant in the first place. “So does that mean you’re glad you got the transplant?” I asked, sticking the juice carton back in the fridge. When I turned back toward him, Howie was frowning. “Sorry, was that insensitive?” I said, assuming the face was directed at me, even though his eyes were staring into space.
“No, you’re fine,” he replied slowly. “I was just thinking… I guess I am glad. I wasn’t really sure at first, you know.” He ran his fingers absently across the counter top. “The whole time I was in the hospital, I kept wondering whether I was grateful to be alive or still wished I was dead. I know that sounds selfish, seeing as how someone else had to die for me to live… but that’s how I felt.”
“I know,” I said quietly. “I mean, I know you didn’t want the transplant at first. It took some serious effort to talk you into it…” I smiled at him briefly, but felt my smile fade when I remembered how he had looked in the hospital, all hooked up to tubes and machines. “…and afterwards, I wasn’t sure I should have done that,” I admitted. “You were in such bad shape, I thought… I thought maybe it would’ve been better if you had just died on New Year’s.” As the confession slipped from my lips, I instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry, dude, that was a shitty thing to say.”
But Howie shook his head. “No, it’s true,” he said, shrugging. “I thought I’d be better off dead, too.”
I suddenly realized his eyes were bright with tears, which made me feel even more awkward. I had only seen Howie tear up a handful of times in my whole life; he wasn’t like Kevin, who cries at everything, including TV commercials.
“I don’t think I ever really thanked you,” Howie added, “for talking me into the transplant, or for saving my life in the first place. Like I said the other day, if it weren’t for you, I would have died… but I’m glad I didn’t. I am grateful to be alive. So… thank you.”
“Back at ya,” I said, busying myself with my medication again so I wouldn’t have to hug him. It was too early in the morning to be having such a heavy conversation; I hadn’t even brushed my teeth yet. But hey, at least I’d distracted him from talking about Florida. “Thanks for coming all the way out here to check up on me… and making sure I take my meds,” I added, pushing the line of pills into a little pile, which I scooped into the palm of my hand. I grinned at him, then popped the whole handful into my mouth at once and washed them down with a swig of juice. Swallowing with difficulty, I set the glass down with a grimace and wiped my mouth with the back of my hand. Not even orange juice could disguise the bitter taste of the pills on my tongue, but it was better than plain water.
“Hey, like I said in L.A., we’ve gotta have each other’s backs. We’re in this together,” Howie said, pouring two cups of coffee and passing one to me.
“Thanks.” As I took the steaming mug out of his hand, I realized Howie was right. He and I were the only ones who could truly understand what the other was going through. Like it or not, we were connected by the very thing that had torn both of our lives apart. Neither of us had been very successful at dealing with it separately; his suicide attempt and my recent stint in the hospital had more than proven that. As I took a sip of scalding coffee, burning the tip of my tongue, I wondered if I was being stupid for wanting to face it alone. Maybe Howie and I would both be better off if we stuck together, each of us acting as a support system for each other. Maybe then, we could start rebuilding our lives.
I took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of coffee, and let it out slowly. Leaning on the countertop, I ran my stinging tongue across the back of my bottom teeth as I thought about what I was going to say next. Finally, I turned to face Howie again. “So, about that flight to Florida… go ahead and book two seats.”
Howie smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that.”
So that’s how, on the day I should have been flying home from my honeymoon with Lauren, I found myself headed to Florida with Howie instead.