Chapter 47


Howie

It felt great to be back in Florida.  “Smell that sea air?” I asked Nick, as we climbed out of the cab that had shuttled us from the airport to my condominium complex.

He took a deep breath and smiled, stretching his arms over his head.  “Mmm… yeah.  Welcome home.”

“Same to you,” I said, even though it had been a long time since Nick had called Florida home.  Having grown up near Tampa, he’d never even lived on the Atlantic side of the state and now spent most of his time in the Keys.  Still, I had so many memories from the early years of the group, when all five of us were based in Orlando, that it felt like a homecoming to me.

Sometimes I missed those days and wished we weren’t spread so far apart.  Unlike Nick, AJ, and Kevin, I had never quite adapted to living on the West Coast.  Leigh and I had kept the house in California for convenience when I was working there, but even before the divorce, we’d considered selling it.  L.A. just didn’t feel like home to either of us, and after having children, it made the most sense for us to move back to the East Coast, where both our families were located.  I loved living in Cape Canaveral, close to the beach and not far from Orlando.

But when I walked into my condo for the first time in four months, I didn’t feel the warm sense of “home” I’d been expecting.  For one thing, it was way too quiet inside.  I was used to being welcomed home by the sound of running feet and happy shouts of “Daddy!” but all I heard this time was the low hum of the air conditioner.  It didn’t smell like home, either.  The air was slightly stagnant from the windows being shut for so long, yet the condo was spotlessly clean, almost sterilely so.  It looked like someone – probably my mother, who had a spare key – had come in and cleaned the place.

“Nice pad, dude,” said Nick, looking around.  He’d never been to the condo before.  I nodded, but in a way, it was like I was seeing it for the first time, too.  I wasn’t used to it looking so neat and tidy, with no toys lying around or sippy cups sitting on every surface.  It made me sad.  Except for a few framed photos Leigh had left on the walls, there was no sign that my two little boys had ever lived there.

But not everything was gone.  “Where should I put my stuff?” Nick asked, and when I took him back to James’s bedroom, I saw that my son’s twin bed was still there, his quilt with cars and trucks all over it pulled up tight, his toys tucked away neatly in his toy box, his books lined up straight across the shelves of his tiny bookcase.  A lump rose in my throat as I recognized Goodnight, Goodnight Construction Site, a book I’d read to him before bedtime at least two hundred times.

Clearing my throat, I said, “Sorry, I know it’s not exactly five-star accommodations.  We had to get rid of our guest room once Holden came along, and since I don’t think you’ll fit in his crib…”

Nick chuckled.  “Not sure I’ll fit in this little bed either,” he replied, flopping onto it, and sure enough, his feet hung a few inches off the end.

“Sorry,” I apologized again, “but unless you wanna share my bed-”

“Uh, no thanks,” Nick said quickly, his face reddening.  “This’ll be fine.”

I’d meant it as a joke, but the look on his face told me I shouldn’t have said it.  We may have made some progress in mending our friendship over the past few months, but obviously, he was still sensitive about certain things.  I knew he didn’t want to be reminded of what had happened between us on the cruise, even though the medications he took twice daily must have made it hard for him to forget.

“Good, ‘cause I was only kidding.  I’m not gonna have you hogging all my covers and kicking me in my sleep,” I said lightly, trying to ease the sudden tension.  “But in all seriousness, I am gonna get another adult-sized bed at some point.  Now that the kids aren’t living here full-time, they don’t need their own rooms.  We can move Holden in here with James and make his nursery the guest room again.”

It hurt to have to say that, to admit that I’d only be seeing my boys in the summer and on certain holidays, but that was the custody arrangement Leigh and I had worked out.  They would stay with her in New Jersey, where Holden had his doctor and James would be starting school, and spend two months in the summer with me.  It wasn’t fair, but I knew I was in no position to fight her for equal custody.  Of course, I could provide for my children better than she could financially, but between my health problems and the sometimes crazy schedule that came with my career, I worried the courts would see me as an unfit parent if it came to that.  Instead, wanting to keep things amicable, I agreed to let the kids live with Leigh out of state and pay child and spousal support.  After everything that had happened because of my bad decisions, it was the least I could do.

***

To my delight, Leigh and both boys flew down to Florida about a week after Nick and I did, just in time for James’s fifth birthday.  She brought with her the paperwork we needed to sign in order to finalize our divorce, but the moment I saw my children, I didn’t care about her ulterior motives.

“DAD!!!”  There was the warm greeting I’d been waiting more than five months for, as James let go of Leigh’s hand and raced across the crowded airport terminal and into my open arms.

“James!”  I scooped him up, surprised at how much heavier he felt than how I remembered him.  “Wow, kiddo… you’re getting so big!”  It occurred to me that while James had surely grown some, I had also gotten weaker and probably wasn’t supposed to be lifting so much weight.  I could feel the strain around my incision scar, but I didn’t care.  I hadn’t seen my son since Thanksgiving, and it felt so good to hold him again.

When Leigh approached us, pushing Holden in his stroller, I put James down and knelt in front of my youngest.  Even without picking him up, I could tell he, too, had gotten bigger – no longer the baby I’d left behind, but a toddler with a shock of wavy, blond hair.  “Hi, Holden,” I whispered, a lump clogging my throat as I leaned in and kissed the top of his head.  When I pulled away, I saw that his bottom lip was quivering, his big, blue eyes looking up at me uncertainly, and a horrible thought occurred to me:  had he forgotten who I was?

“Say hi to Daddy, Holden,” Leigh prompted him, but Holden just blinked and continued to stare at me.

With a sigh, I rose slowly to my feet, figuring it was best not to rush the reunion.  “How’d he do on the flight?” I asked, looking at Leigh.

“He actually slept most of the way,” she said.  “I’m sure he’ll warm up to you once he’s more awake.”  She offered me a small smile.  “How are you doing?”

“Oh, I’m hanging in there.”

“You look good.”  She came around from behind the stroller to give me a hug.  As I inhaled the familiar scent of her perfume, it occurred to me that I had missed her almost as much as the boys.  Even though she was soon be my ex-wife, I still loved her and always would.  For awhile, I had wondered if there was any way to save our marriage, but if my suicide attempt hadn’t been enough to bring her back to me, I knew nothing would.  The best I could hope for was her friendship.  I would have welcomed her forgiveness as well, but that may have been asking too much.

“Thanks,” I said, as she released me.  “You look good, too.  How have you been?”

She nodded.  “I’m doing alright.”

Leigh didn’t look the least bit sick, and thankfully, neither did Holden.  He seemed much healthier than he had the last time I’d seen him in person, shortly after he had gotten out of the hospital.  Leigh had told me the medication he was on had been helping his immune system recover, but it was still a huge relief for me to see so for myself.

After picking up their luggage, we walked to the car and went back to the condo, where Leigh had agreed to stay with the boys while they were in Florida.  It was going to be a little awkward, especially with Nick staying there too, but I didn’t care.  I was just happy to have my family back, if only for a few days.

“UNCLE NICK!!!” I heard James cry as he raced into the condo.  Laughing, I followed him into the living room to find Nick in front of the TV, looking at something on his computer.  He slid it aside just in time, as James jumped onto his lap and threw his arms around Nick’s neck.

“Hey, kiddo!”  Nick sounded delighted.  “Long time, no see!”

I watched them with a lump in my throat, realizing it had been a long time since either of my kids had seen Nick or the other guys.  James loved his four “uncles,” who had been a big part of his life ever since he was a baby, as Leigh brought him along on almost every tour.  It made me sad to realize he probably wouldn’t see them as much anymore, now that he was no longer living with me and we weren’t touring.  Holden wouldn’t have the opportunity to get to know the guys as well as James had.

Leigh came in, carrying Holden on her hip.  “Hi, Nick,” she said curtly.  I wondered if she was remembering the last time they were in the same room, when Nick had hit me in the face at a funeral home and told everyone how I’d infected him with HIV.

“Hey, Leigh.  Um, how are you doing?”

She managed a tight smile.  “I’m okay,” she said, boosting Holden up higher as she shifted her weight.

Nick smiled back.  “He’s gotten big.  I can’t believe how blond his hair is.”

Leigh laughed, seeming to relax a little.  “I know – where did that come from, right?  We used to joke around and say that-”  She suddenly stopped, looking embarrassed, but I knew what she’d been about to say.  I could tell by the awkward look on Nick’s face that he understood, too.  He must have remembered me calling him right after Holden was born and making the same joke:  that Holden had to be Nick’s baby and not mine.  At the time, the idea of Leigh cheating on me with Nick had seemed so ridiculous, it had made both of us laugh, but none of us found it funny anymore, not now that I was the one who had slept with him.

Ashamed, I turned and walked away, as I heard Nick clear his throat and say, in an overly bright, happy voice, “Hi, Holden!”

I left the four of them to catch up and walked back to the bedrooms, under the pretense of wanting to make sure everything was ready for Leigh, James, and Holden, who felt more like house guests than family.  Nick had helped me move Holden’s crib into James’s room, and I’d bought a bigger bed to convert the baby’s bedroom into a guest room.  Nick would stay there, and I was going to let Leigh have our bedroom to herself while I slept on the living room sofa.  I made sure the beds were made in the master and the boys’ room before wandering back to the front of the condo.

Nick was now holding Holden, bouncing him up and down on his knee while he showed James something on his laptop.  Leigh was sitting on the arm of the sofa, looking over James’s shoulder.  It should have been a beautiful scene, but seeing them together like that – the four people whose lives my mistakes had affected most – was uncomfortable for me.

Stop it, I scolded myself.  Stop thinking about it; stop blaming yourself.   I thought about what the therapist I’d seen for awhile after my transplant would have said.  She’d told me I had to accept what had happened and let go of the guilt I felt in order to move on with my life.  But it wasn’t so easy, knowing my actions had permanent consequences for the people I loved.  Because of me, none of our lives would ever be the same.

***

“How are we going to tell James?” I asked Leigh late that night, after the boys had been put to bed.  We were alone in our bedroom, with the door shut so we could talk privately, away from little ears.  In the morning, we would be meeting with a notary public to sign the divorce papers, and at some point, we would have to sit our oldest son down and find a way to explain to him why he wouldn’t be living with both of his parents anymore.

Holden was too young to understand, but I knew James would have questions.  Up until then, it had been easy enough for Leigh to make excuses for my absence in his life over the last five months:  Daddy was on tour, Daddy was sick, and so on.  But now that she’d brought James here, now that he had seen I was back home and feeling better, he was inevitably going to wonder why I wasn’t coming with them when they went back to New Jersey.

“I’ve been looking up advice on this online,” started Leigh, “and from what I’ve read, it’s best to keep it concrete and simple.  We’ll want to start with the basics:  where he and Holden are going to live, who’s going to take care of them, and when they’ll get to see you.  But more than anything, we need to emphasize that even though you and I aren’t living together anymore, we both still love our children, and that will never change.”

I nodded, looking sadly at my soon-to-be ex.  Both of us were out of our element on this one; neither of us had experienced divorce.  My parents had been married for fifty years when my father passed, and Leigh’s mom and dad were still together.  We had always sworn we would follow in our parents’ footsteps with a marriage strong enough to survive anything, but the mistake that had come between us was too big to move past, at least for Leigh.

I would have been willing to make it work, had she wanted to, but I knew it was my infidelity that had hurt her more than the HIV.  Leigh deserved better than me, a man who would love her with his whole heart and never doubt his feelings for her.  I wanted that for her, no matter how much it hurt to let her go.  I wanted her to be happy.  I could understand where Nick was coming from, in that respect.  Wasn’t that why he had left Lauren?  Maybe, in a way, Leigh was doing the same for me.  Maybe she thought she was setting me free.

“When?” I asked hoarsely and cleared my throat.  “When should we talk to him?”

Leigh hesitated.  “Let’s not tell him until after his birthday… please?  I just want him to have one last happy birthday with his whole family here before…”  She trailed off, looking down at her lap.

Again, I nodded in agreement.  James was turning five in two days, and Leigh wanted to take him to Disney World to celebrate.  I wasn’t about to let our divorce ruin my son’s special day.  The conversation could wait.

***


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