Chapter 5


Howie

The ride home from the hospital that day was silent.  I drove, while Leigh rode beside me in the passenger seat, staring out the window so she wouldn’t have to look at me.  Neither of us spoke.  I knew there was nothing I could say that would fix the damage I’d done in the doctor’s office.  Leigh didn’t have to say anything; her frosty silence conveyed it all.  We were only sitting a foot from each other, but to me, we’d never seemed farther apart.  In that moment, I could already feel my wife – and with her, my life – starting to slip away.

She didn’t say a word until we were home.  When we got back to the condo, she went straight upstairs.  I followed her into our bedroom, but she had already locked herself in the bathroom.  I could hear her fumbling around and the sound of running water.  I undressed in a daze and sat down on the edge of the bed to wait for her to come out.  A hundred thoughts were running through my head, all of them horrific.  What if she was sick, too?  What if I was?  What if I’d gotten myself infected, and given it to her, and she’d given it to our son?  What if James had it as well?  What were we going to do?

A hundred “what ifs” and not a single answer, not until we knew more.  Holden’s doctor had helped us get an appointment at a clinic for the following day so we could both be tested.  Until we got the results, we would be left to worry and wonder.  For the time being, we were in the same boat, but there was no sense of solidarity between us.

With Holden still in the hospital and James staying at my mom’s, it was too quiet in the condo.  Leigh and I got ready for bed in a stunned sort of stupor, without talking to each other through the bathroom door like we usually did.  When she finally came out, she was wearing a baggy t-shirt, and her face was wiped clean, but I could tell from her puffy eyes that she had been crying.  She walked barefoot across the room, acting as if I wasn’t there.  I got up to go into the bathroom.  It was as she was turning down the covers on her side of the bed that she finally spoke.

“So, are you gay?”

I stopped in the doorway, my heart leaping into my throat, and slowly turned to face her.  She still wouldn’t look at me.  She stared determinedly down at the bed, smoothing out the wrinkles in the sheets as if she hadn’t said anything.  But I’d heard her, loud and clear, and I could tell she was listening, waiting for an answer.

I opened my mouth, but for a few seconds, I couldn’t speak.  I didn’t know what to say.  Finally, after everything I’d kept from her, I decided my best course of action would be to tell the truth.

“Honestly, honey… I don’t know.”

Her head snapped up, and she made eye contact for the first time since we’d left the hospital, her dark brown eyes boring into mine.  “How can you not know?  You admitted you slept with another man.  So… tell me.  How did it feel?  Did you enjoy it?”

I squirmed.  How could I explain that it had felt good and, yet, made me feel horrible?  That I had both enjoyed it and hated myself for enjoying it?  I shook my head in disgust.  “Our son was just diagnosed with AIDS, and this is what you’re obsessing about?  Look, let’s just stayed focused on him for right now,” I said desperately, hoping to redirect her.  “We can worry about us later.”

“How can I not worry about us when we’re the ones who might have given it to him?” she asked, her voice rising as her eyes filled with fresh tears.

“Leigh… baby…” I said, as I rushed across the room toward her.  I reached out to pull her into a hug, but she pushed me away, shoving a pillow into my arms instead.

“Take that and go.  You can sleep on the couch tonight.”

I sighed in dismay.  “Baby, please,” I started to beg.

Go,” she repeated.

So I went and spent a sleepless night in the living room, tossing and turning as I worried about my wife, my baby boy, and what the next day would bring for all of us.

***

In the morning, we went our separate ways.  Leigh headed straight to the hospital to be with Holden, while I drove over to my mother’s house to spend time with James.  I hadn’t seen my oldest son since I’d come home from Europe, and I could tell Leigh wanted to be left alone.  We had agreed to meet at the immunology clinic for our one o’clock appointment.

It was the longest morning of my life.  I put on a happy face as I played with James, not wanting him to sense that something was wrong.  I don’t think my mother was as easily fooled, but I had already decided to wait and see how my appointment turned out before I told her what was going on.  “We’re just waiting on some test results,” I said, when she asked about Holden.  It was half the truth, anyway.

By noon, I couldn’t stand it anymore, so I told her I was heading back to the hospital and drove to the clinic instead.  I got there half an hour early and sat in the parking lot, hiding behind my sunglasses as I waited for Leigh to arrive.  She showed up with ten minutes to spare, and we went inside together.  “How’s Holden?” I asked, as I held the door open for her.

“No change,” she said shortly, brushing past me.  My heart sank as I walked in after her.

The waiting room was crowded.  I kept my shades on, hoping I wouldn’t be recognized, but the people waiting weren’t exactly the type who would know a Backstreet Boy when they saw one.  One man in a striped tank top looked at me curiously, but no one else gave us a second glance.  I tried to take Leigh’s hand as we sat down, but she pulled it away, crossing her arms and legs tightly, like she was trying to hold herself together.  I felt like I was falling apart inside, too.

We didn’t have to wait long, which was both a good and bad thing.  Good because waiting, without knowing, is the hardest part.  Bad because not knowing still allows you to have some hope.  When you don’t know, you fear the worst, but hope for the best.  I sat in that waiting room, thinking, We don’t belong here.  The hospital must have made a mistake.  This is all wrong.

Maybe it wasn’t hope so much as denial.  Because once you know, it’s not about hope or fear anymore.  Those feelings don’t change the facts.  What it really boils down to is denial or acceptance.  And when the doctor at the clinic called us in to go over our test results, I had a hard time accepting what I heard him say.

“I’m sorry, but the preliminary results indicate that both of you have tested positive for HIV.”

It took me a few seconds to process that information.  HIV… positive.  Both of us.  Leigh… and me.  I turned to look at her, but she had buried her face in her hands.  So I looked at the doctor who had delivered the news.

“As I said, these are just preliminary results,” he added quickly, in a reassuring sort of voice.  “The rapid HIV test, while highly accurate, isn’t one hundred percent reliable.  It is possible to get a false positive.  So what I’d like to do is send your blood samples to the lab for a second test, called a Western blot, to confirm the results.  Unfortunately, we won’t get those results back for several days.  In the meantime, I’d encourage you both to take precautions to avoid the possibility of transmitting the virus to anyone else.  That means practice safe sex, don’t share needles…”

As the doctor droned on and on with what was obviously a rehearsed speech, an odd sort of buzzing filled my brain, drowning out his words.  The whole situation seemed dreamlike, surreal.  I couldn’t believe my wife and I were actually sitting there, in an infectious disease clinic frequented by drug addicts and prostitutes, listening to a lecture on safe sex.  It was all common sense stuff, I thought, advice I’d been hearing since adolescence.  So how had I ended up there?  How could I have been so stupid?

“…stop breastfeeding…”

As I heard the doctor say those words, I saw my wife’s head shoot up.  All of the color had drained out of Leigh’s face as she stared at him with wide eyes.  “Breastfeeding?” she repeated, her voice shrill.  “It can be spread through breastfeeding?”

The doctor nodded.  “The virus can be found in breast milk.”

Leigh turned to look at me then, her face stricken.  She didn’t have to say anything for me to know what she was thinking.  I knew.

At that point, we both knew.

***

Leigh was inconsolable after the clinic.  I put my arm around her as we walked out, but as soon as we were in the parking lot, she pushed me away.  “Don’t touch me!” she snapped, as she stalked off toward her SUV, her long hair streaming behind her.

“Leigh, wait!” I called, chasing after her.  “Don’t just drive off.  We need to talk about this!”

“I’m not ready to talk about it,” she said, as she slid behind the wheel.  “I just need some time to think.”  She slammed the driver’s side door shut.  I ran around to the passenger side, but the door was locked.

“Leigh, c’mon,” I pleaded, pulling at the handle.  “Let me in.”

The engine roared to life.  She lowered the passenger side window halfway and leaned over to talk through it.  “Let you in?”  She laughed derisively.  “I’ll never make that mistake again.”

My heart sank.  “Baby, I’m so sorry.  Believe me, I never meant for anything like this to happen.  Please, just unlock the door, and let’s go somewhere so we can talk.”  I felt exposed, standing out there in a public parking lot, talking about this through the car window.

“I’m going home,” she said shortly.  “You should go to the hospital and see your son.  See what you’ve done.”

Her words felt like knives, stabbing me straight through my heart.  As I stood there, reeling with the painful realization that I was responsible for this, she rolled up the window and reversed out of her parking space, her tires squealing against the pavement as she pulled away.  I watched her speed off, my heart breaking.

For a few seconds, I just stood there, staring blankly out at the street.  I watched people pass by in their cars, people going about their everyday lives, lives that weren’t falling apart.  Eventually, I came to my senses and walked back to my own car.  I climbed in and sat behind the wheel, contemplating my options.  It was hard to think clearly through the buzzing in my brain, like static from a bad signal.  I didn’t know what else to do but follow Leigh’s advice, so I drove to the hospital to be with Holden.

“Good news, Mr. Dorough,” said the PICU nurse who buzzed me in to the unit, smiling as I walked through the set of security doors.  “Holden’s fever is down.  It’s a sign that the antibiotics we’ve been giving him are working.”

“Thank you,” I said automatically, managing to smile back at her.  “My wife will be happy to hear that.”  But as I approached Holden’s crib, I felt no sense of relief, myself.  He looked the same as he had the day before, lost inside the maze of tubes that were pumping fluids, medication, and oxygen into his tiny body.  He seemed so helpless… an innocent victim.

And it was all my fault.

“I’m sorry, buddy,” I whispered, reaching out to touch the top of his head.  His skin was still warm, but not feverishly so, and his hair felt so soft, like feathers.  As I ran my fingers through it, the first tears finally came, trickling down my cheeks and splashing onto his crib sheet.  “I’m so sorry.”

***

A few days later, a call came from the doctor at the clinic.

“I’d like you both to come in to discuss your test results,” he said on the phone, and once Leigh and I were sitting in his office, he confirmed what we already knew:  “I’m sorry, but the results of the second test match our initial findings on both of your blood samples.  This confirms the diagnosis of HIV.”

I sucked in a deep breath and trapped it in my lungs.  I could feel my own heart pounding, hear the blood rushing in my ears.  I held my breath until I was light-headed, then released it in a rush of air.

Next to me, Leigh was hunched over, hugging herself tightly.  Her hair hung like dark curtains, hiding her face.  I reached out to her, resting my hand lightly on her back, and felt it stiffen beneath my fingers.  Without a word, she jerked away from me, shaking off my hand.

I sighed again and returned my attention to the doctor.  “So what do we do now?” I wanted to know.

“Well, you’ll both want to find a doctor who specializes in HIV so you can begin treatment.  We do have many excellent specialists who offer outpatient treatment at this clinic, or you can ask for a referral from your primary care physician,” said the doctor.  “You will also want to learn more about living with HIV and your treatment options.  I have some pamphlets you can take home today with more information, and, of course, there are also plenty of good resources online.  We also offer counseling services and HIV support groups here at the clinic; many people find it helpful to share their experience with others who have gone through the same thing.”

As he talked, I kept nodding, but it was hard to wrap my head around what he was saying.  I understood the words, but I couldn’t see the connection to Leigh and me, couldn’t fathom us needing the services he was describing.  I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, like I was living someone else’s life.  This couldn’t really be happening to me.

It didn’t hit home until he said, “And finally, I would strongly advise you to make a list of any other sexual partners you’ve had since your exposure to HIV.  You should contact those people and encourage them to get tested.”

“I don’t need to make a list,” said Leigh flatly, speaking for the first time.  She jerked her thumb toward me without looking up.  “There’s only been him.”

I realized I couldn’t say the same, and that was when it really sank in.  This was all my fault.  I had done this to myself – and to her and our son, too.  I sucked in another shaky breath and let it out slowly, struggling to keep my composure.  “I don’t remember his name,” I admitted, staring down at my lap.  “The guy who must’ve infected me.  He was the only one.  It was a one-time thing.  He lives in London.  I don’t have any way to contact him.”

The doctor nodded.  “Well, if either of you think of any others who might have been exposed, make sure you talk to them about getting tested.  Keep in mind that while HIV can’t be spread through casual contact, it can be spread through a variety of sexual acts, including both intercourse and oral sex.”

That last part made my heart lodge in my throat.  “Oral?” I choked.

Leigh looked over at me, raising her eyebrows incredulously.  The doctor kept his face impassive, but gave another short nod.  “It’s rare, but yes, it is possible to transmit the virus through oral sex.”

My heart sank, as I realized there was another name I needed to add to that list, another person I’d put at risk, and that, like Leigh, he was one of my best friends.

***


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