When I was a kid, I got picked on a lot. Today it would be considered bullying, but back then, the attitude was just, “Oh well, boys will be boys.”
The trouble was, I didn’t fit in with the other boys my age, and they taunted me incessantly for the things that made me different: the way I looked, the way I sang and danced, and the fact that I would rather perform on a stage than play sports. Basically, the same things that some would say made me special also made me a target. Maybe the other kids were just jealous. I’ll never know.
What I do know is that they made my life at school a living hell. They threatened to beat me up at the bus stop, whispered insults under their breath when the teacher wasn’t nearby, and called me names on the playground. At first, it was just stuff like “sissy boy” and “pansy” – which is bad enough when you’re only eight or nine – but as I got older and began to pursue more opportunities in the entertainment business, the name-calling progressed to include more hurtful words like “faggot, “homo,” and “queer.”
I guess that’s why I’ve always been sensitive about people insinuating that I’m gay – which happens a lot when you’re in a boy band, singing cheesy songs and doing synchronized dance moves with four other guys wearing color-coordinated outfits, by the way. It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with being gay. Not now, anyway. But back then, those boys made me feel like being anything less than straight as an arrow was something to be ashamed of, and I’d never forgotten that feeling.
So when people like Howie and Leigh asked if I’d ever had gay feelings or fantasies, they brought out that bullied little boy in me, who would get defensive and deny it before I even allowed myself time to consider the real answer to their questions. But the truth was, my late-night conversation with Leigh had broken down some kind of barrier, some mental block I’d built up around the thoughts I wanted to keep contained, and all of a sudden, I couldn’t get Howie out of my head.
He haunted me in my dreams, and worse yet, he was there in my waking hours, too. After Leigh and his kids left, he wanted to hang out with me all the time. There was no getting away from him, not even at the doctor’s office.
Somewhere along the way, Howie had gotten a referral from his general practitioner for an HIV specialist in the area and made us both appointments. “I booked them back to back,” he told me, “so we can go together. That way, if anyone sees us there, they’ll think you’re just along for moral support.”
It sounded like a good idea, until we were actually walking into the clinic. They’re gonna think we’re a couple, I worried, as I looked around the crowded waiting room. I avoided eye contact, staring determinedly down at my phone as we sat and waited for our turn, but I imagined people watching us and wondering.
Once we were finally called back, the appointment itself wasn’t bad at all. The specialist, Dr. Bulsara, introduced himself and asked us each a bunch of questions about our medical history, then took blood to run some baseline tests. I felt a sense of relief when we got the results: my viral load had dropped considerably since my hospital stay in Tennessee, and my CD4 count was back up where it belonged. This meant my medication was working, and I knew better than to stop taking it again.
Howie seemed to be doing well, too, so I decided it was time for me to go back to Tennessee. We didn’t need each other anymore, and frankly, I needed to get away. I could take care of myself. I’d find another doctor in the Franklin area, stay on my meds this time, and I would be fine. I just had to find a way to tell Howie without hurting his feelings. Ever since Leigh and the boys had left, he’d seemed pretty fragile, emotionally, and I knew he wouldn’t want me to go either.
My opportunity came one night as we were watching TV. Howie had on the evening news, and I was replying to fan tweets on my phone, effectively tuning it out until I heard one of the newscasters say, “In other news, a court date has been set for a hearing on what could be a landmark case in determining whether Florida’s statewide ban on same-sex marriage could be considered unconstitutional. On July second, six same-sex couples will-”
I cleared my throat loudly. “So I’ve been thinking…”
“Bet that hurt your brain,” said Howie without missing a beat or taking his eyes off the TV.
“Ha, never heard that one before,” I replied sarcastically. “Seriously, though, will you listen to me for a sec?”
“Can it wait till the commercials? I’m kinda watching this.”
I ignored him. “I’ve been thinking about going back to Tennessee.”
At that, Howie turned his head toward me. For a brief second, I saw a flicker of sadness in his eyes; then he blinked, and it was gone. “Oh, really?” he asked, with almost forced casualness. “How come?”
“Dude, I’ve been here for, like, three weeks already; aren’t you sick of me yet?” I said.
“Well, yeah, but when has that ever stopped you?” Howie replied, playing along. “I always thought your main goal in life was to annoy me as much as possible.”
I laughed. “You got that right.”
“So why stop now?”
I shrugged. “I dunno; I just figured it was time. Now that I’m feeling better and back on my meds and stuff, I should be okay on my own.”
“But… you just started seeing a new doctor here.”
“They have doctors in Tennessee too, ya know.”
Howie stared at me for a few seconds, frowning. I could practically see the wheels in his head turning, wondering what it would take to keep me there. But finally, all he said was, “Well, whatever you wanna do. But you know you’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”
I nodded. “I know, bro – thanks. Don’t think I don’t appreciate you having me down here and helping me get back on track and all of that. Now I’ve just gotta get the rest of my life sorted out.”
“Sure,” he said. “I understand.” But despite his best efforts to hide it, I could hear the hurt in his voice.
He turned his head back toward the TV, where they were now talking about an upcoming launch of a GPS satellite. “The Air Force will launch its sixth Global Positioning System IIF satellite aboard a Delta IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station tomorrow. The launch, originally scheduled to take place this evening, was scratched due to unfavorable weather conditions and has been rescheduled for tomorrow, May 16. The launch time is 8:03 p.m.”
“When are you leaving?” Howie asked suddenly.
“Oh… I dunno yet. Still gotta buy my plane ticket,” I said.
He gave me a sideways glance. “Well then, wanna watch the rocket launch with me tomorrow night?”
It was an absolutely beautiful evening. Clear skies. Seventy degrees. Perfect weather for a launch. We rolled down the windows in Howie’s car, which was parked off to the side of the road at Port Canaveral, where he said we’d have the best view.
The sun set outside my window as we waited. Satellite radio played softly out of the car speakers and, recognizing the song, I started to sing along. “Today is gonna be the day that they’re gonna throw it back to you. By now you should’ve somehow realized what you gotta do. I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now…”
I stole a glance at Howie in the fading twilight. He was looking the other way, watching an older couple set up lawn chairs outside their car.
“And all the roads we have to walk are winding… and all the lights that lead us there are blinding. There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how…”
“‘Cause maybe…” As I sang along with the chorus, I heard Howie’s voice suddenly join mine in harmony. “You’re gonna be the one that saves me…” I looked over at him again in surprise and found him smiling back at me. “And after all… you’re my wonderwall…”
It had been a long time since we’d sung together like that. The last time had been on stage in Sacramento more than six months ago. I was still waiting on my test results then, unaware that my whole world would be turned upside down two days later when I found out I was infected, too.
As a lump rose in my throat, I looked out my window to avoid making eye contact with Howie again. I didn’t think I’d ever felt such a complicated mess of emotions. One moment I was sentimental, resentful the next. I couldn’t wait to get back to Franklin, far away from him, where I could sort out my feelings.
Abruptly, I turned and reached toward the radio controls, silencing both Oasis and Howie as I switched the station from the ‘90s on 9 to the ‘80s on 8. “Hey, I thought you liked that song,” said Howie in surprise.
“Eh, it’s overplayed,” I replied. I was hoping to find some hair metal on the eighties station; instead, I got the start of “Hungry Eyes” by Eric Carmen.
“I’ve been meaning to tell you… I’ve got this feeling that won’t subside. I look at you, and I fantasize… you’re mine tonight…”
I quickly changed the station again. On the ‘70s on 7, Fleetwood Mac was singing, “You can go your own way… You can call it another lonely day…” How was it that the radio seemed to be reading my mind, matching my conflicting thoughts? I thought that only happened in movies. Annoyed, I punched the power button with way more force than necessary, shutting the whole sound system off.
Howie gave me a strange look. “That was a good song,” he said.
I scoffed. “Which one, the one from Dirty Dancing?” (For the record, yes, I’ve seen Dirty Dancing. I grew up with three sisters; it was unavoidable.) “You would think so…”
He wrinkled his nose. “What’s that supposed to mean? I meant Fleetwood Mac. Why are you in a bad mood all of a sudden?”
“I’m not; I’m just sick of hearing the same old shitty music,” I lied.
Howie shrugged. “Whatever floats your boat, man. It’s about time for the launch to start, anyway.”
I looked at the dashboard clock. It was eight on the dot. Across the water, I could see the rocket launch pad. It looked so small from our vantage point.
The older couple sitting outside their car a few yards away from us had turned on a small transistor radio that they had tuned to whatever station was covering the launch. I could hear strains of communication coming through the open windows. I wished I’d thought of that instead of shutting off Howie’s radio.
I was just about to turn it back on and try to find the same station when I heard the final countdown begin. “Ten… nine… eight… seven…”
“Watch,” said Howie in a low voice, and I looked to the launch pad, where a small fire was now burning at the base of the rocket. My breath caught in my throat as the countdown continued (“Six… five… four…”) and the faint, orange glow of the flames grew steadily bigger and brighter.
“Three… two… one…” I watched in fascination as the ball of flames suddenly swelled to the size of the setting sun, blocking the rocket from view for a few seconds as it brightened the dark horizon. Then the big, orange ball of light began to rise, and I could see the rocket being propelled straight up into the sky by the force of its ignition, leaving a trail of white smoke behind it. It was such a beautiful sight, it left a lump in my throat.
“Wow… that was so fuckin’ cool,” I whispered, breathless. “Thanks for bringing me out here to see it.”
“You’re welcome.” Even without looking at him, I could tell Howie was smiling. “I knew you’d like watching one of these, Mr. ‘I’m Taking Off.’”
I chuckled. “Yeah… you know me too well.”
“Sometimes I wonder about that,” muttered Howie under his breath.
I’m not sure if he meant me to hear him or not, but I couldn’t help but ask, impulsively, “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I finally took my eyes off the rocket, now a mere speck high up in the sky, to look at Howie. He was no longer smiling, but now watching me with a slight frown on his face. “I’m just wondering what’s up with you these days,” he said. “You’ve been distant… moody… What’s going on? Does it have to do with me, or is something else bothering you?”
I was taken aback by that. I thought I’d done a pretty good job at hiding my feelings, but then, Howie had always been able to read me like a book. I didn’t even know what to say at first.
“Nothing… nothing’s going on. Aren’t I allowed to have different moods?”
Howie’s eyes narrowed in the increasing darkness. “Nice try, Nick, but I can tell when you’re bullshitting me. Now spit it out – what’s wrong?”
I stayed silent, turning my head to look out the window. The people who had parked their cars around us were pulling away. Without their headlights, it was pretty dark outside.
Howie started his car and put up the windows. I heard him shift in the leather seat to look at me again. “Is this about the cruise? Or what happened as a result of it?” he persisted, letting the engine idled in park. “‘Cause if it is, I understand… but I have to say, I thought we were past that…”
“What was I like that night?” I asked suddenly. “I mean, I know I was wasted, but… did I really seem like I was enjoying it, like you said before?”
My question seemed to have caught Howie by surprise. He took a few seconds to answer. Finally, he sighed and said, “So we really are going to rehash all that. Well, I didn’t rape you, if that’s what you’re wondering. Okay, so I might have kissed you without asking permission – that was kind of an accident – but I wouldn’t have kept going if you hadn’t told me to. You said it felt good.”
I was aware of my heartbeat accelerating as I thought back to what I could remember of that night – his warm, soft lips moving down my body… my hands all over his…
“Believe me when I say I would never have done that to you if you’d said no,” Howie swore. “And I know you were drunk, Nick, but it’s not like you were unconscious. You were aware enough to know what we were doing, and you did seem to enjoy it. I remember you specifically telling me to stay… so I did.” He paused. “Don’t you remember any of that?”
There was a pleading tone in his voice. I think he thought I was going to accuse him of rape again, but that wasn’t at all where I was going with this. “I… I think I may have blocked out some of the details at first… but lately I’ve been remembering more of them,” I admitted.
“And?” Howie asked, raising his eyebrows.
I felt my face getting hot. I closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at him as I whispered the revelation I’d been struggling to come to terms with for a solid week. “I think maybe I did enjoy it.”
I heard his sharp intake of breath and opened my eyes into slits. Howie was staring at me incredulously, but as I watched, a smile started to spread slowly across his face. “Seriously? Or are you just messing with me?”
“I wish I was messing with you. I mean, I’m sure it was just all the alcohol fucking with my brain,” I added quickly, “but-”
“No. Wait a second.” Howie held up his hand suddenly to stop me. “You can’t say something like that and then start backpedaling. It wasn’t just the alcohol, was it? Admit it, Nick: you felt something that night. Something real.”
I shook my head rapidly, like a wet dog trying to get water out of its ears. “I don’t know what I felt. I was so drunk, I probably would have made out with a fucking panda if you’d offered me one.”
“Well, then-” Howie started to say something, then suddenly stopped, cocking his head to the side. “A panda?? Really?”
I rolled my eyes. “Well, no, not really; you’re missing my point. I was so wasted, I would have done just about anything with anyone and enjoyed it.”
“So, like sex with a panda,” Howie supplied, grinning.
“Ugh!” I put my head in my hands. “I didn’t say sex with a panda, I just said I’d-”
“You did say a ‘fucking panda.’ Either way, I’m pretty sure it qualifies as beastiality.” He laughed, obviously enjoying being the one to give me a hard time for once, instead of the other way around. “But that’s beside the point. I don’t believe alcohol suddenly made you bisexual – or whatever you wanna call it – any more than it would turn you into someone who enjoys panda sex, if you weren’t already into beastiality.”
“Howie, let it go; it stopped being funny fifteen seconds ago,” I said, my face still hidden behind my hands.
“No, I won’t let it go. Not until you admit you felt something more than alcohol poisoning and a strange attraction to pandas.”
“Ugh, now you’re just beating a dead horse…”
“…Like, apparently, you would’ve beat off a drunk panda?”
Hearing that made my head fly up out of my hands. “Howie!” I exclaimed. “When did you get so fucking perverted?”
“Since I started hanging out with you so much,” he replied with a grin.
I raised my eyebrows. “Well… I have to say, I’m impressed, man.”
Howie laughed. “Thanks, but don’t think you can sweet talk your way out of this, Nicky. We’re not leaving until you tell me the truth. What did you feel that night?”
“I… I didn’t feel anything,” I stammered, but at the same time I wondered: what was I so afraid of? Howie wasn’t like the kids at my school, the ones who had tormented me as a child. If there was one person in my life who had always loved and accepted me just as I am, it was him.
“Fine,” said Howie, leaning back in his seat and folding his arms over his chest. “Then prove it.”
“Kiss me,” he said. “I dare you. Kiss me, right here, right now, without any alcohol in your system… and tell me you feel nothing.”
“I’m not gonna kiss you, no way!” I protested.
“What, you’ll kiss a panda, but you won’t kiss me?” He pretended to look offended, but really, I could tell he was enjoying this. Well, that was all fine and good for Howie; he’d had plenty of time to come to terms with his own sexuality, but I was still struggling with mine. What did it mean? Could I really be bisexual, as Howie had suggested?
There was only one way to find out. Unbuckling my seatbelt, I suddenly leaned across the center console, grabbed his face with both of my hands, and kissed him full on the mouth.
When our lips connected, there wasn’t an explosion of fiery heat like we had just seen lift a rocket into space. And yet, as much as I hated to admit it, even to myself… I did feel a spark of something.