Chapter 51


Howie

I had never known Nick to turn down a dare, and despite his initial protests, he did not disappoint.  He could have just given me a peck, but instead, his mouth came crashing down onto mine.  The force of his kiss caught me by surprise, and for the first few seconds, I forgot to close my eyes.  Nick’s were squeezed tightly shut, of course, so he didn’t see me studying the fine lines of his face, the arch of his brow, as our chins and noses brushed against each other.  He was even more beautiful up close.

When he broke the kiss and we pulled apart, both of us were breathing hard.  My heart felt like it was beating a million times per minute.  Nick’s blue eyes were wide; the expression in them was a blend of panic and surprise.  “You felt something, didn’t you?” I whispered.

Slowly, hesitantly, he nodded.

I felt a thrill of triumph rush through me.  “I knew it!  I knew it couldn’t have just been me.  That night on the cruise, there was this… this chemistry between us.  I know that sounds cliche, but I’ve never felt anything like it before, not even with Leigh.”

“‘Cause you’re gay,” said Nick.  I nodded.  “But I’m not… at least, I don’t think I am… I’m in love with Lauren!” he sputtered.  “How can I love her and have feelings for you at the same time?”

I understood his confusion.  After all, I had struggled with the same question for many years myself.

“You’re human, Nick.  Of course you can have feelings for more than one person.  I’m sure you looked at other women while you were with Lauren, didn’t you?”

“Well… yeah,” he admitted, his face flushing.

“It’s no different with me,” I said, shrugging.

“It is different!  You’re a dude!” he cried.  His cheeks were bright red now, and his eyes flashed with anger, though whether it was directed at me or at himself, I wasn’t sure.

“So what?  You’re not a homophobe, are you?”

Nick recoiled.  “Well, no, I’m not, but… other people are.”

“So?  Why do you care so much about what other people think?  For as long we’ve been in the public eye, I thought you’d have developed thicker skin by now.”

He shook his head.  “You don’t understand.  It’s not the same for you.  Ever since the group got big, you’ve sort of been in the background, while I was the one getting most of the attention.  No offense or anything,” he said quickly.

“None taken,” I replied, shrugging.  “It’s no secret you’ve always been the most popular Backstreet Boy.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know why.  I never asked to be.  But for whatever reason, I’ve always had people breathing down the back of my neck, watching my every move, just waiting for me to screw up so they can sit around and judge me.”

“No offense, Nick, but you brought some of that on yourself.”

Nick sat up straighter, his body stiffening.  “What does that mean?” he demanded.

“Don’t get all defensive on me.  I’m just saying, when you go around getting arrested and doing reality shows and dating girls like Paris Hilton, you tend to attract more attention than the rest of us.”

Nick looked like he wanted to argue at first, but then he shrugged and slumped back into his seat.  “Fair point.”

“You don’t have anything to worry about,” I said.  “I’m sure me going public with my mess of a personal life has taken a lot of the attention off you.”

He shrugged again.  “Not really.  There’s still rumors going around that I have HIV, too.”

It rattled me to hear that he was still getting harassed about that, after everything I’d done to protect him, but I tried not to let it show.  “No one can prove it, though,” I pointed out.

“But if I’m seen going in and out of AIDS clinics…”

“All the more reason for you to stay here with me,” I interrupted him.  “If we keep scheduling our appointments for the same day and go in together, people will think you’re just there supporting me.”

“Or they’ll think we’re gay for each other and that you gave me HIV,” he said flatly.

The truth hurt.  Sighing, I said, “Would that really be the worst thing in the world to happen?  Worse than getting a DUI or going out with Paris Hilton?”

Nick cracked a smile.  “Believe it or not, Howie, she actually didn’t give me an STD, so… yeah, I’d say that would be worse.”

I swallowed hard, stung by the implication that I was somehow skankier than Paris Hilton.  “We can’t hide it forever,” I said softly.

“You mean I can’t.”

“No, I mean ‘we.’  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again now:  we’re in this together, Nick.”  I reached across the center console to rest my hand lightly on his knee.  I thought he might push it away, but instead, he put his own hand on top of mine and left it there.

“I know.”

I turned my hand over, and he let me lace my fingers through his.  His hand was sweaty.  I gave it a reassuring squeeze, and for a few minutes, neither of us spoke.  Darkness had fallen around us; I could no longer see across the cape to the rocket launch site.  We were the only ones still parked on the side of the road.

“Well,” I said, with a sigh, “should we head home?”

“Yeah.”  Nick took his hand out of mine so that I could shift the car into gear.

The ride back to my condo was quiet.  I kept licking my lips as I drove, remembering, with a little rush of excitement each time, the feeling of Nick’s lips pressed against them.  I had to hide my smile the whole way home.  I hadn’t experienced happiness like that in at least six months.

For the first time since we’d hooked up on the cruise, I felt like Nick and I were fully on the same side.

***

I slept alone that night, as I had every night since Holden’s diagnosis.  It didn’t bother me as much anymore, but as I lay in bed, looking at the wall that separated my bedroom from Nick’s, I couldn’t help but wonder if he was also lying awake, thinking about me.

I fought the temptation to knock on his door, knowing I needed to give him time to sort out his feelings.  If I tried to take things to the next level too quickly, it would just freak him out.  I had to let Nick make the first move.

Even though I was tired, it took a long time for me to fall asleep.  I tossed and turned for several hours, my mind racing, before I was finally able to shut down my brain.  In the morning, I woke up with a headache, feeling like I’d barely slept at all.

I staggered out to the kitchen to get a glass of water so I could take my medicine.  I was sore and achy, though I couldn’t imagine why.  In an effort to get back into shape, I had started exercising again by taking walks around my condominium complex and along the beach, but I’d been careful not to overdo it with any strenuous workouts.  I took a Tylenol along with my usual HIV meds and immunosuppressant drugs, and that seemed to help.

I was making coffee when Nick got up.  “Morning,” I said casually, as he came into the kitchen.  He grunted something unintelligible in reply as he got himself a glass out of the cupboard and filled it with water.  I watched him take his own medication; then he joined me at the breakfast bar while we waited for the coffee to finish brewing.

I wanted desperately to bring up the night before, but I held back, waiting to see if he would.  Nick, though, seemed determined to act like nothing had happened.  He talked to me normally about everyday stuff – news stories, sports, the weather – but said nothing at all about the kiss we’d shared in the car.

I wondered if he was still thinking of leaving, but didn’t ask.  I knew he would let me know when he decided.

We each drank a cup of coffee, then went about our day as usual.  I took a short walk on the beach, while Nick went to the gym to work out.  He wasn’t back by the time I had showered, so I made myself some breakfast and ate alone.  I didn’t have much of an appetite; my stomach was bothering me.  I wondered if it was just nerves about Nick, or if I was coming down with something.  I took my temperature just in case, but it was normal.

In the afternoon, I lay down for a nap, but it didn’t help.  Even though I slept for three hours – much longer than I’d meant to – I woke up feeling exhausted.  To make matters worse, Nick still wasn’t back, which worried me.  What if something had happened to him?  I texted him, but got no reply.  When I tried calling, his phone just went to voicemail.  A part of me wondered if he had decided to go back to Tennessee after all and left without telling me so I wouldn’t try to stop him.  No, I told myself, Nick wouldn’t do that.  But the truth was, there was no telling what Nick would or wouldn’t do these days.

I was contemplating who else I could call to check on him somehow – the police? the hospital? the airport? – when I heard the front door click.  “Hey, I’m back,” Nick announced casually as he came in, dropping a takeout bag on the kitchen counter.  “I brought dinner.”

“Where the hell have you been?” I asked, my pulse pounding in my temples as I got up from the couch.  I looked at the logo on the takeout bag.  “Jon Smith Subs?  Where’d you find one of those?”

Nick shrugged.  “I dunno.  I was just driving around and saw the sign, and it sounded good, so I stopped.  Do you want steak or chicken?  I wasn’t sure, so I got one of each,” he said, taking two sandwiches out of the bag.  “I’ll eat whichever one you don’t want.”

“You could’ve called to ask,” I said, annoyed by his attempt to dodge my questions.  “Or at least to let me know you were alive.  I was getting worried about you.”

“Sorry,” he replied, not sounding particularly apologetic.  “I just needed to clear my head.”

“Well, I hope it’s clear,” I said shortly.  My own head was pounding.  “I’ll take the steak,” I added and snatched the sandwich I thought he would prefer, just to piss him off.  The sub and fries were stone cold, and I wondered again where he’d been, but didn’t ask a second time.  It wasn’t important; he had come back, and that was all that mattered.

While Nick nuked his meal in the microwave and ate every bite, I just picked at mine, still not hungry.  Now that Nick was back and I wasn’t feeling any better, I decided I was definitely coming down with something.

By that night, I felt even worse.  My head and stomach still hurt, and I had the beginnings of a sore throat and a runny nose, too.  When I blew my nose for the fourth time during the first sketch on Saturday Night Live, Nick looked over at me.  “Are you getting sick?” he asked, an expression of mild concern on his face.  We both knew even a slight infection could be serious for someone with a weakened immune system.

I shrugged.  “It’s probably just a cold.  I checked my temperature this morning, and it was normal.”

“Well, you should probably check it again.  It could’ve gone up since this morning, and you know if it gets to 100.5, you need to-”

“-call the transplant center, I know,” I said, smiling at him, surprised and rather touched that he had remembered this specific number.  Of course, he and Lauren had learned what to watch for when I’d lived with them after my transplant, in case I developed any complications.  A fever of 100.5 or higher was a warning sign of the two most common ones:  infection and rejection.  “I’ll check it on the next commercial break.”

After the host, Andy Samberg, had delivered his opening monologue, I dug out the thermometer and took my temperature again.  “99.9.”  I read the number on the digital display with a sinking feeling in my stomach.  I still had half a degree to go before there was any real cause for concern, but even so, I couldn’t help feeling slightly worried.  I didn’t want Nick worrying, though, so I tried to turn it into a joke.  “Dude, you better not have given me any of your nasty cooties last night.”

“Hey, you’re the one who asked me to kiss you,” Nick replied, finally acknowledging what we’d done for the first time all day with a would-be casual shrug.  I could tell he was concerned and trying to act like he wasn’t.  To his credit, he played along, adding, “It’s probably Nick Plague.”

“Nick Plague?” I repeated, laughing.

He looked over at me and grinned.  “It’s a fan thing.  Apparently, a lot of them get sick after meeting me at soundcheck, so they’ve started calling it ‘Nick Plague.’”  He looked oddly pleased to have a disease named after him.

“Hm, maybe you should see that as a sign and start washing your hands more often,” I said.  “I don’t want your plague germs.”

“Just trying to settle the score, dawg.  You gave me HIV, so I gave you Nick Plague, and now we’re even.”

There was a time when it would have hurt to hear that kind of comment from him, but that time had passed.  We had finally reached the point where we could joke about what had happened – not that it would ever be funny, but both of us had benefitted from setting aside the hard feelings and finding some black humor in the situation.  For once, I didn’t even think Nick was trying to take a dig at me; instead, I felt like it was his weird little way of letting me know I was forgiven.

“Well, it’s only a slight fever.  I should be okay,” I said, putting the thermometer away.

“You sure you don’t want to call the doctor, just in case?” Nick asked, trying again to sound casual.

I looked at the clock on the cable box.  “It’s quarter till midnight.  Even on the West Coast, it’s way after hours.”  I shook my head.  “I’m sure I’ll be better in the morning, but if not, I’ll call then.”

I went to bed convinced that I only had a cold and would be fine, but when I woke the next morning, I did not feel any better.  I had to drag myself out of bed to check my temperature, only to find that my fever had hit 100.5.  Worse yet, when I went into the bathroom, I was greeted by a horrific sight:  my whole body was covered in a raised, red rash.  Staring at my blotchy reflection in the mirror, I felt sick with fear, for I knew a fever and rash were sure signs that something was very wrong.

***


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