Waking up with Howie wasn’t like the last time. The last time, I was hungover and freaked out about finding myself naked in bed with my best friend. But this time, there was no splitting headache and no unpleasant surprises. Instead, I woke feeling calm and content.
I lay there for a second, taking in my surroundings. Once I realized I was in Howie’s bed, I remembered every second of the night before, and I wasn’t ashamed. I felt this overwhelming sense of freedom, like someone had released me from a set of heavy chains that had been holding me down. I got laid, that’s why, I thought, smirking to myself. It didn’t even matter that it had been with a dude; finally having sex after six months of self-inflicted abstinence felt amazing. So did letting go of all of my inhibitions and fears. For the first time since finding out I had HIV, I actually felt hopeful about the future. Ironically, the same person who had saddled me with the burden of that illness was also the one who’d set me free.
I looked to my left, where Howie was still asleep. He was sprawled out on his back, his head lolled to one side and his mouth hanging open. He had his right arm up over his head, while his other arm was wrapped around a small, plush panda bear. When had that little guy joined us in bed? I wondered, stifling a giggle. I remembered Howie sleeping with a stuffed Winnie the Pooh way back in the day, but didn’t realize he still had that habit. I couldn’t wait for him to wake up so I could make fun of him for it.
Reaching across to his side of the bed, I took one finger and trailed it lightly along the underside of his arm, from his wrist to his tricep, trying to subtly tickle him awake. Howie twitched a little, smacking his lips, but didn’t wake up. I’d almost forgotten what a deep sleeper he was. “Howie!” I hissed in his ear. When he finally jerked awake, I yawned, as if I’d just woken up myself. “Mm… morning,” I said, making my voice sound sleepy.
He turned his head toward me. “Morning,” he replied, as a smile spread slowly across his face. “You’re still here.”
I frowned. “Where else would I be?”
“I dunno… the couch? James’s bed? Halfway to Tennessee by now?” He let out a nervous laugh. “I thought I might have scared you away last night.”
I shook my head. “It wasn’t that bad, actually. It felt… good,” I admitted, as I sat up in bed. “I feel good.” I looked over at him again. “How about you?”
Howie winced as he struggled to sit up, too. “A little sore,” he said, “but it’s all good.”
“I’m sorry,” I offered, feeling awkward for the first time since I’d woken. “I tried to go slow…”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. You were great, Nicky.”
I wiggled my eyebrows. “Paris used to tell me that, too.”
Howie made a face, just like I knew he would. “Gee, thanks for reminding me of all the other nasty places your dick’s been. I need to take a shower now.”
“Hey, wait,” I said, before he could get out of bed. “What happened to your little friend? Not your dick,” I added quickly, realizing that might have come out wrong. “Your panda friend.”
“What? Oh…” Howie looked sheepish as he pulled the stuffed panda out from under his pillow, where he had apparently hidden it while I wasn’t paying attention. “It’s James’s. I found it in his room after Leigh and the boys left last year, and it still smelled like him…” He glanced down at the toy and shrugged. “It’s stupid, I know, but I was lonely, and it helped to have something to hold onto at night. I guess it just became a habit.”
I felt for Howie, but I couldn’t miss out on such a golden opportunity to give him shit. “I see. Well, now we know who really enjoys sleeping with pandas, don’t we?”
“Shut up,” he laughed, shaking his head, as he started to get up again. “I really am gonna jump in the shower.”
“Jump” wasn’t exactly an accurate description of what Howie was going to do anytime soon. Watching him hobble into the bathroom, I could tell he was more than “a little sore.” I felt bad about that, but it was kind of funny, too. Apparently, he had underestimated just how well-endowed I was.
“You sure you don’t wanna wait until after our workout?” I called after him, just to see his reaction.
Howie stopped in the bathroom doorway and looked back at me. “Uh… I think I’m gonna need to take a rest day. Or a rest week.”
I laughed. “Hey, I did warn you…”
He smiled. “I know you did. But it’s okay. It was worth it.”
We spent the next three days thoroughly cleaning the condo before Howie’s kids came. Conveniently, Howie claimed it still hurt to bend over, so guess who got stuck scrubbing floors on his hands and knees?
“Dude, don’t you have a cleaning lady who could do this?” I complained, as I wiped away dust and hair and god-knows-what else from around the base of his toilet.
“We used to,” said Howie, spraying the mirror with glass cleaner, “but Leigh let her go while I was living in L.A., and I haven’t gotten around to hiring her back.”
“Well, you should definitely hire her back. Like, today. I don’t wanna pick up any more of your pubes.”
“But you’re so good at it!” He grinned down at me. “I bet you helped your parents clean the house when you were a kid, too, didn’t you?”
I rolled my eyes at his weak attempt to motivate me, like I was still that little kid who could be encouraged with empty praise. “Dude, my parents had five kids. I don’t think our house was ever this clean.”
“Well, Leigh will freak out if this place isn’t completely disinfected. You saw how she was with Holden last time they were here; she’s so worried about germs and him getting sick…”
I sighed, but kept scrubbing. For Holden’s sake. “He still doing okay?” I asked, wanting to keep Howie talking. Time went by faster that way.
“Yeah, Leigh said he is. His T-cell count is way up from where it was when he was diagnosed, so the meds they’ve got him on must be working.”
“Oh, that’s great.” I met Howie’s eyes in the mirror and smiled. “So does that mean he doesn’t have AIDS anymore? Just HIV?”
Howie shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Once you get an AIDS diagnosis, that’s it. They don’t take it back. Even if his immune system recovers, he’ll always ‘have AIDS,’ thanks to me.”
I set down my sponge. “Hey, man, you can’t keep beating yourself up about it. You didn’t know.”
“Maybe not, but if I’d just kept my dick in my pants, none of this would have happened.”
“Yeah, and you’d still be stuck in your sham of a marriage.”
He frowned at me. “It wasn’t a sham. I loved Leigh. I still love her.”
I raised my eyebrows, looking back at him skeptically. “I thought you loved me. I thought you were gay.”
He sighed. “I do… and I am, but… I dunno, Nick, it’s complicated. There are different kinds of love, you know? When I married Leigh, she was my best friend, and now she’s the mother of my children. I’ll always love her, in a way.”
“But not the same way you love me.”
He shook his head. “No. Not that way.” He paused, watching me in the mirror, and I could tell he was waiting for me to say something. It was the second time that week he’d told me he loved me, and I had yet to say anything back. He’d given me an out the first time, but now he looked like he expected some kind of response.
What was I supposed to say? It was way too soon to tell him I loved him, too. Truthfully, I did love him, but as a brother and a friend, not a… boyfriend. It was still weird for me to even think of him that way, let alone say it out loud. As far as I was concerned, we were just having fun, fooling around with each other. It wasn’t like we were some exclusive couple.
“I understand,” I replied finally. “I still love Lauren, too.” I said the last part almost defiantly, daring him to question my feelings for Lauren. Maybe I was bisexual, but I definitely wasn’t gay. I did still love Lauren, and if it weren’t for him, I would have been happily married to her by then.
“Have you talked to her lately?” he asked, his eyes boring into mine.
“No,” I admitted, looking away. “I’m giving her some space, so she can move on.”
“So you still love her, but you don’t see a future with her?”
I shook my head. “No. Not as husband and wife, anyway. I hope maybe one day we can go back to being friends, but I’m not gonna drag her down with all of my baggage and drama.”
“You mean your HIV,” Howie said matter-of-factly.
“Yeah.” I sighed. “I don’t deserve her, and she doesn’t deserve to be stuck dealing with this shit the rest of her life. That day at the doctor’s office, when we found out she’d tested negative, she started talking about ways we could still have kids. It would have involved her having to be artificially inseminated… or taking all these antiretroviral drugs she didn’t really need, just so I could ‘safely’ knock her up the ‘natural’ way. But none of it actually sounded safe or natural. And you know Lauren; she likes things natural. She deserves to be able to get pregnant and have a baby without medical intervention if she wants to, and I won’t take that away from her.”
“You know Kevin and Kristin used fertility drugs to conceive Max, right?” Howie said. “It’s not really that big of a deal these days.”
“But Lauren wouldn’t need drugs if she wasn’t with me.”
“You don’t know that. You two never tried to get pregnant, did you?”
I shook my head. “You’re missing the point. It wasn’t just about having kids. Hell, we didn’t even know if we wanted kids. I just didn’t want her whole life to revolve around trying to keep us both healthy.”
He frowned. “But isn’t what her whole life revolves around already?”
“Ugh.” Annoyed, I picked up my sponge. “You don’t understand,” I said, as I started aggressively scrubbing the floor again. “Forget I said anything.”
“I do understand, Nick. I’m just playing devil’s advocate here, although I don’t even know why. It’s not like I want you to go back to her. I like having you here.”
“Yeah, so I can be your slave and scrub your friggin’ floors,” I grumbled.
“I hope you know how much I appreciate your help,” he said. “I promise, I’ll make it up to you.”
I glanced over my shoulder at him. “Oh yeah? How you gonna do that?”
“Well…” He raised one eyebrow. “When you’re done, if you want, I’ll get down on my knees and make it worth your while…”
I just laughed and scrubbed a little harder.