I wasn’t sure what it would be like to have James and Holden around all summer. It had been awhile since I’d spent a significant amount of time with little kids like that. The last time they’d visited, it was only for a few days, and Leigh was with them the whole time. This time, they were staying for two months without their mom, which meant Howie and I were on our own.
“Dude, if we just got Brian and an Olsen twin down here, this would be just like Full House,” I said, watching Howie wipe off Holden’s face, hands, and high chair after dinner that first night. The kid was a hot mess; he was probably wearing more food than he’d actually put in his mouth.
Howie laughed. “Why Brian?” he wanted to know.
“‘Cause he does the best impressions. He’d be Joey.”
“And who would you be?” Howie asked, walking over to the sink to rinse off the washcloth.
“Duh, Uncle Jesse!” I exclaimed. “I’m the young, hot, hip one!”
Howie snorted and shook his head. “You’re not hip if you still say ‘hip.’ Besides, I think AJ would be a better Uncle Jesse.”
“What?! No way! First off, AJ isn’t even here, so he doesn’t get to be on the show. Second, I’m way hotter than AJ, wouldn’t you agree?”
Howie tipped his head to one side and tapped his chin, as if he was seriously considering his answer. “Are we talking now or in the nineties?”
“Now! Why would we be talking about the nineties?”
“Well, my answer may have been different in the nineties. But now? Yeah, you’re hotter,” Howie admitted with a wink.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Are you saying you had a crush on AJ in the nineties?”
Howie raised his eyebrows. “Are you saying John Stamos is hot?”
“Well, he is a handsome guy…”
“Ha!” Howie snickered. “You’re so not straight.”
I rolled my eyes. “Shut up.”
“So who am I then, Danny Tanner?” he asked, as he wiped down the tray of Holden’s high chair one last time.
“Well, duh,” I said. “You’re the dad. And the neat freak.”
“I’m not that neat,” Howie protested.
“Yeah? How many times you gonna wipe off that tray?”
Howie looked down at the spotless tray and laughed. “Touche,” he said. “Okay, buddy boy, time to take your medicine.” He tickled Holden under the chin, then turned to me. “Wish me luck,” he muttered under his breath.
“Heh… good luck,” I said, settling onto a stool behind the breakfast bar. I watched as Howie set several bottles out on the counter, stopping every few seconds to look at the list Leigh had left for him. Behind him, Holden slapped his tray and then raised his arms over his head, demanding to get out of his high chair.
“Hang on, buddy,” Howie said absently, squinting down at Leigh’s instructions. “She said he hates the taste of this one and won’t take it unless it’s mixed with yogurt.” He held up one of the prescription bottles. “Should I give it to him first or last?”
I wasn’t sure if he was actually asking my opinion or just thinking aloud, but I decided to answer anyway. “Definitely last. Make it seem like dessert.”
Howie turned around and pointed his finger at me. “Good call, Uncle Nicky.”
I smiled. Even though I wasn’t their uncle by blood, I’d always liked being called by that name. Was it weird if the boys still thought of me that way, I wondered, when Howie and I were way past a “brotherly” relationship? Not that they knew about that part…
“Okay, Holden…” Howie had one of those clear, plastic medicine spoons half-filled with reddish-purple syrup. I gagged just looking at it, remembering the taste of liquid medicine from when I was a little kid. “Open up,” Howie said, guiding the spoon toward Holden’s lips.
Holden clamped his mouth shut and shook his head.
“Come on,” Howie coaxed. “Time to take your medicine, just like you do for Mommy.”
Holden squeezed his eyes shut and made a face, shaking his head even more emphatically.
Howie sighed and looked back at me in exasperation. “Any more ideas?”
“Um, call Leigh?”
He shook his head. “Only as a last resort. I told her to relax and take some time off from worrying about all this stuff; I can’t call her the first night. She’ll think I can’t handle it. She said he’s been a lot better about taking his medicine lately… He’s probably just testing me. So what else can I try?”
I shrugged helplessly. How was I supposed to know how to make a toddler take medicine? I couldn’t say I blamed the kid; I didn’t like taking mine either. “Hey,” I said suddenly, “what if we take ours at the same time? Would that help, if he sees us doing it, too?”
Howie’s eyes widened. “Duh! Why didn’t I think of that? You’re a genius.”
I grinned. “Man, I wish I had a recording of you saying that…”
“Or maybe it’s that you still have the mind of a sixteen-month-old,” Howie added with a shrug, smirking at me. “Either way, it’s worth a try.”
As he went to get out his own meds, I said, “You know, if I have the mind of a sixteen-month-old, that means you’ve been giving blowjobs to a baby.”
“Shh!” Howie hissed, whirling around to give me a disgusted look. “Don’t say stuff like that in front of my son.”
I snickered. “What, like he knows what a blowjob is?”
“My five-year-old is right over there!” Howie pointed into the living room, where James was watching TV with his mouth hanging open, completely oblivious to the conversation we were having in the kitchen.
“So? You telling me James knows what a blowjob is?”
Howie gave me a look. “No, but he’ll repeat the word if he hears us saying it, so stop talking about it already!” He shook his head. “You’re sick.”
I loved getting him all flustered. He really was Danny Tanner.
“Look, Holden,” Howie said, showing him a handful of pills. “Daddy’s going to take his medicine, too. Watch Daddy.” He popped the pills into his mouth and took a big swig of water. “See?” he said, once he’d swallowed. “Don’t you want to be like Daddy?” He picked up the medicine spoon again and pushed it gently against Holden’s sealed lips.
Holden shoved his hand out of the way. “No-no-no!” he screamed, still shaking his head.
“It doesn’t look like yours,” I observed. “He knows it’s not the same thing.”
Howie looked at me for a moment, his eyes narrowed. “You’re right,” he said finally. “I know what we can try. I’ll be right back.” He set the spoon down on the counter and disappeared.
I looked at Holden. “You like giving your dad a hard time, huh? You sure we’re not related?” He just stared at me, blinking his tear-filled blue eyes.
When Howie came back into the kitchen, he was carrying a clean medicine spoon and a bottle of children’s cough syrup. I watched him pour some of the syrup into the spoon. Then he turned to me. “C’mere, Nick, time to take your medicine.”
“Wait, what?” I quickly recoiled. “You want me to take that?”
“Yes, Nick,” Howie said in a loud, patronizing voice. “You want to stay healthy, don’t you?” He came toward me, holding the spoon out in front of him. “Play along,” he whispered. “It’s just cough syrup; it won’t hurt you.”
“No, but it might make me puke,” I muttered back.
He rolled his eyes at me. “This was your idea.”
“My idea was to take my actual medicine, not that nasty shit.”
“Ummm! Uncle Nick said a bad word!” I looked over, surprised to see James standing at the edge of the kitchen.
“We don’t say that word, Uncle Nick,” Howie scolded me in a warning tone. “What happened to your show, James?”
“It went on commercials. Will you come play with me, Uncle Nick?”
Before I could answer, Howie said, “He will in a minute. First he’s gonna help me get Holden to take his medicine. Right, Nick?” He stared at me with pleading eyes. “Are you ready to take your medicine?”
James was watching me curiously. “You take medicine too, Uncle Nick? How come? Are you sick?” he asked.
I looked at Howie, unsure of how to answer that. He quickly shook his head and replied, “No, he’s not sick. This just helps him stay healthy, like Holden’s medicine does.”
“Oh.” James cocked his head to one side. “Can I take some, too?”
“No, you don’t need any. You’re healthy already… thank God,” added Howie, and I saw a flicker of emotion pass across his eyes. “Go back into the other room and watch TV, buddy. We’ll be there in a few minutes.”
When James had run off, Howie turned back to me. “Ready?” he asked, holding up the spoon of cough syrup.
I sighed. “Okay, fine.”
Howie smiled. “What a good boy, Nick,” he said, going back to that same, loud, patronizing voice. “Now open your mouth wide.”
Grudgingly, I opened my mouth and allowed him to stick the spoon inside. I tried not to gag as I swallowed the sickeningly bittersweet syrup and forced a smile onto my face when I was done.
“Good job, Nick!” Howie was really piling on the praise for Holden to witness. “You’re such a big boy!”
“Damn right I am,” I muttered, smirking at him. He rolled his eyes at me before turning back to his son.
“Holden, don’t you wanna be a big boy like Uncle Nick?”
Holden, who had been watching me with fascination, suddenly nodded. Howie and I looked at each other. Success! I thought. It was that simple: Howie offered the spoon of medicine again, Holden opened his mouth, and down it went with no fuss.
“You’re a lifesaver,” Howie sighed, sagging with relief once Holden had swallowed. “Thanks, Nick.”
“No problem,” I said, grabbing a soda from the fridge to rinse the taste out of my mouth. “But next time, you’re taking the cough syrup.”
By the time Holden had finished taking his medicine and both boys had been bathed and tucked into bed, Howie and I were ready to turn in ourselves.
“I dunno how you do it, man,” I said, as I followed Howie back to his bedroom. “Being a parent is exhausting.”
He chuckled. “You have no idea.” He started to reach for the doorknob, but then I saw him hesitate. “Nick, it may be better if you stayed in your own room tonight.”
That statement took me by surprise. I didn’t think he minded sharing his bed, seeing as how I’d been sleeping in it every night since the first time. It was less lonely that way – for both of us, I’d thought.
Before I could even respond, Howie quickly added, “It’s just, James sometimes gets up at night-”
“Yeah. I know,” I said flatly.
“What?” Howie gave me a questioning look. I guess I’d never told him about my awkward, late-night visit from James the last time he’d been there.
“Never mind.” I lowered my voice to a whisper. “Can’t we just lock the door if we decide to do anything?”
He sighed. “I’m worried he’ll have nightmares, being away from his mom and all, and if he does, I want him to be able to come to me.”
“But you don’t want him to find me in your bed,” I finished, finally understanding what the issue was.
Howie opened the door to the guest room instead and motioned me inside. “I’m sorry,” he said, shutting the door, “but I just think it would be confusing for him. You know, he’s still getting used to the idea of Leigh and I splitting up, so if he were to find Daddy sleeping with Uncle Nick…”
I wrinkled my nose. “Please don’t ever put it that way again. It makes us sound like we’re in some incestual, redneck relationship.”
He laughed. “Yeah, you’re right – sorry.”
“What if we just say we’re having a sleepover?” I asked, as I walked over to the bed and sat down. “He’s only five; he doesn’t know anything about sex and stuff yet, right?”
Howie shook his head. “No, but… I guess I’d be more worried about him saying something to someone else.”
“Like who, Leigh?”
“I was thinking more along the lines of my family,” said Howie, sitting down beside me on the edge of the bed. “They don’t know about us or the cruise or… anything. I haven’t even come out to them yet.”
“Yet?” I looked over at him, raising my eyebrows. “Does that mean you’re going to come out to them?”
He shrugged. “Maybe someday, yeah. I’m sure my brother and sisters would be cool with it. Mama’s the one I’m most worried about. You know, she’s a pretty hardcore Catholic, and-”
“She thinks the gays are all going to Hell?” I interjected.
“I don’t know if she thinks that, specifically, but… some Catholics do,” he admitted, looking downward. “As much as I want to believe she’d accept me, no matter what, I’m worried it would break her heart if she knew. And I could just see James innocently letting something slip if he saw us together.”
I nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. So… I guess I’ll see you in the morning, then?”
Howie seemed to hesitate, but then he nodded. “Yeah,” he said, sliding off the bed. “We should both get some sleep. The boys’ll be up at the crack of dawn.”
“Well, enjoy getting up with your kids,” I replied, grinning at him. “I’m gonna sleep in.”
“You can try,” Howie countered, “but I can’t promise they won’t run in here and jump on top of you to wake you up.”
“They won’t if I lock the door!” I said triumphantly.
“No… then they’ll beat on it until you’re forced to get out of bed just to stop the pounding.”
“Ugh,” I groaned, realizing he was probably right about that.
Howie grinned back at me. “Aren’t kids great?” he said, chuckling, as he walked to the door. “Goodnight, Nick.”
“‘Night, Howie.” I felt strangely empty inside as I watched him leave. I couldn’t believe it, but I was actually disappointed. Being with Howie had reminded me how good it felt to have someone to share a bed with. Without him, I was lonely.
I lay back on the bed, folding my arms behind my head, and looked up at the ceiling fan. Its blades were spinning slowly, continuously, just like the thoughts in my brain. I knew I wouldn’t be able to shut them down long enough to fall asleep anytime soon.
As I replayed my conversation with Howie over in my mind, my thoughts turned to the people in my own life. What would they think if they knew what we’d been doing down here in Florida?
I didn’t care what my family would say. Ever since Leslie’s death, I’d barely spoken to my parents or my other siblings. None of them knew I was sick, and I damn sure wasn’t going to tell them about Howie.
But what about the rest of the guys, my real brothers? It was going to be awkward reuniting with Brian, Kevin, and AJ after the recent developments in my relationship with Howie. Would we tell them the truth, I wondered, or try to keep it a secret? I wasn’t sure we’d even be able to keep it under wraps, as well as we all knew each other.
And then there was Lauren. I knew if AJ found out, it would only be a matter of time before Lauren learned the truth, too, as close as she was with Rochelle. AJ would never be able to keep such a juicy secret from his wife, and she would surely tell Lauren, and what would Lauren think? That I’d left her to be with Howie? That would probably hurt her. Like Leigh, she’d be left with the realization that our whole relationship had been a lie, that I’d never really loved her at all. Except that wasn’t true, in our case. I did love her. I didn’t want to hurt her. But, again, I reminded myself that hurting her feelings would be better than infecting her body. At least if she thought I’d moved on with Howie, she would be able to move on, too. So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if she found out.
I picked up my phone and looked at the clock. It was getting late here, but it was three hours earlier in California. Lauren would still be up. Impulsively, I sent her a text. All it said was “Hey,” but as soon as I sent it, my heart started to pound. I hadn’t talked to her at all since my hospital stay in Tennessee. I’d been trying to give her time to move on without me, and so far, I’d done a good job at not reaching out to her, even when I wanted to. Now I regretted my temporary moment of weakness.
A painful few minutes passed without a reply, and I wondered if she was busy or just ignoring me. Then my phone beeped. My heart leaped in my throat as I looked down. Her text simply said, “Hey. What’s up?”
I had to say something back now that she’d asked, so I wrote, “Nothing, just wanted to say hi and see how you were doing. I’m doing a lot better. Feeling healthy and happy again.”
“Glad to hear that,” she texted back. “Take care. Goodnight.”
Her short response made it clear to me that she wasn’t in the mood to talk. It stung a little, but I understood. Either she was still mad at me, or she was moving on, and wasn’t that what I wanted?
I missed her, though. Being with Howie had done wonders to take my mind off Lauren, but I’d never really stopped missing her. It was just worse at night, when I was lying awake in bed by myself. I’d always hated sleeping alone.
Back when the group was first starting out and we’d shared hotel rooms, the older guys would always fight over who got to sleep solo. I wouldn’t admit it then, but I’d never minded sharing. Maybe it was because I’d grown up in a crowded house with a family of five kids, or maybe I was just codependent, but the soft, steady sound of someone else’s breathing and the warmth of another body in my bed brought me comfort. It was too quiet, otherwise, with only my own thoughts to keep me company. I couldn’t sleep that way. Once we’d stopped sharing rooms, I’d replaced the guys with a steady string of girlfriends and one-night stands so that my bed was rarely empty. On nights when I had no one, I’d fall asleep to the sound of the TV talking to me.
There was no TV in this room. I turned my phone over, toying with the idea of watching some Netflix on it, but instead, I set it down and got out of bed. I padded barefoot across the room to the suitcase I’d been living out of for the last month or so. Howie had said I could hang my clothes in the closet, but I still hadn’t bothered to unpack. My stuff was strewn all over the place. I dug through the layers of t-shirts and underwear to get to the bottom of the suitcase, where I’d packed a notebook and pen. I never traveled without taking this notebook. It wasn’t a diary, per se, just a place to write down my thoughts, song lyrics, and that sort of thing. I’d found that it helped to free my mind when I wrote out the ideas that were filling it. So I turned to a fresh page and tried putting pen to paper.
“I’m lying in this bed, staring at the ceiling fan. I wanna be with you instead… “