I wasn’t surprised when one of the guys came after me, but I had expected it to be Howie. Instead, it was Brian who found me hanging out behind the rehearsal venue, smoking a cigarette by the loading dock.
“Hey,” he said quietly. “You okay?”
“Yup,” I replied, hoping my one-word answer would be enough to tell him I didn’t want to talk. But if Brian got the hint, he ignored it, coming over to sit beside me on the curb instead.
“No you’re not,” he said, eyeing the cigarette in my mouth. “You’re smoking.”
“Yeah – so? You here to judge me, Brian?” God damn Blurry Brian, back again, I thought, annoyed. This was exactly why I hadn’t wanted to tell the guys about me and Howie.
“I’m not judging,” Brian said mildly. “Just making an observation. I haven’t seen you smoke in years; I thought you quit.”
“So where’d you get the cigarette?”
“Bummed it off one of the crew guys. What’s it matter to you?” I asked, waiting for him to start berating me about ruining my lungs and voice. And so help me god, if Brian, of all people, said anything about my voice, I was really going to lose my shit.
But all he said was, “Can I have a drag?”
I snorted, looking over at him in amusement. “Since when do you smoke?” I didn’t think I’d ever seen Brian so much as hold a cigarette, let alone take a puff of one.
He held out his hand. “C’mon, please? Pass it here.”
I rolled my eyes as I handed him the cigarette. I thought for sure he was just going to stamp it out, but he shocked me by putting it between his lips instead. My eyes widened as I watched him inhale. Who was this person, and what had he done with Brian? I wondered. Then he started coughing uncontrollably, and I knew the real Brian was back.
“Don’t suck in so much smoke, dude,” I said, laughing at the look on his face. “You’ve gotta get used to it first.”
“Damn,” he said hoarsely, shaking his head, as he gave me back the cigarette. His eyes were watering. “Sorry, but I don’t see the appeal in that at all.”
I shrugged. “I didn’t tell you to smoke it.”
“I know,” said Brian, wiping his eyes. “I was just trying to understand.” He glanced over at me. “What’s going on, Nick?”
“Nothing’s going on,” I replied, feeling annoyed again.
“Not even between you and Howie?”
I didn’t answer that time, taking a drag of the cigarette instead.
“He told us,” Brian said. “After you ran out, AJ asked Howie, and he said you guys have been together for a few months. Is that true?”
I felt blood rush to my face as I flushed with anger and embarrassment. How could Howie betray me like that? Why would he tell them about our relationship behind my back after he’d promised it would stay between us?
“If it is, I wanna hear it from you,” Brian persisted. “Are you two really together, or is that just wishful thinking on Howie’s part?”
“What if I say yes, we are?” I asked. “Are you gonna condemn me? Tell me I need to ‘pray the gay away’ or I’ll go to Hell?”
Brian frowned. “Why would I do that?”
“Oh gee, I dunno, ‘cause you’re a self-righteous dick sometimes?” I replied. “I can tell you’re trying not to be, and I appreciate that, but let’s not forget that you wouldn’t even show your face on House of Carters when you thought it might hurt your Christian music career. Why would I expect you to do anything different?”
“Because this is different,” Brian said. “We’re not talking about some E! reality show designed to exploit you and your dysfunctional family for so-called ‘entertainment.’ Why would I condemn you for loving someone? If you and Howie really are in a relationship, then I’m happy for you, just as long as it makes you happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you, Nick.”
I puffed on my cigarette, considering what he’d said. I appreciated the sentiment behind his words, but something about them still bothered me. “Then why the tone of doubt?” I asked. “You don’t believe Howie?”
“I just want your take on it,” said Brian. “That song you sang in there… was that for real? Do you really have those feelings for him?”
I sighed, wishing I wasn’t so passionate when I sang. I should have known I wouldn’t be able to hide my feelings the whole song. Damn Howie for forcing me to sing it in front of the other guys. I took another long drag off the cigarette, stalling for time. I’d hoped the smoke would calm my nerves, but I still felt tightly wound, like my stomach was twisted into knots.
“Gimme that, would ya?” Brian held out his hand, motioning for my cigarette. I passed it to him without a word, wondering if he was planning to take another puff of it or put it out.
It was at that exact moment – the worst possible one – that the back door opened, and before I even bothered to turn my head and see who was there, I heard a high-pitched voice screech, “Brian Thomas Littrell!”
Brian dropped the cigarette butt and stamped it out with the toe of his shoe, but not before his wife saw him with it.
“You’re smoking?!” Leighanne said, looking incredulously from him to me and back to Brian again. “Who are you, and what have you done with my husband?”
“My thoughts exactly – except for the husband part,” I muttered.
Leighanne narrowed her eyes at me. “Gee, let me guess where he got the cigarette,” she said sarcastically, folding her arms over her boobs.
“Guilty,” I said, holding up my hands. “There I go being a bad influence on your saint of a husband again. Better tell him to blur his face out next time we’re on TV together so I don’t ruin his reputation.”
Brian closed his eyes and shook his head. “Nick, please don’t start…”
Leighanne frowned. “What are you talking about?”
“Never mind,” Brian answered before I could say anything else. “What do you need, babe?”
“I just came to find you. No one knew where you went. Why are you guys out here, anyway?”
“Smoke break,” I said, without missing a beat.
“We’re just talking,” replied Brian. “Tell the guys we’ll be back in soon.”
“Sure, baby.” Leighanne started to turn away, but then she stopped, her eyes shifting from him to me again. “Is everything okay?” she asked, and to her credit, she actually sounded concerned.
“Everything’s fine,” I said, and then, because I couldn’t resist getting a rise out of her, I added, “By the way, I’m fucking Howie.”
Leighanne’s eyes widened. “Nickolas Gene Carter! Language!”
The fact that she was more offended by the word ‘fucking’ than the actual act made me laugh. “Sorry, my bad. I meant I’m having sex with Howie. Hot, steamy, butt sex.”
“Very funny,” she said huffily, rolling her eyes. “Don’t stay out here too long; Kevin said they want to start rehearsing again soon. And Husband, if you ever want to kiss me again, you’d better never let me catch you with another cigarette.” Then she turned on her heel and stormed back inside.”
Brian and I looked at each other. “She didn’t even believe me,” I said, surprised.
He raised his eyebrows. “Were you telling the truth or just saying that to mess with her?”
“Both,” I admitted.
“So… you and Howie really are…?”
I nodded, feeling my face flush as I focused on the ground. I really wished I had another cigarette.
“Wow,” said Brian.
A few seconds of awkward silence passed before Brian spoke again. “So is that the real reason you left Lauren?”
“What, to be with Howie? Hell no,” I said, shaking my head. “No, that didn’t happen until way later.”
“Then why did you leave her?” he asked. “If it wasn’t to be with Howie, then was it like AJ said? Were you afraid of infecting her?”
I sighed. “Yeah, pretty much.”
“I see. So now that you’re with Howie, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. That must be a relief.”
“Yeah, I guess.” Looking over at him, I could tell there was more he wanted to say. “Where you goin’ with this, B? Whatever’s on your mind, just spit it out already.”
Brian opened his mouth and closed it again. He did this several more times before he finally spoke. “I guess I’m just wondering if you’re with him because you’re genuinely attracted to him or because you feel like you have no other options.”
I blinked. “What, you think just cause I’m HIV-positive, I couldn’t find anyone else?”
“I don’t think that at all,” said Brian. “I’m asking, do you think that?”
“N-no,” I answered uncertainly.
“Can you see yourself having an intimate relationship with someone who’s negative?”
I kept my mouth closed, unable to answer. The sad truth, I realized, was no. If I couldn’t make it work with Lauren, who was as supportive and open-minded as they come, then how could I be with anyone else? Suddenly, I understood what Brian was trying to ask. Had I settled for Howie because I knew there was no one else?
“I… I don’t know,” I admitted.
He put his arm around me. “Look, I’m not trying to make you doubt yourself, Nick. I just don’t wanna see you or Howie get hurt. Like I said, if y’all are happy together, then I’m happy for ya, man.” He patted my shoulder.
“Thanks, Bri,” I replied. “I am happy… happier than I’ve been since all this shit started, anyway.”
“Then that’s all that matters,” he said. “I hope it works out with Howie, if that’s what you want, but if it doesn’t, I know there’s someone else out there for you. If it’s meant to be, you’ll find her – or him.”
I didn’t believe him, but I smiled anyway and thanked him again, knowing he was just trying to make me feel better.
After a few more seconds, Brian stood up. “You ready to head back in and face the music?”
I rolled my eyes at his pun. “Not really.”
“C’mon, man… you can’t sit out here and smoke all day. You’re outta cigarettes.”
I sighed. “I know.” He offered me his hand, and I took it, allowing him to slowly pull me to my feet. “How did Kevin and AJ react when Howie told them?” I asked, as I brushed off the back of my shorts.
Brian shrugged. “They both just seemed to think it was funny.”
“Great,” I said sarcastically, knowing they’d never let me live this down.
“Honestly, bro, it’s not a big deal to any of us, as long as it doesn’t affect the group. No lovers’ spats onstage, ya hear?”
I smiled, feeling a sense of relief. If Brian was being this open-minded about it, I knew AJ and Kevin would be okay with it, too. “Got it,” I said.
“C’mere, man. Gimme a hug,” he said, opening his arms to invite me in. I put my arms around him, grateful for his acceptance. But as he embraced me, Brian whispered, “This isn’t, like, turning you on, is it?”
I just laughed as I pulled away. “Trust me, dude, you’re not my type.”
Howie pulled me aside as soon as Brian and I went back in. “You okay?” he asked, putting his arm around me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have made you sing the song in front of them.”
“It’s okay.” I shrugged. “I guess it was only a matter of time before they found out, right? It was probably stupid to think we could hide it from them the whole tour.”
“Maybe, but I wish we’d been able to tell them on our own terms,” said Howie.
I glanced up at the stage, where AJ, Kevin, and Brian were getting their instruments ready for the acoustic set. AJ saw me looking and gave me a little wave. I felt the knots in my stomach slowly unravel. “Actually, I think we did.”
Howie smiled. “So you’re not mad at me?”
I thought about it for a second, then shook my head. I knew Howie hadn’t meant to out me, but in a way, I was glad he had. Because now we were both out in the open. No more hiding our feelings. No more keeping secrets. Really, it was for the best.
“Nah,” I said. “It’s all good, man. Now c’mon, let’s go sing.”