The morning of our first show, I woke up with butterflies in my stomach. I looked over at Nick, who was still sleeping peacefully beside me. What did he have to worry about? He wasn’t the one who had tried to kill himself, survived a liver transplant, gotten a divorce, and gone public with his HIV status since the last tour. Sure, performing would be a walk in the park compared to all that, but I was more worried about the soundcheck party than the actual show. Facing the fans was the biggest fear on my mind.
In the eight months since my suicide attempt, I had pretty much stayed away from social media, wanting to avoid the gossip and negativity. I hadn’t had many fan encounters in real life, either. I knew most of our fans would be supportive, but I also knew they would have some hard questions for me at soundcheck, questions I was dreading having to either dodge or answer. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be open with my fans, but there was still so much about my situation – and Nick’s – that they didn’t know.
Nick had it easy, I thought, watching him with envy. No one was asking him awkward questions. The rumors about his status and our relationship had died down since he’d left L.A. and disappeared from the public eye. The paparazzi were relentless, of course, but the rest of the world had moved on to juicier stories: Brad and Angelina were married, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez were back together, Joan Rivers was dead, and nude photos of several A-list starlets had leaked online. With all that in the entertainment news, no one was worried about Nick Carter, and Nick had no reason to worry, either.
Meanwhile, I was a nervous wreck. I knew I’d never be able to get back to sleep, so I decided to get dressed and go to the gym. A good workout would give me something positive to focus on and take my mind off my fears.
“What are you doing?” Nick groaned, when he woke and found me stretching on the floor of our hotel room. Technically, it was his room, but I’d been sleeping there ever since the guys had found out about us. Now that they knew we were together, there was no reason for us to stay in separate rooms.
“Getting ready to go work out,” I answered. “Wanna join me?”
Nick blinked, bleary-eyed, at his phone. “It’s five in the morning.”
“Says the guy who woke me up at six every day this summer.”
“That was six, not five,” mumbled Nick. “Go back to bed. Save your energy for the show tonight.”
“I can’t sleep,” I admitted.
“How come? First show jitters?”
“Something like that.”
Nick sat up. “You’re gonna be great tonight,” he said, smiling at me. “You’re ready. You’ve got this.”
I smiled back. “Thanks for the pep talk. I’m still going to the gym.”
I left the room with a little spring in my step and a lot on my mind. Knowing Nick had confidence in me helped me feel a bit better, but like I said, it wasn’t really the show I was worried about.
When we took the stage for soundcheck that afternoon, I got the loudest cheers of all – louder than Kevin when he first came back, even louder than Nick got every night. I guess there’s a first time for everything, right? Anyway, it made me feel loved – and a lot less nervous.
We sang a couple of songs, and then it was time for the Q&A. Eddie had asked each of us beforehand, were there any topics that were off-limits? In the spirit of openness, I’d answered no. We had always tried to be pretty forthcoming with our fans, and if I didn’t allow them to ask questions about my health or personal life, it would look like I had something to hide. So I braced myself for the inevitable, and sure enough, the very first question was directed at me.
“Well, first of all, I just want to say welcome back, Howie!” gushed the girl holding the microphone. She had to wait for the fans to stop cheering for me before she could continue. “I think we’re all wondering, what has your recovery been like, and how are you doing now, health-wise?”
I swallowed hard. It was a fair question, one I’d been expecting, but that didn’t make answering it any easier. I forced a smile onto my face, though, and replied, “Thank you. It’s been a hard road, and I’ve had to really work to get back into shape, but I’m doing great. Definitely ready to get back on tour. I’ve missed you guys,” I added with a wink, earning another round of cheers from the fans.
“Who else has a question?” asked Eddie, as he took the mic from her and looked around for another fan.
The next question was for Nick. “Hi, Nick! I was just wondering when you’re getting married – congratulations, by the way,” said a woman wearing a Backstreet Boys t-shirt. “Have you and Lauren set a date yet?”
“Um… not at this time, no,” Nick replied shortly and left it at that. I saw the raised eyebrows and suspicious looks being exchanged in the audience, but thankfully, Eddie moved on quickly to another girl who had a question for Kevin.
At the end of the Q&A, the five of us took our places for the meet-and-greet and photos with fans. “Do you think we should say no hugs or handshakes?” Kevin asked quietly, as Eddie and our security team got the fans lined up.
Nick and I looked each other. “Dude, you know you can’t ‘catch’ HIV from casual contact, right?” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Kevin rolled his eyes. “No shit, Nick. What I meant was, I don’t want you guys getting exposed to extra germs.”
I glanced at Nick again. I didn’t know how he felt about it, but I hated the idea of limiting physical contact with the fans. It may have been the smart thing to do, but it seemed so cold. “We’ll be fine,” I said. “I’m more concerned about the fans catching ‘Nick Plague’ from Carter here than them getting one of us sick.”
Nick cracked a smile and coughed into his hand. “The struggle is real,” he said. “My immune system sucked even before I got HIV, but we’re not going back behind that stupid barrier like a bunch of caged animals in a zoo. I always hated that. Let them hug us or shake hands if they want to. They’re not gonna hurt us.”
Kevin shrugged. “If you say so.”
I wasn’t worried. If anything, it was the fans who seemed worried about hurting me. While some of them squeezed me tightly, telling me how happy they were to see me, many embraced me as if I were made of glass and would break if they applied too much force. Others avoided the hug altogether, settling for a handshake and hello. As I watched one of the latter group go on to hug the rest of the guys, Nick’s words echoed in my mind. “Dude, you know you can’t ‘catch’ HIV from casual contact, right?”
I thought everyone knew that by now, but was it possible that, even in 2014, that sort of paranoia still existed on some level? People were hugging Nick without hesitation, I noticed, but then, none of them knew he had it, too. I couldn’t help but wonder: Would they treat him differently if they did?
All fears aside, the reception I got when I took the stage that night was nothing short of extraordinary. When our faces flashed across the big screen one by one at the start of the show, mine got the loudest cheers, even louder than Nick’s. And when it was my turn to talk to the crowd, the standing ovation I received lasted so long, I could hardly speak.
Blinded by the bright lights, I squinted out into the sea of faces in front of me. They went blurry as my eyes filled with tears. I could feel the love radiating from the fans’ beaming smiles. In that moment, I realized how lucky I was to be on that stage, making people happy by doing what I loved. This was the kind of life people dreamed of having. How could I have even thought of throwing it all away?
Overwhelmed with emotion, I wiped away the tears and tried to compose myself before I addressed the crowd. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I shouted, “Thank you, New York!” My voice still wavered as I continued, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the support you’ve given me this year, from your prayers and well wishes and kind words to the incredible love you’ve shown me tonight. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. It feels great to be back on this stage, performing for you all.”
I paused, as another round of cheers and applause rang out from the audience. “We love you, Howie!” I heard one voice rise above the others.
“Thank you,” I repeated. “I love you, too. On behalf of the Backstreet Boys, we always love coming to New York, and the song we’re about to sing is all about love. This next song is a song that Nick and I wrote together, a song called ‘Love Somebody.’ I feel like there’s a lot of love in the air tonight, so I want you to do me a favor right now. I want you to look to the left or to the right of you. If you love that person, I want you to tell them, ‘I love you!’”
I looked to my left, where Nick was standing next to me. On the last leg of the tour, when we did this (admittedly scripted) part of the show, he would often come up to me and say those words, grabbing hold of me to give me a big hug or a smack on the cheek. I had always known he was just joking around – anything to keep the fans’ attention on him – but at the same time, I secretly looked forward to it. But that night, when I turned to Nick, I found him facing the other way, hugging on AJ instead. As stupid as it sounds, it sort of made me angry to see that he was still so insecure about our relationship, he wouldn’t even say the words to me jokingly anymore. But I recovered quickly and continued on with my introduction to our song.
“And if you love the Backstreet Boys, put your hands in the air!” The fans threw up their arms and screamed as I sang the opening notes of “Love Somebody.” Then I turned it over to Nick to start the first verse.
“Is it too much to ask for one minute to breathe?” he sang, his voice oozing with passion. “‘Cause you take my breath away, like I’ve never seen.”
“You’re the reason why cavemen drew on the wall,” I chimed in, watching Nick out of the corner of my eye as I joined the others in harmony. “The reason why after every summer we fall.” He was drawing every eye away from the rest of us by doing the spazzy little dance he always did, his own special version of the Carlton dance from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which we called “The Carter.” “You’re the reason I never wanna sleep at night…”
‘“Cause nothing I can dream is better than you by my side,” finished Nick, and he glanced my way for just a second before he looked out at the audience again. “You know that I…”
I smiled to myself as we launched into the chorus. “Woo-whoo… love somebody, love somebody…” He may have been afraid to say the words out loud, but I knew that Nick loved me, in his own special way.
By our last set in the show, I was exhausted. It was a relief to take a breath backstage while Brian introduced the next song. “You okay, man?” Kevin asked me, as we waited for our cue to take the stage again.
“Yeah, I’m good,” I said, smiling. The combination of emotions and physical exertion had worn me out, but even though I was tired, I had never felt better. I fed off the energy of the crowd as we went back out to sing “In a World Like This.”
“You got me wide open, wide open; now I’m yours.” As AJ started the first verse, my eyes strayed again to Nick, who was strumming his guitar on the far side of the stage. “You found me heartbroken, heartbroken on the floor.” Eight months ago, he had found me at my lowest point and picked me back up again, both physically and figuratively.
“Became my salvation, salvation through the war.” In more ways than one, Nick had saved my life, and I felt a surge of gratitude as I stood alongside him on the stage, surrounded by the love and support of our fans. “You got me wide open, wide open; now I’m sure.” In spite of Nick’s insecurity and my own uncertainty, there was one thing I felt sure of: I was glad to be alive, glad to be back, and glad I didn’t have to go at it alone anymore. We were in this together.
The crowd screamed louder than ever as I came down the center catwalk to sing my solo. “You got me wide open, wide open, yeah… and now I’m free falling, free falling…” I got the fans pumping their fists as the music picked back up for the final chorus.
“In a world like this, where some back down, I, I know we’re gonna make it.” Nick was jumping up and down, his guitar bouncing along with him, as Brian’s voice rang out over the rest, powerful and perfectly pitched.
“In a time like this, when love comes ‘round, I, I know we’ve gotta take it.” AJ and Kevin threw their arms in the air, encouraging the crowd to sing along. And sing they did, a chorus of voices accompanying ours.
“In a world like this, where people fall apart…” I reached out to the front row, touching as many hands as I could.
“In a time like this, when nothing comes from the heart…” I tried to make eye contact with the fans who were further back, offering a smile here, a wink there. But on the very last line, I couldn’t help but look across the stage at Nick.
“In a world like this, I got you.”