We brought Holden home from the hospital the day before Thanksgiving. I was thankful to the hospital staff for helping my baby boy get better, but it was hard to count my blessings when I was paying for my mistakes.
It hurt just to look at Holden and see what I had done. Although he was responding well to the antibiotics and steroids he’d been given for his pneumonia, he was still on oxygen to help his healing lungs. I hated seeing him hooked up to tubes, unable to move around much without getting tangled in the oxygen line. He seemed so helpless, and even after eight days in the hospital, I was worried it was too soon. However, Dr. Morgan had assured us it would be healthier for him to finish recuperating at home, away from the dangerous germs that lurked in a hospital setting.
But I couldn’t help but think it wasn’t healthy for either of my sons to be in this house. It didn’t feel like a home anymore, not with Leigh and I sleeping in separate rooms and barely speaking to each other. She had moved Holden’s crib into our bedroom and spent most of her time holed up there, while I kept James occupied in other parts of the condo. He was too young to understand what was going on, but I knew he sensed that something wasn’t right. “Holden’s still sick,” I explained, when he asked why we weren’t all going to Grandma’s for Thanksgiving. “Mommy has to stay here and take care of him.”
We were supposed to have flown to New Jersey to spend Thanksgiving with Leigh’s family, but instead, I brought James over to my mom’s house, while Leigh stayed home with Holden. My family accepted my excuse for their absence, but I knew I was going to have to explain everything sooner or later, so after dinner, while James was playing with his cousin in another room, I sat all the adults down and told them the truth about what was going on.
“Leigh and I are having some problems,” I started shakily, feeling it would be better to ease them into it than blindside them with the news that I had HIV – and that I had given it to my wife and son. “It’s all my fault. I was unfaithful. I… I slept with someone else when I was overseas-” I paused here, deciding to omit the part about it being another guy. My mother, a devout Catholic, was already looking at me with disappointment in her eyes; I couldn’t imagine how much it would destroy her to hear that I might be gay. “-and I wasn’t safe about it,” I went on, speaking quickly so I could get it all out before I lost my nerve. “I was stupid, and I got myself infected… with… with HIV.”
I stopped there, giving them a few seconds to absorb the first shock while I took a sip of water. My throat felt painfully dry. I swallowed hard, hearing the sharp intake of breath from my brother and sisters. When I looked up, my mother was staring at me with dismay, her hand over her heart. “Oh no, Howie,” she gasped, and it broke my heart to hear her say my name that way, her soft, Puerto Rican accent not hiding the sadness in her voice. “Not the AIDS…”
“Not AIDS,” I said quickly, realizing I would be clarifying this a lot in the weeks to come. “It’s just the virus that causes AIDS. I don’t have AIDS…” Yet. The word hung in the air, invisible, unspoken, yet obviously weighing on everyone’s minds. We all knew it was only a matter of time. But it wasn’t my own mortality I was most worried about. “Holden does,” I whispered.
“What?!” came the collective gasp, and I struggled to explain how the virus had spread through my family, finally infecting my infant son, whose immune system was weaker and more vulnerable to begin with. I felt like a criminal, confessing my sins, but my family didn’t condemn me. They didn’t judge. They just offered their unconditional love and support, saying things like, “We’re here for you, Howie,” and “Anything we can do…”
When I was finished, I felt like a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but the worst part wasn’t over yet.
I still had to tell Nick, and somehow, I knew he wasn’t going to take the news anywhere near as well.
The following day, I flew to L.A., leaving Leigh at home with both boys. I hoped the time apart would do us some good, give us both a chance to clear our heads before we decided how we were going to deal with the blow we’d been dealt.
I didn’t know what the future held for us, and there wasn’t much time for us to figure it out. I was supposed to go back on tour with the guys in less than a week, but I couldn’t imagine how I would get through the ten holiday shows we’d booked with all this hanging over my head. I knew I had to come clean and tell the guys what was going on.
But first I needed to talk to Nick. Alone.
“Hey, is Lauren here?” I asked when he invited me into his condo, looking around for signs of his fiancée. I hoped she wasn’t home; this was going to be hard enough without having to say it in front of her, too.
But for once, I caught a break. “No, she went wedding dress shopping with her sister,” said Nick, eyeing me suspiciously. “Why?”
Despite my best effort to be casual, I knew I was acting weird. He seemed to have noticed it, too. When I’d called to tell him I was in town, he had suggested meeting somewhere for drinks, but I had insisted on coming over to his place. I could tell he wasn’t comfortable with me being there, but it was for the best. This wasn’t the kind of conversation we could have in public.
I sighed, deciding I had better just get on with it. “I’ve gotta tell you something, Nick, and it’s not good news. Can we go sit down?”
“Sure…” Nick said slowly, still staring at me intently. I thought I saw the first flicker of fear in his eyes, but I knew he was about to be blindsided, as I had been when Holden was diagnosed. How could he have seen something like this coming?
We went into his living room, which had a gorgeous view of the beach behind his condo. Nick sat in a corner of the couch and immediately crossed his arms and legs – typical defensive posture. I perched on the edge of an armchair, unable to relax. My heart was starting to race, and my hands felt clammy with cold sweat.
Nick’s blue eyes surveyed me coolly, like a couple of ice cubes. “So what’s up, Howie?”
I took a deep breath. I had thought it would be easiest to build up to it by telling him the same way I’d found out – by starting with Holden’s diagnosis and working my way back from there. But in the end, I decided to just drop the bombshell and say it.
“I’m HIV positive.”
I watched his expression change, his eyes widening, the frown falling off his face as his jaw dropped. “What?? No way. Are you fucking with me?” He grimaced, going red in the cheeks as he looked away. “Wait – don’t answer that.”
I saw the moment when it all clicked – when he realized what I was saying and what it could mean for him. He looked up again, his face flushed and his eyes filled with horror.
“What the fuck, man? Are you serious??”
I could hear the note of pleading in his voice, the hope that I was just messing with him, getting payback for all the pranks he’d pulled on me over the years. But he had to know I would never joke about something like this. “Unfortunately, yes, I am. I found out last week.” I swallowed hard, my mouth feeling like sandpaper again. I wished he had thought to offer me a drink. “I… I think I must have gotten infected over the summer, when we were in London. I told you what happened there. It’s the only time I’ve been with someone other than my wife, except for…” I trailed off, knowing I didn’t need to finish. He knew all too well what I was talking about.
“But you don’t think…? I mean, we didn’t… We only…” Nick seemed incapable of finishing a thought, but he didn’t have to either.
“I know. But you should get tested, just in case.”
He shook his head dismissively. “I don’t see how I could have it.” He raked a hand through his hair as he thought back to that night. I knew because I had done the same thing, going over every piece of it that I could remember. We had both been pretty drunk, but…
“I was bleeding,” I blurted.
He blinked up at me. “Huh?”
“That night. You… you bit my tongue, and I was bleeding, remember? If any of my blood got into your… system,” I said awkwardly, “then you could have it. I mean, the odds of that happening are really, really small,” I added quickly, “like one in a thousand or something, but still… it’s possible. You should get tested.”
Nick stared at me with total revulsion for a few seconds. Then he said, “So help me god, Howie, if I find out you gave me fucking AIDS…”
“Not AIDS,” I said automatically. It was becoming my mantra. “HIV. It’s the virus that-”
“Shut the fuck up,” snapped Nick. “I don’t fucking care what it is; I just know I don’t want it in my fucking body!”
“Neither do I, Nick.”
“Then you shouldn’t have fucking cheated on your wife!” he shouted. The words were like a slap in the face to me. “And I swear to god, if you gave it to me too, I will never forgive you.”
“I’m sure you’re fine,” I said quickly. My voice was shaking, but I meant it. I really did think I was just being overly precautious in telling him and urging him to get tested, too. There was no way he was going to test positive. Well, okay, there was a way… but like I’d said, the odds were still very slim.
“Oh, you’re sure?” He let out a sarcastic laugh. “That’s why you’re telling me I should get tested?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, Nick.” I wasn’t sure what else to say. I mean, what else are you supposed to say when telling your best friend you may have infected him with an incurable virus? All I could do was apologize and be supportive. “Listen, there are clinics downtown that do rapid HIV testing. You could go today and get it over with. I’ll go with you, if you want,” I offered.
He snorted, giving me a look of deepest loathing, like I was a cockroach or something. “Oh yeah, ‘cause that’s all I need is the paparazzi taking pictures of us going into an AIDS clinic together like a couple of queers. No offense.”
That made me angry. “You know, Nick, it takes two to tango. You were there too.”
“Fuck you. I was wasted, and you know it.”
“So was I,” I started, then shook my head, realizing there was no point in trying to defend myself. “It doesn’t matter. Drunk or not, it happened. We have to deal with it. So if you want me to go with you…”
“I don’t. Didn’t I make that clear? I don’t want you to do a fucking thing except leave. Get the fuck out of here.”
My heart sank when I realized he was serious. “Nicky…”
“Don’t call me that!” he snapped, his eyes flashing dangerously at me. “Don’t you ever fucking call me that again.”
There was nothing else I could do except nod. I stood up slowly, wishing he would apologize for his rudeness, but I knew he wasn’t going to. And why should he? Rude or not, his reaction was warranted. I was the one who should be sorry, and of course, I was. An apology wasn’t enough, but it was all I had to offer him at that point.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, and then I walked out. Nick didn’t say another thing, and he didn’t try to stop me, either.