Our second show was in Camden, New Jersey, less than a hundred miles from Leigh’s parents’ place in Long Branch, so I was able to talk her into bringing the boys down to spend the day with me and come to the concert that night.
I hadn’t planned on her parents coming along, too, but Leigh insisted they were just there to help with Holden. “He’s really too little to sit through a Backstreet Boys show,” she said. “Mom and Dad will take him back to the hotel and put him to bed so James and I can stay for the show.”
I had always been close to my in-laws, but I hadn’t had any contact with them since Leigh left last December. The Boniellos had welcomed me into their family with open arms when we’d first started dating, but now that we were divorced, I wasn’t sure I would receive such a warm reception.
All morning, I thought about what I would say when I saw Leigh’s parents, Ralph and Patricia, for the first time since our lives fell apart. I knew I needed to pull them aside and apologize for what I’d done to their daughter. Truth be told, I should have apologized to them a long time ago.
But when Leigh and the boys arrived at the venue alone that afternoon, I was grateful to have been granted another reprieve. “Where are your folks?” I asked her, after I’d hugged James and Holden and given her a peck on the cheek.
“They drove on to Philadelphia to do some shopping,” she replied. “They’ll be back to pick up Holden before the show starts.”
“Oh, okay.” I got the feeling my former in-laws were trying to avoid me, but at least I wouldn’t have to face them right away. Instead, I enjoyed spending the afternoon with my sons, parading them across the stage during soundcheck (to the delight of the fans in attendance) and playing with them backstage before the show.
Not including Nick, it had been a long time since the other guys had seen my kids, and they couldn’t believe how grown-up James seemed or how big (and blonde) Holden had gotten.
“He doesn’t seem sick at all,” said Kevin, smiling as he watched Holden run up and down the hallway outside our dressing rooms.
“No, he’s been doing really well,” I replied. “I just pray to God he stays that way.”
Kevin nodded. “Amen to that.” His eyes drifted to Leigh, who was standing at the other end of the hall. “How’s Leigh doing?” he asked.
I followed his gaze to my former wife. She looked as vibrant as ever, effortlessly beautiful in a black t-shirt and a pair of coral-colored shorts that showed off her long legs, her hair hanging in loose waves. “As far as I know, she’s fine.”
“Glad to hear it,” said Kevin. “It’s good that you guys get along so well around the kids.”
I nodded. “Yeah, we’ve tried to maintain a friendly relationship, for their sake.”
“Does she know about you and Nick?”
My heart skipped a beat, then started to race. “No…” I said slowly. “Not that I know of, anyway. I’m gonna talk to her about it this weekend.” I had been meaning to tell Leigh about my new relationship, but hadn’t yet found the right moment. I wanted to get her alone so we could have that conversation in person and in private, without the kids around. But I knew if I didn’t do it soon, she would find out from someone else.
The circle of people who knew about my relationship with Nick was still small, but it was a circle that, until recently, Leigh had been a part of, and it was only going to grow wider. I would be naive to think the other guys hadn’t told their wives, and if the wives knew, it was only a matter of time before one of them – most likely Leighanne, since she was the only one on tour – brought it up to Leigh.
That was why, when she asked, I agreed to go to church and brunch with her family the following morning. I wasn’t looking exactly forward to it, but I knew that, if nothing else, it would give me the chance to do what I needed to do: apologize to her parents and tell her about Nick.
I prayed about it all through mass in the morning and didn’t pay much attention to the sermon. Nick’s words kept echoing in my mind: “Dude, don’t you think Leigh’s dad wants to castrate you for what you did to her?” I knew he was just joking, but at the same time, I wouldn’t have blamed Leigh’s parents for wishing that level of pain and humiliation upon me. Several times during the service, I leaned back to sneak a peek at them. They were sitting at the other end of the pew with Leigh, who had Holden in her lap, while James was sandwiched in between us. Every time I looked, her parents were staring straight ahead, as if they were determined not to make eye contact.
The Boniellos had barely said two words to me when we met outside Old St. Mary’s, the second oldest Catholic church in Philadelphia. The big, brick building was located just across the river from Camden and, from what Leigh had told me, had a lot of neat history. Some of the founding fathers, such as George Washington and John Adams, had even worshipped there. It would have been a cool experience to sit where they once sat, had I not felt so uncomfortable being there.
After mass let out, Leigh walked ahead with the boys while her parents hung back, admiring the architecture. I took advantage of the opportunity to talk to them privately. “Could I have a quick word?” I asked, and they agreed to walk with me around the corner, away from the other churchgoers.
“What is it, Howie?” asked Leigh’s father, Ralph. It was rare to see him looking so serious.
I swallowed hard. “Listen, I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I did to Leigh… and Holden… and our whole family. I know a simple apology isn’t enough to make up for my mistakes, but I don’t know what else to say or do. I can’t change what happened. Believe me, I wish I could.”
“We wish you could, too,” said Leigh’s mother, Patricia. “This has been so hard on Leigh, Howie. It’s been hard on us all, actually. We feel like we’ve lost a member of our family.”
She never raised her voice, but her softly-spoken words made me feel more ashamed than if she had shouted. “I know,” I whispered, hanging my head. “I feel that way, too. I know it’s all my fault and that it may be impossible for you guys to forgive me, but I at least wanted to tell you in person how sorry I am.”
Patricia nodded. “Thank you, Howie,” she said. Then she glanced at her husband, who was still stone-faced. “How could we call ourselves Christians and not forgive someone for their sins? If you’re truly sorry – and of course you are – then we forgive you… right, Ralph?”
“Mm-hm,” he murmured, but there was still no warmth in his eyes as he stood there, staring me down.
I felt the insane urge to laugh as I remembered what Nick had said just before I left. “Gimme a call if Mr. Boniello brings a hatchet to brunch.” How did his sick mind come up with this stuff? I wondered. I mean, a hatchet??
Smiling in what I hoped was a humble and repentant way, I extended my hand to my former father-in-law, and after a moment’s hesitation, he shook it. Patricia opened her arms, inviting me in for a hug. “We have missed you,” she whispered, giving me a squeeze. “Thanks for your apology. No matter what, you’ll always be a part of our family.”
“Thanks for your forgiveness,” I replied, feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. We may never be one big, happy family again, but at least I had been forgiven, and that was the best outcome I could have hoped for.
There was only one thing left for me to do, and that was to tell Leigh about Nick. I waited until we’d both eaten our fill at brunch, then asked her to walk outside with me. We left the boys with their grandparents, promising to be back soon, and went across the street to a park along the riverfront. There were a few people out enjoying the warm, end-of-summer weather – a couple of families having picnics, a group of friends playing football – but otherwise, the park wasn’t crowded. I led Leigh to a bench in a secluded spot, out of hearing range of the others, and invited her to sit down.
“What’s going on, Howie?” she asked, looking at me with concern. “Is everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” I assured her. “Health-wise, I’m doing great, and emotionally, I’m in a much better place than I’ve been in a long time. That’s actually what I wanted to talk to you about. There’s been sort of a new development in my life…”
“Are you seeing someone?” she interrupted, her eyes narrowing as she studied my face.
I felt a smile start creeping across it, which I tried to suppress. To me, being with Nick was a good thing, but I wasn’t sure how she would take the news. “Yes,” I admitted.
Leigh raised an eyebrow. “A woman? Or a man?”
I took a deep breath. “A man.”
Her eyes narrowed again. “Is it Nick?”
How did she know? I wondered. Had one of the wives told her, or was it just that obvious? Feeling my face heat up, I bit down on my bottom lip. “Yes.”
Leigh just nodded. For almost a full minute, she sat quietly, absorbing what I’d said, as I waited for her to have some kind of reaction. Then, finally, she asked, “So you’re happy?”
“Yes,” I replied honestly.
“Is he happy?”
“I think so.”
She nodded again. “Then I’m happy for you both. I hope it works out for you.” I thought I could sense just a hint of sarcasm in her voice, but mostly, she sounded sincere. I knew it had to be hard for her to hear that I was moving on with someone else, especially when it was a man.
“Thank you,” I said. “I’m sorry; I know this has to be weird for you, but I wanted you to hear it from me first.”
She cleared her throat. “I appreciate that. Actually, as long as we’re away from little ears, there’s something I wanted to tell you, too.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well, I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and found out my viral load was up and my CD4 count had dropped below 500, so…” She let out a heavy sigh, looking down at her lap. “I’ve decided to start treatment.”
I nodded, not sure whether to say “Good for you” or tell her I was sorry. To me, her news was both good and bad – bad because it meant her health had declined to the point of needing treatment, but good because at least she’d finally agreed to antiretroviral therapy.
“The drugs really aren’t bad,” I assured her. “I haven’t had many side effects, even with the extra meds I started taking after my transplant. I know Nick had some trouble adjusting at first, but they got that figured out, and he’s fine now. And look how well Holden’s doing.”
Leigh nodded, but when she looked up again, I was startled to see tears swimming in her eyes.
“Hey… what’s wrong?” I asked, putting my hand on her arm. “Are you really that worried about taking the medication?”
She shook her head. “It’s not that… well, not just that,” she said, sniffling.
“What is it, then? Is this about me and Nick?”
Snorting, Leigh shook her head again. “Don’t flatter yourself. It has nothing to do with you, Howie.”
“Then what?” I said, starting to get annoyed. “Why are you crying?”
She sighed. “I dunno, I guess it just hit me that this is how it’s going to be for the rest of my life. The doctor said once I start these drugs, I shouldn’t stop-”
“No, you shouldn’t,” I interjected, thinking of Nick.
“-so I’m going to be taking them until I die.”
“Join the club,” I said. “It’s a small price to pay for prolonging your life, though, don’t you think?” I’m sure I sounded insensitive, but I was having a hard time understanding why she was so upset about taking a pill every day. If she only knew how many prescription bottles I’d had to pack to bring on the road with me..
“I know. It’s not that. It’s just…” She paused, struggling to explain herself. “I’ve spent so much time and energy worrying about Holden, trying to keep him healthy, that I took my own health for granted. It’s like I almost forgot I was sick, too. I felt fine, so it was easy to convince myself that I was fine. And then to find out otherwise, that, no, actually the virus is progressing… yeah, that was a hard pill to swallow – no pun intended.”
Smiling tearfully, she took a tissue out of her purse to wipe her eyes. “I can’t afford to be sick,” she continued. “The boys need me. My parents are getting older; I can’t count on them being able to take care of James and Holden if something were to happen to me, and down the road, they’re going to need me, too. The thought of not being there for them and our children terrifies me.”
“You’re going to be fine,” I told her firmly, squeezing her arm. “The medication will help keep you healthy so you can be there for your family. And if, God forbid, something were to happen, then I would take care of James and Holden.”
As I looked into Leigh’s misty eyes, I saw the doubt there and knew what she must have been thinking. My own health was even more precarious than hers. If my transplanted liver failed, or the combination of drugs I was taking caused other complications, or I contracted a serious infection that my weakened immune system couldn’t fight, then I might not be around, either. It wasn’t just the HIV I had to worry about anymore.
“I know,” said Leigh, nodding. Neither of us wanted to acknowledge what we’d been thinking about. “You’re right. We’re both gonna be fine. Holden, too.”
I put my arms around her, kissing the top of her head as she leaned into my chest. I wanted to reassure her that everything would be all right, but the truth was, neither of us really knew what the future would hold. Her fears certainly weren’t unfounded.
After our conversation, saying goodbye to my boys was particularly hard. I hugged them both a little tighter and a lot longer than usual, not sure when I would see them next.
“Take care of yourself,” I told Leigh, giving her hand a squeeze.
“You too,” she said, squeezing back. “See ya, Howie.”
“See ya,” I echoed, as I let go of her hand. It wasn’t like our old goodbyes, but then, we couldn’t go back to how things were. We could neither change the past, nor control the future, but like it or not, we had to keep moving forward.