The tour had taken its toll on me. Even though I’d worked hard to get back into shape, my body didn’t recover as quickly as it used to. My muscles would ache after every show, and my legs would swell. I felt tired all the time. By the L.A. show, I was completely worn out.
I tried to hide how fatigued I was feeling from the other guys, not wanting them to worry about me. It was easy enough once we got to L.A. because everyone went their separate ways, wanting to spend as much time with their families as possible. Kevin and AJ went home to see their wives and kids. Brian, Leighanne, and Baylee stayed in their house in Hollywood. That left Nick and me to do our own thing, although we didn’t really “do” much at all. He didn’t want to go out, afraid of running into paparazzi, and I didn’t feel up to it anyway, so we spent our days off just hanging around my house and catching up on sleep.
The day of the show, Kevin, AJ, and Brian all brought their families with them to the venue for soundcheck. Although I was happy to see everyone, it was hard watching the kids play backstage before the show when I was missing mine so much. Maxwell was the same age as Holden, and Mason was just a couple years older than James. If my boys had been with me, they would have had a blast together. It was slightly less painful to see the other guys with their wives because even though I’d lost Leigh, at least I had Nick to keep me from feeling like I was alone.
And then Lauren showed up.
If Nick knew she was coming, he didn’t mention it to me. I have no idea what happened between them backstage, but onstage, he only had eyes for her. It was impossible not to notice the way he kept looking at her whenever he was on that side of the stage, offering a smile here, a wink there. It went way beyond his usual attempts to charm the crowd; he was clearly flirting with her.
It made no sense to me because Lauren must have been to hundreds of Backstreet Boys shows, and Nick had never been that distracted by her before. We all liked to wave and blow kisses at our wives when they came to our concerts, but he and Lauren weren’t even together anymore. Why was he so mesmerized by her?
“What was going on with you and Lauren tonight?” I asked him after the show, as we were getting ready to go to bed.
Nick took off his t-shirt and wadded it into a ball. “What do you mean?” he replied casually, tossing it toward the overflowing suitcase sitting at the foot of my bed.
I walked around the bed and picked it up, dropping it into the laundry pile instead and making a mental note to wash a load of clothes before we left in the morning. “You couldn’t take your eyes off her during the show,” I said. “Do you still have feelings for her?”
His face reddened, confirming my suspicions. “So what if I do?” he replied defensively. “It doesn’t change the way I feel about you, so don’t go getting all jealous. She and I are done.”
“It sure didn’t look that way,” I pointed out, annoyed that he’d picked up on my paranoia.
Nick rolled his eyes. “Dude, you know I’m never gonna go back to Lauren, and you know why, so just drop it, okay?”
I frowned at him. “That makes it sound like you would go back to her if it weren’t for your HIV. I mean, that’s why, right?”
“Well, no shit, Sherlock!” Nick exploded. “I never would’ve left Lauren if it hadn’t been for my HIV! We’d be married by now!”
His words were like a slap in the face. Wake up, Howie! Of course he still loves Lauren, I realized. He’s only with you because he can’t be with her.
“So yeah, maybe I do I still have feelings for her,” Nick continued, seeming oblivious to the pain he was causing me, “but it doesn’t matter anymore. That chapter in my life is over, and I’ve moved on.”
“It matters to me,” I said quietly. “How do you think it makes me feel to know that even though you’ve, quote, ‘moved on’ with me, you’re still in love with your ex-fiancée?”
Nick’s face reddened, like it had just occurred to him how insensitive he sounded. But instead of apologizing, he decided to get defensive. “You should feel lucky! You got a second chance at life, a way out of your fake marriage, and now you’ve got me all to yourself. Everything worked out exactly the way you wanted, didn’t it?”
“What?!” I cried, shocked by what he was implying. “How dare you say that, like I somehow planned it all? Damn it, Nick, you know I didn’t want any of this to happen! I didn’t want a divorce… or a transplant… and I sure as hell didn’t want anyone to get sick.”
“But you wanted me,” he interjected, before I could continue. “Lauren told me what you did, how you convinced her to leave when I was in the hospital in Tennessee so you could swoop in and be the hero who stuck around to take care of me.”
“That’s not true!” I sputtered, even though it sort of was.
Nick raised his eyebrows. “So Lauren lied?”
I sighed. “I did tell her to go home,” I admitted, “but only because you’d made it clear the relationship was over, and I didn’t think you’d appreciate her being there, acting clingy.”
“Our engagement was over, not our whole relationship,” Nick said. “I still wanted to be friends with her, but then she left and didn’t speak to me for six months, and I thought she’d moved on. Come to find out, you told her to pretend she was moving on just so you could get her out of the picture!”
I couldn’t believe what a hypocrite he was being. “Do you hear yourself right now?” I fired back. “You’re the one who left and stopped speaking to everyone! Then you got sick, and suddenly you wanted to be friends again?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Nick replied. “When you were sick, you didn’t seem to have a problem with everyone flocking to your side, but when I was at rock bottom and needed a friend, you made sure you were the only one around. You manipulated us both.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I wanted to deny Nick’s accusations, but in a way, he was right. I had taken advantage of the situation to ensure that I would be the one staying to take care of Nick. Sure, I owed him for taking care of me after my transplant… but I also wanted to be with him. There was no denying that.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly. “I didn’t mean to manipulate anyone. But you’re right… I did want you. Still do.” I reached out to touch his bare chest, hoping to appeal to the sexual frustration he was no doubt feeling after flirting with Lauren all night. That had always worked for me before, but this time, Nick pulled away.
“No. Not tonight,” he said firmly. “I’m sleeping in the guest room.” Then he walked out, slamming the bedroom door shut behind him.
The five-hour bus ride to San Francisco the next day was long and silent. Nick stayed in his bunk with the curtains drawn and only emerged to get something to eat or go to the bathroom. He barely spoke to me. Meanwhile, though I pretended to be keeping myself busy, all I did was sit around and stress about the fact that Nick seemed to be pulling away.
Nick wasn’t known for having long-lasting relationships, which was why we’d all sensed there was something special about Lauren, long before he’d realized she was “the one.” Now I worried he was regretting his decision to leave her – and rethinking his relationship with me.
I didn’t know what I would do if he decided to end it. The thought of putting myself out there, trying to find another guy who wouldn’t be turned off by my HIV status, was almost as scary as the thought of being alone for the rest of my life.
Nick didn’t have to worry about any of that. I knew if he could only get over his fear of infecting her, Lauren would welcome him back with open arms. One look at her face in the audience at the last show told me she was still in love with him. And Nick hadn’t even tried to deny the fact that he was still in love with Lauren. Was that why he’d never been able to say the words to me? I wondered. I’d always thought it was his homophobia that held him back, but maybe it was because his heart still belonged to her.
Our next show wasn’t until the following night, so when we got to San Francisco, we checked into a hotel. I was worried Nick would ask for his own room or get Kevin or AJ to switch with him, but he didn’t. I wondered if that meant we were okay, or if he just didn’t want to involve anyone else in our drama.
“Do you know what time we’re meeting tonight?” I asked Nick once we were alone in our room. Since we had the night off, the five of us guys were going out for Kevin’s birthday, which was the next day.
“Seven,” was all he said.
“Okay.” I took off my shoes, then checked the time on my phone. It was only four o’clock. “I’m gonna lie down for a little while.”
Nick glanced back at me as he set his bag down. “You okay?”
“Yeah… just tired. I didn’t sleep well last night.” It was the truth, although, like I said, I’d been feeling sort of “blah” since before then.
“Oh.” He looked away. I wanted to ask how well he’d slept in my guest room, but resisted the temptation, not wanting to hear some snarky reply in return.
I stretched out on the bed by the window, and Nick flopped across the one nearest the door. When I looked over at him, he was lying on his stomach, facing the wall, with his feet hanging off the side closest to me. I could tell he was bent over his phone and wondered what he was doing that he didn’t want me to see. Texting Lauren, probably.
I rolled over onto my side so that my back was to him and closed my eyes, trying to block out the bright light and my own dark thoughts.
I woke up to the sound of Nick saying my name. I had been having this weird dream about a dog that could sing the “Happy Birthday” song, but every time it opened its mouth to sing, this mad scientist guy in a white coat would run up and pour a beaker of yellowish liquid down its throat. The poor puppy’s belly got bigger and bigger as the scientist pumped it full of chemicals, until it was as swollen as an inflated balloon. I was actually afraid it would pop. “Stop!” I cried, as the puppy howled in pain. “Stop! Stop it!” That’s when I started to hear Nick’s voice, soft at first, then right in my ear.
I felt a hand on my shoulder and instinctively squirmed away. “Stop!”
“Dude, if you’re going to dinner with us, you gotta get up now.”
“What?” I opened my eyes, finally awake. As the details of my dream faded away, I looked up and saw Nick leaning over me. “What time is it?” I asked groggily.
I sat up. “Seriously?” I grabbed my phone off the bedside table and checked the time to make sure he wasn’t messing with me. Sure enough… “I slept for two-and-a-half hours??”
“You must’ve needed it.” Nick’s eyes narrowed as he looked me over. “You sure you’re okay?”
I took the fact that he was worried about me as a sign that he’d forgiven me for starting a fight the night before. Trying to shake off the fog that set in whenever I napped too long, I said, “Yeah, I’m fine,” and forced myself to get off the bed.
But that was a lie; I felt worse than I had when I’d lain down in the first place. I wondered if I was coming down with something. It would have been a miracle if I’d made it through the whole tour with a weakened immune system and not caught so much as a cold, but I’d come pretty close – we only had two more days to go. It was just my bad luck that I would be sick for the last show. I took a Tylenol with my evening medication, hoping it would help my headache go away, and got dressed to go out.
We went to a seafood place on the waterfront, where we were given a table by the window. The view of the sun setting over San Francisco Bay was absolutely beautiful. I had just turned to tell Nick so, when I heard him say, “Yo, Frick, trade me seats.”
I looked at Brian, who was about to sit down across from Nick. He shrugged and came over to our side of the table instead, taking Nick’s seat next to me, while Nick went around to the other side to sit by AJ. AJ and Kevin, who was on the end, both watched him with raised eyebrows.
“What?” said Nick defensively, seeing the looks they were giving him. “Me and Howie aren’t joined at the hip, you know. We don’t have to sit by each other all the time.”
No one argued with him, but AJ let out a low whistle and looked across the table at me. “Trouble in paradise?” he muttered.
“Butt out, AJ,” Nick snapped, picking up his menu.
AJ snickered, which seemed to piss Nick off even more.
“Hey now, fellas, no fighting during my birthday dinner,” said Kevin. His tone was light-hearted, but I could tell he meant it.
Nick scowled, but said nothing more until the waiter came to take our drink orders. AJ asked for a Coke, I ordered iced tea, and Brian and Kevin both got a beer. “I’ll have the same,” I heard Nick say, after Brian had ordered.
I looked at him over the top of my menu, as the waiter walked away. “You know you shouldn’t drink,” I said quietly.
“Who are you, my sobriety coach?” Nick retorted.
“Well, actually, yeah, I thought I sort of was…”
He rolled his eyes. “I’m having one beer to celebrate Kevin’s birthday. So what?”
I shrugged. “Just saying… mixing meds and alcohol is stupid. Speaking from experience here.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “You also drank a whole bottle of tequila and took a bunch of Tylenol PM, if I remember correctly. There’s a big difference between doing that and drinking a beer. I’m not trying to kill myself.”
I felt my face flush. “I know. I just don’t want you to do it accidentally,” I muttered.
“Howie, chill,” said AJ. “It won’t hurt him to have one. We all know Nick’s done a lot stupider shit and survived somehow.”
I let the issue drop, but inwardly, I worried about Nick all night, as one beer turned into two, then three. Why wasn’t anyone else trying to stop him? I wondered, watching him talk about sports with Kevin and Brian.
AJ saw me looking and shook his head. “You can’t make him stop,” he said, just loud enough for me to hear. “He’s gotta learn his limit and make that decision for himself.”
I sighed. “I know. I just don’t want him to make himself sick again. You didn’t see what bad shape he was in the last time he went on a bender,” I said, thinking back to Tennessee.
AJ cracked a smile. “I don’t think three beers qualifies as a bender.”
But I knew – as AJ should have known, too – that three beers was only the beginning. Nick had no self-control when it came to alcohol. To me, his decision to throw away six months of sobriety for one night’s “celebration” was a warning sign that he was headed for another downward spiral. I couldn’t understand why no one else saw it or seemed to care.
But as I sat there listening to Kevin and Brian razz him about the Buccaneers’ dismal season so far, it occurred to me that maybe this was just Nick’s way of trying to distance himself from me and bond with his “bros” again. Despite the guys all claiming to be cool with Nick’s and my new relationship, the five of us didn’t seem as close as we’d been on the first leg of the tour, before the last cruise. We didn’t spend as much time together outside of work, doing things as a whole group like this. It made me wonder if Nick just wanted everything to go back to normal, even though we both knew it never could.
I woke in the middle of the night to the sounds of someone getting violently sick. Fumbling out of bed, I followed a sliver of fluorescent light to the bathroom, where I found Nick on his knees, bent over the toilet bowl.
I stood in the doorway for a few seconds, waiting for him to stop vomiting, then took a few tentative steps inside. “You okay?” I asked.
Nick lifted his head long enough to nod, then lowered it over the toilet again just in time. I knelt beside him and put my hand on his back, rubbing it in circles as he retched, his whole body racked with dry heaves. It didn’t sound like he had anything left in his stomach to throw up.
While he waited for the nausea to pass, I wet a washcloth and brought him some bottled water. He wiped his mouth, took a sip of water, and finally leaned back against the wall, looking pale and exhausted.
I flushed the toilet and sat down on the floor with him. “Feeling better?”
“I feel like shit,” he croaked. “Guess that’s what I get, huh? Now it’s your turn to say ‘I told you so.’”
“I don’t need to say it,” I replied. “What can I do to help?”
He closed his eyes. “Can you get me one of my Compazine tablets? They’re the little, round, yellow ones.”
“Sure.” I found his pill organizer on the counter and fished out a dose of his anti-nausea medication. He swallowed it with another sip of water, and we both sat and waited to see if he would be able to keep it down. After a few minutes, I said, “You ready to go back to bed? We should try to get some more sleep… We have a show tomorrow.”
Nick groaned. “Yeah…”
I got up first, then reached down, offering him my hand. He took it, and I pulled him to his feet.
“Thanks,” he said, as we went back into the other room. After what I had just witnessed, I was secretly glad we were sleeping in separate beds. “‘Night.”
“Goodnight, Nick,” I said, as I crawled underneath the covers and closed my eyes.
“I can’t believe I have a friggin’ hangover,” Nick complained the next morning, holding his head. “I only had a few beers!”
“Yeah, but you hadn’t had any in, like, six months,” I reminded him. “Your tolerance was low. “
“No shit. I’ve never been such a lightweight.” He actually looked disappointed in himself.
I laughed. “It’s not your fault. I heard that alcohol can have a stronger effect on people with HIV. Drinking the same amount raises your blood alcohol level more than before. Not sure if it has something to do with the virus itself, or if it’s just because of drug interactions, but that’s probably why you were so sick last night.” I wanted to say “I warned you that would happen,” but I held my tongue. Nick looked like he felt bad enough already.
“Well, thanks for your fine diagnostic work, Dr. Dorough,” Nick muttered sarcastically. “When did you become such a fucking expert on the subject?”
“I like to drink too, Nick,” I replied, annoyed by his tone. “Or at least, I did. After I was diagnosed, I asked my doctor if I could still do it, and that’s what he said. Not that it matters much now. I’ll never be able to have a beer with you guys again.”
Nick gave me a guilty look. He knew, as I did, that liver transplant recipients were strictly forbidden from drinking alcohol. If I were to reject my new liver and need another transplant, any evidence of alcohol consumption would be enough to take me off the list. I couldn’t chance it, especially with the way I’d been feeling lately.
I hadn’t had a drop to drink the night before, but my head hurt, too. So did my stomach. I felt bloated and slightly nauseous, which I blamed on eating too much greasy food at Kevin’s birthday dinner, but in the back of my mind lurked another, more frightening thought: that my transplanted liver was starting to fail.
I didn’t say anything to anyone that day or the next, as we traveled to Seattle for our final show. Nick was still acting distant, so it was easy for me to keep quiet. I stayed in my bunk on the tour bus and slept for most of the thirteen-hour trip. I didn’t feel any better when we arrived, but I kept shoving the bad thoughts to the back of my mind, telling myself, There’s only one more show. Just get through it, and then you can go home and get checked out.
But then, backstage before the last show, I was getting dressed for our opening number when I realized the black pants I wore on stage every night wouldn’t button. They’d felt tight in San Francisco two nights ago, but now there was a two-inch gap between the pieces of fabric. Embarrassed, I tried on a different pair of pants. Same problem. I watched myself in the mirror, straining to stretch the waistband so it would fasten. My belly looked bloated, like I’d somehow gained ten pounds in two days. That was when I knew for sure that something was seriously wrong.