Chapter 8


Nick

It’s hard to explain how I felt after Howie left my house that day.  Angry?  Hell yeah.  Freaked out?  You bet.  But I think the best word to describe my feelings is betrayed.  I felt betrayed by a man whom, only a month ago, I had considered to be my best friend.

A lot can change in a month.

I couldn’t believe the conversation I had just had with Howie.  It replayed in my mind as I paced around my condo, unable to sit down and relax.  Over and over again, I heard Howie say, “I’m HIV-positive,” and then, “You should get tested.”  What was I supposed to do with that information? I wondered.  Obviously, I should get tested, but I didn’t want to admit that to myself, let alone anyone else.

What were the odds he had actually infected me?  They had to be pretty slim.  It was only one time, and it wasn’t like we’d actually had sex; at least, I didn’t think we had.  I only half-remembered what had happened that night, anyway.  But even Howie had said the odds of me having it were something like one in a thousand.  “I’m sure you’re fine,” he’d told me.  He was probably right.  What had happened to him was different.  It wouldn’t happen to me.

You’re fine, I tried to tell myself, repeating Howie’s words, but I didn’t feel very reassured.  My thoughts were still racing, and so was my heart.

I finally made myself sit down and look up some stuff the computer, hoping it would help ease my mind.  It just scared me instead, so I stopped, making sure I deleted my browsing history before Lauren got home.  I had decided not to tell her about Howie until I had to; I didn’t want to worry her for no reason.

When I heard the front door open an hour or so later, I closed the lid of my laptop and went to greet her.  “Hey, how’d the dress shopping go?” I asked, trying to sound casual.  I hoped she wouldn’t hear the tremor of anxiety in my voice or see the tension in my face.

Luckily, Lauren was too distracted by wedding dresses to notice anything.  “I think I found the one!” she gushed, her eyes glowing with excitement.  “I didn’t order anything yet, so it’s not a done deal, but… oh Nick, it was beautiful!”

“I’m sure you were beautiful in it,” I replied automatically.  “Are you gonna let me see it, or do I have to wait till you’re walking down the aisle?”

Lauren gasped.  “Of course you have to wait!” she said, swatting me playfully on the arm.  “It’s bad luck for the groom to see the bride before the wedding!”

I shrugged.  “Whatever you say, babe.  You’re the boss.”  Inside, I was thinking we needed all the good luck we could get.

But as the night wore on, I started to feel better.  With Lauren around, I wasn’t as worried as I had been before.  She was a good distraction, even if she didn’t know what was going on in my mind.  We watched a movie, and when it was over, she suggested we go to bed.  I thought she was tired from shopping, but it turned out that trying on wedding dresses had made her horny.

“I can’t wait till after the wedding, when you get to take it off me,” she whispered, as she climbed on top of me, straddling my hips.  I felt myself getting hard, but then I heard Howie’s voice in my head again, saying, “If any of my blood got into your… system… you could have it.”

“Baby, please,” I groaned, gently pushing Lauren off of me.  “Not tonight, okay?”

“Why not?” she asked, sounding surprised.  I’m pretty sure it was the first time she’d ever heard me say no to sex.  I could hardly believe it myself, but I knew it was for the best.  As long as there was a chance I was infected, small as it may be, I couldn’t put her at risk.  In that moment, I decided that Howie was right; I had to get tested.  Not just for my own peace of mind, but for my fiancée’s protection.

“I have a headache,” I said, which was halfway true.  With the knowledge of Howie’s HIV weighing on my mind, my head did hurt.

“Aww, poor baby!”  She gave me a sympathetic look, sticking out her lower lip.  “Are you still sick?  Seems like you haven’t been feeling well ever since you got back from Europe.”

Since the cruise, I thought.  The realization sent cold shivers down my spine, as I remembered something I had read on WebMD earlier that day, while doing research…

“The symptoms of acute infection look similar to those of other viral illnesses and are often compared to those of the flu…  The initial symptoms of acute HIV infection may include:  headache, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, aching muscles, sore throat, fever…”

I only had about half the symptoms listed, but still, it was enough to make me wonder.  What if the way I’d been feeling wasn’t the result of overwork, jet lag, and a bad cold?  What if it was from my body trying to fight off HIV instead?

“I wish you didn’t have to go back out on the road so soon,” Lauren was saying, bringing my attention back to the bedroom.

“Me too,” I muttered, thinking she might just get her wish.  I couldn’t imagine Howie wanting to do the holiday tour, after what he’d told me.  But if he was going to break the news to the other guys, he’d better act fast; the first show was just five days away.  That meant I had five days to find out if he’d infected me or not.

“Maybe you should go to the doctor,” Lauren suggested.  “You probably just have some bug; there’s been all kinds of stuff going around.  But he might be able to prescribe something to make you feel better.”

“Yeah,” I said, swallowing hard.  “I was just thinking the same thing.”

***

I had already decided I didn’t want to go to one of those clinics downtown, the kind that offer anonymous HIV testing.  There was no anonymity in L.A., not for me, anyway.  If I was caught by the paparazzi trying to sneak in and out of one of those places, there was no telling what kind of rumors they’d start.  I didn’t want to have to do any damage control, so I decided to go to a real doctor instead.

Of course, my doctor’s office was closed over the weekend, but I called first thing Monday morning to make an appointment, and they managed to squeeze me in the same day.  Sometimes it sucks to be famous in this town, but fame does have its perks.  When I told the receptionist that I was a Backstreet Boy about to go back on tour, she was able to pull some strings and find an appointment slot that supposedly wasn’t available before.  I took it.

That afternoon, I drove myself to the doctor’s office.  I was overdue for a check-up anyway, so that’s all I’d told the receptionist this was:  a wellness exam.  But when the nurse sat down to take my medical history and started asking me questions, the truth came pouring out.

“I think I need an HIV test,” I blurted out.

Her fingers froze over the keyboard of the computer into which she’d been entering my information.  She looked over at me, raising her eyebrows.  “Have you been exposed to HIV?”

“Um… yeah, I might have been.  A friend of mine who I’ve… done some stuff with… was just diagnosed,” I said, wishing I could sink through the floor and disappear.  I could feel my face burning with embarrassment, but thankfully, the nurse didn’t ask any more awkward questions.

“Okay,” she said, turning to type something else into the computer.  “Let me just run this by Dr. Stark, and I’ll be back to draw some blood.”

I nodded.  “Okay.”  The nurse left, and I sat alone in the exam room, swinging my legs nervously as I looked around.  I felt like a little kid again, afraid of getting a shot.  But it wasn’t the blood draw that scared me this time.  I was more worried about what my bloodwork might reveal.

When the nurse came back, she snapped on a pair of latex gloves and said, “Okay, Nick, I’m going to go ahead and draw some blood.  Can I have your left arm, please?”

I dutifully held out my arm.  She swabbed the inside of my elbow with antiseptic and wrapped an elastic band around my bicep.  I looked away as soon as I saw her reach for the syringe.  “Little pinch,” she said, and I gritted my teeth, sucking in a deep breath as I felt the needle slid into my vein.  It stung, but only for a few seconds.  Before I knew it, she was handing me a cotton ball to hold over the tiny hole in my arm.

“How long does it take to get the results back?” I asked, watching her label a little tube of blood.

“It can take anywhere from a few days up to two weeks.”

Two weeks?! I thought desperately.  How was I going to keep it in my pants for that long without Lauren wondering what was up?

Seeing the look on my face, the nurse smiled reassuringly.  “I know how hard it can be to wait on test results.  We’ll try to let you know by the end of the week.”

I nodded.  “Okay.  Thanks.”

“Of course.  Let me just get this ready for the lab, and then I’ll send Dr. Stark in to see you.”

The doctor finally came in a few minutes later.  “Hi, Nick, how are you doing today?” he asked, shaking my hand.

I shrugged.  “Okay, I guess.”  Or, at least, I hoped.

Dr. Stark got right down to business, removing the stethoscope from around his neck and slipping it into his ears.  He made small talk with me while he listened to my heart and lungs.  “Everything sounds good,” he said, draping the stethoscope back across his shoulders.  “I’m just going to check your lymph nodes.”  As he moved his fingers along my jawline, feeling the nodes in my neck, he finally addressed the elephant in the room.  “So, I hear you requested an HIV test.”

“Mm-hm,” I mumbled, trying not to move my mouth too much.

“You think you may have been exposed?”

“Um, yeah.”  I still felt ashamed to admit it.

Dr. Stark nodded grimly.  “Well, it’s good that you came to get tested.  Regardless of how the test turns out, I just want to remind you to take precautions.  Avoid sharing needles, and practice safe sex, especially until we know the results.”

I felt my cheeks redden, as I realized he probably thought I was just another drug-addled sex addict, like so many other celebrities in this city.  And that may have been true, at one time, but I’d worked hard to clean up my act in the last five years, and I resented the assumption.  “I don’t do drugs,” I said quietly.

“That’s good.  Well, Nick, I do feel some swollen lymph nodes, but that can be caused by a lot of things, including the flu.  The other symptoms you’ve been experiencing – body aches, low-grade fever, fatigue – are also indicative of a viral infection, but we won’t know how serious it is until we get the results of your bloodwork back.  I’ll give you a call to go over those when we do.”

“Okay.  Thanks, doc.”  I shook his hand again, hoping he would be able to tell me I’d just had the flu the whole time.  I couldn’t imagine how I was going to get through the next few days, waiting for his call and dreading it at the same time.

I drove home that day on autopilot, my mind wandering a million miles away.  I wondered what it had been like for Howie… and then, when I thought more about it, I wondered how he’d found out in the first place.  I hadn’t given him the chance to tell me the whole story, but I was still too pissed to try to talk to him again.  Right then, I wanted nothing to do with Howie Dorough.

Unfortunately, I was stuck in a situation that had everything to do with him.  The way I saw it, this was all Howie’s fault, and if I found out he had given me HIV, I didn’t think I would ever be able to forgive him.

***


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