Twelve days, four hours, twenty minutes.
That was how long it had been since Howie’s spirit left the earth. His body had been laid to rest one week ago. But as I sat in my rental car by the side of the road, listening to the radio, I felt his presence with me.
It was early in the morning, and the sun had just come up over the horizon, casting an orange glow on the clouds in the west. Across the water, I could see a bright burst of flame flicker to life on the launchpad. The voice on the radio was counting down: “Five… four… three… two…”
Once the doctor had pronounced Howie’s death, Brian came up and put his arms around me. I practically collapsed against him, burying my face in his neck. I could feel his body shaking, but he stayed strong as I broke down in his arms, rubbing my back while I cried on his shoulder.
The nurse, Ange, pulled Howie’s bedcovers up over his body, folding them back just under his chin so we could still see his face. She tucked the edges of the blanket neatly around him, hiding most of the tubes and electrodes and other pieces of medical equipment. Except for the breathing tube still protruding from his open mouth, he looked like he could be sleeping peacefully.
“You can stay with him as long as you like,” said Ange. “Is there anyone you want us to call?”
I lifted my head and looked at Brian. “We should call his family.”
He nodded. “Do you wanna do it, or you want me to?”
I hesitated, swallowing hard. Of course I didn’t want to be the one to have to give the Doroughs that kind of news, but I was the closest to Howie and had spent the most time with them over the past week. I knew it would probably sound better coming from me. “I can call them,” I said.
“Okay.” He sighed. “I’ll call Kev and AJ.”
Wiping the tears from our faces, we walked off in opposite directions with our phones in hand, each of us looking for a private spot to place the hardest call we’d ever had to make.
We spent the next six hours at the hospital with Howie’s family, waiting for someone from the funeral home to come and pick up his body. They wanted him flown back to Florida for burial. I thought that was what Howie would have wanted, too, but it sure wasn’t how any of us had envisioned him going home.
The sky was already starting to lighten when we finally left, but my whole world was in darkness.
“You sure you don’t want me to stay?” Brian offered, when he dropped me off outside my condo.
I shook my head. “Thanks… but no,” I replied, reaching for the door handle. “I just need to be alone right now.”
“Alright,” Brian reluctantly agreed. “Call me if you need anything. And try to get some sleep, okay?”
I nodded as I climbed out of his car and trudged tiredly up the driveway to the front door, dreading the days to come.
When I got inside, I went straight to bed, pulling the covers over my head and curling up into a ball underneath them. I was beyond exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw Howie, looking like he had in the hospital, with his face all swollen and his body surrounded by medical equipment. That wasn’t the way I wanted to remember him, but I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I kept reliving the last hour of his life, the frantic and ultimately failed attempt to resuscitate him after his heart had stopped. Picturing the nurse repeatedly pumping his chest made my own chest hurt and my stomach churn with nausea. Suddenly, I felt like I was going to puke.
I stumbled out of bed and into the bathroom, where I fell to my knees in front of the toilet and emptied the contents of my stomach into it. There wasn’t much in there to throw up; I hadn’t eaten since dinner the day before, and I definitely wasn’t hungry now. I took one of my Compazine tablets with two Tylenol PMs and went back to bed, waiting for the sleeping pills to work their magic.
I woke up two hours later to the sound of my alarm, reminding me to take my morning meds. Groggy and disoriented, I rolled over to turn off the alarm on my phone. As I sat up in bed, I felt this heavy sense of dread that I didn’t understand at first. It took me a few seconds to remember what had happened the night before, and when I finally did, it felt like a bad dream. But there was no waking up from this nightmare.
“Howie’s dead.” I had to hear myself say the words out loud to make them seem real.
With a heavy sigh, I forced myself to get out of bed. I plodded into the kitchen, filled a glass with water, and got out my weekly pill organizer, only to find that it was empty. I usually refilled each of the fourteen compartments for the upcoming week before I went to bed on Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning. What had once seemed so overwhelming to me had gotten much easier as I’d adjusted to my medication schedule. By that point, I’d memorized what each prescription looked like, how much of it to take and when, and I could refill the whole container in less than five minutes. But with everything that had been going on with Howie, I had simply forgotten.
I was so tired, I wanted to say “Fuck it” and go back to bed without taking anything, but I knew I needed to stick to the schedule if I was to stay undetectable. That was what Howie would want me to do, I told myself, as I went into my bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet. The top shelf was full of prescription bottles with my name on them. I took them all down and lined them up across the countertop, like I did every weekend. But something was different that day.
As I looked at each of the medication labels, many of them with names I could barely pronounce, it occurred to me that this was it. This was my life. I would be taking these drugs twice a day, every day, for as long as I lived, or at least as long as I could tolerate them. And when I couldn’t, or when they stopped working, I would have to take different drugs. I had seen what would happen if I stopped, how sick I would get. But there was no one left to make sure I kept taking them. I was on my own now.
I leaned on the counter, the weight of that realization heavy on my shoulders, and looked into the mirror. My reflection stared back at me, haunted blue eyes that were bloodshot and swollen from so much crying and not enough sleep. I missed Howie so much it hurt… but at the same time, I was mad at him. How dare he infect me with this virus, then die and leave me to deal with it by myself for the rest of my life? “We’re in this together,” he had told me, but that wasn’t true anymore. Howie was gone, and I knew there would never be anyone else to take his place. I was alone. Totally alone.
In that moment, I understood how Howie had felt on New Year’s Eve, the night he’d taken all those drugs and tried to drink himself to death. Looking down at the spread of heavy-duty meds in front of me, I thought about how easy it would be to swallow them all and go back to sleep, knowing I’d never have to wake up. Then I wouldn’t have to deal with this anymore. I wouldn’t have to feel fear or pain or grief ever again. I wouldn’t have to feel anything. I would be numb. No… I would just be gone.
As these dark thoughts played out in my head, I suddenly heard someone knocking on the front door. It was probably Brian, stopping by to check on me on his way to church or something. He had to be tired and emotionally drained, too, but knowing him, he’d want to go pray for Howie’s soul. Being at church would make him feel better. But not me. I didn’t answer the door, hoping he would assume I was still asleep and go away.
And sure enough, after a few more seconds, the knocking stopped. But then I heard a key fumbling in the lock, which clicked as the doorknob turned. My heart lodged in my throat, beating a million times a minute. I held my breath as the front door opened. At first, I thought someone must have broken in – who else but me still had a key to the condo? Then I heard her voice.
“Nick? Hey, Nick, are you here?”
I let out my breath in a rush of air, my shoulders sagging with relief. I left the bathroom, rounding the corner just as she walked into our bedroom.
“There you are,” she gasped, her hand going to her heart. I must have startled her. “I just heard… about Howie.” Her eyes were full of tears, her face lined with grief. “God, Nick, I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t want to cry anymore, but against my will, I felt hot tears spring to my eyes. My throat closed up so that I couldn’t even speak.
Looking at me with sympathy, Lauren came and wrapped her arms around me. I was stiff at first from the effort of trying to hold myself together, but in a matter of seconds, I felt my body go limp, as I melted into her warm embrace. That was when the tears started to fall. She hugged me tightly, holding me close to her chest. I could smell the familiar scent of her perfume clinging to her clothes.
“I’m so sorry,” she said again softly, stroking my hair as I sobbed uncontrollably in her arms.
“…one… and lift off!”
My breath caught in my throat as the ball of flame began to rise off the ground.
“…the dawn of Orion and a new era of American space exploration,” the radio announcer was saying.
“Wow,” came a whisper from my companion, as we watched the rocket make its way steadily into the sky. It was a Delta IV, one of the same family of rockets Howie and I had watched launch back in May.
“I know – pretty cool, right?” I replied, giving her a casual glance.
Lauren was smiling. “Yeah, it really is.”
The rocket was soaring higher and higher. When it reached the low clouds, it broke through in a burst of light and was suddenly gone from our sight.
“Is that it?” she asked, sounding slightly disappointed.
“I guess so. It was more impressive at night, when it wasn’t so cloudy,” I said apologetically, remember how awed I had been when Howie had brought me here.
“I can only imagine. That’s okay, though. I’m glad I got to see it.” We both stared out the windshield, waiting to see if the rocket would reappear. “So what was the guy on the radio talking about when he said it was a new era of space exploration?”
“Well, this rocket’s carrying a brand new spacecraft called Orion into orbit for its first test flight,” I explained. “If all goes well, it’s meant to be used for the first manned mission to Mars sometime in the future.”
“Yeah.” I actually got goosebumps just thinking about being around to witness that one day, the way my parents’ generation had watched the first moon landing. “I can’t wait for that.”
Lauren gave my arm a squeeze, smiling again. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear that.”
“It’s just good to see you looking forward to something… anything…” She was still smiling, but there was sadness in her eyes.
Suddenly, I understood. This may have been a big deal for all space nerds like myself, but for me, it was huge. I hadn’t had much to get excited about in the last two weeks. Maybe the fact that I could think of the future and feel hopeful instead of sad was a sign that I was starting to heal.
I don’t know if Lauren fully realized what a bad place I was in when she’d walked in on me the day after Howie died, but I think she had a pretty good idea of what I was going through. She had been an invaluable support to me over the last twelve days, as I dealt with the death of my best friend and partner.
She’d flown with me to Florida for Howie’s funeral, sitting with the wives as the boys and I served as pallbearers. I can’t even describe how hard it was – not physically, but emotionally – for Brian, AJ, Kevin, and I to help Howie’s real brother and brother-in-law carry his casket. Lauren, Leighanne, Rochelle, and Kristin took care of Leigh, who was inconsolable. But the hardest part for me was seeing Howie’s kids. James, the spitting image of him, was old enough to understand that his dad was dead, but Holden, not quite two, seemed to think Howie was just hiding from him. “Where Dada?” he would ask whenever he saw me. I never knew quite how to answer.
Brian would have said Howie was in Heaven, and if there was such a place, he was probably right. Howie hadn’t been perfect; he’d made mistakes, but he was still a good person, maybe the best I’d ever known. I wasn’t sure about the whole Heaven thing, but as I looked at the sky, I couldn’t help but imagine him being somewhere beyond the clouds. Wherever he was, I hoped it was a better place – not just a box in the ground.
We’d buried him on Black Friday, a day after the most depressing Thanksgiving dinner I had ever attended. Howie’s poor mother had invited everyone to her house, where we’d picked at a huge, catered feast as we shared stories and happy memories of Howie.
The other guys and their wives had flown home after the funeral, but Lauren and I had stayed another week to help Howie’s family clean out his condo. He’d left the place to Leigh, but she didn’t want it – too many memories, she said. She was planning to put it on the market and go back to New Jersey, where her parents lived. Meanwhile, we were flying back to L.A. that afternoon. And after that…?
“Yeah… I guess,” I said to Lauren. She may have thought I was starting to get over my grief, but I didn’t see how I could just carry on with my life as if nothing had happened. I had already started to dread facing the drama-loving paparazzi at LAX on my way home to my own lonely condo, where Howie had stayed for a month. I’d been so angry at Lauren for volunteering to take in Howie after his transplant, but now I was grateful for that time we’d had together. Without it, we may never have healed our relationship, and I would have had to live with a lot more regrets. Looking over at her, I added, “This is random, but I realized I never thanked you for having Howie live with us last winter. I know that couldn’t have been easy for you, and it was hard on me at the time, but it was what I needed to get over everything that happened. So… thanks for that.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You’re welcome… although, if I’d known you were going to leave me for him, I would’ve kept my damn mouth shut.”
I laughed. “You know I really didn’t leave you to be with him, right? That just sort of… happened.”
She nodded. “So you’ve said.” I could hear the bitterness in her voice. We fell into an awkward silence for a few seconds after that. But just when I was about to turn on the ignition so we could leave, she looked over at me again and said, “You really loved him, huh?”
My chest tightened, as a hard lump rose in my throat. “Yeah,” I whispered, staring straight out the windshield. “I did.”
“Do you regret it?”
I turned to look at Lauren. “Regret what? Loving him?”
“Yeah,” she said. “If you had known he was going to get sick and die, would you have stayed with him? Or would you have tried to distance yourself, so you wouldn’t get hurt?”
I frowned as I considered her question. It only took me a few seconds to figure out my answer. “No… I mean, yes, I would have stayed. Of course I wouldn’t have left him, if I’d known what was going to happen.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Why?” I repeated. “Because I loved him! Because he was my best friend. Jesus, Lauren, what’s with the sudden inquisition? Why do you even care?”
She gave me an exasperated look. “Really, Nick? You don’t see the connection?”
“What connection? What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about us!” she cried. “You just said you wouldn’t have left Howie even if you’d known he was going to die the way he did, and yet you left me just so I wouldn’t have to live through your death someday. You didn’t even give me a choice in the matter. You didn’t ask me what I would do. You just left.”
“I just didn’t want you to get hurt,” I said, swallowing hard.
“No, you thought I couldn’t handle the pain,” she argued. “Well, guess what, Nick? I’m a strong woman, and I could have survived anything you put me through: HIV… AIDS… you hooking up with another man…” With a cynical laugh, she shook her head. “You just didn’t give me the chance to show you.”
“I know you’re strong, Lo,” I said softly, “but just because I knew you could have survived the pain doesn’t mean I wanted to put you through it. You don’t know what it was like, watching him die.” My eyes filled with tears, as the memory of Howie’s final moments replayed in my mind. “You have no idea how much this hurts.”
“No, I don’t,” she admitted. “But, Nick, if we all lived in fear of watching the people we love die someday, we wouldn’t be able to love anyone. Is that what you want? To be alone for the rest of your life so you won’t get hurt again? For me to live the rest of my life without love so I’ll never know the pain you’re going through?”
When she put it that way, it sounded ridiculous. “No, that’s not what I’m saying,” I argued. “I do want you to find love again someday. All I’ve ever wanted is for you to be happy.”
“You know what would make me happy?” she asked, looking at me with her eyebrows raised.
I sighed, knowing what she was going to say even before I asked. “What?”
“You,” she whispered. When I looked at her again, her eyes were shining with tears, too. “If you would only give us another chance, Nick… I don’t mean right now, when you’re in mourning, but… maybe someday, when you’re ready to get back into another relationship?” She sniffled. “That’s what would make me happy. I knew the moment you proposed to me that being your wife would make me the happiest woman alive.”
My tears started to fall as I remembered dropping to one knee in front of her with the ring in my hand. Howie was the one who had talked me into doing it… but once I was on that island with her, I knew it was the right decision. I’d never been more sure of anything in my life, never felt more happiness or hope for the future than I had then. But my HIV diagnosis had changed everything.
It had been almost exactly one year since I’d found out I had tested positive. In fact, tomorrow was the anniversary. I didn’t plan on celebrating. But, I realized, there was still a reason to have hope. My latest blood test had shown the virus was undetectable in my system. As long as I kept taking my medication and kept it in check, my prognosis wasn’t bad. Whether I wanted to or not, I knew I could live a long time like this. Maybe, with the risk of infecting someone else so low, I could even love again, too.
I looked over at Lauren, about to change the subject and tell her about my test results, but she spoke again before I could.
“Will you at least consider it?” she asked, placing her hand on the center console, palm up.
I took a deep breath and looked out the window, licking my lips. Across the water, the launchpad was empty now. The clouds overhead were starting to clear as the sun rose higher in the sky, but there was no sign of the rocket. It was long gone by now, too high up in the heavens to be seen.
Letting my breath out a little at a time, I turned back to Lauren, the woman I had loved through the happiest six years of my life – and some of the hardest. Her stormy blue eyes sparkled with unshed tears as she gave me a hopeful smile.
Slowly, I put my hand in hers.
I just want to thank everyone who read this emotional rollercoaster of a story from beginning to end. Hope you enjoyed the ride! Thanks for your feedback along the way!