She thought she’d lost him forever, but four years later, Cary is given a Christmas gift she’ll never forget.
Written: December 2015
Sometime after In a World Like This came out, I got the idea for a short story about Nick and Cary inspired by the song “Make Believe.” It would have made up nicely for my April Fool’s story from that year, Behind the Curtain, but I never got around to writing it. Flash forward two years to the release of Nick’s new solo album, All American. There are two songs on it that made me think of Cary the first time I heard them. “She would love these,” I thought. “It’s too bad Curtain Call Nick died before he could write them.” Then I thought, “But what if he didn’t?” This story attempts to answer to that question.
If I close my eyes, I can go back in time, back to a night a lot like this, almost five years ago. It was New Year’s Eve, and I was sitting out here on this very front porch, in the same wooden rocking chair, bundled up in a blanket to keep the evening chill at bay. I take a deep breath, inhaling the crisp air through my nose, and in my mind, I’m transported to that moment. He’s there in the chair beside me, holding my hand. I can feel the warmth of his long fingers interlaced with mine, and I wish I never had to let go.
But when I open my eyes, I see what’s changed, all the differences between that night and this one. The air is colder; I can see my breath forming little clouds in front of my face. The sky is clearer; I can see the stars shining around a spectacular full moon. The rocking chair next to mine is empty and still; there’s no one there to hold my hand. My fingers are freezing, but I can’t help but lift my left hand up out of the blanket anyway so I can look at the diamond ring that adorns it. It sparkles in the moonlight, temporarily taking my mind off the reason I came out here on such a chilly night. But after a moment’s relief, I remember.
“What are we doing, Nick?” I asked him on that night. One could ask me the same question now. What am I doing out here, cold and alone, when I could be inside, warm in bed with the man who put this ring on my finger?
The answer to that arrived in the mail this afternoon.
It came in a plastic envelope, cushioned with bubble wrap. Inside was a CD in a plain white paper sleeve, along with a card.
I opened the card first. It was a Christmas card from Howie, with a photo of his family on the front. He and his wife have two sons now: James, who is still the spitting image of him, and Holden, who looks more like he could be Nick’s kid than Howie’s. Looking at that little boy’s sweet, blue-eyed face, framed by blond hair, put a lump in my throat. I was already blinking back tears by the time I turned over the card to read the handwritten note on the back.
Merry Christmas, Cary! I hope you’re doing well. Congratulations on your engagement! Leigh and I couldn’t be happier for you and wish you all the happiness in the world.
With that said, I hope what I’m sending you won’t open up any old wounds. Dan Muckala, a songwriter who worked with me and the guys on several of our albums, recently sent me some songs Nick had written and recorded with him that didn’t make it onto his last album. The other guys and I have talked about releasing them on a tribute album next year, for the five-year anniversary of I’m Taking Off, but we haven’t decided for sure yet. Either way, I thought you should hear these two tracks in particular, if you haven’t already. I think he wrote them for you. Hopefully enough time’s gone by that they’ll make you smile and remember him for the talent he had. I know it’s helped me just to hear his voice again.
Plans for the camp are still coming along (slowly), so I’m sure we’ll touch base sometime after the new year. I hope you have a great holiday!
My hand shook as I set down the card and picked up the CD. My ring caught the light, but in that instant, I was more interested in the gleaming, silver CD I slid out of its sleeve. It was unlabeled. I twisted it slowly around my pinkie for a few seconds, wondering if I was emotionally ready to play it or not.
Four-and-a-half years later, I still have a hard time listening to his songs. They make me sad, and I don’t want to be sad anymore. I’ve spent the past four years trying to move on, and finally, I’ve found someone who makes me happy again. But I guess as long as I’m living here, in the house he left me, I’ll always be haunted by him.
I knew if I didn’t play the CD, I’d spend the rest of the day wondering what was on it, so I decided it would be best just to get it over with before Tom came home from work. I went upstairs to Nick’s office, the only room in the house that I’ve left mostly untouched since I moved in. His music equipment is still here; he left it for me, but I don’t sing or play much anymore. I could blame it on being busy with work, but the truth is, it’s still too painful. Honestly, it hurt just being in that room, surrounded by his Backstreet Boys memorabilia, consumed by my memories of him. I had to redecorate the rest of the house for the sake of my own sanity, but I couldn’t bear to take down his album plaques or sell his equipment. Maybe someday I’ll auction it all off and donate the money to a cancer charity, but I’m not ready to part with it yet.
I turned on his stereo and put in the disc. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it definitely wasn’t the soft, jazzy tune that surprised me as it came out of the speakers: a lone trumpet playing, backed by snapping instead of drumbeats. After a couple of bars, his voice entered the track, and my breath caught in my throat.
“Lipstick, fire truck red… blood rush straight to my head… sun kiss under her dress… smells like sex… like sex…”
Husky and hushed, his voice was heartbreakingly familiar and, yet, somehow different. As my knees went weak, I sank to the floor, letting my breath out shakily.
“Can we go and break in the back seat? Take me home and unwrap your candy. ‘Cause you got somethin’, somethin’ that is so sweet, I want a piece. Sweet as cherry pie-i-i-i-i-ie… sweet as cherry pie…”
“Pi-ie… sweet as cherry pi-i-ie…” chorused a couple of female back-up singers. At that point, I was convinced Howie was right: he had written this for me. It wasn’t Nick’s usual style of song at all, but it had a retro vibe that he must have known I would adore. And the lyrics about red lipstick and breaking in the back seat? They reminded me of my first night at this house, the time he’d brought me to Tennessee shortly before his stem cell transplant. He took me out on our first real date – dinner at this nice little Italian restaurant – and afterwards, tipsy on wine, we made out in the driveway, then went inside and… well, the song pretty much covered it through a series of semi-clever dessert metaphors.
“Virgin dreams… Ice cream skin…” If I closed my eyes, it was almost as if he were right there in the room, singing to me. His voice sounded so close, so clear. “We touch and go… where we’ve never been…” I kept my eyes closed, savoring the memory of making love to him for the first time, and after several more choruses, when the music faded into silence, I was surprised to find myself smiling. The song was so sweet and sexy, it didn’t even make me feel sad at first, though it did make me blush.
Why didn’t he share this with me? I wondered, but in that moment, it didn’t matter. Hearing it now, after he had been gone so long, was like tasting chocolate for the first time since starting a strict, sugar-free diet, but with none of the guilt, only pure pleasure. Yet it was just a taste, and it left me longing for more… longing for him.
Knowing there was one more song on the CD, I paused it for a few seconds and let my anticipation linger, wanting this moment to last. But finally, my curiosity couldn’t take the suspense anymore, so I pushed play.
The second track sounded like something straight out the fifties even before Nick started singing, his voice low, sexy, and slow.
“If I had a magic wand… I would go back in time. I’d be your Jimmy Dean… and you’d be my Marilyn wife.” Even as the sound of his voice stabbed at my heart, his lyrics still made me smile. “I’d go up, up, up with you… I’d go up, up, up with you…. I’d be your man on the moon…”
If only we could go back in time, I thought, as tears started again in my eyes.
“If I had a rocket ship…. I’d circle around the sun… caught up in your angel kiss… where we’d be forever young…”
I wondered when he had written and recorded this. Was it while he was still in remission, or had he already found out he was dying? There was something sad about the song; his voice seemed to be filled with the same longing I felt when I listened to it.
“Let’s not wake up; dreams can take us anywhere we wanna be. We can make believe… you and me…”
I closed my eyes again, wishing with all my heart that he were here. What I wouldn’t give for just one more night with Nick.
After that thought crossed my mind, I looked down at my engagement ring, and then I really did feel guilty… like I was cheating with a ghost. I stare up at the moon now, and I feel the same sense of guilt. I shouldn’t be sitting out here by myself, reminiscing on a romance that ended long ago. I should be with my fiancé, looking forward to our future together. With one last look at the moon, I force myself to get up and go inside.
I could sit in Nick’s office and listen to his songs all night, but I resist the temptation and turn in for the night instead. Yet even once I crawl into bed beside my husband-to-be and close my eyes, it’s Nick’s voice I hear in my head, singing me to sleep.
If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I could smell him. That sounds weird, I know, and maybe even a little creepy, but they say the sense of smell is most strongly tied to memory. As I’m starting to wake up, I suck in a deep breath and am suddenly overwhelmed by the old, familiar scent of him. Even half-asleep, I know it’s only a phantom sensation, like a person who’s lost a limb sometimes experiences. It can’t be real.
For the first few weeks after he died, I slept with one of his old t-shirts draped over my pillow, just so I could breathe in that scent. It comforted me and helped me fall asleep. But after awhile, his pheromones faded away, until the fabric didn’t smell like anything except my own unwashed hair. I put the shirt in a drawer, deciding I no longer needed it to sleep. It was one of the first signs that I was starting to move on with my life.
But this morning, it’s as if I’ve gone back. I lie there for a few seconds, slowly inhaling and exhaling, savoring the scent, for I know as soon as I open my eyes and sit up, it’ll be gone, just like the details of a really good dream you want to remember but soon forget.
Finally, I decide it’s time to face the day and open my eyes. It’s already light in the bedroom, which means it’s later than I usually sleep, but that’s okay; it’s Saturday, and since we’re both working Christmas, Tom and I have the whole weekend off. Our schedules are usually so crazy that we rarely get to sleep in like this; most days, at least one of our alarms has gone off by now, summoning us to the hospital. I don’t mind my job, but it’s nice to spend a lazy morning in bed every once in awhile.
I roll over to face the other side of the bed, where my fiancé usually sleeps. I expect him to be up already – Tom’s a morning person, even on days when he doesn’t work – so it’s a surprise to find him still sound asleep, all balled up under the covers with his back to me. As I watch the comforter gently rise and fall with every deep breath he takes, I’m struck by the realization that something about him is different. His shape… he seems bigger, bulkier, somehow. And the tufts of hair peeking out from underneath the sheets… they aren’t red like Tom’s; they’re blond.
With a shaking hand, I reach out and slowly peel back the blankets to reveal a full head of blond hair. For a split second, I feel like screaming at the stranger in my bed, but there’s something strangely familiar about the cowlicks on the back of his head, spiky hair sticking out in every direction.
I continue to turn back the covers, exposing his bare shoulder. There’s a tattoo of two quarter notes on his shoulder blade and a word inked down his spine. My breath catches in my throat as I slide the blankets down his body so I can read the letters on his back.
Suddenly, I can’t breathe. My chest is heaving, but no air is going in or out of my lungs. I’m shaking all over. Is this what a panic attack feels like? The letters blur before my eyes as they burn with tears. I blink rapidly, unable to believe what I’m seeing.
By the end, I knew every line and curve of his back… but this can’t be. It can’t be real. He’s just a figment of my imagination, part of a waking dream. When I reach out to touch him, he’ll disappear; my hand will slide right through him, as if he’s made of air. But I have to try it anyway. I take my trembling fingertips and brush them lightly over his back. I’m shocked to find that he is quite solid. His skin is warm. He’s real, alright… made of flesh and blood, alive and breathing.
He stirs at my touch, and I quickly recoil, pulling the covers up to my chin like a child who’s afraid of the dark. My heart races as he rolls over onto his back. He reaches his arms up behind his head, stretching and yawning, then folds them over his chest. From this familiar position, he finally turns his head to look at me, and I find myself staring into the face of the man I fell in love with five years ago, the man I thought I had lost forever.
“Mm… morning, Car,” his voice rumbles, raspy with phlegm. It’s still the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard, enough to bring fresh tears to my eyes. He notices and frowns, his forehead creasing with concern. “You okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
I’m staring at one right now, I think, shaking my head in disbelief. “Nick… are you really here?” I ask faintly. “Or am I still asleep?”
He chuckles and gives me an odd look. “Did you have a nightmare or something?”
“No, I…” I start to shake my head again, but then I stop to consider the possibility. Could it have all been a bad dream? “Nick, you died.”
He makes a face. “Ugh… not those nightmares again.” Then he sits up, the blankets falling off his body. “Look at me, babe. I’m fine,” he says, patting his chest. “Cancer-free for five years and counting. Even the doctors are calling me cured now, so you need to quit worrying.”
I sit up, too – too quickly. For a second, I sway, still feeling faint. He reaches out a hand and takes hold of my shoulder to steady me.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
I’m not sure at all. Could I have hit my head? Did I just wake up from a four-year coma or something? Cancer-free for five years and counting… How could that be? He was Stage IV. He was terminal. He was… dead. So how could he be here, looking so alive and healthy?
I don’t question it out loud. However it happened, whatever brought him back to me… it doesn’t matter. He’s here, and that’s all that does. Miracles happen every day, defying all rational explanation. Maybe this is one of them.
“Yeah… I’m okay,” I say. His firm grip on my shoulder reassures me of that. “Everything’s okay now.”
And it is.
If I’m dreaming, I don’t want to wake up.
His hands are all over my body, bringing goosebumps to the surface of my skin with the slightest brush of his fingertips. His lips move against mine, his tongue slipping into my mouth. I savor the taste of him and the feel of his warm, firm body on top of me.
Wrapping my arms around him, I’m struck again by how solid he feels. The last time I held him, he was all skin and bone, but now he has a healthy layer of fat that reassures me I’m not going to break him or hurt him if I hang on too tight. I can feel the muscles in his back moving beneath my hands as he lowers his head to nibble at my neck.
I want to touch every inch of him. I grab his broad shoulders and grip his upper arms, squeezing his biceps. He must think I’m trying to push him off me because he suddenly stops and sits up, still straddling my hips. “Sorry,” he says. “Am I going too fast?”
“No! Don’t stop.” I pull his head back down. As he buries his face in my breasts, I rake my hands through his thick, blond hair, astonished at its length. It slips through my fingers as he wriggles down my body, dipping his tongue into my navel, licking in between my legs. I gasp and giggle at the same time because it tickles, but god, it feels so good.
Before I know it, he’s on top of me again, and I can taste myself on his lips as his mouth presses against mine. I arch my back, tilting my hips, and shudder with pleasure as he slides inside me. It seems like it’s been so long, but we perform as if no time has passed at all, our bodies in perfect sync with each other, the rhythm just right.
When we finish, he rolls off me and sprawls out on his back, breathing hard. I curl up at his side, laying my head on his chest so I can hear his heart beating, fast and strong. It’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. I just lie there and listen to it as he slowly strokes my hair, which sticks to the back of my sweaty neck.
After awhile, he says, “I’m gonna hop in the shower. Care to join me?”
“Right behind you,” I reply, as I reluctantly roll over to let him get up. But when he staggers into the bathroom, I hang back, realizing I need a few seconds to process what’s just happened.
I hear the shower turn on, and after a few seconds, he sticks his head out the doorway. “Yo, Cary, you coming or not?”
“You go ahead,” I answer shakily. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
He grunts and goes back into the bathroom. I listen to the shower door open and close as he steps inside. Then I reach over to pick up my phone from the bedside table. The date and time appear on the home screen: 9:32 AM, Saturday, December 19, 2015.
So I haven’t gone back in time. This is real. I don’t understand it, but it’s really happening, somehow.
I google his name and click on his Wikipedia page, which fills in some of the gaps, spinning an alternate history of the last five years. Somehow, it seems, the stem cell transplant was a success after all, allowing him to release not only one, but two more solo albums, the second of which, All American, came out only a few weeks ago. There was also another Backstreet Boys album, In a World Like This, released in 2013 and followed by a world tour with all five members, meaning Kevin’s come back. They even filmed a documentary together, and somehow, Nick still found the time to write a book, produce a horror movie, and participate on Dancing With the Stars, where he came in second place. I can remember suggesting he do that show once, but I can’t remember him being well enough to actually do it. I don’t remember any of this, only my own struggle to get on with my life after he left me in such grief. Could it be that I’ve been living in some sort of fugue state for the last five years, or am I in one now?
I don’t want to dwell on it anymore. I can’t explain it, so… I just go with it. I get out of bed, leaving my phone behind as I scamper into the steamy bathroom. I can hear him singing in the shower, his haunting voice like a siren’s, luring me into the water.
“She’s a good girl… she loves her mama. Loves Jesus… and America too. She’s a good girl…. crazy ‘bout Elvis. Loves horses and her boyfriend too.”
I smile and hang back in the doorway, just listening.
“It’s a long day, livin’ in Reseda. There’s a freeway, runnin’ through the yard. And I’m a bad boy… ‘cause I don’t even miss her. I’m a bad boy… for breakin’ her heart. And I’m free… I’m free fallin’. Yeah, I’m free… free fallin’…”
I slide open the shower door just far enough so I can step inside. Then I throw my arms around his neck, rise up on tip-toe, and kiss him long and hard on the lips.
“Whoa,” he laughs, stumbling backward. “What was that for?”
“I love you,” I say, as the hot water streams down over us. “I missed you.”
He laughs again, his nose scrunching up. “I’ve only been in here a few minutes.”
I shake my head and smile up at him, hoping the beads of water dripping down my face will disguise the tears in my eyes. He doesn’t understand. Neither do I. It doesn’t matter.
I hug him tightly, and he hoists me up, pressing me hard against the shower wall. I hook one leg around his waist and let him slip inside me again. “Jesus, Cary,” he pants, as he thrusts against me. “You’re frisky this morning.”
I feel my face flush. “I just… It’s been so long.”
He laughs. “We just did it like ten minutes ago.”
“No, I mean… before that.” I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I don’t know how long it’s really been. I can’t think straight when we’re like this.
“I’ve missed you, too,” he murmurs, kissing my forehead, my cheeks, my lips, and for the first time, I feel like maybe I’m not crazy. But I don’t ask him where he’s been all this time. Instead, I just kiss him back.
Afterwards, I hand him the bottle of shampoo, and he squeezes some into his palm and scrunches it into my hair. I close my eyes, sighing with pleasure as his fingertips massage my scalp. Then he lathers up a loofa with soap and washes my body, his hands working their way up and down my front and back and all the places in between.
By the time we both rinse off, the hot water is getting cold. He shuts it off, and we step out onto the plush bath mat. I reach for a towel and wrap the two of us in it, a tangle of wet limbs. We laugh as we try to towel each other off; somehow, this seems more romantic in movies than it is in real life.
Eventually, dry and semi-dressed, we end up downstairs, where we make breakfast together. It’s a little like old times, except he’s much more involved and helpful. He makes coffee and mans the toaster while I scramble the eggs. We work in tandem; I stand at the stove while he moves around me, taking down two plates, buttering toast, pouring coffee. I’m hyper-aware of his presence, and every time I feel him brush by me, it gives me goosebumps, like I’m interacting with a ghost. I still can’t tell if this is actually real life or my own fantasy.
“How come you’re so quiet this morning?” he asks as we finally sit down to eat, side by side at the breakfast bar.
I shrug as I shovel scrambled eggs into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully for a few seconds. I’m not sure what to say. He’s acting like everything is normal, like the last five years never happened, but for me, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“You’re not still thinking about that dream, are you?”
“It didn’t feel like a dream,” I say finally. “I’m sorry. This whole morning has been weird for me. Don’t get me wrong; it’s been wonderful. Just… weird.”
He sighs. “I know. I shouldn’t be here. We shouldn’t be doing this. Do you want me to go?”
“What?! No!” I gasp. Dropping my fork, I clamp my hand down over his, as if that’s all it will take to keep him here. “Please, don’t go. Stay here with me.”
He smiles his famous half-smile, that sexy little smirk that used to make me weak in the knees – and still does, I realize. That much hasn’t changed: I still find him irresistible.
“If you had one wish, what would it be?” he asks me over breakfast, probably just to break the silence that’s not so much awkward as unusual. Nick and I never used to have any trouble making conversation, but today, I find myself at a loss for words. I still have so many questions, but I’m afraid to ask, so I let him take the lead. He talks, and I listen. He asks the questions, and I answer.
This one’s easy. “To spend the day with you,” I say without hesitation. He smiles, thinking I’m just flirting with him, but I mean it for real.
So that’s what we do. We spend the whole day together, doing things we never got to do when he was sick. We drive downtown and window shop, admiring all the Christmas displays in the storefronts as we stroll along the sidewalk, arm in arm. We eat lunch in a little cafe. We take a horse-drawn carriage ride, snuggling up together under the sleigh blanket and stifling giggles every time the horse farts. We go ice skating at the local rink, where I learn that he’s as ungainly on ice as he is smooth onstage. I pull him along, laughing, as he struggles to stay on his feet. Eventually, we give up and go home, stopping for hot chocolate along the way.
We order take-out for dinner, and as we eat, I look around the living room and suddenly realize there are no decorations up, nothing to reflect the Christmas season. “Hey, where’s your Christmas tree?” I ask.
He shrugs. “Honestly, I didn’t expect to be here during the holidays.” I raise my eyebrows, hoping he’ll explain where he’s been all this time, when he adds, “You know, between recording with the guys and everything else I’ve got going on, I thought I’d stay in L.A.” He doesn’t elaborate on what else he has going on, and I don’t ask, assuming I’m supposed to already know.
Instead, I say, “Well, since we’re here, we should decorate a tree!”
“I think there’s an artificial one in the attic,” he replies, so we go exploring and find a stash of Christmas stuff in storage: the tree, several strings of lights, and boxes of ornaments. We take it all downstairs and turn on some Christmas music while we sort through it. Soon we’re singing along, as we string lights on the tree.
“I really can’t stay…” he croons, handing me a length of colored lights.
“But, baby, it’s cold outside,” I sing over my shoulder as I bend down to drape them over the bottom branches.
“I’ve got to go ‘way…” He disappears behind the tree, tucking in the cord.
“But, baby, it’s cold outside.” I continue around it in the other direction.
“This evening has been…”
“Been hoping that you’d drop in.”
“…so very nice…” he sings, smiling at me as we meet in the middle.
Yes, it sure has been, I think, beaming back at him. It’s been so long since we’ve sung together, but our voices still blend beautifully. We harmonize through the rest of his holiday playlist, until all the ornaments are in place.
As he’s putting the star on top, I steal his iPod and search for his new album. Quickly scanning the tracklist, I find the song I’m looking for and press play. He looks back at me in surprise as the music abruptly changes. I just smile, my heart swelling with happiness.
“Have I mentioned this is my new favorite?”
He winks. “Well, I did write it with you in mind.”
Again, his lyrics make me smile.
If I had a magic wand,
I would go back in time.
I’d be your Jimmy Dean,
and you’d be my Marilyn wife.
“C’mere,” I say, beckoning him to me. “Show me some of your Dancing With the Stars moves.”
He obliges, taking my hands and pulling me into the proper position, with my left hand on his shoulder and my right hand in his. He places his free hand on my back and steers me as we slowly circle around the living room, swaying to his song.
I’d go up, up, up with you…
I’d go up, up, up with you…
I’d be your man on the moon…
I’d be your man on the moon…
On the second verse, he starts to sing along. “If I had a rocket ship… I’d circle around the sun, caught up in your angel kiss… where we’d be forever young,” his voice croons, low and close to my ear. “I’d go up, up, up with you… I’d go up, up, up with you… I’d be your man on the moon…”
The only time I’ve ever danced with him like this was when took me to the Cicada Club in L.A. on the only Valentine’s Day we spent together. I still keep the beautiful burgundy ball gown he’d bought me in the back of my closet, just waiting for another occasion to wear it. If I close my eyes, I can imagine us all glammed up again, dancing in a ball room instead of frumpily shuffling around the living room in flannel pajamas. But the funny thing is, there’s really no place I’d rather be than right here.
“Let’s not wake up; dreams can take us anywhere we wanna be. We can make believe… you and me…”
If I had my way, we would dance like this all night, but when the song ends, he lets go of me and lies down on the floor, underneath the Christmas tree. “Come join me,” he says, patting a spot next to him on the tree skirt.
As I stretch out beside him and look up into the twinkling lights of the tree, I can’t help but sigh with contentment. It’s all so magical… not just the tree, but this whole day spent in his company. It’s a gift I never thought I’d get again.
“Tired?” he asks, mistaking my sigh for one of exhaustion.
“No.” Even if I was, I wouldn’t want to sleep, afraid of waking up and finding out it was all a dream. “I’m just… happy.”
He doesn’t reply, just reaches for me. As I roll into his arms, he kisses me and holds me close, so I can hear his heart beating again. It’s such a soothing sound that, for a few seconds, I drift off, then wake up under the lit tree.
One wish that came true? He’s here with me.
If I could stay awake all night and watch him sleep, I would.
It sounds super creepy, I know, but I can still remember the sleepless nights I spent at his side while he was slowly dying. The old fear of him slipping away while I’m asleep feels fresh and new again. I fight sleep, but by the time we finish another round of sex in his bed, I can barely keep my eyes open anymore. Despite my best efforts, I drift off again, and this time, I sleep deeply.
Something disturbs me in the middle of the night, and in an instant, I’m wide awake. For a second, I experience that old, familiar feeling of panic, the fear that I’ll look over and find him gone. But when I look, the light from the bedside lamp that’s been left on shows me he’s still lying in bed beside me, sound asleep. I can hear his slow, steady breathing, but I still can’t help but reach out and touch his face, just to make sure he’s really there. His skin is warm and slightly sweaty from sleep. I softly stroke his cheek, then lightly trace his eyebrows with my fingertips, remembering how he liked the feel of that when he was sick. At my touch, he stirs, but stays asleep.
Like I said, I could watch him sleep all night, but that would be weird. So, feeling reassured, I climb out of bed and creep around to his side to shut off the lamp so that I can get back to sleep, too. That’s when I find the ring.
It’s sitting on his bedside table: a thick, solid gold band, like a wedding ring. I frown as I pick it up, turning it slowly over in my hand. In all the time I spent with him, I never knew Nick to wear a ring. This one is shiny, like it’s still new.
I take it back to my side of the bed and sit down slowly on the edge. I reach for my phone and pull up the internet. It’s still on his Wikipedia page from my earlier search. I scroll down and scan its contents a little more closely, and that’s when I see the two sentences that almost stop my heart.
“Carter proposed to his long term girlfriend, Lauren Kitt, on February 23, 2013, in Florida. They were married on April 12, 2014, in Santa Barbara, California.”
That information alone is enough to make me feel like I’ve been stabbed in the chest, so the next sentence is just like a hammer, pounding the knife straight through my heart.
“On October 27, 2015, it was revealed by multiple sources that Nick and Lauren are expecting their first child together.”
I read it several times, but I still don’t understand. Not only is Nick alive, but he’s back together with Lauren. They’re married and about to have a baby. That means Nick is not only someone’s husband, but soon to be a father. Then what the hell is he doing here with me?
My bewilderment turns to a sense of betrayal. How could he lie to me like this? And how could he leave his pregnant wife, the mother of his child? He has some explaining to do.
I reach over and poke him roughly in the ribs until he jolts awake. “Wha’s goin’ on?” he mumbles, squinting in confusion.
I hold up his wedding ring. “You’re married? What the hell, Nick?”
He groans. “Oh, now it bothers you? You didn’t seem too concerned before, when we were fucking… or when we were having sex in the shower… or making out under the Christmas tree…”
I cringe as he rattles off our every infidelity. “I didn’t know!” I insist.
He rolls his eyes at me. “How could you not know? Have you been living under a rock for the past three years?”
I’m beginning to feel like maybe I really have been. “I dunno,” I say, as if his rhetorical question warrants a real answer. “I’ve been so busy with work, I guess I haven’t done a good job at keeping up with your life. To be honest, I’ve felt a little out of the loop all day.”
He snorts, like he doesn’t believe me, but doesn’t say anything.
Rubbing his ring between my thumb and forefinger, I sigh. “What happened to us, Nick? I thought if our relationship could survive Stage IV cancer, it could survive anything. Where did we go wrong?”
He shakes his head. “You didn’t do anything wrong, Cary,” he says, his voice softening. “You were there for me through the worst time in my life. But that was the problem. When it was all over… once I was better… I would look at you and think of the bad stuff, of being sick. You were like this constant reminder of my cancer. And after awhile, I just couldn’t stand it anymore. I needed to move on with my life, and you… you needed to move on with yours. I mean, you gave up everything to be with me, and I took you for granted. Our relationship… it just wasn’t healthy. You see that now, don’t you?”
I still don’t understand. It’s like he’s telling me a story about two other people; I feel separated from it all, somehow. But when I step back and look at it from an outsider’s perspective, I can see how it wouldn’t have worked out in the long term. That doesn’t stop me from loving him, though. Or from hating what’s happened.
“Then what are you doing here with me?” I ask without answering him. “Why aren’t you at home with your wife?”
He sighs, dragging his hand down over his face. “I should be,” he admits, sounding ashamed, “but I’m a fucking coward. You know me; I was never big on commitment. If you remember, that’s the reason Lauren left me in the first place – she wanted me to put a ring on it, and I wasn’t ready to settle down. But, you know, almost dying sorta changes your perspective on things, so when we got back together, I didn’t wait long before I popped the question. Before I knew it, we were married and trying to start a family. It took us a long time to get pregnant, and then she had a miscarriage. She’s further along now than she was then, but we’re both still scared of something like that happening again, and… I dunno, I guess the stress of it all just got to me. I needed to escape for awhile, so I told her I was coming to Tennessee for a few days to write songs for the new BSB album.”
I can’t believe what I’m hearing. How could he leave Lauren and lie to her like that? “And then, what, you got lonely and called me for a hook-up?” I ask. He hangs his head. “So that’s all I am to you now? A booty call? A fuck buddy?” It occurs to me that maybe that’s all I ever was to him – a companion, someone he occasionally slept with, but never really loved. It’s not the first time I’ve had this thought, but it hurts to have it confirmed. If he really loved me, he would given me a ring, not gotten back together with her.
“Yeah, so I’m a shitty husband,” he says. “But you’re not such a saint yourself, you know.”
I frown at the accusing tone of voice he’s using. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Where’s your ring, huh?” he shoots back at me.
I suddenly look down at my left hand and see that I’m not wearing my engagement ring, the one Tom gave me. Truth be told, I haven’t really thought about my fiancé all day. I guess I just assumed that, in this weird alternate reality I can’t explain, we aren’t a couple. But that isn’t the case. I find my ring in the drawer of my bedside table, where I must have stashed it at some point – out of sight, out of mind. I realize then that I am no better than the man in my bed.
“I… I should go,” I choke out, embarrassed and almost in tears. I slip the ring back onto my finger and start to get up, though I have no idea where I’m going to go. I don’t even know whose house this is anymore, his or mine.
He stops me. “No, wait. It’s the middle of the night; you don’t have to go anywhere. Stay here. I’ll go sleep in the guest room.”
So I sit there and watch in silence as he gets out of bed and walks slowly out of the room. In spite of how much he’s hurt me by being here, it hurts even worse to watch him leave. I want to go after him, but I hold on to the shred of dignity I have left and stay in bed. I shut off the light, pull the covers over my head, and cry myself back to sleep.
If I keep my eyes closed, I can pretend I’m somewhere else. Not in Nick’s old house, not in Nick’s old bed, but back at my childhood home in Illinois. Dad will already be up, making breakfast – knowing him, Pop-Tarts or cereal, nothing fancy – and my pet teacup pig Hambelina will be nosing her way in at any moment, oinking at me to get up and feed her.
In fact, I can hear her now, grunting softly as she scurries around by the foot of the bed. I can smell breakfast – bacon and coffee, not my dad’s usual fare. Slowly, I open my eyes.
It’s light in the room now – Nick’s old room. The sun is up, and his side of the bed is empty, but still looks slept in. I sit up slowly and toss back the covers, pausing to admire my engagement ring as it catches the sunlight streaming through the window blinds. The smell of bacon makes my stomach turn with nausea as I think back to the night before.
Time to face the music, I think, as I get out of bed. I pick up Hambelina, patting her on the head as I carry her into the hallway. I take her downstairs, following the scent of bacon. I’m thinking about how it’s sort of sick that someone with a pet pig would even eat bacon when I walk into the kitchen and see him there.
He’s standing at the stove, his back turned to me. I stop in the doorway and stay there for a few seconds, staring at him. Then Hambelina oinks, and he turns around, smiling in surprise when he sees me. “Well, good mornin’, Sleeping Beauty,” he says and holds up his spatula. “How ‘bout some breakfast? It’ll be ready in just a minute.”
I’ve never been so happy to see my husband-to-be. “Sounds wonderful,” I reply, and, setting Hambelina down on the floor, I stride across the kitchen and into his arms. I bury my face in his shoulder, inhaling the familiar scent of him through the thin, rumpled fabric of his t-shirt. He feels and smells nothing like Nick, and that’s okay. In that instant, he’s all I want and exactly what I need.
“Wow, what’d I do to deserve this?” Tom laughs, after we kiss.
“You cooked breakfast,” I reply, but of course that’s not the only reason. “Thank you.” Thank you, Tom, not only for breakfast, but for being here. Whether he’s fixing breakfast or healing a broken heart, Tom has always been there for me, and I can’t thank him enough for that because I know all too well how much it hurts to be left behind.
He gives me a weird look. “How’d you sleep?”
I shrug. “Not that well. Why?”
He chuckles. “‘Cause your hair’s a mess. I slept like a rock, but you must’ve done some serious tossing and turning to tangle it up that much.”
Self-consciously, I raise a hand to my hair and try to run my fingers through it, but he’s right; it feels like a rat’s nest. “I had a strange dream,” I admit. “About Nick.”
“Oh.” He gives me a solemn sort of smile and a little squeeze. “You okay?” He’s always been understanding when it comes to Nick, and I’ve always appreciated that about him, too.
I swallow hard, then smile and nod. “Yeah.” And I am.
Being with Nick felt so real, but I know now that it was just a dream… and maybe it always was. But the man in front of me is real, and so is our love.
I don’t mean to diminish what Nick and I had, but whatever it was, it’s in the past now. A part of me will always love him, but as much as I miss him, I know he’s never coming back. It’s time for me to let him go so I can focus on the future…. my future with this man, my loving fiancé, who healed my broken heart and brought me the kind of happiness I thought I’d never have again. Nick may be my man on the moon, but Tom is here on earth, and it’s to him that my heart now belongs.
If Nick really is up there somewhere, looking down on us, I’d like to think he’s happy for me, too.