It was supposed to be a quiet New Year’s Eve. Lauren and I usually liked to ring in the new year with a lot of partying, but this year, we’d decided to keep the celebration low-key. I didn’t feel much like partying, and I wasn’t supposed to drink while on my medication. I’d had such a hard time with side effects already that adding alcohol to the mix seemed like a recipe for disaster. So we stayed home and drank sparkling cider instead.
The call from Howie came a couple hours before midnight. We were watching a movie when my phone rang. When I saw Howie’s name come up, I rolled my eyes and set my phone aside without answering.
“Who is it?” Lauren wanted to know.
“Guess,” I said. “I’ll give you a hint: Who’s the last person I’d want to talk to tonight?”
“Ding, ding, ding!” I imitated a game show bell. “We have a winner!”
She smiled and shook her head. “You’re so bad. He probably just wants to get another apology in before the year ends. Or maybe he’s hoping you’ll apologize to him.”
“Why should I apologize to him?” I asked defensively. “All I did was punch him in the face. He fucking gave me HIV!”
“Um, you also accused him of raping you. Remember?”
I rolled my eyes again. “I swear to you, Lauren, what happened between us on that cruise was not consensual. That makes it rape.”
She sighed. “Nick, I would never argue with anyone about what constitutes rape. I’m not saying that what happened was okay, but just consider this: Howie’s been one of your best friends for twenty years. He obviously has feelings for you that go beyond friendship, and if you don’t feel the same way, that’s fine, but don’t discount his feelings. This has to be as hard for him as it has been for you - maybe even harder. He made a mistake that not only affected him and you, but his whole family, too. He’s gonna have to live with that for the rest of his life. I’m not asking you to forgive him, but try to have a little compassion for him, huh?”
When she put it that way, it made me feel like shit for ripping on Howie so hard. I had every right to be mad at him, but I guess he didn’t deserve to have his name dragged through the mud in front of all our friends. Did I really believe he had raped me? Not really. We’d both been drinking; we were both to blame for what had happened. Did that make it any easier to forgive him? No, in fact, it made it harder. Not only had he infected me with an incurable virus, but he’d also stirred up feelings inside me that made me question myself, my impending marriage, and my entire future. I hated him for that.
But when my phone beeped, signaling a new voicemail, I picked it up and played the message anyway. I didn’t plan on calling him back, but it wouldn’t hurt to hear what he had to say - or so I thought.
Howie’s voicemail started off pretty funny. “Hey, Nicky... sorry, I mean Nick.” He was seriously slurring his words. “I know you hate when I call you Nicky, but I do it out of love, man.”
I snickered. “Howie’s drunk,” I told Lauren. Drunk Howie was always hilarious, mostly because, unlike me, he wasn’t usually a sloppy drunk... so whenever he did get falling down shitfaced, it was funny as hell. Even Lauren laughed, leaning in so she could hear the rest of the message.
But it got dark quickly. By the time he started asking me to tell his kids he loved them and that he was sorry for leaving them, my heart was racing. I had a really bad feeling about his reason for leaving me a message like that. I looked over at Lauren. She was looking back at me, her eyes wide. “Shit,” I said. “He’s gonna fucking kill himself. We just heard his goddamn suicide note!”
“What should we do?!” she cried. “Call 911?”
I considered it for a few seconds, then shook my head. “No. We don’t wanna make it worse by attracting a bunch of attention. If we call 911, it’s gonna go out over the police scanners, and once the paparazzi realize someone famous lives at that address, they’ll be all over it. I’ll drive over there myself and make sure he’s okay. For all we know, it could just be a cry for help.”
Lauren got up from the couch. “I’ll go with you,” she said, already slipping on her shoes. I grabbed my keys.
We left in a hurry and headed to Howie’s house in West Hollywood. Six miles, twelve lights to his front door. Each one felt like an eternity, especially with Lauren mumbling expletives under her breath the whole way there. She had my phone in her hand and kept trying to call Howie, but he wouldn’t pick up. It was a good thing I knew the combination to open his front gate because he didn’t answer when I buzzed him at the bottom of his driveway, either. I knew that was a bad sign, but a part of me was still hoping I’d find him pouting inside, waiting for me to get worried enough to come over and check on him.
“So help me god, if he’s in there faking it, I’m gonna hit him again! Hard!” I ranted as I gunned the engine, squealing to a stop outside his garage. I got out, slamming the car door, and jogged up to the house. Lauren followed me. I banged on the front door a few times, but there was still no answer. “Howie, you better open up right now, or I’m gonna bust down the goddamn door! You hear me?” I yelled, giving the door a good, firm kick.
I knew I had no chance of actually breaking the door down by myself, so it was a good thing I’d brought Lauren. She had the strongest legs I’d ever seen on a woman. We kicked together, and after a few tries, the front door splintered, and we forced our way in.
The house was dark inside, except for the bright flashes from a TV that had been left on. “Howie?” I called, but the only other voice I heard was Ryan Seacrest’s, coming from the Times Square broadcast on TV. My heart pounded as I followed the sound into the living room, worried about what I was going to find there.
In the eerie, flickering light, I saw Howie lying on the couch. One hand was hanging limply over the side. His eyes were closed, his mouth half open. In that instant, I knew he had to be dead.
As I came closer to the couch, my eyes swept over the scene, taking in the two pill containers sitting on the coffee table, along with an open bottle of tequila. All the breath rushed out of me as I sank to my knees at Howie’s side, looking down at his body in dismay. “Oh god, Howie,” I whispered. “Why would you do this to yourself?”
But that was a stupid question to ask. I already knew the answer. Of course I knew why, and in that moment, I realized it was as much my fault as it was his.
“Is he breathing?” Lauren asked. Her voice sounded shaky.
I hadn’t seen Howie’s chest rise, but I leaned in closer to check, listening closely. I couldn’t hear anything, but when I held my hand in front of his face, I felt a faint wisp of warm air. “Yeah... he’s breathing,” I sighed, my voice cracking with relief. “Barely, though.” Howie’s breathing was slow and shallow, and if the half-empty bottle of Tequila was any indication of what he’d taken with the pills, he wouldn’t be breathing for long.
“We need to take him to the hospital,” Lauren said, echoing my thoughts. “Hand me those pill containers, please.”
I wondered what she wanted with those, but I went ahead and picked up the bottle of extra-strength Tylenol PM. The lid was off, and there were still some pills rattling around inside. Taking that as a good sign, I put the cap back on the bottle before tossing it to Lauren. “What are you doing, hiding evidence?” I asked, watching as she tucked it into her purse.
She rolled her eyes at me. “Really, Nick? They’re going to want to know what exactly he took and how much. It’ll be easier if we can just show them. What’s that other one?”
I scooped up the second bottle, my stomach sinking when I realized it was empty. “Atripla,” I said, sounding out the name on the label.
Lauren wrinkled her nose. “What’s that?”
I shook my head, trying to decipher what it said in parentheses underneath the brand name. Efavirenz 600 mg, emtricitabine 200 mg, tenofovir disoproxil fumarate 300 mg. It just looked like gibberish to me. “There’s like three different drugs listed here, none of which I can pronounce. It’s prescription-only. Must be his HIV meds.” I handed it over.
“God,” Lauren whispered, as she looked at the bottle. “This is some heavy-duty stuff. He was serious, huh?”
Her words made me feel sick to my stomach, there was no time to dwell on them now, not when we could still save Howie. “C’mon, let’s just get him into the car and go. I think I can carry him myself, if you get the door.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Squatting down, I slid my arms underneath Howie’s body and hoisted him off the couch. I straightened up slowly, struggling to get a good grip on him.
“You got him?” Lauren asked.
“Yeah,” I grunted. “Good thing he’s such a little guy. If it were Kevin, we’d be screwed.”
She laughed nervously. “If it were Kevin, you’d make me carry him instead.”
“Ha ha,” I said sarcastically, but she had a point - she could lift more weight than me. What had happened to Howie was my fault, though, so I shouldered the burden of carrying him to the car.
“I’ll drive,” said Lauren, once we were outside. “You better ride in the back with him, in case he stops breathing or something.”
I didn’t want that responsibility, but I knew she was right. I sat in the back seat with Howie’s head in my lap as she drove us to Cedars-Sinai.
Halfway to the hospital, Howie started to vomit. “Turn his head to the side!” Lauren shouted, looking into the rearview mirror. “So he doesn’t choke!”
I had more than enough experience dealing with drunk friends to know what to do. I rolled Howie onto his side, cringing as he spewed the contents of his stomach onto the seat of my car. I could see pill fragments floating in what was otherwise mostly liquid. It was pretty gross, but I took it as a good sign that he’d thrown up some of the pills.
I thought he was going to be okay at that point, but when I rolled him back over, I realized he wasn’t breathing. “Shit, I think he stopped breathing!” My voice was so shrill, I barely recognized it. It was like I was having some kind of out of body experience; it didn’t feel real. “What the fuck am I supposed to do?”
“Pinch his nose and breathe into his mouth,” Lauren instructed. She had taken a first aid course as part of her fitness training, so I figured I’d better listen to her. I didn’t want to do what she was suggesting, but I couldn’t just sit there and let Howie die, so I leaned over until I was a few inches from his face.
“God damn you, Howie, I hate you so much for this,” I whispered, as I squeezed his nostrils shut and sealed my mouth over his. I suddenly remembered making fun of him that night on the cruise, telling him his lips tasted like hot sauce and singing the “Taco-Flavored Kisses” song from South Park. But this time, he just tasted like tequila and vomit. I tried not to puke in his mouth as I blew air into his lungs. “God, this is so gross,” I whined, pulling back to take a breath of fresh air.
“We’re almost there,” Lauren said. “Is he breathing now?”
I bent down again to see if I could detect any signs of breathing, but there was nothing. “No... I don’t think so.”
“Does he have a pulse?”
I put my fingers on the side of his neck, the way I’d seen people do in movies, but I couldn’t feel anything, so I slid my hand down the front of his shirt and pressed my palm against his chest. His skin was cold and clammy, but I felt a faint heartbeat. “Yeah,” I sighed, letting out the breath I’d been holding.
“Good. Give him another rescue breath. If you don’t keep breathing for him, his heart’s going to stop.”
I looked down at Howie. His color was bad, sort of a dusky blue. I could tell he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. He would die if I didn’t do something soon, so I lowered my head and breathed into his mouth again.
Thankfully, it only took two more breaths to stimulate Howie’s own body to take over. He suddenly gasped and then started to cough, and I rolled him onto his side, afraid he was about to hurl again. But he didn’t. Slowly, he began to breathe on his own, taking ragged, uneven breaths every few seconds. It didn’t sound like normal breathing to me, but I figured it was better than nothing. “That’a boy, Howie,” I said, patting him softly on the back. “Keep breathing, buddy. Don’t stop.”
When we got to the hospital, Lauren pulled right up the emergency room entrance, honking her horn. It was a gutsy move, but it worked. A woman in scrubs came out, looking at us curiously.
I opened my door and waved her over. “Hey, we need some help here!” I called, as I climbed out of the car. “It’s my friend. He ODed on pills and alcohol. He’s barely breathing.”
“Hang on one second,” the woman said. She ran back inside and returned with a gurney and a man in matching scrubs, who was helping her wheel it across the pavement.
“Ma’am, you’re going to have to move your car,” the man said to Lauren, once they’d gotten Howie out of the car and onto the gurney.
She looked at me. “Go with him. I’ll park and come find you.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
“What’s your friend’s name?” asked the woman, as they wheeled Howie inside.
“Howie. Howie Dorough,” I said in a low voice, hoping no one waiting in the hall would overhear.
If the nurse recognized his name, she didn’t react. “Don’t worry,” was all she said. “We’re going to help Howie. Would you mind following me this way so you can answer a few questions for us?”
“Sure, no problem,” I said nervously, walking a few steps behind her. We ended up outside a small room that was soon swarming with medical staff. I watched through the window as they moved Howie onto the bed in the middle of the room and started cutting off his clothes. Feeling uncomfortable, I looked away.
“Can you spell out Howie’s last name for me?” the nurse asked, her pen poised above the clipboard she held in her hand.
So she really didn’t know who he was, I realized. “Dorough... D-O-R-O-U-G-H,” I spelled, hoping that was right. I glanced in at Howie again; one of the nurses had strapped an oxygen mask to his face and was squeezing the bag connected to it, while the others were moving around his bed, hooking him up to various monitors.
“And how old is he?”
I only had to think for a few seconds before I answered, “Forty.” We’d celebrated Howie’s birthday on tour that year. I remembered ripping on him for turning the big 4-0, which made him officially “over the hill.” Now I looked in at him, lying unconscious on the hospital bed with wires connected to his bare chest and a bag forcing air into his lungs, and I thought, He’s too young for this.
“What have we got?” asked the white-coated doctor who appeared outside the door.
“Howie Dorough, forty years old, unconscious and in respiratory distress after an apparent overdose,” said the nurse who was working on Howie’s chart. “His friend here brought him in by car.”
The doctor looked at me. “Do you know what he took?”
I swallowed hard, seeing the scene of Howie lying on the couch in his dark living room, looking ghostly in the glow of his TV. I knew I’d never be able to get that image out of my head. “He drank at least half a bottle of Tequila, maybe more, and he took some pills,” I said, trying to remember what kind. I wished I’d thought to bring in the pill bottles from Lauren’s purse. “One was Tylenol P.M., and there was another kind... Atripla, I think it was called.”
The doctor narrowed his eyes. “Is he HIV-positive?”
Those words still hit me hard; I didn’t think I’d ever get used to hearing them. “Yeah,” I forced myself to answer. “He is.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
I tried to think back. “Um... well, he was diagnosed about a month ago, but he’s had it since, like, June or July.”
“No, I meant how long ago did he take the pills?” the doctor asked impatiently.
“Oh.” I felt my face flush. “Um, I don’t know for sure. I wasn’t there. He called me around ten or so. He sounded really messed up, so I went over to check on him and found him like this.”
The doctor looked at the clock on the wall. “It’s just after eleven now, so would you estimate it’s been less than two hours since his overdose?”
“Um... maybe? I don’t really know,” I replied, offering an apologetic shrug.
The nurse smiled at me reassuringly. “That’s alright.”
The doctor said nothing at first, apparently deep in thought as he stroked his chin, staring at the clock in the hallway. I could practically see the wheels in his head turning and wondered what he was thinking. Would he be able to save Howie? Before I could work up the balls to ask, he turned to the nurse and spouted off a mouthful of medical jargon I didn’t understand. “Let’s order a tox screen, including blood alcohol and acetaminophen levels, a liver panel, electrolytes, BUN, and creatinine. In the meantime, we’ll drop an NG tube and administer fifty grams of activated charcoal. Got all that?”
I sure as hell didn’t, but the nurse nodded her head. “Got it,” she said, jotting down the last of the orders as the doctor went in to examine Howie. When she was finished writing, she looked up at me and smiled again. “They’re going to give Howie charcoal to absorb the toxins in his system. This could get a little messy, so it would be best for you to wait somewhere else. If you’ll just follow me again, I’ll show you to our waiting room.”
She put her hand on my arm and guided me out of the room. I tried to look back, to get a last glimpse of Howie, but I couldn’t see anything with so many medical people crowded around him. I could tell he was in bad shape by the way they were buzzing around his bed, each of them doing a different job. He must have needed a lot of help.
“Is he gonna die?” I blurted out.
“It’s a good thing you brought him here when you did,” the nurse said. “An overdose like that can be deadly if not treated early, but there’s still time to reverse the effects. We won’t know for sure until we get his labs back and see how he responds to the treatment, but I can assure you that he’s in good hands. Why don’t you wait in here, and I’ll come find you when he’s stable?” She gestured to a waiting area with chairs and vending machines. Lauren was already there, sitting by herself in a corner. She looked up and smiled when she saw me, giving me a tentative wave.
“Thanks,” I told the nurse.
“You’re very welcome,” she replied, smiling. “Thank you for all the information you were able to provide. You’ve been very helpful.”
But I didn’t feel very helpful at all. I felt like I was to blame for this.
“What’s happening?” Lauren asked, when I went over to sit beside her.
My voice faltered as I tried to fill her in, and once I was finished, I broke down completely, burying my face in my hands to hide my tears.