AJ offered to give me a ride to the hospital that evening. I don’t know if he was just being nice or making sure I didn’t flake out on my promise. Probably a little of both. Either way, it wasn’t until I was riding shotgun in his car that I realized I was stuck doing this, whether I wanted to or not. AJ wouldn’t let me leave the hospital without talking to Howie.
When we got there, we went to the ICU, where Howie had been admitted since Tuesday night. It was Thursday now. The past two days felt like a bad dream. If I had known this was what the new year had in store for me, I would have gladly stayed back in 2013. I wished I could go back to better times, before anything happened between Howie and me. 2013 had been a good year, for the most part. So far, 2014 sucked. But unfortunately for me and Howie both, time doesn’t work that way. You can’t rewind it or freeze it. It just keeps moving forward, ticking away until the day we die.
For Howie, time was running out.
It hit me when I walked into the waiting room with AJ and saw his whole family sitting there - not Leigh and the kids, but John and Polly and Angie and their mother, who was about eighty years old. That’s when I knew AJ wasn’t exaggerating or anything. If they had all flown out here from Orlando to be with Howie, it had to be bad.
“Mama D,” I said, going over to give Howie’s mom a hug. Though she stood up to greet me, she was so short that she didn’t even reach my shoulder. Somehow, I didn’t remember her being that small - maybe because I’d been pretty little, too, when I’d first met her. She felt so tiny and frail in my arms, like I might break her if I squeezed too tight, but she gave me a big hug back.
“Nick... it’s so good to see you here. We can’t thank you enough for bringing Howie here... for saving his life.”
When she stepped back, there were tears sparkling in her soft, brown eyes - Howie’s eyes - but she was smiling at me with genuine gratitude. It made me feel so awkward. If she only knew that I was at least partly to blame for Howie’s overdose, she wouldn’t be smiling at me like that.
“Anyone would’ve done the same thing,” I mumbled, feeling my face heat up.
Her wrinkled hand reached up and rubbed my shoulder in a warm, reassuring way. “I hope you’re feeling better?”
With another stab of guilt, I realized that the guys had covered for me, explaining my absence with the same excuse I’d given them earlier. I wondered how much they - or Howie himself - had told his family. Taking a quick glance around the room, I saw no sign that any of them knew the truth about me. No sympathy. No judgment. Just sadness. Everyone had the same worried expression in their eyes.
Swallowing hard, I nodded. “Yeah, much better, thanks,” I lied. “Um, I heard Howie’s not... not doing so well?”
Her eyes filled with a fresh batch of tears, as she shook her head. John stood up, putting his hand on his mom’s shoulder. “He’s just not himself,” Howie’s brother explained. “The doctor said there might be some swelling in his brain; I guess it’s a side effect of the liver failure. He got really agitated this afternoon and had to be sedated. He’s sleeping it off right now, but you guys can go see him for a few minutes if you want.”
I glanced at AJ, who nodded. “C’mon, Nick, I’ll show you the way.” He put his arm around me and steered me away from the others.
“Well, that was super awkward,” I muttered, as we walked down the hall.
AJ snorted. “In case you hadn’t noticed, Nick, the last seven days have been super awkward, so that’s nothing new.”
I gave him a sidelong glance, then quickly looked away, pretending to be interested in the cheesy artwork on the walls. We still hadn’t talked about what had come out at Q’s funeral - or, rather, who had come out, meaning Howie. Not that he’d actually come out willingly. I was the one who had outed him, in front of everyone, right after I accused him of raping me.
How did Howie not hate me? I wondered. Why was I the one holding a grudge, while he was still trying to apologize?
It wasn’t right, and the realization made me feel sick to my stomach. This really was my fault.
“Hey... you okay?”
We had stopped outside a pair of double doors next to a window with a sign that said Intensive Care Unit. AJ was looking back at me, his eyebrows raised.
I shrugged. “Not really.”
He turned around and gave me a tiny smile that I guess was supposed to be encouraging or something. “Hey, I know this is gonna be hard for you, but you can do it. I have faith in you, man.”
I sighed. “How am I gonna convince Howie of anything if he’s not even conscious?” I guess a part of me was still hoping to get out of having to face Howie. AJ had understated just how hard it was going to be.
“John just said he was sedated. It’s not like he’s in a coma or something,” said AJ, turning away from me again. “Although he might be,” I heard him mutter, “if he goes much longer without a liver.” He punched a button on the wall with more force than necessary, and a nurse on the other side of the window buzzed us into the unit.
AJ led me past a row of small cubicles, separated by clear glass partitions. I couldn’t help but peek inside as we walked by. Curtains were pulled between some of the beds, but I still caught glimpses of the people lying in them. Most of them were hooked up to a lot of machines, like you’d expect. I remembered seeing Howie in the ER that way, with wires on his chest and an oxygen mask over his face. I wondered if he would look better or worse than the last time I saw him.
We stopped at the last cubicle on the end. The curtains were drawn, and I couldn’t see inside without stepping directly in front of the doorway, but I knew this had to be Howie’s bed. AJ gave me a rough pat on the back. “Just talk to him, dude. Maybe he’ll hear you,” he said, and then he nudged me into the room.
Even as I stumbled forward, I looked back over my shoulder. “You’re not coming in?”
AJ shook his head. “I’m gonna let you have a few minutes alone with him to say whatever it is you wanna say. Just... keep it positive, okay?”
“Okay,” I promised. Sucking in a deep breath, I squared my shoulders and took another step toward the bed where Howie lay.
He looked bad. Worse than he had on New Year’s Eve. At least he was breathing on his own, but he had tubes coming out of his nose and out from under his covers. The hospital gown he had on didn’t hide how yellow his skin had gotten or how bloated his body had become. His eyes were closed, and his mouth was hanging open. He was completely out of it. Were the situation any less serious, I would have snapped his picture and tweeted it out just to make him mad when he woke up and went online. We had always joked about how Howie could sleep any time, anywhere. But I wasn’t in the mood to make fun of him then. It was that serious.
There was a chair by his bed, so I sat down. I didn’t know what else to do. What did AJ expect me to do, launch into some heartfelt speech at Howie’s bedside? I felt silly talking to someone who was clearly out cold, but I figured I should say something in case he woke up. I didn’t want him to find me just sitting there, staring at him like some creeper.
I watched his face closely, but he didn’t even stir.
I sighed. “This is stupid,” I muttered to myself, but a part of me was relieved. Maybe I wouldn’t have to be the one to change Howie’s mind. Why couldn’t his family do that? Why wasn’t anyone up Leigh’s ass about apologizing to him or accepting his apology or whatever it was AJ wanted me to do? She was the one who was married to him!
It was the thought of Howie’s wife that triggered my memory, and suddenly, I could hear him the way he’d sounded in the message he left on my phone, his voice shaking and slurring his words. “Please tell Leigh I love her... and tell James that Daddy loves him... and that I’m sorry for leaving him. And tell Holden... that I love him more than he’ll ever know, and that I’m sorry... sorry for making him sick. I never meant to hurt him either. I never meant to hurt any of you. God... I’m so sorry...”
My heart started to race as I looked around the hospital room, remembering the rush to get him there. Not fast enough, I thought, as my eyes returned to Howie. He looked so pathetic lying in that hospital bed. I’d never seen him like that before. It sounds cheesy, but Howie had always seemed so strong, both physically and mentally. Sure, he was a little guy, but he was in good shape. Of all of us, he was the one who’d always had his shit together. So to see him falling apart, his body literally breaking down before my eyes... it rattled me.
“God damn it, Howie,” I said. “You suck for doing this. You hear that? You suck!”
Of course, it was then that his eyelids started to flutter, and I knew he had heard me that time, and I felt bad because I was saying exactly the opposite of what AJ had sent me in there to say.
“Shit... I’m sorry, man. I didn’t mean that. You know I don’t mean half the shit I say,” I backpedaled, trying to smile at him, but the effort was weak. It was hard just looking at him. Even the whites of his eyes were sort of yellow, as I saw when he finally opened them.
“Nick?” His voice sounded weak, and I wasn’t sure if he was really “with me” or not.
I cleared my throat and licked my lips nervously. “Yeah... it’s me.”
I shook my head, surprised at the sudden tears that stung my eyes. “You don’t have to say it again. I know. I’m sorry, too.”
He frowned up at me in confusion. “For what?”
I wished he wasn’t going to make me say it, but I knew I had to sound sincere. “For... for humiliating you the other day in front of our friends. For hitting you. For saying I hated you.” I sighed and shook my head, struggling to find the right words to express how I really felt. “I don’t hate you, Howie. I just hate what’s happened to us.”
Howie nodded. His eyes were watery now, too. “I wish we could go back. I wish I had never let this happen.”
I smiled sadly at him. “I was just thinking the same thing.”
“We can’t, though, Nicky - sorry,” Howie sighed, “Nick.”
I wasn’t going to say anything about the nickname. Sure, I hated it, but not when he said it. Until recently, he was the only one I’d allowed to call me that. It made me feel like the little kid I’d been when the group began, which, normally, I didn’t like, but on that day, in that moment, I would have given anything to be twelve again and innocent, my body uninfected and my mind free.
Howie looked up at me like he was wishing the same thing. “You’re gonna be living with this for the rest of your life... and it’s all my fault.”
Like I could forget. The stark reminder of what he had done was enough to get me all riled up again, but I knew I couldn’t lose control now. Struggling to keep my composure, I said, “Yeah, well, at least I’ll still be living.” Even though my heart was thumping erratically, my voice sounded amazingly calm. “Which is more than I can say for you, from the sound of things.”
Howie lowered his eyes. “I don’t wanna live like this,” he said, just loud enough for me to hear him.
My heart began to hammer even harder, as I realized this was my moment of truth. Somehow, I had to convince him that, even after infecting half his family - and me - with HIV, he still had a reason to live. It seemed like it was going to be a hard sell.
“Well, fuck, no one would want to live like this,” I said, gesturing toward the tubes that snaked out from under his covers. “But, Howie, you can fix this. There may not be a cure for HIV, but there is for liver failure. Get the transplant.”
He shook his head slowly. “It’d be a waste of an organ.”
“No, it wouldn’t.” I leaned forward, looking at him fiercely. “Your life is not a waste.”
Finally, he met my eye again. “What do I have to live for?”
“Uh, let’s see, how about your family? Your kids? Your career?” I said, ticking them off on my fingers. “The guys? Me?”
He sniffled, then made a face, like he was in pain. “Wouldn’t it be easier for all of you if I wasn’t around?” he asked quietly. “You could keep your status a secret. You wouldn’t have to worry about the stigma.”
I swallowed hard, hating myself for making him think I cared more about protecting my own reputation than I did him, hating myself even more for really feeling that way. I had been so selfish ever since my diagnosis. I hadn’t given a shit about what Howie was going through; it was all about me. Maybe if we had tried to work through this together instead of going at it alone, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in a hospital room.
“Oh, right, ‘cause there’s no stigma attached to being that guy in that boyband who drove his best friend to suicide.” Somehow, it’s just easier to be sarcastic than sentimental. Maybe it’s a guy thing.
Either way, Howie looked stricken. He opened his mouth and closed it again several times, looking like a fish gasping for air as he tried to figure out what he wanted to say. I don’t know whether it was the word “suicide” that shook him up or me calling him my best friend, but for a few seconds, it seemed like he was at a loss for words. Then, finally, he said, “This wasn’t your fault. You know that, right, Nick?”
I shook my head. “How can you say it’s not my fault?? I called you out in front of everyone and accused you of raping me - which I apologize for, by the way. I was angry when I said that.”
“You have every right to be angry.”
“Yeah, maybe, but I still shouldn’t have said that - especially not in front of other people. It should have stayed between us.”
He nodded, closing his eyes. “I appreciate that.” He suddenly sounded so tired. Remembering what his brother had said about his brain swelling, I was worried.
“Hey... you okay?”
He nodded, without opening his eyes. “Yeah... it’s just this headache. It hurts. Maybe you should go and let me get some more sleep, huh?”
But I wasn’t ready to go without getting his word that he would agree to the transplant. “Maybe you should go ahead and get a new liver so you’ll feel better, huh?”
Howie smiled and still didn’t open his eyes. “Nice try, Nicky. My mind’s made up.”
That made me mad. “God damn it, Howie, are you gonna make me beg? Fine - please! Please sign the damn consent so you can have the surgery - if not for you, then for me and your family. You owe us that much.”
“Like that’ll make up for giving you HIV?”
“Well, it’s sure as hell not gonna make us even if you kill yourself! My life may be fucked, but yours would be over! At least give this a chance! Give... give us a chance!” I spluttered. “We can still work this out, Howie. But we’ll never be able to make things right if you’re dead.”
He sighed and finally opened his eyes, looking up at me with a mixture of sadness and maybe just a little bit of hope. “You really think we can work things out?”
I honestly wasn’t sure, but I nodded my head as if I believed it with my whole heart. “Come on, are you serious, dawg? Of course we can. We always have before. Think of all the shit we’ve been through in the last twenty years, and yet, our friendship’s stood the test of time.”
I was talking out of my ass, but I had to keep trying until I said something that could convince him.
“This virus may be incurable, but I’d like to believe our relationship is stronger than HIV. Don’t you think we can survive this, too?”
He shook his head slowly, tears sliding down his cheeks. “I don’t know, Nick...”
It broke my heart to hear him sound so hopeless, like he’d already admitted defeat. “Damn it, Howie, don’t do this! Don’t give up! You can’t die like this; we need you!” Realizing what he was really waiting for me to say, I added, “I need you. I love you... maybe not in the way you want me to, but as a friend... and a brother. I already lost a sister to an overdose; don’t let me lose my brother too.”
I don’t know if it took bringing up Leslie or if telling him I loved him was enough, but that seemed to do it. Closing his eyes, Howie whispered, “Okay.”
“Okay... I’ll sign the consent.”
My breath caught in my throat, as I leaned forward to make sure I’d heard him correctly. “Look at me... and say it again.”
Howie opened his watery, yellow eyes and gave a single nod. “I’ll do the transplant,” he muttered.
I let out the breath I’d been holding in a sigh of relief. “Thank god. You want me to go get your...?” The question died on my throat as I watched Howie’s eyes roll back into his head. “Howie?”
All of a sudden, his whole body went rigid and started to jerk, just slightly at first, and then violently enough to rattle the rails on his bed.
“HELP!” I shouted, knocking my chair over backwards as I jumped up and ran to the doorway of the room, banging on the glass partition. I glanced back at Howie, who had spit foaming out the corners of his mouth.
His monitors were going haywire; why wasn’t anyone coming? “Hey, he needs some help in here, NOW!”