Having Howie around our house was kind of like adopting another dog. Like Nacho and Igby, he spent a lot of time lying around, but Lauren and I still had to feed him and keep him entertained, and we couldn’t leave him alone for more than a few hours at a time.
At first, it wasn’t so bad because he slept a lot, but after a few weeks, I was ready to send him home. He wasn’t a bad houseguest, per se; he was polite and generally picked up after himself and remembered to put the toilet seat down. The problem was, he took up so much of our time. Lauren made me play games with him and keep him company so he wouldn’t be alone, while she made his meals and helped him organize his meds and kept the condo spotless so he wouldn’t get sick. With his immune system suppressed, an infection could kill him, so he wasn’t able to get out of the house much. When he did, I was the one who had to drive him everywhere: doctor’s appointments, counseling sessions, transplant support group meetings. Otherwise, Howie was at home with us all the time.
By mid-February, it had taken its toll on Lauren and me. We desperately needed a night out, so when Lauren said, “Let’s do something for Valentine’s Day,” I was down. We hadn’t been on a date all year, so I knew it needed to be something special. I surprised her with the biggest bouquet of flowers I’d ever seen and played my celebrity card to get us last-minute reservations at one of our favorite restaurants in L.A. We lingered over dinner and, afterwards, took a long stroll down the Santa Monica Pier.
The sun had already set, but there was a bright, full moon to watch as we walked along the beach, the waves lapping at our ankles. Lauren was holding her heels in one hand, her other hand in mine, and with her hair blowing in the ocean breeze and her skin glowing in the moonlight, she had never looked more beautiful to me.
“I love you, baby,” I said on sudden impulse, as I looked over at her.
She turned her head to smile at me. “I love you, too,” she said, squeezing my hand. “I can’t wait to be your wife.”
I smiled back, but unbeknownst to her, behind the smile I was swallowing back a sense of panic that had swelled up in my throat like puke. Our wedding date was less than two months away. The “Save the Date” cards had been sent out, and the formal invitations were already addressed and ready to be mailed any day now. We’d reserved the Bacara Resort for a romantic, outdoor ceremony overlooking the ocean, followed by a reception in the ballroom. The vendors were booked, the dresses ordered, and the rings bought, but I still had my doubts about becoming her husband.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to marry her. Obviously I did, or I wouldn’t have proposed. But that was before I got sick. Things were different now.
I didn’t doubt that Lauren loved me, but regardless of how she really felt, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place when it came to her decision to marry me. If she did, she’d be stuck with me for the rest of my life, no matter how short or long it lasted, no matter how much of that time was spent in sickness instead of health. We had both watched our parents’ marriages fall apart, and before we got engaged, we’d agreed that we wouldn’t follow in their footsteps or make the same mistakes. If we ever got married, it would be for the rest of our lives. We didn’t see divorce as an option. But if Lauren decided to bail, she would be seen by anyone who knew the truth as the girl who left the sick guy. She’d be like Leigh. I wouldn’t blame her, but others would. She’d already endured so much criticism just for being with me, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for her if she broke up with me. So either way, the decision of whether or not to go through with the wedding would have to be mine to make.
I didn’t know what to do. My heart was telling me to marry the woman I loved, but my head said, “Let her go.” I wasn’t ready to make any decisions yet, though. A lot was riding on the results of a test she had yet to take.
After Lauren’s initial HIV test came back negative, Dr. Usako had told us she should be tested again at the end of February, just to be on the safe side. I wanted to wait until I knew for sure that she wasn’t infected. If it turned out that she was, I would never forgive myself.
We hadn’t had sex since my diagnosis in December, but before that? There had been plenty of opportunities for me to unknowingly infect her, and it made me sick just to think about them. So, believe it or not, when we got home that night, sex wasn’t even on my mind. I’d gone so long without it, I’d almost stopped wanting it, sort of like how Lauren was with soda. But when my beautiful fiancée stepped out of our bathroom in nothing but a skimpy, black satin negligee, she was next to impossible to resist.
“Wow! Where’d you get that?” I asked her, once I’d recovered my ability to speak. I had bought her lingerie before, but not that little number. I would remember her wearing that one.
Lauren flashed me a seductive smile. “Happy Valentine’s Day,” she said, striking a sexy pose in the bathroom doorway. “You like?”
I was practically drooling. Did I say I’d stopped wanting sex? Yeah... not anymore.
“I love it. C’mere, sexy.” I sat back on the bed and let her climb onto my lap, so that her long legs were straddling me. I stroked her thigh, thinking we’d take it slow, but she put both hands on my shoulders and shoved me backward onto the bed, until I was flat on my back with her on top of me. “Whoa, girl... slow down,” I said, as she started unbuttoning my shirt.
“Shut up, Nick. We need this.” She lowered her lips to mine, the lace of her lingerie tickling my skin as her upper body brushed against my bare chest.
I embraced her and kissed back, thinking, A little foreplay won’t hurt. You can’t get infected from foreplay.
But Lauren had other things planned. After we’d made out for a while, she pulled away long enough to open a bedside table drawer and whip out a small box, wrapped in shiny red paper. “Here,” she said, handing it to me. “I got you something.”
“I thought you were my gift,” I replied, running my hands down the slinky fabric that barely covered her body.
She smiled. “Something else. Open it.”
I ripped off paper and felt my heart sink when I realized it was a box of condoms. “Babe... we can’t. I mean... we shouldn’t.”
“We can and we should,” she argued. “You and I need this, Nick.”
That whole battle between my head and my heart was happening again - or maybe it was between my head and my dick. I wanted this, more badly than she could know, but was it worth the risk? I felt so conflicted, and she wasn’t helping, sprawled on top of me in that sexy outfit.
I looked up at her sadly. “Aren’t you afraid?”
She shook her head. “No. And neither should you be. I know you’re worried about infecting me, but as long as we’re safe, there’s no way that’s going to happen.”
My heart was racing. “You know what Howie said when he told me he was HIV-positive? He said the odds of me getting infected from what we did were, like, one in a thousand. Well, guess what? We didn’t even have sex, and I got it. So even if the odds are really, really small, it can still happen. What if the condom breaks?”
“Even if it did, it wouldn’t mean I’d get infected,” Lauren said dismissively. “Your viral load is down; it’s not likely that-”
“Not likely? Are you really willing to play those odds? ‘Cause I’m not. I love you too much to gamble with your life.”
“Oh my god, Nick, stop being so melodramatic! This isn’t 1986. This isn’t the death sentence you seem to think it is, either. People can live long, healthy lives with HIV. You don’t wanna go the whole rest of your life without ever having sex again, do you?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Well, me neither! It’s been two months. I wanna fuck your brains out. Tonight. So get back on that horse and ride me, boy!”
She was a classy gal, my wife-to-be. How could I resist her? In six years, I’d never seen her so horny. As for myself, I’d gotten hard just thinking about being with her, so of course it didn’t take much more to get me to open the box and put on a condom.
“Hey, do you think I should, like, double bag it? In case the first one breaks?”
“Ugh, Nick! This new neurotic thing you’ve got going on is so not sexy,” she moaned. “You’re killing the mood! Just get one on and get over here!”
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” I snickered to myself as I crawled on top of her, pushing up the hem of her negligee.
“Thank god!” She threw back her head and raised her hips, ready for me to slide inside her.
It should have been just right, but suddenly, I froze. I was leaning over her, looking down at the face of the woman I loved, and as much as my body wanted to be with her, my head was still screaming, “But what if you hurt her?”
I couldn’t risk it. Literally, I couldn’t. The mere thought of infecting my fiancée, no matter how small the chance, made it impossible for me to keep it up. As I felt myself go limp, I rolled off her in defeat.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
I took a shuddering breath, embarrassed. “I can’t.”
“Oh, come on, Nick-”
“No, I can’t! Look!”
She sat up and sighed when she saw what had happened. “Oh, baby...”
I’d never felt so humiliated. This had never happened to me before - or, at least, not in a long time.
“I’m sorry, Boose.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have tried to rush you.”
Frustrated, I raked my hand through my hair. “I dunno what’s wrong with me.”
“Nothing’s wrong with you,” she reassured me. “It’s just gonna take you some time to get over this... this fear you have. I realize that now. But it’s all in your head, you know. All up here.” She took both sides of my face in her hands and kissed my forehead. “We’ll get through this.”
I sighed. “Thanks for being so understanding, babe.”
She smiled. “Thanks for being so sweet. Maybe a little too sweet, but... we’ll work on that, too.” She waggled her eyebrows. “I miss my bad boy.”
“Well, if you want it to be good, girl...” I started, then stopped. “Yeah, I don’t know where I was going with that,” I admitted, and she giggled. “So I guess we should just make out some more?”
“Mm, yeah, I’ll settle for third base... for now,” she said. “You can knock it out of the park next time.”
“I love it when you talk baseball to me,” I replied. Then I brought my lips back to hers, rendering us both speechless.