By the end of February, my life finally felt like it was starting to get back to normal - or as normal as it was ever going to get, anyway. I knew I could never fully go back to how life was before; my new “normal” meant taking medicine each morning and night, having my blood tested every few months, and constantly worrying about my health and the health of those around me. But I had adjusted, and life was getting better.
A few days after his wife filed for divorce, Howie went home. He still wasn’t fully recovered from his surgery, but he was well enough to take care of himself and be on his own. The doctor had cleared him to drive, so he didn’t need me or Lauren anymore.
“Thank you guys again for everything you’ve done for me,” he said when we dropped him off at his front door - a different one from the door we’d kicked down to get inside his house on New Year’s Eve. Someone in his family must have had it replaced. “I don’t know how to make it up to you.”
“Just take care of yourself, okay?” said Lauren, hugging him tightly. “That’s all we want.”
Howie promised he would, but later, when she and I were finally alone in our living room, Lauren asked, “Aren’t you worried it’s too soon for Howie to be living by himself?”
“Are you kidding?” I snorted. “This day couldn’t come soon enough.”
“Don’t be mean,” she scolded me. “He’s been so depressed about this thing with Leigh. What if he tries to hurt himself again?”
“If he does, he damn well better do it right this time.”
“Oh, come on, you know I’m just kidding. But in all seriousness, Howie’s an adult. We couldn’t have held him hostage here.”
“Yeah, you’re right.” Lauren sighed. “I just hope he’s really ready.”
“He said he was. I know I was ready for him to go home.” I winked at her. “How ‘bout you?”
She cracked a smile. “Of course I was ready. But hey, don’t expect the condo to stay so clean now that he’s gone.”
“What?!” I pretended to be insulted. “What about my immune system, woman? Don’t you care about keeping our home germ-free for me?”
“Woman?” she repeated, raising her eyebrows. “Well, this woman wants to strengthen your immune system in a different way: by increasing your tolerance to germs.”
“Oh yeah? How you gonna do that?”
“Come here, and I’ll show you,” she said, smiling flirtatiously. When I scooted closer to her on the couch, she wrapped her arms around me and kissed me full on the mouth. “See? Exposure therapy.”
“Mm... I see.” I should have been turned on, but something was bothering me. “Babe, you realize we’re using medical lingo like it’s sexy? That is so fucked up.”
She laughed. “Why is that fucked up? Haven’t you ever heard of playing doctor? I could be your naughty nurse...”
“Ugh, please stop,” I said, pushing her away from me. “No offense, but I do not want you to be my nurse, naughty or otherwise. I’ve had enough of doctors and nurses in real life lately.”
“Oh, lighten up, Nick, I’m just trying to have a little fun,” she huffed. “This is the first night we’ve had alone in this house in, like, five weeks. Let’s make the most of it!”
I shook my head and scooted even further away from her. “Sorry, I’m not in the mood.”
Lauren sighed, crossing her arms over her chest. “Fine. But when we go to the doctor next Friday, you better ask her for some help with this... this ‘issue’ you’re having, or I will.”
“Whatever.” I got up from the couch and quickly turned away so she wouldn’t see my face getting red. “Maybe I’m just saving myself for marriage!” I shouted over my shoulder, as I walked into the den and slammed the door shut.
I immediately put on the Xbox and turned the volume all the way up, so she’d hear my video game going and know not to bother me. But I was too embarrassed to actually play.
My problem in the bedroom was starting to put a wedge between Lauren and me. I wanted to be intimate with her, but every time we’d tried lately, I lost it at the last minute and couldn’t perform. I knew it was my anxiety messing with me, but I didn’t know what to do about it.
Lauren was probably right about asking my doctor for advice, but that wasn’t the purpose of the appointment we’d scheduled for the last day in February. It would be exactly three months since we’d last had unprotected sex - or any sex at all. If I had infected her then, it would show up on a blood test by now.
I felt like we’d been stuck at a fork in the road for the last few weeks, waiting on these results. It was finally time to find out, once and for all, which path our future together was going to take.
For the second time since my diagnosis, Lauren and I sat in the doctor’s office, holding hands. Mine was sweating. Hers was shaking.
But Dr. Usako smiled.
“Well, I have good news for you both. Lauren, your blood test came back negative,” she told us. “You definitely do not have HIV.”
“Oh my god,” I exhaled, burying my face in my hands. I took a few deep breaths of relief, in and out... in and out. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that,” I said, my voice muffled by my hands.
When I finally looked up again, Lauren was holding her arms out to me. She had tears in her eyes - happy tears, I thought, but then, her smile looked almost sad. “See?” she said, pulling me into a tight embrace. “I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me anymore. Everything’s gonna be fine.”
I stroked her hair as I hugged her, thanking the heavens above that she had been spared from the same fate as Howie, Holden, Leigh, and me. And yet, there was this small part of me, a part of myself I hated, that almost wished she was infected, if only because it would have made my decision much easier.
Don’t get me wrong: I would never wish HIV on anyone, especially not someone I loved, and especially not Lauren. I’m only saying that if I didn’t have to worry about infecting her anymore because I’d accidentally already done it... well, then I would have had no doubts about whether or not to go ahead with the wedding. At that point, it would have been up to her to decide whether she still wanted to marry me or not.
But we weren’t like Howie and Leigh. Lauren was still healthy, and that made her more forgiving and more supportive than Howie’s wife had been. She was willing to stay with me, even though I was sick. She showed that when she let go of me, looked at my doctor, and asked, “So now that we know I don’t have the virus, can we talk about safe ways for Nick and I to be intimate without him having to worry about infecting me? We’re getting married in six weeks, and I want to make sure we don’t have any, um... ‘issues’ on our wedding night.”
“Seriously, Lo?” I said, looking at her in disbelief. She hadn’t even given me a chance to bring it up before she launched right into it.
“It’s been a bit of an ‘issue,’ lately,” Lauren added, glancing over at me. “Sorry, baby, but it has. Don’t hate me for mentioning it.” She grabbed my hand again and gave it a squeeze before she turned her attention back to the doctor.
Dr. Usako was smiling. “You don’t need to be embarrassed, Nick,” she said. “This is a common concern among mixed-status couples, and it’s quite understandable. You’re worried you’re going to give the virus to Lauren?”
I swallowed hard and cleared my throat. “Yeah... I mean, that’s... that’s what happened to me, so... I guess I just don’t want to risk it happening to her, too.”
“Which I love and appreciate him for,” added Lauren, still looking at Dr. Usako, “but he’s, like, overly paranoid about it, to the point where even when we’re using a condom, he can’t... perform.”
In spite of Dr. Usako’s assurances that I shouldn’t be embarrassed, I felt my face getting hot. It was humiliating, hearing my fiancée talk to someone else about our problems in bed, even if that someone was a professional.
“So, Nick,” said Dr. Usako, turning to me, “just so I’m understanding the situation correctly, are you having trouble maintaining an erection?”
It sounded so clinical when she said it like that. Grudgingly, I answered. “I can get it up... I just can’t keep it up.”
Dr. Usako nodded. “It could just be anxiety that’s causing that reaction to occur, but I should also tell you that erectile dysfunction is a problem for a lot of HIV-positive men. We’re still not exactly sure why, whether it’s a side effect of the virus itself or the medication used to treat it. We do know that it’s associated with low testosterone, so if you want to dig deeper into this, we could do some further testing and find out what your hormone levels are like. If it turns out that there is a problem, we could discuss treatment at that point. As another option, I could prescribe an oral E.D. treatment, like Viagra, for you to try.”
At that point, I just wanted to sink through the floor and disappear. “Um, no, that’s okay,” I managed to say. “I’m pretty sure it’s just performance anxiety.”
“Well, then let’s talk about what’s making you anxious. You contracted HIV through having unprotected sex with... a different partner... who turned out to be HIV-positive, correct?” she asked, glancing briefly in Lauren’s direction before looking back at me.
“Um... something like that, yeah,” I mumbled, looking down at my lap so I didn’t have to make eye contact with either one of them.
“But you and Lauren have been using protection - condoms, she said?”
We both nodded.
“Then you have very little to worry about. When used correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. You might be wondering, ‘Well, what if my condom breaks?’”
I couldn’t help but glance at Lauren out of the corner of my eye when she said that. Lauren cracked a smile, obviously remembering the same conversation I was. Hadn’t I said almost that exact same thing?
“Even if that were to happen,” Dr. Usako went on, “I want you to know that, once you have an undetectable viral load, the odds of you transmitting HIV are very low, even through unprotected sex. That’s not to say that you and Lauren should stop using protection once you get to that point because there is still some risk. The virus will always be in your system, even if it doesn’t show up on a blood test. But as long as you’re practicing safe sex, there’s no reason you shouldn’t enjoy having it. Trust me, Nick; I’ve seen many mixed-status couples in my practice who have quite a healthy sex life.”
Lauren laughed. “See? There you go, babe. That’ll be us.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just sat there, licking my lips and then wiping them with my hand. It’s a nervous habit I’ve always had, but I’d never been more uncomfortable than I was sitting in that doctor’s office, listening to her talk about my (nonexistent) sex life.
Until Lauren brought up babies.
“Dr. Usako, I also wanted to ask about our options for starting a family someday. We’re not anywhere close to being ready for that right now,” she added quickly, glancing at me, “but what if we do decide we want to have a child? Is there a safe way for me to get pregnant without putting me or the baby at risk?”
When she asked that, everything got worse. My heart started racing. My palms started sweating - again. Until then, I hadn’t even thought about having children. We’d talked about it before, but we’d both basically said we weren’t ready for kids anytime soon and would discuss it again down the road, after we’d been married for a while. Our wedding was still six weeks away, but naturally Lauren, being a woman, wanted to know about having babies.
“There are a couple of options, actually,” said Dr. Usako. “The safest way to have a child that is biologically both of yours would be through sperm-washing, which is basically artificial insemination with the added step of separating the sperm cells from the semen, which is where the virus is found. Studies have shown it to be one hundred percent effective at preventing transmission of the virus to either the mother or child, but it can be quite expensive and isn’t always covered by insurance.”
“Money’s not a problem for us, thankfully,” Lauren said, giving my hand another squeeze. “What about the other option?”
“There is another method that is much less expensive and more natural,” said Dr. Usako, “and that is to use pre-exposure prophylaxis. Nick would have to have an undetectable viral load and continue taking his antiretroviral drugs. Lauren, you would also start taking HIV medication to lower your risk of becoming infected. You would then have unprotected sex, only while you were ovulating. After conception, you would continue taking the prophylactic HIV medication to prevent yourself or the baby from contracting the virus.”
“And does that work??” Lauren asked incredulously. I wasn’t buying it either - not that it mattered. I already knew there was no way in hell I’d have a baby with her that way. Either we’d try it the expensive-but-safe way, or we wouldn’t try at all.
“It’s not without its risks,” Dr. Usako admitted, “but like I said, the odds of transmission with an undetectable viral load really are quite small. Still, it’s not one hundred percent safe. Unfortunately, the only risk-free options are to use donor sperm or adopt a child.”
Lauren nodded. “Okay. Well, at least we know there are some other options out there,” she said, sounding encouraged. “Thanks for answering all my questions.”
“Anytime,” said Dr. Usako with a smile. “Is there anything else I can do for either of you?”
“I can’t think of anything right now. Nick?” Lauren asked, looking at me.
I shook my head. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
“Well, then, until next time, Nick... Lauren...” Dr. Usako stood up and shook both of our hands. “Oh! Before you go...” she added, opening her desk, “I’m going to give you the card of a couples counselor I sometimes refer patients to. She specializes in sex therapy. If you’re still having trouble in the bedroom after our conversation today, you might consider giving her a call.” She handed the card to Lauren, who tucked it into her purse.
“Thank you again, Dr. Usako.”
I didn’t say anything until we were in the privacy of our car. Then I turned to Lauren. “Okay, first things first: I love you, baby, and I’m so glad you’re okay... but seriously, what the fuck was that? I’ll tell you what,” I went on, before she could answer. “That was the most awkward, embarrassing conversation I have ever had in my entire life.”
I was angry and upset, but Lauren just laughed. “Oh Nick, get over yourself. She’s your doctor; that’s what she’s there for, to answer all your embarrassing questions.”
“All your embarrassing questions, you mean. You didn’t hear me asking all that stupid shit.”
“Stupid shit?” she repeated, raising her eyebrows. She wasn’t laughing anymore. “So you think asking about our love life and about starting a family someday is stupid?”
I sighed. “It was just a little much for me, that’s all. I’m already freaking overwhelmed trying to deal with all this, Lauren, and then you start talking about sex and babies, and I feel like you’re just adding to the pressure.”
“Oh, Nick... I’m sorry,” she said, her voice softening. “I... I didn’t know you felt that way. You’ve been so strong through all of this, I just thought- well, never mind. I’m glad you’re being honest with me now. That’s good. We’re gonna have to be honest with each other and open up about our feelings if we’re gonna get through this together.” Smiling at me, she reached across the center console and took my hand again, like we were a team.
For over five years, we had been a team. But now? We weren’t even in the same league anymore. I was HIV-positive. She was negative. There was no way I was going to risk infecting her now, especially not for the sake of having a baby. What had happened to Howie and his family was not going to happen to mine, even if that meant not having a family to begin with.
I closed my eyes for a few seconds to collect my thoughts and summon the strength I needed to say them out loud. Then I opened my eyes and turned to look at my fiancée. “You want me to be honest about my feelings?” I asked. “Okay... here goes. I honestly don’t know if I want to marry you anymore.”
I watched first shock and then hurt flicker across her face, but then her expression softened into one of understanding. “Don’t say that, Nick. I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to work. You think you can just push me away like that? Tell me you don’t love me anymore so I’ll leave? No. Sorry, babe,” she said, “but it’s not gonna happen. I don’t care about your HIV status; I don’t care about what happened with Howie; I don’t even care about having kids. I care about you. I love you, Nick Carter, and I am not going to leave you.”
Her eyes were bright with unshed tears, and the expression in them was so fiercely passionate, I had no trouble believing that she meant every word. That was why I had to do what I did.
“Fine,” I said, nodding, as I reached for my door handle. “Then I’m leaving you.”
I opened the car door and jumped out, slamming it shut behind me. I walked away quickly, ignoring the sound of her shouting my name. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew it was the right path, so I held my head high and didn’t look back. I couldn’t let her see my quivering chin or the tears in my eyes.