I was in the kitchen when Nick came in, cursing loudly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, whipping around way too fast for a guy with a still-healing incision. Wincing, I held my side. “Are you okay?”
“Have you seen this?!” He thrust his phone into my face.
“Seen what?” I asked, blinking, as my eyes struggled to focus on the screen. As if it wasn’t small enough already, the hand that was holding it kept shaking.
“They saw us yesterday.” His voice was shaking, too. “Howie, they saw us there!”
“What?” I grabbed the phone from him. “Who saw us where?”
“Someone saw us at the fucking AIDS clinic!” Nick shouted. “Look, there’s even a picture.”
My heart leapt into my throat as I looked down at his phone. Sure enough, there was a photo of the two of us sitting in my car outside the clinic. My head was turned toward him, my hand on his shoulder, but the zoom that had allowed for this slightly blurry, close-up shot had also cropped out the buildings around us. There was nothing in the background that would identify our location; it looked like any other alleyway. “So?” I said. “We’re just sitting in a car. We could be anywhere.”
“Scroll up and look at the headline!”
I sighed and swiped my finger along his screen. He was on a gossip site. The headline said, BACKDOOR BUDDIES? Backstreet Boys Nick Carter and Howie Dorough Seen Canoodling in Alley Outside AIDS Clinic!
“Canoodling?” I read incredulously. “I’m literally just touching your shoulder.”
“Who cares?” cried Nick. “They can put two and two together. Read what they wrote!”
I scanned the accompanying article.
Nick Carter and Howie Dorough, of the Backstreet Boys, were photographed Friday outside the UCLA Care Center, a clinic specializing in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. Dorough, 40, appeared to be comforting Carter, 34, who was visibly upset in the photo, leading to speculation about the HIV status of one or both boyband singers.
Further fueling the fire, public record shows that Dorough’s estranged wife, Leigh Boniello, filed for divorce on February 14 after six years of marriage.
Dorough was hospitalized in January for what his publicist initially described as an undisclosed liver disease. Days later, he underwent a liver transplant due to acute liver failure. Liver problems are listed as a potential side effect of certain HIV medications, although it has not been confirmed that Howie is also suffering from HIV. Calls to the Backstreet Boys’ publicist have not been returned.
My heart sank. My thoughts echoed Nick’s: “Shit.”
“Yeah! Now what?” Nick asked, wide-eyed with panic.
I quickly re-read the article before answering. “You don’t have to worry about anything,” I said finally. “Most of it’s focused on me. They’ve got nothing on you.”
Nick yanked his phone out of my hand. “‘Nick Carter and Howie Dorough Seen Canoodling’... Carter was ‘visually upset in the photo’... ‘speculation about the HIV status of one or both boyband singers’?” His voice rose as he read phrases from the article aloud.
My mind was racing, but I already knew what I had to do. “I’ll go public with it,” I said suddenly. “I’ll come clean about everything - everything except for y-... except for the cruise, of course.” I had started to say “except for you and me,” but I didn’t want to make him mad. In his mind, there was no “you and me,” never had been and never would be... except for that one night at sea that had ruined both our lives. I swallowed hard. “If I admit I have HIV, they’ll focus their attention on me and leave you alone.”
Nick stared at me. His eyes were still wide, but the look of panic had been replaced by an expression of awe. “You would do that for me?”
“I’d do anything for you, Nick,” I said quietly. It wasn’t just that I owed him. I loved him... and if that meant falling upon my own sword to save him the humiliation of having to admit his HIV status to the world, then so be it. I would take the fall for him.
He shook his head. “I appreciate it, dude, but seriously, you don’t have to. We can deny everything or, better yet, not address it all. If we get asked about it, we just say ‘ no comment,’ end of story.”
I sighed. “You know that won’t work. If we try to avoid the media, they’ll just be after us even more. I guess it was only a matter of time before one of us was caught at the clinic.”
“You wouldn’t have even been there if I hadn’t called you,” Nick said, sounding guilty.
“No, but like I said... it was only a matter of time. I’m sure something would have leaked out someday; it always does.”
“Yeah... I guess.” He still seemed unsure, but I knew this was the right thing to do.
“Look, I’ve been living a lie for a long time... longer than you know,” I admitted. “Being honest about who I am and what I’ve done is gonna be hard, but I think it’ll feel good to finally get some of this weight off my shoulders.”
Nick nodded. “I’ve been there, and you’re right: after you get through the painful part of revealing everything, it does feel good.”
I eyed him hopefully, wondering if he’d had a change of heart. “You sure you don’t want to do this together?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. “Howie, I’ll support you every step of the way... but I’m just not ready to go there with you. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said, and I meant it. I knew he was still coming to terms with everything that had happened himself. Pushing him to open up about it with other people, let alone the public, would only interfere with the progress we’d made in healing our relationship. “I respect your right to privacy. Just know that, no matter what happens, we’re in this together, alright? You and I have got to have each other’s backs, from now on.”
“Alright, man, you got it,” said Nick, nodding. He offered me his hand, and I took it, pulling him into a one-armed hug.
It felt so good to feel like I’d finally been forgiven, I wasn’t even worried about what the media would say when they found out the truth. But before I announced anything, I knew I had to talk to the other person who would be most affected by it, the one who had yet to forgive me for it: my wife.
Leigh and I had actually talked more in the two weeks since she’d filed for divorce than we had in the two months prior to that. Granted, we were usually discussing issues related to the divorce itself - child custody arrangements, alimony, division of property, and so on - but it was still nice to be back on speaking terms with her. Before all this had happened, she’d been my best friend.
Although I knew we’d never again be as close as we once were, I still wanted us to maintain a friendly relationship, if only for the sake of our children. In a matter of months, I’d lost my wife, my health, and my career; those kids were all I had left, the only thing in my life that still mattered. For James and Holden, I would do anything.
That was why, when I called Leigh to tell her I was planning to go public, I asked her, “How much should I say about you and Holden? I know people will wonder about the reason for our divorce. Do you want me to tell the whole truth or just admit I was unfaithful to you and leave it at that?”
Leigh sighed. “I don’t know how I feel about you airing our dirty laundry for the whole world to see...”
“I know. That’s why I’m asking you first. I have to say something, but it doesn’t have to be everything, you know? I wouldn’t bring you and Holden into it without your blessing.”
“I appreciate that.” She was quiet for a while after that. I waited, listening to the sounds of our breathing over the silence, while she thought about what I was asking. Finally, she said, “Secrets and lies are what got us into this mess in the first place, so I guess you should just be honest when it comes to us. If that means telling the truth about infecting me, then so be it. I’m not going to lie or try to hide my status.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“I’m sure about me. But I don’t think we should say anything about Holden,” she added. “He’s only a baby. It’s bad enough he’s been saddled with this disease for the rest of his life; I don’t want him to have to deal with the stigma of everyone knowing he has it, too. I think we should wait until he’s old enough to have a say. If he wants to tell people someday, fine, but for now, we keep that part private.”
“I completely agree,” I assured her, though my reasons were partly selfish. Of course, I wanted to protect Holden, but I was also thinking it was going to be bad enough admitting I had given my wife HIV without letting the world know I had indirectly infected my infant son as well, not to mention Nick. “Let’s just keep this about you and me and leave everyone else out of it.”
She sighed. “Okay.”
I heard the hesitation in her voice. “Do you think I’m making a mistake?”
“No,” she said, after a pause. “I think you’re being brave.”
My heart lifted, and for a second, I felt like she might forgive me, too.
But then she went on to say, “I just wish you’d been this brave before we got married. If you had told the truth about yourself then, none of this would have happened.”
And with that, we were right back to square one. She was still hurt and angry. I was still wracked with guilt and starting to wonder if a divorce settlement would be enough to heal our wounds and help us down the path to acceptance and, hopefully one day, forgiveness.