Awkward. In a word, that was what it was like living with Howie.
It wasn’t so bad the first week, when it was just the two of us. Well, sleeping in a four-year-old’s tiny twin bed covered in cutesy cars and trucks was pretty bad, but, true to his word, Howie went mattress shopping and bought a nice new queen-size set to go in the “guest room,” which had been Holden’s bedroom. That was better, although the walls were still adorned with artwork of smiling animals and big wooden letters that spelled out H-O-L-D-E-N. “We’ll redecorate... put on a fresh coat of paint,” Howie promised. “I just wanna leave everything else as is until Leigh comes and let her take what she wants. She did all the decor, you know.”
I thought he was being awfully nice to Leigh, after she had kept his kids away from him the whole time he was recovering in California. I understood why, of course, but I also knew how much it had hurt Howie, how much he missed her and his little boys.
When they finally came to Florida for a visit at the beginning of May, things got even more awkward. All of a sudden, everyone Howie had infected was living under the same roof like one big, dysfunctional family: the scorned wife who wanted a divorce, the bi-curious husband who had cheated on her with two different dudes, one of the dudes he’d messed around with, and two clueless little kids who were caught in the middle of it all. We could have starred in our very own soap opera. A telenovela, perhaps. It sounded entertaining in my head, but in real life, it was just... well, like I said: awkward.
The first night they were there, we all went to bed early. I could hear Howie and Leigh whispering through the wall as I lay in the room next door, looking up at the letters of Holden’s name and thinking about Lauren. If it wasn’t for Howie, she and I would have been married by then, maybe even talking about having a baby of our own. But thanks to him, that would never happen.
I thought back to the embarrassing conversation we’d had in the doctor’s office on the day I’d ended our engagement and how Lauren had asked all those questions about safe ways to have kids. I tried to imagine what she would look like pregnant, her toned stomach swollen with a baby inside. It was weird to think about, but sort of a turn-on at the same time. As I lay there, picturing the beautiful curves of her body, I let my hand drift under the covers, where I could feel myself getting hard. See, Dr. Usako, no erectile dysfunction here, I thought savagely as my fist moved up and down, tugging and squeezing.
I was in the middle of masturbating when I heard the click of the doorknob turning, and my heart almost stopped. I let go and sat up quickly, pulling the covers up to my chest, as light from the hallway spilled into the room, illuminating a small silhouette.
“Uncle Nick?” James’s voice called in.
For a split second, I thought about faking sleep, but since he’d already seen me sitting up in bed, I replied with a shaky, “Yeah, buddy?”
He stood on his tiptoes to turn on the overhead light before he came into the room, causing me to squint and hitch the covers up even higher, fully aware of the fact that I was butt-naked underneath. I usually slept in the nude, but it had never occurred to me that I would need to lock the door to keep little kids from wandering in. I guess I just thought once Leigh and Howie had put them to bed, they would stay there.
“Did you, um... have a bad dream or something?” I asked awkwardly, wondering what on earth he was doing in my room and not theirs.
James shook his head. “Holden won’t go to sleep. He needs his elephant.”
“Oh,” I said, uncomfortably aware of the elephantic boner hiding beneath my sheets. “Well, where’s that?”
James looked around, frowning, then spotted the toy chest sitting at the foot of the bed. I’d left my clothes lying on it, but he shoved these onto the floor without a second thought and lifted the lid. He rummaged around for a few seconds and finally announced, “Here it is!”
I looked at the toy he was holding up in triumph, a soft, blue and gray, stuffed elephant. James flipped a switch on its back, and it started playing a lullaby. “It helps Holden go nigh-night,” he said wisely, bringing it around to the side of my bed to show me.
“Oh, sweet. Well, you better go bring it to him so you guys can get to sleep. Goodnight!” I said quickly.
To my great relief, James nodded and wandered to the doorway. “G’night, Uncle Nick!” he called as he left, forgetting to turn off the light or close the door behind him. I held my breath for a few seconds, listening to his footsteps fade away, then let out a huge sigh and scrambled out of bed to grab my shorts off the floor. Quickly, I pulled them on and poked my head out the open door, wanting to make sure the coast was clear before I went into the hallway with a big bulge in my pants.
I stumbled into the bathroom, locking the door behind me, and finished my business. I washed my hands with scalding water when I was done, not wanting to leave a trace of anything behind because, aside from being gross, I had suddenly imagined my semen swimming with virus particles. The thought made me feel sick to my stomach. This, I realized, was exactly what my problem had been in the bedroom with Lauren. I felt contaminated, and no amount of soap and water would make me feel any less unclean.
I needed fresh air. I walked barefoot to the back of Howie’s condo and opened the sliding door to the balcony overlooking the water. I wasn’t expecting anyone else to be out there, so I jumped when I saw someone shift in the semi-darkness. As my eyes adjusted to the light of the half-moon overhead, I realized it was Leigh. She was sitting off to one side of the balcony, her long legs propped up on the railing.
“Oh, hey, Nick,” she said softly, looking up at me.
I didn’t know what she was doing, sitting out there in the dark by herself, but I felt awkward again, like I was interrupting something. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t see you out here.”
“That’s okay. Come on out. Sit,” she said, patting the seat beside her.
I hesitated for a second, then shrugged and walked out onto the balcony, pulling the door shut behind me. I was suddenly aware of the fact that I wasn’t wearing a shirt or, well, anything other than my shorts, but Leigh didn’t seem to mind. In fact, she hardly even looked at me as I sank down into the chair next to her. She was staring straight ahead.
I followed her gaze to the water, which was sparkling in the moonlight. The sound of the waves washing over the beach was soothing, and I felt myself start to relax. I’d spent many nights like this in L.A., looking out at the ocean, and for the first time since I’d arrived in Florida, I felt like I was home.
A few peaceful minutes passed before either of us spoke again. It was Leigh who broke the silence. “So, what’s up? Can’t sleep?”
“Uh... no, not really.” I debated telling her about James barging in to look for Holden’s elephant, but decided not to. It wasn’t a big deal. “What about you?”
“Me neither.” She sighed. “Howie and I just got done talking about how we’re going to tell James and Holden about the divorce. Well, just James, really; Holden’s too young to understand what’s happening...”
“I’m sorry. But hey,” I said, “speaking as someone whose parents should have divorced, like, a decade before they actually did... it’s probably for the best.”
She nodded. “Oh, I know it’s for the best.” Her voice was matter-of-fact. “But not because of the HIV,” she added quickly, looking over at me. “I don’t hate Howie for that; he didn’t know he had it. I don’t hate him at all, actually.” She turned her head back toward the beach, running a hand through her long hair. “He’s the love of my life... but his actions have shown he doesn’t feel the same way about me.”
“He does love you, Leigh,” I said quietly. “If you could have seen how depressed he was after he got out of the hospital... or heard the message he left on my fucking voicemail the night he did it... you’d know he still loves you. He’s missed you and the kids so much.”
“I know,” said Leigh, letting out another heavy sigh. “I feel bad about keeping the boys from him, but I had to do what was best for them. Howie and I will always be friends, for their sake, but if he truly loved me the way a husband is supposed to love his wife, he wouldn’t have gone looking for love outside of our marriage... and certainly not with other men.” I felt myself flush, realizing she must have seen me as one of those other men. ‘That’s what has hurt me the most,” she continued sadly. “It makes me feel like our whole marriage was a lie.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, except for “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” She shook her head. “It’s not your fault. I’m sorry for dumping all this on you. I shouldn’t have said all that; it should have stayed between Howie and me.”
“No, it’s okay,” I reassured her, reaching out to touch her shoulder in the darkness. “I know it’s not the same, but... he hurt me too, you know. It helps to talk about it.”
“True,” she replied, looking over at me sadly. “I’m sorry you got dragged into this mess.”
I let out a humorless laugh. “Yeah... me too.”
She was quiet for a few seconds after that. Then she said, hesitantly, “This is gonna sound really personal, so you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to, but as long as we’re being open with each other, I have to ask: What did happen on the cruise?”
This surprised me so much, my heart skipped a beat. I felt a tightness in my chest as I thought back to that night on the boat - what I could remember of it, anyway. She was right, I thought. This is way too personal. I couldn’t talk about that stuff with Howie’s wife... ex-wife... whatever she was.
“I don’t need to know all the gory details,” Leigh added quickly, apparently realizing she’d crossed a line. “Howie told me, more or less, what he thought had happened. I guess I was just wondering about what you said. Did he really... rape you?”
I cringed, remembering our horrible confrontation at Q’s visitation. In hindsight, the words I’d used that day haunted me. I had been so upset and so angry still, I’d hurled that accusation at Howie in front of everyone without stopping to consider how it would affect him, how badly it would hurt him, and how much of it was even true.
My memories of our encounter on the cruise had always been pretty vague because of how wasted I was that night. More than anything, I remembered the horror I had felt the morning after, when I’d woken up to find Howie in my bed, wearing nothing but his underwear. In that moment, I couldn’t imagine that I would have ever let him sleep with me like that, let alone enjoyed it, so according to my own logic, he must have somehow coerced me. But now, like Leigh, I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not that was really the case.
“I shouldn’t have said that,” I replied, after a few seconds of awkward silence had passed. “Howie... he didn’t rape me. I don’t remember everything that happened, but I know we’d both had way too much to drink that night. I... I think we just got shitfaced and started... y’know... fooling around.” I felt my face getting warm again, accompanied by a tingling sensation down below that, this time, had nothing to do with Lauren.
Leigh frowned. “Do you... I mean, have you ever had... feelings for him?”
I froze, wondering if the look on my face had given away what I was thinking, but before I could figure out what to say, she held up her hand to stop me from speaking.
“Wait,” she said. “Don’t answer that. That was way too personal, and if you have, I don’t really want to know anyway.”
“Oh. Well, uh... okay then.” I forced myself to laugh, like I found the whole thing funny.
“I’m sorry,” she added, shaking her head again. “I shouldn’t have even asked. I’m just trying to understand.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I get it. I’ve been there myself, believe me.”
She smiled and patted my forearm. “I know. We’ve all been struggling with this, haven’t we? Forgive me for having no filter tonight; I guess I’m just tired.” With that, she abruptly stood up. “I’m gonna go to bed, try to get some sleep.”
“Oh... okay.” I watched her walk past my chair. “‘Night.”
She had already slid the door open, but stopped and turned back at me. “Thanks for talking to me, Nick. Goodnight,” she said, and then she went inside.
I was left alone with my thoughts. Looking out at the water, I thought about our conversation. Leigh and I had always gotten along fine, but we’d never really been close, never sat and talked like this, just the two of us. In a way, it made sense that she had opened up to me; I was the only one who could even begin to understand what she was going through. But I wondered if a small part of her also blamed me for the role I’d played in messing up her marriage.
It would have happened anyway, I assured myself. I wasn’t his first, and I sure as hell wasn’t the one who infected him. There was a time when I’d worried maybe I had been, but the timeline didn’t make sense. There was no way Holden could have gotten so sick if he’d only had the virus in his system for a few weeks. He had to have been exposed much earlier than that, which meant Howie had already given it to Leigh before infecting me. I was a victim, just like her.
A victim of rape, though? No... it hadn’t really been like that.
But what had it been, then? Long after I went back to bed (locking the door this time), I lay awake, wondering about that. I closed my eyes and tried to recall as much as I could of that night on the cruise.
I remembered Howie in his Indian costume; I’d spent half the deck party laughing at that feathered headdress he was wearing. I remembered how uncomfortable I was in my construction worker clothes - clomping around on the stage in those heavy work boots and stiff, denim jeans, the bulky hard hat falling off my head. I remembered him helping me take that stuff off so I could go to sleep; my whole cabin had been spinning as I lay on my bed. Before I knew it, he was lying on top of me, and his warm lips were moving all over my body, and suddenly, I remembered the rush of pleasure I’d felt as he touched me.
No! I thought, sitting up in a panic. My heart was pounding, and my skin was covered with perspiration, but even worse than that, I could feel myself getting hard again. No, no, no... stop that! I told myself furiously. You’re just sexually frustrated. You haven’t gotten laid in, like, five months, and it’s starting to affect you. Think about Lauren... think about Lauren... think about Lauren...
I lay back down and tried to picture her body again, tracing every line of it with my mind’s eye. But my memory kept getting invaded by visions of Howie, lying in bed beside me. Get out of my head! I thought desperately, actually pounding my forehead with my fist, but it did no good. Something had triggered feelings and memories I couldn’t seem to suppress, no matter how hard I tried.
As I lay awake for hours, struggling with my own tortured thoughts, I realized living at Howie’s house was about to get a whole lot more awkward.