I left Brian at the hospital with Howie while I drove an hour back to his condo in Cape Canaveral. I stayed just long enough to throw some clothes, toiletries, and medication into my suitcase. I packed a similar overnight bag to take to Howie at the hospital, although Brian texted around nine to tell me visiting hours were over and that he would meet me at the hotel.
I arrived in Orlando in time to pick up Kevin and AJ at the airport. “How’s D?” AJ asked, as soon as he climbed into the car.
“He’s doing okay.” I hesitated, then added, “Honestly, he’s kinda pissed at me for calling you guys; he thinks I was overreacting.” I kept my eyes focused on the road in front of me as I pulled away from the curb, avoiding eye contact with Kevin, who had accused me of the same thing.
“Have they found out what’s wrong with him yet?” Kevin wanted to know.
“No, not yet. He had some more tests done this afternoon, but didn’t get any of the results... well, unless someone came to talk to him while Brian was there.”
But when we met up with Brian at the Hilton, he said they still hadn’t heard anything. “Howie was in good spirits when I left,” he told us, as we sat around his hotel room, catching up with each other. “He was gonna try to get some sleep.”
“Ha, good luck with that,” I said, snorting. The other guys gave me curious looks. “What? It’s hard to get any sleep in the hospital when they keep waking you up every few hours to check your vital signs and stuff...”
“No one’s arguing with you, Nick,” said Kevin, clapping me on the shoulder. “How are you doing after your little hospital stay, anyway?”
Even though I knew that question would have come sooner or later, I cursed myself for being the one to inadvertently bring it up. “Fine,” I replied. “I’ve been feeling pretty good, actually.”
“You’re staying on your meds?” he asked, giving me a stern look.
“Yes, Dad,” I said in a sing-song voice. “Got some right here in my suitcase.”
“Good,” said Kevin, seeming satisfied.
AJ nodded in agreement. “Lauren’ll be glad to hear that.”
I looked over at him in surprise. “You’re still talking to Lauren?”
He gave me a weird look back. “Well, yeah, dude - you’re the one who dumped her, not me. She and Ro are still friends, so... yeah. We’ve talked.”
I wondered what kind of stuff Lauren had been saying about me to Rochelle and AJ, but I decided I probably didn’t want to know. Instead, I asked, “How’s she doing?”
AJ shot me another look; this one seemed annoyed. “Really, dude? How do you think she’s doing? She’s devastated.”
“Still?” It hurt me to hear that Lauren was having such a hard time. It had been almost three months; I’d hoped she would have moved on by now.
“What do you mean, ‘still’? You were the love of her life, Nick. She’s not just gonna forget about you and go on like nothing happened.”
“I tried... to go on like I never knew you,” Brian sang in the background, trying to ease the tension. Everyone ignored him.
“I wish she would,” I said quietly. “I want her to be happy.”
“If you really wanna make her happy, why don’t you come back to L.A. and apologize for being such an asshole?” AJ suggested.
I shook my head. “I can’t.”
“Why, ‘cause you don’t wanna risk getting her sick? Or ‘cause there really is something going on with you and Howie?”
How did he know? I stared at AJ in shock for a second before I recovered. “What?!” I said, laughing. “No. Neither of us are drinking anymore, so whatever happened on the cruise was a one-time thing and will never happen again.”
“You guys do seem to be getting along better these days,” Kevin pointed out. “I’m glad you’ve decided to let bygones be bygones.”
I shrugged. “Yeah... I guess I had to stop hating him at some point.” After a moment’s hesitation, I added, “I hope you guys know, what I said at Q’s funeral... it didn’t come out right. I was just having a really hard time.”
“We know,” said Brian, with a sympathetic smile. “I said some things that day I’m not proud of either.”
As I met his eye, I remembered the comment he’d made about Howie “going around giving everybody AIDS.”
“I appreciated you having my back,” I said, returning Brian’s smile.
“Yeah, but... I should’ve had Howie’s, too.”
Kevin nodded. “I should’ve taken more time to listen to him. If he’d felt like he had our support, maybe he wouldn’t have tried to...” He trailed off, shaking his head, and I could tell he was trying not to cry. Typical Kevin.
“Aw, c’mon, Kev, don’t start that,” said Brian, shooting AJ and me an exasperated grin. “Howie’s gonna be fine.”
“I... I know. It’s just...” Kevin looked at me. “What you said about Q... it got me thinking, and... well, I’m just glad we’re all here together.”
“Aww, Kevy Kev... c’mere,” said AJ, standing up and opening his arms. “Brian, Nick, you guys too. Bring it on in here.”
“Group hug!” Brian sang out, as we joined Kevin and AJ. It was super cheesy, but it felt good. I was just glad to have the guys there. Together, we would help Howie get through whatever the next few days had in store.
In the morning, we all piled into Brian’s rental and rode back to the hospital. Howie was eating breakfast when we walked into his room.
“Hey, guys,” he greeted us, between bites of what may or may not have been oatmeal.
“Hey, how’s it goin’?” said Brian. “Glad to see you’ve got your appetite back.”
Swallowing a mouthful of the gloppy beige substance in his bowl, Howie shrugged. “Can’t say this stuff is all that appetizing, but yeah, my stomach’s feeling better, anyway.”
“That’s good. Your face still looks like Macaulay Culkin smacked it with a hot iron, though,” I said, noticing that the red blotches on his cheeks looked no less bright than they had the day before. Despite my attempt to make a joke about it, that worried me. Why weren’t the drugs they’d given him working?
“Gee, thanks, Nick.” Howie rolled his eyes, then turned his attention to the others. “AJ... Kev... good to see you guys. I hope Nick didn’t freak you out too much on the phone yesterday. I know this looks bad-” He gestured to his face. “-but really, I’m fine.”
“Really?” said Kevin, dropping into the chair closest to Howie’s bed. “Have you found out what’s causing this?”
“Well, no... not yet. I’m still waiting to hear about my test results. But I don’t feel any worse than I did yesterday. I’m sure it’s no big deal... nothing you guys had to fly down here for, anyway. Sorry about that.” Howie gave me a sidelong glance, which I returned with a sheepish grin.
“Hey, no need to apologize, either of you,” said AJ, looking between the two of us. “This’ll give me a chance to visit my mom. She’ll be thrilled to hear I’m in town. Maybe I’ll surprise her and just show up at her door.”
Howie smiled. “You should. She’d love that, AJ.”
“She’d love it even more if I’d brought Ava along,” replied AJ with a smile of his own.
“Aww... how is Ava, anyway?”
“Oh, she’s great. Two-and-a-half going on twenty-three, you know.”
The rest of the guys laughed. I just sat back and half-listened as they caught up with each other, talking about their kids and families. I had always felt left out of these conversations, even more so ever since AJ had Ava and joined the “Backstreet Dad” club, leaving me as the last hold-out, the only unmarried, childless one in the group. It hadn’t really bothered me before I got engaged to Lauren because I’d always thought I didn’t want what they had, a wife and kids. All the drama in my family had made me think marriage and fatherhood weren’t for me.
But it was different now. Somewhere along the way, I’d changed my mind - no, Lauren had changed my mind. For a time, I’d envisioned a future with her as my wife and maybe, someday, the mother of my children. The more I got used to the idea of Lauren and I starting our own little family, the more I grew to love it and look forward to making it a reality. Now all I had to look forward to was growing old alone, assuming I didn’t die of some AIDS-related illness before I hit old age, and that reality sucked, big time.
You know that saying about how it’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all? I thought it was a bunch of bullshit. Before I met Lauren, I didn’t know what I was missing. I liked my life the way it was; I thought I was happy, even though I wasn’t. But now I knew there was something missing in my life, and the awareness of it made it much worse. I tried not to think about what could have been, but it was hard, hearing the guys talk about their happy families and realizing I’d never be a part of their club.
Playing with my phone, I started to tune them out and didn’t realize the topic of conversation had changed until I heard my name. I looked up and saw that Howie’s doctor had come in. “And you remember my friend, Nick,” Howie said, apparently having already introduced her to AJ, Kevin, and Brian.
Dr. Charnell smiled and nodded. “Nice to see you again. Well, Howie, I’m here to discuss your test results. Would you like your friends to step out or stay with you?”
My heart leapt into my throat as I looked at Howie, wondering if her next words would be a death sentence or a pardon for him. Right then, I could only remember the times I’d heard a doctor deliver bad news: my “come to Jesus” moment in the cardiologist’s office, when he told me to change my lifestyle or risk dying young... the day I was diagnosed HIV-positive... the aftermath of Howie’s seizure, when his doctor made it clear that, without a new liver, the toxins accumulating in his bloodstream would kill him. In that instant, I relived them all.
“I guess that depends on if it’s good news or bad,” replied Howie, with a nervous laugh. He looked a lot calmer than I felt, but of course, I couldn’t tell if his heart was racing or his palms were sweating as much as mine.
Dr. Charnell smiled again. “In that case, let me start by saying it’s good news.”
As I let out my breath in a rush of relief, I saw Howie sag and realized how tense he’d been after all. “Yes, you should always start with that,” he replied emphatically, and everyone chuckled. You could feel the mood in the room shift, as the cloud of doom that had been hovering over Howie’s head for the last day or so finally dissipated.
“Sorry to keep you in suspense,” said Dr. Charnell. “As you’ll remember from our conversation yesterday, there was concern that you were experiencing some complications from your liver transplant. Fortunately, the biopsy showed your liver is functioning normally - no signs of rejection or graft-versus-host disease in your labs or scans.”
“Thank God,” I heard Kevin mutter under his breath.
“That’s good,” Howie said, nodding. “So do you know what’s causing all this?” He held out his arms, which were still covered in red cheetah spots.
“Yes - you have a viral infection known as fifth disease. Some people call it ‘slapped cheek syndrome.’” I smirked at Howie; he did look like he’d been smacked in the face. "It’s actually more common in children than adults, but anyone can contract it; it’s spread the same way as the cold and flu viruses,” Dr. Charnell explained. “You could have picked it up virtually anywhere in the last couple of weeks, probably some place where you were around small children.”
Howie groaned and shut his eyes. “Like... Disney World?” he asked, grimacing.
Dr. Charnell laughed. “Highly likely.”
“Man... I guess Leigh was right after all,” Howie said, shaking his head at me. To Dr. Charnell, he explained, “We were just there celebrating my son’s birthday. My wife - ex-wife - didn’t think I should go because there’d be too many germs.”
The doctor nodded. “That is something you’ll always need to be mindful of, but it shouldn’t stop you from living your life. Infections will happen. As long as you’re diligent in calling the doctor when they do, like you were this time, they’re usually manageable. Fortunately, this is one that should run its course in the next few weeks. There are some more serious complications that people with compromised immune systems need to watch out for, such as anemia. Your red blood cell count was low when you were admitted yesterday, which is why you needed the transfusion. You should follow up with your primary care physician in the next few days and get a repeat blood test to make sure your counts are up.”
Howie raised his eyebrows hopefully. “Does that mean I can go home?”
“It sure does,” said Dr. Charnell, smiling. “I’ll leave instructions with your discharge papers. You can take regular-strength Tylenol if you have any joint pain, but no ibuprofen or aspirin. Call your doctor for a high fever, shortness of breath, or extreme fatigue. Otherwise, as long as you’re feeling up to it, you can resume normal activities - you’re no longer contagious at this stage in the infection.”
“Does that mean he was contagious before?” I blurted before I could stop myself, which caused everyone to look over at me. Feeling myself blush, I added self-consciously, “Just sayin’... I’m staying at Howie’s place right now, so how do I know I didn’t get it from him?”
AJ snorted. “Uh, ‘cause your skin’s not all red and splotchy, dumbass?”
“Actually, his face is kinda red all of a sudden,” said Brian, smirking, which made me blush even more.
“Hey, it’s a fair question,” Dr. Charnell said. “The rash is usually the last symptom to appear. However, if you’ve ever had this virus before, you’re most likely immune to it. It’s like chickenpox; most people only get it once.”
“Oh.” I racked my brain, trying to remember if I’d ever had a rash like that before. With four younger siblings, the odds that I’d been exposed at some point in my childhood were pretty high, but I couldn’t be sure.
“We’ll keep an eye on it, Nick,” said Kevin, giving me a knowing look. I think he could tell I didn’t want to open a can of worms by telling this doctor I was immunosuppressed, too. She didn’t need to know my business. Besides, I felt fine. Nodding, I shot Kevin a grateful smile in return.
“Well, if you don’t have any other questions, I’ll have a nurse bring in your discharge papers,” said Dr. Charnell. And just like that, Howie was good to go.
I felt stupid for panicking and getting the other guys to fly down over something so minor, but that was nothing compared to the relief I felt that Howie was going to be okay. “Looks like you dodged another bullet, dawg,” I told him on the drive back to Cape Canaveral. “Like I said, you’re the Indestructible Howie D!”
He laughed. “Yeah, let’s hope this was the last time either of us sees the inside of a hospital for awhile, huh?”
“Seriously,” I agreed. “I’m freaking sick of hospitals. Maybe we should just live in plastic bubbles and eat nothing but immune-boosting superfoods from now on.”
“You sound like Leigh,” said Howie, chuckling.
“Really? I thought I sounded more like Lauren.”
“Well, we’ll just have to show them that we can take care of ourselves. Or at least take care of each other.” When he said that, I gave Howie a sidelong glance and found him watching me hopefully. “You’re staying, aren’t you? At least for another week or two, till I’m better and we know you’re not gonna get sick?”
He sounded so desperate, it was almost pathetic, but I understood where he was coming from. After all, I wasn’t the only one whose vision of the future had changed. While I was mourning the wife and children I would never have, Howie had actually had a family and lost them. I couldn’t blame the guy for being lonely.
I still wasn’t sure if my feelings for Howie went beyond the brotherly friendship we’d always had, but at the end of the day, it didn’t matter. He was my friend and my brother, regardless, and I knew I couldn’t leave him like that.
“Sure, Howie,” I said. “I’ll stay.”