The summer was flying by way too fast. First I was celebrating Father’s Day with my sons, and the next thing I knew, it was already the Fourth of July.
We spent the day at the Kennedy Space Center’s visitor complex, introducing the boys to some American heroes and a slice of history. James and Holden were fascinated by the giant rockets on display outside. Nick was like a little kid himself, equally enthusiastic about seeing all of the space artifacts inside. “Look!” he kept saying, pointing at virtually everything. “Did you see this?” Then he would read the description of whatever it was he wanted me to look at aloud.
James, of course, couldn’t read yet and didn’t have the attention span to stand in one place and look at anything too long. He just wanted to touch everything and push all the buttons. He kept running ahead of us, while Nick lagged behind.
Meanwhile, Holden had had enough of riding in his stroller. He wanted to run and touch everything, too. All I could think about was how many germs must be lurking on every surface. Don’t be like Leigh, I told myself. Let him live a little. Babies learn through touch. But I knew I’d never forgive myself if he got sick again on my watch, and Leigh would probably never let me forget it either.
Nick must have noticed me starting to stress out because, out of the blue, he suddenly appeared next to Holden’s stroller and said, “Hey, want me to take Lil’ Man for a while?”
Holden must have understood, because he stopped slapping the tray of his stroller and reached his arms out toward Nick, a look of desperation in his big, blue puppy dog eyes. He made me feel horrible, like I was holding him hostage.
I sighed. “He wants out of his stroller, but I don’t want him touching everything and then putting his hands in his mouth. Leigh’ll kill me if I let him get sick.”
“I’ve got him.” Nick knelt down to unbuckle Holden, picked him up out of the stroller, and put him on his own shoulders. “There,” he said. “Now he can see, but not touch.”
Holden clapped his hands, looking delighted to be sitting up so high. I felt less so, but at least I no longer had to contend with a toddler on the verge of a tantrum. “Just don’t drop him on his head,” I begged Nick, “or Leigh’ll kill us both.”
Nick laughed. “I told ya, I’ve got him,” he insisted, his hands wrapped around Holden’s ankles. “You take the stroller and go ahead with James. We won’t be far behind.”
“Okay... Let me know when your back starts to hurt,” I said and went to find my five-year-old. I was a little hesitant about leaving Holden with Nick at first, but when I looked back at my son sitting happily on his broad shoulders, I had to admit it was a sweet sight. Watching the way Nick interacted with Holden, pointing at things and telling him about them, I was struck by what a natural he was. He would have made a great dad someday.
Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had noticed. When we met up at the end of the exhibit on the Apollo moon missions, an elderly woman approached us. “Excuse me,” she said, smiling. “I couldn’t help watching your sweet family in there. What beautiful boys you have - and each just the spitting image of one of you.”
“Oh, thank you,” I said, smiling back at her. Then I glanced at Nick. He was already blushing, clearly embarrassed to have been mistaken for a couple of gay dads.
But it didn’t end there. “I want you to know, I’m not close-minded like some other old folks in this state,” the woman went on. “I’ve been following that court case down in Miami, and I hope they get the ban on same-sex marriage overturned so that nice couples like yourselves can enjoy the same rights as the rest of us.”
I was about to thank her again and move on when Nick suddenly blurted, “We’re not a couple. We’re just... brothers.”
“Oh!” The woman’s eyes widened, as she looked between the two of us.
“Step-brothers,” I added, knowing no one would believe Nick and I were actually related. He was tall and fair, while I was small and dark - we looked like total opposites.
“Ohh,” the woman said again, nodding. “I see. So sorry if I offended you. Have a nice day!” She walked away in a hurry.
I looked at Nick again. He looked mortified. We both laughed about the encounter, but later I would wonder, what was he so embarrassed about? We’d all made jokes about how Holden looked more like Nick than me, so it couldn’t have been the woman mistaking the little blond boy for his son that bothered him so much. It had to be her assumption that we were a gay couple. That bothered me... because, well, weren’t we? We’d certainly been living like one all summer. I wasn’t going to bring it up in front of the boys, but I made a mental note to ask Nick about it when we were alone.
The opportunity came late that night, after we’d eaten some barbeque, watched some fireworks, and put the boys to bed. Nick and I were chilling on the balcony, the door cracked open behind us in case one of the kids woke up. We had a beautiful view of the empty beach at night, but neither of us were paying much attention to it. He was playing with his phone, and I was looking through the photos I’d taken earlier on mine. When I came across one of him carrying Holden on his shoulders, I knew I’d found my opening. I texted the photo to him without a word and waited for him to get it.
“Aww,” I heard him say a few seconds later and glanced over to see him smiling at his phone. “Cute pic. He looks so happy.”
“I know, he loved being up so high,” I replied. “You’re really good with him, you know. I can see why that woman thought you were his dad.”
Nick rolled his eyes. “That woman shouldn’t have been sticking her nose in other people’s business.”
“Don’t be mean,” I said, frowning at him. “She was just trying to be nice. What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing.” He shrugged. “I just hate getting stopped by people when I’m out in public.”
“Aren’t you used to it by now? It happened all the time in L.A.”
“I know. That’s why I hate it,” he said.
“Come on, it’s not like she was paparazzi or even a fan. She had no idea who we were.”
He snorted. “Obviously, since she thought we were a gay couple.”
“Well, aren’t we?” I asked.
His eyes widened, and for a few seconds, he just looked at me, apparently at a loss for words. I recognized the look on his flushed face. It was the same look he’d given me at the space center, a look of embarrassment. “Well... not openly,” he answered awkwardly. “I mean, how could she tell? Do we look like a gay couple?”
“Do gay couples look a certain way?” I countered.
He sighed. “Howie, don’t start. Before you go accusing me again, no, I’m not a homophobe. All I’m trying to figure out is why she assumed we were a couple and not just friends or brothers or cousins or something.”
“Obviously she noticed the undeniable chemistry between us,” I said, winking at him. He just rolled his eyes back. “Why do you even care?” I pressed him. “If you’re that afraid of people finding out we fool around together, maybe you are a homophobe.”
His face got even redder. “I am not. I just don’t wanna get made fun of any more than we already do.”
“But that’s just it, Nick - we already do,” I replied. “People have been calling us the ‘Backdoor Boys’ since the beginning. Maybe it’s time to embrace it. We are the Backdoor Boys. ‘Which Backstreet Boy is gay?’ Well, whaddya know - it’s Howie!”
“Sure, says the guy who hasn’t even come out to his own family.” Nick shook his head. “I also noticed your People article made no mention of the fact that you got infected from fucking another guy. So don’t you go all ‘gay pride’ on me when you’ve still got one foot in the closet.”
I had to admit, he had a point there. How could I call him out on wanting to keep our relationship a secret when I’d been hiding my feelings for most of my life? But for the first time, I’d found a partner I didn’t have to pretend with, who allowed me to truly be myself. I didn’t want to hide anymore.
“You’re right,” I told Nick. “I should tell my family the truth.”
“About us?” he asked uncertainly.
“About me. Don’t worry, Nick, I won’t out you the way you outed me.”
His eyes flashed with anger. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Instantly, I regretted saying it. We had done so much healing over the last seven months. Why would I want to re-open old wounds? But since he’d asked, I felt forced to answer. “Well... you did tell the other guys and their wives that we slept together on the cruise.”
Nick’s face fell. “Shit, man, you’re right. I almost forgot about that,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m sorry... I shouldn’t have done that.”
“It’s okay. In a way, I’m glad you did. It wasn’t the right time or place, but at least it got the truth out in the open... well, sort of.”
“The guys know I didn’t mean all that stuff I said,” Nick assured me. “It came up last time they were here, when you were in the hospital. I set the record straight.”
“Really?” I raised my eyebrows, wondering what, exactly, he had said. “Did you tell them you enjoyed it?”
He hesitated, then shook his head. “No. I blamed it on the alcohol.” He sighed. “I’m sorry, but I’m just not there yet.”
I nodded. “I know. It’s okay. Baby steps, right?”
Nick gave me a grateful smile. “Right.”
“Speaking of babies...” I said, standing up. “I’d better go check on mine.”
When I went inside a few seconds later, I noticed Nick had left the TV on in the living room. He’d been watching a South Park marathon on Comedy Central earlier, but in honor of Independence Day, they had started showing the movie Team America: World Police. I stopped and stood behind the couch to watch a few seconds of it.
The puppets on the screen were performing in a parody of the Broadway musical Rent, singing a song that went, “Everyone has AIDS! AIDS, AIDS, AIDS!” I shook my head. I remembered watching this movie with the guys sometime during our Never Gone tour and laughing right along with them at this scene. It didn’t seem so funny anymore. The song made me feel sick to my stomach.
I shut off the TV and tiptoed down the hall to my kids’ room. As I walked inside, I could hear the sounds of the boys’ deep, steady breathing. They were both sound asleep. After checking on James, I stopped by Holden’s crib. He was curled up in a ball at one end, his thumb hanging halfway out of his mouth. His blond curls were plastered to his forehead, and I couldn’t help reaching down to feel his head with the palm of my hand, in case he was running a fever. His skin was warm, but not unusually hot, so I withdrew my hand. I stood there for a few minutes, watching him sleep, and wondered if I would ever stop hating myself for what I’d done to him.
I knew I needed to let go of my guilt at some point in order to reach a state of acceptance... but like Nick, I just wasn’t there yet.