On the morning of his forty-first birthday, Howie looked at me across the breakfast bar and announced, “I’m gonna tell them tonight.”
With James and Holden in the room, he didn’t say who or what he was telling, but he didn’t have to. I understood. We’d been invited to his mom’s house that evening for a birthday celebration with his family. All of his siblings would be there, so it was the perfect opportunity for Howie’s coming out party. He could tell everyone at once - preferably after cake and presents, so that if it didn’t go well, we could get the hell out of there.
Truthfully, though, I wasn’t too worried about how Howie’s family would take the news that he was gay. He had the most supportive family in the world, and I had no doubt that, despite their religious beliefs, they would stand by him. I knew he was nervous, though, especially about his mom’s reaction, so I gave him an encouraging smile and said, “Go for it.”
He was unusually quiet all that day. I didn’t know if he was just busy rehearsing the conversation in his head, or if he was starting to get depressed because summer was almost over and his boys would be leaving soon. Howie’s birthday was on a Friday, and we were flying James and Holden back up to their new home in New Jersey the following Monday. After that, the two of us would travel to L.A. to start rehearsals for our fall tour. I was looking forward to getting back to work, and I knew Howie was, too, but it would be hard for him to say goodbye to his sons, not knowing when he’d get to see them again. If I was being honest with myself, I was going to miss those little guys, too.
It had been fun having Howie’s kids around all summer. I’d never spent that much time around small children before and wasn’t sure I wanted to, but James and Holden were a blast. Sure, James could be whiny when he didn’t get his way, and Holden still shit in a diaper, but I let Howie deal with that stuff. He was the Danny Tanner to my Uncle Jesse, after all. I liked being the cool one, the fun one, their crazy Uncle Nick, who could belch on command to make them laugh and liked to eat a bowl of Cookie Crisp cereal with them for breakfast. I built epic sand castles, gave the best horsey rides, and was an expert at hide-and-seek. And even though I would often go to bed with sand in my butt crack from letting them bury me on the beach and wake up with my back aching from hauling them around the house on my hands and knees, it had been one of the best summers of my life. I was sad to see it end.
Hanging out with James and Holden had made me realize I might have made a good dad someday, under different circumstances. A part of me regretted waiting so long to propose to Lauren; if we’d gotten married sooner, we could have started a family before I got infected. But then, I reminded myself, we might have ended up in the same situation as Howie and Leigh. Watching him struggle through all the drama of the divorce settlement and custody arrangement and separation from his kids, I didn’t envy him that at all. But just the fact that he was a father made me jealous, mostly because I would never have what he had. It wouldn’t have bothered me before... but now I knew what I was missing.
As I watched James and Holden “help” Howie open presents at his parents’ house that night, I thought, At least he’ll have those two to take care of him when he gets old. I’ll probably die alone. I didn’t know why I was being so negative all of a sudden. Maybe Howie’s nerves or depression or whatever it was had started rubbing off on me.
When Mama D took the little helpers with her into the kitchen to get his cake ready, Howie decided it was time for his big announcement. He cleared his throat loudly and looked around the living room. His brother, John, and sisters, Pollyanna and Angie, were all there. When he cleared his throat, they looked his way.
“I have something to tell you guys,” Howie said in a low voice. He glanced toward the kitchen, probably to make sure his mom and kids were still out of earshot. “I don’t have a lot of time, so I’m just gonna say it.”
I cringed at that introduction; he made it sound like he was dying or something. My eyes panned the room, taking in everyone’s expressions. They all looked very serious. “He’s not dying,” I interjected quickly, before Howie could continue. “It’s nothing bad.”
Howie looked over at me in surprise. Then it seemed to dawn on him what he’d said, and he started to laugh. “Oh - no!” he said. “Sorry, it’s nothing to do with my health. I’m doing fine, as far as that goes.” The mood seemed to lighten some, as the others let out relieved chuckles.
“So what’s going on, Howie?” Pollyanna pressed.
Howie took a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “Okay, so you already know I was unfaithful to Leigh. I had a one-night stand last summer; that’s how I got HIV.”
His siblings nodded slowly, appearing uncomfortable again.
Howie looked up at the ceiling, avoiding eye contact with them. “What you don’t know,” he went on, “is that it was with another guy. I’m... I’m gay.”
A few seconds passed in which nobody spoke. I saw Angie and Pollyanna exchange glances. Then, suddenly, they both burst out laughing. Howie looked at them in surprise.
“Honey, we know,” said Angie, wiping tears from the corners of her eyes. “We’ve known, or at least suspected, since you were a kid. But then you grew up and became a Backstreet Boy and started dating a bunch of women, and we thought, ‘Well, maybe not.’”
That was when I started cracking up, too. “Ha!” I shouted, pointing at Howie. “Dude, you’ve been so worried about telling them this big secret, and they knew the whole freaking time!”
“Well, I didn’t know,” admitted John, shrugging, “but whatever, bro. It doesn’t matter to me whether you’re gay or straight. I still love you the same.”
Howie smiled, tears swimming in his big, brown eyes. “Thanks,” he whispered, trying to discreetly wipe them away.
Pollyanna got up and gave him a hug. “Thanks for confiding in us,” she said, patting his back. “That must have taken a lot of courage.”
Howie sighed and shook his head. “Not as much as telling Mama will take.”
“Aww, Howie, you know there’s nothing in this world that would change the way Mama feels about you,” Pollyanna assured him. “You’ve always been her favorite.”
“What?” He chuckled and shook his head. “I am not her favorite.”
“Um, yeah, you are,” John said. “You’re the baby of the family and the famous one. You can do no wrong in her eyes.”
“Just tell her,” Angie encouraged Howie. “I bet she’ll take it better than you think.”
“Tell me what?” We all looked up in surprise as Howie’s mother, Paula, appeared in the doorway. She looked around the room, frowning. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing, Mama,” Howie said quickly. “I do want to tell you something, but it can wait until after we have dessert. How’s that cake coming along, anyway?”
“I just came to tell you we’re ready,” Mama D replied with a smile.
Howie was lucky to have a family like this, I thought, as we all sat down at the dining room table. I couldn’t remember the last time the entire Carter clan had gathered to celebrate one of our birthdays. Probably not since we were kids. And yet, here was Howie, turning forty-one, and his sweet old mother still made his birthday cake, complete with forty-one candles burning on top. We even sang “Happy Birthday” as she carried it slowly into the darkened room and set it on the table in front of him.
“Make a wish,” she said.
While Howie thought of his wish, I looked around the table at all of his family members watching him, their faces shining with anticipation. I remembered sitting with them in the waiting room at Cedars-Sinai, wondering whether or not Howie would live to see another birthday. The fact that he was here to celebrate his forty-first was nothing short of miraculous. As Howie filled his lungs with air, his face aglow in the flickering candlelight, and leaned forward to blow out his candles, I made a wish of my own: that I would never have to face the fear of losing him again.
After we’d made a considerable dent in the cake, Howie asked his mother to join him out on the patio, while Pollyanna and Angie went into the kitchen to start cleaning up. John was keeping the kids entertained, so I decided to help with kitchen duty by clearing the table.
When I walked into the kitchen, carrying a stack of dessert plates, Angie and Polly were whispering to each other. They stopped abruptly when they saw me, and the awkward looks on their faces made it obvious that whatever they were saying, they didn’t want me to overhear. To be polite, I pretended not to notice. “Hey, where do you want these?” I asked.
“Oh, thanks, Nick!” Angie exclaimed. “You can just put those on the counter. We’ll load the dishwasher.”
“Okay.” As I set a stack of plates down next to the sink, I snuck a glance out the window overlooking the patio outside. Howie and his mom were sitting side by side on a bench in the backyard. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could tell by the way he was turned toward her that he was in the process of telling her.
“So, Nick,” said Pollyanna suddenly, startling me. I spun around to see her standing behind me with a big smile on her face. “Sorry for being nosy, but I just have to ask: are you and Howie together?”
My heart leaped into my throat. “What?” I said, forcing myself to laugh. “Why would you think that? Just because he’s gay doesn’t mean-”
“Oh, come on, Nick, you’ve been living with him for, like, three or four months now,” Polly interrupted. “Did you think we wouldn’t notice how long it’s been?” She winked, looking a lot like Howie. “And you obviously knew about his big announcement before he told us, which makes me wonder. No offense, but why would he tell you before he told us? I know you guys are like brothers, but he really is our brother.”
“He seems a lot happier lately,” added Angie. “I haven’t seen him this happy in a long time... certainly not since Leigh left.”
“It’s just ‘cause the kids are here,” I said, shrugging.
“Yeah, maybe,” said Pollyanna. “But we think there’s something more to it than that. So...?” She raised her eyebrows inquisitively.
I wanted to deny it. I wanted to lie and tell them they were delusional, that I was just trying to be a good friend and help Howie get back in shape for the tour. But then I thought, Why? It wasn’t like I was dealing with the media or a pair of prying fans. These were Howie’s sisters. I’d seen the way they’d reacted to his admission with nothing but love, acceptance, and a surprising level of intuitiveness. So what was I so afraid of?
“Okay, fine,” I said finally, throwing my arms in the air. “Yes... we’re together.”
Together. It really was the best word for what Howie and I were. We still hadn’t defined our relationship, hadn’t put any labels on what we were to each other. I didn’t feel comfortable calling him my “boyfriend” or thinking of myself as his. But “together” accurately described how we’d spent the summer, enjoying each other’s company.
Pollyanna’s eyes lit up. “Wow, did we call that or what?” she said, grinning at Angie
“We had a feeling,” Angie agreed. “Something seemed different between you two. So is that why you ended your engagement?”
I didn’t want to answer any more of their questions; the conversation was quickly getting way too personal. I had known Howie’s sisters for twenty-some years, but it wasn’t like I knew them well. I wished I could escape, but I saw no way out. After a few seconds’ hesitation, I shook my head. “No... that had nothing to do with Howie.” It wasn’t entirely true, but I didn’t want Angie and Polly thinking I’d left Lauren to be with their brother.
“Oh.” They exchanged glances again. I turned away to take another look out the kitchen window. Howie and his mom were hugging now. Apparently she’d taken the news well, just like Howie’s siblings had said she would. I smiled, but the sense of relief I felt was short-lived. “So,” I heard Angie say, “does that mean Howie’s suicide attempt had nothing to do with you?”
I turned around and looked at her incredulously, at a loss for words.
“We’re not accusing you of anything,” Pollyanna added quickly. “We were just wondering what you knew. He never really gave us a good explanation of why he did it, you know.”
“Why would you think it had something to do with me?” I asked. My heart was racing, and my throat felt tight. I remembered rushing over to Howie’s house on New Year’s Eve after he’d left his goodbyes on my voicemail. The memory of finding him the way I had, unconscious and barely breathing, still haunted me. If Lauren and I had waited any longer to check on him, Howie would have been dead by the time we broke down his door.
“You were the one he called that night. Not Leigh. Not one of us. He called you,” said Polly. “Why?”
I shrugged. “I dunno, maybe it was a cry for help. Maybe he called someone he knew was nearby because wanted somebody to find him.”
“Maybe?” Angie raised her eyebrows. “Does that mean you don’t know either?”
I could have kept denying everything they asked, but it didn’t seem like they were going to stop grilling me anytime soon. Clearly, they’d had these questions for a while. I supposed it was time to swallow my pride and give them some answers. Sighing, I said, “No... I do know. He called me to tell me he was sorry.”
Angie’s eyes narrowed. “Sorry for what?”
I took a deep breath before answering. “For infecting me.”
Her eyes widened again. Pollyanna looked equally shocked. “With HIV?” she asked. “You have it, too?”
I nodded and left it at that, knowing they could figure out how it had happened without me providing all the details. Some things were better kept private.
“I’m so sorry, Nick,” said Polly, and Angie nodded in agreement. “We knew something was up when Howie was in the hospital, but we had no idea that was why you didn’t want to visit.”
Here I thought I had hidden my true feelings from Howie’s family so well, and turns out, they’d suspected something was going on with us the whole time. I guess I wasn’t as good of an actor as I’d thought.
“Yeah... I was having a pretty hard time with it,” I admitted. “Things are better now.”
“That’s good to hear,” said Angie, smiling. “We’re glad Howie has you in his life. You guys are great together.”
I smiled back, my heart settling into its normal rhythm as I started to relax. “Thanks. I’m glad to have him in mine, too.”
“So, Mama D took it well?” I asked Howie later that night, after we’d gotten home and put the boys to bed. We were sitting on his balcony, enjoying a nightcap of sparkling grape juice. It was the first opportunity we’d had to talk privately since he’d taken his mother outside to tell her. When they came back in, he’d given his siblings and me a smile and a thumbs up, but he didn’t want to say too much when James and Holden were within earshot.
“I wouldn’t say ‘well,’ but better than I thought,” said Howie. “She cried... but then she told me she loves me and just wants me to be happy.”
“Sounds like acceptance to me,” I offered, taking a sip of my drink.
He nodded. “I think it’s the best I could have hoped for, considering the generation she’s from and the beliefs she grew up with. I’d like to think Dad would have reacted the same way.” He glanced up at the sliver of moon just visible in the sky over our heads.
It always made me feel guilty to hear Howie talk about his father. I knew he would give anything to spend another day with his dad, who had died of cancer six years ago. Meanwhile, my dad was still alive, and I rarely spoke to him. I knew I should while I still could, but the thought of having the same conversation with my dad that Howie’d had with his mom made me break out in a cold sweat. I had distanced myself from my family for a reason. They weren’t like Howie’s family.
“I’m sure he would have,” I assured Howie, reaching over to pat his arm. Then, eager to change the subject, I added, “Your sisters know about us.”
“I know,” he said, smiling over at me. “Polly told me she and Angie got it out of you.”
“Man, those two could be police interrogators,” I said, shaking my head. “They wouldn’t stop asking me questions.”
He laughed. “You should have had your lawyer present.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t told him either!”
Howie smiled and took a sip from his glass. “It was brave of you to tell them, Nick. Not just about us, but your status, too.”
I shrugged. “They were asking me about... about New Year’s Eve. About why you did it. They knew I would know, that I was involved in it somehow.”
“I’m so sorry that I called you,” said Howie, sighing.
“I’m not,” I replied quickly. “I’m glad you did, and thank god I got your message in time, or you wouldn’t have made it.”
He nodded. “No, I know. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m grateful to you for saving me, Nicky, you know that. I just meant I was sorry for involving you at all. That was the only part of the story I couldn’t explain to them - why, of all the people I could have called, I chose you. I never really told them why. I was trying to protect you.”
“I appreciate that,” I said, “but now that they know we’re together, it was probably time for them to know the truth.”
“Well, thanks for sparing me from having to tell them that, too,” said Howie. “Like I said... it was very brave of you.”
I shook my head. “You’ve the brave one. You came out to your family, you went public with your status in People, and, dude, you had a freaking liver transplant. Meanwhile, I freak out every time someone gets too close to finding out the truth about me.”
“You didn’t tonight,” Howie pointed out. “It takes time, Nick. You have to accept the truth yourself before you’ll be ready to tell other people.”
I nodded, knowing he was right. Angie and Pollyanna had seemed so grateful to me for being there for Howie these last few months, helping him get back in shape and get on with his life, but they didn’t know how much Howie had helped me, too. I was in a much better place, both physically and emotionally, than I had been at the beginning of summer. This was the happiest and healthiest I’d felt since finding out I was HIV-positive, and I had Howie to thank for that.
His words reminded me of something - the birthday gift I had yet to give him. I’d been waiting all day for the perfect time, when the two of us could be together in private. “Hey, I have something for you,” I said, standing up suddenly. “Come inside with me.”
Looking at me curiously, Howie got up and followed me into the condo. We went into my room, where I turned on the light and shut the door. Howie sat down on the edge of the bed, as I opened the top drawer of the bedside table and took out a picture frame, wrapped in purple paper. “Here,” I said, handing it to him. “Happy birthday.”
“Hey, thanks, man.” Howie slit open the wrapping paper and slowly pulled it away from the frame. I watched his face as he studied the piece of paper inside. It wasn’t a picture, but a page out of my notebook, and on it were the words to a song I’d been working on, scribbled in my own sloppy handwriting. It was a simple gift, but one I hoped he would appreciate, once he read the lyrics and realized I’d written them for him. I saw his eyes widen as they moved back and forth across the page, a smile slowly forming on his lips. When he finally looked up again, I was shocked to find his eyes shining with tears. “You wrote this?” he asked hoarsely.
“Wow...” He shook his head. “Who would have guessed the most romantic gift I’ve ever gotten was a love poem written by Nick Carter?”
I felt my face flush. It sounded so gay when he said it like that, but I was glad he liked it. “It’s a song,” I said.
“Really?” He was still looking at me all dewy-eyed. “Will you sing it for me?”
I hesitated. “I haven’t worked out all the chords yet.” I had been playing my guitar whenever he and kids were out of the house, rehearsing the song in secret. It was still in pretty rough shape, though. I wasn’t ready to sing it in front of anyone just yet, not even Howie. Especially not Howie.
“That’s okay,” he said encouragingly. “You can sing it à capella. I just want to hear the tune. Please?”
I sighed. “Okay.” I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and opened my mouth to sing.
“I take back what I said. I didn’t mean a word of it.
I was all in my head; I was too afraid to let you in.
When you opened your heart up, should’ve done the same thing.
You told me you loved me; I sat quiet.
I don’t wanna say it till I really feel it,
So just give me a while.”
“‘Cause I’m halfway there to loving you, so wait there for me,
And there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to be where you be,
But I can’t say those words right now that you want to hear.
I’ll meet you at the finish line. I just need a little more time,
But I will be there.”
When I opened my eyes again, Howie had a huge smile on his face. “That was beautiful, Nick,” he said. “You’re not gonna sing the rest?”
I shrugged. “Maybe once I can do it with my guitar. I mean, you get the idea, right? It’s just weird singing in front of someone by myself, without any accompaniment or harmony. I’m not used to it.”
“Well, maybe I can help you add in some harmony,” Howie suggested, winking at me. “Seriously, Nicky, I love it. I love you. If you’re not ready to say it back yet, that’s okay, but I’m going to keep saying it. I love you.” He stood up and wrapped his arms around me. “I love you,” he repeated, planting a kiss on my lips. “I love you.”
I wished I could be as open as Howie was, but I still wasn’t there. “Thanks,” I whispered, hugging him back. “Happy birthday.”