Having Nick in my life was the only thing that made saying goodbye to my boys again bearable. When I hugged them both and sent them running into the arms of their mother at the airport in New Jersey, he was there to walk me to the gate to wait for our connecting flight to L.A. to begin boarding.
I was glad we were going back to work. The upcoming tour gave me something to look forward to, something to take my mind off missing my children. Leaving them for work was a part of my life I was used to. It made it easier for me to pretend everything was back to normal.
Nick was certainly acting like we’d gone back to “normal.” He was careful not to show any sign of affection toward me while we were in the airport, and once we boarded the plane, he put on his headphones and pretty much ignored me the whole flight. I had hoped that his telling my sisters about us would help him feel more comfortable coming out to other people, but I could tell from his body language that he was going to stay in the closet for as long as he could. He felt safer there. It bothered me that Nick acted completely different toward me in public than he did in private, but at the same time, I understood. After all, I wasn’t publicly “out” yet, either, and had no interest in appearing on another People cover anytime soon.
When we landed at LAX, we went to baggage claim to wait for our luggage. There, we were approached by a pair of paparazzi. “Hey, Nick... Howie... how’s it goin’, guys?” one of them asked, as if we were old friends, recording us with a video camera while his partner snapped photos.
I forced a smile onto my face and replied, “It’s going good, thanks.” Dealing with paparazzi was one of the worst parts of flying into LAX or living in Los Angeles, period, but I’d learned over the years that it was best to be polite and answer their questions as briefly as possible. If you tried to ignore them, they would just harass you more, and if you were rude, then your bad behavior would end up on TMZ for the whole world to see.
“How’s your health, man?” the cameraman pressed.
I looked hopefully at the baggage carousel, which had started to turn. Just a few more minutes, and we’ll be out of here, I told myself. “Fine, thanks,” I said. “Feeling good.”
“Good to hear, bro, good to hear! And how about you, Nick? Any truth to those rumors that you’re also HIV-positive?”
“Nope,” said Nick as shortly as possible, refusing to look at either camera.
“Really? How about the rumors that you split with your fiancée? No one’s seen the two of you out together in months.”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to listen to rumors?” Nick asked, scowling.
I could hear the annoyance in his voice and see a muscle twitching in his jaw, and I thought, Come on, Nicky, keep your cool.
The paparazzo laughed. “We make a living off rumors, kid.”
“Why don’t you try getting a real job then?” Nick fired back.
The baggage carousel was starting to spit out suitcases. I prayed ours would be among the first to hit the belt so we could get out of there before Nick and these assholes got into a real confrontation.
“Good idea! Maybe we’ll start our own boyband!” The paparazzo looked over at his partner and laughed some more. “What’s the latest with the Backstreet Boys, anyway?”
“We’re going back on tour next month,” I answered quickly, before Nick could get another word in. “We’ve got rehearsals starting tomorrow.”
“There’s our stuff,” said Nick suddenly, making a beeline for the baggage carousel. He hoisted our suitcases off it, one by one, and handed them to me.
“Good luck with the tour, guys!” one of the paparazzi called to us as we dragged our bags hurriedly toward the exit.
“Why can’t the FAA ban people like them from hanging out in airports?” Nick grumbled, as we got into a cab.
“It’s a public place, Nick,” I said, buckling my seatbelt. “I know they’re obnoxious, but they’re not doing anything illegal.”
“That’s my point. They should make it illegal!”
“I don’t disagree. But until they do, try to be nice, okay? Otherwise, they’ll make you look bad.”
Nick mumbled something unintelligible in return, turning toward the window as the cab pulled away from the curb. I looked out my window as well, watching as we merged into a long line of cars waiting to leave the airport. “Welcome home,” I said sarcastically, when we passed the giant letters L-A-X. Nick just snorted. Although we were both ready to go back on tour, neither of us were all that excited about returning to L.A. It had been nice to get away from it all for a while: the paparazzi, the traffic, the pretentiousness, the smog. I missed the Space Coast already.
“Where to?” the driver asked, and I gave him my address. Since Nick had apparently let Lauren keep his condo, he had nowhere else to stay in L.A.
Our living arrangement was more than fine with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what the other guys would think about the fact that we’d been cohabitating for the last four months. Would they think it was weird? Would they wonder about us, the way my sisters had? I didn’t know how long we’d be able to keep our relationship a secret once rehearsals started. The five of us knew each other so well, it would be hard to hide something that big from the other three. I wasn’t sure I even wanted to hide it, but I had a feeling Nick would. We hadn’t discussed it yet, but I knew we needed to get on the same page before we met with the rest of the group.
I brought it up with Nick that night. “Hey, what are we going to tell the guys?” I asked, as we sat outside by the pool, enjoying the warm, evening air. The view from my backyard wasn’t as beautiful as the beach by Cape Canaveral, but the palm trees and mountains still made for a pretty sight.
“About what?” was Nick’s response.
“Gee, what do you think? About us,” I replied. “Are we gonna tell them we’re together?”
Nick looked at me like I was crazy and started shaking his head. “No way. Bad idea, dude.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Are you kidding?” Nick exclaimed. “Because - it’d be bad for the group!”
“Well... I mean, the five of us have always had this brotherly relationship, right? But if two of us take it to another level - turn the bromance into a romance - it ruins the whole group dynamic.”
I stared at him in disbelief. “Too late, Nick, we’ve already done that.”
“Yeah, but they don’t know that,” he pointed out. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them, right?”
“You really think we’re gonna be able to hide it from them? We’re talking about Brian, Kevin, and AJ here. They know us better than just about anyone.”
“We have to,” Nick insisted, “for the good of the group.”
I just shook my head.
“I mean, what if we have a falling out?” he added. “What if we ‘break up’?” He actually made air quotes with his fingers, as if we weren’t a real couple who could have a real break-up. “Do we really wanna bring that drama into the group? Think about other bands whose members have dated, like Fleetwood Mac... and No Doubt...”
“Bad examples,” I replied. “Both of those bands outlasted the relationship drama.”
“Oh.” Nick frowned. “Yeah, I guess you’re right...”
I was frowning, too. “You sound like you’re arguing against us having a relationship at all, rather than just telling the guys we’re together.”
His mouth fell open. “That’s... that’s not what I’m saying,” he stammered. “I like being with you; I just-”
“You’re too embarrassed to admit it to anyone else,” I finished for him. “That’s what this is about, isn’t it? You’re afraid. You’re afraid of being judged, being made fun of. You’re still so damn concerned about what other people think of you, you can’t just be comfortable in your own skin.”
“Who are you to talk?” he retorted, scowling at me. “You stayed in the closet for forty fucking years, Howie! You dated all kinds of women and even married one just so nobody would know you were gay. Yet you’re telling me I’m the one who cares too much about what other people think?”
I understood why he thought I was being hypocritical. “I’m only saying that because I know how it feels,” I admitted. “You’re right, Nick. I’ve been there, too. I didn’t want anyone to know. I still wouldn’t be comfortable telling the whole world. But AJ, Kevin, and Brian? They’re our brothers. We should be able to tell them anything.”
“Yeah,” Nick sighed, “I know, but... I’m just not ready yet.”
I wanted to argue that I wasn’t ready when he’d outed me at Q’s visitation, but fighting would only make things worse. I knew I couldn’t push him too hard. He had come a long way in a short amount of time, but forcing him to reveal what he saw as this deep, dark secret before he was ready would only damage our relationship and ruin his trust in me. Just like before, I had to follow Nick’s lead. That way, he’d know I was behind him when he was ready to take that next step.
“I understand,” I said. “We don’t have to tell them now.”
Nick looked relieved. “Thanks, man,” he muttered. Then he abruptly stood up. “I’m goin’ for a swim.”
“What, now? It’s like nine o’clock,” I said, looking at the dark sky. I could barely see the mountains in the distance anymore.
“So?” said Nick, as he stripped off his shirt. “I like swimming at night.”
“You also like skinny-dipping, apparently,” I added, raising my eyebrows, as he took off his pants, too.
He grinned. “Aren’t you gonna join me?”
I knew Nick was just trying to avoid any more conversation about coming out to the guys, but how could I resist him when he was standing naked in front of me? “Of course,” I said, climbing to my feet. I started to take off my clothes, but when I noticed Nick turned toward the pool, not paying any attention, I saw a rare opportunity and took advantage. I ran up behind him, pressed my hands into his back, and gave him a firm push into the pool.
Nick fell in with a huge splash and came up spluttering and laughing at the same time. “Damn it, Howie!” he exclaimed, wiping the water out of his eyes.
I snickered. “You should’ve seen that coming. You’ve done it enough times to me.”
“True dat,” said Nick, swimming up to the side of the pool. He folded his arms over the edge and grinned up at me. “At least the water’s warm.”
“Is it?” I took a tentative step toward the edge, but before I could dip a toe in, Nick lunged out of the water like a breaching shark, grabbed the front of my t-shirt, and pulled me in, too.
“Hahaha!” he cackled as I surfaced, coughing. “Howie, Howie, Howie... when will you learn? Never try to mess with the master.”
“You got me,” I admitted and shook my head. “You could have at least waited until I took my shirt off, though.” I peeled off the soaked t-shirt and tossed it onto the patio.
Nick shrugged. “I didn’t wanna wait. C’mere.” I swam closer, and his arms encircled my neck. I thought he was going to dunk me under the water, but he kissed me instead. “See, why can’t we just keep this between us?” he whispered. “Let it be our little secret?”
I was tired of keeping secrets. Secrets had ruined my marriage, fractured my family, and threatened my friendship with Nick. But I wasn’t going to argue with him anymore, especially not now. Nick knew it, too. He was not only a master prankster, but a master manipulator; he knew just how to use his sex appeal to get exactly what he wanted.
“Sure, Nick,” I said. “It can stay between us. No one else needs to know.”
But in my head, I kept coming back to the same thought I’d had earlier. Keeping our relationship a secret from my kids had been relatively easy. Hiding it from the guys was going to be a whole lot harder.