After a week of rehearsals in L.A., we flew into New York a few days early for a final production rehearsal with our full stage setup before our first show in Wantagh. It had been almost a year since we’d performed on that stage, but once we hit the risers, it felt like we had never left.
We ran the whole show before breaking for lunch. I was sweating buckets by that point, and the last thing I felt like doing was eating, but I knew I needed to refuel in order to get through the afternoon. There was a catered spread set out for us backstage, so I followed the other guys through the line and filled my plate.
“How ya doin’, D?” Brian asked, as the five of us sat down to eat in our dressing room. The others looked over at me. We were all still soaked with sweat and breathing hard, but seeing as how I was the only one who’d had major surgery since our last show, I attracted the most concern.
“I’m exhausted,” I admitted, “but otherwise okay.” I’d just had a checkup with my transplant doctor while in L.A., and he’d said everything looked good with my liver. He had even lowered my dosage of anti-rejection drugs a little to allow my immune system to strengthen some, since I would be around so many different people during the tour. The last thing I needed was to get sick again.
Brian nodded. “I know the feeling, man. You remember how I’d be sucking oxygen backstage between sets those first few shows after my heart surgery. It just takes awhile to build up your stamina again.”
“I don’t know how you did it,” I said, shaking my head. “You only took, like, two months off after your surgery, right? It’s been nine since mine, and I’m still feeling it.”
“Yeah, but not by choice,” Brian replied with a grim smile. “Besides, I just had an organ repaired. You had one replaced. I think you’ve got me beat, man.”
“Can we talk about something else while we’re eating, please?” asked AJ, making a face as he looked down at the barbecued chicken wings on his plate.
Kevin chuckled. “AJ’s gettin’ squeamish, y’all.”
“I’m with AJ,” Nick spoke up. “No more medical talk at lunch.”
“And here I was about to ask how you were doing next, Nick,” said Brian, glancing his way.
Nick shrugged, his face reddening. “Bro, I’m good,” he replied quickly, casually. I could tell he didn’t want to talk about his own health issues either. In fact, over the past few months, Nick had gone from being overly paranoid about his HIV to pretending it didn’t exist. He still took his medicine every morning and night like he was supposed to, but beyond that, he barely acknowledged it. He and I hardly ever spoke about it anymore, which worked for me. I didn’t want to keep dwelling on the mistakes I’d made, the people I’d hurt. I’d learned to live with my guilt, just like Nick had learned to live with the virus.
“He’s almost undetectable,” I added, unable to stop myself from sharing the good news Nick had gotten at his last doctor’s appointment before we’d left Florida. His CD4 count had risen to the normal range, and his viral load had dropped considerably.
“What does that mean?” Kevin asked, looking from Nick to me. I realized then how far removed he and the other guys were from our new reality.
“It means the anti-HIV medications are working. The virus is almost undetectable in his blood,” I explained.
“Oh, wow - so you are good then!” said Kevin, smiling at Nick. “That’s great, bro.”
Nick looked embarrassed. “Yeah. Now can we please change the subject before AJ passes out over there?”
“I’m not gonna pass out,” said AJ, shaking his head. “I can’t promise I won’t puke, though, not if you guys keep going on about blood and body parts.”
We all laughed at that, although I wasn’t sure he was kidding - he did look a little pale. Poor AJ had always been freaked out by blood and other body fluids. I still didn’t understand how a guy like that could get so many tattoos.
“Gotten any new ink lately, AJ?” I asked, just to change the subject.
“Not since the Friends tat I got a few months ago. Did I show you that?” He held up his right hand, pointing out a series of colorful dots along the side of it.
“Oh, cool,” I said. “Um, how does that relate to Friends?”
“It’s the dots between the logo. Look...” He found the Friends logo on his phone and showed me a picture.
“Ah, I see.”
Nick snickered. “Dude, you know you’re like twenty years late on that.”
“So?” said AJ. “The show’s clearly timeless.”
“Yeah, but it’d be like me getting a tattoo of George Clooney on ER.”
AJ snorted. “Nick, I would pay you to get a tattoo of George Clooney on ER.”
“I’d go in on that too,” I said, secretly thinking that, if done right, it would only make Nick hotter. After all, George Clooney was a pretty attractive guy, especially in his ER days.
“Hey, didn’t we say no more medical talk?” Nick replied, ignoring us both.
“You’re the one who brought up ER, dumbass.”
“Moving on,” said Kevin loudly, “what parts of the show do you think we should rehearse again after lunch?” Before any of us could answer, he added, “I wanna do the acoustic set again. I think the balance was off; my keyboard sounded too loud.”
“Yeah, I could barely hear Howie’s bass,” Brian said.
“That’s probably a good thing,” I muttered under my breath. My bass guitar skills were mediocre at best, and that was when I was playing every night. Since I’d barely practiced in months, I was pretty rusty.
“And I think Nick’s guitar needed to be tuned some more,” Brian went on.
Nick scowled at him. “Who says it’s my guitar that needs tuning and not yours?” He put down his plate and picked up his acoustic guitar, strumming a few chords. “See? Sounds fine to me.”
“Chill out, Nick,” said Kevin. “We’ll make sure they’re both tuned when we get back onstage.”
But Nick, ever the perfectionist when it came to performing, continued to fiddle with his guitar while the rest of us finished our lunch. He played parts of all the songs in our acoustic set, and then he picked out something only I recognized.
“What’s that one?” Kevin asked, looking over at him curiously.
Nick’s cheeks reddened. “Just something I wrote.”
“Really? I like it. Are there lyrics?”
Nick started to shake his head, but I said, “As a matter of fact, there are.” Nick gave me a murderous look, but I continued, “The song’s called ‘Halfway There.’ Nick wrote it this summer. He and I have been working on the harmonies for it. We thought it could be a contender for the next album.”
I knew Nick would be mad at me for telling them about his song, but I only did it because I thought it was a good song, definitely worth hearing. Obviously I wasn’t going to tell them he’d written it for me.
“Well, let’s hear it,” said Kevin. He set down his empty plate, sat back on the sofa, and folded his arms over his chest, waiting.
Nick and I looked at each other. “Come on,” I encouraged him. “Let’s sing it for them.”
Nick sighed. I could tell he wanted to say no, but he must have realized it would make the guys wonder why he wouldn’t sing the song if he refused. It would be easier to just get it over with. “Fine,” he said. “You take the first verse. I’ll sing the second.”
I nodded. “Okay.”
I scooted over to sit next to Nick. He started strumming, and I started singing his lyrics. “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...”
I stole a glance at him out of the corner of my eye as I continued to sing. He was staring down at his guitar, concentrating on playing the right chords and self-consciously avoiding eye contact. Why did he care so much about what other people thought? I wondered. Why couldn’t he get over his fear of the guys finding out about us?
“‘Cause I’m halfway there to lovin’ you, so wait there for me... and there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to be where you be...” I couldn’t help smiling at Nick as I sang that line. The first time we’d tried singing it together, the lyric “be where you be” had made me laugh.
“What?” Nick had asked, almost defensively.
“Well... it’s not quite grammatically correct,” I pointed out.
He hung his head. “I know. But ‘be where you are’ doesn’t rhyme with the rest of the line. I couldn’t think of how else to write it.”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I kinda like it the way it is. It’s so you.” I loved that lyric now. It was perfectly imperfect, just like Nick was - poor grammar and all.
“I’m lying in this bed... staring at the ceiling fan,” he started the second verse, and the depth of his voice sent chills down my spine. “I wanna be with you instead. Why couldn’t I say it then?” I loved hearing him sing in his lower register. His vocals were like chocolate, rich and smooth. “I didn’t wanna lie so I just kept my mouth closed. Wanna feel it with you so damn bad...” His voice crescendoed as he hit the higher notes, and with it, his confidence seemed to grow. “I feel it getting closer every time I hold you, so baby, take my hand...”
On the chorus, he finally looked up. “Cause I’m halfway there to loving you, so wait there for me,” he sang, glancing my way. “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,” I filled in, as Nick went on to the bridge.
“Wait for me... I will never waste your time... Yes, I’ve been hurt before... I’ve been to war... I made it out alive...” I watched him sing, marveling over the raw emotion in his voice. It was like hearing the pain I’d put him through, set to music.
My own voice shook as I sang my response, looking right into his eyes. “You’ve got me... I’m not going anywhere...” Even though they were his words, I wanted them to reassure him. “So give me a minute, baby; I’m right behind you when love is on the line.”
“I’m only halfway there to loving you, so wait there for me.” Finally, our voices blended together to create the harmony we’d been working on. “And there’s nothing that I wouldn’t do to be where you be.” I caught his eye, and he cracked a smile. “But I can’t say those words right now that you want to hear...”
“I’ll meet you at the finish line,” I sang, winking at him.
“I just need a little more time,” he added, shaking his head at me. “But I will be there...” He let his voice trail off, softly strumming the final chords on his guitar.
When we finished, Kevin, Brian, and AJ all clapped. “Wow... that was great, fellas,” Kevin said, and Brian and AJ nodded in agreement. But I could tell by the way they kept looking at each other that there was more they wanted to say.
Nick seemed to sense the same thing. “It was great, but...?” he prompted, apparently expecting Kevin to give some constructive criticism. The question we got instead caught us both off-guard.
“Are you sure there’s nothin’ goin’ on between you two?”
At first, I thought Kevin was just kidding. But even though he was wearing an amused smile, his eyebrows were cocked with suspicion, and I could tell he was asking seriously. My eyes shot immediately to Nick. Nick’s own eyes were wide, and his face was bright red. If that wasn’t a dead giveaway, I didn’t know what was. But I tried to play it off by laughing. “What? Why would you think that? I’m pretty sure Nicky’s proven he doesn’t play for the same team as me,” I said lightly.
“Um... you guys were definitely giving off some sexual vibes in that performance, just sayin’,” AJ added. “Kev’s not the only one who noticed.”
Nick looked helplessly at me. I shrugged, not sure what else to say. I wasn’t going to out him... but whether he wanted to admit it or not, it sounded like he’d just outed himself.
“Nick’s face is beet red,” Kevin said, snickering. “There somethin’ you wanna tell us, Nick?”
Nick stood up suddenly. “Yeah - fuck you all.” His guitar gave a discordant twang as he set it down with more force than necessary and stalked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
Kevin, AJ, and Brian looked at me in disbelief. AJ was the first to voice the question that must have been on all of their minds: “What the hell is going on, Howie?”
At that point, I felt I had no choice but to tell them the truth.