After I released a statement about my break-up with Lauren, the fans stopped bringing it up at soundcheck. But once the media got wind of it, the gossip mill started grinding out stories again, speculating about why we had ended our engagement, and the rumors about my health and sexuality resurfaced.
I tried to ignore them, refusing to answer questions or comment on any of it, as I waited for an A-list star to announce something more interesting. Since I was a B-lister at best, I figured it was only a matter of time before the media moved on to bigger and better stories. George Clooney getting married the weekend before our concert in L.A. was about the best thing that could have happened to me because it meant I would be left alone. When one of Hollywood’s hottest bachelors finally ties the knot, nobody cares about a washed-up Backstreet Boy.
It felt weird, being back in L.A. for a show. I used to look forward to performing there because I could spend time with Lauren and sleep in my own bed for a couple of nights. But L.A. no longer felt like home. To me, it was just another stop on the tour.
I stayed at Howie’s house, figuring he and I would be spending a lot of time together over the next few days while the other guys were with their families. It was easy enough to do our own thing away from the venue, but hard not to feel sorry for ourselves when AJ, Kevin, and Brian all showed up for soundcheck with their wives and kids. I’m sure it was worse for Howie than for me; he had to be missing James and Holden like crazy. But although I’d never admit it to him, I also missed Lauren.
I could hardly remember the last time I’d performed in L.A. without Lauren in the audience, and a part of me wished she would come. Don’t get your hopes up, the more cynical side of me warned. She had made it pretty clear she was moving on, or at least trying to. Coming to see my show would be taking a step backwards.
Even so, my mind kept going back and forth all day long, debating about whether or not she would show up that night. Why would she? I’d wonder. Even when she was with me, she wasn’t a Backstreet Boys fan. Then I would argue with myself. But it’s not about being a fan. It’s about supporting a friend. We can still be friends, can’t we?
Of course we can, I thought. But are we?
I wasn’t sure.
“You feeling okay, Nicky?” Howie asked me that evening, as we ate dinner backstage before the show. “You’re quiet tonight.”
“I’m fine,” I said quickly. Then, so he wouldn’t think I was trying to blow him off or hide something, I added, “It’s just hard not having anyone here with me, ya know?”
Howie nodded. “Believe me, I know,” he replied with a sad smile. “But we have each other, at least.”
I returned his smile. “True.”
But the truth was, being with Howie made me feel even more isolated, especially from the other guys. Brian, Kevin, and AJ had been accepting enough, but there was still this awkwardness in the air whenever the five of us were together. Maybe it was just my perception, but I felt like they looked at Howie and me differently now that we were a couple. It was like we had crossed an invisible line, and there was no going back, not even if we broke up.
But at least we didn’t have to pretend anymore, not even in front of the guys’ families. I’d asked Kevin and AJ before we arrived in L.A., “Did you tell your wife about me and Howie?” Both admitted that they had, which didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t upset, either. It actually made things easier, not having to hide anything.
I wondered if Rochelle had said anything to Lauren, like Howie thought she would. I wanted to ask her, but she and AJ had been attached at the hip all day, making it impossible to get her alone for a private conversation. I looked around the green room and saw AJ feeding Ava cheese and crackers. Rochelle was nowhere to be found. Wondering if I might be able to catch her on the way back from the bathroom or wherever she’d gone, I stood up and set my plate down on my chair. “Be right back,” I told Howie and walked over to AJ. “Hey, where’s your wife?” I asked.
“She went to meet her date for the show tonight,” AJ replied.
“I thought Ava was her date.”
“I mean her other date. You know Ro - always gotta have her posse with her, wherever she goes. She’s a big fan of the group date,” he said, grinning.
I laughed, figuring he meant her friend Mark, who may as well have been a member of the McLean family, for as much as he hung out with them. I went back to my seat and didn’t think twice about it, until Rochelle reappeared.
“Hey Carter, come here,” she called casually from the doorway.
AJ must have told her I was looking for her, I thought as I followed her into the hall. I wasn’t prepared to find Lauren waiting there.
“Hey,” she said awkwardly, shifting her weight from one foot to the other.
“Hey!” I replied, hoping I just sounded surprised and not too excited. “I didn’t know you were coming tonight.”
“You weren’t supposed to,” she said, shooting Rochelle an annoyed look. I raised my eyebrows, and Lauren sighed. “I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. I wasn’t even going to come backstage, but Ro said everyone would want to see me and that it’d be weird if I didn’t.”
“Damn right!” Rochelle chimed in, throwing her arm around Lauren. “Once a Backstreet Girl, always a Backstreet Girl. You’re still a member of this family.”
I snorted. “If that were true, we’d have a lot of other women hanging around backstage. Don’t forget, Paris Hilton was once a ‘Backstreet Girl’ too.”
“Ew.” Rochelle wrinkled her nose. “She was before my time, so she doesn’t count. Besides, from what AJ’s told me, she was never really a member of the Backstreet family. He said no one else liked her except you.”
“Well, yeah, that’s probably true,” I admitted, laughing.
“But everyone likes Lo,” Rochelle continued, squeezing Lauren’s shoulders, “so just because you guys are broken up doesn’t mean we all can’t still be friends, right?”
Lauren looked at me apologetically, her face bright red. Wanting to reassure her, I smiled and said, “Of course not. I’m glad you came.”
“See?” Rochelle grinned at Lauren. “He’s glad you’re here. Now I’m gonna go check on my kid while the two of you talk.” Then she let go of Lauren and went back into the green room.
“I’m sorry,” Lauren sighed, once we were alone in the hall. “I should’ve asked you if it was okay if I came.”
“Why wouldn’t it be?” I asked. “You’re always welcome. I would’ve invited you myself if I’d thought you wanted to come. Does this mean I finally succeeded in turning you into a Backstreet Boys fan?”
She laughed. “Something like that.”
“I knew it would happen someday,” I said triumphantly, smiling at her. As we joked around, the awkwardness between us faded away, but the whole time, I was watching her face, waiting to see some sign that she knew about Howie and me. But if Lauren knew, she didn’t let it show.
I have to tell her, I realized. If she went into the green room without knowing, it would only be a matter of time before someone else let the secret slip. Leighanne, most likely. If Lauren was going to find out, I wanted her to hear it from me first.
“Hey, will you walk with me?” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder.
“Sure,” she agreed, looking at me curiously. I led her into my empty dressing room and shut the door. “What’s up?” she asked.
I sat down on the couch and invited her to do the same. “I have something I need to tell you,” I said.
“That doesn’t sound good.” She gave me a concerned look. “Does it have to do with your health?”
I shook my head. “No… no, actually, I’m doing really good. I’ve been staying on my meds, and my latest tests showed the virus is almost undetectable.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, wow! That’s wonderful, Nick!” she said, smiling. “I’m so happy to hear you’re doing well.”
“Thanks.” I shifted uncomfortably on the couch, hating the thought of telling her something that would take that smile away. “So… something happened this summer that I think you should know about, if you don’t already,” I began, searching her face again for a sign that she already knew.
But Lauren just looked genuinely confused. “What?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Well… Howie and I, uh… we’re sort of… together.”
Her eyes widened again, her brows arching as high as they would go. For a few seconds, she was speechless, her mouth hanging open like she wanted to say something, but didn’t know what. Finally, she said, “Seriously?”
Feeling my face flush, I slowly nodded. She probably thought I was trying to punk her, but Lauren should have known me well enough to know I wouldn’t be able to go this long without laughing.
“When you say you’re ‘together,’ you mean… sexually? Romantically?”
I closed my eyes, not wanting to see her reaction, as I nodded again.
“Wow.” It was a much different tone from her “oh, wow!” earlier. When I opened my eyes again, she was looking at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted a second head. “So is that why you broke up with me, so you could be with Howie? Did you have feelings for him then?”
“No,” I said adamantly. “That didn’t happen until later.”
Her eyes narrowed. “So on the cruise last year…?”
I sighed. “Okay, so maybe I did feel something then. I don’t know; I was drunk. I really didn’t think it meant anything… but maybe it did.”
“Is that why you were so upset with him? You didn’t want to admit you felt something, too?”
“I think it was more the fact that he gave me fucking HIV, but… I mean, yeah, maybe that, too. I dunno, Lauren, it’s complicated.”
She snorted. “Yeah, no shit.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, glancing over at her. She was still looking a little shell-shocked. “So you really didn’t know?”
“No,” she insisted, shaking her head. “How would I have known?”
I shrugged. “I thought Rochelle or one of the other wives would’ve told you.”
“Rochelle’s not the type of person to out someone else, not even to a close friend,” said Lauren. “So the rest of them know, too?”
I nodded. “The guys and their wives do, but no one else outside of Howie’s family. So you can’t say anything, okay? Please. We want to keep it private.”
“I won’t tell anyone,” she promised. “It seems like the press might be onto you, though. I’ve seen the stories they’ve been publishing… I thought they were just silly rumors.”
“They don’t know anything for a fact,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s all just speculation. If it weren’t for that stupid photo of me and Howie outside the AIDS clinic, they wouldn’t suspect a thing. That’s what started all that bullshit.”
Lauren raised her eyebrows again, and I realized: that photo was snapped the day I’d left her. If I hadn’t done that, there would be nothing to speculate about. I wondered if that was what she was thinking, too, but if it was, she didn’t say it. Instead, she asked, “So going back to you and Howie… how did that start? Who initiated it, you or him?”
It was my turn to raise my eyebrows. “Do you really wanna know the details?”
She shrugged. “Not really. I guess I’m just wondering if he manipulated you the same way he manipulated me.”
I frowned at her, taken aback by that statement. “What are you talking about? How did Howie manipulate you?
Lauren pressed her lips together and took a deep breath, her nostrils flaring. “Remember when you were in the hospital in Tennessee? He’s the one who talked me into leaving. He told me to go home and give you some space, that if I ‘let you go’ and acted like I was moving on, you’d come crawling back to me eventually. And the whole time, he was just waiting to whisk you off to Florida and try to turn you gay!”
I bristled at that. “I’m not gay.”
She raised her eyebrows, looking at me skeptically.
“Okay, so I might be bi.”
“Might be? Are you or are you not fucking Howie Dorough?”
“Fine… I’m bi,” I admitted, feeling myself blush. “But he didn’t make me that way. You and both know you can’t change someone’s sexuality. Howie just sort of woke up feelings that were inside me all along, I guess.”
The whole time I was talking, my heart was fluttering so fast, I felt almost faint. But at the same time, it felt good to get my feelings out. No more secrets. No more hiding who I really was.
Lauren rolled her eyes. “I know, Nick; I didn’t mean he literally turned you gay - or bi, whatever. All I’m saying is, I think he knew he could get you to explore those feelings if he had you all to himself. So he came up with this plan to invite you to Cape Canaveral so he could ‘keep an eye on’ you, and he sent me away. Sneaky bastard.”
I had never considered that Howie might have had ulterior motives in asking me to come stay with him, but when I thought back to how he’d convinced me - by making me feel sorry for him even though I was the one who had just gotten out of the hospital - I could see her point. Maybe he had manipulated me.
“Well, I guess his plan worked out perfectly then,” I said. “If you’re waiting for me to change my mind, you might as well move on, Lauren, ‘cause I’m not gonna come crawling back. I hope we can be friends, but we can’t be a couple anymore.”
My bluntness made her recoil, but she composed herself quickly and replied, “Is that because you’re in love with Howie or because you’re HIV-positive?”
She raised her eyebrows again, like she didn’t believe me. I was getting sick of seeing that same look over and over again. “Really?” she asked. “Are you sure you’re not just ‘in love’ with Howie because you’re both HIV-positive?”
She sounded like Brian. Why did everyone assume Howie and I were only together because we had the same status? Was it that hard for the people in my life to believe I could actually be happy with Howie?
“No,” I said firmly. “It has nothing to do with that.”
Lauren looked like she still didn’t quite believe me, but she knew when to quit. “Okay,” she said, nodding. “Then I wish you both the best. Thanks for telling me.”
As she started to stand up, I reached out and caught her arm. “Wait… don’t walk away,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I walked out on you, Lauren. Sorry I hurt you. I wish things had worked out differently for us, but I don’t regret leaving. You deserve better than me.”
She snorted and shook her head, pulling her hand out of mine. “So I’m too good for you, but Howie’s not? What’s that say about him?”
It was a rhetorical question, but as I considered the answer to it, I realized she was right. It wasn’t that Lauren was a better person than Howie or that I loved him more. It was about HIV. She was negative, he was positive, and in my mind, that made all the difference. I didn’t have to worry about infecting Howie like I had with Lauren. Our relationship, once we’d gotten past the initial awkwardness, was convenient and comfortable. That didn’t make it better or worse than my relationship with Lauren, but it did make it work.
“Howie’s not perfect,” I admitted. “I know you’re not either, Lauren, but you are perfect for someone out there… just not me.”
She sighed and shook her head. “I shouldn’t have come here tonight. It was stupid. I just didn’t think it would be this hard.”
I knew how she felt. Even though I had wished she would come, it was hard for me to see her struggling. I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and hold her the way I used to, but I couldn’t. For her own health and happiness, I had to help Lauren move on, even if it meant hurting her again.
“It’ll get easier,” I said. “You just need to get out there and start dating again. Find someone you can be happy with, like I did. I want you to be happy.”
She sniffled and nodded, wiping away the tears that had started in her eyes. “I want you to be happy, too,” she replied. “You do seem a lot happier than you were last winter.”
“Yeah… but I was happy with you before then,” I insisted, not wanting her to think everything was better with Howie. It wasn’t.
“Before you got HIV, you mean.”
I sighed and shrugged. “Yeah, I guess so. What else do you want me to say? It changed me, Lauren. It changed my whole life. I’m a different person now than I was when I proposed to you. I’m sorry.”
“Change isn’t a bad thing,” she said. “Couples can change together. I just wish you’d given me the chance to change with you before you decided our relationship wasn’t worth it.”
I shook my head. “You don’t understand.”
“Oh, of course not!” she snapped. “How could I understand? I’m not in the club with you and Howie.”
“What, and you wish you were?” I asked incredulously, my voice rising. “Did you want me to infect you?”
“No, but sometimes I think it would have made things easier if you had! Then you wouldn’t have left me.”
I snorted and shook my head again. “No… then you would’ve left me.”
Her eyes flashed with anger. “No, I would not have! Give me some credit here, Nick! I took care of you! I kept track of your medication, I cooked you healthy meals, I came to all of your doctor’s appointments… and I would have happily done that for the rest of my life because I love you. Negative or positive, nothing could change that.”
A lump had risen in my throat. Swallowing hard, I whispered, “And that’s why I don’t deserve you.” Then I forced myself to stand up and walk out on her for the second time.
I felt bad about the way I’d left Lauren. She was so upset, I assumed she wouldn’t stay for the show, so it was a surprise to walk to the front of the stage for “Incomplete” and see her standing in the second row, sandwiched between Rochelle and Leighanne. I wondered how much she and Brian’s wife had been badmouthing me before the concert began. But when I caught her eye, she gave me a tiny smile, which I returned, even more convinced that I didn’t deserve someone like her. Howie was great, but Lauren? Lauren was incredible.
I hoped one day, when she was old and gray and happily married to someone else, she would be able to look back and understand that I had done what I did for the right reasons. That even though I had hurt her, I’d had her best interests at heart. But mostly I hoped that one day we could really be friends again, and not just ex-fiancés who missed being more than friends.
“I try… to go on like I never knew you. I’m awake… but my world is half asleep. I pray… for this heart to be unbroken, ‘cause without you all I’m going to be is… incomplete.”
As I sang the chorus, I locked eyes with Lauren. Maybe it was just a trick of the light, but I could swear I saw tears sparkling in her eyes as she looked up at me. I had always loved singing that song, but the lyrics had never impacted me as much as they did then. I had to look away.
Throughout the rest of the show, I was struck by how many of our songs were about a guy who’d either been treated badly by a girl or was promising not to treat a girl badly. Either way, they pretty much all painted us guys in a positive light. There weren’t really any songs about a guy who’d messed up and broken the girl’s heart… until we got to “Shape of My Heart.”
“Baby… please try to forgive me…” As Brian sang the first verse, I thought about how I’d hurt Lauren. And when the stage lights came up during the chorus, I looked down in her direction. I couldn’t see her from that far away - the lights were too blinding - but I could imagine her looking back at me.
“Looking back on the things I’ve done… I was trying to be someone. I played my part… and kept you in the dark. Now let me show you the shape of my heart…”
On the second chorus, I walked to the edge of the stage so I could see her as I sang my verse. I wanted her to know they weren’t just lyrics; I meant every word.
“I’m here with my confession… got nothin’ to hide no more.” I winked her way, and she smiled, shaking her head. “I don’t know where to start… but to show you the shape of my heart.” As I held the last note, I pulled a Brian move, putting my hand over my heart and pounding my chest a couple of times. “I’m sorry,” I mouthed at her, while the music swelled. She nodded, and I blew her a quick kiss before turning to rejoin the guys in the center of the stage.
To me, it was nothing but a small gesture to show Lauren I still cared about her. I had no idea it was about to blow up in my face.