In the morning, after just a couple hours of sleep, I met Kevin, Brian, and AJ at Starbucks for a quick breakfast before heading back to the hospital to see Howie.
“How was he when you left last night?” Kevin wanted to know.
“He was tired, but he seemed okay. He was joking around, anyway.” I showed them the text Howie had sent me around four a.m. to tell me he was settling into his new room and was going to try to get some sleep. Then I looked around the table. “So what’s the plan? Are you guys going home or staying here?”
“I’m staying,” Kevin said, his brow furrowing as he frowned. “There’s no way I would leave Howie stuck in a hospital without his family or anyone else around.”
Brian nodded in agreement. “Leighanne and Baylee are already on their way to the airport, but I’m gonna stick around for a few more days, make sure Howie’s okay.”
AJ snorted. “My flight’s supposed to leave in, like, half an hour,” he said, checking his phone, “so... looks like I’m staying, too.” He grinned at the rest of us.
“You’re staying, right, Nick?” Brian asked.
“Of course,” I answered quickly, deciding not to tell them about Tennessee. It didn’t matter anymore; my plans had changed. Like the others, I couldn’t just fly off and leave Howie in Seattle all by himself. I had to make sure he was going to be all right first, and then... well, I would figure the rest out later.
When we got to the hospital, we followed the signs to Howie’s private room on the third floor. We found him lying in bed, recovering from his early-morning biopsy. “Hey, guys,” he said groggily when we came in.
Brian, Kevin, and AJ hung back, letting me be the first to approach Howie’s bed. “Hey... how ya doin’?” I asked sympathetically, my heart twinging as I looked down at him. He was curled up on his right side in the fetal position, clutching his blankets so hard, his knuckles were white.
“Hanging in there,” he murmured, slurring his words. I wondered if he was heavily medicated or just that exhausted.
“Are you in pain?”
“They gave me morphine... but yeah,” he said slowly. “It was worse than the last one. My liver literally hurts.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, wishing there was something I could do to make him feel better.
“Do you need more pain meds?” Brian asked, joining me alongside his bed.
Howie shook his head. “I don’t think they’ll give me any more yet. Too hard on the liver... and in case you hadn’t heard, mine’s not doing so hot at the moment.”
I saw the other guys exchange worried glances. “Did your doctor say anything about how the biopsy went?” Kevin asked. “Have you gotten the results yet?”
“No... not yet.”
When Howie did get the results of the biopsy, it confirmed what he’d known or, at least, suspected all along.
“Unfortunately, the sample of liver tissue we took showed evidence of grade II acute cellular rejection - in other words, moderate rejection,” explained the doctor who had done the procedure. “We’re going to treat you with corticosteroids, which should reduce the inflammation in your liver and stop your immune system from attacking it. We’ll start with a high dose, which you’ll get through your IV for the next three days, then taper off to a lower dose over the course of thirty-one days.”
“Thirty-one days?” Howie repeated, his eyes widening. “Does that mean I’ll be in the hospital for a month?”
I was wondering the same thing. My thoughts of escaping to Tennessee for some time to myself seemed more impractical than ever.
“No,” said the doctor, smiling. “Sorry, I should have specified - after the first three days, you’ll take the steroids orally, in pill form. We’ll do a repeat biopsy to look for signs of improvement, and if the steroids seem to be helping, you’ll be discharged to continue your treatment at home.”
Howie nodded, looking relieved. “Will I be able to fly back to Florida?” he asked.
The doctor frowned. “I thought you lived in Los Angeles?”
“Part time. I had my transplant there, but originally, I’m from the Orlando area,” Howie explained.
“I see. My recommendation would be that you either stay in Seattle or continue your treatment in L.A., under the medical supervision of your transplant physician,” said the doctor. “Seventy to eighty percent of episodes of acute rejection resolve after one course of steroids, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need a second course. Unresolved acute rejection can progress to chronic rejection, which is much more difficult to treat. Too often, in cases of chronic rejection, a second transplant is required. That’s why you’ll want to follow up with your transplant team, so they can closely monitor you over the next month and make sure you’re responding to the treatment.”
Howie nodded again. He didn’t ask much more about what would happen after he got out of the hospital, and neither did anyone else. Instead, we stayed in town and took things one day at a time.
On Howie’s third day of treatment, I was sitting with him while he ate dinner, half-watching the evening news, when I heard something that made both Howie and me look up at the TV.
“In other news tonight, Nevada has become the latest state to legalize same-sex marriage, following the Supreme Court’s refusal Monday to rule on same-sex marriage bans in five other states. Hours after federal district court judge James C. Mahan issued an injunction against Nevada’s enforcement of its ban against same-sex marriage, state Senator Kelvin Atkinson and his partner Sherwood Howard became the first same-sex couple to...”
“What are we doing, Nick?” Howie asked suddenly, setting his fork down on his tray.
I turned my attention back to him, confused by the question. “Well, we ain’t going to Vegas to get married, if that’s what you’re asking,” I joked.
He smiled. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t proposing. I guess I’m just wondering where you do see us going with this.”
“With what?” I played dumb because I wasn’t sure how else to answer.
“Our relationship,” he said, looking at me like I really was stupid. “How serious is this to you? When you look down the road, do you see a real future for us? Or are we just having fun fooling around for now?”
I was quiet for a few seconds, considering what he was asking. He wanted to know where I thought the future would take us. All I knew was that, a week ago, I’d been planning to go back to Tennessee without him.
The news anchor on TV was still talking. “With Nevada, same-sex marriage is now legal in over half the states - twenty-six, up from nineteen just a week ago. That number could climb to thirty-five in the coming weeks, as more states move to enforce federal court orders. West Virginia will likely be the next, having cleared the way for-“
Letting out a huge sigh, I finally said, “I don’t know, Howie.”
“I know you don’t.” He looked at me sadly. “You’ve seemed so conflicted lately, like you don’t even know what you want. I love you, Nick - you know that - but you’ve never been able to say those words back to me, and I don’t know if it’s because you don’t feel the same way, or because you do and you’re afraid to admit it, or because you’re still hung up on Lauren.”
So that’s what this is about, I thought, annoyed. “Really? You’re gonna bring that up again?”
“I’m bringing it up again because it seems to be an issue for us, and we have to resolve it before we can move forward,” Howie said calmly. “Which brings me back to my original question: Is that what you want? Do you see us having a future together?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated, shifting my weight. I’d always been weird with commitment. It took me years to get to a point where I was ready to propose to Lauren, and even after I’d bought the engagement ring, another two weeks passed before I worked up the courage to actually do it - thanks to Howie’s pep talk, ironically. Now he was the one looking to me for some kind of commitment, and I was squirming in my seat, too afraid to tell him yes. So I turned the question back around on him and asked, “Do you?”
Howie didn’t answer at first. He turned his attention back to the TV. “In a related story, the state of Florida has formally recognized the marriage of a same-sex couple for the first time,” the newscaster was saying. “Arlene Goldberg and Carol Goldwasser had been together for forty-seven years when Goldwasser passed away in March of this year. Although the couple had exchanged nuptials in New York in 2011, their marriage wasn’t recognized in Florida, where the women resided, which meant that Goldberg was unable to qualify as Goldwasser’s widow in order to collect her Social Security payments. Earlier this year, Goldberg became a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against the state of Florida on behalf of eight other same-sex couples who were married in other states. In August, a district judge ruled that Florida’s same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional and ordered Goldwasser’s death certificate to be amended to show she was a married woman at the time of her death. Yesterday, Goldberg received the new certificate, which names her as Goldwasser’s wife.”
The news then showed a clip from an interview with the Florida woman. “It’s hard to put into words how meaningful this is to me,” she said, holding up her wife’s death certificate. “For forty-seven years, Carol and I made our lives together, all the while being treated like strangers in the eyes of the law in Florida. It’s bittersweet that Carol isn’t here to share this joy with me, but for the first time in forty-seven years, our marriage was respected. Our relationship and commitment to each other is finally recognized.”
Howie looked over at me again. “I don’t want to be alone the rest of my life,” he said finally. “When I married Leigh, I thought we were going to be together forever. Maybe I didn’t love her the way I was supposed to... but I did love her. She was my best friend. You’re supposed to marry your best friend, right? I thought we could make it work. But it didn’t... and now here I am, forty-one, divorced, and dealing with all these health issues...” He held up his left arm, which was hooked to an IV line. “...and it’s made me realize how fragile life is. It can all fall apart in an instant. I need a partner who will be there to help me pick up the pieces. I don’t know how much time I have left, but I know I can’t afford to waste it on a relationship that’s going nowhere. Life’s too short for that. I don’t want to die alone.”
“Why are you talking about dying at all?” I demanded, glaring at him. “You’re not dying, dude; didn’t you hear what the doctor said? This is treatable. You’re gonna be fine.”
“This time, yes, but I’m talking down the road. I am going to die someday, and when I do, I want to be with someone who loves me. So what I’m trying to say is yes, Nick, I would love for us to have a future together, but only if that’s what you want, too.”
“Yeah, well, what if I die first?” I asked flippantly, trying to find a way out of answering. How had we gotten into such a heavy dinner conversation? Howie’s hospital room suddenly felt suffocating.
“You won’t,” said Howie, smiling at me. “Look at you... You’re still young, you’re in good shape, and you’re doing great, health-wise. You’re gonna outlive us all.”
I shook my head, doubting that. Maybe HIV wasn’t the death sentence it had once been, but I still felt like it was going to shorten my life, somehow.
“You’re the one with nine lives,” I countered. “The Indestructible Howie D.”
“I don’t know about that,” he laughed, gesturing to the IV again. But despite that, his color was better than it had been a few days ago, and the bloating in his stomach hadn’t come back. I took those both as signs that, so far, the treatment was working.
That made it easier to say what I needed to tell him. I took a deep breath, and then I said, “Going back to what we were talking about before: I have had fun fooling around with you... but honestly, I’m not sure I’m ready to be in another serious relationship right now.”
Howie nodded. “I know you’re not,” he said quietly. “I just needed to hear it from you.”
His reaction surprised me; I hadn’t expected him to be so understanding. Maybe I should have been honest and told him I wanted to go back to Tennessee a long time ago.
“That doesn’t mean I’ll never be... but I need more time,” I replied. “Before you got sick, I was actually thinking of spending some time by myself in Tennessee.”
“Then maybe you should,” said Howie. “I don’t want you to feel like you’re stuck with me just because I had a setback. You don’t have to stay here, and you sure don’t have to fly back to L.A. with me when I get out of here.”
I shook my head. “Somebody should be there to make sure you’re okay.”
“And that somebody doesn’t have to be you,” he said. “Kevin and AJ live there, too; I’m sure either of them would check up on me if I asked them to. I appreciate you being here, Nicky, but I don’t need you to be. Go to Tennessee. Take as much time as you need to figure out what you want. I’ll wait.”
I hesitated. “Are we breaking up?” I asked awkwardly. “Is that what this is?”
“How could we be breaking up when we’ve never even defined our relationship?” Howie replied. “Let’s just call it a break, not a break-up.”
“A break,” I repeated, nodding. I liked the sound of that. That was exactly what I needed: a break. “Okay.”
I waited until Howie was discharged from the hospital to leave Seattle. We actually went to the airport together, along with AJ, Kevin, and Brian. Brian was going back to Georgia to be with his family, of course. Kevin and AJ would accompany Howie to L.A., where they had agreed to check in with him and make sure he went to his weekly appointments with the liver doctor. That left me free to fly to Franklin, my home away from L.A., where I always went when I needed to clear my head.
“Take care of yourself,” Howie said, hugging me goodbye before we headed off to two different terminals. “That means stay on your meds and stay away from alcohol.”
“Yeah, yeah, I will,” I promised, rolling my eyes as I pulled away. “Don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. You just focus on getting better.”
He smiled. “I will. Keep in touch this time, okay?”
Offering a guilty grin in return, I nodded. “Okay.”
Then we went our separate ways.