It had been six months since the last time I’d lived alone - and, before that, six years - so it was hard returning to the house in L.A. without Nick, without Leigh, without anyone.
Of course, I wasn’t completely alone. Kevin and AJ took turns coming over to check on me every day the first week, then every other day, then a couple times a week after that. By the end of the month, they were just texting every few days to make sure I was alive. I didn’t blame them; they had their own lives to worry about.
Meanwhile, my life was back to revolving around medications and doctor’s appointments. I went to the transplant center at Cedars-Sinai once a week for lab work to make sure my liver was responding to the treatment. I had started going to weekly transplant support group meetings again, too, mostly just so I could get out of the house and have some human interaction. While my immune system was wiped out, I wasn’t supposed to spend a lot of time out in public, but I felt so lonely and stir-crazy from being cooped up in the house, I looked forward to any opportunity to leave.
So when Nick called at the end of October to tell me he was flying in for a doctor’s appointment and asked if I would come with him, of course I said yes. “Is everything okay?” I asked him. He and I had texted since he’d gone back to Tennessee, mostly just to hold each other accountable for taking our meds, but we hadn’t really talked. I missed him like crazy, but I didn’t want to seem clingy. He’d said he needed space, and I was trying to give him some.
“Yeah, everything’s fine,” Nick replied. “It’s just time for my three-month follow-up, and I figured it made more sense to do it in L.A. than fly to Florida when you’re not there.”
It did make more sense, but what he wasn’t saying was that he wanted me with him as a cover, in case he was spotted at the AIDS clinic again. He’d been cagey about it ever since that paparazzi photo was taken of us in the car outside the clinic. I was pretty sure he hadn’t been back there since.
“Sure,” I said. “When’s your appointment?”
“Eight a.m. on the twelfth. That work for you?”
“Hang on, lemme double check.” I put him on speaker phone as I pulled up my calendar app. I don’t know why I even bothered looking - habit, I guess. Other than my Tuesday afternoon support group meetings and Thursday morning clinic visits, my schedule was clear. November twelfth was a Wednesday, I saw, so none of that would conflict.
What struck me, though, wasn’t my unusually empty calendar, but the current date. It was the twenty-sixth of October. It shouldn’t have surprised me; I’d seen the memories being shared on my social media, but until that moment, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was the anniversary of that night. On the cruise. One year ago.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. On one hand, it was the night I’d hooked up with Nick - which, for me, was mostly a happy memory, like a dream come true. On the other hand, it was also the night I’d infected him - and sucked him into my nightmare.
I wondered if Nick knew. He had to have realized it, too, right? Maybe that was the real reason he’d decided to call me on that particular day, more than two weeks ahead of his doctor’s appointment.
“Howie? You still there?” I heard Nick ask.
“Yeah, sorry,” I replied quickly, refocusing. “The twelfth works for me. When are you flying in?”
“Not till the day before.”
“Want me to pick you up from the airport?” I offered.
“No, I can take a cab to my place.”
“Oh... so you’re not staying with me?” I tried to keep my voice light, even though my heart had sunk. I guess the hope that he and I would be able to go back to how we used to be after our “break” was wishful thinking on my part. I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy. Nothing ever was when Nick was involved.
“Nah, I need to check on my condo, make sure it’s being kept up now that Lauren’s not living in it.”
“Oh.” That was news to me. Last I’d heard, he had left the place to her.
“Yeah, so I’ll see you in a couple weeks, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. “Hey, Nick?”
I hesitated, opening my mouth and then closing it again. I wanted to say something to acknowledge the anniversary, but I wasn’t sure what. “Never mind. See you soon.”
It was a huge relief to hear Nick honk his horn outside my gate promptly at seven-fifteen on the morning of his appointment. There was a small part of me that had been worried he wouldn’t show up. Even though he had sworn he was staying sober and taking his medication every time I’d talked to him, I couldn’t help but remember what happened the last time Nick had gone off to Tennessee by himself.
But this time, spending a month away from everyone seemed to have done wonders for Nick’s mental health. When I opened the passenger-side door of his car and climbed in, he leaned over and kissed me. “Morning,” he said, smirking. “Miss me?”
What a flirt, I thought, coughing into my fist. Of course I had missed him and that crooked grin of his. “Maybe just a little,” I lied, winking as I smiled back. The taste of his peppermint toothpaste lingered in my mouth. “You’re actually on time. I’m impressed.”
He laughed. “You should be. I’ve got my shit together, dude. You wouldn’t believe how responsible I’ve been. I’ve taken my meds on time, I haven’t had a drop of alcohol to drink, and I even made this doctor’s appointment all by myself.”
“What a big boy,” I teased him, winking again. “Actually, I do believe it. You look really good, Nick... really healthy. I’m proud of you.”
Maybe it was just because I hadn’t seen him in a month, but to me, he looked better than ever. His face was tanned from being outside, his eyes were clear, and his clothes were clean. He had even showered that morning, I could tell; his hair was still slightly damp and smelled like shampoo. I fought the urge to run my fingers through it, to turn his face toward mine and kiss him again. As much as I would have loved to make out in the car for a few minutes before we left, I didn’t want to make him late.
“Thanks,” Nick said, grinning again as he shifted the car into drive. “You’re looking good, too.”
He said it almost as an afterthought, and I knew he didn’t really mean it. I may have looked better than the last time he’d seen me, but that wasn’t saying much. The jaundice had gone away as my liver function improved, but my skin was paler than usual from spending so much time inside, and my face was puffy from the steroids I’d been prescribed. Judging by my reflection in the mirror, I was still looking pretty sickly.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, when I didn’t reply.
“Not bad,” I said. “My liver panels have been looking better, and my last biopsy showed less inflammation. I finished my first course of steroids on Friday, and I go back for a check-up at the transplant clinic tomorrow to make sure I don’t need to start a second one.”
“Hopefully not,” said Nick. As he pulled out of my neighborhood, he looked at me and smiled. “The Indestructible Howie D... I knew nothing could keep you down for long.”
I tried to disguise my cough as a chuckle. Clearing my throat, I said, “I dunno, I’ve been taking it pretty easy for the past month. I may need you to come whip me back into shape again.” I had been trying to keep working out when I felt like it, but lately, I could barely walk a mile on the treadmill without feeling winded. I couldn’t blame the shortness of breath on fluid accumulation this time; I was just out of shape. Spending a week in the hospital had been a huge setback. I had to build up my stamina again.
“Well, maybe we could go to the gym after my appointment,” Nick suggested, glancing at me before returning his eyes to the road.
“I’ve been avoiding the actual gym - too many germs,” I replied. “My CD4 count is really low right now because of the rejection treatment, so I’m not supposed to be around big crowds of people. But we could go back to my place and swim or something, if you want to.”
“We’ll see,” Nick said noncommittally. Then he looked over at me again, his forehead creased with concern. “How low?” he asked.
I shook my head, stifling another cough. “Don’t worry about it. My doctor said this was to be expected, since the whole point was to suppress my immune system so it couldn’t keep attacking my liver. It’ll go back up now that I’m off the steroids.”
“Whatever you say,” Nick replied. He let it drop, but I could tell by how quiet he got afterwards that he was worried and didn’t want to admit it.
“I’m fine, Nick,” I said after a few minutes of silence, resting my hand on top of his. “I’m the Indestructible Howie D, remember?”
He chuckled. “You got that right.”
When we pulled into the parking lot in front of the clinic, Nick opened his glove compartment and took out two baseball caps. “Here,” he said, handing me one. “Put this on.”
I laughed. “Is this my disguise? Do you have any of those funny glasses with the big nose and mustache to go with it?” Looking down at the camo trucker hat he’d given me, I made a face. “Actually, some hillbilly teeth and a mullet might be more appropriate...”
“Shut up and wear it,” said Nick, jamming a black Bucs cap onto his head. Then he flipped down his visor and examined his reflection in the mirror for a few seconds. “This doesn’t make me look too much like Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, does it?” he asked, turning toward me.
“What? No.” I shook my head. “I don’t know why we need to bother wearing hats at all. The public knows I’m HIV-positive, so no one will think it’s weird if you’re seen walking into an AIDS clinic with me. I thought that was the whole reason you wanted me to come with you.”
He shrugged. “I just don’t wanna give people more to speculate about.”
I sighed. “Nick, they’re always gonna speculate about something. The only way to get them to stop is to tell them everything. Then they’ll have nothing left to wonder about.”
“Not gonna happen,” Nick said, shaking his head. “Come on, let’s just get inside.” He kept the cap on, and grudgingly, I put on the camo hat as I climbed out of his car. It was way too big for my head, and I’m sure I looked ridiculous in it, but as long as it made Nick happy, I didn’t really care.
We walked into the clinic, where I was relieved to see that the waiting room wasn’t too crowded. I found a couple of seats for us while Nick went up to the receptionist’s counter to check in. As I looked around the room, a rack of magazines caught my eye. I could see the March issue of People with my face on the cover - nine months old now - peeking out from the bottom shelf, where it had been wedged in crookedly with more recent issues. Awkward.
As much as I wanted to pretend I was totally comfortable with everyone knowing my status, I was relieved when Nick said, “You can come back with me if you want to. That way you don’t have to sit out here by yourself the whole time.”
“You sure?” I asked.
“Yeah, sure,” he replied, shrugging. “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
That was true. When Nick was called back, I went along and watched him go through the same routine I’d been through countless times before. The nurse weighed him, checked his vitals, asked him a million questions, and drew his blood. With as much as I’d been poked and prodded in the last month, there was a part of me that was secretly glad it was him this time and not me. But as soon as that thought had crossed my mind, I felt guilty. It was because of me that Nick was going through this. I would happily have my blood drawn every day if it would somehow reverse what I had done to him.
“I’m sorry,” I said softly, as Nick sat holding a cotton ball to the crook of his arm, waiting for the doctor to come in.
He looked over at me with surprise. “For what?”
“For this. For all of this.” I made a sweeping gesture across the room. “For being the reason you’re here.”
Nick shook his head. “Dude, don’t start that again. What’s done is done, alright? You don’t need to feel bad about it anymore.”
“But I do,” I said. “I hate that you have to come here and go through all this because of me.”
“Stop it,” Nick replied, his voice rising. “This is not your fault. I made the same mistakes you did. And, honestly, taking a few pills a day and having my blood drawn every three months doesn’t seem like such a big deal compared to what you’ve been going through lately. So stop fucking apologizing, okay? I’m fine.”
I wanted to tell him I deserved every ounce of physical pain I’d felt over the past year, that it was nothing compared to the emotional pain of hurting him and my family, but I started coughing instead. Eyes streaming, I could only nod.
Nick frowned as my coughing fit subsided. “How long have you had that cough?” he asked.
“I dunno, a few days?” I answered hoarsely. I hadn’t thought much of it, but now that Nick had mentioned it, I realized I had been coughing a lot lately.
“Have you called your doctor?”
I shook my head. “It’s probably just a side effect of the steroids,” I said casually, knowing it could also be a sign that I was coming down with something. With my immune system so weakened, the last thing I wanted was an infection of any kind. “I’ll mention it at my appointment tomorrow.”
“I’ll go with you,” Nick offered.
I smiled at him. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do that. It’s just a check-up.”
“So’s this, and you came with me,” he pointed out. “Let me return the favor.”
I shrugged. “Suit yourself.”
At that point, there was a knock on the door, and Nick’s doctor came into the exam room. “Hi, Nick. Long time no see,” she said with a wry smile.
Nick smiled back sheepishly, ducking his head like a little boy who’d been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. “Yeah, I know, it’s been awhile. I was out of town, sorting out some... personal issues.”
“I see,” said the doctor. “Well, I’m glad you’re back. And you’ve brought someone new with you?” She smiled pleasantly at me.
Nick cleared his throat. “Um, yeah. Dr. Usako, this is my friend Howie.”
“Nice to meet you,” said Dr. Usako, shaking my hand. Then she turned her attention back to Nick. “Would you like Howie to step out while I examine you, or-?”
“No, he can stay,” Nick interrupted.
Dr. Usako nodded. “Okay. Take off your shirt, please.”
I couldn’t help admiring Nick’s physique as he pulled his shirt over his head. He had clearly kept up his workout regimen while in Tennessee; his upper body was looking ripped with lean muscle. Dr. Usako listened to his chest, looked in his eyes and mouth, and felt around from his neck to his navel, asking him all kinds of questions throughout the exam. Had he been taking all his medications on time? Was he experiencing any unpleasant side effects? Yes, Nick said, he was sticking to his medication schedule. No, he hadn’t had any new side effects.
When she was finished, Dr. Usako said, “Everything seems fine, Nick. If you don’t mind waiting a while longer, I’ll see if your blood work is back from the lab yet.”
Nick said he would wait, so the doctor left us alone. As Nick was putting his shirt back on, I said, “You’ve been lifting weights, haven’t you?”
His face split into a wide grin. “You can tell?”
“Well, yeah... look at those guns!”
Nick flexed his biceps, looking pleased with himself. “I’ve been working on my arms and legs,” he admitted. “When I first started taking the HIV meds, I read about this side effect, lipo-something-or-the-other, where you lose fat in your face and limbs and gain it other places, and I’ve been, like, paranoid about it ever since.” He let out a little, nervous laugh. “I have enough body-image issues without looking like Humpty Dumpty.”
“You’re not the one who looks like Humpty Dumpty,” I said, gesturing to my swollen face. “I hate steroids. But seriously, Nick, you don’t have anything to worry about. Your body’s never looked better.”
“Thanks,” said Nick, smiling self-consciously.
Dr. Usako was gone for quite a while, but just when I was starting to worry that something was wrong with Nick’s blood work, she came back and said, “I have great news for you, Nick. All your labs look good. Your CD4 count is in the normal range, and your viral load is undetectable.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “Really?”
Dr. Usako smiled. “Really. Now, just so we’re clear, this doesn’t mean you don’t have HIV anymore. What it means is that the antiretroviral drugs are working. There were so few virus particles in the sample of blood we tested that they didn’t even register. That means your risk of transmitting the virus right now is very low. I’m sure Lauren will be happy to hear that.”
Nick’s face reddened, and he shook his head. “Actually, Lauren and I aren’t together anymore.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Dr. Usako, looking embarrassed. She recovered quickly and added, “Well, even though the risk is minimal, you should still take precautions with any other sexual partners, and continue taking your medications as directed. Do you have any questions?”
Nick shook his head.
“Then I’ll see you back here in three months,” said Dr. Usako with a smile.
As we walked out of the clinic, I looked over at Nick. “Well, you couldn’t have gotten much better news than that,” I said, squeezing his shoulder. “I’m so happy for you.”
He shook my hand off his shoulder. “Not here,” he muttered, hurrying ahead of me. Rolling my eyes, I followed him to the parking lot.
“We should celebrate,” I added, once we were in the privacy of his car.
“I thought you couldn’t be around big crowds,” Nick replied, turning on the ignition.
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t talking about hitting the clubs or having some huge party. I thought you and I could celebrate,” I said, annoyed by his lack of enthusiasm. I’d expected him to be happier about how his appointment had gone - or, at the very least, relieved. Instead, Nick was acting like the news that he was undetectable was no big deal.
“Celebrate how?” he asked, as he pulled out of the parking lot.
“Why don’t you come back to my house for awhile?” I suggested. “I’ll cook us something for lunch, and we can have a few drinks by the pool - virgins, of course.”
Nick was quiet for a few seconds, considering the offer. “Yeah, okay,” he said finally.
Well, don’t let me force you or anything, I wanted to say, but I bit back my retort, knowing better than to start another argument. I had hoped our “break” would help mend the cracks in our relationship, but Nick was back to playing me hot and cold. One minute he was flirting with me, kissing me in the car, suggesting we go to the gym together, and the next, he was acting like he wanted nothing to do with me. I had no idea what was going on in his head, but his moodiness must have been contagious. By the time he drove through my front gate, the good feeling I’d had when we left the clinic was gone.
“Look, if you don’t want to hang around here, you don’t have to,” I told Nick, as he pulled up in front of my house. “I was just trying to think of something low-key we could do to celebrate. But if there’s somewhere else you’d rather be, just drop me off and go do your thing.”
Nick put the car in park and looked over at me. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, frowning. “I said I would stay for a while. Do you not want me to now?”
“What do you want?” I asked him directly. It was a question that carried a lot of weight. “You’ve had a whole month to figure out the answer to this question, so I’ll ask you again: What do you want?”
He licked his lips and pressed them together tightly, as if he was afraid of what would come out if he opened his mouth. I thought I knew what he was trying to avoid saying. He’s about to break up with me, I thought, my heart sinking. Then he’ll be free to go back to Lauren. He didn’t have to worry so much about infecting her anymore; the doctor had said his risk of transmitting the virus was “very low” now that he was undetectable. This was the news Nick had been waiting for, I realized. In that moment, his sudden shift in mood made sense.
I was bracing myself for the words that would break my heart when Nick suddenly leaned over, wrapped his arm around my shoulders, and kissed me. “I want you,” he whispered, his warm breath making my skin tingle as his lips brushed against mine.
As my mouth dropped open in disbelief, he slid his tongue inside, taking the kiss deeper. Recovering from my shock, I kissed him back eagerly. My arms found their way around him, and my fingers fumbled blindly up the back of his neck, knocking off his baseball cap as they raked through his hair. Nick didn’t seem to notice; his hands were busy groping my back as his mouth moved hungrily over mine.
“I missed you,” I heard him say, and I felt my t-shirt pull tight as he grabbed a fistful of the fabric.
“I missed you, too,” I murmured back breathlessly. I felt like laughing with relief. “I thought you were going to break up with me.”
He suddenly pulled back, shaking his head. “I don’t wanna be alone either, Howie,” he said, looking at me seriously. “I needed some time to myself to figure that out... but now I know. It’s lonely without you. We need each other.”
It made me so happy to hear him admit that. “I told you, Nicky,” I said, smiling at him. “You and me... we’re in this together.”
The trail of clothes leading from the front door to the pool told the story of what happened next. Lunch was forgotten, as Nick and I went straight into the water.
It felt just like last summer again, when our relationship was fresh and new, except Nick was much more forward now, not so nervous and hesitant. He led, and I followed, letting him pull me through the water and press me up against the wall of the pool. I planted my feet on the bottom and leaned my head back, enjoying the contrast of the cool water with his warm hands moving over my body.
“I bet you missed this,” I said, closing my eyes against the bright sunshine that was beating down on us. In spite of the heat, my skin broke out in goosebumps as Nick’s fingers slipped beneath the surface of the water and below my waistline, stroking my inner thigh. My breath caught in my throat as I felt his fist close around me, and I began to cough in surprise. When I opened my eyes, he was wearing a wicked grin on his face.
“I meant the water and the warm weather,” I managed to say, coughing and laughing at the same time. “It probably gets cold in Tennessee this time of year, doesn’t it?”
“Oh,” he said, laughing as he let go of me. “Sometimes, but it’s been in the sixties there. Not as nice as here, though. I did miss the heat.”
“So did I,” I gasped, as he grabbed me again. “It’s a whole lot hotter when you’re here.” I winked, and Nick snickered.
“Never fear, Nicky’s here - bringin’ da heat,” Nick teased, as he tugged and squeezed, working me to the point of release. I felt my body go limp as I leaned back against the side of the pool, breathing hard, but utterly relaxed. Nick pressed himself against me and kissed my lips. “Be right back,” he whispered. Then he hoisted himself out of the water, sending big waves splashing over me.
“Don’t get my hardwood floors all wet!” I called, as he headed toward the house. He gave me a careless wave in return. Rolling my eyes, I sucked in a deep breath and held it as I slid below the surface to sit on the bottom of the pool. It was only a few seconds before I came back up, coughing and sputtering for air.
“You okay?” Nick asked when he came back out.
“Yeah,” I said, wiping the water from my eyes. I hoped he couldn’t hear me wheezing; I didn’t want him to notice how out of breath I was. “You know, if you needed to pee, you could have just gone in one of my planters.”
He laughed. “Why would I bother getting all the way out of the pool for that when there’s all this nice, chlorinated water I could be warming up?”
“Sick, Nick,” I said, shaking my head. “Don’t you dare pee in my pool.”
“What if I already did?” he asked, grinning.
“Ugh!” I pretended to spit pool water out of my mouth. “You’re disgusting.”
“Yeah, but you love me.” Smirking, Nick sat on the edge in front of me and stuck his legs in the water. When he set something down beside him, I realized why he’d gone inside. My heart began to race with anticipation as I recognized the much-needed supplies I kept in my bedside table. “My turn,” Nick whispered and wrapped his long legs around my waist, using them like a lasso to slowly reel me in.
I kissed his chest, tasting the chlorine on his skin as I fondled one of his nipples with my tongue and felt it harden against my lips. My mouth moved lower, leaving a trail of kisses along his torso as I made my way toward the length between his legs. Then I went to work on him, teasing and squeezing, prepping him for what we both knew was to come.
When he was primed and ready, Nick slipped back into the pool. He wrapped his arms around me from behind, and I leaned back against his broad chest, enjoying the sensation of our wet bodies sliding over one another. I could feel his ribcage expand and contract against my back and tried to match my heavy breathing to his, but the effort made me cough more.
I leaned forward and lowered my head, hanging on to the sides of the pool. Nick moved his hands to my hips, gripping them tightly as he slid inside me. I braced myself and held my breath, letting the air out of my lungs a little at a time as I winced with pain. Meanwhile, Nick grunted with pleasure as he gradually worked his way deeper. He thrust his pelvis against me, slowly at first, then faster and faster, until the force of him made me start coughing again. This time, I couldn’t stop.
“Are you okay?” I heard Nick ask again, and all I could do was shake my head. I couldn’t speak. I could barely even breathe. My chest felt constricted, and I couldn’t stop coughing long enough to take a breath. My eyes watered as my lungs burned, straining for fresh oxygen. I felt Nick pull out of me and start patting my back, but it didn’t help. I continued to cough and choke, gagging on what felt like phlegm in my throat. Then I looked down and saw a drop of red diffusing in the water.
Heart racing, I covered my mouth with my hand and coughed into it. When I pulled it back and looked, I saw that my palm was speckled with little flecks of bright red blood.
Whatever was wrong with me this time, it was bad. Really bad.