Running Up That Hill – Day 21

Don’t cry for the past now, brother mine
Neither you nor I are free from blame
Nothing can erase the things we did,
For the path we took was the same

-Vic Mignogna ‘Brothers’

I watched Kevin as he halfheartedly flipped through one of the magazines in the waiting room. He looked uninterested and I couldn’t blame him. I didn’t think it would be possible to take his mind off of what we were about to do.

It was just the two of us there. Leighanne and Kristin had opted to go out for lunch and do their own thing. It was probably for the best that they weren’t with us, after all this didn’t really concern them. Still, I found myself wishing my wife was with me.

“Hey Kev?” I spoke up suddenly, in a voice that was reminiscent of one I had used when we were kids.

“Yeah?” He didn’t look up.

“Are you nervous?”

I knew it was a loaded question. And probably a stupid, redundant one. Of course he was nervous. He’d been nervous ever since AJ had gone to rehab. Probably before.

“Yeah,” he answered, giving me a slight nod and putting the magazine back down on the table. “Are you?”

“Yes.”

There wasn’t really much more to say after that. I looked up at the clock on the wall waiting for two o’clock to roll around. Denise had already come out to greet us, and she had gone back in to talk to AJ before bringing us in.

I didn’t really know what to expect. I mean, I knew what to expect on the surface. Denise told us that one of the doctors would come out when AJ was ready to see us, and that we would be put into a private family room so the three of us could talk. She had said there would be a doctor in the room with us, but that she wouldn’t converse with us unless we wanted her to.

I knew all of that, but what I didn’t know was what AJ’s reaction to us was going to be. Part of me was terrified he was going to get into it with Kevin, and that the two of us would end up leaving quickly on a bad note.

Before AJ had left, he had told us he was quitting the group. I hadn’t even thought about that as a serious threat – at the time, it had just been another stupid thing he’d said while he was angry with us. I’d never considered the possibility that he could have actually been serious about it. Maybe he did really want out. Maybe through rehab he had realized that being in that sort of lifestyle just wasn’t good for him. Maybe all of our issues with the record company and what to do about the greatest hits album were moot at this point.

What were we going to say when he asked where Nick and Howie were? Sorry AJ, Nick didn’t care enough to show up and Howie had to go down to Florida to make sure he was still alive. He’s been dealing with all of this by drinking and doing God knows what else.

I suddenly felt very sick to my stomach thinking about the very real possibility that we would be back here in a few years visiting Nick.

Or worse.

“I’m going to go get a cup of coffee,” I announced before hurriedly walking out of the room. I needed a minute to breathe and collect my thoughts before we went in there.

Kevin didn’t call after me or anything, which was surprising considering we only had five minutes until the doctor was supposed to come get us. I think he understood because I think he was feeling the same way. I wasn’t trying to run away. I wanted to see AJ, really, I did. The thought of it just terrified me. The last time I’d seen AJ, he was screaming at me, at all of us, telling us how he hated us. I’d known this entire time that he’d been in rehab, but it wasn’t until I was sitting in that waiting room that it really hit me.

We were all good people. Sure, we’d done bad things, but everyone does. We didn’t deserve this. AJ didn’t deserve this… everything we’d been put through. I walked past the cafeteria and headed straight for the door.

I just needed some air. I wasn’t trying to run away. I wasn’t that person. I’m not that person.

I closed my eyes for a second and leaned back against the stone wall of the building. It was going to be okay. AJ didn’t hate us, Denise had already told us that. I was completely overreacting. Consciously I knew that but I still felt overwhelmed. A month ago at this time we had still been out on the road. If I had been told that in three weeks I’d be visiting AJ in rehab I’d have said…

Well, I probably would have said it wasn’t that far-fetched of an idea.

I took a deep breath and walked back inside.

I could do this.

~~~

I rummaged through my cupboards looking for some coffee to make. I don’t know how it was possible that I was awake before Howie, but I guess I’m more used to staying up late than he is lately. That, and I didn’t have a five hour flight the day before.

Success! I found a package of ground coffee behind my waffle maker. It was kinda old, but it was good enough. I didn’t usually make coffee at home. I’m more of a Starbucks kind of guy. What can I say? I’m a coffee snob, it comes from being woken up early by Kevin.

But I thought since Howie did something nice by coming all this way to visit me, the least I could do was have some coffee ready for when he woke up. Not that I didn’t already do something awesome for him like give him an awesome weed and pizza evening, but you know… he’d probably appreciate this a little more. I guess.

I kinda wondered why he was actually here. Did Kevin send him to watch over me? I couldn’t picture Howie actually going through with it if Kevin told him to come here. But if Kevin didn’t send him, then he was probably livid that Howie wasn’t going to visit AJ. He was already really pissed that I wasn’t there.

Then again, Kevin wasn’t already pissed at Howie for driving drunk and other stupid things. Well maybe he was. I didn’t actually know. Maybe Howie had come to visit me because Kevin was equally mad at him and he wanted to form some sort of alliance against Kevin.

It could happen!

I knew that probably wasn’t the reason. Still, now that I had sobered up I realized that I had a million things to talk with Howie about. How had their meeting with those asshats at Jive gone? I was sure there was still going to be a greatest hits album, but how much had they put up a fight? Had they even put up a fight at all? They probably hadn’t, because they hadn’t written any songs.

Not like I had either… but whatever.

I wanted to know if the Jive guys had said anything about our tour. What if AJ wasn’t ready at the end of rehab to go back on the road? We kept saying in interviews that we were going to give him as much time as he needed, but how much time was that? Would our tour be on hiatus forever if AJ needed it? What if he was never allowed to go back on the road? What if I was going to be stuck in Tampa drinking and being awesome for the rest of my life?

“Morning, Nicky,” Howie said from behind me, interrupting my thoughts and scaring the hell of out of me. I jumped and almost spilled the coffee grounds I was putting away.

“Don’t do that! Don’t all Stealth D me!” I exclaimed, shoving the package back into the cabinet. “I made coffee.” I motioned towards the coffee maker (which was now making those weird gurgling noises) and sat down at my kitchen table.

“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the mug I had set out for him. “You didn’t make any food?”

I rolled my eyes. “Hey, I made coffee, that’s more than I usually do. Besides, you’re the one who showed up here unannounced. You can make food!”

He just laughed. Stupid Howie. “Relax Nicky, I was just joking,” he said as he opened the fridge. “Well, I can see why you didn’t make anything.”

What can I say? I live like a bachelor. “Yeah… I haven’t really been to the store in a while. Good thing you like your coffee black because I don’t really know how long that milk’s been in there either.”

He didn’t say anything, which was really unlike him. Usually I’d get a lecture on making my own food and not eating pizza all the time and how bad that was for me. Instead, he just poured himself a cup of coffee and sat down. “So who was that guy that left here yesterday?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Chris. Just this guy I know. We go out drinking together.”

“You guys weren’t out drinking last night,” he commented. Great observation skills, Howie!

“Yeah, I know. I didn’t feel like it. He wanted to go out so he left. Then you showed up.” What more was there to tell? Chris was always pissed when I didn’t want to go out drinking. He always got over it quickly. “Why did you show up, by the way?” I asked him before I had a chance to stop myself. It was too early in the morning to go down this road.

“I just thought I’d come see how you were doing. You didn’t show up to the meeting with Jive, I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

That was such bullshit. Howie was a bad liar. “I told you I wasn’t coming to the Jive meeting.”

He sighed. “Yeah, I know you did. But we were all going to go visit AJ, and I thought you could use a visit as well,” he paused, and then I guess he just decided to keep going. We were already talking about it, why stop now? “Why weren’t you going to come with us to visit him, anyway?”

Oh, here we go.

~~~

“Kevin?” A woman in a white coat stepped out of the hall and into the waiting room. She was your stereotypical rehabilitation clinic doctor. I looked up and she smiled at me. “I’m Dr. Ross. I’ll be sitting in on your visit with Alex today.”

“Hi,” I said quickly, getting up from my seat. Where in the hell was Brian? “I’m just waiting for – ”

“Sorry Kev,” Brian said quickly, rushing back into the room. I looked at him and nodded my head towards Dr. Ross. “Oh, sorry,” he said again.

She still wore the same soft smile. It put me at ease, but only a little bit. “It’s alright, we were just about to go in. It’s just down the hall, this way.”

Brian and I exchanged a glance as she led us to the room where AJ was. I could almost hear my heart pounding in my chest. I couldn’t really form any cohesive thoughts. I just felt nervous. I took a deep breath as she opened the door. I sort of wanted to reach out and take Brian’s hand, but I didn’t. I just kept them placed firmly in my pockets.

That is, until the door was open and I saw AJ sitting there.

“Hey guys,” he said, standing up as we entered the room.

In that moment, I didn’t even have to think, I just pulled him in for a hug. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I held him, and I was pretty sure I felt him choke back a sob. Brian followed and quickly joined in on our little group hug.

“It’s good to see you again,” I said, wiping my eyes as I pulled away.

“You too,” he replied, doing the same. “Both of you,” he continued, looking at Brian. “Thanks for coming.”

We sat down, and there was a bit of an awkward silence after that. I don’t think any one of us knew where to begin. I guess that’s what Dr. Ross was there for. “Alex, why don’t you tell Kevin and Brian what you’ve been doing here,” she suggested.

“Uh okay,” he said, making eye contact with both of us before he started. I could hardly remember the last time he’d done that. His eyes actually looked like they had life in them again. He had more colour in his face too. He just looked better. A million times better than he had at the beginning of the month.

“When I first got here I went through a detox period where I couldn’t talk to anyone outside the clinic for a few days. I’ve had a lot of meetings with doctors, both one on one and in group therapy. My mom’s been here a few times, she brought me some fan mail… and yeah. It’s not too exciting in here. It’s kinda nice.”

For once in my life, I didn’t know what to say. I don’t think Brian did either.

Luckily, AJ still had plenty to say. He exchanged a glance with Dr. Ross and she gave him an encouraging nod. “I just wanted to tell you guys that I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for everything that happened on tour, and how I kept bailing on you guys.”

He looked like he was going to start crying again at any moment and took a moment to compose himself. Neither Brian or I said anything – we knew to wait until he said what he had to.

“I know that it’s going to take a lot of work, but I really want to beat this thing. I want to be back out on the road like the old days. I want everything to go back to how it was,” he took a deep breath, “I don’t want to quit the group like I said I did… I really don’t.”

And that was when none of us could hold it together any longer. We’d barely been hanging on as it was.

“None of us actually wanted you to leave,” Brian said, wiping his eyes. “We just wanted you to get better and stop hurting yourself. We shouldn’t have even gone out on tour. We should have cancelled or postponed before it got to that point.”

“I’m so proud of you for taking this step. We all are,” I said, and Brian nodded in agreement.

“Thanks guys,” AJ said after letting everything sink in for a minute. “It really means a lot to me that you came. I was worried you’d want nothing to do with me.”

He looked right at me when he said that and it made me feel sick. Ever since it had happened, I’d known I’d never forget breaking down his door and telling him he was dead to me. I’d always sort of wished I could take it back, but at the same time we needed that breaking point. “I didn’t want anything to do with the person that you were becoming,” I finally said, choosing my words very carefully.

“I know, neither did I,” he admitted.

But I wasn’t done. I had to tell him everything that I’d pent up in the last few weeks. “We always said we wouldn’t let ourselves get to that point. We always tried to keep ourselves grounded as a group and not become – or even act like entitled rock stars. But when you started acting that way, it scared me. You started to shut us out, it stopped being the five of us united as a group, and it became the four of us against you.”

“It wasn’t just me that had an attitude problem,” AJ said, almost defensively. I had to remind myself that change wasn’t going to happen overnight. “We all had our moments.”

“I know we did.” Boy did we ever.

“But AJ,” Brian cut in, “the rest of us were able to recognize when things were getting out of hand and stop it. We were able to lean on each other when things got stressful. You were too… it’s just that it started to change, and you started to act like the world owed you everything you had, and that you didn’t need to give anything back… that’s not the person you are.”

He sighed. “I know. I acted like an ass. I’m sorry.”

I felt kind of shitty for even bringing it up, especially after all the progress he’d clearly made. “No, I’m sorry…”

But AJ shook his head. “It’s okay. I need to hear those things. It’s hard, but it’s part of the process.”

“It seems like it’s working,” Brian said, half smiling. “I’m sure Kevin agrees with me…” he trailed off, looking at me for confirmation.

I just nodded. I didn’t know what else to say. I didn’t think I had anything left.

“See? We know that you can get through this. We’re proud of you. And I know that Howie is too.”

“Nick too,” I added quickly, annoyed with Brian for even slightly implying something might be going on.

AJ nodded and looked as though he was in thought for a moment. “Speaking of…”

“You know Nick, he deals with things in his own way. Howie’s with him.” I tried to give the most diplomatic answer possible. Now was not the time to go into any of that. “But you know, they are proud of you. I know they are.”

“Thanks,” AJ said, regaining his composure. “Tell the other guys I said thanks too.”

“We will.”

There was silence in the room after that, but it wasn’t bad or anything like that. It was almost as though some of the air had been cleared and we could all breathe a little easier.

“I think we need another group hug,” Brian suggested after a couple minutes had gone by.

He was right, it was exactly what we needed. Even though it was just three out of the five of us, things felt more complete than they had in a long time.

~~~

As soon as I asked, I regretted it.

“You know I just don’t deal with that stuff well, D,” Nick said, trying to play it off lightly.

I wasn’t about to let him get off so easy. Not after I’d already brought it up. I knew all too well that the way Nick dealt with heavy problems was to ignore them completely.

When Brian had gone in for his surgery, Nick had pulled the same kind of thing he was doing right now, on a much smaller scale. He’d broken up with Mandy for the thousandth time, gone out for a night of binge drinking and ended up missing his flight out to an awards show we were all supposed to go to.

I’m not going to lie, one of the biggest reasons I’d decided to visit Nick in Florida was that I was terrified of him going out and doing something like that again. I never would have been able to forgive myself if I’d just left him there to deal with things on his own and something had happened. I knew I was probably being a little paranoid, but better safe than sorry.

“I know Nicky, but…”

“But what?” he snapped. “But AJ needed me there? That he needed all of us there, because if all five of us were there all of our problems would be solved? I hate to break it to you Howie, but the group’s fucked up. Going to visit AJ in fucking rehab isn’t going to fix all the shit that’s been going on for years.”

I sighed and tried to keep my cool. “I wasn’t going to say any of that. Just that maybe AJ would have appreciated your support.”

“I didn’t want to go there,” he muttered.

“Well I know that Nick, that’s why we’re here and not there.”

“You know what I meant. I didn’t want to see AJ like that. I’ll see him we we go back on tour. When everything’s back to normal and not fucked up. Or at least less fucked up.”

I was really curious as to why he thought the group was that ‘fucked up’ as he so eloquently put it, but I didn’t press it. “I just think having us all there might have helped him. And you know, he probably would have liked to see you.”

Nick shook his head and looked at his feet. “I probably just would have been awkward, and I wouldn’t have had anything to say. It wouldn’t have helped anything. It probably would have just made him feel worse.”

“I don’t think it would have,” I tried to assure him. I wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t like we could fly out there for the meeting. It was too late now. So convincing Nick that he should have gone to visit AJ was probably only going to make him feel guilty for not going.

Nick just shrugged. “I guess.”

“Look, I know this break’s been hard on you. It’s been hard on all of us,” I tried a different approach. I didn’t think I was going to fix all of his issues, but if I could at least get him to not be a little less destructive and down on himself, I’d consider it a success. “I don’t know if it’s because you miss us, or you miss being out on the road, but you know, moping around in Florida isn’t going to help.”

“I haven’t been moping,” he said defensively. “I’ve been hanging out with my friends and being awesome. What else do you expect me to do? I can’t exactly go out there and be a Backstreet Boy by myself.”

I really didn’t think I was going to get through to him. Instead of pushing him further, I decided to just drop it. This wasn’t something that was going to be solved through just one conversation. “I know, I’m just saying this hasn’t just been hard on you. But it’s going to get better.”

Again, he just shrugged. “Yeah, I guess.”

We finished off the rest of our coffee in silence. I felt a little bad for starting off the day on such a downer, but I needed to at least try.

“How long are were you planning to stay anyway?” he asked as he rinsed out his mug, and put it back in the cupboard. Gross, Nick.

“I dunno, probably just for a couple of days. Why, do you want me out of here already?” I joked, trying to lighten the mood a little. I hoped he wasn’t so annoyed with me that he was already planning to kick me out.

“No,” he replied quietly, his back still turned to me. “Stay as long as you’d like.”

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