So I just built a quick VM locally and followed the guides I mentioned above. Did nothing differently except I didn't install php and apache before and start ripping things out. It works flawlessly. I can only imagine at this point its something with my server and I think I may just wipe it and start clean, using nginx only instead of apache.
Thanks for looking at this stuff guys - I appreciate it.
Edit - welp, it works great now. Probably has this whole time. The URL I was using to hit the forums was set to be x.x.132.x, it had to be x.x.135.x. Hey, at least I learned a TON about nodebb and nginx I'll take it.
seems similar to the bug https://github.com/NodeBB/NodeBB/issues/3489 so you may just need to update your dependencies (rm -rf node_modules && npm cache clean && npm i).
That worked, thanks!