When June saw her elder daughter, she moved the vodka onto the floor, sliding it behind the sofa’s arm with her foot.
“Can’t sleep, honey?” June said as she put her arm out, inviting Nina onto the sofa with her.
Nina nodded and curled into the side of her mother’s body, the cradle that often felt like it was hers and hers alone. Her mother smelled like Shalimar and sea salt.
“Can I get a job working at the restaurant?” Nina asked.
June looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“Well, maybe I could earn money,” she said. “And buy us all surfboards.”
“Oh, honey,” June said, as she rubbed her daughter’s arm, pulled her closer. “I will get you all surfboards, OK? I promise.”
“You don’t have to, that’s not what I meant.”
“Let me get you surfboards. Let that be my job.”
Nina smiled at her and put her head back on June’s shoulder.
It was not easy, being a parent. It was not easy raising your four children on your own. But what made June the most frustrated at her husband—her twice ex-husband—was that she had no one to swoon over her children with.
Her mother would listen, obviously. Christina loved them. But June wanted someone on the couch next to her at night, to smile with her when they thought of the kids. She wanted someone who would laugh with her about Kit’s attitude, and commiserate with her about Jay’s stubbornness, who would know how to teach Hud to stand up for himself a bit more, and teach Nina to relax. She, especially, wanted someone to light up along with her on a day like this, when her kids had found a sense of wonder and joy in the middle of her chaos.
Oh, what Mick was missing, wherever he was.
He did not know how good it felt for your eleven-year-old daughter to want nothing more than to lay her head against your shoulder. He did not know how good it felt to love like this.
She knew that when it came to the two of them—she here with these kids and he out there somewhere with God knows who—she had the better end of the deal. She would choose to be here with these four kids over anything in the world.
But she hated that, even in this blissful quiet moment, she was still thinking of him.
Nina fell asleep in her mother’s arms and when she did, June picked the bottle of vodka back up. She needed that bottle to go to sleep, but she rarely drank past the invisible line she had in her head of where to stop for the night.
The next day, the surfboard was gone. And the kids went back to bodysurfing, trying to hide their frowns.
• • •
A few months later, on Christmas morning, Nina, Jay, Hud, and Kit woke up to see the tree they had decorated was gone.
“Where’s the Christmas tree?” June asked, in mock confusion. “You don’t think it just up and walked away, do you?”
The kids all looked at one another, cautiously excited for something they could not even guess.
“Maybe we should check by the water,” June said.
The kids ripped open the door and ran down the steps to the beach. They shrieked when they saw it.
There, stuck lopsided in the sand, was their Christmas tree.
And beside it were four surfboards lined up in a row. Yellow, red, orange, and blue.
Hud’s hair was barely dry when he parked his car in front of the art studio at Pepperdine University. He grabbed his camera from the front seat and walked in despite the fact that, formally speaking, he wasn’t supposed to be there. He wasn’t a student.
But Hud had found that one of the nice things about spending his entire life in a small town was that he knew people. The cashier at the market, the guy who took the ticket stubs, the assistant to the head of photography at Pepperdine, Hud loved talking to them all. He liked to ask them questions about themselves and hear how they were doing. He liked to make jokes with the guy behind the register at the soft-serve stand about chocolate ice cream with extra whipped cream being “low-calorie.”
He loved small talk. A quality he knew was in low supply. It certainly wasn’t a trait he shared with any of his siblings or his mother. They, especially Jay and Kit, were always rushing him from one thing to the next. Sometimes, Hud wondered if he got it from Mick, but that seemed unlikely. Which led Hud to wonder if it came from his birth mother, Carol.
Carol was a mystery to Hud. He did not know anything about her other than what she had named him and where she had left him. All he could do was imagine what she might be like, wonder if there were things about himself that he’d recognize in her, things in her that would make him recognize himself.
A few years earlier, Hud had seen a photo of Mick in a magazine where Mick was looking directly at the camera and smiling. The headline said THE MAIN MAN IS BACK, and the article was about Mick topping the charts again after all these years. But Hud barely noticed any of that. He kept staring at Mick’s right eyebrow, the way it was raised just the tiniest bit, the same way Hud raised his when he smiled.
Hud had felt as if the world was closing in on him. If he had Mick’s eyebrow, what else of his did he have? Was Hud capable of what Mick was capable of? Did Mick’s callousness live dormant inside him, choosing its moment to reveal that Hud, too, was capable of caring for no one but himself? That Hud, too, could leave the people he loved on the side of the road?
Our parents live inside us, whether they stick around or not, Hud thought. They express themselves through us in the way we hold a pen or shrug our shoulders, in the way we raise our eyebrow. Our heritage lingers in our blood. The idea of it scared the shit out of him.
He knew that Carol must live in him, too. Most likely in some way he could not see. And so he prayed it was something like this, the way he loved to speak to people. His tenderness. Let it be that he inherited that from her, or her laugh, or her gait. Anything but her cowardice.
“Hey,” Hud said to the guy behind the front desk as he pulled his shades off his face and threaded them over the edge of his collar.
“Hey, man,” Ricky Esposito said. Ricky was in charge of opening and closing the darkroom every day and he would let Hud use the facility whenever it was free.
Ricky had been two years behind Hud and Jay in school and thought of them as the very pinnacle of cool. Handsome brothers, surfers, sons of a famous singer. To the scrawny, acne-scarred Ricky Esposito, it was hard to believe Hud and Jay Riva had any problems at all.
“Mind if I …” Hud lifted his camera ever so slightly to indicate his intentions.
Ricky nodded toward the darkroom. “Have at it, buddy,” he said. “Party on for tonight?”
Hud smiled. He’d been unaware that Ricky knew of the party. Jay would have said that Ricky Esposito was not cool enough to attend. In fact, many people would have said this. But Hud maintained that if you were cool enough to know about the party, you were cool enough to come to the party. Those were the rules. And Ricky knew about the party.
“Yeah, for sure,” Hud said. “You coming?”
Ricky nodded coolly, but Hud saw that Ricky’s hands were shaking ever so slightly. “You know it. Can I bring anything?”
Hud shook his head. “Just yourself.”
“All right,” Ricky said. “You got it.”
Hud slipped through the door and into the darkroom. He had been thinking about the photos all morning. Ashley.