Hud suddenly stopped, and Ashley stopped with him.
“What’s the first thing you thought?” he asked her. “When you found out? When the test tube turned whatever color it turns.”
“It’s a ring that appears at the bottom.”
“Well, then, when the ring appeared. What was the first thought that popped into your head?”
“Well, what was the first thing in your head? When I told you?” Ashley said.
“I thought, How is it possible to love something that fast? Because I feel like the minute you said it, I felt it. And that doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Ashley’s eyes started to water and when she smiled, a tear fell.
“You didn’t think, Oh shit, or Fuck, or How do I get out of this?” Ashley asked, wiping her tears away.
“No,” Hud said, pulling her toward him. “Did you?”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “Not once.”
“So we’re having a baby,” Hud said, holding her.
“We’re having a baby.”
And they stood there, the cold water swirling up and chilling their ankles, smiling at each other.
There would be rocking chairs and swaddles, mashed bananas and high chairs, the pride of a first step. There would be a wild and beautiful future.
But for now, right now, Hud had no choice but to stop dancing around a lie. His families, old and brand-new, were his to reconcile, his to fight and fight for. And he would do that now. He did not necessarily feel up to the task, but that hardly mattered.
“Should we turn back?” he asked.
Ashley looked up at him and gave him a gentle smile. She leaned into him farther, held his hand tighter. “All right,” she said.
It was time to tell Jay the truth.
Brandon was in the guest bathroom of his own home looking in the mirror. He was pretty buzzed already, heading straight to drunk. And he was staring at himself wondering how he had made so many mistakes in such a small span of time.
How could he have done all of this to Nina? She had weathered so many things so young and he had always liked to think of himself as the beginning of good things for her. He liked to think that maybe, in some small way, he was her knight in shining armor.
And then, like a moron, he’d started sleeping with Carrie Soto. There should be a way to undo your fuckups. Not just redeem yourself for them but actually undo them, make them so that they never happened. He wanted to take back every second of heartbreak he’d caused his wife. She did not deserve any of it, had done nothing to deserve his complete and disastrous breakdown. He wished the world would let them all just pretend the whole thing never happened.
Brandon stared into the mirror and looked at his face, looked at the lines that had started to form. Every day of your life feels like you’re climbing up the mountain. And then you get there and you stay for a bit. And it’s nice at the top. But then you start sliding down the other side.
He hadn’t seen that part coming. And it had hit him hard.
• • •
This had all started because, nine months ago, Brandon had been the number one seed in the Australian Open. Then he lost in the second round in an upset to a seventeen-year-old Scandinavian named Anders Larsen.
From his first serve, Brandon had begun to worry that he was spinning out. He used his signature slingshot, something very few players could return. It cut fast and clean across the court.
But Larsen returned it.
It knocked Brandon off his feet, having to volley back and forth for the point. Point went to Larsen. So did the next one.
The serve after that, he double-faulted. He found himself growing angry, looking at this teenager in front of him. The crowd started muttering, some of them cheering for Larsen.
Larsen smiled at Brandon as he waited, crouched over and ready.
It went through Brandon’s mind that all the papers were anticipating Brandon and Kriek in the finals but now it was looking like he might not even make it past round two.
He began overthinking. His shoulder started feeling tight. For a moment it was as if his muscles did not remember. His serve got looser, slower. Every time he hit a forehand without spin, without precision, he grew more and more angry. Every backhand that missed his intended mark pushed him further into his own head and out of the game.
When he missed the return on Larsen’s last volley, he instantly felt the cameras on him. He’d felt this way before, trapped by the camera. The feeling had been manageable enough to shake off when the camera had caught him in victory, or even in a loss to a worthy opponent. But this had been a slaughter. He was Goliath and he had just lost to David.
Larsen turned to the stands and shook his fists in the air, having beaten the current number one player in the world. The crowd cheered.
Brandon, as he usually did in his rare moments like this, held his face tight, showing no sign of distress. He walked, his whole body tense, to the net. But this time, try as he might, he could not muster a smile as he shook that little fuck’s hand.
He knew his father would have been disappointed by his lack of sportsmanship. But that was the least of his problems.
As he slinked into the locker room, his coach, Tommy, trailed behind him. “What the fuck was that! I’ve never seen you so in your head! You don’t have much time left on the court if that’s all you have to bring!”
Brandon was silent, his heart pounding. Tommy shook his head and left. And when he was gone, Brandon punched a hole in the wall of the men’s locker room.
Obviously, he’d lost before. But in the second round of a tournament he was supposed to win?
• • •
Brandon had gone home to Nina. But the second he opened the front door and saw her, he could not stand the look on her face. Her eyes were wide and welcoming; her mouth was turned down softly in a kind frown. “How are you doing?” she had asked him.
He’d wanted to jump out of his skin. Nina had put her arms around him and hugged him. And then she’d put her hand to his face. “You are a great man,” she’d said. “You’ve already proven that. I mean, you have ten Grand Slams. That’s unbelievable.”
Brandon had taken her hand and moved it away from his face. “Thank you,” he’d said, as he got up and went to take a shower. He could not bear to look at her.
Next up, in January, he was out in the third round at the U.S. Pro Indoor. Fucking McEnroe. Then he lost in straight sets at the Davis Cup in March; the U.S. team didn’t even make it to the quarterfinals. At the Donnay Open, he lost in the semifinals and chucked his racket on the ground. It made headlines. He pulled out of Monte Carlo on account of his shoulder.
Brandon stopped coming home directly after his matches. He told Nina he had to visit his mother or his brother in New York. He made plans for himself and Tommy to stay longer in Buenos Aires and Nice. When he did finally come home, he would talk to Nina about dinner, and the restaurant, and her siblings, and his travel plans, and her schedule, and what art to buy for the downstairs den. He would not talk to her about tennis. He would not tell her his shoulder was killing him. He would sneak out to doctor’s appointments—never told her he’d begun getting cortisone shots.