Page 16 of The Perfect Couple

As Karen opens her mouth to assure her daughter that she is doing the right thing, Bruce comes into the room with a navy-and-white-striped beach towel wrapped around his waist. Karen feasts her eyes on her husband—to her, he’s every bit as beautiful as he was on the pool balcony so many years ago. His shoulders are defined by rippling muscles; his chest is smooth and broad. They have never had money for gym memberships; Bruce does old-fashioned calisthenics—sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups—in their bedroom every morning before work. He has been outside for less than an hour and already his skin has a healthy golden glow. Karen always envied the Mediterranean blood he’d inherited from his mother. He would go outside to mow the lawn and come back a bronzed god.

“Both my girls!” he says. “What a surprise!”

“D-D-Did you get the Reds, Mac?” Celeste asks. “For t-t-tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Bruce says. He pulls a pair of pants out of the closet; they are the color of dusty bricks. “I don’t see what the big deal is. It’s certainly not the style. Is it the color? Mrs. Winbury, Greer, told me they would fade with every washing. It sounds like I’m going to need to spring for the dry cleaner.”

“N-N-No, you should wash them,” Celeste says. “That’s the idea. The m-m-more they f-f-fade, the c-c-cooler they are.”

“That makes no sense,” Bruce says. “Did you happen to notice the black jeans I had on earlier? Sleek as a panther.”

“The Reds are d-d-different, though,” Celeste says.

“It’s a Nantucket thing, darling,” Karen says to Bruce. She thinks she gets it; the older and more worn the pants, the more authentic they are. The sleek-as-a-panther look, shiny and new, doesn’t work on Nantucket; the preferred aesthetic is a careless appearance: faded pants, frayed collars, scuffed penny loafers. Bruce won’t understand this but Karen gives him a look that implores him to just get with the program. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and embarrass Celeste.

Bruce catches Karen’s eye and seems to read her mind. “I’ll do as you tell me, Bug.” He throws on a T-shirt, then takes Celeste’s hand and Karen’s hand so that they form a human chain. But every chain has a weak link, and in their case, it’s Karen. She’s leaving them behind. The agony of this is exquisite. There is nothing more terrible, she has decided, than the ferocity with which humans can love.

“I came in to help B-B-Betty get ready,” Celeste says. “The p-p-party starts in a little while.”

“What about the rehearsal?” Bruce says. “Aren’t we all going to the church?”

“Reverend D-D-Derby’s flight from New York was d-d-delayed so we decided to scrap the rehearsal,” Celeste says.

Karen is relieved. She isn’t certain she would have made it through both the rehearsal and the party. Bruce, however, seems miffed.

“How are we supposed to practice our walk?” he says.

“We don’t have to p-p-practice,” Celeste says. “We link arms, we walk. Slowly. You hand me off to B-B-Benji. You k-k-kiss me.”

“I wanted to practice,” Bruce says. “Practice doing it without crying. I figured since today was the first time, I’d cry, but then tomorrow it would be old hat and maybe I wouldn’t cry. Maybe. But I wanted to practice.”

Celeste shrugs. “We d-d-decided not to d-d-do it.”

Bruce nods. “All right. I’ll help your mother. You go relax, Bug. Have a glass of wine.”

“Find Benji,” Karen says. “The two of you could probably use some alone time before all this begins.”

“But I want to stay here,” Celeste says. “With b-b-both of you.”

Bruce helps Karen in and out of the shower.

Celeste helps Karen put on a soft white waffle-knit cotton robe with a light terry-cloth lining—there are two in every guest room, Celeste tells her, laundered after each use by Elida, the Winburys’ summer housekeeper—and then Celeste rubs her mother’s arms, back, and legs with Greer Garrison’s favorite lotion, La Prairie White Caviar Illuminating and Moisturizing Cream, also in every guest room. The lotion is like none Karen has ever used before; it’s rich, luscious even. Karen’s skin drinks it in.

Bruce helps Karen get dressed. She is wearing a silk kimono over black leggings and a pair of Tory Burch ballet flats from two seasons ago that Bruce plucked off the sale rack for pennies.

“Style,” Bruce says. “And comfort.”

Karen looks in the mirror. She’s swimming in the kimono. She tugs on the belt.

“Lipstick, B-B-Betty,” Celeste says. She dabs at Karen’s lips with the nub of Karen’s old standby, Maybelline’s New York Red. It’s the only lipstick Karen has ever worn. Or ever will wear.

“I’d say you’re ready,” Bruce says. “You look stunning.”

“I just want to use the toilet real quick,” Karen says. This, at least, she can still do without help. She closes the door to the bathroom. She needs an oxycodone. Two, actually, because so much is expected of her. She’ll be introduced to dozens of people she doesn’t know and wouldn’t care about except that some of these people will remain in Celeste’s life long after Karen is gone, and Karen is determined that every single one of those people will remember her, Celeste’s mother, as a “lovely woman.”

Karen can’t find her oxy. The pill bottle was in her Vera Bradley cosmetic bag along with her lipstick and a Revlon mascara that was rendered useless when she lost her eyelashes. Where… Karen tries not to panic but those pills are the only thing keeping her going. Without them, she will curl up in bed in a fetal position and howl with pain.

Karen’s gaze sweeps the gleaming marble, glass, and mirrored surfaces of the guest bathroom. There’s Karen’s toothbrush in a silver cup. There’s the miraculous body cream. Karen pulls open the little drawers, hoping that maybe Celeste tucked her things away so that she would feel at home.

And yes—in the third drawer, there are her pills. Oh, thank you! It seems like an unusual place to put them, but maybe Celeste didn’t want the summer housekeeper to stumble across them and be tempted. Karen thinks about chastising Celeste for pawing through her things. Everyone deserves a modicum of privacy, a secret or two. But mostly, Karen feels an overwhelming relief that is nearly as powerful as the pills themselves. She taps two oxy into her palm, fills the silver cup with water, and swallows.

GREER

She checks her e-mail to review the timetable that Siobhan the caterer sent her and, unfortunately, she sees a new e-mail from Enid Collins, Greer’s editor at Livingston and Greville, with the subject line URGENT.

This makes Greer laugh. Enid is seventy-seven years old. She has eleven grandchildren and one great-grandchild and she still marks up Greer’s manuscripts with a red pencil. Never once in the twenty-two years that Enid has been editing Greer’s novels has she ever used the word urgent. Enid believes strongly in letting ideas marinate—for days or weeks or months. There’s nothing Enid despises more than a rush.

Greer checks the e-mail even though the definition of urgent is transpiring right outside the window of Greer’s sitting room: the rental people are setting up chairs, the band is doing a sound check, and sixty people are due to descend on Summerland for the rehearsal dinner, among them Featherleigh Dale.

Dearest Greer, the e-mail begins (Enid composes all of her e-mails as formal letters).

I’m sure you will understand how it pains me to tell you this, since I have long been a champion of your work, your very first champion, if you remember.

Yes, Greer does remember. She was out of her mind with boredom when she was pregnant with Thomas—Tag was at the office day and night back then—and so she’d started writing a murder mystery set in the sixth arrondissement of Paris entitled Prey in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés. She had sent it off to Livingston and Greville, the publishing house that brought out the mysteries Greer most enjoyed herself, and, lo and behold, she received a letter of interest from an established editor named Enid Collins who said she would like to publish the book and might Greer be able to meet and discuss terms of payment and editorial changes? This had launched the Dolly Hardaway murder mystery series, the most successful of which, The Killer on Khao San Road, was made into a movie that had somehow attained that elusive thing known as cult status.

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