Page 20 of The Perfect Couple

Greer wipes a tear from the corner of her eye with a napkin. She isn’t normally sentimental, although anyone would have found that toast stirring.

Thomas stands up next and chimes on his own water glass. It’s true perhaps that nothing in this world prepares you for how much you love your children, but Greer has always been a realist where her sons are concerned. She has a firm handle on their strengths and weaknesses. Thomas is the better-looking one; Benji inherited Greer’s father’s crooked nose, and no barber has ever been able to tame Benji’s cowlick. But Benji is smarter and has been either blessed or cursed with a natural gravitas, so he has always seemed like the older brother.

For his toast, Thomas tells the story of when Thomas and Benji, ages eight and six, respectively, got lost at Piccadilly Circus and how Benji was the one who had saved them from abduction or worse. The story goes that Benji, against his brother’s severe warnings, had approached a group of punk rockers and asked a girl with a bright pink Mohawk to help them find their mummy.

“He said the girl’s hair was pretty,” Thomas says. “He believed anyone with such pretty hair was sure to have deep reserves of cleverness and wisdom.”

Greer laughs along with everyone else, although the story rubs her the wrong way for two reasons. First off, she was the one who had taken the boys to Piccadilly, where she had bumped into a woman named Susan Haynes, who sat on the ladies’ auxiliary at Portland Hospital, a group Greer had been keen to join. Greer had become so engrossed in conversation with Susan that she had lost track of the boys. Her own children. When Greer surfaced from the conversation, she looked around and found the two of them had vanished.

Greer is also dismayed because this is the exact same story that Benji told when he had given the toast at Thomas’s wedding four years earlier. Greer finds it terribly unimaginative for Thomas to recycle the very same story. Greer would like to give Tag a private look to see if he agrees, but he’s… where? Still on the call with Ernie? Greer checks on Featherleigh. She’s in her seat, gazing at Thomas with an insipid look on her face.

She’s blotto, Greer thinks. She has three empty cups of the blackberry mojito punch in front of her.

As soon as the applause for Thomas’s half-baked effort subsides, Greer slips discreetly into the house in search of her husband.

She skirts the kitchen, where the catering staff is plating dessert, an assortment of homemade pies: blueberry, peach, Key lime, banana cream, and chocolate pecan. She heads through the den toward the back stairs but stops when she hears a voice coming from the laundry room.

The laundry room? Greer thinks. She pokes her head in.

There’s a girl with her back up against the stacked washer and dryer, her face in her hands, sobbing. It’s… it’s the friend, Celeste’s friend, the maid of honor. Greer blanks on the girl’s name. It’s… Merrill or Madison? No, not quite. Merritt, she thinks. Merritt Monaco.

“Merritt!” Greer says. “What’s wrong?”

When Merritt turns to see Greer, she gasps in surprise. Then she hurries to wipe away her tears. “Nothing,” she says. “It’s just… the excitement.”

“It’s overwhelming, isn’t it?” Greer says. She feels a wave of maternal concern for this girl who is neither getting married like Celeste nor pregnant like Abby. But still, the freedom! Greer wants to encourage Merritt to savor her freedom because soon enough, certainly, it will be gone.

“Come, let’s get you a drink,” Greer says. She beckons Merritt forward, thinking she will lead the girl back out to the party and find Chloe-with-the-champagne. Surely Merritt’s sadness is nothing a little Veuve Clicquot can’t fix.

“I’m fine,” Merritt says, sniffing and trying to collect herself. “I’ll be out shortly. I need the ladies’ room. I should fix my face. But thank you.”

Greer gives the girl a smile. “Very well. I’m on a mission to find my husband anyway. He seems to have disappeared.” She turns to leave but not before catching the glint of a silver ring on Merritt’s thumb.

So it’s true, Greer thinks. All the fashionable girls are wearing them now.

Monday, October 24, 2016

CELESTE

Two days after giving Benji her direct line at the zoo, he calls—not to put her in touch with his friend who may or may not want to bring groups of foreign executives to the zoo but to ask her out to dinner. He wants to take her to the Russian Tea Room on Friday night.

“They’ve redone it since the eighties,” he says. “It’s supposed to be over the top now. Do you like caviar?”

“Um…” Celeste says. She has never had caviar, not only because it’s expensive but also because she has seen sacs of fish eggs floating in aquarium water and… no, thank you.

“Or we could go down to the East Village and eat at Madame Vo’s? It’s Vietnamese. Would you prefer Vietnamese?”

Celeste nearly hangs up the phone. She chastises herself for giving this guy her number. He’s an alien species—or, more likely, she’s the alien. He’s used to beautiful, sophisticated women like Jules, who probably grew up with caviar packed in her lunchbox. Celeste’s rent on East One Hundredth Street is a bit of a stretch, so she rarely goes out to eat. Occasionally, she will meet Merritt for brunch or dinner. Many times, if Merritt is photographed eating at the restaurant or if she posts photos of the food online at #eatingfortheinsta, the meal will be comped. Usually, however, dinner for Celeste is the salad bar at the corner bodega or takeout from the cafeteria at the zoo and, yes, Celeste does know how pathetic that is, but only because Merritt has told her.

“Vietnamese sounds great!” Celeste says, manufacturing as much enthusiasm as she can about a cuisine she knows nothing about.

“Okay, Madame Vo’s it is, then,” Benji says. “I’ll come pick you up?”

“Pick me up?” Celeste says. Her block—which is too far north to properly qualify as the Upper East Side, though too far south to be called Harlem—is relatively safe but neither sexy nor fetching. There’s a laundromat, the bodega, a pet groomer.

“Or we can meet there?” Benji says. “It’s on East Tenth Street.”

“I’ll meet you there,” Celeste says, relieved.

“Eight o’clock?” Benji says.

“Sounds good,” Celeste says, and she hangs up the phone to call Merritt.

First, Merritt screams, You have a date!

Celeste’s face contorts into an expression halfway between a smile and a grimace. She does have a date, and it feels good, because normally, when Celeste and Merritt talk, the only person who has exciting news, or news of any kind, is Merritt. Merritt’s romantic life is so populated that Celeste has a hard time keeping the men straight. Presently, Merritt is dating Robbie, who’s the daytime bartender at the Breslin on Twenty-Ninth Street. He’s tall and pale with bulging biceps and an Irish accent. What’s not to love about Robbie? Celeste wondered after Merritt dragged Celeste down to a Saturday lunch at the Breslin so she could meet him. Why didn’t Merritt stay with him?

For one, Merritt said, Robbie was an aspiring actor. He was constantly going on auditions, and Merritt felt it was only a matter of time before he was cast in a TV pilot that got picked up, at which point he’d move to the West Coast. It wasn’t a good idea to get too attached to anyone not firmly rooted in New York, Merritt said. However, Celeste knew that Merritt was afraid to commit because of a truly heinous situation she’d found herself in the year before she and Celeste met.

The man’s name was Travis Darling. Travis and his wife, Cordelia, owned a PR firm called Brightstreet where Merritt had worked right out of college. She had been handpicked for her job as publicity associate from a pool of over a thousand applicants, and both Travis and Cordelia saw Merritt as a rising PR star, the next Lynn Goldsmith. Merritt’s life had become completely intertwined with the lives of the Darlings. She accompanied them to dinner at least once a week; she hung out at their brownstone on West Eighty-Third Street; she went skiing with them in Stowe and joined them for beach weekends in Bridgehampton.

Travis had always been Merritt’s champion. He asked questions about Merritt’s personal life, encouraged her interest in fashion; he remembered her college roommates’ names. He sought out her opinion because she was young and had a fresh perspective. He would sometimes rest his hand on her shoulder when he was standing behind her desk, and he forwarded her racy jokes from his personal e-mail. When Merritt was out to dinner with Travis and Cordelia, he would pull out her chair. If they were waiting at the bar to be seated, he would usher her forward with his hand on her back. Merritt noted these things but she didn’t protest. After all, Cordelia was right there.

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