Page 25 of The Perfect Couple

“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” he says.

“I’ll do it,” Celeste says.

At Benji’s suggestion, Celeste dresses casually, in sweatpants and a T-shirt. She helps chop vegetables for soup, and during the meal, she pours coffee. All of the guests want sugar in their coffee, lots of sugar; the pockets of Celeste’s pants bulge with packets. One of the male guests starts calling her Sugar Girl. Benji hears him and says, “Hey there, Malcolm, slow your roll. She’s my Sugar Girl.” This makes everyone laugh. Benji has an easy rapport with the guests and knows many of them by name—Malcolm, Slick, Henrietta, Anya, Linus. Celeste tries to be respectful, to pretend she’s working at a restaurant for paying guests, but she can’t help wondering what circumstances life threw at these people that they ended up here. With one stroke of bad luck, she supposes, it could be her. Or her parents.

After dinner, Celeste makes up fourteen cots with sheets and blankets. She doles out one flat pillow per guest. Benji had told her that the guests go to bed early—even though TV is allowed until ten—because being homeless is cold and exhausting. Most of the women lie down right away. Celeste has brought her toiletries in a plastic bag and she goes to the bathroom to brush her teeth and wash her face. It’s kind of like living in the college dorms, but she suspects Benji is right: this isn’t for everyone. Celeste can’t imagine Merritt here in a million years and his ex-girlfriend Jules even less so. She feels proud of herself for being a good person, then decides that the pride means she’s not so good after all.

She kisses Benji chastely in the hallway between the men’s dorm and the women’s dorm.

“Are you going to be okay?” he asks.

“Yes, of course,” she says.

“I wish I could be with you,” he says. He kisses her again.

Celeste crawls onto her cot. The sheets smell like industrial-strength bleach, and the pillow is no more effective than a cocktail napkin. She stuffs her winter coat under her head.

She falls asleep listening to the other women snore. She misses her mother.

Merritt sends a text in the middle of the following week: How’s everything with the boyfriend?

Boyfriend. The term gives Celeste pause—but there’s no denying it. Celeste and Benji like each other. They’re a couple, doing couple things. They’re boyfriend and girlfriend. They’re happy.

And then Celeste meets Shooter.

Saturday, July 7, 2018, 9:30 a.m.

NANTUCKET

Marty Szczerba (Skuh-zer-ba) is the head of security at the Nantucket Memorial Airport. It’s a town job and comes with full benefits, which nearly makes up for the ball-breaking stress of his job in the summer.

June and July are foggy months. In the early summer on Nantucket, warm, moist air flows over the colder water. The moist air cools to its dew point and a cloud forms at the water’s surface. This is fog. Marty wishes the town had a budget allocation for a program in Fog Awareness because cutesy T-shirts and mugs that display the slogan FOG HAPPENS don’t seem to be getting the message across. Fog happens. It will happen to you, Mr. Millionaire from Greenwich, Connecticut, and to you, Ms. Billionaire from Silicon Valley. Your flight will be delayed or canceled if the ceiling drops below two hundred feet. You will miss your connection, and your day’s plans—board meeting, daughter’s graduation from Duke, rendezvous with your lover at the Hotel Le Meurice in Paris—will have to be canceled.

On Saturday, July 7, Marty sits down at his desk for his hot breakfast from Crosswinds, the excellent airport diner—a perk of the job he has greatly appreciated since his wife of thirty-one years, Nancy, died—to look over his choices on Match.com. Finding an age-appropriate woman who wants to live year-round on Nantucket has proven to be something of a challenge. Marty has been on three dates in the past six months, but not one of the women has looked a single thing like her profile picture, which has thrown the integrity of the website into question for Marty. His assistant, Bonita, is a thirty-three-year-old single woman and she keeps telling Marty to use Tinder.

“Swipe right,” she always says. “Guaranteed action.”

It has become a joke between them; Marty isn’t after “action.” What he would like is a meaningful relationship, a leading lady for his second act. It’s just when he is, for the first time, seriously considering Tinder—could he swipe right, just once?—that a phone call comes in from the chief of police. They have found a body floating out in Monomoy and there’s a person of interest—the name the Chief gives Marty is Shooter Uxley—on the run.

Marty writes down the name and a description of the guy—late twenties, dark hair, wearing Nantucket Reds shorts, blue oxford shirt, navy blazer, and loafers. Good-looking, the Chief says. Marty laughs because this description fits any of a hundred guys in the airport at any given moment over the summer. He shovels in a bite of scrambled eggs and home fries, clicks out of his dating website, and goes downstairs to talk to the state police.

Lola Budd has shocked every adult in her life by excelling at her job on the ticket desk at Hy-Line Cruises. Lola’s aunt Kendra, who has been her legal guardian since her mother overdosed and her father went to jail, told Lola she was too young and too immature to handle such a job. Lola Budd has exhibited some uneven behavior both at home and at school, but she convinced her aunt that if she took on a job with a lot of responsibility, she would rise to the challenge. She wants to eventually attend the hospitality school at UMass and she feels a summer job that involves a lot of interfacing with the public will give her an advantage.

She has been at the job for three weeks now and she absolutely loves it. Unlike school, which she believes is a waste of time, this job makes her feel adult, relevant. She is doing something meaningful, facilitating travel between Nantucket and Hyannis, which is to say, between a summer fantasyland and the real world.

Lola especially likes her job on frenetic days like today, the Saturday after the Fourth of July, when the line is 117 people long. This boat, the 9:15, is sold out. Every boat today and all of the boats tomorrow are sold out. To get tickets for you, your wife, and your three kids back to America today, you basically had to make that your New Year’s resolution and execute on January second.

The woman who works at the station next to Lola’s, a sixty-year-old Nantucket native named Mary Ellen Cahill, has a sign in front of her computer terminal that says: BAD PLANNING ON YOUR PART DOES NOT CONSTITUTE AN EMERGENCY ON MY PART. Although Lola agrees with this sentiment, she finds the most satisfying parts of the job are when she can be a hero, when she can arrange for a last-minute ticket to appear out of thin air, when she can fix a snafu. Mr. and Mrs. Diegnan meant to book the last boat back on Friday, not Thursday, even though the ticket Susan Diegnan was showing clearly said Thursday, which was the day before. No problem! Lola would switch the Diegnans to the Friday boat, free of charge. Lola loves calling a name off the waiting list and seeing joy and relief flood someone’s face.

This particular day, however, there will be no faces filled with relief, and Lola has nothing to offer but a manufactured expression of sympathy. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have a boat ticket available until Monday at four oh five. You may want to check with the Steamship Authority. Their car ferries accommodate far more passengers.” Today there will be people swearing in front of and at Lola. Today there will be people calling the Hy-Line a “Mickey Mouse operation” and a “dog-and-pony show.”

A dog-and-pony show? Lola thinks. What even is that?

In job training, Lola was taught to accept all comments with calm reserve. The worst thing she can do is react with anger or indignation, thereby engaging the disgruntled customer.

“I have a problem,” a puffy-faced pregnant woman says. She’s sweating, carrying a toddler, and she has another child, perhaps five years old, clinging to her leg. “I was holding my ferry tickets for two adults and two children, and I set them down for a second and when I picked them back up I had only one adult and two children, which means someone stole one of my ferry tickets.”

Lola nods. She has yet to be confronted with accusations of ticket theft, but if it was going to happen, she thinks, then it was going to happen today. On the other side of her counter is a mob of desperate people.

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