Page 3 of The Perfect Couple

Money, Karen thinks. Where does all the money come from? She is seasoned enough to know that money can’t buy happiness—and it certainly can’t buy health—but it’s still intriguing to contemplate just how much money the people who own these houses must have. First off, these are second homes, so one must account for the first home—a brownstone in Manhattan or a brick mansion in Georgetown, an estate on the Main Line or a horse farm in Virginia—and then factor in the price of waterfront property here on this prestigious island. Next, Karen considers all of the furnishings such houses must contain: the rugs, the sofas, the tables and chairs, the lamps, the pencil-post beds, the nine-thousand-thread-count Belgian sheets, the decorative pillows, the Jacuzzi bathtubs, the scented candles next to the Jacuzzi bathtubs. (Celeste has educated Karen beyond the world of Yankee Candle; there are apparently candles that sell for over four hundred dollars. Celeste’s future sister-in-law, Abby, gave Celeste such a candle as an engagement present, and when Celeste told Karen that a Jo Malone pine-and-eucalyptus candle sold for $470, Karen hooted. That was nearly as much as Bruce had paid for his first car, a 1969 Chevy Nova!)

Then, of course, there’s the staff to pay: landscapers, house cleaners, caretakers, nannies for the children. There are the cars—Range Rovers, Jaguars, BMWs. There must be sailing and tennis lessons, monogrammed seersucker dresses, grosgrain ribbons for the hair, a new pair of Topsiders each season. And what about the food such houses must contain? Bowls of peaches and plums, cartons of strawberries and blueberries, freshly baked bread, quinoa salad, ripe avocados, organic eggs, fat-marbled steaks, and steaming, scarlet lobsters. And butter. Lots and lots of butter.

Karen also factors in all of the dull stuff that no one likes to think about: insurance, taxes, electricity, cable TV, attorneys.

These families must have fifty million dollars each, Karen decides. At least. And how does someone, anyone, make that much money? She would ask Bruce but she doesn’t want to make him feel self-conscious. Meaning she doesn’t want to make him feel any more self-conscious; she knows he’s already sensitive about money—because they don’t have any. Despite this, Bruce will be the best-dressed man at the wedding, Karen is certain. Bruce works in the suit department at Neiman Marcus in the King of Prussia Mall. He gets a 30 percent discount on clothes plus free alterations. He has managed to keep his wrestler’s physique—strong shoulders, tapered waist (no beer belly for him!)—and so he cuts an impressive silhouette. If he were two inches taller, a store vice president once told him, he could work as a model.

Bruce is almost like a woman in the way he loves fine clothes. When he brings home something new (which is fairly often, a fact that used to confuse Karen, as they don’t really have the money for new clothes or the money to go anywhere he might wear them), he likes to give Karen a fashion show. She sits on the edge of the bed—lately, she lies in the bed—while Bruce gets dressed in the bathroom and then emerges, one hand on hip, and sashays around the room like it’s a fashion runway. It cracks Karen up every time. She has come to understand that this is why he buys new suits, shirts, ties, trousers, and socks—to give Karen joy.

And because he likes to look good. Today, for their arrival, he’s wearing a pair of pressed black G-Star jeans and a black-and-turquoise paisley Robert Graham shirt with contrasting grasshopper-green cuffs, a pair of zebra-striped socks, and black suede Gucci loafers. It’s hot in the sun. Even Karen, who is always cold now thanks to the chemo, is warm. Bruce must be roasting.

A lighthouse swathed in an American flag comes into view, and then Karen sees two church steeples, one a white spire, one a clock tower with a gold dome. The harbor is filled with sailboats of all sizes, power yachts with tiered tuna towers, cigarette boats, cabin cruisers.

“It’s like a movie set,” Karen says, but her words get carried away on the sea breeze and Bruce doesn’t hear her. She can see from the expression on his face that he’s as mesmerized as she is. He’s probably thinking that they haven’t been anywhere this enchanting since their honeymoon thirty-two years earlier. She was eighteen years old then, just out of high school, and after the cost of the wedding clothes and a ceremony at the courthouse, they had $280 left for a weeklong getaway. They bought a case of wine coolers (they’re out of fashion now but, oh, how Karen had loved a cold raspberry Bartles and Jaymes back then) and a bunch of snack food—Bugles, Cool Ranch Doritos, Funyuns—and they’d climbed into Bruce’s Chevy Nova, popped in his Bat Out of Hell eight-track, and taken off for the coast, both of them singing at the top of their lungs.

They had reached the Jersey Shore points early on but neither of them had felt compelled to stop. The shore had been the beach of their youth—class trips, a family vacation to Wildwood every summer—and so they had continued going north to New England.

New England, Karen remembers now, had sounded very exotic.

They ran low on gas in a town called Madison, Connecticut, exit 61 off I-95, that had a leafy main street lined with shops, like something out of a 1950s sitcom. When Karen got out of the car to stretch her legs at the filling station, she had smelled salt in the air.

She said, “I think we’re near the water.”

They had asked the gas-station attendant what there was to see in Madison, Connecticut, and he directed them to a restaurant called the Lobster Deck, which had an uninterrupted view of the Long Island Sound. Down the street from the Lobster Deck, across from a state park with a beach, was the Sandbar Motel and Lodge; a room cost $105 for the week.

Karen knows she’s not worldly. She has never been to Paris, Bermuda, or even the West Coast. She and Bruce used to take Celeste to the Pocono Mountains on vacation. They skied at Camelback in the winter and went to the Great Wolf Lodge water park in the summer. The rest of their money they saved for Celeste to go to college. She had shown an interest in animals at an early age, and both Bruce and Karen had hoped she would become a veterinarian. When Celeste’s interests had instead run toward zoology, that had been fine too. She had been offered a partial scholarship at Miami University of Ohio, which had the best zoology department in the country. “Partial scholarship” still left a lot to pay for—some tuition, room, board, books, spending money, bus tickets home—and so there had been precious little left over for travel.

Hence, that one trip to New England remained sacred to both Karen and Bruce. They are even further in the hole now—nearly a hundred thousand dollars in debt, thanks to Karen’s medical bills—but there was no way they were going to miss making the trip to Nantucket. On their way home, once Celeste and Benji are safely on their honeymoon in Greece, they will stop in Madison, Connecticut, for what Karen is privately calling the Grand Finale. The Sandbar Motel and Lodge is long gone, so instead, Bruce has booked an oceanfront suite at the Madison Beach Hotel. It’s a Hilton property. Bruce told Karen he got it for free by accepting Hilton Honors points offered to him by the store’s general manager, Mr. Allen. Karen knows that all of Bruce’s co-workers have wondered how to help out their favorite sales associate, Bruce in Suits, whose wife has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and while this is slightly mortifying, she does appreciate the concern and, especially, Mr. Allen’s generous offer to pay for their hotel. Madison, Connecticut, has taken on the paradisiacal qualities of a Shangri-la. Karen wants to eat lobster—with butter, lots and lots of butter—and she wants to watch the honey lozenge of the sun drop into the Long Island Sound. She wants to fall asleep in Bruce’s arms as she listens to waves lap the shore, their daughter successfully married.

The Grand Finale.

Last August, Karen learned that she had a tumor on her L3 vertebra. The breast cancer, which she’d believed she’d beaten, had metastasized to her bones. Her oncologist, Dr. Edman, has given her a year to eighteen months. Karen figures she has until at least the end of the summer, which is an enormous blessing, especially when you consider all the people throughout history who have died without warning. Why, Karen could be crossing Northampton Street to the circle in downtown Easton and get hit by a car, making the cancer diagnosis irrelevant.

Celeste had been gutted by the news. She had just gotten engaged to Benji but she said she wanted to postpone the wedding, leave New York, and move back to Easton to take care of Karen. This was the exact opposite of what Karen wanted. Karen encouraged Celeste to move up the wedding, rather than postpone it.

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