Page 32 of The Perfect Couple

He walks Merritt back to her apartment and she pulls him in by the front of the shirt. She wants him to come inside. And he wants to, oh, does he want to. He agrees, but just for a minute, he says.

She has turned him into a teenager again. His desire is so intense, so relentless, it frightens him. He can’t remember wanting anyone or anything as much as he wants this girl. His feelings for Greer seem almost quaint by comparison.

Merritt is twenty-eight years old, nearly twenty-nine. She has a lukewarm relationship with her brother and she doesn’t speak to her parents at all. This, Tag can’t understand.

“What do you do on Thanksgiving?” he asks. “Christmas?”

She shrugs. “Last year, Thanksgiving was Chinese food and a movie. On Christmas, I flew to Tulum for a yoga retreat.”

Tag senses a hole inside of Merritt, an emotional hole, which he knows is very, very dangerous. He needs to end this thing now, while there is still time to recover before the wedding. But the attraction grows stronger. Soon, he thinks only of Merritt—when he’s working, when he’s exercising, when he and Greer are eating dinner at Rosa Mexicano. Greer is consumed with finishing her novel and planning Benji’s wedding. She is so focused on these two projects that she doesn’t notice any change in Tag. She doesn’t see him, she doesn’t hear him, and sex is out of the question. She jokes that they’ll have a second honeymoon once Benji and Celeste are on their first honeymoon. But Tag knows that once the wedding is over, Greer will collapse, exhausted, or she’ll go into a funk because there’s nothing left to look forward to.

He schedules a drinks meeting with clients at the bar at the Whitby Hotel and he asks Merritt to go sit at this bar without letting on that she knows him. She does exactly as he asks, wearing a slinky black dress and five-inch stilettos, and Tag excuses himself from his clients for a moment. He follows Merritt into the ladies’ room, where they lock the door and have shockingly hot sex. When Tag walks out, he is so intoxicated he doesn’t care who sees him.

Later, he chastises himself for being reckless. He asks himself what he’s doing.

She is given tickets to see Billy Joel at Madison Square Garden. Will he go with her?

“I can’t,” he says. “It’s too risky.”

“Please,” she says. “They’re second-row seats.”

“That’s the problem,” he says. “If they were nosebleed seats, I wouldn’t worry about seeing anyone I know.”

“Fine, then,” she says. “I’ll take Robbie.”

“Who’s Robbie?”

“My on-again, off-again,” Merritt says. “He’s the daytime bartender at the Breslin.”

Tag is addled by news of Robbie’s existence, although what did he expect? Naturally, there’s a Robbie. He wouldn’t be surprised if there were half a dozen Robbies. The thought is so dispiriting that the next day finds Tag at the bar of the Breslin at lunchtime, ordering the rabbit terrine and a scotch egg—at least it’s a good place—from a big Irish hunk. Robbie. He has six inches and forty pounds on Tag, plus he’s twenty-five years younger. This is who Merritt should be dating. Not only is Robbie a bartender, he’s an aspiring actor—and idle chitchat reveals that he’s just been cast in a pilot. Tag hates Robbie with a bloodred passion; he leaves him an absurdly large tip.

The night of the concert, Tag is agitated. He imagines Robbie putting his shovel-size hands on Merritt’s waist and swaying to the music behind her. He’s so unsettled by this vision that he tells Greer he isn’t hungry for dinner; he might have a sandwich in his study later.

He sends Merritt a text: Let me know when the concert is over. I’ll meet you at your place.

Twenty fraught minutes later, he receives a text back: K.

K. Has there ever been a less satisfying response in the short history of texting? Tag thinks not.

Eleven o’clock comes and goes, eleven thirty. Tag succumbs to his hunger and heads to the kitchen for a ham sandwich. He sees a light on in their bedroom. He opens the door to find Greer wearing her tailored blue pajamas. Her hair is in a bun held up with a pencil and her reading glasses are perched on the end of her nose. There’s a glass of chardonnay to the right of her laptop. She’s in the middle of a scene, he can tell, but she looks up and smiles.

“Shall we go to bed, then?” she asks.

Yes, Tag thinks. Say yes. Look how elegant his wife is, how productive, how ingenious. She’s absolutely everything he could ever want in a woman.

“I need to keep going,” Tag says. “Ernie and I are putting that Libya deal together. It’s going to be huge. He’ll be at the office first thing in the morning and I have to have the numbers waiting for him.”

Greer shuts off her computer. “Well, I’m calling it a night.” She raises her face for a kiss. “Don’t stay up too late.”

“You know I won’t,” Tag says. “Love you, darling.”

He waits until twelve thirty and when there is still no text from Merritt, he sneaks out of the apartment, hails a taxi, and goes down to Perry Street. He stands outside her building and buzzes her apartment, but there’s no answer.

Then he hears her laugh. He looks down the street to spy Merritt and Robbie on approach. They are walking close together but not touching. Tag tries to hurry down the steps of the building before she sees him… but it’s too late.

“Tag?” she says.

He’s caught. It’s nearly one in the morning; there is no way to play this off as casual. He’s a worldly, successful man standing in front of a girl’s apartment building like some schlub in a rom-com; if Greer could see him now, she would find him so absurd she might even laugh. But the sight of Merritt sends a surge of adrenaline through Tag. He feels enough passion to kick Robbie the lickspittle to the curb despite his size advantage and then carry Merritt up the stairs over his shoulder. She’s wearing a white crocheted sundress and dangling earrings and her hair is up. She’s as fetching as any woman he’s ever seen.

“I need to talk to you,” he says.

“Okay,” Merritt says. She looks up at Robbie. “Robbie, this is Tag. Tag, Robbie.”

Tag extends a hand automatically. Robbie says, “Weren’t you in for lunch the other day? At the Breslin?”

Tag shouldn’t have left such a big tip. It would have been impossible to forget.

“Were you?” Merritt says. She looks amused. She now understands the power she has over him. He has made such a mess of things, he thinks. He should have just gone to the concert.

Merritt’s birthday is June 18. She wants to do something special. She wants to go away with Tag. Tag considers this request. Where would they go? To Paris? Rome? Istanbul? Los Angeles? Rio de Janeiro? He does some research on Istanbul but decides flying overseas is impractical and risky, even if they do so separately. He books a hotel room in New York instead, at the Four Seasons downtown. He worries a bit because before he and Greer moved to New York, they used to stay at the Four Seasons in midtown, and they like to stay at Four Seasons when they travel. But it’s a brand he trusts and it’s only one night and the hotel is all the way down by the Freedom Tower, which isn’t a neighborhood that anyone he knows frequents after five o’clock.

The weekend before Merritt’s birthday, Tag and Greer are on Nantucket. Greer has a three-hour meeting with Roger Pelton, the wedding planner. Tag goes for a ride in the kayak, then he drives into town to get lunch—he loves the soft-shell crab sandwich from Straight Wharf Fish—and while he’s at it, he decides to buy Merritt a present. He has been trained by Greer to understand that the only acceptable present for a birthday or anniversary is jewelry. He walks into the Jessica Hicks boutique thinking he will get earrings or a choker, but when he describes the young woman he’s buying for—he pretends the gift is for his daughter-in-law, Abby, who is pregnant with their first grandchild—Jessica shows him the silver ring with the lace pattern embedded with the multicolored sapphires.

“It’s meant to be worn on the thumb,” Jessica says.

“The thumb?” Tag says.

“Trust me,” Jessica says. “It’s a thing.”