Page 39 of The Perfect Couple

Besotted, she thinks. It’s a peculiar word, old-fashioned and British-sounding. But Benji is the British one, not Shooter. Somewhere in all the sharing of last night, Celeste learned that Shooter is from Palm Beach, Florida. Shooter was shipped off to summer camp at age eight and to boarding school a few years after that. Shooter’s father died when Shooter was a junior at St. George’s.

“And that was when the wheels fell off the bus,” Shooter said. “My father had been married twice before and had other kids and those other Uxleys swooped in and claimed everything. My one brother, Mitch, agreed to pay my final year of tuition at St. George’s but I had no discretionary income so I started running a dice game at school. There was no money for college so I moved to DC, where I worked as a bartender. Eventually I found a high-stakes poker game where I met diplomats, lobbyists, and a bunch of foreign businessmen. Which led me to my present venture.”

“What happened to your mother?” Celeste asked.

“She died,” Shooter said. Then he shook his head and Celeste knew not to ask anything further.

Besotted. What does he mean by that, exactly? There’s no time to ponder because he’s leading her down the street toward the Bartlett’s Farm truck. He buys three hothouse tomatoes and a loaf of Portuguese bread.

“Tomatoes, mayonnaise, good white bread,” he says. “My favorite summer sandwich.”

Celeste raises a skeptical eyebrow. She was raised on cold cuts—turkey, ham, salami, roast beef. Her parents may have struggled with money but there was always meat piled high on her sandwiches.

Celeste changes her tune, however, when she is sitting poolside in one of her new bikinis and Shooter brings her his favorite sandwich. The bread has been toasted golden brown; the slices of tomato are thick and juicy, seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and there is exactly the right amount of mayonnaise to make the sandwich tangy and luscious.

“What do you think?” he asks. “Pretty good, huh?”

She shrugs and takes another bite.

They are lying side by side on chaises in the afternoon sun, the pool cool and dark before them. The pool has a subtle waterfall feature at one end that makes what Celeste thinks of as water music, a lullaby that threatens to put her to sleep in the middle of a very important conversation. She and Shooter are picking the best song by every classic rock performer they can think of.

“Rolling Stones,” Shooter says. “‘Ruby Tuesday.’”

“‘Beast of Burden,’” Celeste says.

“Ooooooh,” Shooter says. “Good call.”

“David Bowie,” Celeste says. “‘Changes.’”

“I’m a ‘Modern Love’ guy,” Shooter says.

Celeste shakes her head. “Can’t stand it.”

“Dire Straits,” Shooter says. “‘Romeo and Juliet.’” He reaches his foot over to nudge her leg. “Wake up. Dire Straits.”

She likes the song about roller girl. She’s making movies on location, she don’t know what it means. Celeste is sinking behind her closed eyelids. Sinking down. What is the name of that song? She can’t… remember.

Celeste wakes up to someone calling her name.

Celeste! Earth to Celeste!

She opens her eyes and looks at the chaise next to hers. Empty. She squints. Across the pool she sees a man in half a suit—pants, shirt, tie. It’s Benji. Benji is here. Celeste sits up. She straightens her bikini top.

“Hey there,” Celeste says, but the tone of her voice has changed. Her heart isn’t in it.

“Hey,” Benji says. He moves Shooter’s towel aside and sits on Shooter’s chaise. “How are you? How has it been?”

“I’m fine,” Celeste says. “It’s been… fine.”

Celeste tries to think of details she can share: lobster dinner, “Sweet Caroline,” swimming in her bra and panties under the stars way past her bedtime, truffle butter, a tree falls in the forest?

No.

A bike ride with the morning sun on her face, a bouquet of snapdragons, cosmos, and zinnias, tomato sandwiches?

The name of the song comes to her.

“‘Skateaway,’” she says.

“Excuse me?” Benji says.

Celeste blinks rapidly. Her field of vision is swimming with bright, amorphous blobs, as though she’s been staring at the sun.

Friday, July 6, 2018, 11:15 p.m.

KAREN

She takes an oxy, brushes her teeth, and puts on a nightgown only to take the nightgown off right before she slides into bed. The sheets are Belgian, Celeste said, seven-hundred-thread-count cotton, which is the very best. The bed is dressed in a white down comforter, an ivory cashmere blanket, these white cotton sheets with a scalloped edge, and a mountain of pillows, each as soft as a dollop of whipped cream. Karen places them all around her and sinks in. It’s like sleeping on a cloud. Will heaven be like sleeping in one of Summerland’s guest beds? She can only hope.

She drifts off, her pain at bay.

She wakes up with a start—Celeste! Celeste! She reaches an arm out to feel for Bruce but the other side of the bed is cool and empty. Karen checks the bedside clock: 11:46. Quarter to twelve and Bruce hasn’t come to bed yet? Karen feels annoyed at first, then hurt. She realizes her naked body is no longer appealing, but she had thought maybe something would happen tonight. She wants to feel close to Bruce one more time.

She struggles to catch her breath. She was having a dream, a nightmare, about Celeste. Celeste was… somewhere unfamiliar… a hotel with unnumbered floors, different levels, some of which led to dead ends; it was a confusing maze of a place. Celeste kept calling out but Karen couldn’t get to her. Celeste had something to tell her, something she needed Karen to know.

Celeste doesn’t want to marry Benji, Karen thinks. That is the stark truth.

Involuntarily, the psychic’s word comes to her: Chaos.

Part of Karen believes Celeste should go through with the wedding anyway. So she isn’t madly in love with Benji. Possibly she feels only a fraction of what Karen feels for Bruce, or possibly it’s a different emotion altogether. Karen wants to tell Celeste to make the best of her situation, a situation any other young woman would kill to find herself in. Celeste and Benji don’t have to be a perfect couple. Really, there is no such thing.

But then Karen stops herself. It is only the most selfish of women who would encourage their daughters to marry people they don’t love. What Karen must do—now, she realizes, now—is give Celeste permission to back out. There are 170 people descending on Summerland tomorrow for a wedding unlike any other; over a hundred thousand dollars has been spent on these nuptials, perhaps even twice that. But no amount of money or logistics is worth a lifetime of settling. Karen must find Celeste now.

Finding Celeste, however, suddenly seems arduous. Will a phone call suffice? Karen picks up her cell phone and dials Celeste’s number. The call goes to voice mail.

This is the universe telling Karen that a phone call will not suffice. Celeste turns her phone off when she goes to bed; she must be asleep.

Gingerly, Karen lowers her feet to the floor and stands. She finds her cane and hoists herself up. The oxy is still working; she feels strong and steady with purpose. She wraps herself in the robe and ventures out into the hallway.

If Karen’s memory serves, Benji’s room, where Celeste is staying alone tonight, is the second door on the left. The hallway has subtle lighting along the baseboard so Karen can see where to plant her cane as she pads down the hall. When she reaches the door, she taps lightly. She doesn’t want to wake the whole house up but neither does she want to interrupt anything.

There is no answer. Karen presses her ear to the door. In their house on Derhammer Street, the doors are hollow-core. Here they are true, solid wood, impossible to hear through. Karen eases the door open.

“Celeste?” she says. “Honey?”

The room is silent. Karen gropes for the switch and turns on the light. The bed is made up just as Karen’s is—comforter, cashmere blanket, a host of pillows. Celeste hasn’t gotten home yet, then. Or maybe she decided to join Merritt in the cottage so they can stay up gossiping and giggling on Celeste’s last night as a single woman. But somehow Karen doubts that. Celeste has never been a gossiper or a giggler. She never had close girlfriends growing up, which used to worry Karen, even as she loved being Celeste’s closest confidante.

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