Page 58 of The Perfect Couple

Celeste takes another sip of her bloody while Merritt peruses the oyster list on the blackboard. It would be such a relief to confess her feelings to Merritt. That’s what best friends are for, right? Technically Celeste is being a bad friend by not telling Merritt. And yet Celeste fears naming her feelings. She’s afraid if she says the words aloud—I’m in love with Shooter—something very bad will happen.

Merritt orders a dozen oysters. She’s in a West Coast mood, she says, so six Kumamotos and six Fanny Bays; Celeste has agreed to taste one of each in an attempt to cultivate a taste for the little buggers. Genus: Crassostrea. Species: gigas.

Merritt takes an exaggerated breath and says, “Please don’t judge me.”

“I would never,” Celeste says. “What’s going on?”

Merritt holds out her hand. “I’m so nervous, I’m actually shaking.”

“Just tell me,” Celeste says. She’s used to Merritt’s theatrics. They’re one of the reasons Celeste loves her.

“I’ve been seeing someone,” Merritt says. “It started a few weeks ago and I thought it was a casual fling, but then the guy called me up and since then it’s gotten more serious.”

“Okay?” Celeste says. She doesn’t understand what the big deal is.

“He’s married,” Merritt says.

Celeste shakes her head. “I thought you learned your lesson with Travis Darling.”

“Travis was a predator,” Merritt says. “This guy I really like. The problem is… promise you won’t kill me?”

“Kill you?” Celeste says. She can’t figure out what Merritt is going to tell her.

“It’s your future father-in-law,” Merritt says. Her head falls forward but she turns to give Celeste a sidelong glance. “It’s Tag.”

Celeste is very proud of herself: She doesn’t scream. She doesn’t hop off her stool, leave the bar, and get back on the subway uptown. Instead, she sucks down the rest of her bloody mary and signals the bartender for another.

It’s Tag. Merritt and… Tag.

Celeste has been hanging out with Merritt for too long, she thinks, because she isn’t shocked. She can all too easily picture Merritt and Tag together. “Did it start when he took you to the wine dinner?”

“A little before that,” Merritt says. “I noticed him checking me out the Friday night of your bachelorette weekend while we were out front waiting for the taxi. And so on Saturday morning, I did an exploratory mission to see if he was actually interested, and he was.”

“Have you slept with him?” Celeste asks. Tag is an attractive guy, and very alpha, which is how Merritt likes her men. But Celeste can’t imagine having sex with him. He’s older than her father.

“Are you really twenty-eight years old?” Merritt asks. “Of course I slept with him.”

“Ugh,” Celeste says. “I’m sorry, but—”

“I figured it would be a one-night stand,” Merritt says. “He asked for my number but I never thought he’d use it. But then, a week and a half later, he called me at two o’clock in the morning.”

“Oh, jeez,” Celeste says. Her mind starts traveling the predictable path: What is Tag thinking? He’s such a creep! Such a stereotypical male douchebag! Up until this very moment, Celeste had liked him. It’s heartbreaking to discover he’s preying on her friend, a woman the same age as his children. Does he do this all the time? He must! And what about Greer? Celeste would never have guessed she would ever have occasion to feel sorry for Greer Garrison, but she does now. She understands the biological impulse behind Tag’s actions: he is still virile, still seeking to spread his seed and propagate the species.

But come on!

“Come on!” Celeste says.

Merritt cringes at the outburst.

“Sorry,” Celeste says. She dives into the second bloody mary. “I’m sorry. I won’t judge you. But p-p-please, Merritt, you have to end it. Tomorrow. Or better still, t-t-tonight.”

“I don’t think I can,” Merritt says. “I’m in it. He’s got me. My birthday is next week and I asked him to take me away. I think he’s considering it.”

“You’re a g-g-grown woman,” Celeste says. She winces; her stutter is back. Of course it’s back! Celeste went from feeling relaxed to feeling like she just stepped off the Tilt-a-Whirl at the carnival with a stomach full of fried dough. “He hasn’t got you. You can exercise free will and walk away.”

“He’s all I think about,” Merritt says. “He’s in my blood. It’s like I’m infected.” The oysters arrive and Merritt absentmindedly douses half of them with hot sauce. “Do you have any idea what that feels like?”

In my blood. Infected.

Yes, she thinks. Shooter.

“N-N-No,” she says.

Against her better judgment, Celeste stays with Merritt at Fish all afternoon. Celeste has a Cobb salad, Merritt a tuna burger with extra wasabi. They order a bottle of Sancerre, and then—because Celeste is very slowly processing the news and Merritt is experiencing some kind of high at finally sharing it—they order a second bottle.

“Sancerre is a sauvignon blanc that comes from the Loire Valley,” Merritt says. “Tag taught me that our first night together.”

“Great,” Celeste says. She is patient as Merritt gradually reveals the particulars of her relationship with Tag. They meet at her apartment. They once went out for sandwiches. Tag paid, pulled her chair out, emptied her trash. Tag is refined, he’s mature, he is smart and successful. She knows it’s cliché but she is a sucker for his British accent. She wants to eat it, take a bath in it. Tag is jealous of Robbie. He showed up outside Merritt’s apartment building in the middle of the night because he was so jealous.

“Does he ever t-t-talk about Greer?” Celeste asks. She pours herself another glass of wine. She is getting drunk. Their food has been cleared and so Celeste attacks the bowl of peanuts.

“Sometimes he mentions her,” Merritt says. “But we tend to stay away from the topic of family.”

“Wise,” Celeste says.

Merritt tells Celeste that, just a few days earlier, Tag asked Merritt to show up at a hotel bar where he was meeting clients for drinks. They had sex in the ladies’ room, then Merritt left.

It’s like a scene from a movie, Celeste thinks. Except it’s real life, her real best friend and her real future father-in-law. She should be horrified! But in an uncharacteristic twist, she is almost relieved that Merritt is doing something even worse than she is. She’s in love with Benji’s best friend. But she has exercised willpower. Willpower, she now understands, is an endangered species. Other people conduct wildly inappropriate affairs.

“I have to get home,” Celeste says, checking her phone. “Benji lands in twenty minutes and he’s c-c-coming over for dinner.”

“You can’t tell Benji,” Merritt says.

Celeste gives her friend a look. She’s not sure what kind of look because her face feels like it’s made of Silly Putty. The air in the bar is shimmering. Celeste is so drunk.

“Obviously not,” she says.

Merritt pays the bill, and Celeste, for once, doesn’t protest or offer to pay half, nor does she refuse when Merritt presses thirty dollars in her hand and puts her into a cab headed uptown. It’s bribe money, and Celeste deserves it.

Somehow, she makes it up the stairs and into her apartment. She can’t imagine sobering up enough to have dinner with Benji, but if she cancels he’ll think she’s upset about his weekend away.

She cannot tell him about Merritt and his father. She can’t let anything slip. She has to act as though everything is fine, normal, status quo.

She sends Merritt a text. End it! Now! Please!

Then she falls asleep facedown on her futon.

She wakes up when she hears her apartment’s buzzer. The light coming through her sole bedroom window has mellowed. It’s late. What time? She checks her bedside clock. Quarter after seven. That will be Benji.

She hurries to the front door and buzzes him in, then she rushes to the bathroom to brush her teeth and splash water on her face. She’s still drunk but not as drunk as she was and not yet cotton-mouthed or hung over. She’s even a little hungry. Maybe she and Benji can walk down to the Peruvian chicken place, she thinks. It’s Sunday night, so Benji will sleep at home and Celeste can be in bed by ten. She has two all-school field trips coming to the zoo tomorrow; it’s the curse of June.

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