The Land of Steady Habits: A Novel

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For Kip and Delia

One of the
great advantages of Anders’s divorce—besides, of course, the end of the squabbling and the sudden guiltless thrill of freedom—was that he no longer had to attend the Ashbys’ holiday party. Their party, like all of the parties he’d attended in his marriage, was his wife’s domain, and he was relieved to no longer have to show up only to be a disappointment to her friends. In fact, the Ashbys’ holiday party had become a sort of emblem of obligation to Anders, a reminder, at the end of his marriage, of the kind of man he’d become, when at last year’s party, after three quick whiskeys and a squabble with Helene about their grown children, he’d turned and announced to the room that they hadn’t had sex in five months, and, even though he was over sixty,
it wasn’t because of his penis either.

The amazing thing, though, was that after all that, after it was clearly his decision to end the marriage; after he’d left what her friends saw as a perfect woman for a life in a condominium, retired, pretty much alone; after he’d openly scorned them and was sure she’d revealed all of his dirtiest secrets to them over brunch, a card arrived from the Ashbys, as if with the season, inviting him once again to their holiday party.

They held it every year in the week after Thanksgiving to get a jump on the season and, he’d always thought, to claim it as their own. It was the only invitation he’d received, so he brought it inside, set it on his small breakfast table, and ate dinner across from it, staring at the familiar handwriting, the Santa Claus stamp, trying to decide if it was a peace offering or if they’d simply forgotten to take him off their list. Divorce, he’d learned early on, was not so much from your spouse but from all of the things you’d forged as a couple—the home, the parental authority, the good credit, the friends. He pictured Helene in her elegant party clothes holding forth in the Ashbys’ kitchen—a brave single woman in a chenille scarf who, after a year of injustice, maintained the dignified poise of a survivor. She would be an honored guest there, a woman who’d spent her career helping adults learn to read and was now forced to face the season alone.

The invitation was stiff and glossy—a photo of the Ashbys in front of their tree.
It’s That Time of Year
was all it said, as though if you were receiving this, you had been for twenty years, which, Anders realized, was about right—twenty years of enduring this soiree, and still, after he’d thumbed his nose at the lot of them, after he’d announced to Helene, in the heated mania of a bedtime fight, that the stench of Mitchell Ashby’s cigars made him wish he’d been born without a
face,
he’d been invited. He placed the card on his mantel, the Ashbys beaming down at him in cable knits, and settled below them onto the couch.

There was also the issue of the other piece of mail that came that day, a product of that final meeting with the lawyers, when Helene had shown up with a firing squad of attorneys and asked him, without warning, if she could keep the house, and in a moment of regrettable pride, though it was half his net worth and carried a disastrous second mortgage, he’d told her of course she could. Or, as his attorney reminded him, he’d
implied
she could, after she’d implied in front of all those men and women of the law that he’d been anything but a man of responsibility. What he’d actually done was put his palms on the table, lean toward Helene and her posse of lawyers in rimless spectacles, and say, “The
house?
All you want’s the goddamn
house?

The trouble was that he had planned to use the money from the house to pay for his early retirement. He could afford the house or he could afford to retire, but he couldn’t afford both. This put him in the uncomfortable position of having to admit to Helene what had become her biggest grievance: that he had chosen himself over everyone else, that he had thrown them all under the bus. Which wasn’t true. Which, if you considered the college educations of their grown sons and the house he had mortgaged up to his eye sockets and the extravagant kitchen she had insisted on building
after
their children were gone, all of which he had paid for, all of which he had worked his rump off to provide for
them
—his family, his brood, his paramount responsibility—was downright insane. He had done everything they asked of him, and he had done it for them. What else in the world could she possibly want?

Well, the house, as it turned out. So now the letters were piling up, ominous things with yellow forwarding stickers over the address windows and language that was quite explicit: he had until the end of the year before the bank brought in a judge. It was a situation that could be cleared up with a single phone call to Helene, an opportunity, really, to come clean and admit he’d bluffed—the right thing if ever there was a right thing—if he could just find the moment when she wasn’t so fragile and he could stomach her disappointment in him, when it didn’t feel like a single piece of bad news might be enough to send her away for good.

What it all meant, at least in terms of the Ashbys’ holiday party, was that he should probably have a shirt cleaned.

*  *  *

As it was his first party as a single man, it surprised him how cordial he could be, how confident, crunching alone up the Ashbys’ wide, candlelit path; nodding at some acquaintances as they passed him; removing his coat and hanging it on the rack and turning to a room of rosy faces, their chatter rising over Harry Connick Jr., voices familiar; making his way across the living room, past the mantel full of teepeed cards, his eyes falling across their handsome photographs—a golden retriever, some newlyweds, a ten-year-old in a soccer uniform.

Before he could get to the bar, Lydia Hickman had spotted him and was motioning eagerly to have Anders join her. Lydia had been an intimate member of his wife’s support system during the divorce—a coffee-getter who had been through two divorces herself and who, Anders always imagined, had strong opinions about the incompatibility of men and women. She was standing with four others, some of whom Anders had met before but couldn’t recall where.

“So how have you
been?
” said Lydia, her eyes wide.

Anders glanced around the circle of faces. He was the first of his peers to retire, and he could feel he was being tested. The truth was he had proceeded as planned—selling his unneeded furniture, buying a condo and a decent TV, repainting, getting his green square of lawn ready for spring. The truth was he enjoyed his time alone, his three mugs of coffee during his morning shows, his lengthy shower, the long daytime hours of walks and mail and raking. “I’m getting involved with charity,” he said.

“Wonderful,” said Lydia. They waited for him to continue but he had a moment of self-awareness and couldn’t.

“Which one?” someone asked.

“Disease,” he said. “Cancer.”

Lydia nodded gravely and a strange silence fell over them. That word had a tidy way of ending conversations.

“So what do you do?” said a man. He wore French cuffs and a tie with a muscular Windsor. Anders could feel him angling for familiar cocktail banter, the sort of sniffing of butts that he had sworn off with his retirement.

“He’s
retired,
” said Lydia.

“Oh,” the man said. “Lucky dog.”

“From Springer Financial,” she said.

“Oh,” said the man. “You left Springer? I mean, you’re still young. Aren’t you?”

Lydia, intrigued, turned to hear his answer to this one.

“Am I young?” said Anders.

“Yeah,” he said. “I mean, it’s early, isn’t it?”

This was the topic his older son had coached him to avoid, the one he’d sat Anders down in the weeks immediately following the divorce and, as if in an intervention, begged him not to broach in public. “Even if everything you’re saying is true,” Tommy had said, “you can’t rant. It makes people uncomfortable. You seem…”


Crazy
?
Is that the word you’re looking for?”

“Assholey.”

But the tirades came out of him, like the lie about the charity had, in ways that at first seemed appropriate. They had asked him about his retirement, his career, his decisions, hadn’t they? They wanted to know why he had turned his back on a life that was so similar to theirs. And so out it came: the reddening of his face and the raised volume of his voice, the mounting extremity of his language.

“The guys at the top are crooks,” he was saying to Lydia and her inquisitive friend. “They’re not in it for the client, they’re in it for themselves. And let me tell you something, Paul, they
have
to be. That’s become the industry—save yourself, outsmart the other guy, don’t worry about the consequences. That’s the corporate ethos and if it doesn’t make you sick, you might want to think about having your head examined. Because it’s not just the banks, it’s everything, Paul, it’s a system of monstrous greed—and for
what?
More toys? Bigger houses? Trips to the goddamn Caribbean?”

It wasn’t really him, Helene had said after a similar outburst at last year’s party; it was like a child throwing a
tantrum.
If he actually listened to himself, he wouldn’t be able to follow it. First the problem was the banks, then the lawyers, then their town, then every single person who lived there. Nothing was spared. It was all scorched earth. “I just don’t understand where it’s all coming from,” she had said. “It’s all so
extreme.

“I’m not going to hide how I feel.”

“Anders, you hide your feelings about as well as an infant.”

“So I should just be like Mitchell, is that it, buy myself a giant boat and join that conversation about bilge pumps?”

She shook her head. “I don’t understand why you’re so unhappy. I mean, look at yourself—what could you possibly want?”

This, of course, was exactly it—even when he’d calmed down and could think with a clear head, he had no real answer. The question was more like, What did
she
want? They had two boys with impressive degrees, and grandkids who went horseback riding. His bonus last year was more than he’d made in his first decade at work. Were they supposed to become one of those couples who travel all the time and send Christmas cards of themselves on camelback or, worse, buy a condo in Charleston and fill it with art? It must be terrible, she’d said that night in bed, to do everything right, to play the game so by the book and still find yourself unhappy. Maybe he should talk to a professional to figure out where this was coming from. Maybe all this anger was just rooted in the fact that he was confused.

“Confused? What could that even mean—
confused
?
Confused about
what?

“Honey, it’s a nice way of saying ‘fucked up.’ ”

When he finished talking, he was out of breath, and Lydia Hickman was staring into her wine. It was a moment Anders knew well, so he also knew his audience would split off in different directions—for the bathroom, the bar, another more urgent conversation—and as they did, he stood alone, drinkless, listening to the shrill cheeriness around him and searching for a way to quietly escape.

Which was when he saw Monster, the Ashbys’ bushy golden retriever, curled on the back deck. There was his excuse—go out, pet Monster, and slip away to his car. He found his parka on the rack and grinned mildly at anyone who caught his eye as he made his way through the sliding glass door and into the icy evening air. When he’d closed the door behind him, he heard giggles from beneath the deck and an urgent whisper: “Guys, guys, someone’s here,” followed by a waft of reefer so potent it nearly made his eyes water.

Anders leaned over the railing to see the shadow of three prep-schoolers with shaggy and terrible hair. They reminded him immediately of Preston, his younger son, whom they had sent away to St. Paul’s for the individualized attention but who had come home each Thanksgiving and June taller, more unkempt, more broodingly silent, his face a puffy red mess. It wasn’t until his senior year, when the school discovered a four-foot bong in his room and tossed him, and Helene insisted they check him into a rehab facility against his will and search his entire room for clues—reading his old love letters from camp, his yearbook inscriptions, and finding only one unopened box of aging condoms—that Anders realized his failing as a father: it wasn’t that he couldn’t provide, for he gave his boys everything; it was that he knew nothing of them, nothing of their internal lives, and though he was their sole male role model, doling out advice each week over the phone, he had never even attempted to ask.

The boys held their hands behind their backs and pretended to be cool.

“Yo,” said one of the boys from the shadows. “What’s going on?”

“Just getting some fresh air. It’s warm in there.” They all nodded as if Anders had said something very wise. “What are you guys smoking?”

They froze. One toed the gravel.

“Relax, I’m not going to tell.”

“Seriously?” said the tall one in the middle. “Because if you’re one of my dad’s friends who he sent to narc on me, then you can go back and tell him he’s really predictable and sad because we were just looking at the constellations.”

“Charlie?”

There was a pause. “Who is that?”

“It’s Anders.”

The boy stepped forward from the shadows, squinting. “Christ.”

“Look, don’t worry. I’m not one of your dad’s friends, first of all, and second of all…” He couldn’t think of a
second of all.
The first was true, and he had surprised himself with it: What else did the kid need to know? “Anyway,” said Anders. “Enjoy your constellations.”

“Wait, dude,” said Charlie. “Come down here for a second.”

Anders went down the stairs and onto the dark packed dirt beneath the deck. The boys were taller than he’d thought, all of them meeting his eye.

“You know me, but that’s Arnie and that’s Gorbachev,” he said, fiddling with something that looked like a small, deflated basketball. “So what d’you mean, you’re not friends?”

“I’m not. I mean, I was. And my wife is. Ex-wife, sorry. She’s their friend. I can’t stand them. Really, I find your parents unbearable.”

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