A good love story is a terrific devise to showcase the many layered complexities and details of life. I had two that I wanted to tell in my new book The Opposite of Never; about Baby Boomers who think the best part of their lives is long over, and a young couple who falls in love at first sight but, through surprisingly relatable circumstances, also falls prey to the opioid epidemic.
The older couple came to me because I was frustrated that I wasn’t finding books with characters that represented how my friends and I really live at this stage of our lives. We still exercise almost every day. Our love lives are better than ever (notice I said love and not sex, which is a tale for another time). We are either still working at our chosen careers because we want to, or have launched second careers that are linked with our true passions. Freed from the daily demands of raising a family we dare to ask the question, “What do I really want now and what am I willing to risk to get it?” I think we’re all pretty courageous in what I describe as our Grand Finale Age.
If life is akin to a three-act play, it is roughly divided into youth, middle, and old age. Simply being out to pasture for the last part, thirty or so years for many of us, would get a tad boring. By sixty most of us are vastly enriched by our experiences — doesn’t it make sense that, with intention, we could find plenty of opportunities for second chances?
In my story I explored what would happen if the love of your life came along later. A friend once told me, “I thought that reaching my golden years would be like crossing a finish line—my children would be successful, independent adults who didn’t need me anymore. My marriage would be effortless at that point. And work? I thought I’d be done with all that, but the truth is personal growth never stops.” That was a conversation that stuck with me.
My children and those of my contemporaries are millennials. This is a generation that has faced significant challenges. Unlike my age group, they entered a world where it was unlikely that they would do as well financially as their parents had. Divorce rates were the highest in history as they grew up. The shifting culture in the United States saw a decline in traditional institutions like churches and government programs so there were less support systems in place for them. Even their public schools struggled to help them keep up with the skills they needed to enter the highly technical workforce of the twenty first century. On the twenty-four hour news cycle they could watch all the gory details of national and international catastrophes. God knows what they had access to on their computers. The sum total clearly caused some problems.
Thus came the other love story I wanted to embed in my book. My thoughts addressed this question, “How is it that some young people can get involved with serious drugs but move beyond them to lead a relatively happy life?” It’s obvious from the nightly newscasts across our nation that many do not.
I’ve been a math and science teacher for more years than I care to admit to here. In 1997 I was assigned to a program for at-risk youth that was housed in downtown Montpelier, Vermont, which is our state capitol. A couple of blocks after you pass the historic State building with its impressive gold gild roof, the road abruptly ends at an intersection. It was on that corner, in the late nineties, that my students began to hang out with some flamboyant and seedy guys who were from out of town.
When they turned out to be selling narcotics, we were caught virtually unaware. These were gang members who expanded their territory out of NYC by targeting the main cities off our state highway from Rutland in the south to St. Johnsbury in the Northeast Kingdom. None of my students thought they would become addicts. One teen said, “They’re just pills. You can’t even overdose on them because it’s the same as what the doctor gives you.” But the pills were highly addictive, expensive, and once hooked, the dealers offered heroin to my kids to relieve their terrible withdrawal symptoms.
I was told that it was a great deal for the New Yorkers, where at home a bag sold for five dollars. Up in the North Country the same quantity went for five times more. The sale of opioids spread easily from our cities to little country towns. In 2014 Vermont’s Governor Peter Shumlin announced that our state had an epidemic of addiction. Many of our children here have died and it’s made me think a great deal about why some not only live, but go on to prosper. The characters I created as a young couple in my novel go through a lot. Yet, they have the perfect set of circumstances to survive.
A good love story needs obstacles to overcome. Most single Baby Boomers enter into a relationship with the kind of baggage that makes great fodder for conflict. The way to resolve the problems believably is also the great payoff of age —wisdom. As far as the millennial couple in my book goes, I think that most young people are capable of making some terrible decisions that can be life altering. But hope springs eternal for me as an author, because my characters still have the gift of youth— resilience.
I’m well into writing my next novel which contemplates another important social issue of our time— What is it like to live in a predominantly white state if you are a man of color? Conversely, how would it feel to be one of the few Caucasian women in a black society? It’s a set up for conflict that, as it should, leads to tension within the story. And you may have already guessed, in the end, it turns out to be something of a love story.