A sophisticated, intense and compact tale of love and regret, Stein's fifth novel is set in 1984. Jonathan Parrish is 43, unmarried and living in Burlington, Vt., working as a teaching consultant for UNICEF and as a part-time professor. Lily Mayeux, 35 and living in Portland, Maine, is a married high school biology and earth science teacher, with a four-year-old son. Jonathan and Lily's one-year relationship in New York 12 years earlier ended when workaholic Jonathan went off to Nicaragua. When he sees her name on a list of attendees for a New Orleans convention where he's scheduled to speak, he starts smoking again. Over that weekend, Lily and Jonathan reunite and ruminate in alternating viewpoints over their profound losses, each emerging as vulnerable and flawed. Their reunion is wary, and, without overly sentimental trappings or major declarations, it's affecting. Stein (This Room Is Yours) makes their musings smartly paced and multilayered, with sharp writing throughout. The past ends up crowding out the former lovers' weekend in lush, sultry, pre-Katrina New Orleans, but a canny twist makes for a satisfying ending. (May)Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Set in 1980s New Orleans, Stein's fifth novel (after This Room Is Yours) is a tale of lost love found. Jonathan Parrish, an educational consultant in Third World battle zones, is invited to give a presentation at an education conference in the city. Perusing the conference program, he discovers the name of Lily Mayeux, with whom he had been involved in the 1970s. She, meanwhile, finds his name there as well. Having not seen each other in the 12 years since their relationship ended in hurt and misunderstanding after Jonathan failed to return from Nicaragua for the funeral of Lily's sister, neither knows what to expect from the other. They soon find the old feelings returning, despite misgivings about whether these feeling represent who they now are or who they once were. And Lily's being married and the mother of a child is no small complication. In this brief novel, Stein has written a sensitive and nuanced tale of two people struggling toward a future that each, in their own way, has always longed for. Recommended for public libraries.
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IN THE AGE OF LOVE
By Michael Stein
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2007 Michael Stein
All right reserved.
Leaving the two-room cabin on the lake in Burlington, Vermont unlocked, Jonathan Parrish climbed into his pickup and headed south toward the National Education Association conference in New Orleans. He gave himself two days to get there, two days for the meeting, and then a leisurely drive home if that's how it turned out. When he was on the job, he was willing to fly, but otherwise he was in no hurry. It was before seven in the morning, but he was not a good sleeper, and hadn't been since he turned forty a few years back. He was usually awake early enough to see the street lights go off on the roads on the other side of the lake, and that made for a lifetime of long days.
He stopped for coffee in town at the Waiting Room where he quietly read his Sentinel among the teenagers of Vermont who worked or played all night, the guitarists and furniture makers and skiers, the girls in overalls with fraying tapestry handbags and long gray scarves who lived up here near Canada in the wet and cold cobalt beauty and drove into town to open these stores. At 8:30, when the university officially opened, he walked to the pay phone in the back of the restaurant and called to remind his office he'd be away, and to leave them the hotel name and number. He thought of himself as a teacher of young children who happened, for the past few years, to work part-time on a college campus. He'd made his real living for the past decade when UNICEF hired him to give advice to schools, cities, and countries, but he was really just a teacher. He went around the world because that's where the wars were, and when a war ended and there was no electricity or heat or running water, when buildings had no roofs or doors, when half the trained teachers were dead, he had some ideas as to how to help the children learn. Today, he was driving across his own continent to give a speech.
He hadn't taken out a cigarette with his coffee. He still had the self-control to reserve his cigarettes for driving time when he was away from people, and he didn't want some twenty-year-old letting him have it for polluting. After six years quit-the dollars saved went toward work on his father's house-he'd started smoking again seventy-two hours earlier when he finally understood that Lily Mayeux might not even agree to meet with him in New Orleans. Smoking wouldn't help his hockey. He was already one of the older players in the league and he could hear his teammates chiding him, "A defenseman who can't breathe. That's just what this squad needs for the play-offs." Climbing into the truck, he pulled open the ashtray and rested his coffee cup in it. But he knew, really, that the open tray meant he was preparing for later; he'd light up in a few hours when he crossed the White River.
He carried in his black leather shoulder bag a few clothes, a paper he was working on for the American Journal of Education Studies, and the latest red volume of a day book he'd kept nearly continuously for two decades. He threw the bag behind the front seat, on top of a cooler containing four Bosc pears, some Goya mango juice, and Swedish fish, his favorite candy. The sweet essentials. He was looking forward to this trip, the long hours alone when he could listen to the radio and think in peace. He was flexible in his musical tastes (Lily had given him that) and was willing to hear whatever the FM stations threw at him. He waited for the old Ford to heat up-this was one thing he shared with the youth of Vermont, a taste for decrepit but honorable cars-and thought this morning was the kind of frigid when he could have used the scarf Lily had once promised him. He was looking forward to New Orleans, but he had a mental checklist when he went off on assignments that he couldn't help going through this morning, although this was a pleasure trip mostly. That was too strong: it was a trip that had none of the pressure of his day-to-day job. It was like one of his work trips only in this way: he would arrive not knowing the cause or the ending.
He wore faded black jeans, a gray T-shirt under his favorite green V-neck sweater, and a tight gray, wool cap that made him look like any college kid on Church Street. When he had finished his coffee, a few miles past Montpelier, he spread on some lip balm, dipping his finger into a tiny blue tin. His lips had gotten burned during an unexpectedly sunny April afternoon of snow-shoeing the week before. Route 89 South was a winding road through the mountains. It was a lovely trip for an interstate, trailing along an old train line for a while and then running high over a river. He slowed often to study the towns of Vermont set below him in valleys-a few smokestacks, white or brick steeples of the churches, the distinctive green roofs. He was constantly struck by Vermont's beauty-the colonial era houses, solid Federal- style buildings and banks with unadorned granite steps, covered nearly year-round with snow-and his impossible good fortune in getting a university position. But when he drove this route, he also had a sense of dislocation: this was not really where he lived. It was too pretty, too clean and piney. He was grateful that the university had given him a teaching job, but at times, he missed the dangers of city life, the marvelous and strange and surreptitious in Marrakesh and Addis Ababa and Lima. Of course, he had the sense of dislocation even when he lived in New York, the men sleeping on paper bags like he'd seen in every foreign capital he'd flown out to.
One reason he liked Burlington was because, at forty-three years old, he felt he was among the city's oldest residents. Of course this wasn't so, but in the places he hung around-The Waiting Room, the Nordic ski trails, the university bookstore, the food cooperative-he rarely saw anyone over twenty-five. It was as if some invisible selection process had taken place, an epidemic had struck everyone with graying hair and he had been one of the lucky few survivors. He enjoyed the youth all around him, but encounters with women his age rarely took place.
While he smoked and crossed into New Hampshire and then Massachusetts, listening to Marvin Gaye and Al Green, he thought about the two relationships with women he'd had in the twelve years since Lily. Each of them had been long and serious, and he must have been in love both times, but never enough to marry, and without that lovers always eventually drifted apart, didn't they? He started thinking about Miriam just outside Philadelphia when the hard rock came on, and she was with him until Virginia, when country music filled the tuner. An actress, slight, beautiful, who never quite got enough work and lived with a small, but real desperation he thought of as passion for the longest time. In the last of their nearly five years together, Miriam had bought for the kitchen this small glass herbarium, a miniature greenhouse the size of a birdcage. In it, she had planted ivy and another vine, a kind of honeysuckle, and within months, it seemed to him, the two plants were too close inside, without enough room, struggling to get out, choking each other for sunlight.
His mind picked up Audrey outside of Virginia, as he headed into the Smokies and bluegrass stations. He'd been with her through most of the years in Atlanta, after he'd left New York. She was a researcher in the Vaccine Preventable Illness Division at the Centers for Disease Control, with a gift for mathematics. She claimed that she never wanted to marry or have children. He knew her clenched jaw by heart. It was there when he didn't ask a question in the right way or failed to respond correctly. Was there ever the right thing to say to her? His level of concern wasn't high enough; he wasn't adequately supportive; was he trying to be mean or funny? She couldn't tell, and by the end, neither could he. He didn't understand women; the women he had been with had informed him of this handicap, and he'd grown accustomed to feeling ignorant, and not trusting his own tone, his answers. When he called her three years after they split and he'd left Georgia for San Francisco, Audrey told him she was the mother of two, and that her husband was a pilot for Delta.
His work life was so different from his private life. As a teacher, Jonathan Parrish wanted to understand what happened to a child in war. He believed everything was knowable. Take a few clues, pry a little, regard what you learned seriously and with sophistication and it all became clear. But privately he was able to acknowledge mystery. He trusted the oddness of coincidence, of chance meetings. He thought dreams had meanings even if they weren't immediately evident. Not all could be revealed. Everything about another's life was not knowable. His work with the adults in other countries who, in the midst of their own losses taught young students, was about organization and making do, and was beyond emotion. He had an appetite for the long hours and a suitability; his work was never wearing. At home, he had less nerve, and a cowardly inability to admit when things were going badly, or maybe his pain threshold was high, or perhaps he was shy in delivering bad news to himself.
As the oldest brother of three, he'd taken on a parental role at a young age, and always heard the bad news first, experience which served him well in war zones. Over the years, his brothers called if they really needed something, a loan or the name of a doctor; he was the only one who'd finished college, who had some money in the bank for an emergency. When his brother Paul's youngest broke his pelvis and femur in a car accident, he'd flown directly to Newport News to scout the surgeons and to take care of Paul's two older boys who needed driving to games and lessons. That week in his brother's place reminded him of the days in their parents' house. As a boy in a small town in northwest Connecticut, an only child for quite a few years (his parents next had Paul eight years later), he had kept to himself. He rode his bicycle to the great stone library in town (maybe that's why he liked Vermont), where he read poems and looked at botany books. His brothers were still in middle and elementary school, wearing his hand-me-downs, when he was paying for college himself. There, he worked in the main kitchen and learned Spanish from the dishwashers, the older men (he thought of them as old although, thinking back, they were probably in their 30's) who sat with him outside under the hot air vents during their breaks and laughed at his gringo mistakes; this language training stood him well during his work in Nicaragua.
He knew that because so many of their calls were associated with requests, his brothers felt bad bothering him when there wasn't a crisis. They didn't understand that a good news phone call wouldn't have been an interruption; he wasn't that busy. Especially since moving to Vermont a few years back. They would have interrupted him building a stone wall, or planting his tomatoes, or rowing on Lake Champlain, or what else, drafting a new report? But because they so often expected advice when they called, he'd grown into the habit of giving it to them, and they were probably right not to phone if they didn't want to hear what he thought of their latest job offer, or the prom night trouble of a daughter.
He rarely attended education professionals' meetings, preferring to stay away from crowds and large hotels. But his interviews from southern Africa six months before had caused a stir in all the national papers and he had been invited to give the featured talk at this Fiftieth Anniversary convention of 1984, an honor he couldn't refuse. His inviters sent the standard letter asking him to send along any audiovisual requests, offering the history of former featured speakers and the temperature of New Orleans in April, as well as a list of this year's attendees. As Jonathan flipped through the thirty pages of names and addresses (he had always been amused that teachers wanted so badly to know the company they kept), he saw Lily's.
When he read her name it was as if an era had suddenly come to an end. A peaceful decade dating back to 1973 when he met Miriam and was able finally to think of Lily as a woman he'd truly loved and, after considerable sadness, gotten over. She had presumably moved on, and he had too, becoming busy and successful beyond any expectation, and found his footing and his passion. He'd heard that she had become a teacher, but he hadn't known where she lived, what grade or grades she taught, or anything else about her life.
Seeing her name opened some secret chamber of his heart and he closed it quickly that day six months ago. Still, he taped her address next to the typewriter on his desk and did nothing. He thought of her often, and each time it reminded him of being awakened by the weight of a large cat, his long-haired Clementine: he'd want to push her off, but he'd want her to come back a little later for another visit.
He drove fast but calmly through the Smokies. Already it had been a drive of a thousand speculations about Lily, about his wrong decisions and regrets, and he was in a restless state, smoking steadily now. The further south he drove, the more life had closed in upon memories that perhaps rightly belonged in the past. Yet the visit with Lily Mayeux he had been visualizing for months suddenly seemed bewilderingly unlikely. If he decided to call her room when he finally arrived at his New Orleans hotel, his voice would just as likely engender a resistance, a bitterness, as it would a positive response. It would make sense if Lily would have nothing more to do with him; having him close by was probably the last thing she wanted. When it had ended so abruptly with her, he was responsible; he had made a mistake he now understood with twelve years of hindsight; he had never felt grievously wronged by her. Still, as he smoked and drove, he had the feeling he used to have around her, a feeling from back when they knew one another well, a combination of illicit thrill and stage fright, of pure hope. She had never been harmless. She had been dangerous to their neighborhood as a girl (wasn't she the one who accidentally set fire to the new book section of the town library with an unfinished cigarette?), and to him.
He kept his black bag packed. A habit after years of leaving town on a few hours' notice. It was a young person's game flying to other continents, but he still hadn't been able to give it up completely. The call came in and the rushed preparation began: rental cars, hotels, airline tickets, and clearance for each from someone different at the United Nations. Get cash. Load his shoulder bag with articles to read that might provide some context for the war zone he was about to enter. Talk to a few colleagues who had lived in the part of the world where he was headed. Fly out, preparing to talk to the press when he landed to explain who had invited him. Meet the local officials who called, and come up with a plan. Certainly, he'd have to do a survey of the teachers and some families (once he found them) to figure out what they thought of school before the war. Ten drafts of the survey so he didn't miss the key question. Work all night, interviewing more people. Sometimes he received lots of help. Once in the Philippines, the ministry of education had arranged for ten teachers and ten telephones in a high school gym to help make calls. Other times he was on his own. One phone call after another to strangers who were still grieving: tell me everything about your children. No one had to talk to him about their history, but they did. He was Jonathan Parrish, from the United Nations, in town to help. Late at night, after his last cold call, he'd phone Miriam or Audrey, who each had asked him to give up the pace and frequency of his time away.
He had never married, so the women he met around Burlington asked him questions about his "earlier" life because it was continuous with the one he was living, because he was unpredictable (which at forty-three was synonymous with having no wife and/or having severe emotional difficulties), because he didn't behave the way they expected. They assumed that he would be difficult to get to know, so they asked him questions innocently. Why Vermont? Was this really the first house he'd ever owned? Did he really mean it when he said he was trying to stay put, make a home? Because he was unmarried, they sometimes saw him as the embodiment of suffering, at other times as the likely cause of past suffering. When the time inevitably came that they asked him to confirm a history of romantic disappointment, he didn't. Again unexpected. They felt duped, let down, because they wanted to love him for his unacceptable heartbreaks, for his losses of Miriam, of Audrey. Of course he never told any of them Paul's half-humorous, half-serious long-time explanation for his bachelorhood-that he was waiting for Lily Mayeux. Not someone like Lily, but Lily herself.
Excerpted from IN THE AGE OF LOVE by Michael Stein Copyright © 2007 by Michael Stein. Excerpted by permission.
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