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Middle Age: A Romance

Survived By..


How Death enters your life. A telephone ringing.

And maybe you're still waiting for Adam Berendt to call. And maybe you're confused, your heart already pumping absurdly, when a stranger's voice utters the name Adam Berendt and you answer eagerly, hopefully.

"Yes? I'm Marina Troy. What -- what is it?"

That instant before fear strikes. Fear like a sliver of ice entering the heart.


Thwaite was the bearer of Adam Berendt's death. She would learn.

An ugly name, isn't it? Though the child's name, Samantha, is beautiful.

It was Thwaite that would stick in Marina's brain like a burr. Thwaite that became her obsession, she who would have defined herself as a woman free of obsession. A reasonable intelligent unemotional woman yet how Thwaite lodged in her brain as suffocation, choking, tar-tasting death. Thwaite Thwaite in her miserable sleep those nights following Adam's death. Sobbing aloud, furious: "If I'd been there with him on the boat, I wouldn't have let Adam die."

In the derangement of grief Marina Troy quickly came to believe this.


Local TV News! How Adam would have been embarrassed, if, just maybe, secretly proud.

Good Samaritan. Adam Berendt. Resident of Salthill-on-Hudson. July Fourth accident. Hudson River. Rescue of eight-year-old. Adam's face on the glassy screen: squinting his blind eye, smiling. That big head like something sculpted of coarse clay. A mere moment on the TV screen. Swift cut to the much younger Thwaites, parents of the rescued child. Thwaite. Harold and Janice. Jones Point residents. Devastated by. Tragic episode. So very sorry. So very grateful. Courageous man sacrificing his life for our daughter. Our Samantha. Our prayers will be with Adam Berendt. We are hoping to make contact with his family, his survivors. Oh, we hope … Marina switched off the TV in disgust.

How could she bear it, the banality of Adam as a "Good Samaritan." The banality of the Thwaites' emotion, how disappointingly ordinary they were, and young, stammering into microphones thrust into their dazed faces.

"Well. I must learn to bear it. And more."

She was an adult woman, she knew of loss, death. She was not a naive, self-pitying person.

Her mother was chronically ill, and her father had died three years ago at the age of seventy-nine, so Marina knew, Marina knew what to expect from life, every chiché becomes painfully true in time, yet you survive until it's your turn: you don't become middle-aged without learning such primitive wisdom. Yet, when Marina's father had died, Marina had not been taken by surprise. That death had been not only expected, but "merciful." After cancer operations, and months of chemotherapy, the fading of Marina's father's life had been a slow fading of light into dusk and finally into dark. And there you are: death.

Not like Adam's death.

"Adam, God damn you. Why."

She was desperate to recall the last time they'd spoken. She shut her eyes, rubbing her eyes with the palms of her hands: Adam's face!

A doctor at the Jones Point Medical Center had prescribed a sedative for Marina Troy. (Did that mean she'd become hysterical? She'd lost all dignity, and collapsed?) Next morning staggering from her bed that was like a grave, at the top of her house on North Pearl Street. Her storybook house, as Adam had called it fondly. As Marina Troy was a storybook creature to be rescued. (By him?) In sweat-smelling nightclothes, a strap slipping off her shoulder, tugging at a window to raise it higher must breath! must breath! There was some fact that plagued her with its cruelty, its injustice: what? The last time we spoke, I didn't know. If I had known. The ceiling careened over her head with an air of drunken levity. Lilac fleur-de-lis wallpaper of subtly mocking prettiness. Thwaite mixed with the church bells. Thwaite Thwaite clamoring jeering in her head.

Marina's bedroom was a small charming room with small charming windows of aged glass, dating to the mid-1800s, windowpanes badly in need of caulking, overlooking St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church with its heraldic spire floating in the night sky, and its ancient bumpy churchyard. (In which Adam Berendt would certainly not be buried. Adam had been pagan, not Catholic; and Adam had wanted to be "burnt to a crisp" when he died.) North Pearl Street was one of Salthill's oldest streets, hilly and very narrow, and it dead-ended with three charming woodframe houses, one of which was Marina Troy's.

Somehow it had happened (when, exactly?) she'd become thirty-eight years old.

Young enough to be his daughter, Adam Berendt used to joke.

Don't be ridiculous! You're, what? -- fifty? Fifty-two?

Marina, to be perfectly frank, I've lost count.

She removed her sweat-soaked nylon nightgown and wadded it into a ball to toss onto the floor. She'd have liked to peel off her sticky itchy skin and do the same. In the silence following the church bells came the echo Thwaite! Thwaite. The sound of death, those hateful people, negligent parents, youngish, scared, reading off prepared statements to TV reporters, uncertain whether they should smile, or not smile, but one should always smile on TV, yes? -- if only fleetingly, sadly? In truth, Marina didn't detest these people. It was Thwaite that had insinuated itself into her head. Thwaite snarled like her long crimped dark-red hair, which by day she wore plaited and twined about her head ("like Elizabeth I") but by night it snagged and snarled, snaky tendrils trailing across her mouth. Thwaite a mass of such snarls no hairbrush could be dragged through. Thwaite that was the fairy-tale riddle: what is my name, my name is a secret, my name is your death, can you guess my name? Thwaite the helpless tenderness she'd long felt for Adam Berendt, who had been neither her husband nor her lover. Thwaite powerful as no other emotion Marina had ever felt for another person…

Middle Age: A Romance
by by Joyce Carol Oates

  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • ISBN-10: 0060934905
  • ISBN-13: 9780060934903