The Humbling

The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online Page A

Book: The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
black pair. The only coat she owned she'd inherited from Priscilla's late mother. It was way too large for her and shaped like a box, and so over the next few months he bought her flattering new coats—five of them. He could have bought her a hundred. He couldn't stop. Living as he did, he rarely spent anything on himself, and nothing made him happier than making her look like she'd never looked before. And in time nothing seemed to make her happier. It was an orgy of spoiling and spending that suited them both just fine.
    Still, she didn't want her parents to learn about
the affair. It would cause them too much pain. He thought, More pain than when you told them you were a lesbian? She'd explained to him what had happened on that day back when she was twenty-three. Her mother had cried and said, "I can't imagine anything worse," and her father feigned acceptance but didn't smile again for months. There was a lot of trauma in that home for a long time after Pegeen told them what she was. "Why would learning about me cause them so much pain?" he asked her. "Because they've known you so long. Because you're all the same age." "As you wish," he said. But he couldn't stop pondering her motive. Perhaps she was acting out of the habit of keeping her life in different compartments, the sexual life strictly separated from her life as a daughter; maybe she didn't want the sex contaminated or domesticated by filial concerns. Maybe there was some embarrassment about her turning from sleeping with women to sleeping with a man, and an uncertainty as to whether the switch was going to be permanent. But regardless of what was prompting her, he felt he had made a mistake in allowing her to keep their connection a secret from her family. He was too old
not to feel compromised by having to be kept a secret. Nor did he see why a forty-year-old woman should be so concerned about what her parents thought, especially a forty-year-old woman who'd done all sorts of things that her parents disapproved of and whose opposition she weathered. He did not like that she was showing herself to be less than her age, but he didn't push it, not for now, and so her family continued to think she was going along leading her regular life while, with the passing months, she seemed to him, slowly but naturally, to shed the last visible signs of what she now referred to as "my seventeen-year mistake."
    Nonetheless, one morning at breakfast, as much to his own surprise as hers, Axler said, "Is this something you really want, Pegeen? Though we've enjoyed each other so far, and the novelty has been strong, and the feeling has been strong, and the pleasure has been strong, I wonder if you know what you're doing."
    "Yes, I do. I love this," she said, "and I don't want it to stop."
    "But you understand what I'm referring to?"
    "Yes. Matters of age. Matters of sexual history.
Your old connection to my parents. Probably twenty things besides. And none of them bother me. Do any of them bother you?"
    "Would it perhaps be a good idea," he replied, "before hearts get broken, for us to back off?"
    "Aren't you happy?" she asked.
    "My life has been very precarious over the past few years. I don't feel the strength that it would take having my hopes dashed. I've had my share of marital misery, and before that my share of breakups with women. It's always painful, it's always harsh, and I don't want to court it at this stage of life."
    "Simon, we both have been dropped," she said. "You were at the bottom of a breakdown and your wife picked up and left you to fend for yourself. I was betrayed by Priscilla. Not only did she leave me, she left the body that I'd once loved to become a man with a mustache named Jack. If we do fail let it be because of us, not because of them, not because of your past or mine. I don't want to encourage you in a risk, and I know it is a risk. For both of us, by the way. I feel the risk too. It's of a different sort than yours, of course. But the worst

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