The Humbling

The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online Page B

Book: The Humbling by Philip Roth Read Free Book Online
Authors: Philip Roth
outcome
possible is for you to take yourself away from me. I could not bear to lose you now. I will if I have to, but as for the risk—the risk has been taken. We've already done it. It's too late for protection by withdrawing."
    "You're saying you don't want to get out of this thing while the getting is good?"
    "Absolutely. I want you, you see. I've come to trust that I have you. Don't pull away from me. I love this, and I don't want it to stop. There's nothing else I can say. All I can say is that I'll try if you will. This is no longer just a fling."
    "We took the risk," he said, echoing her.
    "We took the risk," she replied.
    Four words meaning that it would be the worst possible time for her to be dropped by him. She will say whatever she needs to say, he thought, even if the dialogue verges on soap opera, to keep it going because she's still aching, all these months later, from the Priscilla shock and the Louise ultimatums. It's not deception her taking this line—it's the way we are instinctively strategic. But eventually a day will come, Axler thought, when circumstances render her in a much stronger position for it to end,
whereas I will have wound up in a weaker position merely from having been too indecisive to cut it off now. And when she is strong and I am weak, the blow that's dealt will be unbearable.
    He believed he was seeing clearly into their future, yet he could do nothing to alter the prospect. He was too happy to alter it.

    O VER THE MONTHS she had let her hair grow nearly to her shoulders, thick brown hair with a natural sheen that she began to think about having cut in a style unlike the cropped mannish one she'd favored throughout her adult life. One weekend she arrived with a couple of magazines full of photos of different hairstyles, magazines of a kind he'd never seen before. "Where'd you get these?" he asked her. "One of my students," she said. They sat side by side on the sofa in the living room while she turned pages and bent back corners where there was a style pictured that might suit her. Finally they narrowed their preferences down to two, and she tore out those pages and he phoned an actress friend in Manhattan to ask her where Pegeen should go to get her hair cut, the same friend who'd told him where to take Pegeen shopping for clothes and where to go to buy her jewelry. "Wish I had a sugar daddy," the friend said. But he hadn't understood it that way. All he was doing was helping Pegeen to be a woman he would want instead of a woman another woman would want. Together they were absorbed in making this happen.
    He went with her to an expensive hairdresser's in the East Sixties. A young Japanese woman cut Pegeen's hair after looking at the two photos they'd brought. He had never seen Pegeen look as disarmed as she did sitting in the chair in front of the mirror after her hair had been washed. He'd never before seen her look so weakened or so at a loss as to how to behave. The sight of her, silent, sheepish, sitting there at the edge of humiliation, unable even to look at her reflection, gave the haircut an entirely transformed meaning, igniting all his self-mistrust and causing him to wonder, as he had more than once, if he wasn't being blinded by a stupendous and desperate illusion. What is the draw of a woman like this to a man who is losing so much? Wasn't he making her pretend to be someone other than who she was? Wasn't he dressing her up in costume as though a costly skirt could dispose of nearly two decades of lived experience? Wasn't he
distorting her while telling himself a lie—and a lie that in the end might be anything but harmless? What if he proved to be no more than a brief male intrusion into a lesbian life?
    But then Pegeen's thick brown shiny hair was cut—cut to below the base of her neck in a choppy way so none of the layers were even, a look that gave her precisely the right cared-for devil-may-care air of slight dishevelment—and she seemed so

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