Sample text for The dying animal / Philip Roth.


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Counter I knew her eight years ago. She was in my class. I don"t teach full-
time anymore, strictly speaking don"t teach literature at all--for
years now just the one class, a big senior seminar in critical
writing called Practical Criticism. I attract a lot of female
students. For two reasons. Because it"s a subject with an alluring
combination of intellectual glamour and journalistic glamour and
because they"ve heard me on NPR reviewing books or seen me on
Thirteen talking about culture. Over the past fifteen years, being
cultural critic on the television program has made me fairly well
known locally, and they"re attracted to my class because of that. In
the beginning, I didn"t realize that talking on TV once a week for
ten minutes could be so impressive as it turns out to be to these
students. But they are helplessly drawn to celebrity, however
inconsiderable mine may be.
Now, I"m very vulnerable to female beauty, as you know. Everybody"s
defenseless against something, and that"s it for me. I see it and it
blinds me to everything else. They come to my first class, and I know
almost immediately which is the girl for me. There is a Mark Twain
story in which he runs from a bull, and the bull looks up to him when
he"s hiding in a tree, and the bull thinks, "You are my meat, sir."
Well, that "sir" is transformed into "young lady" when I see them in
class. It is now eight years ago--I was already sixty-two, and the
girl, who is called Consuela Castillo, was twenty-four. She is not
like the rest of the class. She doesn"t look like a student, at least
not like an ordinary student. She"s not a demi-adolescent, she"s not
a slouching, unkempt, "like"-ridden girl. She"s well spoken, sober,
her posture is perfect--she appears to know something about adult
life along with how to sit, stand, and walk. As soon as you enter the
class, you see that this girl either knows more or wants to. The way
she dresses. It isn"t ex-actly what"s called chic, she"s certainly
not flamboyant, but, to begin with, she"s never in jeans, pressed or
unpressed. She dresses carefully, with quiet taste, in skirts,
dresses, and tailored pants. Not to desen-sualize herself but more,
it would seem, to professionalize herself, she dresses like an
attractive secretary in a prestigious legal firm. Like the secretary
to the bank chairman. She has a cream-colored silk blouse under a
tailored blue blazer with gold buttons, a brown pocketbook with the
patina of expensive leather, and little ankle boots to match, and she
wears a slightly stretchy gray knitted skirt that re-veals her body
lines as subtly as such a skirt possibly could. Her hair is done in a
natural but cared-for manner. She has a pale complexion, the mouth is
bowlike though the lips are full, and she has a rounded forehead, a
polished forehead of a smooth Brancusi elegance. She is Cuban. Her
family are prosperous Cubans living in Jersey, across the river in
Bergen County. She has black, black hair, glossy but ever so slightly
coarse. And she"s big. She"s a big woman. The silk blouse is
unbuttoned to the third button, and so you see she has powerful,
beauti-
ful breasts. You see the cleavage immediately. And you see she knows
it. You see, despite the decorum, the meticulousness, the cautiously
soigné style--or because of them--that she"s aware of herself. She
comes to the first class with the jacket buttoned over her blouse,
yet some five minutes into the session, she has taken it off. When I
glance her way again, I see that she"s put it back on. So you
understand that she"s aware of her power but that she isn"t sure yet
how to use it, what to do with it, how much she
even wants it. That body is still new to her, she"s still trying it
out, thinking it through, a bit like a kid walking the streets with a
loaded gun and deciding whether he"s packing it to protect himself or
to begin a life of crime.
And she"s aware of something else, and this I couldn"t know from the
one class meeting: she finds culture important in a reverential, old-
fashioned way. Not that it"s something she wishes to live by. She
doesn"t and she couldn"t--too traditionally well brought up for that--
but it"s important and wonderful as nothing else she knows is. She"s
the one who finds the Impressionists ravishing but must look long and
hard--and always with a sense of nagging confoundment--at a Cubist
Picasso, trying with all her might to get the idea. She stands there
waiting for the surprising new sensation, the new thought, the new
emotion, and when it won"t come, ever, she chides herself for being
inadequate and lacking . . . what? She chides herself for not even
knowing what it is she lacks. Art that smacks of modernity leaves her
not merely puzzled but disappointed in herself. She would love for
Picasso to matter more, perhaps to transform her, but there"s a scrim
drawn across the proscenium of genius that obscures her vision and
keeps her worshiping at a bit of a distance. She gives to art, to all
of art, far more than she gets back, a sort of earnestness that isn"t
without its poignant appeal. A good heart, a lovely face, a gaze at
once invit-
ing and removed, gorgeous breasts, and so newly hatched as a woman
that to find fragments of broken shell adhering to that ovoid
forehead wouldn"t have been a surprise. I saw right away that this
was going to be my girl.
Now, I have one set rule of some fifteen years" standing that I never
break. I don"t any longer get in touch with them on a private basis
until they"ve completed their final exam and received their grade and
I am no longer officially in loco parentis. In spite of temptation--
or even a clear-cut signal to begin the flirtation and make the
approach--I haven"t broken this rule since, back in the mid-eighties,
the phone number of the sexual harassment hotline was first posted
outside my office door. I don"t get in touch with them any earlier so
as not to run afoul of those in the university who, if they could,
would seriously impede my enjoyment of life.
I teach each year for fourteen weeks, and during that time I don"t
have affairs with them. I play a trick instead. It"s an honest trick,
it"s an open and aboveboard trick, but it is a trick nonetheless.
After the final examination and once the grades are in, I throw a
party in my apartment for the students. It is always a success and it
is always the same. I invite them
for a drink at about six o"clock. I say that from six to eight we are
going to have a drink, and they always stay till two in the morning.
The bravest ones, after ten o"clock, develop into lively characters
and tell me what they really are interested in. In the Practical
Criticism seminar there are about twenty students, sometimes as many
as twenty-five, so there will be fifteen, sixteen girls and five or
six boys, of whom two or three are straight. Half of this group has
left the party by ten. Generally, one straight boy, maybe one gay
boy, and some nine girls will stay. They"re invariably the most
cultivated, intelligent, and spirited of the lot. They talk about
what they"re reading, what they"re listening to, what art shows
they"ve seen--enthusiasms that they don"t normally go on about with
their elders or necessarily with their friends. They find one another
in my class. And they find me. During the party they suddenly see I
am a human being. I"m not their teacher, I"m not my reputation, I"m
not their parent. I have a pleasant, orderly duplex apartment, they
see my large library, aisles of double-faced bookshelves that house a
lifetime"s reading and take up almost the entire downstairs floor,
they see my piano, they see my devotion to what I do, and they stay.
My funniest student one year was like the goat in the fairy tale that
goes into the clock to hide. I threw the last of them out at two in
the morning, and while saying good night, I missed one girl. I
said, "Where is our class clown, Prospero"s daughter?" "Oh, I think
Miranda left," somebody said. I went back into the apartment to start
cleaning the place up and I heard a door being closed upstairs. A
bathroom door. And Miranda came down the stairs, laughing, radi-ant
with a kind of goofy abandon--I"d never, till that moment, realized
that she was so pretty--and she said, "Wasn"t that clever of me? I"ve
been hiding in your upstairs bathroom, and now I"m going to sleep
with you."
A little thing, maybe five foot one, and she pulled off her sweater
and showed me her tits, revealing the adolescent torso of an
incipiently transgressive Bal-thus virgin, and of course we slept
together. All eve-ning long, much like a young girl escaped from the
perilous melodrama of a Balthus painting into the fun of the class
party, Miranda had been on all fours on the floor with her rump
raised or lying helplessly prostrate on my sofa or lounging gleefully
across
the arms of an easy chair seemingly oblivious of the fact that with
her skirt riding up her thighs and her legs undecorously parted she
had the Balthusian air of being half undressed while fully clothed.
Everything"s hidden and nothing"s concealed. Many of these girls have
been having sex since they were fourteen, and by their twenties there
are one or two curious to do it with a man of my years, if just the
once, and eager the next day to tell all their friends, who crinkle
up their faces and ask, "But what about his skin? Didn"t he smell
funny? What about his long white hair? What about his wattle? What
about his little pot belly? Didn"t you feel sick?"
Miranda told me afterward, "You must have slept with hundreds of
women. I wanted to see what it would be like." "And?" And then she
said things I didn"t entirely believe, but it didn"t matter. She had
been audacious--she had seen she could do it, game and terrified
though she may have been while hid-ing in the bathroom. She
discovered how courageous she was confronting this unfamiliar
juxtaposition, that she could conquer her initial fears and any
initial revulsion, and I--as regards the juxtaposition--had a
wonderful time altogether. Sprawling, clowning, ca-vorting Miranda,
posing with her underwear at her feet. Just the pleasure of looking
was lovely. Though that was hardly the only reward. The decades since
the sixties have done a remarkable job of completing the sexual
revolution. This is a generation of astonishing fellators. There"s
been nothing like them ever before among their class of young women.


Copyright © 2001 by Philip Roth


Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Kepesh, David (Fictitious character) Fiction, Teacher-student relationships Fiction, Women college students Fiction, College teachers Fiction, New York (N, Y, ) Fiction