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About the Author
Date of Birth:March 19, 1933
Place of Birth:Newark, New Jersey
Education:B.A. in English, Bucknell University, 1954; M.A. in English, University of Chicago, 1955
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IT BEGAN ODDLY. But could it have begun otherwise, however it began? It has been said, of course, that everything under the sun begins oddly and ends oddly, and is odd. A perfect rose is "odd," so is an imperfect rose, so is the rose of ordinary rosy good looks growing in your neighbor's garden. I know about the perspective from which all that exists appears awesome and mysterious. Reflect upon eternity, consider, if you are up to it, oblivion, and everything becomes a wonder. Still, I would submit to you, in all humility, that some things are more wondrous than others, and that I am one such thing.
It began oddly — a mild, sporadic tingling in the groin. During that first week I would retire several times a day to the men's room adjacent to my office in the humanities building to take down my trousers, but upon examining myself, I saw nothing out of the ordinary, assiduous as was my search. I decided, halfheartedly, to ignore it. I had been so devout a hypochondriac all my life, so alert to every change in body temperature and systematic regularity, that the reasonable man I also was had long found it impossible to take seriously all my telltale symptoms. Despite the grim premonitions of extinction or paralysis or unendurable pain that accompanied each new ache or fever, I was, at thirty-eight, a man of stamina and appetite, six feet tall with good posture and a trim physique, most of my hair and all of my teeth, and no history of major illness. Though I might rush to identify this tingling in my groin with some neurological disease on the order of shingles — if not worse — I simultaneously understood that it was undoubtedly, as always, nothing.
I was wrong. It was something. Another week passed before I discerned a barely perceptible pinkening of the skin beneath the pubic hair, a blemish so faint, however, that I finally instructed myself to stop looking; it was no more than a minor irritation and certainly nothing to worry about. After another week — making, for the record, an incubation period of twenty-one days — I glanced down one evening while stepping into the shower and discovered that through the hectic day of teaching and conferences and commuting and dining out, the flesh at the base of my penis had turned a shade of pale red. Dye, I instantly decided, from my undershorts. (That the undershorts at my feet were light blue meant nothing in that panic-stricken burst of disbelief.) I looked stained, as though something — a berry of some sort — had been crushed against my pubes and the juices had run down onto my member, raggedly coloring the root.
In the shower I lathered and rinsed my penis and pubic hair three times, then coated myself carefully from thighs to navel with a thick icing of soap bubbles that I proceeded to massage into my flesh for a count of sixty; when I rinsed with hot water — burning hot this time — the stain was still there. Not a rash, not a scab, not a bruise or a sore, but a deep pigment change that I associated at once with cancer.
It was just midnight, the time when transformations routinely take place in horror stories — and a hard hour to get a doctor in New York. Nonetheless, I immediately telephoned my physician, Dr. Gordon, and despite an attempt to hide my alarm, he heard the fear easily enough and volunteered to dress and come across town to examine me. Perhaps if Claire had been with me that night instead of back at her own apartment preparing a curriculum- committee report, I would have had the courage of my terror and told the doctor to come running. Of course on the basis of my symptoms at that hour it is unlikely that Dr. Gordon would have rushed me then and there into a hospital, nor does it appear from what we now know — or continue not to know — that anything could have been done in the hospital to prevent or arrest what was under way. The agony of the next four hours I was to spend alone might perhaps have been alleviated by morphine, but nothing indicates that the course of the disaster could have been reversed by any medical procedure short of euthanasia.
With Claire at my side I might have been able to cave in completely, but alone I suddenly felt ashamed of losing control; it was no more than five minutes since I'd discovered the stain, and there I was, wet and nude on my leather sofa, trying vainly to overcome the tremolo in my voice as I looked down and described into the phone what I saw. Take hold, I thought — and so I took hold, as I can when I tell myself to. If it was what I feared, it could wait until morning; if it wasn't, it could also wait. I would be fine, I told the doctor. Exhausted from a hard day's work, I had just been — startled. I would see him in his office at — I thought this brave of me — about noon. Nine, he said. I agreed and, calmly as I could, said good night.
Not until I hung up and examined myself yet again under a strong light did I remember that there was a third symptom — aside from the tingling groin, and the discolored penis — that I had failed to mention to the doctor; I had taken it, until that moment, for a sign of health rather than of disease. This was the intensity of local sensation I had experienced at sex with Claire during the preceding three weeks. To me it had signaled the resurgence of my old desire for her; from where or why I did not even care to question, so thrilled — and so relieved — was I to have it back. As it was, the strong lust her physical beauty had aroused in me during the first two years of our affair had been dwindling for almost a year now. Until lately, I would make love to her no more than two or three times a month and, more often than not, at her provocation.
My cooling down — my coldness — was distressing to both of us, but as we both had endured enough emotional upheaval in our lives (she as a child with her parents, I as an adult with my wife), we were equally reluctant to take any steps toward dissolving our union. Dispiriting as it surely was for a lovely and voluptuous young woman of twenty-five to be spurned night after night, Claire displayed outwardly none of the suspicion or frustration or anger that would have seemed justified even to me, the source of her unhappiness. Yes, she pays a price for this equanimity — she is not the most expressive woman I have ever known, for all her sexual passion — but I have reached the stage in my life — that is, I had — where the calm harbor and its placid waters were more to my liking than the foaming drama of the high seas. Of course there were times — out in company, or sometimes just alone over our dinner — when I might have wished her livelier and more responsive, but I was far too content with her dependable sobriety to be disappointed in her for lacking color. I had had enough color with my wife.
Indeed, during the course of three years, Claire and I had worked out a way of living together — which in part entailed living separately — that provided us the warmth and security of each other's affections, without the accompanying dependence, or the grinding boredom, or the wild, unfocused yearning, or the round-the-clock strategies of deception and placation which seemed to have soured all but a very few of the marriages we knew. A year back I had ended five years of psychoanalysis convinced that the wounds sustained in my own Grand Guignol marriage had healed as well as they ever would, and largely because of my life with Claire. Maybe I wasn't the man I'd been, but I wasn't a bleeding buck private any longer, either, wrapped in bandages and beating the drum of self-pity as I limped tearfully into the analyst's office from that battlefield known as Hearth and Home. Life had become orderly and stable — the first time I could say that in more than a decade. We really did get on so easily and with so little strain, we liked each other so much that it seemed to me something very like a disaster (little I knew about disaster) when, out of the blue, I began to take no pleasure at all in our lovemaking. It was a depressing, bewildering development, and try as I might, I seemed unable to alter it. I was, in fact, scheduled to pay a visit to my former analyst to talk about how much this was troubling me, when, out of the blue again, I was suddenly more passionate with her than I had ever been with anyone.
But "passion" is the wrong word: an infant in the crib doesn't feel passion when it delights in being tickled playfully under the chin. I am talking about purely tactile delight — sex neither in the head nor the heart, but excruciatingly in the epidermis of the penis, sex skin-deep and ecstatic. It was a kind of pleasure that made me writhe and claw at the sheets, made me twist and turn in the bed with a helpless abandon that I had previously associated more with women than with men — and women more imaginary than real. During the final week of my incubation period, I nearly cried with tears from the sheer tortuous pleasure of the friction alone. When I came I took Claire's ear in my mouth and licked it like a dog. I licked her hair. I found myself panting, licking my own shoulder. I had been saved! My life with Claire had been spared! Having lain indifferently beside her for nearly a year, having begun to fear the worst about our future, I had somehow — blessed mysterious somehow! — found my way to a pure, primitive realm of erotic susceptibility where the bond between us could only be strengthened. "Is this what is meant by debauchery?" I asked my happy friend whose pale skin bore the marks of my teeth; "it's like nothing I've ever known." She only smiled, and closed her eyes to float a little more. Her hair was stringy with perspiration, like a little girl's from playing too long in the heat. Pleasured, pleasure-giving Claire. Lucky David. We couldn't have been happier.
Alas, what has happened to me is like nothing anyone has ever known: beyond understanding, beyond compassion, beyond comedy. To be sure, there are those who claim to be on the brink of a conclusive scientific explanation; and those, my faithful visitors, whose compassion is seemingly limitless; and then, out in the world, those — why shouldn't there be? — who cannot help laughing. And, you know, at times I am even one with them: I understand, I have compassion, I too see the joke. Enjoying it is another matter. If only I could sustain the laughter for more than a few seconds — if only it weren't so brief and so bitter. But then maybe more laughs are what I have to look forward to, if the medical men are able to sustain life in me in this condition, and if I should continue to want them to.
I AM A BREAST. A phenomenon that has been variously described to me as "a massive hormonal influx," "an endocrinopathic catastrophe," and/or "a hermaphroditic explosion of chromosomes" took place within my body between midnight and 4 A.M. on February 18, 1971, and converted me into a mammary gland disconnected from any human form, a mammary gland such as could only appear, one would have thought, in a dream or a Dali painting. They tell me that I am now an organism with the general shape of a football, or a dirigible; I am said to be of spongy consistency, weighing one hundred and fifty-five pounds (formerly I was one hundred and sixty-five), and measuring, still, six feet in length. Though I continue to retain, in damaged and "irregular" form, much of the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, an excretory system described as "reduced and primitive," and a respiratory system that terminates just above my midsection in something resembling a navel with a flap, the basic architecture in which these human characteristics are disarranged and buried is that of the breast of the mammalian female.
The bulk of my weight is fatty tissue. At one end I am rounded off like a watermelon, at the other I terminate in a nipple, cylindrical in shape, projecting five inches from my "body" and perforated at the tip with seventeen openings, each about half the size of the male urethral orifice. These are the apertures of the lactiferous ducts. As I am able to understand it without the benefit of diagrams — I am sightless — the ducts branch back into lobules composed of the sort of cells that secrete the milk that is carried to the surface of the normal nipple when it is being suckled, or milked by machine.
My flesh is smooth and "youthful," and I am still a "Caucasian." The color of my nipple is rosy pink. This last is thought to be unusual because in my former incarnation I was an emphatic brunet. As I told the endocrinologist who made this observation, I find it less unusual than certain other aspects of the transformation, but then I am not the endocrinologist around here. Embittered wit, but wit at last, and it must have been observed and noted.
My nipple is rosy pink — like the stain at the base of my penis the night this all happened to me. Since the apertures in the nipple provide me with something like a mouth and vestigial ears — at least it has seemed to me that I am able to make myself heard through my nipple, and, faintly, to hear through it what is going on around me — I had assumed that it was my head that had become my nipple. But the doctors conclude otherwise, at least as of this month. For one thing, my voice, faint as it is, evidently emanates from the flap in my mid-section, even if my sense of internal landscape doggedly continues to associate the higher functions of consciousness with the body's topmost point. The doctors now maintain that the wrinkled, roughened skin of the nipple — which, admittedly, is exquisitely sensitive to touch like no tissue on the face, including the mucous membrane of the lips — was formed out of the glans penis. The puckered pinkish areola encircling the nipple is said to have metamorphosed from the shaft of the penis under the assault of a volcanic secretion from the pituitary of "mammogenic" fluid. Two fine long reddish hairs extend from one of the small elevations on the rim of my areola. "How long are they?"
"Seven inches exactly."
"My antennae." The bitterness. Then the disbelief. "Will you pull one, please?"
"If you like, David, I'll pull very gently."
Dr. Gordon wasn't lying. A hair of mine had been tugged. A familiar enough sensation — so familiar that I wanted to be dead.
Of course it was days after the change — the "change"! — before I even regained consciousness, and another week after that before they would tell me anything other than that I had been "very ill" with "an endocrine imbalance." I keened and howled so wretchedly each time I awoke to discover anew that I could not see, smell, taste, or move that I had to be kept under heavy sedation. When my "body" was touched, I didn't know what to make of it: the sensation was unexpectedly soothing, but far away, and reminded me of water lapping at a beach. One morning I awakened to feel something new happening to me at one of my extremities. Nothing like pain — rather more like pleasure — yet it felt so strange just to feel that I screamed, "I've been burned! I was in a fire!"
"Calm yourself, Mr. Kepesh," a woman said. "I'm only washing you. I'm only washing your face."
"My face? Where is it! Where are my arms! My legs! Where is my mouth! What happened to me?"
Now Dr. Gordon spoke. "You're in Lenox Hill Hospital, David. You're in a private room on the seventh floor. You've been here ten days. I've been to see you every morning and night. You are getting excellent care and all the attention you require. Right now you're just being washed with a sponge and some warm soapy water. That's all. Does that hurt you?"
"No," I whimpered, "but where is my face?"
"Just let the nurse wash you, and we'll talk a little later in the morning. You must get all the rest you can."
"What happened to me?" I could remember the pain and the terror, but no more: to me it had felt as though I were being repeatedly shot from a cannon into a brick wall, then marched over by an army of boots. In actuality it was more as though I had been a man made of taffy, stretched in opposite directions by my penis and my buttocks until I was as wide as I had once been long. The doctors tell me that I couldn't have been conscious for more than a few minutes once the "catastrophe" got going, but in retrospect, it seems to me that I had been awake to feel every last bone in my body broken in two and ground into dust.
"If only you'll relax now —"
"How am I being fed!"
"Intravenously. You mustn't worry. You're being fed all you need."
"Where are my arms!"
"Just let the nurse wash you, and then she'll rub some oil in, and you'll feel much better. Then you can sleep."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Breast"
Copyright © 1980 Philip Roth.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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