The Present Moment
I hadn't been in New York in eleven years. Other than for surgery in Boston to remove a cancerous prostate, I'd hardly been off my rural mountain road in the Berkshires in those eleven years and, what's more, had rarely looked at a newspaper or listened to the news since 9/11, three years back; with no sense of loss-merely, at the outset, a kind of drought within me-I had ceased to inhabit not just the great world but the present moment. The impulse to be in it and of it I had long since killed.
But now I'd driven the hundred and thirty miles south to Manhattan to see a urologist at Mount Sinai Hospitalwho specialized in performing a procedure to help the thousands of men like me left incontinent by prostate surgery. By going in through a catheter inserted in the urethra to inject a gelatinous form of collagen where the neck of the bladder meets the urethra, he was getting significant improvement in about fifty percent of his patients. These weren't great odds, especially as “significant improvement” meant only a partial alleviation of the symptoms- reducing “severe incontinence” to “moderate incontinence” or “moderate” to “light.” Still, because his results were better than those that other urologists had achieved using roughly the same technique (there was nothing to be done about the other hazard of radical prostatectomy that I, like tens of thousands of others, had not been lucky enough to escape-nerve damage resulting in impotence), I went to New York for a consultation, long after I imagined myself as having adapted to the practical inconveniences of the condition.
In the years since the surgery, I even thought I'd surmounted the shaming side of wetting oneself, overcome the disorienting shock that had been particularly trying in the first year and a half, during the months when the surgeon had given me reason to think that the incontinence would gradually disappear over time, as it does in a small number of fortunate patients. But despite the dailiness of the routine necessary to keep myself clean and odor-free, I must never truly have become accustomed to wearing the special undergarments and changing the pads and dealing with the “accidents,” any more than I had mastered the underlying humiliation, because there I was, at the age of seventy-one, back on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, not many blocks from where I'd once lived as a vigorous, healthy younger man-there I was in the reception area of the urology department of Mount Sinai Hospital, about to be assured that with the permanent adherence of the collagen to the neck of the bladder I had a chance of exerting somewhat more control over my urine flow than an infant. Waiting there envisioning the procedure, sitting and flipping through the piled-up copies of People and New York magazine, I thought, Entirely beside the point. Turn around and go home.
I'd been alone these past eleven years in a small house on a dirt road in the deep country, having decided to live apart like that some two years before the cancer was diagnosed. I see few people. Since the death, a year earlier, of my neighbor and friend Larry Hollis, two, three days can go by when I speak to no one but the housekeeper who comes to clean each week and her husband, who is my caretaker. I don't go to dinner parties, I don't go to movies, I don't watch television, I don't own a cell phone or a VCR or a DVD player or a computer. I continue to
live in the Age of the Typewriter and have no idea what the World Wide Web is. I no longer bother to vote. I write for most of the day and often into the night. I read, mainly the books that I first discovered as a student, the masterpieces of fiction whose power over me is no less, and in some cases greater, than it was in my initial exciting encounters with them.
Lately I've been rereading Joseph Conrad for the first time in fifty years, most recently The Shadow-Line, which I'd brought with me to New York to look through yet again, having read it all in one go only the other night. I listen to music, I hike in the woods, when it's warm I swim in my pond, whose temperature, even in summer, never gets much above seventy degrees. I swim there without a suit, out of sight of everyone, so that if in my wake I leave a thin, billowing cloud of urine that visibly discolors the surrounding pond waters, I'm largely unperturbed and feel nothing like the chagrin that would be sure to crush me should my bladder involuntarily begin emptying itself while I was swimming in a public pool.
There are plastic underpants with strongly elasticized edges designed for incontinent swimmers that are advertised as watertight, but when, after much equivocation, I went ahead and ordered a pair from a pool-supply catalogue and tried them out in the pond, I found that though wearing these biggish white bloomers beneath a bathing suit diminished the problem, it was not sufficiently eradicated to subdue my self-consciousness. Rather than take the chance of embarrassing myself and offending others, I gave up on the idea of swimming regularly down at the college pool for the bulk of the year (with bloomers under my suit) and continued to confine myself to sporadically yellowing the waters of my own pond during the Berkshires' few months of warm weather, when, rain or shine, I do my laps for half an hour every day.
A couple of times a week I go down the mountain into Athena, eight miles away, to shop for groceries, to get my clothes cleaned, occasionally to eat a meal or buy a pair of socks or pick up a bottle of wine or use the Athena College library. Tanglewood isn't far away, and I drive over to a concert there some ten times during the summer. I don't give readings or lectures or teach at a college or appear on TV. When my books are published, I keep to myself. I write every day of the week-otherwise I'm silent. I am tempted by the thought of not publishing at all-isn't the work all I need, the work and the working? What does it matter any longer if I'm incontinent and impotent?
Larry and Marylynne Hollis had moved up from West Hartford to the Berkshires after he'd retired from a lifelong position as an attorney with a Hartford insurance company. Larry was two years my junior, a meticulous, finicky man who seemed to believe that life was safe only if everything in it was punctiliously planned and whom, during the months when he first tried to draw me into his life, I did my best to avoid. I submitted eventually, not only because he was so dogged in his desire to alleviate my solitude but because I had never known anyone like him, an adult whose sad childhood biography had, by his own estimate, determined every choice he had made since his mother had died of cancer when he was ten, a mere four years after his father, who owned a Hartford linoleum store, had been bested no less miserably by the same disease. An only child, Larry was sent to live with relatives on the Naugatuck River southwest of Hartford, just outside bleak, industrial Waterbury, Connecticut, and there, in a boy's diary of “Things to Do,” he laid out a future for himself that he followed to the letter for the rest of his life; from then on, everything undertaken was deliberately causal. He was content with no grade other than an A and even as an adolescent vigorously challenged any teacher who'd failed to accurately estimate his achievement.
He attended summer sessions to accelerate his graduation from high school and get to college before he turned seventeen; he did the same during his summers at the University of Connecticut, where he had a full-tuition scholarship and worked in the library boiler room all year round to pay for his room and board so he could get out of college and change his name from Irwin Golub to Larry Hollis (as he'd planned to do when he was only ten) and join the air force, to become a fighter pilot known to the world as Lieutenant Hollis and qualify for the GI Bill; on leaving the service, he enrolled at Fordham and, in return for his three years in the air force, the government paid for his three years of law school. As an air force pilot stationed in Seattle he vigorously courted a pretty girl just out of high school who was named Collins and who met exactly his specifications for a wife, one of which was that she be of Irish extraction, with curly dark hair and with ice-blue eyes like his own. “I did not want to marry a Jewish girl.
I did not want my children to be raised in the Jewish religion or have anything to do with being Jews.” “Why?” I asked him. “Because that's not what I wanted for them” was his answer. That he wanted what he wanted and didn't want what he didn't want was the answer he gave to virtually every question I asked him about the utterly conventional structure he'd made of his life after all those early years of rushing and planning to build it. When he first knocked on my door to introduce himself-only a few days after he and Marylynne had moved into the house nearest to mine, some half mile down our dirt road-he immediately decided that he didn't want me to eat alone every night and that I had to take dinner at his house with him and his wife at least once a week.
He didn't want me to be alone on Sundays-he couldn't bear the thought of anyone's being as alone as he'd been as an orphaned child, fishing in the Naugatuck on Sundays with his uncle, a dairy inspector for the state-and so he insisted that every Sunday morning we had a hiking date or, if the weather was bad, Ping-Pong matches, Ping-Pong being a pastime that I could barely tolerate but that I obliged him by playing rather than have a conversation with him about the writing of books. He asked me deadly questions about writing and was not content until I had answered them to his satisfaction. “Where do you get your ideas?” “How do you know if an idea is a good idea or a bad idea?” “How do you know when to use dialogue and when to use straight storytelling without dialogue?” “How do you know when a book is finished?” “How do you select a first sentence? How do you select a title? How do you select a last sentence?” “Which is your best book?” “Which is your worst book?” “Do you like your characters?” “Have you ever killed a character?” “I heard a writer on television say that the characters take over the book and write it themselves. Is that true?” He had wanted to be the father of one boy and one girl, and only after the fourth girl was born did Marylynne defy him and refuse to continue trying to produce the male heir that had been in his plans from the age of ten.
He was a big, squarefaced, sandy-haired man, and his eyes were crazy, ice-blue and crazy, unlike Marylynne's ice-blue eyes, which were beautiful, and the ice-blue eyes of the four pretty daughters, all of whom had gone to Wellesley because his closest friend in the air force had a sister at Wellesley and when Larry met her she exhibited just the sort of polish and decorum that he wanted to see in a daughter of his. When we would go to a restaurant (which we did every other Saturday night-that too he would have no other way) he could be counted on to be demanding with the waiter. Invariably there was a complaint about the bread. It wasn't fresh. It wasn't the kind he liked. There wasn't enough for everyone.
One evening after dinner he came by unexpectedly and gave me two orange kittens, one long-haired and one short-haired, just over eight weeks old. I had not asked for two kittens, nor had he apprised me of the gift beforehand. He said he'd been to his ophthalmologist for a checkup in the morning, seen a sign by the receptionist's desk saying she had kittens to give away. That afternoon he went to her house and picked out the two most beautiful of the six for me. His first thought on seeing the sign was of me.
He put the kittens down on the floor. “This isn't the life you should have,” he said. “Whose is?” “Well, mine is, for one. I have everything I ever wanted. I won't have you experiencing the life of a person alone any longer. You do it to the goddamn utmost. It's too extreme, Nathan.” “As are you.” “The hell I am! I'm not the one who lives like this. All I'm pushing on you is a little normality. This is too separate an existence for any human being. At least you can have a couple of cats for company. I have all the stuff for them in the car.”
He went back outside, and when he returned he emptied onto the floor a couple of large supermarket bags containing half a dozen little toys for them to bat around, a dozen cans of cat food, a large bag of cat litter and a plastic litter box, two plastic dishes for their food, and two plastic bowls for their water.
“There's all you'll need,” he said. “They're beauties. Look at them. They'll give you a lot of pleasure.”
He was exceedingly stern about all this, and there was nothing I could say except, “It's very thoughtful of you, Larry.”
“What will you call them?”
“A and B.”
“No. They need names. You live all day with the alphabet. You can call the short-haired one Shorty and the long-haired one Longy.”
“That's what I'll do then.”
Copyright © 2008 by Philip Roth. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.