My first husband found the Hungarian for me. That is, he found two therapists, the first with an American name and the second with a foreign, almost unpronounceable one. To me, the child of immigrants from Eastern Europe, it was a no-brainer. I chose the the Hungarian.
My first husband was unhappy that I was taking too many naps on late weekend afternoons. He wanted me to stop it. That’s why he had looked up the names of therapists. He had other concerns as well, such as the fact that he had found empty candy wrappers under the seat of our car. I think the naps trumped the candy, though. I had only gained about five pounds and could still fit into my clothes so didn’t need to buy anything new, whereas the naps interfered with my listening to him, playing with him, and generally admiring him in any spare time I might have.
I wouldn’t have dared tell my first husband the naps were to avoid being with him so much. But I could have told him, with equal truthfulness, they were because I was really tired — from working five days a week to support us, making dinners and washing dishes afterwards, cleaning the apartment every Saturday morning, pulling a shopping cart to the A&P five blocks away every Saturday afternoon to bring back a week’s worth of groceries and other necessaries, going ice-skating or playing tennis with him (depending on the season) in Central Park on Sunday mornings, and doing the week’s laundry in the basement machines on Sunday afternoons. [There were other tasks, too, but you get the idea.]
However, my first husband wouldn’t have wanted to hear all that. He felt he was entitled to a wife who could take care of everything without requiring naps because he was a genius who had to spend almost all his time, when he wasn’t ice-skating or playing tennis, writing unpublishable books and therefore needed at least some admiration from someone, especially on late weekend afternoons. Also, he was certifiably handsome, which in his eyes counted for a very great deal.
The Hungarian was about forty and had an office off the lobby in an apartment house on East 86th Street, between Madison and Park. He called me “honeybunch.” I liked that. I very much needed to be someone’s honeybunch. Twice a week after work, I would wait on a chair in the lobby until the previous patient had left. Then I would knock, he would open the door, smile as if he were glad to see me, and say, ” Come in, come in.” After I had taken off my coat, he would add, “Ma, honeybunch. So how are you?” (I think “ma” meant “well” in Hungarian, but I never asked. I was just happy not to have to head home right after work, and to have a place to go that was just for me.)
But honeybunch came later. First, there was the initial visit. The Hungarian asked why I had come. He listened very carefully. I asked if he thought he could help. He said he could help if I did my part.
Then he said he was going to ask me a question which I should answer quickly, not thinking about it — with the very first thing that popped into my mind.
This was the question: “Who are you with when you’re alone?”
[Before I tell you what I answered, ask yourself how you would answer. “Who are you with when you are alone?”]
I said, “What kind of question is that? When I’m alone, I’m with nobody.”
The Hungarian said, “Really? When you’re alone, you’re with nobody?”
“Well, what do you expect me to say?” I asked. “When I’m all alone, of course I’m with nobody. There’s nobody there.”
“But there is somebody there,” he said. “When you’re alone, you’re with yourself.”
It wasn’t just a word game. I was twenty-eight. And to myself I was nobody.
So that’s where we began.
I owe him a lot.