It was the summer of 1993. At home, on New York’s Upper West Side, I had a six-month old and a three-year old, and I was struggling. I wanted to write, but I couldn’t write. In the not too distant future, I would be moving to Israel, a choice that wasn’t mine. My parents, after 38 years of marriage, were divorcing.
Dr. P seemed like a nice man, a smart man, a good listener. We chatted for an hour in his pleasant Central Park South office — a “consultation” they called it — and I felt sophisticated and literary and erudite, discussing my disappointment over the brief, mixed review I’d gotten from The New York Times for my first novel the year before.
“You’re not going to talk to them anymore,” Dr. P joked, and I laughed. There was a flirtatious feel in the room, and I liked it. It reminded me of the flirtatious feel of my previous psychotherapy.
“Well,” Dr. P said at the end of the hour, leaning forward with an air of complete confidence in the pronouncement he was about to make. “It’s absolutely clear to me that you should be in analysis. You’ve been talking here today about lifelong conflicts.”
I nodded. I didn’t know what it was exactly that made me — as opposed to someone else — a candidate for psychoanalysis, but who was I to suggest otherwise? He was an MD, a psychiatrist, a psychoanalyst, a psychotherapist. If he said it, I believed it.
“I would be happy to work with you myself,” he went on, “but for the hourly fee I charge, you could be seeing some young analyst four or five times a week. Would you like me to get you a name? Perhaps one of the institutes could take you.”
I hadn’t been charming enough? I hadn’t been interesting? I went home determined to find a job that would pay me a lot of money, one that would enable me to see Dr. P four or five times a week and pay a full time babysitter. I scoured The New York Times classifieds. Fast typing seemed to be my strongest asset — despite my B.A. from Barnard in English — and so I circled secretarial and administrative assistant positions at big-name Wall Street firms. Then the phone rang.
“You know,” Dr. P said. “It occurs to me that the analytic institutes won’t take you if you tell them you’re moving out of the country in two years, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting an analysis with a lie. So I’ve got the name here of a very skilled young analyst. Why don’t you call her?”
“Really?” I said. I was so disappointed! “But I’d like to see you,” I said.
Dr. P chuckled softly, kindly, and then told me again what he’d told me before: it would be professionally unethical of him to take me on for once-a-week psychotherapy when he knew that what I needed was analysis.
And that’s how I came to Dr. R. My ambivalence about seeing her — a woman — manifested itself immediately. When I called her up to schedule an appointment, I suddenly couldn’t remember my own phone number. “It’s . . . it’s . . . it’s . . .” I said to her answering machine. I had to hang up and call her back.
Then, the first time we met, I said, “You know, I was kind of let down that Dr. P didn’t refer me to a man. I really wanted to see a man.”
Dr. R seemed unruffled. “Then see a man,” she said evenly, her legs crossed, one ankle slowly rotating.
I was shocked; I was stunned. How could she? She was just going to let me go — like that? She wasn’t even going to fight for me? But then: Good for her! Good for her for not taking my man-inflating woman-deflating crap! I liked her. I also liked that later, when I told her that Dr. P had recommended analysis for me, she let it be known that she would be making her own assessment, thank you very much. Wow! A woman who didn’t let a man tell her what to do! A woman who believed in herself!
We talked about her fee and what I could afford to pay. I explained that my husband was doing his medical residency and that the advance I had received for my novel would go towards my son’s Pre-K tuition at the Heschel School.
“Other sources of income?” she said. I shook my head. “The reason I ask,” she said, “is that sometimes it comes out later that there’s a trust fund, and there can be a lot of guilt.”
I shook my head again. “No trust fund,” I said. Then, thinking my hardest, trying to come up with any possible sources of funding that hadn’t immediately occurred to me, I added, “I mean, sometimes my mother-in-law sends us home with leftovers, after Shabbat.”
Dr. R smiled. She struck me as being an intensely serious person, and so I realized that — without intending it — I had said something funny. I had simply been thinking about how much money those leftovers — London Broil, brisket, saucy chicken — saved me.
“Often it’s harder for people to talk about money than it is for them to talk about sex,” she pursued, giving me another chance to come clean. But I had already come clean, had nothing else to offer. I considered mentioning the monthly allowance my parents gave me to help defray the costs of a part-time babysitter, but I figured that would probably fall into the London Broil category.
And so we settled on a fee and began our work together.
Now twenty-two years later, and three years into my relationship with Ronit, I unwittingly broached a topic even harder to talk about than money or sex.
“Something really good happened,” I told her. “One of the clients I do a lot of editing work for invited me on a departmental tiyul next week. She made it seem like I’m part of the whole social work team! But as soon as I finished feeling flattered, I became anxious. It’s bringing back memories of when I was in the eighth grade, when I went to a therapist for the first time, so she could get me out of our class trip to Washington.”
Ronit thought about that. “Why don’t you want to go on this tiyul?” she said.
“Because I’ll be with all Hebrew-speakers,” I said. “So either I won’t understand a lot of what they’re saying, and I’ll have to pretend I do. Or someone will feel sorry for me and start translating, and I’ll feel like I’m a burden.”
Ronit reflected back on the other thing I’d said. “Why didn’t you want to go to Washington?” she asked. “Certainly there was no Hebrew to worry about back then.”
Oh, God. I was 52 years old but this was a topic I still didn’t know how to talk about. I lacked the terminology. But I felt up against the wall, I’d boxed myself in, I’d started something and now I didn’t know how to end it.
“I just, I just, I just . . .” I said, squirming in my chair. Then, “Listen, a lot of people feel this way. I’m hardly the only one.”
Ronit looked puzzled.
“You know what I mean,” I said, though how could she? I hadn’t said anything. “Sharing a bathroom?” I said. “With three other girls?”
“Yeah . . .?” Ronit said.
Was she being willfully dense? Did she honestly not know what it was that I couldn’t say?
“You know what goes on in bathrooms,” I said. “What if I had to go? What if I couldn’t hold it in? It was a three-day trip.”
More confusion on Ronit’s face.
“Let’s put it this way,” I said to her. “I’m not talking about pee-pee. Listen, I don’t have the words for this conversation. Can we stop?”
She smiled. “In Israel, the kids call it pee-pee and kaky.”
This was something I knew, of course; I had raised three children in Israel.
“Fine,” I said to her. “Kaky. Now can we stop?”
“You know,” she said, “you’re talking about ways in which you’ve limited your life, because of this fear. Sure, you’re safe in your house sitting there at your computer, editing people’s papers, never meeting them. But now you’ve been invited out, to be with them, and you’re not going to let yourself go. I think it’s really important to open this topic up.”
“But why?” I said.
Ronit paused. “Dare I say, it might increase your happiness?”
Oh, geez. Sex and money were child’s play compared to this. Kaky: the final frontier.