Early Experiences

In my adolescence, I dreaded the thought of marriage. No slave state could oppress me as thoroughly as a wife. Marriage was like patriotism; no wonder politicians were all for it. On the other hand, when you thought about it, what could be more wonderful than to walk into the late afternoon of greater Budapest and pick up a woman? Or to buy yourself a woman for the night, a fresh new miracle served hot with all the trimmings that go with living flesh? Let us now tactfully follow the route of young János Dragomán. He comes to a yellow intersection, turns right, enters the first building. A neoclassical apartment house with a wide courtyard; wild grapes on a green fence; the smell of fried meat and stewed cabbage. On the pale pink marble stairs, a frayed reddish runner. The brass handle is high on the heavy door; the bell hums invitingly. This young man should be solving the world’s problems in a long philosophical poem, but he is here instead, standing in front of this door. In a short while he’ll be face to face with Madame Calypso.

Madame Calypso is the greatest public mother-in-law of all time. She looks hard at your face, exchanges a few words with you, and knows exactly which woman to give you—like a wise old-time waiter who sizes up a person in a glance and brings him either cabbage soup or something spicier. The more daring guests, of course, want not only her girls but Madame Calypso herself. János is getting cold feet, but before he can turn and run back down the stairs, the maid, wearing a black hat and veil, opens the door. She leads him into the hallway. He’ll have to wait a little. She presses a button, and a wall parts. On a small stage bathed in mauve light, an extremely large woman with flaming red hair appears before him. Green paint under the eyes; orange yellow lipstick; ultramarine nightgown. “Your first time, isn’t it, little prince? And I suppose you want a discount and sympathy? I know all about initiation, my dear. I have just the one for you. Do sit down and let’s drink a toast to our friendship. I hope you will visit us again. I hope that our artistic institution can please the new generation, too. I will now put a black cloak over your head and remove it only when it’s time. Remember, little prince, you are not taking an examination. There are no problems to solve and no grade is given. Relax.”