Stories & Reflections
Lukás Jessen-Petersen, 32, engineer, ex-husband
When I first met Athena, she already knew that she was adopted. She was just nineteen and about to have a stand-up fight with a fellow student in the university cafeteria because the fellow student, assuming Athena to be English (white skin, straight hair, eyes that were sometimes green, sometimes grey), had made some insulting remark about the Middle East.
It was the first day of term for these students and they knew nothing about each other. But Athena got up, grabbed the other girl by the collar and started screaming:
I saw the look of terror in the girl’s eyes and the look of excitement in the eyes of the other students, eager to see what would happen next. I was in the year above, and I knew exactly what the consequences would be: they would both be hauled up before the vice-chancellor, an official complaint would be made, and that would probably be followed by expulsion from the university and a possible police inquiry into alleged racism, etc. etc. Everyone would lose.
‘Shut up!’ I yelled, without really knowing what I was saying.
I knew neither of the girls. I’m not the saviour of the world and, to be perfectly honest, young people find the occasional fight stimulating, but I couldn’t help myself.
‘Stop it!’ I shouted again at the pretty young woman, who now had the other equally pretty young woman by the throat. She shot me a furious glance. Then, suddenly, something changed. She smiled, although she still had her hands around her colleague’s throat.
‘You forgot to say “please”,’ she said.
‘Stop,’ I asked again. ‘Please.’
She released the other girl and came over to me. All heads turned to watch.
‘You have excellent manners. Do you also have a cigarette?’
I offered her my pack of cigarettes, and we went outside for a smoke. She had gone from outrage to nonchalance, and minutes later, she was laughing, discussing the weather, and asking if I liked this or that pop group. I heard the bell ringing for class and solemnly ignored the rule I’d been brought up to obey all my life: do your duty. I stayed there chatting, as if there were no university, no fights, no canteens, no wind or cold or sun. There was only that young woman with the grey eyes, saying the most boring and pointless things, but capable, nonetheless, of holding my interest for the rest of my life.
Two hours later, we were having lunch together. Seven hours later, we were in a bar, having supper and drinking whatever our limited budgets allowed us to eat and drink. Our conversations grew ever more profound, and in a short space of time, I knew practically everything about her life – Athena recounted details of her childhood and adolescence with no prompting from me. Later, I realised she was the same with everyone, but, that day, I felt like the most important man on the face of the Earth.
She had come to London fleeing the civil war that had broken out in Lebanon. Her father, a Maronite Christian (Editor’s note: a branch of the Catholic Church, which, although it comes under the authority of the Vatican, does not require priests to be celibate and uses both Middle Eastern and Orthodox rituals), had started to receive death threats because he worked for the Lebanese government, but despite this, he couldn’t make up his mind to leave and go into exile. Then Athena, overhearing a phone conversation, decided that it was time she grew up, that she assumed her filial responsibilities and protected those she loved.
She performed a kind of dance and pretended that she’d gone into a trance (she had learned all about this kind of thing at school when she studied the lives of the saints), and started making various pronouncements. I don’t know how a mere child could possibly persuade adults to make decisions based on what she said, but that, according to Athena, was precisely what happened. Her father was very superstitious, and she was convinced that she’d saved the lives of her family.
They arrived here as refugees, but not as beggars. The Lebanese community is scattered all over the world, and her father soon found a way of re-establishing his business, and life went on. Athena was able to study at good schools, she attended dance classes – because dance was her passion – and when she’d finished at secondary school, she chose to take a degree in engineering.
Once they were living in London, her parents invited her out to supper at one of the most expensive restaurants in the city, and explained, very carefully, that she had been adopted. Athena pretended to be surprised, hugged them both, and said that nothing would change their relationship.
The truth was, though, that a friend of the family, in a moment of malice, had called her ‘an ungrateful orphan’ and put her lack of manners down to the fact that she was ‘not her parents’ “real” daughter’. She had hurled an ashtray at him cutting his face, and then cried for two whole days, after which she quickly got used to the idea that she was adopted. The malicious family friend was left with an unexplained scar and took to saying that he’d been attacked in the street by muggers.
I asked if she would like to go out with me the next day. She told me that she was a virgin, went to church on Sundays, and had no interest in romantic novels – she was more concerned with reading everything she could about the situation in the Middle East.
She was, in short, busy. Very busy.
‘People think that a woman’s only dream is to get married and have children. And given what I’ve told you, you probably think that I’ve suffered a lot in life. It’s not true, and, besides, I’ve been there already. I’ve known other men who wanted to “protect” me from all those tragedies. What they forget is that, from Ancient Greece on, the people who returned from battle were either dead on their shields or stronger, despite or because of their scars. It’s better that way: I’ve lived on a battlefield since I was born, but I’m still alive and I don’t need anyone to protect me.’
‘You see how cultured I am?’
‘Oh, very, but when you attack someone weaker than yourself, you make it look as if you really do need protection. You could have ruined your university career right there and then.’
‘You’re right. OK, I accept the invitation.’
We started seeing each other regularly, and the closer I got to her, the more I discovered my own light, because she always encouraged me to give the best of myself. She had never read any books on magic or esoterics. She said they were things of the Devil, and that salvation was only possible through Jesus – end of story. Sometimes, though, she said things that didn’t seem entirely in keeping with the teachings of the Church.
‘Christ surrounded himself with beggars, prostitutes, tax-collectors and fishermen. I think what he meant by this was that the divine spark is in every soul and is never extinguished. When I sit still, or when I’m feeling very agitated, I feel as if I were vibrating along with the whole Universe. And I know things then that I don’t know, as if God were guiding my steps. There are moments when I feel that everything is being revealed to me.’
Then she would correct herself:
‘But that’s wrong.’
Athena always lived between two worlds: what she felt was true and what she had been taught by her faith.
One day, after almost a semester of equations, calculations and structural studies, she announced that she was going to leave university.
‘But you’ve never said anything to me about it!’ I said.
‘I was even afraid of talking about it to myself, but this morning I went to see my hairdresser. She worked day and night so that her daughter could finish her sociology degree. The daughter finally graduated and, after knocking on many doors, found work as a secretary at a cement works. Yet even today, my hairdresser said very proudly: “My daughter’s got a degree.” Most of my parents’ friends and most of my parents’ friends’ children, also have degrees. This doesn’t mean that they’ve managed to find the kind of work they wanted. Not at all; they went to university because someone, at a time when universities seemed important, said that, in order to rise in the world, you had to have a degree. And thus the world was deprived of some excellent gardeners, bakers, antique dealers, sculptors and writers.’
I asked her to give it some more thought before taking such a radical step, but she quoted these lines by Robert Frost:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
The following day, she didn’t turn up for class. At our following meeting, I asked what she was going to do.
‘I’m going to get married and have a baby.’
This wasn’t an ultimatum. I was twenty, she was nineteen, and I thought it was still too early to take on such a commitment.
But Athena was quite serious. And I needed to choose between losing the one thing that really filled my thoughts – my love for that woman – and losing my freedom and all the choices that the future promised me.
To be honest, the decision was easy.
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