Stories & Reflections
Lukás Jessen-Petersen, ex-husband
When Viorel was born, I had just turned twenty-two. I was no longer the student who had married a fellow student, but a man responsible for supporting his family, and with an enormous burden on my shoulders. My parents, who didn’t even come to the wedding, made any financial help conditional on my leaving Athena and gaining custody of the child (or, rather, that’s what my father said, because my mother used to phone me up, weeping, saying I must be mad, but saying, too, how much she’d like to hold her grandson in her arms). I hoped that, as they came to understand my love for Athena and my determination to stay with her, their resistance would gradually break down.
It didn’t. And now I had to provide for my wife and child. I abandoned my studies at the Engineering Faculty. I got a phone-call from my father, a mixture of stick and carrot: he said that if I continued as I was, I’d end up being disinherited, but that if I went back to university, he’d consider helping me, in his words, ‘provisionally’. I refused. The romanticism of youth demands that we always take very radical stances. I could, I said, solve my problems alone.
During the time before Viorel was born, Athena began helping me to understand myself better. This didn’t happen through sex – our sexual relationship was, I must confess, very tentative – but through music.
As I later learned, music is as old as human beings. Our ancestors, who travelled from cave to cave, couldn’t carry many things, but modern archaeology shows that, as well as the little they might have with them in the way of food, there was always a musical instrument in their baggage, usually a drum. Music isn’t just something that comforts or distracts us, it goes beyond that – it’s an ideology. You can judge people by the kind of music they listen to.
As I watched Athena dance during her pregnancy and listened to her play the guitar to calm the baby and make him feel that he was loved, I began to allow her way of seeing the world to affect my life too. When Viorel was born, the first thing we did when we brought him home was to play Albinoni’s Adagio. When we quarrelled, it was the force of music – although I can’t make any logical connection between the two things, except in some kind of hippyish way – that helped us get through difficult times.
But all this romanticism didn’t bring in the money. Since I played no instrument and couldn’t even offer my services as background music in a bar, I finally got a job as a trainee with a firm of architects, doing structural calculations. They paid me a very low hourly rate, and so I would leave the house very early each morning and come home late. I hardly saw my son, who would be sleeping by then, and I was almost too exhausted to talk or make love to my wife. Every night, I asked myself: when will we be able to improve our financial situation and live in the style we deserve? Although I largely agreed with Athena when she talked about the pointlessness of having a degree, in engineering (and law and medicine, for example), there are certain basic technical facts that are essential if we’re not to put people’s lives at risk. And I’d been forced to interrupt my training in my chosen profession, which meant abandoning a dream that was very important to me.
The rows began. Athena complained that I didn’t pay enough attention to the baby, that he needed a father, that if she’d simply wanted a child, she could have done that on her own, without causing me all these problems. More than once, I slammed out of the house, saying that she didn’t understand me, and that I didn’t understand either how I’d ever agreed to the ‘madness’ of having a child at twenty, before we had even a minimum of financial security. Gradually, out of sheer exhaustion and irritation, we stopped making love.
I began to slide into depression, feeling that I’d been used and manipulated by the woman I loved. Athena noticed my increasingly strange state of mind, but, instead of helping me, she focused her energies on Viorel and on music. Work became my escape. I would occasionally talk to my parents, and they would always say, as they had so many times before, that she’d had the baby in order to get me to marry her.
She also became increasingly religious. She insisted on having our son baptised with a name she herself had decided on – Viorel, a Romanian name. Apart from a few immigrants, I doubt that anyone else in England is called Viorel, but I thought it showed imagination on her part, and I realised, too, that she was making some strange connection with a past she’d never known – her days in the orphanage in Sibiu.
I tried to be adaptable, but I felt I was losing Athena because of the child. Our arguments became more frequent, and she threatened to leave because she feared that Viorel was picking up the ‘negative energy’ from our quarrels. One night, when she made this threat again, I was the one who left, thinking that I’d go back as soon as I’d calmed down a bit.
I started wandering aimlessly round London, cursing the life I’d chosen, the child I’d agreed to have, and the wife who seemed to have no further interest in me. I went into the first bar I came to, near a Tube station, and downed four glasses of whisky. When the bar closed at eleven, I searched out one of those shops that stay open all night, bought more whisky, sat down on a bench in a square and continued drinking. A group of youths approached me and asked to share the bottle with me. When I refused, they attacked me. The police arrived, and we were all carted off to the police station.
I was released after making a statement. I didn’t bring any charges, saying that it had been nothing but a silly disagreement; after all, I didn’t want to spend months appearing at various courts, as the victim of an attack. I was still so drunk that, just as I was about to leave, I stumbled and fell sprawling across an inspector’s desk. The inspector was angry, but instead of arresting me on the spot for insulting a police officer, he threw me out into the street.
And there was one of my attackers, who thanked me for not taking the case any further. He pointed out that I was covered in mud and blood and suggested I get a change of clothes before returning home. Instead of going on my way, I asked him to do me a favour: to listen to me, because I desperately needed to talk to someone.
For an hour, he listened in silence to my woes. I wasn’t really talking to him, but to myself: a young man with his whole life before him, with a possibly brilliant career ahead of him – as well as a family with the necessary contacts to open many doors – but who now looked like a beggar – drunk, tired, depressed and penniless. And all because of a woman who didn’t even pay me any attention.
By the end of my story I had a clearer view of my situation: a life which I had chosen in the belief that love conquers all. And it isn’t true. Sometimes love carries us into the abyss, taking with us, to make matters worse, the people we love. In my case, I was well on the way to destroying not only my life, but Athena’s and Viorel’s too.
At that moment, I said to myself once again that I was a man, not the boy who’d been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and that I’d faced with dignity all the challenges that had been placed before me. Athena was already asleep, with the baby in her arms. I took a bath, went outside again to throw my dirty clothes in the bin, and lay down, feeling strangely sober.
The next day, I told Athena that I wanted a divorce. She asked me why.
‘Because I love you. Because I love Viorel. And because all I’ve done is to blame you both because I had to give up my dream of becoming an engineer. If we’d waited a little, things would have been different, but you were only thinking about your plans and forgot to include me in them.’
Athena said nothing, as if she had been expecting this, or as if she had unconsciously been provoking such a response.
My heart was bleeding because I was hoping that she’d ask me, please, to stay. But she seemed calm and resigned, concerned only that the baby might hear our conversation. It was then that I felt sure she had never loved me, and that I had merely been the instrument for the realisation of her mad dream to have a baby at nineteen.
I told her that she could keep the house and the furniture, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She’d stay with her parents for a while, then look for a job and rent her own apartment. She asked if I could help out financially with Viorel, and I agreed at once.
I got up, gave her one last, long kiss and insisted again that she should stay in the house, but she repeated her resolve to go to her parents’ house as soon as she’d packed up all her things. I stayed at a cheap hotel and waited every night for her to phone me, asking me to come back and start a new life. I was even prepared to continue the old life if necessary, because that separation had made me realise that there was nothing and no one more important in the world than my wife and child.
A week later, I finally got that call. All she said, however, was that she’d cleared out all her things and wouldn’t be going back. Two weeks after that, I learned that she’d rented a small attic flat in Basset Road, where she had to carry the baby up three flights of stairs every day. A few months later, we signed the divorce papers.
My real family left forever. And the family I’d been born into received me with open arms.
After my separation from Athena and the great suffering that followed, I wondered if I hadn’t made a bad, irresponsible decision, typical of people who’ve read lots of love stories in their adolescence and desperately want to repeat the tale of Romeo and Juliet. When the pain abated – and time is the only cure for that – I saw that life had allowed me to meet the one woman I would ever be capable of loving. Each second spent by her side had been worthwhile, and given the chance, despite all that had happened, I would do the same thing over again.
But time, as well as healing all wounds, taught me something strange too: that it’s possible to love more than one person in a lifetime. I remarried. I’m very happy with my new wife, and I can’t imagine living without her. This, however, doesn’t mean that I have to renounce all my past experiences, as long as I’m careful not to compare my two lives. You can’t measure love the way you can the length of a road or the height of a building.
Something very important remained from my relationship with Athena: a son, her great dream, of which she spoke so frankly before we decided to get married. I have another child by my second wife, and I’m better prepared for all the highs and lows of fatherhood than I was twelve years ago.
Once, when I went to fetch Viorel and bring him back to spend the weekend with me, I decided to ask her why she’d reacted so calmly when I told her I wanted a separation.
‘Because all my life I’ve learned to suffer in silence,’ she replied.
And only then did she put her arms around me and cry out all the tears she would like to have shed on that day.
Next chapter will be on-line on: 04.04.07
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