teens

'I was alarmed by my physical repulsion.' The story of my daughter's first heartbreak.

This is an edited extract from Virginia Peters’s essay “My Daughter’s Lover” from Split – True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings (Ventura Press), edited by Lee Kofman, out now.

This is my daughter’s story, about her first love gone very wrong. She asked me to write it. People say that’s peculiar. Why would a daughter ask her mother to do that?

The waiter must have watched us as we made our way to the quietest corner of the café. Next thing, I saw him cutting a diagonal, his deft hips dodging tables and chairs – trying to get to us before another waiter could, I’m sure.

He was towering at over six feet so I had to crane my neck. We only want coffee, I interrupted gently when he began to recite the specials. He took a pen from his pocket and held its tip, so firmly, as if he was trying to stop himself from stabbing his tiny pad. What sort of coffee?, he inquired, as though this was a serious matter. I noticed his side part, driven with surgical precision through his dark pomaded hair, and the unusually sharp cheekbones and eyes. I didn’t see his handsomeness, but obviously my daughter did. I was sensing something else about him – an unusual degree of intensity in what should have been a completely unremarkable moment.

At that time, we were a family that had lost its context. Our landscape had changed too rapidly in the last ten years, and we were, yet again, needing to settle having just arrived back from Oxford, in the UK. It didn’t help that we are a little antisocial, mostly due to a strand of familial shyness (or perhaps it’s anxiety) that renders us lazy. We do not tend to pick our friends, they pick us. I’ve also noticed we have at times been too vulnerable to flattery and the glamorous attention of others. Maybe these tendencies have some significance in this story.

It was the end of February, and everyone in Sydney Hana’s age seemed half naked and basted in tandoori fake tan, but my daughter, after three years in England, had that wintery, sheltered look about her—chestnut hair, cool blue eyes, and skin so pale it must have almost looked untouched. She was eighteen years old.

You know who you look like? he said to her, when he returned with our coffee. He mentioned an actress on an American soap. Gilmore Girls. You’re the spitting image. You’ve been told that before, haven’t you?

Hana tried to conceal her smile.

He looked at me. Do you know the show?

I shook my head, so he suggested my daughter look up the actress on her phone. For your mother, he added, and she performed obediently.

He returned a bit later to check I’d viewed an image. I couldn’t see without my glasses, but I said yes, spitting image – to appease him, and thus hopefully end the conversation. I now see I should have shut him down with an apt comment. Instead, I signalled that we were a kindly pair, and in his gimlet eyes, this probably meant submissive.

Just as I thought he was going to leave us alone, something else caught his eye. Georg Jensen, he pronounced correctly. You’ve got good taste. He was referring to Hana’s watch. She told him she got to wear it as a matter of company policy; she was working in their Bondi store, part-time, during her first year at university.

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Well, I’m not really a waiter, he said, as though this was a natural segue. I’m here helping out my friends during the school holidays. I’m a teacher. He looked at me as he named a private school, as though to check I was impressed, then he wished us good day.

The teacher entered the jewellery store two days later. Hana recognised him straight away. She also recognised the satchel he wore strapped across his long, narrow torso – it was a Cambridge satchel; and beneath the cropped pants that revealed his ankles he wore tan loafers with tassels. She didn’t know anyone else in Sydney other than herself who had such a satchel and loafers. She’d bought hers in Oxford. They reminded her of her time there, that bygone era that still manages to exist in that place where modesty and bookishness prevail, and people lie about in parks on tartan rugs drinking from flasks and reading poetry. They were her shoes. Her bag. Her personal aesthetic – a part of her fledgling identity. Then to top it off he tapped his wrist.

Her jaw dropped: Oh my god. You’re wearing my watch.

He grinned, and said, Ditto.

I can imagine that grin as later I’d see it many times. His moustache would have lifted like a theatre curtain – and all those perfect white teeth in standing ovation, celebrating his handsomeness – for a fleeting moment.

On the third meeting he took Hana to Berkelouw Books for a glass of Methode Champenoise. He told her he was thirty-five years old. He taught primary school children, but he was also a writer, apparently in the midst of completing a novella. It was a love story.

I’m wondering now if I have avoided writing about my children all this time because I’ve had too many pressing issues of my own to work out when I write. Perhaps if I’d focused more on her emotional needs, instead of acting on my own, Hana wouldn’t have had the need to breathe into a paper bag at times.

I don’t know why, but when I think of Hana, it’s always zoomorphically. She brings to my mind the inside of an Alpine goat’s floppy ear, that soft silky part. But I call her Kitty. She’s a cat in the way she thinks – very precisely, and when she walks she takes long, loping steps with her tail straight up in the air, its tip elegantly reading the atmosphere. She does not have sharp nails, though – she gnaws at them. Her singing voice is as warm and fulsome as a cello. She used to be a teenage soloist with a small opera company. During her studies she discovered a passion for politics, literature, normative ethics and moral philosophy. She is deeply loyal. She is a perfectionist and a bad sleeper. She has an odd habit of watching videos about the art of undertaking. Probably because when she was fifteen, just before we moved to the UK, she helped me dress my mother’s corpse for burial.

dating my daughter heartbreak
"Perhaps if I’d focused more on her emotional needs, instead of acting on my own, Hana wouldn’t have had the need to breathe into a paper bag at times." Image: Getty.
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I’ve just made an investment, the teacher told Hana on the drive home from the Berkelouw Books in his late model European shit box that had also impressed her. He was holding up a rectangular shape, clad in a brown paper bag. I just paid $900 for a first edition copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, he said. I’m going to give it to you on your nineteenth birthday.

She was so happy she couldn’t resist telling someone, and I was her only friend in Sydney. But that’s four months away, I pointed out when she came home. Did he show you the book?

He hadn’t.

Something about this promise raised my suspicions. I suggested I ring the store and enquire if they’d had such an edition for sale. But Hana was insistent that I not. She said it would be disrespectful to go behind his back, but I think it was more that she did not want me to destroy the illusion. Perhaps she was even flattered by the teacher’s supremely inventive effort to court her.

Hana was twelve years old when she saw her first porn clip - we couldn’t protect her - she was with a group of girls at a birthday party. ‘My Introduction to Sex’ she calls it. Years later, she told me that she was so horrified by the way the women were abused in those sex scenes that rather than get her virginity over and done with by thirteen - like many of her friends - she did the opposite. She clammed up, disconnected her heart from her body. Instead of showing off her newfound curves in a bikini, when swimming she hid beneath a man-sized t-shirt.

She told me she was worried that there was something wrong with her. She was surrounded by teens losing themselves in rampant sex and drugs, yet all she wanted was to feel in control. I reassured her that she would be ready for sex and love in her own time, probably after her exams finished and she stopped panicking about them. A psychologist Hana and I consulted also told us no one stops to have sex in the woods when they’re being chased by a bear.

A week went by after the teacher promised her Paradise Lost – Hana told me, weakly, that she’d texted him: Have you lost interest in me?

Now he was ‘making up’ for his lapse in attention by taking her to dinner at an expensive restaurant in the city. But they didn’t have dinner as it turned out, just a cocktail and some nibbles - because we weren’t that hungry, she said. That night he showed her an old photo of himself, but the man in the picture was not recognisable. He told her he’d been morbidly obese in his early twenties, that is, before he found God and lost the weight, simultaneously.

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The act took place several weeks after she met him and she’d moved into a residential college at the university - half the time she was there, and the rest she now spent in his small apartment he shared with a flatmate. If I’d known back then that his bedroom was full of children’s moneyboxes and stuffed toys, I would have been even more afraid.

I remembered the feeling of weakness that overwhelmed me when, at the same age as Hana, I ‘gave’ my virginity to a man who was eight years older than me, and how it felt as though he now possessed it, this thing. I was compelled to stick as close as I could to him, to remain physically whole. It took me five years to be rid of that feeling, and him. I could see a similar thing happening to Hana, but worse. She became limp and pallid, more an object of the teacher’s desire than herself.

Some time after ‘the act’ she told me she was going to marry him. She wanted a baby in a year or so. And the teacher was just as serious as her. He’d already picked out his wedding shoes and shown them to her. I’d never heard of a groom planning his outfit well in advance of the occasion. I was alarmed by my growing feeling of physical repulsion for him, and the parallel thought that he was now subsuming and dissolving my daughter.

Instead of doing her study Hana was editing his book. I asked if he had a publisher yet. She wasn’t sure. What was this current book about? It was another love story and very passionate, she said, but he needed help with syntax, for in all his enthusiasm he rushed to start a new sentence before completing his last.

I got another advice from a psychologist, this time on my own. Don’t criticise her. Keep her close, so that you’re there when she needs you.

Our family loved to eat out once a week, and now because of this advice we were insisting Hana and the teacher join us too, instead of avoiding her to avoid him. It seemed strange, him sitting head and shoulders above our three teenagers. He was twice their age, yet there was something so erratic about him, and I got the feeling he might spring out of his seat any moment and do something silly.

I guess you could say we were passively complicit. We let the teacher take over our dinners with his running commentary - unfunny witticisms, flapping hands, jibes at our younger two children, that sudden grin that left his face in less than two seconds. And we sat there like wood ducks.

We paid for his dinners. I didn’t mind the first time, but I did the fourth and fifth. You’re not our child, I kept thinking as I watched him swirl and sniff his wine. Whenever he kissed me goodbye, his stubble stabbed my cheek like a boar bristle brush - and I wanted to shout f*ck, but again, I said nothing.

On the way home, I’d be unable to remember anything he’d said.

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One night, I watched Hana cut cherry tomatoes into tiny halves at the teacher’s kitchen bench. He would be home shortly to cook for us, she said. ‘I think he wants to pay you back for all your hospitality.’

She chopped like an old lady, her knife quivering precariously in her left hand. I looked at her face - small and white and closed like an envelope as the knife made its weak tap, tap, tap. He’d gone to get some ingredients that she’d forgotten, but when he arrived he didn’t have them either.

His apartment had wholemeal coloured carpet and Ikea furniture. A bolt hole for bachelor with a retro bike propped against the wall for a fast getaway. I found his book on a shelf - thirty photocopied A4 pages folded in two and stapled in the middle. This was the book. It sat next to The Dubliners that I’d bought for him, on Hana’s behalf, for his birthday. She didn’t receive Paradise Lost, which was no surprise by then.

Split Lee Kofman
Virginia shares her daughter's story in Split, a collection of essays and stories about leaving, loss and new beginnings. Image: Ventura Press.

He’d actually been in Paris for her birthday, to surreptitiously place his photocopied book on the shelf at Shakespeare & Co.

I remember the chunks of chicken he finally cooked that night feeling quite dry inside my mouth as they lolled from side to side, and the way I had to work my molars to crush the pieces like a mechanical compactor, and then force myself to swallow. We’re all masticating, the teacher said, and then he said it over and over Masticating, masticating, masticating, his eyes half mad as he scanned our chewing mouths.

Was this a reference to masturbation for our seventeen-year-old’s benefit? It made me sick. If not for the tomatoes Hana had cut I might have stopped masticating, I might have laid down my knife and fork and gagged - but probably not. I was far too well behaved - we all were.

Great dish. Thanks guys, my husband said. Fabulous effort.

The teacher disappeared into the toilet, for a long time.

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When he finally came out he told us he’d been speaking on the phone to the headmistress of the school where he worked. There was a problem with the curriculum. He was sorry but he had to leave straight away to attend to it. Hana was not to wait up for him because he suspected he’d be held up till the morning.

We bid him farewell, and we stayed to help Hana wash the dishes. She, too, thought it strange he’d spent so long in the bathroom, but apparently he did this often. I think he is vomiting up his food, she whispered. Bulimia? I asked. She hushed me so the others couldn’t hear.

It was hard leaving her there that night, a familiar yet distant face receding from the door.

We got in our car and drove away, the usual debrief, the weary When, oh when, will it end? Then a realisation broke through my torpor. F*ck! I said, as though I’d been struck by brilliance. He’s not saving the school curriculum. There is no emergency. I think we’re all part of some elaborate plot.

Hana is more conscientious and honest than I’ve ever known how to be. But integrity, I’ve discovered, has a blind spot - it can assume we’re all playing by the same rules.

It was the night of Hana’s university ball. She’d rushed to collect the teacher’s outfit from the drycleaners, and when she returned she could barely get space in front of the mirror in her dorm room, as he got frocked up in a bow tie and a cheap suit that he would tell everyone that night was by Tom Ford. I saw the pictures of them. She looked half herself, pushed to the outer edge of the frame. It was his ball, not hers.

The pictures went on Facebook. It didn’t take long before her phone rang. She discovered he was betrothed to two other girls, who would soon become Hana’s friends, and no longer his. They were able to account for all his sudden disappearances in the night.

When I went to collect Hana from his apartment, I found her tipping the contents of his lavage du corps, beard oil, shampoo, colognes, into the bathroom sink. She was in shock. Wired. She wondered if she should cut up his sheets too, and I looked at the grey poly-cotton and imagined the weave packed with his skin cells. I needed her clean of him, not showering in his DNA. I needed to escape this bed she’d laid in the night before, the stuffed toys and moneyboxes he apparently filled and took to the bank at intervals. I told her to forget the sheets. We’re getting out of here. On the way home she told me his favourite movies were Aladdin and Toy Story, and that she’d never considered he had the potential to be unfaithful.

She never missed her teacher. How can you miss an illusion, Mum? She shied away from men for the next three years, and came to the conclusion she sought not glamour, but honesty and tenderness. And in asking me to write this story, I think she sought something from me too that was perhaps lacking.

Split – True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings (Ventura Press), edited by Lee Kofman, is out now.

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