Mileva is sitting at the kitchen table. It is summer, early morning. The window is open and the air is still fresh.
She smooths out two handwritten sheets of paper, knowing they are from Albert. But she studies the signature all the same. As if she cannot believe that he would write such a thing even though she knows her husband’s handwriting only too well. The sloping letters, the distinctive L, N, I, A., his writing has so many curlicues that even a forger would be hard put to imitate it. Even if he had signed just his initials, she still would have known it was from Albert. She had received more than enough letters from him, seen him sign his name with a flourish too many times. The letter she received yesterday shows no signs of hesitation, no second thoughts. The handwriting is steady, firm. Mileva even recognizes the ink; she had bought it for him in Zurich, at the stationary shop where she bought writing paper and school notebooks for Hans Albert.
She reads the letter his colleague Fritz Haber handed her yesterday. Albert had not had the guts even to deliver it in person.
Berlin, 18 July 1914*
A. You will make sure:
1. that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order;
2. that I will receive my three meals regularly in my room;
3. that my bedroom and study are kept neat, and especially that my desk is left for my use only.
B. You will renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons. Specifically, you will forego:
1. my sitting at home with you;
2. my going out or travelling with you.
C. You will obey the following points in your relations with me:
1. you will not expect any intimacy from me, nor will you reproach me in any way;
2. you will stop talking to me if I request it;
3. you will leave my bedroom or study immediately without protest if I request it.
D. You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behaviour.
This is just written confirmation of my situation, she thinks. If I don’t accept these humiliating terms, our life together is over.
Leaving the letter on the kitchen table, she walks over to the window and leans against its wooden frame, as if for support. She needs to touch something firm and stable to prove that she is here, that she is alive. Mileva knows that she must look pathetic in her nightgown, her hair disheveled. But there is nobody to see how unsteady she is on her feet, how hard she is trying to hold back the tears. I can’t keep crying, she thinks, I’ve got to pull myself together and decide what to do.
She breathes in the fresh morning air. The kitchen window overlooks the courtyard. Berlin grey, that’s what she calls the drab colour of its façades, its streets, its courtyards. She misses the hills and the trees she was used to in Zurich. She misses the light. She misses the air. The kitchen smells of last night’s dinner, of roasted sausages and potato salad. The greasy pan and porcelain bowl of leftovers are still standing on the stove. The bread on the table is stale. The maid hasn’t arrived yet. Mileva and the boys have been staying with her friends Fritz and Clare Haber for some ten days now. She could have put the food away herself last night; she could have been useful. But she hadn’t had the energy. Stunned by Albert’s letter of Conditions, she had felt dazed, as if she had received a blow to the head. That must be how a boxer feels after a match, she thinks.
When she first read his “letter” last night, she had been shocked. Then she burst into laughter. Albert’s Conditions reminded her of those notices you see in pastry shops back home: No combing hair! No spitting on the floor! The signs were pretty pointless, because most of the people they were intended for, people likely to spit or comb their hair in front of the shop mirror, couldn’t read anyway. She had seen that for herself on her summer forays to the pastry shop in Kać, the village where her parents had their farm: the boys would fix their hair in front of the mirror right next to the sign.
She remembered how she and her friend Desanka used to laugh at the sign in the school toilet: “Wash your hands before you eat and after you sit on the toilet seat.” They were amused by the rhyme of eat and seat. So when either of them had to go to “that place”, as they used to say in those days, she would simply say: eat-seat.
Albert’s Conditions were just like that eat-seat sign, she thought. Dear Mileva, just wash your hands properly, don’t spit on the floor, don’t comb your hair in the sweetshop pastry shop, cover your mouth with your hand when you cough, don’t burp in public, cross your ankles when you sit, don’t speak unless spoken to, be modest like a good little girl and everything will be fine, she thought. She was seized by a fit of hysterical laughter, followed by sheer incredulity that Albert could seriously write something like that. He really had a nerve to set conditions for her to continue living with him! The woman to whom he had been married for eleven years and with whom he had two sons! Hans Albert was ten, and Eduard would turn five in a few days.
Then she crumpled up the letter and threw it onto the floor.
But the laughter had given her only momentary respite. Mileva could not accept that these Conditions were real. She realized it only when her body told her. Only when she felt an emptiness in her chest, when she couldn’t breathe, when her heart jumped like a frenzied cat trying to claw its way out of her ribcage, when she felt the all too familiar pain. She knew that pain was her faithful reminder of reality, which always manifested itself if, for whatever reason, she refused to accept what was happening. It didn’t take much for her to sink into utter despair. The pain is a warning bell; as long as it hurts at least I know I’m alive, she thinks leaning against the kitchen wall.
Mileva didn’t sleep much last night. She knows that the weariness she feels this July morning is simply because of last night’s shock. It is usually the prelude to an oncoming headache and nausea. There’s nothing she fears more than these headaches because they keep her in bed for days. She can already feel the dull ache at the back of her head that will turn into increasingly piercing stabs of pain. The headache is usually followed by a long period of lethargy, a kind of paralysis. She hates it because she has the children to think of. The decision she has to make concerns them as well.
I have to bear up. I have to try and block this headache. The boys are about to wake up! Where did I put that new medicine, Mileva wonders, rummaging through her handbag. She takes out two small packets, dissolves the powder in a glass of water and gulps it down. She keeps turning the glass in her hand. She is waiting for the pain to ease, for it to stop before it gets worse, for the drug to trap it. All she can do is sit and wait.
The night before, after she had read and reread Albert’s brazen letter, she had said goodnight to the Habers and asked Hans Albert to help her to her bed. Clara brought her in a cup of tea. She, too, had read the Conditions, but saw nothing funny about them. Especially not after that evening when Mileva had shown up at her door with the children. Albert has rented out the apartment, we have no place to stay, Mileva simply said. Naturally, Clara invited them to stay with her and Fritz. The children were tired and Mileva was pale and looked a wreck. Clara could see that she was distraught. As she got the children ready for bed, Mileva told her that she had quarreled with Albert because he had rented out the apartment. How could he do something like that without telling me? Albert did it to make us go back to Zurich, she told Clara. She gave no further explanation. Mileva was reserved, even then. She did not tell her that she had heard the rumours about Albert having fallen in love with his cousin Elsa, that it was the talk of the Institute. It may have reached Fritz’s ears too and he may have told Clara. Mileva did not have the strength to mention it or to tell her that she had had her suspicions for some time already. Clara did not try to comfort her; she knew there was no point. She merely took her hand as tears ran down Mileva’s face. Clara’s hand was warm and strong. All that Mileva had to lean on at that moment was the touch of a woman she barely knew.
Mileva adores her two sons but she sometimes hates being a mother. Children can be a burden as well as a joy. Like so many other women, at such moments she feels she is paying too high a price for motherhood. Having given up physics after a nervous breakdown from which she never recovered, having had neither the strength nor Albert’s support to stand up for herself, she was left with a gaping emptiness.
I’ve reduced myself to being just a mother, thinks Mileva, knowing that women who view motherhood as a blessing and lofty duty might take the word “just” as belittling their lives.
Whom can she talk to about the emptiness she feels? Her mother? Her sister? Perhaps Clara, whose kitchen she is sitting in now. After all, Clara was the first woman to obtain a degree in chemistry from the University of Wroclaw. We started off together, Mileva remembers. But I did not graduate and she did not have children. No, better not to talk about myself. Clara might ask me why I hadn’t graduated, and the answer to that is too painful and long. I don’t want to talk to anyone. I can barely think about it myself.
I’m sometimes shocked by how little we know about ourselves, about our inner world. Albert has no idea about that world. She is back to the Conditions again. Laundry! After everything they have been through. After knowing each other for so many years, after eleven years of marriage, the poverty they have lived through, the freezing cold, sometimes even hunger. After the hard time he had with his professors, every single one of whom had refused to write him a recommendation for a position at the university. And lastly, after 1905, when he published four papers on relativity in The Annals of Physics, which became the basis for his future career. She had helped him review the latest scientific papers. She had worked on ideas with him, trying to see them from every side, to ask questions, to provoke him, to contradict him. That is what he needed, a partner to discuss such things with, someone who was at least as qualified as he was. He had still not dared to polemicize with such towering figures as Hendrik Lorentz or Max Planck, for instance. He was merely a young employee at the Patent Office. She collaborated on mathematical calculations; he could not publish his theories without them as proof. She was better at them than Albert. She read foreign scientific papers and took notes. Publishing under his name, she wrote reviews of specialist works. He was too busy to write them himself. He sat at the Patent Office all day, six days a week, using whatever time he managed to “steal” to pen his theories. And when he started to give student lectures, she prepared them for him. He tested each of his postulates by discussing them with her. She was at his side, always at hand. She remembers they both often fell sleep over their books just as day was breaking.
She encouraged him and he needed that in those days. He had told her a hundred times, Mitsa, where would I be without your support? She did not think she deserved any particular credit. First of all, she knew that he was exceptionally talented in theoretical physics. The second reason was more practical: he needed help because if he wanted to obtain even the lowest position at the university, he had to publish. She could have asked for both their names to appear on these scientific papers, but there was no point. She could not embark on her career as a scientist when she did not even have a degree. And without a degree, there was no doctorate.
The circle around her was already closing. Her anxiety was never to leave her.
In times past, Albert would either give her mathematical problems to solve, or go out and leave them for her on the table. And it is the same again now. Only it isn’t about mathematics anymore. Again she smooths out the sheets of paper on the table with her hand. Mileva realizes that what really offends her is that they do not involve numbers. She was used to getting mathematical problems from him, equations, formulas. These two papers were only a list of orders and instructions on how to behave!
It is hard for her to believe that Albert has forgotten absolutely everything. How can it be that she is now expected to take care of his laundry? How can it be that Albert, her beloved Albert, has left her a list not of mathematical problems but of ridiculous instructions ?
* Excerpts marked with an asterisk are original quotes (Author’s note)
By Slavenka Drakulić
Translated by Christina Pribićević Zorić
Slavenka Drakulić was born in Croatia in 1949. Her books and essays have been translated into many languages. In the USA, she has published five novels: Holograms Of Fear; Marble Skin; The Taste Of A Man; S. – A Novel About the Balkans (made into a feature film As If I Am Not There); and Frida’s Bed.
Christina Pribićević-Zorić translated over 35 works of fiction and non-fiction from Serbian/Croatian and French into English, including The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić, African Rhapsody, Short Stories of the Contemporary (Francophone) African Experience, Zlata’s Diary by Zlata Filipović, Tales of Old Sarajevo by Isak Samokovlija, Frida’s Bed by Slavenka Drakulić and The Stranger Next Door, an Anthology from the Other Europe. She was awarded the Serbian P.E.N. Award for Translation, the Djuro Daničić Award for Translation and the Outstanding Achievement Award, Radio Yugoslavia.