What I heard first the next morning was a scream and a crash. Cora, dropping the breakfast tray. It woke me up. I was still half in the cupboard, head on the bundled cloak. I must have pulled it off the hanger, and gone to sleep there; for a moment I couldn’t remember where I was. Cora was kneeling beside me, I felt her hand touch my back. She screamed again when I moved.
What’s wrong? I said. I rolled over, pushed myself up.
Oh, she said. I thought.
She thought what?
Like… she said.
The eggs had broken on the floor, there was orange juice and shattered glass.
I’ll have to bring another one, she said. Such a waste. What was you doing on the floor like that? She was pulling at me, to get me up, respectably onto my feet.
I didn’t want to tell her I’d never been to bed at all. There would be no way of explaining that. I told her I must have fainted. That was almost as bad, because she seized on it.
It’s one of the early signs, she said, pleased. That, and throwing up. She should have known there hadn’t been time enough; but she was very hopeful.
No, it’s not that, I said. I was sitting in the chair. I’m sure it isn’t that. I was just dizzy. I was just standing here and things went dark.
It must have been the strain, she said, of yesterday and all. Takes it out of you.
She meant the Birth, and I said it did. By this time I was sitting in the chair, and she was kneeling on the floor, picking up the pieces of broken glass and egg, gathering them onto the tray. She blotted some of the orange juice with the paper napkin.
I’ll have to bring a cloth, she said. They’ll want to know why the extra eggs. Unless you could do without. She looked up at me sideways, slyly, and I saw that it would be better if we could both pretend I’d eaten my breakfast after all. If she said she’d found me lying on the floor, there would be too many questions. She’d have to account for the broken glass in any case; but Rita would get surly if she had to cook a second breakfast.
I’ll do without, I said. I’m not that hungry. This was good, it fit in with the dizziness. But I could manage the toast, I said. I didn’t want to go without breakfast altogether.
It’s been on the floor, she said.
I don’t mind, I said. I sat there eating the piece of brown toast while she went into the bathroom and flushed the handful of egg, which could not be salvaged, down the toilet. Then she came back.
I’ll say I dropped the tray on the way out, she said.
It pleased me that she was willing to lie for me, even in such a small thing, even for her own advantage. It was a link between us.
I smiled at her. I hope nobody heard you, I said.
It did give me a turn, she said, as she stood in the doorway with the tray. At first I thought it was just your clothes, like. Then I said to myself, what’re they doing there on the floor? I though maybe you’d…
Run off, I said.
Well, but, she said. But it was you.
Yes, I said. It was.
And it was, and she went out with the tray and came back with a cloth for the rest of the orange juice, and Rita that afternoon made a grumpy remark about some folks being all thumbs. Too much on their minds, don’t look where they’re going, she said, and we continued on from there as if nothing had happened.
That was in May. Spring has now been undergone. The tulips have had their
moment and are done, shedding their petals one by one, like teeth. One day I came upon Serena Joy, kneeling on a cushion in the garden, her cane beside her on the grass. She was snipping off the seed pods with a pair of shears. I watched her sideways as I went past, with my basket of oranges and lamb chops. She was aiming, positioning the blades of the shears, then cutting with a convulsive jerk of the hands. Was it the arthritis, creeping up? Or some blitzkrieg, some kamikaze, committed on the swelling genitalia of the flowers? The fruiting body. To cut off the seed pods is supposed to make the bulb store energy.
Saint Serena, on her knees, doing penance.
I often amused myself this way, with small mean-minded bitter jokes about her; but not for long. It doesn’t do to linger, watching Serena Joy, from behind.
What I coveted was the shears.
Well. Then we had the irises, rising beautiful and cool on their tall stalks, like blown glass, like pastel water momentarily frozen in a splash, light blue, light mauve, and the darker ones, velvet and purple, black cat’s-ears in the sun, indigo shadow, and the bleeding hearts, so female in shape it was a surprise they’d not long since been rooted out. There is something subversive about this garden of Serena’s, a sense of buried things bursting upwards, wordlessly, into the light, as if to point, to say: Whatever is silenced will clamour to be heard, though silently. A Tennyson garden, heavy with scent, languid; the return of the word swoon. Light pours down upon it from the sun, true, but also heat rises, from the flowers themselves, you can feel it: like holding your hand an inch above an arm, a shoulder. It breathes, in the warmth, breathing itself in. To walk through it in these days, of peonies, of pinks and carnations, makes my head swim.
The willow is in full plumage and is no help, with its insinuating whispers. Rendezvous, it says, terraces; the sibilants run up my spine, a shiver as if in fever. The summer dress rustles against the flesh of my thighs, the grass grows underfoot, at the edges of my eyes there are movements, in the branches; feathers, flittings, grace notes, tree into bird, metamorphosis run wild. Goddesses are possible now and the air suffuses with desire. Even the bricks of the house are softening, becoming tactile; if I leaned against them they’d be warm and yielding. It’s amazing what denial can do. Did the sight of my ankle make him lighthearted, faint, at the checkpoint yesterday, when I
dropped my pass and let him pick it up for me? No handkerchief, no fan, I use what’s handy.
Winter is not so dangerous. I need hardness, cold, rigidity; not this heaviness, as if I’m a melon on a stem, this liquid ripeness.
The Commander and I have an arrangement. It’s not the first such arrangement in history, though the shape it’s taken is not the usual one.
I visit the Commander two or three nights a week, always after dinner, but only when I get the signal. The signal is Nick. If he’s polishing the car when I set out for the shopping, or when I come back, and if his hat is on askew or not on at all, then I go. If he isn’t there or if he has his hat on straight, then I stay in my room in the ordinary way. On Ceremony nights, of course, none of this applies.
The difficulty is the Wife, as always. After dinner she goes to their bedroom, from where she could conceivably hear me as I sneak along the hall, although I take care to be very quiet. Or she stays in the sitting room, knitting away at her endless Angel scarves, turning out more and more yards of intricate and useless wool people: her form of procreation, it must be. The sitting-room door is usually left ajar when she’s in there, and I don’t dare to go past it. When I’ve had the signal but can’t make it, down the stairs or along the hall past the sitting room, the Commander understands. He knows my situation, none better. He knows all the rules.
Sometimes, however, Serena Joy is out, visiting another Commander’s Wife, a sick one; that’s the only place she could conceivably go, by herself, in the evenings. She takes food, a cake or pie or loaf of bread baked by Rita, or a jar of jelly, made from the mint leaves that grow in her garden. They get sick a lot, these Wives of the Commanders. It adds interest to their lives. As for us, the Handmaids and even the Marthas, we avoid illness. The Marthas don’t want to be forced to retire, because who knows where they go? You don’t see that many old women around any more. And as for us, any real illness, anything lingering, weakening, a loss of flesh or appetite, a fall of hair, a failure of the glands, would be terminal. I remember Cora, earlier in the spring, staggering around even though she had the flu, holding onto the doorframes when she thought no one was looking, being careful not to cough. A slight cold, she said when Serena asked her.
Serena herself sometimes takes a few days off, tucked up in bed. Then she’s the one to get the company, the Wives rustling up the stairs, clucking
and cheerful; she gets the cakes and pies, the jelly, the bouquets of flowers from their gardens.
They take turns. There is some sort of list, invisible, unspoken. Each is careful not to hog more than her share of the attention.
On the nights when Serena is due to be out, I’m sure to be summoned.
The first time, I was confused. His needs were obscure to me, and what I could perceive of them seemed to me ridiculous, laughable, like a fetish for lace-up shoes.
Also, there had been a letdown of sorts. What had I been expecting, behind that closed door, the first time? Something unspeakable, down on all fours perhaps, perversions, whips, mutilations? At the very least some minor sexual manipulation, some bygone peccadillo now denied him, prohibited by law and punishable by amputation. To be asked to play Scrabble, instead, as if we were an old married couple, or two children, seemed kinky in the extreme, a violation too in its own way. As a request it was opaque.
So when I left the room, it still wasn’t clear to me what he wanted, or why, or whether I could fulfil any of it for him. If there’s to be a bargain, the terms of exchange must be set forth. This was something he certainly had not done. I thought he might be toying, some cat-and-a-mouse routine, but now I think that his motives and desires weren’t obvious even to him. They had not yet reached the level of words.
The second evening began in the same way as the first. I went to the door, which was closed, knocked on it, was told to come in. Then followed the same two games, with the smooth beige counters. Prolix, quartz, quandary, sylph, rhythm, all the old tricks with consonants I could dream up or remember. My tongue felt thick with the effort of spelling. It was like using a language I’d once known but had nearly forgotten, a language having to do with customs that had long before passed out of the world: café au lait at an outdoor table, with a brioche, absinthe in a tall glass, or shrimp in a cornucopia of newspaper; things I’d once read about but had never seen. It was like trying to walk without crutches, like those phony scenes in old TV movies. You can do it. I know you can. That was the way my mind lurched and stumbled, among the sharp r’s and t’s, sliding over the ovoid vowels as if on pebbles.
The Commander was patient when I hesitated, or asked him for a correct spelling. We can always look it up in the dictionary, he said. He said we. The
first time, I realized, he’d let me win.
That night I was expecting everything to be the same, including the good- night kiss. But when we’d finished the second game, he sat back in his chair. He placed his elbows on the arms of the chair, the tips of his fingers together, and looked at me.
I have a little present for you, he said.
He smiled a little. Then he pulled open the top drawer of his desk and took something out. He held it a moment, casually enough, between thumb and finger, as if deciding whether or not to give it to me. Although it was upside-down from where I was sitting, I recognized it. They were once common enough. It was a magazine, a women’s magazine it looked like from the picture, a model on glossy paper, hair blown, neck scarfed, mouth lipsticked; the fall fashions. I thought such magazines had all been destroyed, but here was one, left over, in a Commander’s private study, where you’d least expect to find such a thing. He looked down at the model, who was right-side-up to him; he was still smiling, that wistful smile of his. It was a look you’d give to an almost extinct animal, at the zoo.
Staring at the magazine, as he dangled it before me like fishbait, I wanted it. I wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. At the same time I saw this longing of mine as trivial and absurd, because I’d taken such magazines lightly enough once. I’d read them in dentists’ offices, and sometimes on planes; I’d bought them to take to hotel rooms, a device to fill in empty time while I was waiting for Luke. After I’d leafed through them I would throw them away, for they were infinitely discardable, and a day or two later I wouldn’t be able to remember what had been in them.
Though I remembered now. What was in them was promise. They dealt in transformations; they suggested an endless series of possibilities, extending like the reflections in two mirrors set facing one another, stretching on, replica after replica, to the vanishing point. They suggested one adventure after another, one wardrobe after another, one improvement after another, one man after another. They suggested rejuvenation, pain overcome and transcended, endless love. The real promise in them was immortality.
This was what he was holding, without knowing it. He riffled the pages. I felt myself leaning forward.
It’s an old one, he said, a curio of sorts. From the seventies, I think. A Vogue. This like a wine connoisseur dropping a name. I thought you might
like to look at it.
I hung back. He might be testing me, to see how deep my indoctrination had really gone. It’s not permitted, I said.
In here, it is, he said quietly. I saw the point. Having broken the main taboo, why should I hesitate over another one, something minor? Or another, or another; who could tell where it might stop? Behind this particular door, taboo dissolved.
I took the magazine from him and turned it the right way round. There they were again, the images of my childhood: bold, striding, confident, their arms flung out as if to claim space, their legs apart, feet planted squarely on the earth. There was something Renaissance about the pose, but it was princes I thought of, not coiffed and ringleted maidens. Those candid eyes, shadowed with makeup, yes, but like the eyes of cats, fixed for the pounce. No quailing, no clinging there, not in those capes and rough tweeds, those boots that came to the knee. Pirates, these women, with their ladylike briefcases for the loot and their horsy, acquisitive teeth.
I felt the Commander watching me as I turned the pages. I knew I was doing something I shouldn’t have been doing, and that he found pleasure in seeing me do it. I should have felt evil; by Aunt Lydia’s lights, I was evil. But I didn’t feel evil. Instead I felt like an old Edwardian seaside postcard: naughty. What was he going to give me next? A girdle?
Why do you have this? I asked him.
Some of us, he said, retain an appreciation for the old things.
But these were supposed to have been burned, I said. There were house- to-house searches, bonfires…
What’s dangerous in the hands of the multitudes, he said, with what may or may not have been irony, is safe enough for those whose motives are…
Beyond reproach, I said.
He nodded gravely. Impossible to tell whether or not he meant it.
But why show it to me? I said, and then felt stupid. What could he possibly say? That he was amusing himself, at my expense? For he must have known how painful it was to me, to be reminded of the former time.
I wasn’t prepared for what he actually did say. Who else could I show it to? he said, and there it was again, that sadness.
Should I go further? I thought. I didn’t want to push him, too far, too fast. I knew I was dispensable. Nevertheless I said, too softly, How about your Wife?
He seemed to think about that. No, he said. She wouldn’t understand. Anyway, she won’t talk to me much any more. We don’t seem to have much in common, these days.
So there it was, out in the open: his wife didn’t understand him.
That’s what I was there for, then. The same old thing. It was too banal to be true.
On the third night I asked him for some hand lotion. I didn’t want to sound begging, but I wanted what I could get.
Some what? he said, courteous as ever. He was across the desk from me. He didn’t touch me much, except for that one obligatory kiss. No pawing, no heavy breathing, none of that; it would have been out of place, somehow, for him as well as for me.
Hand lotion, I said. Or face lotion. Our skin gets very dry. For some reason I said our instead of my. I would have liked to ask also for some bath oil, in those little coloured globules you used to be able to get, that were so much like magic to me when they existed in the round glass bowl in my mother’s bathroom at home. But I thought he wouldn’t know what they were. Anyway, they probably weren’t made any more.
Dry? the Commander said, as if he’d never thought about that before. What do you do about it?
We use butter, I said. When we can get it. Or margarine. A lot of the time it’s margarine.
Butter, he said, musing. That’s very clever. Butter. He laughed.
I could have slapped him.
I think I could get some of that, he said, as if indulging a child’s wish for bubble gum. But she might smell it on you.
I wondered if this fear of his came from past experience. Long past: lipstick on the collar, perfume on the cuffs, a scene, late at night, in some kitchen or bedroom. A man devoid of such experience wouldn’t think of that. Unless he’s craftier than he looks.
I’d be careful, I said. Besides, she’s never that close to me.
Sometimes she is, he said.
I looked down. I’d forgotten about that. I could feel myself blushing. I won’t use it on those nights, I said.
On the fourth evening he gave me the hand lotion, in an unlabelled plastic bottle. It wasn’t very good quality; it smelled faintly of vegetable oil. No Lily of the Valley for me. It may have been something they made up for use in hospitals, on bedsores. But I thanked him anyway.
The trouble is, I said, I don’t have anywhere to keep it.
In your room, he said, as if it were obvious.
They’d find it, I said. Someone would find it.
Why? he asked, as if he really didn’t know. Maybe he didn’t. It wasn’t the first time he gave evidence of being truly ignorant of the real conditions under which we lived.
They look, I said. They look in all our rooms.
What for? he said.
I think I lost control then, a little. Razor blades, I said. Books, writing, black-market stuff. All the things we aren’t supposed to have. Jesus Christ, you ought to know. My voice was angrier than I’d intended, but he didn’t even wince.
Then you’ll have to keep it here, he said.
So that’s what I did.
He watched me smoothing it over my hands and then my face with that same air of looking in through the bars. I wanted to turn my back on him – it was as if he were in the bathroom with me – but I didn’t dare.
For him, I must remember, I am only a whim.
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