Chapter no 28

The Handmaid's Tale

don’t feel like a nap this afternoon, there’s still too much adrenalin. I sit on the window seat, looking out through the semi-sheer of the curtains. White nightgown. The window is as open as it goes, there’s a breeze, hot in the sunlight, and the white cloth blows across my face. From the outside I must look like a cocoon, a spook, face enshrouded like this, only the outlines visible, of nose, bandaged mouth, blind eyes. But I like the sensation, the soft cloth brushing my skin. It’s like being in a cloud.

They’ve given me a small electric fan, which helps in this humidity. It whirs on the floor, in the corner, its blades encased in grill-work. If I were Moira, I’d know how to take it apart, reduce it to its cutting edges. I have no screwdriver, but if I were Moira I could do it without a screwdriver. I’m not Moira.

What would she tell me, about the Commander, if she were here? Probably she’d disapprove. She disapproved of Luke, back then. Not of Luke but of the fact that he was married. She said I was poaching, on another woman’s ground. I said Luke wasn’t a fish or a piece of dirt either, he was a human being and could make his own decisions. She said I was rationalizing. I said I was in love. She said that was no excuse. Moira was always more logical than I am.

I said she didn’t have that problem herself any more, since she’d decided to prefer women, and as far as I could see she had no scruples about stealing them or borrowing them when she felt like it. She said it was different, because the balance of power was equal between women so sex was an even-steven transaction. I said “even-steven” was a sexist phrase, if she was going to be like that, and anyway that argument was outdated. She said I had trivialized the

issue and if I thought it was outdated I was living with my head in the sand.

We said all this in my kitchen, drinking coffee, sitting at my kitchen table, in those low, intense voices we used for such arguments when we were in our early twenties; a carry-over from college. The kitchen was in a run-down apartment in a clapboard house near the river, the kind with three storeys and a rickety outside back staircase. I had the second floor, which meant I got noise from both above and below, two unwanted stereo disc players thumping late into the night. Students, I knew. I was still on my first job, which didn’t pay much: I worked a computer in an insurance company. So the hotels, with Luke, didn’t mean only love or even only sex to me. They also meant time off from the cockroaches, the dripping sink, the linoleum that was peeling off the floor in patches, even from my own attempts to brighten things up by sticking posters on the wall and hanging prisms in the windows. I had plants, too; though they always got spider mites or died from being unwatered. I would go off with Luke, and neglect them.

I said there was more than one way of living with your head in the sand and that if Moira thought she could create Utopia by shutting herself up in a women-only enclave she was sadly mistaken. Men were not just going to go away, I said. You couldn’t just ignore them.

That’s like saying you should go out and catch syphilis merely because it exists, Moira said.

Are you calling Luke a social disease? I said.

Moira laughed. Listen to us, she said. Shit. We sound like your mother.

We both laughed then, and when she left we hugged each other as usual. There was a time when we didn’t hug, after she’d told me about being gay; but then she said I didn’t turn her on, reassuring me, and we’d gone back to it. We could fight and wrangle and name-call, but it didn’t change anything underneath. She was still my oldest friend.


I got a better apartment after that, where I lived for the two years it took Luke to pry himself loose. I paid for it myself, with my new job. It was in a library, not the big one with Death and Victory, a smaller one.

I worked transferring books to computer discs, to cut down on storage space and replacement costs, they said. Discers, we called ourselves. We called the library a discotheque, which was a joke of ours. After the books were transferred they were supposed to go to the shredder, but sometimes I took them home with me. I liked the feel of them, and the look. Luke said I had the mind of an antiquarian. He liked that, he liked old things himself.

It’s strange, now, to think about having a job. Job. It’s a funny word. It’s a job for a man. Do a jobbie, they’d say to children, when they were being toilet-trained. Or of dogs: he did a job on the carpet. You were supposed to hit them with rolled-up newspapers, my mother said. I can remember when there were newspapers, though I never had a dog, only cats.

The Book of Job.

All those women having jobs: hard to imagine, now, but thousands of them had jobs, millions. It was considered the normal thing. Now it’s like remembering the paper money, when they still had that. My mother kept some of it, pasted into her scrapbook along with the early photos. It was obsolete by then, you couldn’t buy anything with it. Pieces of paper, thickish, greasy to the touch, green-coloured, with pictures on each side, some old man in a wig and on the other side a pyramid with an eye above it. It said In God We Trust. My mother said people used to have signs beside their cash registers, for a joke: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash. That would be blasphemy now.

You had to take those pieces of paper with you when you went shopping, though by the time I was nine or ten most people used plastic cards. Not for the groceries though, that came later. It seems

so primitive, totemistic even, like cowrie shells. I must have used that kind of money myself, a little, before everything went on the Compubank.

I guess that’s how they were able to do it, in the way they did, all at once, without anyone knowing beforehand. If there had still been portable money, it would have been more di cult.

It was after the catastrophe, when they shot the President and machine-gunned the Congress and the army declared a state of emergency. They blamed it on the Islamic fanatics, at the time.

Keep calm, they said on television. Everything is under control.

I was stunned. Everyone was, I know that. It was hard to believe. The entire government, gone like that. How did they get in, how did it happen?

That was when they suspended the Constitution. They said it would be temporary. There wasn’t even any rioting in the streets. People stayed home at night, watching television, looking for some direction. There wasn’t even an enemy you could put your finger on.

Look out, said Moira to me, over the phone. Here it comes. Here what comes? I said.

You wait, she said. They’ve been building up to this. It’s you and me up against the wall, baby. She was quoting an expression of my mother’s, but she wasn’t intending to be funny.

Things continued in that state of suspended animation for weeks, although some things did happen. Newspapers were censored and some were closed down, for security reasons they said. The roadblocks began to appear, and Identipasses. Everyone approved of that, since it was obvious you couldn’t be too careful. They said that new elections would be held, but that it would take some time to prepare for them. The thing to do, they said, was to continue on as usual.

The Pornomarts were shut, though, and there were no longer any Feels on Wheels vans and Bun-Dle Buggies circling the Square. But I

wasn’t sad to see them go. We all knew what a nuisance they’d been.

It’s high time somebody did something, said the woman behind the counter, at the store where I usually bought my cigarettes. It was on the corner, a newsstand chain: papers, candy, cigarettes. The woman was older, with grey hair; my mother’s generation.

Did they just close them, or what? I asked.

She shrugged. Who knows, who cares, she said. Maybe they just moved them off somewhere else. Trying to get rid of it altogether is like trying to stamp out mice, you know? She punched my Compunumber into the till, barely looking at it: I was a regular, by then. People were complaining, she said.

The next morning, on my way to the library for the day, I stopped by the same store for another pack, because I’d run out. I was smoking more those days, it was the tension, you could feel it, like a subterranean hum, although things seemed so quiet. I was drinking more coffee too, and having trouble sleeping. Everyone was a little jumpy. There was a lot more music on the radio than usual, and fewer words.

It was after we’d been married, for years it seemed; she was three or four, in daycare.

We’d all got up in the usual way and had breakfast, granola, I remember, and Luke had driven her off to school, in the little outfit I’d bought her just a couple of weeks before, striped overalls and a blue T-shirt. What month was this? It must have been September. There was a School Pool that was supposed to pick them up, but for some reason I’d wanted Luke to do it, I was getting worried even about the School Pool. No children walked to school any more, there had been too many disappearances.

When I got to the corner store, the usual woman wasn’t there. Instead there was a man, a young man, he couldn’t have been more than twenty.

She sick? I said as I handed him my card.

Who? he said, aggressively I thought. The woman who’s usually here, I said.

How would I know, he said. He was punching my number in, studying each number, punching with one finger. He obviously hadn’t done it before. I drummed my fingers on the counter, impatient for a cigarette, wondering if anyone had ever told him something could be done about those pimples on his neck. I remember quite clearly what he looked like: tall, slightly stooped, dark hair cut short, brown eyes that seemed to focus two inches behind the bridge of my nose, and that acne. I suppose I remember him so clearly because of what he said next.

Sorry, he said. This number’s not valid.

That’s ridiculous, I said. It must be, I’ve got thousands in my account. I just got the statement two days ago. Try it again.

It’s not valid, he repeated obstinately. See that red light? Means it’s not valid.

You must have made a mistake, I said. Try it again.

He shrugged and gave me a fed-up smile, but he did try the number again. This time I watched his fingers, on each number, and checked the numbers that came up in the window. It was my number all right, but there was the red light again.

See? he said again, still with that smile, as if he knew some private joke he wasn’t going to tell me.

I’ll phone them from the o ce, I said. The system had fouled up before, but a few phone calls usually straightened it out. Still, I was angry, as if I’d been unjustly accused of something I didn’t even know about. As if I’d made the mistake myself.

You do that, he said indifferently. I left the cigarettes on the counter, since I hadn’t paid for them. I figured I could borrow some at work.

I did phone from the o ce, but all I got was a recording. The lines were overloaded, the recording said. Could I please phone back?

The lines stayed overloaded all morning, as far as I could tell. I phoned back several times, but no luck. Even that wasn’t too unusual.

About two o’clock, after lunch, the director came in to the discing room.

I have something to tell you, he said. He looked terrible; his hair was untidy, his eyes were pink and wobbling, as though he’d been drinking.

We all looked up, turned off our machines. There must have been eight or ten of us in the room.

I’m sorry, he said, but it’s the law. I really am sorry. For what? somebody said.

I have to let you go, he said. It’s the law, I have to. I have to let you all go. He said this almost gently, as if we were wild animals, frogs he’d caught, in a jar, as if he were being humane.

We’re being fired? I said. I stood up. But why?

Not fired, he said. Let go. You can’t work here any more, it’s the law. He ran his hands through his hair and I thought, he’s gone crazy. The strain has been too much for him and he’s blown his wiring.

You can’t just do that, said the woman who sat next to me. This sounded false, improbable, like something you would say on television.

It isn’t me, he said. You don’t understand. Please go, now. His voice was rising. I don’t want any trouble. If there’s trouble the books might be lost, things will get broken … He looked over his shoulder. They’re outside, he said, in my o ce. If you don’t go now they’ll come in themselves. They gave me ten minutes. By now he sounded crazier than ever.

He’s loopy, someone said out loud; which we must all have thought.

But I could see out into the corridor, and there were two men standing there, in uniforms, with machine guns. This was too

theatrical to be true, yet there they were: sudden apparitions, like Martians. There was a dreamlike quality to them; they were too vivid, too at odds with their surroundings.

Just leave the machines, he said while we were getting our things together, filing out. As if we could have taken them.

We stood in a cluster, on the steps outside the library. We didn’t know what to say to one another. Since none of us understood what had happened, there was nothing much we could say. We looked at one another’s faces and saw dismay, and a certain shame, as if we’d been caught doing something we shouldn’t.

It’s outrageous, one woman said, but without belief. What was it about this that made us feel we deserved it?

When I got back to the house nobody was there. Luke was still at work, my daughter was at school. I felt tired, bone-tired, but when I sat down I got up again, I couldn’t seem to sit still. I wandered through the house, from room to room. I remember touching things, not even that consciously, just placing my fingers on them; things like the toaster, the sugar bowl, the ashtray in the living room. After a while I picked up the cat and carried her around with me. I wanted Luke to come home. I thought I should do something, take steps; but I didn’t know what steps I could take.

I tried phoning the bank again, but I only got the same recording. I poured myself a glass of milk – I told myself I was too jittery for another coffee – and went into the living room and sat down on the sofa and put the glass of milk on the coffee table, carefully, without drinking any of it. I held the cat up against my chest so I could feel her purring against my throat.

After a while I phoned my mother at her apartment, but there was no answer. She’d settled down more by then, she’d stopped moving every few years; she lived across the river, in Boston. I waited a while and phoned Moira. She wasn’t there either, but when I tried half an hour later she was in. In between those phone calls I just sat on the sofa. What I thought about was my daughter’s school

lunches. I thought maybe I’d been giving her too many peanut-butter sandwiches.

I’ve been fired, I told Moira when I got her on the phone. She said she would come over. By that time she was working for a women’s collective, the publishing division. They put out books on birth control and rape and things like that, though there wasn’t as much demand for those things as there used to be.

I’ll come over, she said. She must have been able to tell from my voice that this was what I wanted.

She got there after some time. So, she said. She threw off her jacket, sprawled into the oversized chair. Tell me. First we’ll have a drink.

She got up and went to the kitchen and poured us a couple of Scotches, and came back and sat down and I tried to tell her what had happened to me. When I’d finished, she said, Tried getting anything on your Compucard today?

Yes, I said. I told her about that too.

They’ve frozen them, she said. Mine too. The collective’s too. Any account with an F on it instead of an M. All they needed to do is push a few buttons. We’re cut off.

But I’ve got over two thousand dollars in the bank, I said, as if my own account was the only one that mattered.

Women can’t hold property any more, she said. It’s a new law.

Turned on the TV today?

No, I said.

It’s on there, she said. All over the place. She was not stunned, the way I was. In some strange way she was gleeful, as if this was what she’d been expecting for some time and now she’d been proven right. She even looked more energetic, more determined. Luke can use your Compucount for you, she said. They’ll transfer your number to him, or that’s what they say. Husband or male next of kin.

But what about you? I said. She didn’t have anyone.

I’ll go underground, she said. Some of the gays can take over our numbers and buy us things we need.

But why? I said. Why did they?

Ours is not to reason why, said Moira. They had to do it that way, the Compucounts and the jobs both at once. Can you picture the airports, otherwise? They don’t want us going anywhere, you can bet on that.

I went to pick my daughter up from school. I drove with exaggerated care. By the time Luke got home I was sitting at the kitchen table. She was drawing with felt pens at her own little table in the corner, where her paintings were taped up next to the refrigerator.

Luke knelt beside me and put his arms around me. I heard, he said, on the car radio, driving home. Don’t worry, I’m sure it’s temporary.

Did they say why? I said.

He didn’t answer that. We’ll get through it, he said, hugging me.

You don’t know what it’s like, I said. I feel as if somebody cut off my feet. I wasn’t crying. Also, I couldn’t put my arms around him.

It’s only a job, he said, trying to soothe me.

I guess you get all my money, I said. And I’m not even dead. I was trying for a joke, but it came out sounding macabre.

Hush, he said. He was still kneeling on the floor. You know I’ll always take care of you.

I thought, already he’s starting to patronize me. Then I thought, already you’re starting to get paranoid.

I know, I said. I love you.

Later, after she was in bed and we were having supper, and I wasn’t feeling so shaky, I told him about the afternoon. I described the director coming in, blurting out his announcement. It would

have been funny if it wasn’t so awful, I said. I thought he was drunk. Maybe he was. The army was there, and everything.

Then I remembered something I’d seen and hadn’t noticed, at the time. It wasn’t the army. It was some other army.

There were marches, of course, a lot of women and some men. But they were smaller than you might have thought. I guess people were scared. And when it was known that the police, or the army, or whoever they were, would open fire almost as soon as any of the marches even started, the marches stopped. A few things were blown up, post o ces, subway stations. But you couldn’t even be sure who was doing it. It could have been the army, to justify the computer searches and the other ones, the door-to-doors.

I didn’t go on any of the marches. Luke said it would be futile and I had to think about them, my family, him and her. I did think about my family. I started doing more housework, more baking. I tried not to cry at mealtimes. By this time I’d started to cry, without warning, and to sit beside the bedroom window, staring out. I didn’t know many of the neighbours, and when we met, outside on the street, we were careful to exchange nothing more than the ordinary greetings. Nobody wanted to be reported, for disloyalty.

Remembering this, I remember also my mother, years before. I must have been fourteen, fifteen, that age when daughters are most embarrassed by their mothers. I remember her coming back to one of our many apartments, with a group of other women, part of her ever-changing circle of friends. They’d been in a march that day; it was during the time of the porn riots, or was it the abortion riots, they were close together. There were a lot of bombings then: clinics, video stores; it was hard to keep track.

My mother had a bruise on her face, and a little blood. You can’t stick your hand through a glass window without getting cut, is what she said about it. Fucking pigs.

Fucking bleeders, one of her friends said. They called the other side bleeders, after the signs they carried: Let them bleed. So it must have been the abortion riots.

I went into my bedroom, to be out of their way. They were talking too much, and too loudly. They ignored me, and I resented them. My mother and her rowdy friends. I didn’t see why she had to dress that way, in overalls, as if she were young; or to swear so much.

You’re such a prude, she would say to me, in a tone of voice that was on the whole pleased. She liked being more outrageous than I was, more rebellious. Adolescents are always such prudes.

Part of my disapproval was that, I’m sure: perfunctory, routine. But also I wanted from her a life more ceremonious, less subject to makeshift and decampment.

You were a wanted child, God knows, she would say at other moments, lingering over the photo albums in which she had me framed; these albums were thick with babies, but my replicas thinned out as I grew older, as if the population of my duplicates had been hit by some plague. She would say this a little regretfully, as though I hadn’t turned out entirely as she’d expected. No mother is ever, completely, a child’s idea of what a mother should be, and I suppose it works the other way around as well. But despite everything, we didn’t do badly by one another, we did as well as most.

I wish she were here, so I could tell her I finally know this.

Someone has come out of the house. I hear the distant closing of a door, around at the side, footsteps on the walk. It’s Nick, I can see him now; he’s stepped off the path, onto the lawn, to breathe in the humid air which stinks of flowers, of pulpy growth, of pollen thrown into the wind in handfuls, like oyster spawn into the sea. All this prodigal breeding. He stretches in the sun, I feel the ripple of muscles go along him, like a cat’s back arching. He’s in his shirt sleeves, bare arms sticking shamelessly out from the rolled cloth.

Where does the tan end? I haven’t spoken to him since that one night, dreamscape in the moon-filled sitting room. He’s only my flag, my semaphore. Body language.

Right now his cap’s on sideways. Therefore I am sent for.

What does he get for it, his role as page boy? How does he feel, pimping in this ambiguous way for the Commander? Does it fill him with disgust, or make him want more of me, want me more? Because he has no idea what really goes on in there, among the books. Acts of perversion, for all he knows. The Commander and me, covering each other with ink, licking it off, or making love on stacks of forbidden newsprint. Well, he wouldn’t be far off at that.

But depend on it, there’s something in it for him. Everyone’s on the take, one way or another. Extra cigarettes? Extra freedoms, not allowed to the general run? Anyway, what can he prove? It’s his word against the Commander’s, unless he wants to head a posse. Kick in the door, and what did I tell you? Caught in the act, sinfully Scrabbling. Quick, eat those words.

Maybe he just likes the satisfaction of knowing something secret. Of having something on me, as they used to say. It’s the kind of power you can use only once.

I would like to think better of him.

That night, after I’d lost my job, Luke wanted me to make love. Why didn’t I want to? Desperation alone should have driven me. But I still felt numbed. I could hardly even feel his hands on me.

What’s the matter? he said. I don’t know, I said.

We still have … he said. But he didn’t go on to say what we still had. It occurred to me that he shouldn’t be saying we, since nothing that I knew of had been taken away from him.

We still have each other, I said. It was true. Then why did I sound, even to myself, so indifferent?

He kissed me then, as if now I’d said that, things could get back to normal. But something had shifted, some balance. I felt shrunken, so that when he put his arms around me, gathering me up, I was small as a doll. I felt love going forward without me.

He doesn’t mind this, I thought. He doesn’t mind it at all. Maybe he even likes it. We are not each other’s, any more. Instead, I am his.

Unworthy, unjust, untrue. But that is what happened.

So Luke: what I want to ask you now, what I need to know is, Was I right? Because we never talked about it. By the time I could have done that, I was afraid to. I couldn’t afford to lose you.

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