Chapter no 32

The Handmaid's Tale

Rita’s sitting at the kitchen table. There’s a glass bowl with ice cubes floating in it on the table in front of her. Radishes made into flowers, roses or tulips, bob in it. On the chopping board in front of her she’s cutting more, with a paring knife, her large hands deft, indifferent. The rest of her body does not move, nor does her face. It’s as if she’s doing it in her sleep, this knife trick. On the white enamel surface is a pile of radishes, washed but uncut. Little Aztec hearts.

She hardly bothers to look up as I enter. “You got it all, huh,” is what she says, as I take the parcels out for her inspection.

“Could I have a match?” I ask her. Surprising how much like a small, begging child she makes me feel, simply by her scowl, her stolidity; how importunate and whiny.

“Matches?” she says. “What do you want matches for?”

“She said I could have one,” I say, not wanting to admit to the cigarette.

“Who said?” She continues with the radishes, her rhythm unbroken. “No call for you to have matches. Burn the house down.”

“You can go and ask her if you like,” I say. “She’s out on the lawn.”

Rita rolls her eyes to the ceiling, as if consulting silently some deity there. Then she sighs, rises heavily, and wipes her hands with ostentation on her apron, to show me how much trouble I am. She goes to the cupboard over the sink, taking her time, locates her key-bunch in her pocket, unlocks the cupboard door. “Keep ’em in here, summer,” she says as if to herself. “No call for a fire in this

weather.” I remember from April that it’s Cora who lights the fires, in the sitting room and the dining room, in cooler weather.

The matches are wooden ones, in a cardboard sliding-top box, the kind I used to covet in order to make dolls’ drawers out of them. She opens the box, peers into it, as if deciding which one she’ll let me have. “Her own business,” she mutters. “No way you can tell her a thing.” She plunges her big hand down, selects a match, hands it over to me. “Now don’t you go setting fire to nothing,” she says. “Not them curtains in your room. Too hot the way it is.”

“I won’t,” I say. “That’s not what it’s for.”

She does not deign to ask me what it is for. “Don’t care if you eat it, or what,” she says. “She said you could have one, so I give you one, is all.”

She turns away from me and sits again at the table. Then she picks an ice cube out of the bowl and pops it into her mouth. This is an unusual thing for her to do. I’ve never seen her nibble while working. “You can have one of them too,” she says. “A shame, making you wear all them pillowcases on your head, in this weather.”

I am surprised: she doesn’t usually offer me anything. Maybe she feels that if I’ve risen in status enough to be given a match, she can afford her own small gesture. Have I become, suddenly, one of those who must be appeased?

“Thank you,” I say. I transfer the match carefully to my zippered sleeve where the cigarette is, so it won’t get wet, and take an ice cube. “Those radishes are pretty,” I say, in return for the gift she’s made me, of her own free will.

“I like to do things right, is all,” she says, grumpy again. “No sense otherwise.”

I go along the passage, up the stairs, hurrying. In the curved hallway mirror I flit past, a red shape at the edge of my own field of vision, a wraith of red smoke. I have smoke on my mind all right, already I

can feel it in my mouth, drawn down into the lungs, filling me in a long rich dirty cinnamon sigh, and then the rush as the nicotine hits the bloodstream.

After all this time it could make me sick. I wouldn’t be surprised.

But even that thought is welcome.

Along the corridor I go, where should I do it? In the bathroom, running the water to clear the air, in the bedroom, wheezy puffs out the open window? Who’s to catch me at it? Who knows?

Even as I luxuriate in the future this way, rolling anticipation around in my mouth, I think of something else.

I don’t need to smoke this cigarette.

I could shred it up and flush it down the toilet. Or I could eat it and get the high that way, that can work too, a little at a time, save up the rest.

That way I could keep the match. I could make a small hole, in the mattress, slide it carefully in. Such a thin thing would never be noticed. There it would be, at night, under me while I’m in bed. Sleeping on it.

I could burn the house down. Such a fine thought, it makes me shiver.

An escape, quick and narrow.

I lie on my bed, pretending to nap.

The Commander, last night, fingers together, looking at me as I sat rubbing oily lotion into my hands. Odd, I thought about asking him for a cigarette, but decided against it. I know enough not to ask for too much at once. I don’t want him to think I’m using him. Also I don’t want to interrupt him.

Last night he had a drink, Scotch and water. He’s taken to drinking in my presence, to unwind after the day, he says. I’m to gather he is under pressure. He never offers me one, though, and I

don’t ask: we both know what my body is for. When I kiss him goodnight, as if I mean it, his breath smells of alcohol, and I breathe it in like smoke. I admit I relish it, this lick of dissipation.

Sometimes after a few drinks he becomes silly, and cheats at Scrabble. He encourages me to do it too, and we take extra letters and make words with them that don’t exist, words like smurt and crup, giggling over them. Sometimes he turns on his short-wave radio, displaying before me a minute or two of Radio Free America, to show me he can. Then he turns it off again. Damn Cubans, he says. All that filth about universal daycare.

Sometimes, after the games, he sits on the floor beside my chair, holding my hand. His head is a little below mine, so that when he looks up at me it’s at a juvenile angle. It must amuse him, this fake subservience.

He’s way up there, says Ofglen. He’s at the top, and I mean the very top.

At such times it’s hard to imagine it.

Occasionally I try to put myself in his position. I do this as a tactic, to guess in advance how he may be moved to behave towards me. It’s di cult for me to believe I have power over him, of any sort, but I do; although it’s of an equivocal kind. Once in a while I think I can see myself, though blurrily, as he may see me. There are things he wants to prove to me, gifts he wants to bestow, services he wants to render, tendernesses he wants to inspire.

He wants, all right. Especially after a few drinks.

Sometimes he becomes querulous, at other times, philosophical; or he wishes to explain things, justify himself. As last night.

The problem wasn’t only with the women, he says. The main problem was with the men. There was nothing for them any more.

Nothing? I say. But they had …

There was nothing for them to do, he says.

They could make money, I say, a little nastily. Right now I’m not afraid of him. It’s hard to be afraid of a man who is sitting watching

you put on hand lotion. This lack of fear is dangerous.

It’s not enough, he says. It’s too abstract. I mean there was nothing for them to do with women.

What do you mean? I say. What about all the Pornycorners, it was all over the place, they even had it motorized.

I’m not talking about sex, he says. That was part of it, the sex was too easy. Anyone could just buy it. There was nothing to work for, nothing to fight for. We have the stats from that time. You know what they were complaining about the most? Inability to feel. Men were turning off on sex, even. They were turning off on marriage.

Do they feel now? I say,

Yes, he says, looking at me. They do. He stands up, comes around the desk to the chair where I’m sitting. He puts his hands on my shoulders, from behind. I can’t see him.

I like to know what you think, his voice says, from behind me.

I don’t think a lot, I say lightly. What he wants is intimacy, but I can’t give him that.

There’s hardly any point in my thinking, is there? I say. What I think doesn’t matter.

Which is the only reason he can tell me things.

Come now, he says, pressing a little with his hands. I’m interested in your opinion. You’re intelligent enough, you must have an opinion.

About what? I say.

What we’ve done, he says. How things have worked out.

I hold myself very still. I try to empty my mind. I think about the sky, at night, when there’s no moon. I have no opinion, I say.

He sighs, relaxes his hands, but leaves them on my shoulders. He knows what I think, all right.

You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, is what he says. We thought we could do better.

Better? I say, in a small voice. How can he think this is better?

Better never means better for everyone, he says. It always means worse, for some.

I lie flat, the damp air above me like a lid. Like earth. I wish it would rain. Better still, a thunderstorm, black clouds, lightning, ear-splitting sound. The electricity might go off. I could go down to the kitchen then, say I’m afraid, sit with Rita and Cora around the kitchen table, they would permit my fear because it’s one they share, they’d let me in. There would be candles burning, we would watch each other’s faces come and go in the flickering, in the white flashes of jagged light from outside the windows. Oh Lord, Cora would say. Oh Lord save us.

The air would be clear after that, and lighter.

I look up at the ceiling, the round circle of plaster flowers. Draw a circle, step into it, it will protect you. From the centre was the chandelier, and from the chandelier a twisted strip of sheet was hanging down. That’s where she was swinging, just lightly, like a pendulum; the way you could swing as a child, hanging by your hands from a tree branch. She was safe then, protected altogether, by the time Cora opened the door. Sometimes I think she’s still in here, with me.

I feel buried.

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