Chapter no 39

The Handmaid's Tale

The Commander has a room key. He got it from the front desk, while I waited on the flowered sofa. He shows it to me, slyly. I am to understand.

We ascend in the glass half-egg of the elevator, past the vine-draped balconies. I am to understand also that I am on display.

He unlocks the door of the room. Everything is the same, the very same as it was, once upon a time. The drapes are the same, the heavy flowered ones that match the bedspread, orange poppies on royal blue, and the thin white ones to draw against the sun; the bureau and bedside tables, square-cornered, impersonal; the lamps; the pictures on the walls: fruit in a bowl, stylized apples, flowers in a vase, buttercups and Devil’s paintbrushes keyed to the drapes. All is the same.

I tell the Commander just a minute, and go into the bathroom. My ears are ringing from the smoke, the gin has filled me with lassitude. I wet a washcloth and press it to my forehead. After a while I look to see if there are any little bars of soap in individual wrappers. There are. The kind with the gypsy on them, from Spain.

I breathe in the soap smell, the disinfectant smell, and stand in the white bathroom, listening to the distant sounds of water running, toilets being flushed. In a strange way I feel comforted, at home. There is something reassuring about the toilets. Bodily functions at least remain democratic. Everybody shits, as Moira would say.

I sit on the edge of the bathtub, gazing at the blank towels. Once they would have excited me. They would have meant the aftermath, of love.

I saw your mother, Moira said.

Where? I said. I felt jolted, thrown off. I realized I’d been thinking of her as dead.

Not in person, it was in that film they showed us, about the Colonies. There was a close-up, it was her all right. She was wrapped up in one of those grey things but I know it was her.

Thank God, I said.

Why, thank God? said Moira. I thought she was dead.

She might as well be, said Moira. You should wish it for her.

I can’t remember the last time I saw her. It blends in with all the others; it was some trivial occasion. She must have dropped by; she did that, she breezed in and out of my house as if I were the mother and she were the child. She still had that jauntiness. Sometimes, when she was between apartments, just moving in to one or just moving out, she’d use my washer-dryer for her laundry. Maybe she’d come over to borrow something, from me: a pot, a hair-dryer. That too was a habit of hers.

I didn’t know it would be the last time or else I would have remembered it better. I can’t even remember what we said.

A week later, two weeks, three weeks, when things had become suddenly so much worse, I tried to call her. But there was no answer, and no answer when I tried again.

She hadn’t told me she was going anywhere, but then maybe she wouldn’t have; she didn’t always. She had her own car and she wasn’t too old to drive.

Finally I got the apartment superintendent on the phone. He said he hadn’t seen her lately.

I was worried. I thought maybe she’d had a heart attack or a stroke, it wasn’t out of the question, though she hadn’t been sick that I knew of. She was always so healthy. She still worked out at

Nautilus and went swimming every two weeks. I used to tell my friends she was healthier than I was and maybe it was true.

Luke and I drove across into the city and Luke bullied the superintendent into opening up the apartment. She could be dead, on the floor, Luke said. The longer you leave it the worse it’ll be. You thought of the smell? The superintendent said something about needing a permit, but Luke could be persuasive. He made it clear we weren’t going to wait or go away. I started to cry. Maybe that was what finally did it.

When the man got the door open what we found was chaos. There was furniture overturned, the mattress was ripped open, bureau drawers upside-down on the floor, their contents strewn and mounded. But my mother wasn’t there.

I’m going to call the police, I said. I’d stopped crying; I felt cold from head to foot, my teeth were chattering.

Don’t, said Luke.

Why not? I said. I was glaring at him, I was angry now. He stood there in the wreck of the living room, just looking at me. He put his hands into his pockets, one of those aimless gestures people make when they don’t know what else to do.

Just don’t, is what he said.

Your mother’s neat, Moira would say, when we were at college.

Later: she’s got pizzazz. Later still: she’s cute. She’s not cute, I would say. She’s my mother. Jeez, said Moira, you ought to see mine.

I think of my mother, sweeping up deadly toxins; the way they used to use up old women, in Russia, sweeping dirt. Only this dirt will kill her. I can’t quite believe it. Surely her cockiness, her optimism and energy, her pizzazz, will get her out of this. She will think of something.

But I know this isn’t true. It is just passing the buck, as children do, to mothers.

I’ve mourned for her already. But I will do it again, and again.

I bring myself back, to the here, to the hotel. This is where I need to be. Now, in this ample mirror under the white light, I take a look at myself.

It’s a good look, slow and level. I’m a wreck. The mascara has smudged again, despite Moira’s repairs, the purplish lipstick has bled, hair trails aimlessly. The moulting pink feathers are tawdry as carnival dolls and some of the starry sequins have come off. Probably they were off to begin with and I didn’t notice. I am a travesty, in bad makeup and someone else’s clothes, used glitz.

I wish I had a toothbrush.

I could stand here and think about it, but time is passing.

I must be back at the house before midnight; otherwise I’ll turn into a pumpkin, or was that the coach? Tomorrow’s the Ceremony, according to the calendar, so tonight Serena wants me serviced, and if I’m not there she’ll find out why, and then what?

And the Commander, for a change, is waiting; I can hear him pacing in the main room. Now he pauses outside the bathroom door, clears his throat, a stagy ahem. I turn on the hot water tap, to signify readiness or something approaching it. I should get this over with. I wash my hands. I must beware of inertia.

When I come out he’s lying down on the king-sized bed, with, I note, his shoes off. I lie down beside him, I don’t have to be told. I would rather not; but it’s good to lie down, I am so tired.

Alone at last, I think. The fact is that I don’t want to be alone with him, not on a bed. I’d rather have Serena there too. I’d rather play Scrabble.

But my silence does not deter him. “Tomorrow, isn’t it?” he says softly. “I thought we could jump the gun.” He turns towards me.

“Why did you bring me here?” I say coldly.

He’s stroking my body now, from stem as they say to stern, cat-stroke along the left flank, down the left leg. He stops at the foot, his fingers encircling the ankle, briefly, like a bracelet, where the tattoo is, a Braille he can read, a cattle-brand. It means ownership.

I remind myself that he is not an unkind man; that, under other circumstances, I even like him.

His hand pauses. “I thought you might enjoy it for a change.” He knows that isn’t enough. “I guess it was a sort of experiment.” That isn’t enough either. “You said you wanted to know.”

He sits up, begins to unbutton. Will this be worse, to have him denuded, of all his cloth power? He’s down to the shirt; then, under it, sadly, a little belly. Wisps of hair.

He pulls down one of my straps, slides his other hand in among the feathers, but it’s no good, I lie there like a dead bird. He is not a monster, I think. I can’t afford pride or aversion, there are all kinds of things that have to be discarded, under the circumstances.

“Maybe I should turn the lights out,” says the Commander, dismayed and no doubt disappointed. I see him for a moment before he does this. Without his uniform he looks smaller, older, like something being dried. The trouble is that I can’t be, with him, any different from the way I usually am with him. Usually I’m inert. Surely there must be something here for us, other than this futility and bathos.

Fake it, I scream at myself inside my head. You must remember how. Let’s get this over with or you’ll be here all night. Bestir yourself. Move your flesh around, breathe audibly. It’s the least you can do.

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