فصل 23

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فصل 23

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CHAPTER 23

This is a reconstruction. All of it is a reconstruction. It’s a reconstruction now, in my head, as I lie flat on my single bed rehearsing what I should or shouldn’t have said, what I should or shouldn’t have done, how I should have played it. If I ever get out of here—

Let’s stop there. I intend to get out of here. It can’t last forever. Others have thought such things, in bad times before this, and they were always right, they did get out one way or another, and it didn’t last forever. Although for them it may have lasted all the forever they had.

When I get out of here, if I’m ever able to set this down, in any form, even in the form of one voice to another, it will be a reconstruction then too, at yet another remove. It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, cross currents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavors, in the air or on the tongue, half-colors, too many. But if you happen to be a man, sometime in the future, and you’ve made it this far, please remember: you will never be subject to the temptation or feeling you must forgive, a man, as a woman. It’s difficult to resist, believe me. But remember that forgiveness too is a power. To beg for it is a power, and to withhold or bestow it is a power, perhaps the greatest.

Maybe none of this is about control. Maybe it isn’t really about who can own whom, who can do what to whom and get away with it, even as far as death. Maybe it isn’t about who can sit and who has to kneel or stand or lie down, legs spread open. Maybe it’s about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it. Never tell me it amounts to the same thing.

I want you to kiss me, said the Commander.

Well, of course something came before that. Such requests never come flying out of the blue.

I went to sleep after all, and dreamed I was wearing earrings, and one of them was broken; nothing beyond that, just the brain going through its back files, and I was wakened by Cora with the dinner tray, and time was back on track.

“It a good baby?” says Cora as she’s setting down the tray. She must know already, they have a kind of word-of-mouth telegraph, from household to household, news gets around; but it gives her pleasure to hear about it, as if my words will make it more real.

“It’s fine,” I say. “A keeper. A girl.”

Cora smiles at me, a smile that includes. These are the moments that must make what she is doing seem worthwhile to her.

“That’s good,” she says. Her voice is almost wistful, and I think: of course. She would have liked to have been there. It’s like a party she couldn’t go to.

“Maybe we have one, soon,” she says, shyly. By we she means me. It’s up to me to repay the team, justify my food and keep, like a queen ant with eggs. Rita may disapprove of me, but Cora does not. Instead she depends on me. She hopes, and I am the vehicle of her hope.

Her hope is of the simplest kind. She wants a Birth Day, here, with guests and food and presents, she wants a little child to spoil in the kitchen, to iron clothes for, to slip cookies into when no one’s watching. I am to provide these joys for her. I would rather have the disapproval, I feel more worthy of it.

The dinner is beef stew. I have some trouble finishing it, because halfway through it I remember what the day has erased right out of my head. It’s true what they say, it’s a trance state, giving birth or being there, you lose track of the rest of your life, you focus only on that one instant. But now it comes back to me, and I know I’m not prepared.

The clock in the hall downstairs strikes nine. I press my hands against the sides of my thighs, breathe in, set out along the hall and softly down the stairs. Serena Joy may still be at the house where the Birth took place; that’s lucky, he couldn’t have foreseen it. On these days the Wives hang around for hours, helping to open the presents, gossiping, getting drunk. Something has to be done to dispel their envy. I follow the downstairs corridor back, past the door that leads into the kitchen, along to the next door, his. I stand outside it, feeling like a child who’s been summoned, at school, to the principal’s office. What have I done wrong?

My presence here is illegal. It’s forbidden for us to be alone with the Commanders. We are for breeding purposes: we aren’t concubines, geisha girls, courtesans. On the contrary: everything possible has been done to remove us from that category. There is supposed to be nothing entertaining about us, no room is to be permitted for the flowering of secret lusts; no special favors are to be wheedled, by them or us, there are to be no toeholds for love. We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.

So why does he want to see me, at night, alone?

If I’m caught, it’s to Serena’s tender mercies I’ll be delivered. He isn’t supposed to meddle in such household discipline, that’s women’s business. After that, reclassification. I could become an Unwoman.

But to refuse to see him could be worse. There’s no doubt about who holds the real power.

But there must be something he wants, from me. To want is to have a weakness. It’s this weakness, whatever it is, that entices me. It’s like a small crack in a wall, before now impenetrable. If I press my eye to it, this weakness of his, I may be able to see my way clear.

I want to know what he wants.

I raise my hand, knock, on the door of this forbidden room where I have never been, where women do not go. Not even Serena Joy comes here, and the cleaning is done by Guardians. What secrets, what male totems are kept in here?

I’m told to enter. I open the door, step in.

What is on the other side is normal life. I should say: what is on the other side looks like normal life. There is a desk, of course, with a Computalk on it, and a black leather chair behind it. There’s a potted plant on the desk, a pen-holder set, papers. There’s an oriental rug on the floor, and a fireplace without a fire in it. There’s a small sofa, covered in brown plush, a television set, an end table, a couple of chairs.

But all around the walls there are bookcases. They’re filled with books. Books and books and books, right out in plain view, no locks, no boxes. No wonder we can’t come in here. It’s an oasis of the forbidden. I try not to stare.

The Commander is standing in front of the fireless fireplace, back to it, one elbow on the carved wooden overmantel, other hand in his pocket. It’s such a studied pose, something of the country squire, some old come-on from a glossy men’s mag. He probably decided ahead of time that he’d be standing like that when I came in. When I knocked he probably rushed over to the fireplace and propped himself up. He should have a black patch, over one eye, a cravat with horseshoes on it.

It’s all very well for me to think these things, quick as staccato, a jittering of the brain. An inner jeering. But it’s panic. The fact is I’m terrified.

I don’t say anything.

“Close the door behind you,” he says, pleasantly enough. I do it, and turn back.

“Hello,” he says.

It’s the old form of greeting. I haven’t heard it for a long time, for years. Under the circumstances it seems out of place, comical even, a flip backward in time, a stunt. I can think of nothing appropriate to say in return.

I think I will cry.

He must have noticed this, because he looks at me puzzled, gives a little frown I choose to interpret as concern, though it may merely be irritation. “Here,” he says. “You can sit down.” He pulls a chair out for me, sets it in front of his desk. Then he goes around behind the desk and sits down, slowly and it seems to me elaborately. What this act tells me is that he hasn’t brought me here to touch me in any way, against my will. He smiles. The smile is not sinister or predatory. It’s merely a smile, a formal kind of smile, friendly but a little distant, as if I’m a kitten in a window. One he’s looking at but doesn’t intend to buy.

I sit up straight on the chair, my hands folded on my lap. I feel as if my feet in their flat red shoes aren’t quite touching the floor. But of course they are.

“You must find this strange,” he says.

I simply look at him. The understatement of the year, was a phrase my mother uses. Used.

I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I’d turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.

“I guess it is a little strange,” he says, as if I’ve answered.

I think I should have a hat on, tied with a bow under my chin.

“I want…” he says.

I try not to lean forward. Yes? Yes yes? What, then? What does he want? But I won’t give it away, this eagerness of mine. It’s a bargaining session, things are about to be exchanged. She who does not hesitate is lost. I’m not giving anything away: selling only.

“I would like—” he says. “This will sound silly.” And he does look embarrassed, sheepish was the word, the way men used to look once. He’s old enough to remember how to look that way, and to remember also how appealing women once found it. The young ones don’t know those tricks. They’ve never had to use them.

“I’d like you to play a game of Scrabble with me,” he says.

I hold myself absolutely rigid. I keep my face unmoving. So that’s what’s in the forbidden room! Scrabble! I want to laugh, shriek with laughter, fall off my chair. This was once the game of old women, old men, in the summers or in retirement villas, to be played when there was nothing good on television. Or of adolescents, once, long long ago. My mother had a set, kept at the back of the hall cupboard, with the Christmas tree decorations in their cardboard boxes. Once she tried to interest me in it, when I was thirteen and miserable and at loose ends.

Now of course it’s something different. Now it’s forbidden, for us. Now it’s dangerous. Now it’s indecent. Now it’s something he can’t do with his Wife. Now it’s desirable. Now he’s compromised himself. It’s as if he’s offered me drugs.

“All right,” I say, as if indifferent. I can in fact hardly speak.

He doesn’t say why he wants to play Scrabble with me. I don’t ask him. He merely takes a box out from one of the drawers in his desk and opens it up. There are the plasticized wooden counters I remember, the board divided into squares, the little holders for setting the letters in. He dumps the counters out on the top of his desk and begins to turn them over. After a moment I join in.

“You know how to play?” he says.

I nod.

We play two games. Larynx, I spell. Valance. Quince. Zygote. I hold the glossy counters with their smooth edges, finger the letters. The feeling is voluptuous. This is freedom, an eyeblink of it. Limp, I spell. Gorge. What a luxury. The counters are like candies, made of peppermint, cool like that. Humbugs, those were called. I would like to put them into my mouth. They would taste also of lime. The letter C. Crisp, slightly acid on the tongue, delicious.

I win the first game, I let him win the second: I still haven’t discovered what the terms are, what I will be able to ask for, in exchange.

Finally he tells me it’s time for me to go home. Those are the words he uses: go home. He means to my room. He asks me if I will be all right, as if the stairway is a dark street. I say yes. We open his study door, just a crack, and listen for noises in the hall.

This is like being on a date. This is like sneaking into the dorm after hours.

This is conspiracy.

“Thank you,” he says. “For the game.” Then he says, “I want you to kiss me.”

I think about how I could take the back of the toilet apart, the toilet in my own bathroom, on a bath night, quickly and quietly, so Cora outside on the chair would not hear me. I could get the sharp lever out and hide it in my sleeve, and smuggle it into the Commander’s study, the next time, because after a request like that there’s always a next time, whether you say yes or no. I think about how I could approach the Commander, to kiss him, here alone, and take off his jacket, as if to allow or invite something further, some approach to true love, and put my arms around him and slip the lever out from the sleeve and drive the sharp end into him suddenly, between his ribs. I think about the blood coming out of him, hot as soup, sexual, over my hands.

In fact I don’t think about anything of the kind. I put it in only afterwards. Maybe I should have thought about that, at the time, but I didn’t. As I said, this is a reconstruction.

“All right,” I say. I go to him and place my lips, closed, against his. I smell the shaving lotion, the usual kind, the hint of mothballs, familiar enough to me. But he’s like someone I’ve only just met.

He draws away, looks down at me. There’s the smile again, the sheepish one. Such candor. “Not like that,” he says. “As if you meant it.”

He was so sad.

That is a reconstruction, too.

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