فصل 26

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فصل 26

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CHAPTER 26

When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later, I found that things were changed. There was an awkwardness now that there hadn’t been before. Before, I’d treated it as a job, an unpleasant job to be gone through as fast as possible so it could be over with. Steel yourself, my mother used to say, before examinations I didn’t want to take or swims in cold water. I never thought much at the time about what the phrase meant, but it had something to do with metal, with armor, and that’s what I would do, I would steel myself. I would pretend not to be present, not in the flesh.

This state of absence, of existing apart from the body, had been true of the Commander too, I knew now. Probably he thought about other things the whole time he was with me; with us, for of course Serena Joy was there on those evenings also. He might have been thinking about what he did during the day, or about playing golf, or about what he’d had for dinner. The sexual act, although he performed it in a perfunctory way, must have been largely unconscious, for him, like scratching himself.

But that night, the first since the beginning of whatever this new arrangement was between us — I had no name for it — I felt shy of him. I felt, for one thing, that he was actually looking at me, and I didn’t like it. The lights were on, as usual, since Serena Joy always avoided anything that would have created an aura of romance or eroticism, however slight: overhead lights, harsh despite the canopy. It was like being on an operating table, in the full glare; like being on a stage. I was conscious that my legs were hairy, in the straggly way of legs that have once been shaved but have grown back; I was conscious of my armpits too, although of course he couldn’t see them. I felt uncouth. This act of copulation, fertilization perhaps, which should have been no more to me than a bee is to a flower, had become for me indecorous, an embarrassing breach of propriety, which it hadn’t been before.

He was no longer a thing to me. That was the problem. I realized it that night, and the realization has stayed with me. It complicates.

Serena Joy had changed for me, too. Once I’d merely hated her for her part in what was being done to me; and because she hated me too and resented my presence, and because she would be the one to raise my child, should I be able to have one after all. But now, although I still hated her, no more so than when she was gripping my hands so hard that her rings bit my flesh, pulling my hands back as well, which she must have done on purpose to make me as uncomfortable as she could, the hatred was no longer pure and simple. Partly I was jealous of her; but how could I be jealous of a woman so obviously dried-up and unhappy? You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself. Nevertheless I was jealous.

But I also felt guilty about her. I felt I was an intruder, in a territory that ought to have been hers. Now that I was seeing the Commander on the sly, if only to play his games and listen to him talk, our functions were no longer as separate as they should have been in theory, I was taking something away from her, although she didn’t know it. I was filching. Never mind that it was something she apparently didn’t want or had no use for, had rejected even; still, it was hers, and if I took it away, this mysterious “it” I couldn’t quite define — for the Commander wasn’t in love with me, I refused to believe he felt anything for me as extreme as that — what would be left for her?

Why should I care? I told myself. She’s nothing to me, she dislikes me, she’d have me out of the house in a minute, or worse, if she could think up any excuse at all. If she were to find out, for instance. He wouldn’t be able to intervene, to save me; the transgressions of women in the household, whether Martha or Handmaid, are supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the Wives alone. She was a malicious and vengeful woman, I knew that. Nevertheless I couldn’t shake it, that small compunction towards her.

Also: I now had power over her, of a kind, although she didn’t know it. And I enjoyed that. Why pretend? I enjoyed it a lot.

But the Commander could give me away so easily, by a look, by a gesture, some tiny slip that would reveal to anyone watching that there was something between us now. He almost did it the night of the Ceremony. He reached his hand up as if to touch my face; I moved my head to the side, to warn him away, hoping Serena Joy hadn’t noticed, and he withdrew his hand again, withdrew into himself and his singled-minded journey.

Don’t do that again, I said to him the next time we were alone.

Do what? he said.

Try to touch me like that, when we’re… when she’s there.

Did I? he said.

You could get me transferred, I said. To the Colonies. You know that. Or worse. I thought he should continue to act, in public, as if I were a large vase or a window: part of the background, inanimate or transparent.

I’m sorry, he said. I didn’t mean to. But I find it…

What? I said, when he didn’t go on.

Impersonal, he said.

How long did it take you to find that out? I said. You can see from the way I was speaking to him that we were already on different terms.

For the generations that come after, Aunt Lydia said, it will be so much better. The women will live in harmony together, all in one family; you will be like daughters to them, and when the population level is up to scratch again we’ll no longer have to transfer you from one house to another because there will be enough to go round. There can be bonds of real affection, she said, blinking at us ingratiatingly, under such conditions. Women united for a common end!

Helping one another in their daily chores as they walk the path of life together, each performing her appointed task. Why expect one woman to carry out all the functions necessary to the serene running of a household? It isn’t reasonable or humane. Your daughters will have greater freedom. We are working towards the goal of a little garden for each one, each one of you — the clasped hands again, the breathy voice — and that’s just one for instance. The raised finger, wagging at us. But we can’t be greedy pigs and demand too much before it’s ready, now can we?

The fact is that I’m his mistress. Men at the top have always had mistresses, why should things be any different now? The arrangements aren’t quite the same, granted. The mistress used to be kept in a minor house or apartment of her own, and now they’ve amalgamated things. But underneath it’s the same. More or less. Outside woman, they used to be called, in some countries. I am the outside woman. It’s my job to provide what is otherwise lacking. Even the Scrabble. It’s an absurd as well as an ignominious position.

Sometimes I think she knows. Sometimes I think they’re in collusion. Sometimes I think she put him up to it, and is laughing at me; as I laugh, from time to time and with irony, at myself. Let her take the weight, she can say to herself. Maybe she’s withdrawn from him, almost completely; maybe that’s her version of freedom.

But even so, and stupidly enough, I’m happier than I was before. It’s something to do, for one thing. Something to fill the time, at night, instead of sitting alone in my room. It’s something else to think about. I don’t love the Commander or anything like it, but he’s of interest to me, he occupies space, he is more than a shadow.

And I for him. To him I’m no longer merely a usable body. To him I’m not just a boat with no cargo, a chalice with no wine in it, an oven — to be crude — minus the bun. To him I am not merely empty.

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