Love? said the Commander.
That’s better. That’s something I know about. We can talk about that.
Falling in love, I said. Falling into it, we all did then, one way or another. How could he have made such light of it? Sneered even. As if it was trivial for us, a frill, a whim. It was, on the contrary, heavy going. It was the central thing; it was the way you understood yourself; if it never happened to you, not ever, you would be like a mutant, a creature from outer space. Everyone knew that.
Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they said once, but we reversed that, and love, like Heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.
And sometimes it happened, for a time. That kind of love comes and goes and is hard to remember afterwards, like pain. You would look at the man one day and you would think, I loved you, and the tense would be past, and you would be filled with a sense of wonder, because it was such an amazing and precarious and dumb thing to have done; and you would know too why your friends had been evasive about it, at the time.
There is a good deal of comfort, now, in remembering this.
Or sometimes, even when you were still loving, still falling, you’d wake up in the middle of the night, when the moonlight was coming through the window onto his sleeping face, making the shadows in the sockets of his eyes
darker and more cavernous than in daytime, and you’d think, Who knows what they do, on their own or with other men? Who knows what they say or where they are likely to go? Who can tell what they really are? Under their daily-ness.
Likely you would think at those times: What if he doesn’t love me?
Or you’d remember stories you’d read, in the newspapers, about women who had been found – often women but sometimes they would be men, or children, that was the worst – in ditches or forests or refrigerators in abandoned rented rooms, with their clothes on or off, sexually abused or not; at any rate killed. There were places you didn’t want to walk, precautions you took that had to do with locks on windows and doors, drawing the curtains, leaving on lights. These things you did were like prayers; you did them and you hoped they would save you. And for the most part they did. Or something did; you could tell by the fact that you were still alive.
But all of that was pertinent only in the night, and had nothing to do with the man you loved, at least in daylight. With that man you wanted it to work, to work out. Working out was also something you did to keep your body in shape, for the man. If you worked out enough, maybe the man would too. Maybe you would be able to work it out together, as if the two of you were a puzzle that could be solved; otherwise, one of you, most likely the man, would go wandering off on a trajectory of his own, taking his addictive body with him and leaving you with bad withdrawal, which you could counteract by exercise. If you didn’t work it out it was because one of you had the wrong attitude. Everything that went on in your life was thought to be due to some positive or negative power emanating from inside your head.
If you don’t like it, change it, we said, to each other and to ourselves. And so we would change the man, for another one. Change, we were sure, was for the better always. We were revisionists; what we revised was ourselves.
It’s strange to remember how we used to think, as if everything were available to us, as if there were no contingencies, no boundaries; as if we were free to shape and reshape forever the ever-expanding perimeters of our lives. I was like that too, I did that too. Luke was not the first man for me, and he might not have been the last. If he hadn’t been frozen that way. Stopped dead in time, in mid-air, among the trees back there, in the act of falling.
In former times they would send you a little package, of the belongings: what he had with him when he died. That’s what they would do, in wartime,
my mother said. How long were you supposed to mourn and what did they say? Make your life a tribute to the loved one. And he was, the loved. One.
Is, I say. Is, is, only two letters, you stupid shit, can’t you manage to remember it, even a short word like that?
I wipe my sleeve across my face. Once I wouldn’t have done that, for fear of smearing, but now nothing comes off. Whatever expression is there, unseen by me, is real.
You’ll have to forgive me. I’m a refugee from the past, and like other refugees I go over the customs and habits of being I’ve left or been forced to leave behind me, and it all seems just as quaint, from here, and I am just as obsessive about it. Like a White Russian drinking tea in Paris, marooned in the twentieth century, I wander back, try to regain those distant pathways; I become too maudlin, lose myself. Weep. Weeping is what it is, not crying. I sit in this chair and ooze like a sponge.
So. More waiting. Lady in waiting: that’s what they used to call those stores where you could buy maternity clothes. Woman in waiting sounds more like someone in a train station. Waiting is also a place: it is wherever you wait. For me it’s this room. I am a blank, here, between parentheses. Between other people.
The knock comes at my door. Cora, with the tray.
But it isn’t Cora. “I’ve brought it for you,” says Serena Joy.
And then I look up and around, and get out of my chair and come towards her. She’s holding it, a Polaroid print, square and glossy. So they still make them, cameras like that. And there will be family albums, too, with all the children in them; no Handmaids though. From the point of view of future history, this kind, we’ll be invisible. But the children will be in them all right, something for the Wives to look at, downstairs, nibbling at the buffet and waiting for the birth.
“You can only have it for a minute,” Serena Joy says, her voice low and conspiratorial. “I have to return it, before they know it’s missing.”
It must have been a Martha who got it for her. There’s a network of the Marthas, then, with something in it for them. That’s nice to know.
I take it from her, turn it around so I can see it right-side-up. Is this her, is this what she’s like? My treasure.
So tall and changed. Smiling a little now, so soon, and in her white dress as if for an olden-days First Communion.
Time has not stood still. It has washed over me, washed me away, as if I’m nothing more than a woman of sand, left by a careless child too near the water. I have been obliterated for her. I am only a shadow now, far back behind the glib shiny surface of this photograph. A shadow of a shadow, as dead mothers become. You can see it in her eyes: I am not there.
But she exists, in her white dress. She grows and lives. Isn’t that a good thing? A blessing?
Still, I can’t bear it, to have been erased like that. Better she’d brought me nothing.
I sit at the little table, eating creamed corn with a fork. I have a fork and a spoon, but never a knife. When there’s meat they cut it up for me ahead of time, as if I’m lacking manual skills or teeth. I have both, however. That’s why I’m not allowed a knife.