"Compose yourself," was something your mother used to say before important functions, fiddling with your dress, your hair, your posture. Compose yourself, as if you were a piece of music you had control over, a symphony, or an aria, sung all by yourself, expressing your loneliness and longing.
Composed is what you ought to be; it is a mask above your true self. If you still have a true self. It is so easy to lose sight of who you are, who you were, these days.
Composed is also an adjective and a verb form, past tense, past participle. A descriptor, or a past action, tense. Music is composed, a picture, a speech; you are a picture of composure, you used to compose speeches. You still do, sometimes, rarely, oh so rarely, for foreign dignitaries, praising the progression of your country, the country you helped form. It is what you profess to have faith in, yet faith has eluded you. It is a form without content. An act.
Your hands lie clasped in your lap, in front of your flat belly. Your body is still yours, yet it is only yours: you do not share it, neither with new life quickening inside you, nor with your husband whose duty it is to give you this life. He doesn't, can't – or rather, you can't, as the official account goes. Now, he spends his seed in another, while you avert your eyes, not wanting to acknowledge this recurring disgrace.
He denies you. Or he denies himself, thereby denying you – the end result is the same: you are starving for his touch, his love, even just an honest gesture from the man you married.
Sometimes, a day or two after the Ceremony, when your resentment no longer rules you, you might touch yourself the way he used to touch you, before this, before everything, when you were a young couple with a vision of a better future, not man-and-wife under one roof, with a household of five, trapped in the vision you have made reality. Like in fairy tales of old, the wish granted has little semblance to the image you had in mind.
Your caresses fall short. You cannot imitate his love for you – the love he once had.
You do not wonder if all this, the indignity, the shame, the anger, is worth it. You resent the new girls, this new girl in particular. Yet you also place your hopes in her, sometimes in the flesh, with your fingers upon her belly, willing life to grow inside her, so that you can raise it. You envy the other Wives their offspring.
What you do wonder is this: any child is a blessing for your country, true, but will your child fix anything? Will it make you whole again, you and your marriage?
Your child is a certainty, a promise to be delivered by the new girl stationed at your house. You do not doubt it will come. You cannot doubt. To doubt is to incur weakness. Believe, and the miracle will manifest.
Sometimes, it is too much to bear: frustration gnaws at you, gently, insistently, and your face will not compose itself. Still you smile in company and exhaust yourself in your garden; there aren't many activities that bring you solace anymore. There aren't many activities that are deemed seemly for you. A Commander's Wife needs to be above reproach, a role model for the community.
Her place is not on her knees in front of her husband, displaying her love for him, her lust. Shameful, immodest, but what felt so right, so vital at the time. You still have needs, you still want. Your place in this society changes little about that. Yet it is not in keeping with the values you ought to uphold.
You may not have been involved in the decision-making process, but now you all, men and women alike, have your parts to play in this flawed regime you helped bring about. Circumstances might have looked different if the bigwigs would have listened to your contributions, but it's no use to dwell. You have to accept your lot.
You do, most of the time. For the sake of propriety, and because you wanted to believe, in this new nation, in your husband, in your ideas at the root of it. They justify your complicity, your silence, and appease some of your guilt, but none of the simmering anger you try to conceal. It's broiling beneath your skin, like soup you season with the tears you cannot shed, thick and nourishing and more delicious the following day, when it is reheated.
You have been reheating it for years, this anger of yours. It grows cold, just as you grow mean, but this new girl, Offred, a name so insulting to your ears it makes your insides churn, for all her semblance of meekness, is stoking the fire again, awakening a desire within you that will not soon be quenched.
The desire to matter again.
It doesn't occur to you at first that you are in the same boat, the Marthas, the Handmaids, and you, perhaps even the Econowives, but you know too little about them to judge that, they do not prepare your meals or buy your groceries.
You are reduced to mere functions, each more demeaning than the next, but as long as you are standing on the top rung, these concerns are not as pressing as they are for those of the lower classes. You, for example, are still regarded as human, with certain rights, but you are an idealised version of yourself, something made pure and holy, above the temptations of this mortal coil, unable to be touched, caressed, shown intimate love.
Unlike her, you are not a vessel, a chalice, a container to be filled; you are an ornament, to be displayed occasionally and otherwise kept safe.
Does it surprise you when you turn to her, this new girl, the one who best knows what it is like to be purged of all desires, of all self-determination? Does it surprise you that she responds in kind? Perhaps, yes. It does.
You are opposites, not exactly two sides of the same coin, but something similar: you would have no need of her if you yourself were whole, she would not be here if you could conceive without her aid. Fertility, or the lack thereof, is what binds you, a common plight. Your bodies, no longer your own – yours rejected, hers a commodity. By joining them, you commit what is now known as gender treachery, the criminal term for it, but you also reclaim something that has been taken from you, both of you.
It is joy and the simplicity of touch, of acknowledging your bodies as something more than objects to be filled or looked at, as something with very real needs. A purpose is not enough, reverence is not enough, sexual fulfillment is not either, when it comes down to it. You crave it all, yes, love, reverence, release, yet most of all you yearn to be mistress of your own body, without discrimination, without codes of conduct corseting you, without anyone thinking less of you for wanting what you want and acting accordingly.
You find a certain portion of happiness in her arms, and you take it, however small the amount, and do so greedily, like a famished animal with its bones visible beneath the skin, legs barely able to support itself. It may be gone tomorrow, when you go back to your respective roles, composed, not a strand out of place, like an overture, or a still life, grapes and apples arranged in a bowl, with perhaps a bottle next to in on the table, cloth or no cloth.
There is still life in you, even if it is, for most of the day, the week, halted, paused, suspended. A breath held, until at last, at night, it can be expelled, compressed at first, then gradually more freely.
You think you could love her, if she were with child; you did so once when your hopes were stronger than the damning facts. You dream of this child she could have given you, not in terms of yours and your husband's, but as yours and hers. You would be sharing so much of her journey as if it were your own, you cannot help but think of her as the mother, even if the role would fall to you. You would be loathe to give her up once she has done her duty, made good on her promise. She would be allowed to give suck for a while and recuperate, before she would be sent to another household.
In an ideal world, there would be no bargaining, no consequences for the choices you want to make. In an ideal world, you wouldn't have to choose. In an ideal world, there would be no colour-coded dresses telling your apart, damning you to one life and her to another.
You will not say that the life you lived before had been ideal, but it seems that way now, in comparison. The times you travelled beyond state borders to promote the book you wrote seem like another lifetime now, as if they were scenes from a movie you merely happened to watch and identify with. An actress, depicting a life you could have lived. Except that you did live it, and it is the reason you are here, with your gloved hands folded in your lap, your belly flat, empty, barren.
You want to scream, but you do not. It would be unseemly for a woman of your station. You are composed.