On Watching The Handmaid’s Tale with Him
We’re both lying on opposite ends of his faux leather couch, toes mingling in a somewhat flirty game of footsie. It’s the end of a long day. He’s spent the day running errands and helping his ailing grandparents around their house. I finished moving out of my graduate school apartment and saying goodbye to friends. “I feel like a man without a country,” I told him earlier before our dinner of meat lover’s pizza and Pepsi arrived.
He kissed my forehead, a gesture he knows makes me melt. “You have a country right here,” he said. We both knew what was coming. In the morning, I was going to back my new-to-me Kia Soul down his driveway, get on the interstate, and leave to start my PhD four states away. So after he got home, we both decided to stay in together. We snuck off, away from his Airbnb guests, for a late afternoon romp and a nap. We woke up and ordered the pizza. Despite being progressive people, he pays – no questions asked.
We ate together from the pizza box at the table in the dining room while his guests watch Southpark in the next room. After the next episode ends, he picks up the remote and asks if there’s anything I want to watch. He scrolls past Hulu, which reminds me. “How about The Handmaid’s Tale?”
“Sure. Sounds good!” He launches the first episode as I maneuver onto my right side to get a better view of the projector screen hanging from the ceiling between the living and dining rooms. It was part of his DIY-ed home theater.
It shouldn’t have been, nor did it, surprise me that he agreed to watch this show with me as we watched the color red splashed against a pale gray prelude to season one, episode one. On our first date seven and a half months ago, we talked about literature, among other things, while sharing poutine in a public house overlooking the city of Cincinnati. “It’s crazy that she came up with this whole world and, thirty-some years later, we’re in danger of living in it,” he said.
“That’s because Margaret Atwood is a genius,” I replied.
Two months ago, he cheered me on as I wrote my final graduate school paper, a thirty-page monster about this book the Bible, and rape. It was so rough that, at the end, I cried from the relief that hitting “submit” gave me.
As the opening scenes unfolded, I should’ve known what was coming because I’ve read this book before. Not just read it, but wrote about it, too, spending hours upon hours in the same funky coffee shop with the same friends cursing the same course that we were all originally so excited to take, but at the end absolutely dreaded. On the screen, the main character Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss, sits on a windowsill in a dimly light room and looks up, her eyes reaching right into me and, at this moment unknowingly, grabs a part of me that I don’t want touched. A part that I hoped he hasn’t noticed or figured out yet. I hadn’t told him because there was never a reason I felt compelled to share this particular thing that was going on inside my body.
“It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself given a cutting edge or a twisted sheet and a chandelier. It’s harder on Ceremony Day, but thinking can hurt your chances. My name is Offred. I had another name, but its forbidden now. So many things are forbidden now.”
The show continues. “They did a really good job of sticking to the book,” he says. “Most of it is word for word from the book.”
“They did do a good job.”
A few minutes pass. Offred arrives at her assigned house and is given a less-than-warm welcome by Fred’s wife, Serena Joy. The colors on the screen are muted, as if shot through a dusty lens. It’s not because I felt a slow tightening creeping through my lungs and into my throat, either, but something seizes my insides and heightens my senses. “I didn’t think the Wives’ dresses would be that color blue.” My voice croaks as I speak. It sounds smaller than normal.
“Why?” he asks.
“I just imagined them wearing a lighter blue.” Maybe that final paper, with its discussions of the Wives wearing the same color as the Virgin Mary and often depicted in Eve-like ways, made them seem a little lighter than the muted royal-ish blue of their televised counterparts. The darker blue made those women appear to carry a weight different than the weight of a growing child in the swelling bellies of their red-clad counterparts. In reality, I was probably thinking too much about the similarities and differences between the book and the show. In the book, the dresses are light blue.
My attention wanders away from the show. I could never be a Wife in Atwood’s dystopia. I teach college, English specifically. I read voraciously and even have the corresponding app to my e-reader on my cell phone so I literally always have a book with me. I was probably too outspoken to be the kind of spouse I would be expected to be. I identify as a feminist. As a wife, lowercase w intentional, I couldn’t imagine sharing my spouse with someone even if it meant having children to create a family.
But there are more reasons. I crave a human touch in order to feel safe, secure, cared about. I readily hug friends. I have one-on-one meetings with students where I touch the drafts of their essays since I’m not allowed to touch them. I snuggle, embrace, and when the two of us crawl in bed to go to sleep, all I need to doze off is to feel his skin against mine. If I can’t have his touch, I turn the AC as low as I can stand it and surround myself with blankets and pillows that I burrow into. Sometimes, I wake up to find my blankets wrapped around me like a straight jacket. Again, the narratives don’t mesh. I need something that is just not an acceptable norm for Serena Joy.
I catch a glimpse of the lights flickering on his face. He wouldn’t be a commander in Gilead. He protested cuts to Planned Parenthood. He marched against Donald Trump’s presidential election win. At one time, a defaced “Trump for President” yard sign sat atop his bookshelf in the living room. The narratives just didn’t mesh.
The second episode begins and the scenes continue. By the time Offred and Ofglen walk through town sharing their stories, I’m hooked again. Offred used to be a book editor before trying to escape to Canada with her daughter and husband Luke. Ofglen was a college lecturer in cellular biology and is a lesbian, an identity which is now punishable by law. I see parts of myself in both of them. Books. Teaching. Strong female characters.
I thought all the college professors were sent to The Colonies, Offred says.
Or I have two good ovaries, Ofglen replies. She comments on her luck.
My throat and chest seize. I can’t breathe. Suddenly, I realize why my voice sounded so small when I commented on the color of the Wives’ dressed. Why Offred’s eyes reached right into my core and held on to whatever she could grab for dear life.
I could never be a Wife. My personality and my profession damned me before anything else. Even with the instinct for survival, there are just some parts of my identity that are inseparable from the rest of me.
I could never be a Handmaid. While my morality is definitely questionable in Atwood’s Gilead, my disease prevents my fertility to be certain enough to allow me to redeem my so-called sins by being a Handmaid. In the novel, sinful women like the one who would be known as Offred could redeem their adultery by serving as Handmaids. And while my supposed transgressions, sleeping with men to whom I am not married, may push the needle of my fate to the center of the continuum between “Handmaid” and “The Colonies,” I’m not sure if I was so full of sin that donning the red dress would be a possible judgement. Which was worse – sin or, as Atwood’s Gilead calls it, potentially being barren?
Instead, I would be sent The Colonies.
In Atwood’s Gilead, I would be dead.
Because my ovaries do not work properly, caused by a disease that affects as many as one in ten women, their topography resembles the foothills of a mountain from which life is uncertain to come instead of resembling small, smooth glands. Cysts prevented my hormones from working properly. If they worked, which some probably didn’t. Now I swallow my hormones every afternoon to keep a delicate equilibrium in balance.
I start to think about the women I have read about in the big national newspapers. They’re protesting cuts to Planned Parenthood, to the attempted repeal of Obamacare, the rolling back of regulations meant to protect the environment, and just the sheer disregard for anything that is meant to protect a woman’s body. I cheer them on from my couch, my car, my corner table as I take a break from schoolwork at Starbucks. I am not as bold. I want to be one of these Handmaids in the flesh, but I know I will likely never don a red cape and white-winged bonnet. It’s an act that pushes my limits too far.
I chastise myself because I should be out there with them. This isn’t all that different from the fight happening on the periphery of Atwood’s tale. The rebels, of which Ofglen is secretly a part, are fighting for their principles and morals and freedom from a doctrine that doesn’t allow anyone to truly live life free from suspicion and paranoia.
The Handmaid protesters are doing the same thing, pushing back against an administration made of old white men of money whose policies tell women that their bodies don’t matter. Funding cuts to legitimate health clinics that actually have women’s health as a priority. Health care costs skyrocketing and making going to the doctor or prescriptions impossible to afford for women who don’t have the financial resources. Deregulation of environmental protections that not only harm our environment, but women’s bodies, too.
The rebels are fighting from the edges of this new society, not yet having made a fight in Gilead yet.
The Handmaid protesters and those like them are coming from all parts of this new society and are criticized for standing up and speaking out. Snowflakes, their critics call them.
The rebels in Atwood’s book are fighting for their lives.
The Handmaid protestors are fighting for my life, at least for this one.
Because without access to healthcare, insurance, or birth control pills, my life would be drastically different. It wasn’t that long ago that I would nap for hours on end because the chronic fatigue wouldn’t allow me to get through the day otherwise. My body swelled as I packed on the pounds without explanation. I grew hair in places it wasn’t supposed to grow – my face, my stomach, my chest – and it disappeared from places where it was supposed to grow. I bled for weeks at a time. I often wondered if I was dying, if an ER visit with or without health insurance would do anything – could do anything – to make everything I felt was strange and alien about my body just stop. It took a visit to a university physician to figure it out, that this had been going on for far too long, but the industrial complex that is our health care system decided to focus on the effects, such as my weight, instead of the cause. My disease.
Now that my body has been put back in check, there are people who want to take away that sense of relief and security modern medicine has brought me, even if that relief and security was delayed. In the morning, I was leaving to spend the next five years in a state that attempted to pass legislation allowing employers to fire women because they use birth control. Washington keeps trying to take away my health insurance and access to care. Graduate student stipends don’t always allow much wiggle room for medical emergencies. The social safety nets previously available are, well, not. I wonder every time the news comes on how much longer my body would be allowed to remain this way.
Despite this uneasiness, I have something for now that enables me to be right here, right now, in this living room with this man who makes my knees weak and stomach flutter. Yes, the synthetic hormones make me think about what kind of damage these seemingly innocuous pills could be doing to my body while trying to help it along, too. Yes, for a few days in the middle of the third week of every pill pack, I not only rediscover PMS but also suddenly develop an anxiety that drives me out of my damn mind. I am fortunate that it only lasts for a day or two and not a daily aspect of my life. I am still here, however, awake, alive, and in a body that is balanced enough to be able to enjoy this quiet time with a man who makes me feel emotions I haven’t felt in a long time. Perhaps I’m afraid to tell him because he’ll leave, despite all of the affection and support he’s given me. It wouldn’t be the first time a relationship had ended like that. Or he might just understand and say that he still cares about me even though I feel as if this disease makes me feel broken. I’m not sure which response I want from him. Both possibilities scare me.
It’s better than my fate in Gilead. In Atwood’s book, I wouldn’t even be a character. I would just be a mere reference made by women with names and red capes or blue dresses, a body cleaning up radiation in The Colonies. I would lose my skin, sheets falling from my bones like dead leaves falling from trees. Lose my mind from the radiation poisoning. Lose my life without anyone noticing that I was gone.
The second episode we’ve been watching ends with Offred opening the gates to Commander Fred’s home as she leaves to fetch groceries from the store. She greets Ofglen, her shopping partner, in the customary way that Handmaids are taught to greet one another. We’ve seen this several times in just these first two episodes, so I already know how this sequences is going to go, At the time of this departure, though, Offred knows that there are people out there fighting back, pushing back against the regime that stripped Offred of her daughter and partner and forced her to don this red dress and serve as breeding stock to those who assert overtly Christian authority over what is left of New England. “Blessed be the fruit,” Offred says.
Ofglen raises her head to face Offred, but this is not the same Ofglen we as an audience have come to know. The new Ofglen returns the customary response. “May the Lord open.”
Offred replies with an expletive, and the episode ends. I shake my head in disbelief and want to keep watching, but now it is really time to go to bed and he knows it. We both rise, and he folds you into a hug. I hope he doesn’t notice how hard and fast my heart is pounding because I can hear my pulse in my ears. “I’ll be upstairs in a little bit,” he says. I figure he probably wants to start reading one of the books he brought back from Powell’s Books on his recent trip to Portland.
I smile. “Okay. Don’t be up too late.”
I climb the stairs that always seem to rise just a little too high for my legs to take more than one at a time, even under normal circumstances. Once in his room, I change my clothes and climb into his king-sized bed with the navy blue sheets that were just put on the bed right before I arrived. Attempting to sleep in a bed this big alone causes me to toss and turn, wondering how long it’s been since I left him downstairs in the living room. Maybe I should wrap myself up in the flat sheet and go find him, snuggle up beside him on the couch and ask him to come upstairs. Tell him that I can’t sleep, but not explain the reason why. Those two episodes left more material on my mind for more than one sleepless night, but I wasn’t completely sure I was ready to share with him the fact that I felt as though I was broken and bruised and, more and more as of late, frowned upon for just wanting to be able to function. If I told him, I was afraid that this may be the last night I felt his warmth next to me as I dreamed, or worse yet, he would sleep on the couch and leave me alone.
I hope that neither of those scenarios would happen. Deep down, I chastise myself for even thinking that he would leave me because of my disease. Maybe it’s too early to even consider having this conversation because, after all, we’ve only been dating seven months and neither of us have plans of having children any time soon. Perhaps I want an affirmation that I’m not as broken as I think I am, but despite Offred’s stare taking up residence in my mind, maybe this isn’t the right time yet.