It’s the Little Moments of THE HANDMAID’S TALE That Hurt the Most

Editor’s Note: please be advised this personal essay contains minor spoilers for the novel and TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale.


Reading The Handmaid’s Tale two days after the election, I find myself unprepared for the little moments that catch my breath in my throat. It is not my first encounter with the text; I can still recall the exact college library chair I sat in as I poured over it years ago, letting Margaret Atwood’s calculated, clinical language run circles around my brain. Here were all of my darkest subconscious anxieties put into words, I realized. Here was a name for the anxiety that rests in the hearts of so many women, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

Now I am walking through those same words again on my daily commute, but it’s not the same fears blooming to the surface this time. Not exactly. I am already wearily resigned to the feeling that my life will be difficult in ways that men’s lives are not, and that even in so many of the spaces we carve out for ourselves — like the company I work for, predominantly populated by women — it’s still men with money who still hold most of the power. Frustrating as it is, I know this battle already. I have been fighting it since the last time I read this book.

But now, what upsets me the most is Luke. Before, Offred’s husband was just an idea, a symbol of desire and loss and the foreboding sense that even a good man won’t understand how you might suffer until it’s too late. Now, he’s a real person in my life. I think of the man I live with, who I left in bed just that morning, and how four months ago he was telling me not to worry about Mike Pence.

Nobody knows who he is, and everyone who does hates him, he said. Him getting the vice presidential nomination isn’t going to make a difference.

But what if they win, I said.

It’s not worth worrying about that yet, he replied. I knew he was saying it for himself as much as he was for me. ‘But he’s not the one who needs to worry about Pence,’ part of me thought. ‘You are.’

At least he’s never been divorced, like Luke was, that same grim voice says now. At least if you’re desperate and you need to marry him for legal rights, no one can take him away from you or you from him. I’m sure if Offred were in my position, she’d have thought that, too.

A month later, I lose that job in a round of layoffs; the men in charge, I am told, are restructuring the company. But I will be allowed to keep my health plan, temporarily, for the cost of about three-fourths of my rent each month. The news is a shock, but not a surprise.

Freelancing makes ends meet, at least. There’s still a semblance of a normal life there, even if being alone in my apartment makes me feel unbearably lonely at times (again I think of Offred, in her post-career, pre-handmaid world, busying herself with housework and baking and starting out the window and crying without warning). The best part is that you can walk away from your computer—if you can stomach the thought of making less money that day—so I try to steal away an hour between assignments to go for a run. The app I use to track my progress asks me to imagine that I am training to be a scavenger for a small village in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, and there’s something motivating about that. In the choice of how to be useful, I mean. The undead don’t scare me so much anymore.

On the way home, I pick up a few groceries for lunch at the local supermarket. My debit card is declined. I can hazard a guess as to why; my bank is notoriously sensitive to fraud, and I’d only just been on the phone with customer service the day before. That doesn’t stop the fear from rising in my chest as I stand there, in sweaty workout gear, images of Elisabeth Moss’ flushed cheeks flashing in my brain as I desperately will my emergency credit card to work.

It does, of course. But the next day I go to the ATM and grab a hundred dollars’ worth of twenties to hide in my underwear drawer. Just in case, I think. It doesn’t feel like enough.

It’s still the little moments of familiarity that get me now, watching Hulu‘s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale from week to week on my macbook (not our TV — you can’t place a TV in your lap, and I want the experience to feel intimate). It’s a whisper between Offred and Ofglen about how she used to work in publishing; a glimpse of a wire bra clasp on Offred’s body, which is no longer hers; a younger handmaid dismissively saying “whatever” before walking away; a song cue from the end of The Breakfast Club. It’s June — not Offred, even I have to remind myself, June — good-naturedly making the best of her newfound unemployment with a glass of wine, and waiting until she and her husband get into bed to let him wrap her arms around her, as if he will protect her in this new world. As if anything can protect anyone in a world like that.

The hangings, the beatings, the mutilation, the state-sanctioned rape all hurt, too. But they still feel far away. What keeps me up at night is the strange normality in the face of powerlessness, the feeling that every bit of breaking news is all building up to something Wrong. “Nothing changes instantaneously,” as Offred says in the third episode. “In a gradually heating bathtub, you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.” That’s happening now. That’s not going anywhere.

A few hours before the Republican members of Congress vote to deny healthcare coverage to millions of Americans, I am sitting in a waiting room with one of our cats, whose chin is covered in blood. My boyfriend is there, too. He came out of the shower that morning to see me holding the poor thing with tears in my eyes, and took off work to help me walk the four blocks to the veterinarian’s office, answering all the questions that I could not. He’s a good man like that.

What would you do if I wasn’t here? he teases on the way home.

Cry a lot more, I reply. It sounds like a joke, but it’s not. I hold back a lot of tears lately.

The cat will be fine, the doctor tells us, but we need medication to treat the infected scratch. The irony is not lost on me, as I fill out the claim for our pet insurance provider, that in a few years he might be better covered than I am. I think about all the pre-existing conditions I carry: the hormonal acne that’s bloomed on my face since high school, the antidepressants I took in college, the benign cysts crowding my ovaries, and the birth control pills that keep everything regulated. I think about the president’s latest executive order, and how, despite its relative toothlessness, it could one day inspire someone sufficiently righteous to deny me those pills. I think about how long it will take before that actually happens. I think about all the people it will almost certainly happen to first.

I think, watching my boyfriend gently apply ointment to the wound, about what we would do with our cats if we had to make a run for the Canadian border — if he would choose to kill them as Luke did before they tried to flee, and if I would insist on watching it happen because Offred did not. I don’t ask for my brain to go to such dark places, but I cannot help it. Margaret Atwood’s already done the work for me.

Images: George Kraychyk/Hulu

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