In a place outside of time and space, a small coffee shop sits where characters from fictional works can relax, away from their storylines and reflect on their fabricated lives. I sit at a corner table with a large cappuccino and a blueberry scone, my notebook and digital recorder in front of me. This location is perfect for watching the customers come in and out with their drinks. I feel out of place here, though. A writer amongst the creations of other writers. I feel exposed. The lone frog in a room full of flies. I squirm a bit in my booth until I see her, one of the three women I am meeting. A long sleeved, floor length, red hooded dress covering her whole body. I cannot see her face, but I would have recognized her anywhere. Offred (1) is exactly how Atwood described. She removes her hood slowly and walks toward my table. She has short hair and a plain roundish face. She is nervous but deliberate with her steps.
OFFRED: Are you Nancy?
ME: Yes, and you are ‘Offred.’ Glad you made it. Please have a seat while we wait for the others. Would you like something to eat or drink?
OFFRED: Just a water please.
As I ask the waiter for a glass of water and a menu for my guest, Offred sits quietly with her eyes down, hands on her lap. She does not smile when I greet her. She is afraid to be here, wondering if she has made a grave error in coming here. She politely takes the water and sips. She does not even look at the menu. I forgot she was forbidden to read.
ME: If there is anything else you would like, just ask. It’s all on me today.
OFFRED: Thank you. I am fine.
ME: Okay then.
There is a stiff silence that is only cut by the approach of our next companion a few minutes later. She is a plump, pleasant looking older woman, with warm eyes and a nice smile. Her graying kinky hair contrasts her dark brown skin. I immediately know this must be Claudia (2). She offers me her hand as she introduces herself.
CLAUDIA: Claudia MacTeer. You Ms. Lehmann?
ME: Yeah. Call me Nancy. Have a seat. Would you like something from the café?
CLAUDIA: A tea would be good. Two sugars.
I call the waiter over and add her drink to my ticket. She smiles graciously when her tea is set in front of her. A smile so real that I forget for a moment that she is just a part of Toni Morrison’s imagination. This whole experience is surreal. While pondering how to begin this interview, I see my final guest slip in the door. Wearing a dress with an apron and visibly pregnant, Ruth (3) looks slowly around the room, the sunshine framing her in the doorway, making her light brown skin appear darker momentarily. I stand and wave her over.
She waddles through the other tables and grins apologetically.
RUTH: Sorry for being late. Lena’s not feeling well. Had to have her sleepin’ before I left.
ME: That’s alright. Have a seat. Would you care for a drink or something to eat?
RUTH: Maybe something small. I am always hungry anymore.
I hand her the menu and as she talks to the waiter I lean forward to turn on my recorder. I begin with a brief introduction.
ME: Offred, Claudia, Ruth. Welcome. As I told you all, I am writing a paper comparing abuse on women in your respective worlds. I know it can be difficult talking honestly to someone you don’t know, especially in front of other people, but I want you to think of this as a safe space. We are all women, and despite our other differences, that makes us all part of a sisterhood of sorts. We can trust each other in a way that we could never trust a man. So, please be as open as you can during our discussion.
They all nod wordlessly. The waiter brings Ruth’s order as I ask the first question.
ME: So, first off, I would like to know what in your minds constitutes abuse.
CLAUDIA: Abuse can be just about anything. It is a fact of life for women and children, men do things that women don’t want. Being beat. Being raped. That is abuse.
OFFRED: In Gilead, Handmaids are owned by their commanders. Nothing they do to us is thought of as abuse. Although, most of what happens to me is unwanted, I gave them my permission to do whatever they wish to me when I became a Handmaid.
CLAUDIA: Does not mean it is not abuse. If you don’t want it, it should not be happening.
OFFRED: I don’t really have a choice. What was once considered abuse, is just my life now. I am not a person anymore. I am a Handmaid, a baby incubator.
Offred looks around nervously.
OFFRED: May the Lord open.
RUTH: Abuse is not only hittin’ and rape. Sometimes it can just be words. Very hurtful words.
CLAUDIA: Words? What ya mean by that?
RUTH: My husband can go all crazy. Call me the nastiest things. Sometimes it hurts worse than bein’ beat.
CLAUDIA: That’s just a man being a man. They are just hateful sometimes.
OFFRED: No one yells in Gilead. They don’t have to. They just call the Guardians and you are just taken away.
There is a long pause here that I decide to fill it with my next question.
ME: Do you think there is anything in your societies that allows or even encourages this abuse on women and children to continue?
OFFRED: That is just how Gilead works. We all have our roles and we play them or we do not exist anymore. At the center, we learn that women use to be unsafe and unruly. The government changed that. They keep us in our place.
She stops again, this time looking down at her lap.
OFFRED: Praise be.
CLAUDIA: Do you like your role?
OFFRED: It is just what I am.
RUTH: Walter is just so angry. The world done took everything from him but me. I guess I get what he wants to give back to the world.
CLAUDIA: That’s true. Black men are so angry for what is denied them, but there is nothing they can do about it. So, their family gets what they want to give others. Then the whole family is messed up. They don’t know how to love. They don’t know how to care for each other. When they try to love, someone still gets hurt, usually children.
There is a long halt in the conversation here, where no one says anything. I think about the innocence lost in Claudia’s world, Pecola’s world, of The Bluest Eye. As we are all women here, I imagine we all feel the same pang of sadness at what each of our realities can do to children. I watch Ruth slowly rub her growing belly. I see a single tear fall from Offred’s left eye and envision a small child being ripped from her mother’s arms. I clear my throat. I did not realize this would be so emotional for me. I continue my interview, trying to recapture my composure.
ME: Are there any services or organizations that can aid women and children who are victims of abuse in your worlds?
RUTH: We lean on family when something happens. Family is very important.
CLAUDIA: Family is not all it’s cracked up to be. Most of the time, it is family that do the abusin’.
With only a slight hesitation Claudia looks at me and continues.
CLAUDIA: Why would anyone help? Even the police don’t want nothin’ to do with our community. Neighbors should help, could help, some even try to help, but there is no one to back them up. It just continues from one generation to the next, and no one cares.
OFFRED: If a woman is raped, her rapist is executed, violently.
Both Claudia and Ruth stare open mouthed at Offred. She seems a bit startled to be the center of attention.
CLAUDIA: Well, I can’t say I don’t like that. I can think of a few people I would love to see that happen to.
OFFRED: No, you would not enjoy seeing that.
Awkward silence is becoming the norm of this conversation. I speak up again, for no other reason than to fill the void.
ME: I only have one more question for all of you. Is there a way out?
CLAUDIA: Yes. Some find a way out by runnin’ away. Some find it by killin’ themselves. Some find that the only escape is in their own head. If you are not there, if no one knows, you can pretend it never happened. You can live your life without the reminders of the events that changed everything. Almost as good as forgettin’ all together.
OFFRED: Forgetting is not really possible, but leaving is, one way or another, if you have the strength to save yourself. I am afraid I do not have that courage to do it alone.
RUTH: You can dig yourself out slowly too. Small steps. Sometimes, it goes so slow that you are dead and still diggin’. Lena and Big Walter dug and dug and dug ’til she was old and he was dead. They did it to get us all out. We’re just one step out of the pit and prayin’ we don’t fall back in.
I smile a melancholy kind of smile at all three of them. I admire them. All strong and courageous in their own ways. I am sad to see this meeting end. I stand and extend my hand to each of them in turn.
ME: Ruth. Offred. Claudia. Thank you all for your time. You have helped me so much. I am so grateful for your help.
They all rise and turn to walk out the door. The scene melts around me as Offred slips her hood back over her head before walking out. As my eyes open, I am surprised to find myself in my bed, my husband gently snoring beside me. I get up quickly and hurry to my laptop, desperate to get my story written before it fades from my mind.
©2017 Nancy Lehmann
(1) Offred is the main character in the novel The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
(2) Claudia is the narrator and one of the main characters in the novel The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
(3) Ruth is a character in the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.