Night for the Ceremony

When the night for the Ceremony came round again, two or three weeks later, I found that things were changed. There was an awkwardness now that there hadn’t been before. Before, I’d treated it as a job, an unpleasant job to be gone through as fast as possible so it could be over with. Steel yourself, my mother used to say, before examinations I didn’t want to take or swims in cold water. I never thought much at the time about what the phrase meant, but it had something to do with metal, with armour, and that’s what I would do, I would steel myself. I would pretend not to be present, not in the flesh.

This state of absence, of existing apart from the body, had been true of the Commander too, I knew now. Probably he thought about other things the whole time he was with me; with us, for of course Serena Joy was there on those evenings also. He might have been thinking about what he did during the day, or about playing golf, or about what he’d had for dinner. The sexual act, although he performed it in a perfunctory way, must have been largely unconscious, for him, like scratching himself.

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But that night, the first since the beginning of whatever this new arrangement was between us – I had no name for it – I felt shy of him. I felt, for one thing, that he was actually looking at me, and I didn’t like it. The lights were on, as usual, since Serena Joy always avoided anything that would have created an aura of romance or eroticism, however slight: overhead lights, harsh despite the canopy. It was like being on an operating table, in the full glare; like being on a stage. I was conscious that my legs were hairy, in the straggly way of legs that have once been shaved but have grown back; I was conscious of my armpits too, although of course he couldn’t see them. I felt uncouth. This act of copulation, fertilization perhaps, which should have been no more to me than a bee is to a flower, had become for me indecorous, an embarrassing breach of propriety, which it hadn’t been before.

He was no longer a thing to me. That was the problem. I realized it that night, and the realization has stayed with me. It complicates.

Serena Joy had changed for me, too. Once I’d merely hated her, for her part in what was being done to me; and because she hated me too and resented my presence, and because she would be the one to raise my child, should I be able to have one after all. But now, although I still hated her, no more so than when she was gripping my hands so hard that her rings bit my flesh, pulling my hands back as well, which she must have done on purpose to make me as uncomfortable as she could, the hatred was no longer pure and simple. Partly I was jealous of her; but how could I be jealous of a woman so obviously dried-up and unhappy? You can only be jealous of someone who has something you think you ought to have yourself. Nevertheless I was jealous.

But I also felt guilty about her. I felt I was an intruder, in a territory that ought to have been hers. Now that I was seeing the Commander on the sly, if only to play his games and listen to him talk, our functions were no longer as separate as they should have been in theory. I was taking something away from her, although she didn’t know it. I was filching. Never mind that it was something she apparently didn’t want or had no use for, had rejected even; still, it was hers, and if I took it away, this mysterious “it” I couldn’t quite define – for the Commander wasn’t in love with me, I refused to believe he felt anything for me as extreme as that – what would be left for her?

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