There’s a fragment in The handmaid’s tale by Margaret Atwood that really caught my attention while reading it. Well, it’s fair to say that lots of fragments in that book caught my attention, but it was different with this one: it stirred some memory. This happens quite frequently while I’m reading, and I usually just keep on going. It’s the inertia, I guess. However, I recently decided to start an experiment – to stop and try to figure out why those particular sentences are special to me.
“Will I ever be in a hotel room again? How I wasted them, those rooms, that freedom from being seen. (…) Careless. I was careless, in those rooms. I could lift the telephone and food would appear on a tray, food I had chosen. Food that was bad for me, no doubt, and drink too. There were Bibles in the dresser drawers, put there by some charitable society, though probably no one read them very much.”
___Margaret Atwood – The handmaid’s tale
The silver earring
There were many new, surprising things in America. But they weren’t obvious, like women in Zambia walking casually with baskets on their heads and babies on their backs. For me, the US had more subtle differences like very long distances between places, tasteless potatoes, hostesses in all restaurants. One other thing I found surprising were the Bibles in the drawers next to the bed of each hotel room that I was cleaning.
I went to the US when I was a student, enrolled in a Work and Travel type of program. For a whole summer I worked as a housekeeper in a Comfort Suites hotel, somewhere upstate New York. The first room I cleaned, I told my supervisor that someone forgot their book in the drawer.
As days passed in my new and very-far-from-home-summer-job, I would check the drawers to see if there were some Bibles missing. If the last guests had taken it with them, then my job was to bring another one from the supply room. Plenty of Bibles there. Blue, they were; with hardback covers and thin, fragile paper, like all Bibles I’ve seen in my life.
There is one particular Bible I remember from that summer. I was already cleaning rooms by myself – no supervisor needed anymore. Checking the drawer of one room I found this Bible that was exactly the same as the others, yet something was different. It had something inside, something thick enough to keep the book from closing properly. It was a silver earring, a five pointed star with a tiny glass stone in the middle. And on the page where I found the earring, a verse was underlined repeatedly with a blue ballpoint pen.
It looked like the verse had been underlined with conviction. I imagined hidden anger let out in the form of righteous indignation and condescending reminder, towards a wife, perhaps, that “see, it is written in the Holy Bible, it is God’s own word!”.
I don’t remember the exact words, or even the biblical book where the verse is from. I don’t ever remember such details. But I do remember the essence of it: it was that verse that says how a woman must listen to her man and do what he says, for he knows better. It was something that rang very clearly to me like woman is inferior to man.
I was 21. I was a believer, back then. I was also a young woman trying to understand incomprehensible things, like who I was in this world. Something didn’t sit right with me – the underlined biblical words of God, the silver earring without its lock, the complex world I was discovering on my own (it was my first time outside Romania, and I was by myself) – all of that, it just didn’t fit.
I imagined a meek woman cradled in blankets on the bed, tears on her face. Her husband showing her forgiveness and kindness for trespassing in the firm, self-assured voice of the one who has the word of God to back him up.
I imagined a man yelling at a woman paralyzed by fear. Violence, this time. Again, supported by the word of God. I saw the earring falling as she was struck; just a reminder of who’s right. I saw the man underlining the words over and over, with anger, and yelling to her face.
I imagined a woman by herself, in bed, underlining the words with painful resolution, trying to convince herself that she must accept what she was given, for it was the word of God, and who was she to question God? I saw her putting the earring as a bookmark in the Bible so she’d open it again in the morning. So she’d reread the verse and renew her resolution, whatever was given to her, she must accept it, it was alright, God himself had made it so.
I imagined these, and many more scenarios. All crossed my mind in a few seconds after reading the biblical verse. And in those few seconds, though I was to discover this years later, a forgotten crack deepened in the foundation of my religious belief.
Eight years later, I still have the earring. I wear it sometimes.
I talked to my sister the other day (so yeah, yaaay, I also have an older sister) about the scenarios that came so quickly to my mind in that moment, when I was 21. I tried to imagine – and I think, even now, they would go along the same lines. She also tried to imagine what scenarios would’ve crossed her mind had she been in my place. And the super interesting part is that she says what first comes to her mind is someone underlining that verse in indignation, like “oh, c’mon, why would you still leave this kind of stuff lying around here?”.