In those days, we were lions
In those days, we were kings
It's not one thing or the other
It's all things all at once
The apartment above the Waterford’s garage is a dank, dark space. Nick lights candles to cover the smell, reminiscent of the basement in his childhood home – mildew, damp concrete. He drags a floor lamp from the bedside to the desk when he needs to write, and back to the bed when he wants to read.
He was allowed to keep his name, his record player. He still owns mementos from his time in the service, as a college student, as a son. Nick has more than most, but he doesn’t have everything.
In Gilead he is only supposed to be one thing at a time.
“Who is this?” June asks. She’s picked up the photograph Nick keeps in a frame on top of the bookshelf.
He fills a glass with water and carries it to the bed, trading it with her for the frame. “My older brother.” He pauses, looking down at the snapshot beneath the glass - the two of them sit in profile, nearly identical heads of thick, dark hair. Nick looks up at June sipping the water. She doesn’t expect him to elaborate further, won’t ask it of him. But he says, “I think he’s dead. He had a husband. Before.”
She reaches out and lightly presses her fingers to his knee.
It pleases him to call her June.
It worries him to call her June.
Nick is fearful he will forget to say Offred in the presence of the Commander or Mrs. Waterford. It tastes sour on his tongue when he’s forced to use it. It leaves a pungent aftertaste.
Once Nick knows her husband is alive he doesn’t expect to see her anymore unless she’s in the backseat of his car or kneeling in wait for the ceremony. It startles him when the door to his room pops open. His hand reaches for where the gun rests on the bedside table until his eyes register June in the darkness.
“Did I scare you?” she asks. The floorboards creak beneath her bare feet.
Nick sits up in bed. The sheet pools around his waist. “No,” he lies. And then, “A little.”
She stops beside the bed.
He has to squint against the glow of her white nightgown. He wants to reach out, bunching the fabric between his fingers, grasping her hips. Nick wants to tug one strap down to June’s elbow and kiss her shoulder, drag his lips along her collarbone and down to her breast. But it feels even more forbidden now.
The mattress dips, squeaks, as June sits on the edge. The palm of her hand scorches Nick’s thigh through the sheet. “I couldn’t decide,” she tells him. “If I should or not.”
“In here it’s… a different place,” June says. “A different life.”
Nick pushes his hand toward her, stops short of touching her.
“I’m not going to lie. I want to be with my husband again, Nick. Our daughter. But if I have to be here for another day, another year… I don’t want to not feel-”
He leans forward, resting his head against hers. “I understand.”
He doesn’t ask exactly what happens between her and the Commander whenever she is summoned to his office. Nick knows that June brushes her teeth, scrubs the inside of her mouth, between leaving the Commander’s office and arriving in his apartment above the garage. He can taste the mint, and she kisses him with such tenderness – erasing whatever memory there is of forced affection.
Nick picks up the book June was reading from the previous night. She left it open, facedown, on the window seat.
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He starts reading. ‘You'll find another.’ God! Banish the thought. Why don't you tell me that 'if the girl had been worth having she'd have waited for you'? No, sir, the girl really worth having won't wait for anybody.
He touches his fingertips to the page the way June does, lovingly drawing a line under each word as she reads.
What he wants is to see her free. He wants to save her and to be saved by her. Nick wants to live in a world where June can be his wife and he her husband. He wants her to find her daughter and reunite her family. To be happy.
He wants to be an Eye – to have inside knowledge, to have the trust of the Commander. Nick wants to use what he knows and what he learns to aid in the resistance. But he doesn’t know how much longer he can stand to play two parts. He can’t love June and continue to watch her suffer.
Gilead is a nation of few words.
Nick has had to convey You can trust me to June by remaining calm and kind in her presence. He shuts the car door quietly. Winks at her when he steals a cookie behind Rita’s back.
He tells her I’m falling in love with you in the way he rests his head on her chest, his fingers splayed across her stomach, and he taps out the rhythm her heart beats against her skin.
He hasn’t figured out how to tell June that he is a double agent. That he could put her in even more danger by bringing her into the resistance. That he could arrange an escape attempt that would send her away from him and possibly back to her husband. Nick wants her to know everything. He wants June to have the choice. But more than anything he wants her alive.
She finds an old textbook on the shelf. It’s marked up in Nick’s adolescent scrawl. The cover is a map of Spain and Bienvenido in thick, orange letters across the front. “I took two years of Spanish,” June says. “Don’t remember much.”
Nick rolls onto his side, facing her. Her nightgown is hiked above her right knee and he stretches to kiss her there.
“My husband can speak French. Do you know any?”
He holds his breath in his lungs. “M’aidez.”
June drops the book to her lap. “W-what did you say?”
Nick maneuvers onto his knees. “M’aidez.”
She climbs up onto her knees and falls against him, her arms winding around his waist. He holds her and they both exhale loudly, with relief. It feels like salvation. It feels like hope.