A week ago, I did something stupid: I ran upstairs carrying an armload of laundry and a cup of hot tea while talking on the phone. Yep, efficiently multitasking. At the top step, though, I tripped and went flying headlong into the door frame at the top of the stairs. I got a nasty lump on my head but didn’t pass out or vomit, so I figured I might have a skull fracture but wasn’t concussed.
Then, four days after the accident, I woke up with a black eye. Here’s the thing about nasty lumps on your head: the bruising migrates. In this case, the blood seeped downward and collected around my left eye. It was pretty terrifying to look at—violent blue at first, then magenta, then green and violet. Right now it’s green, plum, and yellow, a true shiner, like the kind they would have put a cold steak on if I were a boxer in the 1950’s.
I still didn’t bother seeing a doctor or going to the ER, since I didn’t have any brain injury symptoms—no vomiting, no dizziness, no double vision. And I’m a working mom, so hey, who has time for the ER anyway?
Besides, I was headed to Maine on a writer’s retreat to finish my new novel in a town where I knew no one. For three days, the only times I ventured away from my desk were for food, a walk, or to browse in a couple of shops. Oh, and once I went to a corner store for some pain reliever because my head felt like it was stuffed with cotton, or maybe blood, and my eye was puffy.
Now here’s the interesting thing: Not one person asked me how I got the black eye. Not the waitresses or the bartender, not the clerks behind the counters in the shops. Certainly not the gas station attendant. Nobody asked. In fact, most people just kept their eyes averted from my face.
Well, it’s Maine, I decided. This is northern New England, home of stoic people who don’t mind ten months of winter. These people don’t ask and don’t tell. Surely, I thought, when I go home to civilized Massachusetts, people will ask why my face is bruised.
At home this week, I’ve done the usual routine. I drove my son to and from the bus stop, went to the grocery store, did volunteer work at our local library. And you know what? Only one person—one person in the three days since I’ve been back from Maine—has asked about my eye.
All of this made me remember another time, years ago, when I lived in a different neighborhood and frequently took walks with another young mother. A few times, I noticed that she had a black eye or bruises. I never asked how she got them. She seemed happy and we were busy talking about other things.
We lived half a mile from each other. I invited this woman into my house a couple of times, but she never once invited me into hers. Her husband worked at home, she explained, and he couldn’t concentrate when there was noise. I understood. “I like to work when it’s quiet, too,” I told her.
Then, one day when I stopped by, my friend was gone. Vanished. Disappeared. Weeks later, I finally found out from another neighbor what had happened: my walking companion had been beaten up so badly by her husband, she had to be rushed to the hospital. The beatings had been going on for years, but it was only after that man put her in the hospital that she got up the courage to leave him—and the country.
“It’s never good manners to comment on a woman’s appearance unless you’re going to compliment her,” my grandmother taught me. “That’s just bad manners.” Yet now, walking around with my own black eye, everyone has such good manners that I feel invisible. And I wonder what would have happened if I’d asked my neighbor about her bruises.
Maybe she would have lied and said she ran into a door. Or maybe, if I’d asked, she would have said she needed help.
The next time I see a woman with bruises, I will not let her be invisible. I will say, “Are you all right? What happened?” Then I will offer a hand if she reaches for it.