Part pitied, part scorned

The woman at the SPCA pretended to be rearranging the bags of dog food behind her when I asked her what the date was.

“It’s the ninth,” she said, standing up and looking at me squarely. “Today is Women’s Day.” There was something about the emphasis in that sentence that told me she had noticed. I signed the release form, smiled and walked to the car with our new dog.

In the rear-view mirror, I checked my face. The bruise was still there, only now the violet ring under my eye was highlighted with a few delicate swirls of mustard-yellow.

I had a black eye. It was Women’s Day. I almost felt sorry for myself.

Three days before, I had wrestled our other mutt Joey into the car and hurtled off to the vet, convinced he was suffering another bout of biliary. He had been listless and sleepy, and I had found a couple of turgid grey ticks on him. I just wanted to be sure.

In the vet’s room, I helped heave him on to the examining table, and held him down while the good doc swabbed his ear to take a blood sample.

That’s when Joey delivered a head-butt any Rohypnol-pushing bouncer would have been proud of. Thwack! His bony, egghead connected with my left cheekbone, and I staggered backwards, feeling a little woozy, a throbbing lump heating up my eye.

“It’s okay,” I smarted, as the assistant handed me an ice pack and made sympathetic gestures. “It’s actually quite exotic,” I laughed. “I’ve never had a black eye before. It’s cool.”

Two days later, as my husband and I sat at a beach café for breakfast, I wished I could eat those words. As our meals arrived, my husband had to answer an urgent business call, so I smilingly put salt and pepper on his food and unwrapped his knife and fork, thinking that at least he could nibble at his eggs while he nattered about effluent. The table of women next to us looked vaguely aghast, and I realised what they must have thought: I was a subservient, abused wife who would undoubtedly receive a punch to the other eye if I didn’t obey my man.

Ironically, the only thing my husband punches is my flock of invoices and bills, which he kindly and uncomplainingly files into a pretty pink folder.

Being a woman with a black eye is excruciating. Suddenly, people who were chatty at work start avoiding eye contact and women at the Spar cast sidelong glances and whisper to their husbands.

When the beggar with the blue eyes asked me for money, and then stopped and asked me what had happened to my eye, I told him my dog had head-butted me. He looked concerned and leaned in closer. “Are you sure?” he whispered conspiratorially, forgetting about the money.

And with so many people doubting my somewhat bizarre explanation — falling down the stairs or walking into a door would probably seem more plausible — I began to feel a weird pall of shame, as though I were somehow lying. And the more I hastened to explain to people, the worse it became, and I began to stumble over my story.

My husband thought it was very funny. I didn’t.

“It’s okay for you,” I said. “If you have a black eye, people automatically assume you were hit while playing squash, or you fell off your mountain bike, or you fought off a drunk cretin, or you were playing indoor soccer. But when a woman has a black eye, it’s somehow inconceivable that she acquired it through riding a bike or being in a judo competition or falling off a mountain. Or being head-butted by a scrawny Africanis.”

Truth is, a woman with a rainbow of colours around her eye is part pitied, part scorned, as though she were trouble.

And driving back from the dog pound on Women’s Day, I thought about the thousands of women who do wear the welts and wounds of domestic abuse, and how they not only have to endure the physical and emotional pain of that violence, but must then suffer another round of beating and shrinkage when they venture into society.

I was lucky. My shiner was from a real dog who, it turns out, doesn’t have biliary. Others receive theirs from sick dogs of another sort.

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