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I bruise easily

I know: Don’t we all. But I’m not talking psychically. I am speaking of fleshly bruising, which has to do with an inherited minor blood-clotting deficiency, one that my family fondly believed linked us to the Royal Hapsburgs of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; and what surly peasant dare credibly say us nay?

My mother's higher level of this royal deficiency bordered on the disastrous: a minor lesion could produce a major haematoma, even hospitalization.

In my case, a minor knock, one I may barely feel, merely causes lusciously lurid bruising, growing more so each day till it finally begins to fade -- a process that can take weeks, requiring regular sparkly re-explanation.

And so it was with dreary anticipation, on a recent weekend, after bumping forehead-first into the knob of a beach umbrella, that I awaited my third shiner, Black Eye #3, and the consequent roundelay of ribald reaction and rueful rebuttal.

Because my last shiner shone an interesting light on popular perceptions, namely: a female with a black eye is generally believed to have been slugged by a guy.

Black Eye #2, the one pictured herewith, had bloomed most innocently, a few years back, after I walked into the plate glass door of a store on Bloor Street, AKA Toronto's Mink Mile. I'd just wasted a gob of time and money on senseless shopping. Heaven's punishment, I told myself.

Over the next days, the bruise flared from forehead to eye to cheekbone in more and more sinister glory. Boy, did I feel dumb. Even dumber, and weirder, when it turned out that no one believed my walked-into-a-door story.

Out in public, there were gasps, stares of pity and outrage. Women would shake their heads, some would put hand to heart, or raise a sisterly fist.

Boarding a plane to restorative yoga in the Bahamas, a guy in line said to me, "I hope one of us wasn't responsible for that."

(On top of that, when I got home, it was too late to return the overpriced shirt to Zara.)

Paradoxically, Black Eye #1 evoked a different reaction. And it was the one that actually did come from a clout.

It was about a decade ago, in the waning years of a long increasingly turbulent union.

I awoke to that purpling eye one morning after a drearily typical tipsy turbulent night. "Where did this come from?" I asked my mate.

His face tightened. "I hit you," he said. "You were out of control. I had no choice."

Then, "Oh no," he said, "now you'll have that over me forever."

He was a man of many parts, none of which included self-awareness, or any sense that the world was not inhabited solely by half-wits, poseurs, and ill-wishers who needed anger management, and whose mission was to make his life hell. This had come to include family.

The anomaly was that none of our friends in the northern Italian city where we then lived, so much as suspected the truth. Yes, he was known for almost comically volcanic explosions of unreasoning temper. Scatenare nero, they called it. But in this circle of lefty artists and activists, clouting women just did not figure: it would have been incomprehensibly infra dig.

So they all bought my cover story, that I’d walked into the exercise bike in the dead of night. And, believing it a joke, they set to ribbing him uproariously: Ehi, amico, l'hai insegnato chi comanda...hai fatto una bella lezione... Hey, buddy, you showed her who's boss...taught her a good lesson. His simmering ire only prodded them further.

I felt creeped out; tumbled into a different, dark, humiliating place. To escape for a while, I hopped the Milan train to Paris. I would go in search of my untroubled past, seek out the Hotel Stella, home of my early Paris-newsgirl days, keep a diary, start a terrific book.

Parisians notice little but the colour of your cash, so for ten days the colour of my face passed in happy invisibility...

...And now, here I was on the train back home, with a computer file of optimistic notes, the fading mauve of my cheekbone masked in plaster-of-paris makeup...

...I have requested a single-row seat, thinking to sew up my comfort and work on my opus, but such is not life on a European train, not even in 1st class.

First of all, the seat is face to face with the one opposite, a tiny shared table between. And, plunked into my assigned, forward-facing seat -- with one big overflowing bag on the common table, a bigger one under her legs which are spraddled to use the whole leg space for both seats -- is everyone’s worst nightmare: a little old lady. But not little. A very big old lady. In a big blouse with very big flowers. She stares at me with mock deference and a bright brown smile.

In Italian, she flutes: Ah, perhaps this is your seat? The one opposite is really mine, but I have such health problems facing backwards so I took this one but I will move if you wish?

As in: If you have the nerve to abuse a person of my age, obvious infirmity, and even greater nerve.

No no, I tell her, not a problem for me to face backwards. But there is not space for both of us.

Ah, ah, I can go back to my original seat, she says. Even though facing backwards may cause me much discomfort and perhaps even --

Please don't move, the only problem is space; not her fault, I assure her; I can see she needs space, but there isn’t enough…She stares, obstinate and smiling, through big thick glasses.

The train seems empty, she rattles on; I'd be delighted to move, but you never know who will get on at the next stop and there’s no conductor in sight.

I go to look for one. When I return, not having found one, she has moved to her own seat, facing backwards. Ah, no no, she will not, no no no, take the one forward facing. Don't worry about her, she will probably be fine, despite the fear of crippling nausea...

I will just have to move your second bag into the rack, I say. She stiffens. No no, these are her medications. Look, she has pushed the bag under her legs, despite some discomfort to her, there is plenty of room; once she sat that way all the way down south to La Spezia; her son has told her never to be parted from her medications, and she won’t take my seat, thank you, she is just doing what she needs to do, these shifting games are for the young.

The thought of eight hours of this blunts the brain. I assure her I will move. Take myself to a double backward-facing seat across, in a double pair, trucking my own worldly goods from the rack.

Oh, such a heavy bag, and you had to take it down, she sympathizes.. Lei é una persona brava, la ringrazio, povera vecchia che sono, io... such a decent person, to a poor old lady like me...

I settle in, fire up my computer, eager to record this journey, key to my life on so many levels. But a high pitched whirring drills into my brainpan.

Cu-cu, cu-cu! she trills. Hoisting a tiny buzzing blue plastic fan, offering it, to me, though she is sweating herself. It’s a baby thing, it’s not hers, but it works. Did I see all the police on the train, as we got on? Is this America, or what? My, that valise of mine is commodo…she only wishes she still had the strength to pack one so large...But she doesn't want to disturb me, computers are a mystery to her and she understands they are important for the future, although in her time you never ever, in company...

After half an hour of this, I move again, to the double seat behind me. But, Cu-cu, cu-cu! She is standing in the aisle. Placing her big purse on the empty seat next to me, asking me, in French now, please to keep an eye on it for her while she makes pipi.

At last, she has bravely squeezed back into her back-facing seat, fanning and whirring and sweating. Manically, I address myself to my bittersweet memoir...the hotel, then and now; the crusty tartines of yesterday... first sight of the Tournon bar, an outside table, me waiting, for friends Rosette and Scho, to be presented to people from Agence France-Presse, where I was hoping for a tryout...

My lady has been waiting for a break from my offensive typing, and I have made the mistake of letting my eyes wander and lock with hers. Now she leans in. In French, this time, she tells me how extremely extremely dangerous it is to work on computers; all the specialists say so. The young today are having terrible terrible problems. She herself has never used a computer -- although, if I'm understanding correctly, she is herself some sort of health consultant, retired but earning a few sous this way? -- and imagine, she is 80 years old and has never taken an airplane. She would really like to talk to me, I can speak Italian if I prefer -- but she sees she is disturbing me. I seem to have ( have I?) promised to talk to her once I finish what I’m doing.

Reasonless guilt overcomes me. I close down and politely ask where she lives. She is out of her seat and --leaving medications behind -- nimbly plumping into the seat opposite mine. She is Italian, lives in Paris, going to visit her son in Turin; she was married an unbearable number of years to a Frenchman and today it is almost exactly four months to the day that she woke up one morning to find him dead, yes dead beside her, she poked him with her finger thinking he was asleep but no, he was dead, gone, just like that, che brutta storia, mamma mia, si, mamma mia...

By the way, she purrs, suddenly, isn’t that a blue mark under my eye?

She reaches up with a surprisingly beautifully manicured finger, and touches my cheek. I recoil. She doesn't move her finger, holds it there a moment, taps my cheek softly, tenderly.

It's sore, non?....It needs Arnica, you put it on right away and it never turns blue, it goes a bit yellow and disappears within three days. Oh, she knows because she used to get those marks herself. Fist marks, Madonna mia...

Ah, ah, you don’t need to tell her, she cuts off my perky tale of the exercise bike. One time, she would tell a friend she bumped into a door, another that a vase of flowers fell on her, another time -- but then one day the friend said, Come clean, I’m not stupid, I know he’s beating you. Who? Her husband. Si, si, mamma mia, che disgraziato... Ah, the things that are buried deep in the heart. She was a singer, he was a violinist, as good as Yehudi Menuhin. They performed together, he had a band - did I ever see the Xavier Cugat band? No? Peccato, a shame. Her husband took it over, 22 players, and she sang with them, Mexican, Hispanic-type material, they were featured at the Moulin Rouge and… He had had a tumour but it was 20 years ago, they hadn’t thought about it for years, now he’s gone - pouf, like that …

...Ay-ay. Here come the douane, more customs police; watch, they always stop Asiatics, you’ll see. Quite right, you never know, with those kinds of people. She can still sing, just as well as ever, a shame I won't have the chance to hear her. It never goes away, if you have it. But, mamma mia, look at those little brats standing up on the seat; they look like gypsies; those were unwanted children, that’s why they don’t bother disciplining them...

Arnica, for when you bruise! she calls, as I scramble at last to make my stop in Milan. -- Auguri, bonne chance! Ehi, gli uomini, les hommes, que voulez-vous; tutti vigliachi, che cosa vuole... Men, all bastards, what do you expect...

...With last weekend's bump to the head, I hurried to lie back with an ice pack, for a good hour. It ended as a small blue lump, confined to my forehead. Was gone in a week.

Saved! from the reaction-rebut roundelay.

Disappeared; almost like a bruise...and a bruiser held too close, too long, and a blathering bruising sentient old sister under the skin...that never ever happened.


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