“What black eye? I didn’t see a black eye.” My husband sat in the driver’s seat with the map of Colorado spread over the steering wheel. He didn’t even look up. His concern right now was finding a way around Rocky Mountain National Park so we would be out of the mountains before it got dark.
After driving on a two-lane road through miles of a high valley with mountains on both sides, we stopped for lunch in a four-corners town, every building a variation of a log cabin. We walked into the only restaurant, took seats by the window, and the waitress walked over and handed us menus.
She was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt with the name of restaurant on the front. I can’t remember the name now but I remember almost everything else about her. She was blond out of a bottle, hair in a pony tail with weak 80’s bangs, very thin, tan, maybe 40, with a thick mask of make-up that started at her hairline and faded into the neck of her shirt.
It had taken her a long time to put that make-up on; it was layered as if she’d waited for one coat to dry before applying the next. In seconds, I could see why – the ghostly shadow of a very large, deep purple bruise starting at her eyebrow and running down her cheek like one enormous bloody tear. It was major, this black eye.
Because she had taken such pains to cover it, asking about the black eye seemed out of the question. Right away, in my head, I decided that the guy behind the bar with whom I figured she owned the restaurant had taken a swing at her. They were a couple, I thought, and she was stuck her in this tiny mountain town with him, getting abused and having to cover it up, just go on with life as if nothing happened. Put on the make-up and soldier on.
My husband and I ate our lunch and talked strategy about driving around the park. She checked on us a few times and each time, I wondered anew whether she had ever tried to leave. Did she have people here in this town? Where was her family? Where was a shelter for people in domestic violence situations? What were the police like? Were they buddies with the man behind the bar? I thought these things but I didn’t say anything to my husband. Talking about it where people could hear might make matters worse for her.
It wasn’t until we got back in the car that I told him that I thought the waitress had been abused. “We need to do something,” I told him. “Help her. Give her the number of a DV shelter. Something.”
“No, we don’t. We need to figure out how to get out of the mountains. That’s what we need to do. Besides, who says she needs our help?”
She hadn’t. She hadn’t slipped me a note or whispered to me in the hallway to the ladies restroom. There were no furtive looks or signals. She’d served our sandwiches, given us the bill, and that was that.
It was miles before I stopped thinking that we should turn around and go back to help her. But I was stuck on the fact that I had no idea what I would do if we did go back. What would I say to her? Why would she trust me? What did I even know about local resources? More to the point, who was I to rescue her?
In the five years since that trip, I’ve pictured her in my mind as being stuck there in that mountain restaurant, a captive of an abusive partner, waiting tables, covering up new bruises with more make-up, turning away from the piercing looks of women who think they know what’s going on. I’ve wondered if she’s still alive.
It wasn’t until I realized, writing this very essay, that I’d constructed a narrative for her that had no basis in any fact except her efforts to conceal a very bad black eye. I was so quick to make her a victim.
Maybe she had run into a door or been in a car accident. Maybe she had an out of control teenager who came after her when she grounded him. Maybe she’d slid on a puddle of grease on the kitchen floor and hit her head on a warming tray. Who was I to decide the significance of her black eye?
So was she a victim who needed to be rescued? I don’t know. She didn’t ask; I didn’t offer. I just wondered. I still do.