The thing about black eyes is that they don't hurt as badly as they look. I got my first one just a week short of thirteen, right before my period came. I remember being horrified at school because my face looked like it could've done with a Pirate's patch to hide it, despite the fact that the pain barely registered even when I touched the puffy eyelid, and because I thought the attention that my black eye attracted would surely make everyone somehow see that I'm bleeding somewhere else in my body. The unfortunate accessory on my face was put there by the smallest member of our family, Derby, who was too young to even know what he'd done. All he'd wanted was a simple hug but his head was still too heavy for his tiny body so it, more often than not, simply crashed onto and into things. That's my little brother, too full of love and affection to keep still long enough to avoid trouble.
Derby earned his name from this city because he was born the same month we moved here and my mum considered it a welcome sign and decided we'd be happier here than back in Long Whatton where she and my dad had first settled. I am the only child who's still holding a Polish passport as both my sister and brother were born in this country. Elena is almost five now and Derby will be one next summer.
"Eat your breakfast, no playing around the table," my mum scolds at both of them while they're smearing large chunks of oatmeal across each other's mouths, playing dragons or whatnot. Elena probably initiated it. She's like that. She can be difficult for all of us. My mum keeps saying that all the attention seeking and loud singing over telly in the evenings will eventually go away, that she'll grow out of it, but I don't believe that. I kind of hate-love her. I mean, she can be a real monster and a darling all in one day.
She was the one who got me my second black eye last night. We were playing with her Barbies in our room after I got back from school when mum came in and asked if we wanted lemonade. My mum loves to make all sorts of drinks. At first she was trying out all the age old Polish recipes she'd learned from her babcia, then she started downloading ideas online and lately I think she's just into throwing random things in a big jug, adding ice and the one ingredient that never changes -- lemon -- and continuously reminding herself and us that when life gives you lemons you make them into lemonade. This time it was a mix of pine-apple (my mum till calls it ananas around the house), orange, basil and lemon. There might've been some honey or sugar as well since the cold liquid tasted sweet and delicious. I gulped down a big glass while Elena began sipping at it like an imaginary princess that she was (sometimes she herself kind of looks like a Barbie). I told her to hurry up and get back to our room but she wouldn't budge and even started biting at the edge of the glass. I yelled for her to stop but she went into her monster mode, rasped up her voice and pronounced the glass her next prey. And that's when it happened - I reached for her hand, the one that was holding the glass, to snatch it from her while she stretched out her other hand and got me good, probably adding all the force she had in her skinny body. My face swelled up instantly but there was no time to worry about that because Elena had bitten a large piece out of her glass and swallowed it. My mum saw it as an accident; if you ask me, it was a moment-decision-slash-plan of a five year old who's starving to be the center of attention. I mean, nothing happened, other than my dad rushing in and grabbing her by the ankles and shaking her head down, my mum shouting for her to vomit it back out and crying, and Derby screaming his heart out back in his crib. But Elena kept it in -- both the glass and her pride.
To this moment, I've been waiting for it to break inside of her and cause at least some pain so she'd understand what it's like to co-exist with her in the same room, same house, same family. Half of my left eye is thunder blue and serves as an embarrassing reminder of our failed Barbiedom while she's all smiles and cheers and probably has already forgotten all about it. That's my little sister Elena, too full of herself to keep it to herself.
This time it takes less time to heal. And this time I've also grown wiser and know to use a concealer and powder so the morning I meet Michael, he notices only the blues inside my eyes and not around them. It's a shitty morning, other than Michael I mean, the sky looks low and threatening with storm when I run down Green Lane to get a formula and pancake batter for our Sunday breakfast. I also have a big test the next day so my mind is preoccupied and I don't even hear him the first time he says something. Or maybe I do but my conscience is too reluctant to believe that it was directed at my back. We're standing and waiting to pay when he repeats the same pick-up line -- Hey, Duck. If you were a vegetable you'd be a cute-cumber! I smile to myself but don't turn around at first. When I finally do turn, all ready with a snappy reply and what did you just call me, I get stunned by how nice he looks. Like literally nice. I know people call other people nice all the time, but Michael's face is so open and calm, void of any particular intentions or judgment, intent and yet aloof, big brown eyes filled with fire and kindness all at once. The only thought I have at that moment is that he would never bite his glass, or me, and that also he's the nicest good-looking guy that's spoken to me.
We reach the cashier and pay for our goods; he helps me pack my two items and tells me his name. Then we head out and start slowly walking back to Green Lane. When he asks if I live on this street I nod but am not surprised when he explains that he's from another part of the city. I would've seen him around before. He asks me how long I've lived here and when he learns that we've nearly just moved here, his face widens with a smile.
"Oh Duck, be said. I'll show you round. It's gerrin a bit black ower Bill's Motha's now but how's tomorrow?"
"OK," I mutter back and wonder why he keeps calling me a duck and who's Bill and Motha. "But I have school all day."
"Meet here after?"
I nod again.
He turns to leave but then swings his head back and shouts after me, "Ey up! What's your name, duck?"
I force myself to look down the entire walk home, the crumbly red brick walls zipping by like worn down pieces of a Montessori puzzle.
The next day the air is filled with tiny rain drops that a curly blonde in my class keeps calling mizzle. I'm running down Green Lane, trying to save my hair from the destiny of frizz, when a car pulls up, the passenger window barely open, a familiar smile inside. He opens the door for me and when I get in, he keeps looking at me quietly, nice written all over just like the day before, eyes liquid with attention.
"Ey up, duck," he finally says and I break eye contact. "How's school?"
He drives me round for a while. When we finally stop at McDonalds all the way on Wyvern Way, he takes out his mobile and a fifty and tells me to get whatever I want, so long I bring him a double cheeser and chocolate shake. I run inside but keep gazing back at him through the windowed wall. I've no idea what kind of car he's driving but seeing how easily he swerves around the streets he must be a good deal older than eighteen - the answer to why he's so nice - he's lived and learned the good manners. When I sit back in my passenger's seat and hand him his food, he asks me where my accent's from. I tell him about my Polish passport and how both my siblings were born here and that I don't even really remember anything other than the UK, he nods knowingly and says, "Dunna wittle! We're all immigrants here, duck."
I look out the window while I chew my burger, fighting the urge to ask him about his age, worried he might guess mine if I ask. Though, it's hard to remember a time I was this comfortable with someone. Back home is always noise and Elena's constant needs and bouts, and my brother's constant crying and first attempts at walking that require never ending watching and picture-taking. My parents have become mere shadows of care and support between the two of them while I'm simply invisible. At times if feels as if I've stopped existing between at all. Would they even notice if I didn't come home on time? Or at all?
"This where I work." He pulls into a large parking lot. "Ever been to iPro before?" His question sounds more rhetorical than quizzical. We get out of the car and he starts talking in his strange language about all the teams and games that have either played or scored, or both, here. I fall in step by his side but feel my head spinning with all the jumbled terms and expressions, so when he pushes me against the wall to kiss me, I feel grateful for the silence.
My arms drop by my sides like floppy parts of a string puppet and aside from keeping my mouth open and trying to breathe through my noise in order to breathe at all, I've no clue what to do. His fingers gradually slide under my shirt until I feel a strange sensation of tickling and instant disgust and push him away.
"Sorry," he mutters. "You're just so cute today." It kind of sounds strange to hear him say cute - like he picked it up the same place where the cute-cumber line came from. Like maybe it's not his own. His eyes have grown darker and for a moment he doesn't look as nice.
The next time we meet is unplanned and unexpected. I spot his car through the Biology lab window parked right outside the school but when I walk out to ask him what he's doing here, it's gone. I cross the street and look both ways but it's like it was never there. I go back in and get my coat, take my bag and leave the bleak building for the day when I see him again, this time pulling up right beside me. We're five blocks from Green Lane and he offers to drive me home, but when I sit down and pull the seatbelt, he picks up his phone and says, "Supwiyo?" There's a long pause and a bunch of nodding and he finally hangs up and starts driving. "Gotta go to my friend's house first. Ey, duck?"
I nod, not knowing what else to do and not having enough courage to ask more about it. Turns out his friend lives on the other side of the city, not far from iPro stadium. He parks the car and caresses my hair, "You look cute today, duck." He leans over the gear shift and kisses me, his tongue adding extra moisture to the insides of my mouth.
The get-together is in a bright red house with a very white door and window frames. It must be the only street in Derby that still has green leafy trees lined up at this time of the year. We walk in and I instantly recognize a girl from my class, a friend of the curly blonde mizzle girl. She's usually quiet and pouty but looks wide-eyed and happy vegged in between two older boys on a leather sofa. The instant she sees me, she waves for me to come over.
"Gosh, fancy seeing you here," she shouts over the loud music and hands me a glass of something clear in it. I'm not as naïve to think it's water but not taking a drink is also not an option.
"Is that your boyfriend?" She blushes at Michael. "He's a doll." I look over at him with an unfamiliar sense of acquisition and for a moment feel like I finally belong somewhere. I've found one place that is only mine, that neither Elena nor Derby will ever invade, and my mum doesn't even need to know about.
When he drives me home, I remain quiet and calm. Never in my life have I ever stared at my knees with such feigned and uninterrupted scrutiny but what else was I supposed to do. Not like I can look up at him and simply ask. They did what they did because that's what boys do to girls who are old enough to have boyfriends, obviously. And I'm old enough to know that if I want to keep hanging out with Michael, I must be old enough to let them do those things to me. He parks a block away from my street and takes my hand in his, "Ey duck, need to let you out here. No parking further down Green."
I'm not sure I know what he's talking about but, then again, nobody's ever dropped me off before my house either. He leans across the gear shift and kisses me, this time more tenderly, less tongue. Then caresses my hair and lets go of my hand. I step out and walk down my street trying to keep my legs steady. At home everyone's seated at the table, sharing a bowl of spaghetti and a tall pitcher of cucumber-paprika-lemon water set in the middle. Elena's face is smeared with sauce, either on purpose as a game or because she's a sloppy eater. Derby's quiet for once. And my mum and dad seem to be taken by a loud argument about the ongoing refugee crisis. My mum is a firm believer that they're people, we're all people, just like everybody else and they deserve to live anyplace safe they can find. While my dad thinks there might be rebels among them and we shouldn't simply accept anyone in this country. My mum shouts at him that they, too, were immigrants once. Still are. Aside from Elena and Derby, perhaps.
I inspect my reflection in the hallway mirror. The last black eye is gone. Maybe you need a black eye as a token that your pain is real. People rarely believe in the invisible.
The following weeks Michael picks me up from school every single day. Most times he simply pulls up while I cut corner from my school, or sometimes as soon as I turn on Green Lane. He's very good at timing, I realize. Keeps track on my schedule and classes. Keeps asking about my family and siblings. Laughs at my jokes that I've started telling. Mostly silly lines I learn at school or online. Like, did you hear about the Polak who thought his wife was trying to kill him because he found her bottle of Polish Remover? Or why do Polish police cars have stripes on the side? So that the cops could find the handles.
Some of those afternoons we drive to the same McDonalds on Wyvern Way for some food and others we go back to the same party house, where I follow him and his friends upstairs and let them do their thing. I mostly don't feel it anymore. I've learned that if I relax completely it doesn't hurt as much or, if they're small then maybe at all. I keep my head low on the rides home and hope he decides to quit these parties some time soon. My mum always says about my dad that a man cannot be changed, that a woman who loves him needs to accept that. I don't know if I love Michael but I'm sure trying to accept him.
And then sharp pains bellow my belly button wake me up one night. I stumble out of my bed only to discover I've been bleeding badly all over the sheets. I know I need to do something about it, but what? It's not the time for a period now and I'm not sure where it's coming from. Or if I can die from bleeding on the carpet. I shove a tampon in but my body is shaking wildly with fear and confusion. I need to get to a doctor but what can I say? Did you hear about the Polak in pain? She had too many periods.
I lay unmoving on a towel that I've set on the floor next to my bed until the sun rises and then text Michael to pick me up. I meet him the same spot he picked me up the first time we met and explain that it hurts a lot and I think something's wrong. He closes the car door and says, "Dunna wittle, duck! Just don't make my car clouty. Will get you cleaned up soon." He doesn't wait for me to answer and starts driving rather fast.
I feel a surge of anxiety rising since it's a school day and I don't have my things and I skipped out without as much as an explanation to my parents, though I did manage to get most of the blood cleaned up and out of the sheets.
He drives for a long time and as far as I can tell in circles, claiming he doesn't know where the entrance of the private clinic he knows is located. When we finally stop and he parks his car on a residential street, alike the one with the party house, my feet go ice cold. Forcing my hands to not shake I push the door open and I step out of the car. I nod at him meekly while he's looking at the building numbers and look down the street both directions to pick the one that looks closer to an intersection. And start walking fast.
I can hear him running after me somewhere behind but I can't stop. It must be an animal instinct for survival that I've been missing all these weeks. Or my head is finally catching up with what my body is going through. Or I simply need to be visible again.
"Izabella, don't be boz-eyed. Wait up!" But I keep going, suddenly unable to remember what nice looked like on his face anymore.
I put one foot in front of another even when I reach a wide motorway at the end of the residential street where there's a policeman writing someone a speeding ticket. What does a Policeman say to the Polak when she's in pain? Where's your evidence, ma'am?
Without faltering much, or rather out of sheer fear that Michael might get to me first, I grab the officer's shoulder and pull on his uniform. When he turns to look at me angrily, I inhale as deep as I can, close my eyes and fight against the deep shudders in my belly because this is going to hurt in so many more places before it can stop hurting at all. And then I do it. The one thing I should have done long ago. I throw a punch that's bigger than any thirteen year old Polak might dare at the police officer. Because sometimes a black eye on an innocent person is the only proof that the pain is real. Because a black eye is visible.
Julie Parks has published fiction and nonfiction in The Baltic Times, Veto, The Quill Magazine, Jerry Jazz Musician, daCunha, New Pop Lit, The Same and Best New Writing anthology. Her story “Cotton Candy on Alto Sax” won Jerry Jazz Musician short fiction contest in November 2017 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. And “Off-springs” was longlisted for the Stirling Publishing short story competition in January 2018.