Noses. We all got ’em. We all use ’em. We’re usually looking right at them, but our brains filter them out. We end up looking right past them.
I forget about my nose a lot. I forget about most of my physical form when I’m not consciously using it. Every time I look in the mirror, I’m a little surprised to see that I have a corporeal form at all, let alone this particular one.
When I was a kid, I was completely indifferent to my appearance. When puberty hit, awareness of my appearance did too, and it did so with enough force to leave some scars. Since then, I’ve been gradually growing accustomed to my face and body. Now, even though I don’t look at them all that regularly, when I do see them in the mirror, they’re familiar. This adjustment has happened pretty smoothly and linearly for every physical feature except my nose. While my face has been pretty much the same since my skull stopped growing around puberty, my nose has changed a lot.
I’ve broken my nose eight times.
I don’t even remember most of them, honestly. In my most vivid memory of breaking my nose, I’m four years old. It’s the first pretty day of summer. The sky is blue and the air is warm. My family’s on a picnic, my mom and baby sister looking at clouds, my dad teaching me how to play Frisbee. He has me throw it to him, adjusting the angle of my wrist, the trajectory of my arm, until eventually I can get it into the air for more than a second.
“Good, Elise, really good,” he says, all smiles. He’s always been an athlete and an outdoorsman, and he’s excited to be passing those passions on to his oldest daughter. He doesn’t yet know that he will have three daughters who will all avoid physical exertion like the plague. “They just aren’t ball sport kids,” my mom told him years later with perfect sincerity, with no trace of irony or humor.
“Let’s practice catching!” He’s teaching me to play Frisbee with the tenderness, patience, and boyish excitement with which he taught me put on my tiny toddler socks and, many years later, to drive. He throws the Frisbee, gently and deliberately, but I don’t catch it. He backs up to give the Frisbee more space to travel, and me more time to watch its flight path, and throws it again. I don’t catch it. He backs up more and throws it hard and fast to compensate for the increased distance, and it hits my nose and shatters it. As an adult, I still get nervous around Frisbees and other flying objects, thanks to some evolutionary mechanism designed to teach me to avoid the things that hurt me. It’s not a very effective one; three years after my nose was broken by the Frisbee, it was broken by a dodgeball.
My dad packed our family into the car and drove to the hospital. He still grimaces, recalling having to tell a receptionist, then a nurse, then a doctor that he’d broken his toddler’s nose with a Frisbee. He felt awful. He felt even worse because this wasn’t his first time taking me to the emergency room with a broken nose. The first time, I was two, and I slammed it into a dresser. The doctor reassured him that my twice-broken nose wasn’t a result of negligent parenting or his powerful throwing arm. My nose was still weak from the first time I’d broken it. Each time I broke it, its threshold for the amount of force necessary to break it again lowered a little bit.
The last time I broke my nose, when I was about thirteen, a nose doctor addressed my nose’s fragility. He told me it would be a good idea to get surgery on it when I turned sixteen, just to shave off some of the cartilage and straighten my septum so I would be less prone to sinus infections and less vulnerable to future breaks. At thirteen, I thought this was a marvelous idea, because I thought my nose was a gigantic monstrosity and wanted it gone. My mom didn’t approve. An invasive nose surgery sounded, to her, unnecessary and shallow, especially since she thought I wanted it for the wrong reasons. I did, but at the time, they seemed righteous enough.
“I’ve broken my nose EIGHT TIMES,” I wailed at her in the car on the way home from the nose doctor.
“Don’t be dramatic,” she told me. “That’s basically the same as having broken it three times. After that point, it’s just so darn fragile it’ll break if you sneeze wrong. It looks fine, and it’ll still look fine. Honey, you’re gorgeous.”
“At this rate, I’ll have broken my nose sixteen times by the time I’m twenty-six,” I bawled, “IF I LIVE TO TWENTY-SIX!”
“That’s assuming linear growth,” my dad chimed in, “and it’s probably exponential.” My mom shot him a look as I howled with despair.
When I was thirteen, my nose was a source of agony. So was most of my face, body, and personality. Being thirteen is agonizing. At least my nose had the power to change. I just had to wait three years. By the time I reached sixteen, however, I’d grown so attached to my nose that the prospect of cutting it down seemed rather like the idea of shrinking six inches in height. I didn’t particularly love my disproportionate snout or my 5’11” stature, but at that point I felt like I knew who I was, and I knew they were a part of me. I was learning to like myself and my nose, and I wasn’t ready to give that up.
My nose, like many of the things I learned to like about myself during adolescence, was something I already saw and loved in my mom. She also has a broken nose, though she’s only broken it once, which, as I like to remind her, is pretty tame. The comment I get on my nose most often is actually “you have your mother’s nose!”, because our noses share their defining feature, the bump. Our noses are actually probably genetically identical, even though their definitive bumps aren’t genetic at all. My dad’s nose, which my sister inherited, is angular and rigid, a perfect triangle like that of a Roman statue. My mom’s is soft and squishy at the end, like mine. It’s not quite big enough to call bulbous, but it’s heading in that direction. If neither of us had ever broken our noses, we would still have the same nose–it would just look totally different. If she’d broken her nose and I never had, we would look much less alike. That fact helped me come to terms with my nose during my teen years. I didn’t like my nose, but I liked my mom’s nose, and I liked matching it. If my mom had my nose, it couldn’t be that bad after all.
Like anything else that wrinkles regularly, it’s starting to permanently crease. It’s got the wrinkles and creases resulting from twenty years of expressions. It’s got some weird pigmentation, the ghosts of pimples past. It dribbles and runs without stopping every May through July, allergy season, when grass pollen rules the air and my nose. I wipe it on tissues, sleeves, forearms, and it chafes, turning angry, red, and brittle. It’s got a bump resulting from eight breaks. We’ve both led long, storied lives, over the course of which we’ve grown, changed, and replaced every cell within us. We’ve both acted on the world and had it act on us. Our fates are linked. I’ve certainly made my mark on it, but it’s made its mark on me, too.