It’s usually children and foreigners who ask: those who have no sense of propriety or privacy, or those who consider Westerners too uptight about all the wrong things, and, paradoxically, not uptight enough about others. The waiter at the Indian restaurant sympathetically gestures toward his own, toast-colored nose and inquires in heavily accented English, “Oooh… what happened?” The Palestinian gas station attendant, his hands wrapped in heavy woolen mittens, points vaguely and asks, “That hurt?”
Today, I smiled broadly at a pint-sized preschooler watching me from his mother’s grocery cart, but my friendliness wasn’t reciprocated. The child was perhaps three or four, dressed in a miniature plaid hunting jacket, and dark, tightly curled hair crowned his head like a button mushroom cap. He was swinging his winter boots dangerously close to the shelved bottled ketchup. But as his wide eyes fully took me in, his dangling legs quit their motion and he stared, stone-faced. He pointed at his own nose and frowned. Our conversation was silent and wordless: “What happened to your nose?” the boy seemed to ask suspiciously, his shiny dark eyes fixed on the center of my face. “I have a boo-boo,” I communicated back silently. “You look weird,” he summates, narrowing his gaze as if to say, “I don’t know who you are or where you came from, lady, but don’t take a step closer.”
Later, at the checkout, a teenage girl runs my things through the scanner and then, as she looks up to relay the price to me, startles and interrupts herself. “Whoa!” she asks. “What happened to you?” I’ve never met this girl before, but she asks as if she is surprised by the change in me, as if she’s slightly offended that I didn’t mention something before now. I’m instantly embarrassed and laugh a little nervously, “Oh, it’s nothing really,” I say, forcing a casual tone. “It’s just a… a cut.” A cut? From what? I imagine her wondering. From a fall? From shaving? Just what would necessitate a flesh-colored bandage that large, splayed across the bridge of a nose and spilling onto the cheeks?
The check-out girl studies me for a few seconds, and I can almost see her brain working. She’s taller than I am, with blue eyes, dirty-blond hair that falls to her shoulder, and a deep tan — even though it’s mid-winter in Boston and the sky is gray. Her lips are full and shellacked with a translucent pink lip gloss — so shiny that it looks as though a tiny Zamboni had driven over them and slicked up the surface.
I was about to dismiss her as the kind of pretty, popular girl I would have instinctively disliked in high school when suddenly a thought seemed to occur to her, and she knotted her eyebrows in some concern. She said in a bright, helpful tone, “Well, at least you have sort of a pretty face, so it doesn’t look that bad. It could be worse, you know, like if you were really ugly AND your nose looked like that. I mean, THAT would be awful,” she said. She paused, then added kindly, “Well, wouldn’t it?”
I nodded and handed her my credit card, admitting that it probably would: “Well, thanks,” I said, expressing gratitude as much for her kind intentions as for the receipt. The girl was right, though, she had a point. My nose will heal. In fact, it is healing. The skin cancer is gone, the skin graft to repair the gouge it left behind is taking. Unlike a few weeks ago, I’m back to eating solid food, and walking unsupported, and showering without fear of blacking out and hitting my head on the tile. I’m back to driving carpool, and working at my job, and walking the dogs, and, when Saturday night comes around, pulling the cork on a really nice bottle of red, and doing all of the other things that grown-ups enjoy doing.
My life has slowly returned, for the most part, to normal, except for the fact that this bandage crisscrosses the bridge of my nose like the police tape at a recent crime scene. “Do Not Cross,” it cries. “There’s some bad shit went down here.”
The bandage is banner that signals unrest, as if my nose has unfurled a defiant political sign from its perch. Something is different about me; something is broken and wrong.
I guess everyone has a story. Your friends know it, and so does your family. But the softest, most vulnerable bits of your story are usually private, hidden from strangers. You might spill it out in a bar over a bottle of tequila, or you might, in one of those moments of sudden intimacy, choose to share parts of it with someone who seems to get it. But for the most part, your story belongs to you.
I like it that way, in fact. I’ve lived decades with a tiny sentry posted at the doorway to my inner world whose job it is to protect me from emotional intruders — therapists, pastors, New Age counselors, the kinds of exhaustingly helpful people who believe in probing the confines and hauling whatever they find there out into the harsh light of day. There is healing in airing things out, in talking everything through, they believe. I’ve sometimes sat in their offices, attempting to convert myself to their way of thinking. But I always held a part of myself back; it’s just not me.
A few years ago, when my daughter was a Brownie Girl Scout, she wore a vest emblazoned with all the patches she has earned that spelled out the skills she had attained: A cloth patch of a tiny gray-haired grandmother rendered in thread said she was a regular visitor to a nursing home, while a miniature blaze circled by stones signaled her proficiency at building a campfire. I liked the idea of those patches sewn onto that vest, and the way that, when worn, they acted as a kind of shorthand for your abilities and accomplishments. The inclusion of certain patches acts as a kind of introduction to those around you about what makes you tick and, by the omission of other patches, what’s lacking.
I wonder whether we could learn a thing or two from the Girl Scouts, and institute a kind of national uniform that, when worn, might signal our own strengths and weaknesses to others. I imagined myself wearing a vest with a miniature pen rendered in thread (“Oh, so you’re a writer?” a stranger might ask on approach), and perhaps a tiny batch of muffins (“So you like to bake?”), or a tiny potato on a miniature couch (“Ah! A homebody!”). And other things, too: A miniature broken heart patch for the rougher parts of my relationships, a small green monster for my tendency to form petty jealousies, or a tiny inflexible ruler to signal my controlling tendencies. Taken together, our vests could tell a wordless story of each of us.
But the idea of a kind of emotional Brownie vest runs counter to my core, and so I considered it with a kind of titillation, in the way that a drunk might momentarily ponder a life of sobriety. (“Think of the money I’ll save that I’d otherwise spend on booze! And the time when I could be productive instead of passed out, sleeping it off! Imagine!”) But just as quickly, I reject it as ragtime crazy talk. In my family, we aren’t the kind of people who go around sharing our story with strangers. Traditionally, we offer only the best and most appealing parts of ourselves to our friends and neighbors.
Sometimes, we took vast care to cultivate our tale, and protect the most vulnerable parts of ourselves: My father wore a carefully pressed suit and tie when he left for his office every day. And when he was fired from his job — again — he dressed with the same careful precision when he went to stand in line at the unemployment office, because, my mother said, it was a kind of uniform that separated him from the losers there.
“Your father isn’t like those other bums,” my mother told me, when I asked why he bothered to don a fresh shirt and tie just to fill out more forms and to collect a meager check, then circle through the hot dog place for lunch and count the hours before returning home again. He arrived as close to the usual dinner hour as he could, so as not to raise the suspicion of neighbors. I didn’t argue with her, but I still I couldn’t help but wonder whether it was more of a costume than a uniform. Was my own hilarious and brilliant father, who lost three jobs in a decade because, at some point in each case, he stopped showing up to work sober, really all that different? And if so, well… how?
My bandaged nose is my latest story, writ large, and the first I’ve been forced to share against my will, to wear — literally, now — as a patch for all the world to see. In a practical sense, it makes me reluctant to interact with folks: to go out to dinner, or even to shop among strangers with my kid. But standing before the teenage cashier in the store, whose hopeful smile conveys only compassion and concern, makes me reconsider whether I’ve wrongly cast some roles in my story. I’m suddenly grateful to the girl for acknowledging the bandage on my nose. Yes, it’s embarrassing when people mention it. But it’s more embarrassing still when they don’t. It’s worse when they see it, look away, and change the subject. Maybe I’m older and a little bit wiser, or maybe I’m just feeling sheepish that I had read this girl all wrong. But whatever the case, it’s excruciating to pretend that nothing is wrong.
This insight calms me rather than upsets me, and reminds me that people, for the most part, are less mean-spirited and malicious than they are empathetic and kind. That’s something that the cashier, and kids, and others seem to know instinctively.
Me, it’s taking longer. Understanding that all of this is only temporary. A single moment in time.
As my mother would say, waiting dinner on the stove for my Dad, as she sighed into her gimlet, “This, too, shall pass.” Then she’d take a long drag on her Tarryton, blow the smoke over her shoulder, and address me, saying, “Right, Pussycat?” I looked up from my plate of boiled macaroni. “Uh-huh,” I’d agree, never knowing quite what it was, exactly, that would be passing.
But looking back, I think I understand what my mother meant: There are few wounds that don’t heal. Eventually. The world spins. The planets realign. And somewhere, silently, another patch is added to another vest.