“She’s a lovely girl,” my future mother-in-law Edith said, “but, oh, that nose.”
And with that, the ball was set rolling, the scalpel sharpening, until a seventeen-year-old girl laid her body down in a Brooklyn hospital. Outside on Kings Highway, kids with books walked to school and men and women rushed to work, while inside, stay-at-home moms dusted the mahogany breakfronts that were all the rage. In them you could display all manner of tchotchkes: fancy cup-and-saucer sets, elegant imported vases, a beautiful bronze miniature of Rodin’s The Thinker.
Marriage was all the rage, too. College girls like me were getting engaged all the time. It was a way out of the airless home you’d grown up in, a ticket into a larger world, one you believed would be more of your own making.
My future mother-in-law loved houseplants, which she’d tie to posts to keep straight. She hated Negroes (African Americans now), Puerto Ricans (Hispanics now), and Jews (Jews now, always Jews), even though she was one. Unlike mine, her eyes were blue, her hair a light auburn, and she sported a cute ski slope of a nose. Her one unflattering feature was a neck wattle that cascaded to the base of her throat. I’d stare at it as she scurried around her apartment tying up her houseplants, discussing the virtues of Lava soap, or toasting bagels with sesame seeds. I’d study the odd folds of that neck, its flagrant lines, and think, Kosher poultry.
Before the nose job, I often peered at myself in the large mirror above the sink in our family’s pink-and-black-tiled bathroom. I’d comb my straight, dark hair, adjust the collar of my black turtleneck, carefully apply my black eyeliner, then stare at my reflection and sigh. An amalgam of my parents’ noses, mine was long and sad, like a Jewish prayer. It was a problem.
“Why do Jews have big noses?” I asked my mother, whose strong nose anchored her beauty smack in the middle of her face. She was washing lettuce at the kitchen sink, her back to me, the pink-and-green bow of her apron set like a jewel at the small of her back. She turned off the faucet, waved a large leaf of romaine in the air as if fanning herself, and said, “You know something, I have no idea.” She shook her head in wonder. The refrigerator began to hum. Neither of us spoke. Then the phone rang, and she was suddenly busy talking about the next Hadassah meeting. I went back to my bedroom and plopped onto my bed to read Exodus, Leon Uris’s novel about the birth of Israel. I thought of my nose as a version of the yellow Star of David, the badge Jews were forced to wear in Germany.
In school, Jimmy Sadler, a tall, blond, loquacious boy and the star of many school plays, insisted that I stand in profile for him in the hallway; he wanted to study me. This was between periods, and kids were rushing to class. The hallway tiles were cold on my right shoulder as I nervously obeyed.
“Mata Hari!” Jimmy exclaimed to my best friend, Barbara. “She looks just like her.”
From his tone of voice, I knew this was a compliment, but all I wanted was to get myself and my beak out of there.
“Who’s Mata Hari?” I asked my mom when I got home.
She didn’t look at me; she looked at my feet. “You don’t wear sneakers with dresses,” she said. “They just don’t do that.”
“Who are ‘they’?” I muttered under my breath. Then I asked again about Mata Hari.
“She was a beautiful, glamorous spy from Europe. I forget where in Europe exactly. Why do you ask?”
“Oh, I don’t know. . . . I wish my nose was smaller,” I said.
She upended the iron on the pink cotton cover of her ironing board, which was set up in the middle of our small living room. “You are a very pretty girl,” she said. Then she picked the iron up again and angled it over one of my father’s white handkerchiefs. “Beauty is not just how you look, anyway,” she announced. “It comes from within.”
I smiled because she wanted me to, and then I went to my room, thinking I’d rather have the outside type of beauty, because the inside kind was too confusing. For one thing, if you were beautiful inside, how did anyone know it, especially if you were shy? And I was shy, in part because of my nose. Too shy to be able to describe the beauty I saw: the way light pressed between the blinds of my room and arranged itself into radiant stripes; how the words of certain poems reached between my ribs and made me want to shine like a silver star, sing like Leontyne Price, grow wings, fly.
So when my fiancé told me what his mother had said, I jumped to, hesitantly, but with a purpose. Why not be prettier, like my friends Amy Scott and Diane Benson, whose noses were quiet and well-mannered? Their schnozzes didn’t sit on their faces and yell, “Nose! Nose!” They simply blended in and said softly, in concert with eyes, mouth, cheekbones, and chin, “Face.”
I guess my mother lied about my being pretty, and about the beauty-comes-from-within business, because when I said, “I think I want to get a nose job,” she didn’t even blink.
The only one with reservations was my Aunt Toby, who said, in my presence, “But then she’ll look like everyone else.”
But that was the point: becoming one of the nicely nosed, modestly featured masses. A new nose was a way to pass from a ruined past to an ideal future.
Dr. Ross had a small, dark-paneled office in a basement apartment in Brooklyn. He showed my mother and me before-and-after shots of other girls’ noses. He took pictures of my nose and talked about removing the bump on the bridge and shortening the end, which he called “bulbous.” He’d been cutting the noses off Jewish girls for ten years. It was his specialty. Mom said he was the “best in the field.” The operation would be quick, easy, and not too costly: one night in the hospital, then home the next day with drugs for whatever mild discomfort might linger.
When, on the drive home after the consultation, I remarked on the size of Dr. Ross’s nose, Mom said, “Men carry them better than women do,” as if a nose were like the heavy wooden box of silverware that Dad had to lift from the high shelf in the closet whenever we had company.
Following Dr. Ross’s instructions, my parents dropped me off at the hospital at 5 P.M. the night before the surgery. I had fifteen preoperative hours to wait. Although I felt fine (except for anxiety close to heart-attack level), I was quickly ensconced between rigid white sheets in a hospital bed with a metal frame. It was still light outside, but the shades were drawn. There was a lamp on the bedside table, and I switched it on to read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha for the third time. It was my favorite novel, after Catcher in the Rye. I loved the idea of the prince who was protected from any knowledge of suffering — age, disease, poverty — for his entire childhood, and then hit between the eyes with it when he finally escaped his father’s castle walls. But I couldn’t concentrate on Siddhartha when my heart was doing the twist in my chest and my brain was screaming, Get out now! Get out now! I could go anywhere, I thought, even India, or China. (Where exactly was Siddhartha from?) Instead, perfectly healthy, I lay in a hospital bed.
A nurse named Karen came in around eight o’clock and found me lying on my back, playing a kid’s game with my fingers: “Here is the church; here is the steeple. Open the doors, and there are the people.” I didn’t know what else to do.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
I told her I was having rhinoplasty (I wanted her to know I was smart) and that I was scared. She smiled down at me from under her nurse’s cap, with its two navy stripes along the brim, and said, “Oh, that’s nothing. C’mon. Let’s go down the hall, and I’ll show you a girl who had it done today. It’s a snap.”
I hesitated. A small voice within me suggested, Maybe this is not such a good idea. Karen pulled back the sheet and said, “C’mon. It’s OK.”
I climbed down off the bed, put on the new pale pink bed jacket my mother had bought me, and followed Karen down the hall. Her cap, pinned on top of her pouffy hairdo, never budged.
And then I was staring down at an unfamiliar face that looked like black-and-blue clouds around slits just wide enough for me to make out two brown eyes. Below them, a thick bandage spanned the face from cheekbone to cheekbone, and two tiny nostrils peeked out of the middle of that taped white expanse.
“How are you doing, Barbara?” Karen inquired. Without waiting for a response, she continued, “This is Genie. She’s having surgery tomorrow morning. It isn’t so bad, is it, Barbara?”
Barbara forced a weak smile.
“See? It’s nothing,” Karen said to me. “Just minor surgery, like I told you.” As she walked me back to my room, I saw an old man lying in bed with tubes up his nose, his breathing so raspy I could hear it in the hallway.
I spent the next seven hours lying rigidly in bed, trying to convince myself to make a break for it. I thought of the heroic Jews who’d escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, the brave slaves fleeing plantations on the Underground Railroad.
At 3 A.M., I summoned enough courage to press the call button. A new nurse opened the door, allowing a swath of light to splay across the shiny linoleum floor.
“Yes?” she said.
“I can’t sleep,” I squeaked.
“Let me look at your chart and see if I can give you something to help.”
She returned with two pink pills in her palm. I took them and fell into a well of unconsciousness. I was vaguely aware of being jostled about, wheeled down a hall, fiddled with, and arranged. Then I heard little sawing and chipping sounds and a murmuring like doves. It was all so far away, in China perhaps, or Odessa, where Grandpa was born. I could see him, ten years old, standing in a little wool coat, waving a white drop of a hand at the Black Sea. He and his mother had to leave Russia: his father was dead; there were pogroms; there would be, before long, his forced conscription into the czar’s army. But for me, dreaming of him, it somehow became all wool and bits of light and wings.
Mom took me home, my face spanned with bandages, just like Barbara’s. An antiseptic outlaw, I hid in our apartment for a month. Before reentering the world, I got a new haircut, so people wouldn’t notice the change to my nose. I guess they didn’t, because no one said a word about it. But my friend Ellen must have thought I looked pretty, because three months later I was back at that same hospital, staring down at her bandaged face and crying, “Ellie, poor Ellie,” as her mom sat beside me, shaking her head sadly.
When I think of the operation now, I think of the expression “cut off your nose to spite your face.” I sometimes wonder what shape my life might have taken had I not gone under the knife. Back then, I didn’t know that Jews in Germany had undergone cosmetic surgery while Hitler was gaining power. I didn’t understand that my new face was a product of history, that a nose job was a ticket for safe passage through the New World — a small sacrifice for the dream of inclusion, only a bit of flesh and bone.