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A Natural History: Allen Gee

07/10/2009

A Natural History of My Nose

By Allen Gee

In 1973 in 5th grade I was playing second base when a batter hit a line-drive, and as the runner on first base shot past me the windbreaker that was loosely strung around her neck unfurled like a cape.  At that exact moment the windbreaker masked the path of the ball, which was headed straight toward me, and once the fluttering aquamarine nylon glided by, the ball struck me head-on, as hard as a hammer strike, right of the bridge of my nose, shattering the bone.

I lay there like a boxer who had been knocked out.  Someone shouted for my girlfriend as if she were Florence Nightingale, as if she could save me and nurse me back to health.

A plastic surgeon packed both nostrils with gauze, and then fashioned a nose cast, a splint that extended from my forehead to my mouth.  He attached the splint to my face with two wide strips of white tape that formed a giant X.  Of all people, the principal of our elementary school was the first one to make me feel self-conscious, calling me “Pinocchio.”

When all the packing and the bandages were removed, my nose was not the same.  The nostrils flared more, tilting upward like a hog’s.  The bridge had lost its prominence, and beneath the skin there was a lump where the fracture had taken place, a protrusion from the healing, like a small knot, invisible to the world at large but that I have forever felt, there to remind me of when my youthful physical invulnerability was lost.

I had a flat nose now; I was sure of it.  In traditional Cantonese culture, differences of appearance were called out, acknowledged publicly for what they were, without shame or embarrassment.  You could be greeted with, “Hey, hook nose!  How are you?”  Or “Long nose, we’ve missed you.  Let’s have dinner soon.”  As a Chinese American, however, I couldn’t help feeling sensitive, feeling as if I had lost a nose that distinguished me, that appeared more Americanized.  I thought people, especially girls, saw me as stereotypically unattractive.

figure 2.

figure 1.

Women consoled me though, telling me that they believed my nose was cute.  If I asked, during flirtatious or intimate moments, they could find the knot.  I remember one woman in college touching it with the tip of her right index finger, confirming, “Yes, you did break it.  But you can’t tell by looking at you.  I would have never guessed.”  She kissed me passionately afterwards as if affection was a salve, and I believed everything she said.

So loss could mean gain; my nose, I think, taught me well in advance of growing old about the foolishness of vanity, about how dwelling upon beauty too much can be frivolous, a waste of time.  My wife is a woman who never knew my nose had been broken, who never would have guessed.  Now the gray hair that my forties has brought me seems inconsequential, the loss of half a step and speed on the basketball court is far less tragic, and I could care less about how the skin on the back of my hands has begun to wrinkle—it’s all right if who we are does not forever stay the same.

***

What if I had the opportunity to go back in time?  Would I want to change my nose if I could?  Fix it so that the accident, in all appearances, never happened?  My wife and I moved to Georgia not along ago, to a town in a rural county where the more humid air and the different trees, shrubs and flowers gave rise to increased allergies.  I began to suffer from sinus infections more frequently, and started feeling like I might become an anti-biotic junkie.  My doctor referred me to a nasal specialist in Atlanta who scheduled me for an M.R.I.  “You have a deviated septum,” the specialist told me.  “We need to perform a rhinoplasty and widen your nasal passages.”  I asked if the repair to my nose so many years ago had been done properly.  “Not from what I can see,” he said.  “If you want, we can consult with another doctor here and schedule a nose job, too.  Would you like that?”

figure 3. Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan

figure 2. Magnetic Resonance images

After all this time, I told him no.  I realized I had grown used to the nose that I have.  And after successful surgery, after the inner straightening and widening, I read that the nose is one of the few parts of the body that keeps growing in old age, advancing slowly but steadily like a snail, lengthening millimeter by millimeter, as if to remind me again of the futility of human manipulation.

figure 4.

figure 3.

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Allen Gee currently lives in Milledgeville, GA which was once the site of the world’s largest psychiatric institution (can we say mental hospital?).  Many people, including Flannery O’Connor’s misfit, are rumored to have escaped from there.

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Notes:

“A Natural History of My Nose” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Allen Gee teaches in the M.F.A. program at Georgia College, where he is the fiction editor for Arts & Letters. His latest story appears in Ploughshares, and he is finishing a collection, Twelve Questions Asked Late at Night.  He’s represented by Gail Hochman at Brandt & Hochman.

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