Things I can do with my nose: I can wrinkle it in distaste. I can wiggle my nostrils rhythmically. I can 'make a long nose.' I can thrust it into small, tight places. I can nuzzle things softly. I can blow streams of bubbles underwater. I can make a loud reproachful sound, like a krummhorn.
I remember other kids in school whose noses would regularly bleed for no reason, a violent color gushing out of them, while they sat calm and rather saintly, the center of a fascinated crowd. I would have been happy to be one of those people. My nose rarely bleeds, but I take a secret luxurious pleasure in it when it does. I like the sudden warm liquid welling up in my nose, flowing extravagantly forth. I show off the brilliantly spotted tissue in an off-hand way, enjoying the worried remarks.
I have often imagined what I would look like without a nose. Inescapably I have concluded: in the land of the noseless, a nose would be a monstrosity. A fleshy, perforated blemish, and right in the center of the face, for anyone to see. It is important to remember this when regretting one's nose, or pitying someone else's. It is an accident of evolution that makes us appreciate a nose at all. Far better, maybe, if we had a happy void in the center of the face. For young artists, if nobody else.
I started out drawing a dot for a nose, as children do. I could see perfectly well that it looked nothing like a nose, but it was not at all clear what a nose did look like, so I was happy to use a dot as a stand-in until some future point when genius would come over me and I would draw it a perfect nose. Still, there were problems with the dot schema. At five I wanted to draw my mother giving suck to my baby brother. To make the action clear I had to draw a side view: a great balloon for a breast (the first breast I had ever drawn) with a red medallion at the tip, and my brother's face attached to it. But I had never drawn a face in profile before. I thought about the problem: I was not ready to draw a "realistic" profile, but the schema I had adopted, the circle, three dots and a smile, did not come with a side view. Nonetheless I had faith in it. I decided that a circle in profile was still a circle (true of rubber balls), but the dot nose, unproblematic in full face, was baffling from the side. Was the dot to be conceived as a dot, that is, as a flat circle of color? Then viewed from the side it would disappear: unacceptable solution. Or was the dot to be conceived as a small bead or button stuck onto the circle, like the nose of a teddy bear? I doubt I posed these issues so clearly to myself, but they were at the heart of my confusion. (I went with the button solution, which caused me much embarrassed hilarity at a slightly later age. I had drawn my mother and brother looking like dogs, with protruding snouts and big black noses!)
The next nose paradigm was a little arc, with or without two dot nostrils (no nostrils was for beautiful princesses and other adorables. Action heroines had nostrils, and a smattering of freckles). In profile, I resorted to a sketchy, unsatisfactory bump; again, the schema had no side view. This lasted me a few years. It was my mother, annoyed by my parade of identical princesses, who blew the whistle on the pug nose. She showed me the bridge of the nose, and the way the fat knob at the end fit between the wings of the nostrils. I could see her point, but not what to do about it. It was disturbingly unclear where the nose began and ended; still, when she said I should draw a line down each side of the nose to set it off from the cheeks, I took her word for it, despite grave misgivings. On the other hand I was quite pleased to discover the little cups of the nostrils and adopt two parentheses to delineate them. The result, two slashes enclosed in parentheses, sometimes punctuated with two bold polka-dot nostrils, was weak, even in comparison to the pug nose and its limitations. It was not cute. But I felt it was the mature thing, and I stuck with it. Not for long, though; there was too much wrong with it. There were no lines between nose and cheek in the real world. There was, if anything, an elongated area of faint shadow. I could smudge my lines and approximate a shadow. But these shadows changed as the face moved; there was no longer one definitive face, there were thousands of partial and accidental ones. How could I learn them all?
My drawings had been unproblematically winning, even to me, when they were a toss of signs onto a lassoed playing field. Now that realism was all that would do, I had years of bad drawings ahead of me. Nothing short of right was good enough. I couldn't settle for a nose-gimmick because there was no such thing as a nose, that is, what was cheek and what was nose wasn't clear, so to render either I had to render both. Drawing well was a kind of powerlessness: I had to subordinate myself to what was there, and helplessly let it have its say, whether I understood it or not; by making myself its clear medium I might look more knowing than I was, but the dirty secret was that I might never catch up to what I copied, never understand how out of gradations of smudged pencil a nose erected itself on the page.
Standing by the weeping willow tree from whose shredded fronds I had just been illicitly swinging, my friend Mary's mother told me in her humorous loud way that her mother had told her never to put a bean up her nose, because she wouldn't be able to get it out. So she put a bean up her nose to see, and it got stuck. A green bean, I wondered? No, a dried bean. Pleased I had not been scolded for shredding the fronds, I went away to mull it over. Why had her mother given her such strange advice? Who would ever think of putting a bean up her nose? And how could it get stuck? Couldn't you just press on the side of your nose and pop it out? I stuck a bean up my nose to find out. It stuck.
There were all kinds of snot and all kinds of approaches to dealing with it. I scorned the heedless kids whose nostrils were packed with snot, walled up like old mine shafts, and the kids who licked the runoff from their upper lips. I was quiet and methodical about removing it and secreting it away. It was an interesting substance, a bit like amber: a viscous sap that turned into a hard clear gemstone. Elmer's glue did the same thing. I kept my gems in a little box and watched them alter. Later I began pressing them together. I made things, little figures, then began to build up a landscape on the top of my dresser. I made a tiny model of Hastings Castle, the hill, and the funicular railway (with moving parts). One day my mother, stern-faced, scraped it off into the garbage, and I was too disheartened to start over.
Instead, I learned to blow my nose with a loud, sonorous honk, a noise memorialized in a family recording along with parakeet shrieks and my father's jovial commentary. The wind rocketed through my nose and drove everything before it, either out into a Kleenex, or simply away, into any quiet cul de sac in my sinuses. This made me prone to ear infections for the next few years, to which I probably owe my slight deafness, obvious only in noisy bars and restaurant kitchens.