What the Nose Knows

Every one of us in that waiting room would bear a scar of our morning's adventure. But in middle-age, scars are no shame. Scars mean you survived.

When I was 15, I was desperate to be a member of the club.

You know the club I mean: the girls with sleek, straight hair—this was the mid-70s, after all—and slender thighs, and turquoise eye shadow applied in moony crescents under their tweezed brows.

The girls who didn't spend their free time designing dollhouses or reading their aunt's college copy of "Franny and Zooey." The ones who seemed to know, as if they'd practiced in utero, how to flirt, do the hustle and turn a flawless cartwheel.

In the cruel calculus of 9th grade, I added up my deficits and figured there were several barriers keeping me out of that paradise of perfection, that coven of cool. First, there were, you know, the dollhouses and the dorky books and the fact that I'd never heard of Jethro Tull.

Second was my hair—a glossy waterfall in a not-terrible shade of brown—which had betrayed me, at the start of puberty, by kinking up like an unraveled sweater.

The little booklet that came with the Kotex pads didn't warn me about that. It chirped on about breast buds (check), armpit hair (well, yeah, though you had to squint to see it) and periods (finally, at age 14), but nothing about how hormones might turn me into Medusa overnight.

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I did everything to tame my Jew-fro—wrapped my sopping hair around orange juice cans, scorched it with blow-dryers. That worked—at least, for the first half-hour out of the house, until a splash of rain or a ripple of humidity brought the frizz right back.

But the biggest obstacle between me and social entrée, I was convinced, was my nose. This was no bunny trail; it was the Black Diamond path, hooked and treacherous. A nose that earned me the nickname of "Suicide Slope."

Finally, I convinced my parents to let me have it fixed. I remember the anesthesiologist asking me to count backward from 10. I remember waking up with an ice-filled rubber glove on my face. And I remember how, after the operation—after the packing came out of my nostrils and the swelling shrank from around my eyes—the streets no longer seemed populated with noses attached to people. My peripheral vision gradually widened. My nose was indeed smaller, and the world seemed bigger. Maybe it even had room for me.

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I thought about that time recently, when a dermatologist took a tiny punch of flesh from a place on my nose that had been looking weird for a couple of months. Not monstrous-weird, but definitely unusual, with a pimply black spot that bled and scabbed and healed and then did the same thing all over again.

A week after the biopsy, I was back in Dr. Greenbaum's chair, getting the stitches snipped and receiving the not-so-good news that the spot was a basal cell carcinoma. Skin cancer. "Not melanoma," the doc said three times, adding, just in case I didn't get the gist. "It's not going to kill you."

Well, that was good to know. But those zealous cells still needed to come out, which is how I found myself, a few weeks into the new year, chilling in a waiting room with a bandage the size of Snoopy on my nose. OK, I'm exaggerating. But the bandage was white and bulbous, and the only consolation was that everyone else in the waiting area—women and men all squarely in our middle years—sported a similar accessory. Three other noses. One forehead. One side of the neck.

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We sat while the doctor froze the tiny rags of flesh he'd scraped, then examined them to see if the cancer was out. If not, he'd excavate a second layer of cells, and so on, until the margins were clean.

My own nose still throbbed from the four flaming arrows of lidocaine the nurse had shot into it. The bandage weighed strangely on my cheeks. One woman, another one of the noses, said this was her fourth time as a patient. But she was surprisingly cheerful, sharing the story of each surgery—this one required a rush visit to the eye hospital, that one turned out to be benign—as if they were fascinating detours on a long, loosely planned trip.

Meantime, the television nattered its grim news: the endless Syrian tribal war; forty-five whales beached in southern India; a Canadian pilot who died in Antarctica after he stepped off a shelf of ice.

Every one of us in that waiting room would bear a scar of our morning's adventure. But in middle age, scars are no shame. Scars mean you survived.

Three hours later, I sauntered out to the brisk streets of Philadelphia, my Snoopy bandage covering a pinkish seam sealed by eight tidy stitches. I had a great story prepared—yep, it was a bar fight, during President Obama's State of the Union address, when I applauded his stance on immigration and some hot-head lobbed his Budweiser at my face.

But I never had to explain. No one asked. In the hour I waited for a homebound train, I felt too woozy to read, so I just glanced around: There was a man with rumpled hair, leaning heavily on a cane. A woman whose auburn dye didn't quite cover her roots. Someone else about my age, texting worriedly on her phone. Each life, a swerve from the grasp of disaster. Each one, still here.

And me, with my nose swaddled in white cotton and surgical tape—a little sore but mostly just glad to be a member of the club.

You know the one I mean. A society of the patched and wounded, the anxious and the broken, compatriots who welcomed me—ah, here you are, another one of the living—with quiet, grateful nods.