The Nose

Kathleen Heil


My brother and I shared a bed. There was no privacy. And we had bed bugs. And to protect me, my brother said, Lie on top of me. And I said, I'll fall. And he said, No, you won't, not if you clamp your teeth on my nose. I didn't fall to the left, I didn't fall to the right. The bed bugs didn't get me. They got him. Maybe that's where the love of noses began. He had a great nose.

A great nose. It was wide but not too wide and so easy to fit my mouth around it. I could feel him exhale into my throat. I would breathe in, taking in his breath, and exhale his exhale out through my nose. Right onto his eyes. He claimed he could fall asleep like this although I never knew if he was lying because I could. I would fall asleep on top of him and my mouth would relax around his proboscis; it was big enough (the nose, not the mouth) that it would hold me there. I guess he did sleep because if he hadn't he would've gone crazy. The bed bugs would wake us with their chattering. We would wake ourselves with our scratching. It was incessant. (The chattering and the scratching.)

Later, after our parents died and we both left home, I came to miss that nose. That feeling. I don't have to explain it if I don't want to. It should be obvious enough. I went looking for other noses like his, but they were never the right shape, they'd be long and pointy or short and dainty or, worse, veiny and crepuscular, carrying whole time zones in their midst, and even after I met and fell in love with Niko I still went looking for them. I never told him about this love, never told him how my brother and I had slept. You may be thinking fetish but it was not a fetish. It was love. Fetish is a foolish word, it reduces whole universes to pathology. Some people go their whole lives without loving anything as much as I loved noses.

Oh, but Niko suspected. He had a great soul and a great nose. And maybe his still left me seeking other noses, but I never went looking for other men, not like that, you see. It was love, not pathology, and those people who don't understand anything, who say we are diseased, they can all go to hell—nose first, even. For Niko's nose was a thing of beauty, crooked slightly but sweetly, the color of his native Ukraine, not white or pink but rubescent, with a round tip and oblong nostrils beneath and graying stubble above his lips that tickled my own when I leaned in to kiss him. I loved the way my nose brushed against his, the way I could feel the slightest hint of hair—he had three, very small, very fine hairs sprouting from the pores of the bridge of his nose—and I would rub my cartilage against them gently when our mouths met.

Sometimes he would let me fall asleep next to it, nose-to-nose, although I never dared try to fall asleep on top of him while biting. Or I did dare, but circumspectly, play-biting the ridge of his schnozzola like it was leading to sex. Once, after clamping down on the thing, I noticed he had drifted off and started snoring, although with my mouth pinching the bridge of his nose it sounded more like a gentle wheeze, and I was so delighted I accidentally bit down into his flesh with my teeth, which must have hurt because he woke up, screaming. I didn't know how to explain that all I wanted was for him to hold me there, all evening, I could see he was disgusted by the way the saliva from my mouth had drooled into his nostrils post-clamping, and though at first he thought it a joke and let me resume my position—for thirty seconds, maybe—he then pushed me away and said he couldn't breathe, what was I trying to do, was I angry about something and trying to withhold sex to make him feel needy, that's just the sort of thing I would do, he accused me, and I knelt on the bed, my nose tucked between my eyes, my mouth still wet from the biting. How could I explain that I'd had a dream the night before about you, brother, who is, like so many of the people I love and miss, no longer living?

Last night I dreamt we were sleeping and I was on top of you again, and the bugs were jumping and you were scratching but I was warm and safe—and okay, maybe I drooled a bit, but you never complained about my drooling—and when I woke up there was a small dampness on my pillow that my nose was resting in. Better to drool than to cry some days. Remember mother was always crying, she was so crazy, but maybe I should thank her, because maybe without that madness she wouldn't have had the chutzpah to come to New York, and we would've been born into death like the rest of the family. I never explained this to Niko, how my sometime fears kept me up some nights when the dream of noses was the only thing that soothed me. He had his own story, after all, his own sometime fears. It would have been foolish for us to explain things.


The day after the biting incident Niko shunned all efforts of mine to return to his proboscular region. Where once he smiled when I nuzzled him, he now snubbed me. I thought of trying to initiate some sort of snout detente, backing off for a good while and then attempting to initiate contact with the area only gradually, so that he wouldn't notice it when I resumed my nibbling, although I would never again bite down so hard while he was sleeping. Still, he wasn't having any of it—he could sense my strategy and would push me away at the slightest indication of my maneuverings. We even stopped having sex with any frequency, though this he minded more than I did. We were both withholding.

But then the summer of bugs broke out in the city, and we suddenly found ourselves back in the mid-twentieth century: From Washington Heights to the Lower East Side, Gentiles and Jews, rich and poor, gay and straight, newly arrived or not, we were all a part of the great unwashed. In the twenty-first century. Bed bugs. And they were in our house.

I knew by the way Niko reacted to the outbreak that he was one of us. He knew this about me, too, I guess. Perhaps it was this that bound us. There was desperation in his reaction, a desperation that can only come from being afraid that the misery and terror you experienced in childhood and that you've spent all of your adult resources trying to escape—right down to your nosewill one day come back and swallow you whole. They say you can never go home, but what they should say is, you can never get rid of home, although this is precisely what we told ourselves we were doing.


Niko went crazy. He couldn't see any further than his nose: he was tugging at it all the time, pacing around our apartment and bringing his hands to his sides, then back to his face, squeezing the beautiful flesh and bone as if trying to quash the thing—he couldn't believe we still had the dastardly insects in our home, after everything: multiple trips to the cleaners, the professional scrubbings, the inspections, the bleach, he was going to die there asphyxiated by the chemical fumes, die there in a spotless house surrounded by disgusting eggs. Die there, itching.

It was driving him nuts but what also drove him nuts was my reaction to the scene. He said I relished the fact that we were living in misery. I told him he was crazy. But he was right, in a way. The infestation did seem to bring out a certain nascent cheer in me. There was something funny about the inanity of the city's collective suffering: we were all so exposed, our cruelty and vanity and vulnerability on display, like children. I found myself humming on the subway, smiling at the sight of all that chatter and scratch. I would stand by the doors at rush hour, and all I had to do was make as though I were going in for some relief, bring my hand up to a pre-scratch position. People would flee.

It kept us up at night and went on for weeks. Brother, it got so bad that one night I woke up from my non-sleep to see Niko sitting there on the side of our bed, his nose in his hands, sobbing. I crawled over to him and wrapped him in my body. There there, I said, there there. I put my hand on his cheek and stroked his forehead. I could feel the bugs there, biting. It really was enough to drive you crazy, and Niko didn't need to say anything for me to know that he was way past crazy—he hadn't had a good night's sleep in weeks for all the itching.

There there, I said again in his ear, stroking his chest until I felt his heavy sobs soften to a dull whimper. Then I leaned my head against his and turned him round to tickle his handsome nose with mine. I kissed him there and he let me. I said I had a trick that would help him fall asleep. I'll do anything, he told me. I said, I'm going to lie down, and you're going to lie on top of me. But I'll fall, he said, I'll wake up having fallen, and I'll be itchy. Put your mouth on my nose and bite down, I said, and you won't fall. Promise me, he said. I promise, I said. Then I lay down and he lay down and with the biting we fell asleep.


Note: The first paragraph is taken from an interview with Maurice Sendak published in the Believer.
{Note to the note: The story is a work of fiction does not represent any real persons, living or dead.}