If you considered it from different angles, the jarring effect of Marina’s nose was lessened, but never erased. When she wasn’t there, I wondered if hers was a face I could wake up to each morning.
My honest, spontaneous answer: No.
But I didn’t like this honest, spontaneous answer of mine, nor the me that could think it, so I told myself the nose was one of those things you have to get used to, like Brussels sprouts or Scotch, over a long period of time.
Marina played acoustic guitar and sang in small bars and coffeehouses, one of the latter where we met and where she told me, over cappuccinos with hearts made out of foam, that she taught children—music—not just how to play it, but how to listen to it, too, exposing them, as she did this playing and this listening, to as many musical species as possible. Thanks to the way she talked about the music and the children, I knew she was a woman who’d make a great mother, and I, because I wanted to make a great father, asked her out on several dates.
On those dates, I tried not to think about the nose, tried, that is, not to see it, which was difficult, and we enjoyed ourselves, which was not, and one night not too many nights later we wound up downstairs in my split-level apartment finishing off a bottle of Saint-Émilion, listening to Duke Ellington by candlelight (good light for not seeing the nose), chatting and flirting and both knowing (without having to say a word about it) that she wasn’t going anywhere.
All that was upstairs was a bed and a minuscule, moldy bathroom. Mold is tenacious. No matter what I did, I couldn’t beat it. So I tried to accept it, though accepting the mold, like accepting the nose, proved difficult.
Marina went upstairs. I wanted to give her some privacy (there was no door on that bathroom), so I rinsed a few dishes and thought one of the most exciting, heart-warming thoughts a man can think in this life: In ten minutes my penis will be sliding into a vagina. A new one. That’s two thoughts. The second is icing.
And it’s not just the sliding or the newness of that sliding, it’s the imminent education, the learning how she’ll react, how she’ll touch and like to be touched, how she’ll behave and who she’ll become—noisy or quiet, wild or sedate, a tearer or a caresser or an easy comer. I’d present myself and my experience (or lack thereof) to her as she presented herself and her experience (or lack thereof) to me. We’d share ourselves and be closer—no matter what happened during or after—for having done so. Sex can erase noses. Or so I hoped.
When I went upstairs she was already on the bed, naked. Her body was magnificent. Her breasts? I had never seen their equal, not in person, and I told her so. She smiled as if she had heard this a thousand times before. The smile became a grin. Wicked. She pushed me down, straddled me, ripped off my clothes and positioned me inside her without saying a word. Then she started to rock back and forth, gained speed, slowed, sped up again and again and again, her unforgettable breasts circling like unbridled figure eights, her body accelerating, working itself up and off to a bull-ride crescendo, a savage scream loosed, like murder, on the night.
It’s a shame that less than a minute later, with Marina tucked against my side, our bodies damp and temporarily happy, I was thinking about the nose. But the importance of the nose was suddenly trumped by sound. I heard a plop, as if something (a piece of fruit?) had fallen, and then an intermittent, barely audible scraping.
“What is that?” Marina asked.
The sound stopped, then started again.
“I don’t know,” I said, hoping it would just go away, but, like the nose, it didn’t oblige.
“You’re not going down there?”
Two adults barely had enough room to sit and seduce each other down there, what could I possibly be afraid of? But her question pleased me, put me in man-mode, a mode I try my best to disavow and avoid, but a mode easy to occupy after the sliding and the scream.
“I’ll go check it out,” I said.
I flipped the light on at the top of the staircase and was surprised to find my heart beating faster and my legs moving slower. I was… What was I? Apprehensive? Scared? No, not exactly. More in the moment, the role. My man role? Whatever I was, the stairs were few and there was a naked woman at the top of them I was nowhere near finished with, so I quickly discovered the cause of the sound that had disturbed those all too sweet and short moments post-orgasm in the warmth and obliterating assurance of a female’s body.
A mouse. Finally, a goddamned mouse. But only half its body, only two of its legs, trapped in the glue pool. The damn thing—mouse and trap—had fallen off the shelf under the sink in the corner of my so-called kitchen (plop), and was now on the tiled floor, every so often dragging itself toward nowhere (scrape). I looked closer. Two splotch-circles of blood. And the fur. White and gray and furry. Cute. I thought this word: “Cute,” and I saw four miniature, sausage-shaped droppings, a testament to horror and fear. I could hear it, too, the testament. The mouse was whining, whimpering, wailing. He was scared and trapped and dying. I mocked the fear I had felt walking down those stairs, cursed the imbecilic salesperson who promised me the poison would kill a family of sewer rats in under a minute, forgot about the nose.
Back upstairs, as I was dressing, Marina, her breasts covered, making her look even more feminine, asked, “Is it?”
So she saw them. I thought I had arranged the traps discreetly, but how discreet can you be in a shoebox?
I found my pants and keys and I saw her again, the nose of her, but more than the nose I was struck by her eyes and the angle of her mouth. Bursting through the squeamishness: encouragement.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
Downstairs, the mouse had continued to inch along the floor. I grabbed one of the plastic Monoprix bags I kept underneath the sink and knelt next to him, snatched the edge of the tray and dropped it into the bag. Then I tied off the straps and opened the door. The bag shook. It was lighter, I thought, than it should’ve been, and it kept shaking. A pink plastic rattle. I moved faster, out the apartment, down the stairs, along the hallway. Door, street, night, quiet. No one. No witnesses. Not even a star. I felt painted in fluorescent orange, the color of my guilt. The trashcan I wanted was thirty feet away, iron and green and only half-full. But I wouldn’t be able to face Marina, myself, or the children we might make together if I just tossed it in. Left and right. No one, but no one doesn’t last forever. Think, act, fast. There was only one solution.
I gripped the bag by the strap-handle as if it weighed five pounds and hoped for the head, the face, the nose. I crouched and swung as hard as I could. Head. Face. Nose. Was it enough? I hoped so, but hope needs help, so I swung twice more, then dropped the no longer moving bag into the trashcan, glanced up and down the street, and retraced my steps: door, hallway, stairs, apartment.
I spent a long time washing my hands at the kitchen sink, though technically I hadn’t touched a thing. Upstairs, I washed them again in the bathroom without a door. My reflection didn’t interest me. I sat on the bed.
“You’re shaking,” Marina said.
It was true.
“What did you do?”
I told her what I did, cried when I told her. She took me in her arms after I was done with the telling and the crying, didn’t bother to cover her breasts. I felt both ashamed and deeply pleased with myself, remembered when I was a little boy and knocked another little boy out in my uncle’s front yard, a boy who had been bullying my cousin. Her name was Rebecca, she was lovely, and everyone in my family remembers that knightly defense, the knocking out, but no one remembers that I cried after I did that, too. Do tears always follow violence? Should they? No one remembers the tears.
Our sex that night was charged like a Category 5 hurricane. We flirted with every zone, the calm and the catastrophic, relentless in our search for peace, for the sun that tells us when the storm is over. Before we slept, I realized that the horny, vulnerable woman in my arms was caused by the mouse. I had played my role well. To prove it, I kissed her on the nose.
A month or so later, in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont on a random day during a random walk, we were leaning against a railing, watching the ducks and swans and pigeons do what ducks and swans and pigeons do. Apropos of nothing, she asked:
“Do you like my face?”
So she knew, or else suspected.
“Do you think it’s a face you could wake up to?” she asked with a hopefulness I’ll never forget.
I lied. We both pretended like the lie was true, broke up less than two weeks later. The mice didn’t learn either.