A guy with his earlobes stretched around bingo chips and a bullring through his septum pulled a box of nose studs from the glass case. “How do they stay in?” I asked.
“It’s a coil and it rests against the outside of your nostril,” he said, making a swirling motion with his finger.
I chose the smallest silver stud, trying not to think of nostril scars or how loud my parents would scream when I told them I’d punctured my face instead of getting married.
See, in my family, 28 is an age for engagement rings, not nose jewelry. My 25-year-old sister was contemplating marriage with her Italian pro basketball-player boyfriend; holidays with my Irish Catholic cousins were beginning to resemble a large-scale cloning experiment. My unmarried status cast me in the role of misfit, black sheep, Leather Tuscadero. I liked it.
Something was missing, though. Despite my badass standing, with my Marcia Brady hair and Gap clothes I looked like I was playing the part of Nice Girl With No Prospects For Marriage. I might have been the Leather Tuscadero of my extended suburban Boston family, but I was the Shirley Feeney of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Too conservative to dye my hair blue, too thrifty to buy a black leather wardrobe, I decided a nose stud was the perfect way to express my spit-in-the-face-of-tradition image while leaving my options open.
Bingo took me into a back room, which resembled a dentist’s office. “Blow for good luck,” he said, handing me a tissue. I closed my eyes as he twisted, pulled, and stretched my left nostril. It might have hurt, but I was so busy cursing myself for not checking for stray boogers I didn’t notice. I even forgot about Mom and Dad.
When I opened my eyes I spied a thick needle extending several inches from my left nostril. I closed them again. After Bingo finished, I looked in the mirror. The stud might as well have been the size of a golf ball. I imagined my dad taking his 8-iron and teeing me straight back to Nice Girl With No Prospects For Marriage.
“You’re sure this is the one I picked out?” I asked Bingo. He nodded.
Feeling kind of sick, I walked out onto St. Marks Place, my nose red and tingling. In the face of a Pakistani earring vendor I saw the sadness of my mother, heartbroken because a nose stud, no matter how discreet, is not going to attract a country club guy with a beach house in Nantucket and a degree from Holy Cross.
In fact, it was a week before Mother’s Day, and I was going home. I figured I had seven days to live. Maybe calling in an advance warning would buy me some time.
“Uh, Mom, just so you know?” I said. “I pierced my nose.”
I closed my eyes and waited.
“Oh Cara,” she said. “Ohhh, Cara. What, do you need attention or something? You have such a pretty face.”
“You’ll hardly notice it, I swear.” I could feel my inner Harley driver cowering in the corner.
“Is it because you didn’t go through a rebellious stage in high school? Are you into drugs or something?” she said. “Oh, and I just saw a Dateline expose on hepatitis. Who’s going to take care of you when you get hepatitis?”
Who would take care of me if I got hepatitis? Bingo? I imagined myself sick and going it alone, my body riddled with piercings to distract from the pain of my terrible illness.
That Friday night, Mom and Dad picked me up at the bus stop. Evidently, their plan was to ignore the piercing.
That lasted about 15 minutes. On the way home, we stopped for groceries. A chubby man in Bermuda shorts and a polo shirt passed us in the potato chip aisle. “See?” Dad said. “He did a double-take when he saw your nose.”
I wasn’t convinced the man even looked in my direction, but I began to feel paranoid. What was I thinking, piercing my face like some bohemian? I mean, where I was born, “body art” meant wearing pants with lobsters. “It’s the size of a pinhead. You can’t see it from five feet away,” I reminded myself. All the same, the nose stud re-grew to the size of a golf ball.
To celebrate Mother’s Day, Mom and I went to the mall for manicures. I almost never pay to have my nails done, but when I do I like to choose an unusual color. To my surprise, Mom liked the idea, too. She chose a dark blue-gray and I got a sparkly orange that turned fluorescent with heat. As we sat at our nail-drying stations I saw her admiring her fingers, proud to have chosen something “a little different.” They looked “a little scary,” actually, but I kept that to myself.
When Mom and I got home, Dad was on the couch watching golf on TV. “Do you like our nails?” Mom asked as we fluttered our fingers before him.
Dad looked at Mom’s nails for a second, then turned back to the TV. “I’m surprised you didn’t pierce your nose, too,” he said. Mom rolled her eyes and smiled.
And that was the last time my parents mentioned my pierced nose. Not long after, I took the stud out and threw it away. It lost its appeal after I inducted Mom into the Hall of Badassdom. But lately I’ve been wondering: what would Dad think of a “Daddy’s Little Girl” tattoo?