Half the Jews at Congregation Beth El get their noses broken by Dr. Mendelson under general anesthesia. You can tell by our matching nostril scars. They’re faint and patted with green concealer to cover any redness rising to the surface of our skin.
I was fifteen when I took a hammer to the face. Emma Goldbaum went first and we spent the early months with our super straight noses in sunscreen-white casts. Now, in the back of our Hebrew school classroom—one clock ticking to U.S. time, the other ticking to Israel’s—we paint our nails Geranium red. A square fat TV flashes piles of emaciated bodies onto our t-shirts, and we ignore the footage from Auschwitz as we blow air through our circled lips, waiting for the color to harden.
“I’d give anything to be that skinny,” Emma whispers as she stares at the dead bodies. I keep my fingers flat-to-dry on the brown laminate desk and occasionally peer up at the barbed wire fences onscreen.
Hannah C leans over to us, picking a scab textured like rock candy. “Did it hurt?” She lets her hair drape across her left eye like a blackout curtain, like she doesn’t want us to see how Jewish she is from the side. “Your noses?”
“Not one bit,” Emma lies.
“Only a little,” I admit.
The Holocaust video is paused by our saggy-eyed Rabbi and we mark our seats with our jackets to take a water break. I scrape my fresh nail polish into goo and flick it down the water fountain drain. The nail beds are dyed orange, but I’ll just reapply a fresh coat over top for the second half of the show.
In act two, babies are plucked like thorns from their parents’ arms and a woman weeps close to the camera so I can see the pores on her hooked nose. The smell of acetone leaves me dizzy enough not to feel anything and we’re not like her anyway, says my super-straight nose. My hands lift toward the blueish TV light as if the screen is a fire and I can feel the warmth on my hands from the dead bodies only a few feet away. Like this is just a warmup for whatever comes next, and when they come for us again, they won’t find anything we haven’t already erased.
E.J. Schwartz is a writer living in Richmond, VA. Her words have appeared in The New York Times, Barrelhouse, and Necessary Fiction, among others. Her debut novel, Before We Were Blue, about two best friends in treatment for their eating disorders, forced to choose between their recovery and their relationship, is out now. Kirkus called it “a gut-wrenching and cathartic page-turner about identity, desire, and the strength it takes to heal.” E.J. tweets @byEJSchwartz.