As I searched for my mother’s pupils, I noticed how determined the garden soil was to fasten itself to the whites of her eyes. Her face was a casserole of blood, teeth, broken cartilage and earth. As she stood before me, I concocted an explanation for the gore. She must have scampered towards the car lights on Ballarto Road, like the rabbits do sometimes. That’d do it.
But as she collapsed, and I deliberated whether or not to keep her head in my lap or to hurtle toward the house phone, I rationalised her fate. My forty-one-year-old mother wouldn’t frolick about in traffic. The front yard was a part-done, half-renovated, entirely dangerous mess, and she had simply fallen. It doesn’t take much to puncture flesh, and mothers are just living things after all: with breakable teeth and eggshell cartilage.
They eventually washed the dried blood from her lips and nostrils. They bathed her in disinfectant, and insisted on knowing how many shots of Susan’s De Kuyper Butterscotch Schnapps she had consumed; as if the answer would magically rework her contorted nose.
When she scanned her reflection for the first time only hours after in the stale hospital bathroom, she panicked. But only momentarily. Her splintered nose would require fixing, no doubt – and she had always condemned the way it audaciously curved like a hook; casting shadows on her little face. The slight hint of a smile hauled the right side of her broken lips upwards as she gazed longingly at the centre of her face. Finally.
My mother’s name means ‘little princess’ in Tamil, despite her being Burgher. From her mother – my grandmother, Rosemarie – she inherited a hankering for rice and dal, a sharp jawline, pea-green eyes and a nose that protruded daringly at the bridge.
I was twelve years old when a surgeon abraded her cartilage; refining her face and repairing her insecurities. I don’t really recall how it looked beforehand. My understanding of my mother’s hook nose had been preserved, however, in restored VHS home videos, and the occasional photograph from an obligatory family do back in the day. While I lost track of her bulbous hallmark, I never forgot her excitement at its removal. I understood it. I sympathised with the way she chose to profit from her unfortunate disfiguring; how she requested it be maimed into perfection.
One evening, post-surgery, I studied my mother as she stared vacantly towards the television. I wondered what lay beneath the discoloured bandages that kept her face intact. A supermodel? Probably. In fact, she would absolutely look like a supermodel with her olive complexion, her tiny nose and generous smile. My exuberance allowed me to look past the swollen, purple contusions that caused her eyes to water, and the awful mixture of blood and snot that leaked through the tape occasionally.
But it didn’t matter then, for when I looked at my own reflection almost a decade later, I could observe the bruising properly. This time around I was sure that, with my olive complexion, tiny nose and thick eyelashes, I’d look like a supermodel as well.
I hadn’t fallen on my face in an inebriated fashion one evening, like her. There were no paramedics, only consultations. I forged a somewhat likely scenario to tell my friends, where my nose had been rammed into the white walls of a squash court. I know. It was unfortunate, but I’m okay. I’m just glad it happened in the holidays so I have time to heal. I was twenty-one, tired of screening my tagged photographs religiously, and fed up with investing in a stockpile of contouring liquids to ‘slim down’ my snout. I didn’t want an optical illusion.
While I lost track of her bulbous hallmark, I never forgot her excitement at its removal. I understood it. I sympathised with the way she chose to profit from her unfortunate disfiguring; how she requested it be maimed into perfection.
At the time, I found the procedure empowering. It permitted me to dissect – in more ways than one – my insecurities. Perhaps my surgeon was just exploitative and money hungry, but he agreed with me. My nose was a smorgasbord of immodest ethnicity, with a sprinkling of ‘manly attributes’ to top it off.
The skin healed quickly. The tape peeled off, and my pear-shaped piece of cartilage had deflated in all the right places. I bleached my hair, purchased a new eyebrow pencil, and showcased my state-of-the-art beak as if it were a costly accessory. In fact, that’s entirely what it was.
Identity is a funny thing. Each of us wants to be understood; seen for what we are. When Lucinda and her Sri Lankan work colleague bumped into me as I sipped on a lemon, lime and bitters on Chapel Street only two weeks ago, Lucinda proudly declared, “Madison’s a Burgher as well!” Her dark-haired workmate looked me up and down with her pea-green eyes, and politely exclaimed that she’d never have guessed. As she wrapped her skinny, bronzed arms around Lucinda in a cushioning embrace, I caught a glimpse of her side profile, her identifier. That’s why.
For the first time since my limp body lay silent on that human-sized chopping board, I felt ugly. Ugly only in virtue of not paying tribute to my ethnicity. For having it mutilated. For erasing myself from Ceylon the way my surgeon erased the bridge of my nose in his mock-ups. “You’ll come up beautifully,” he’d exclaimed, placing his sweaty pointer finger on the shiny photograph he’d taken of my side profile. “Like Rooney Mara. Just a little darker.”
The beauty one feels after rhinoplasty is a unique, white poison when infused with cultural inheritance. This is what I took with me to the drawing board: whiteness. Lightness. Light, in complexion. Light in weight. Light, like the car lights I thought were responsible for attracting my disoriented mother. Light, like the bandages that kept our marred faces together. Perhaps I wasn’t wrong. Perhaps she and I were attracted to the white, blinding lightness of it. My mother and myself: two ethnically ambiguous rabbits, after all.
Illustrations from Vaught’s Practical Character Reader, a book on phrenology by L. A. Vaught published in 1902.