I was born with a wide, indigenous nose. I had it lopped off, thinned out, whitened, when I was twenty-one. My biological mother, a Mexican-American woman who was twenty-six when she gave me up for adoption in 1970, had the same wide nose, the same nose her father had. At the time I had my nose removed and reseated, Europeanized, I had not yet met my mother. That would come a year later.
I met my biological mother for the first time when I was twenty-two, and marveled at how alike we looked. Almond eyes, thin build, and a wide, meaty, ski jump nose combining Mexico and Germany, as if all the hope of Norteño were a concentrated bulb on my face. My biological father, whom I also met for the first time when I was twenty-two, is responsible for the ski slope turn of my nose. Combined with the almond eyes and the Mexicali blade hanging off the end of my face, I may as well have been one of the idiot hopefuls in El Norte , a movie I watched in fascinated horror in freshman English class in high school. I hated my nose and my Chinglish eyes, and wished – prayed – they would magically change overnight. In grade school kids called me Chinese eyes , and on more than one occasion, especially during high school, valedictorians pointed out the obvious… you have a big nose, to which I’d retort thank you for noticing, all the while secretly burning inside with self-hatred. Whose fault was this? Why am I left with this legacy, my body?
My adoptive father, the kind man who gave me his last name, which is either German or Czech, originally spelled Hnulijk, Americanized off the boat (secretly Jewish, my aunt in New Jersey once said), told me throughout my childhood that my mother was Spanish, my father German. I had lofty ideas about my birthparents, who they were, what they looked like, the simplicity of their surnames. Their names reduced to ‘he’ and ‘she’ on the adoption narrative, I didn’t have much to go on. He was nineteen, she was twenty-six. They were unmarried and couldn’t afford a baby. Shirley Budd Pusey, the caseworker my adoptive father and mother worked with, was the same woman my biological parents worked with while I was in utero. The only thing Mrs. Pusey was allowed to tell my soon-to-be parents, two young people from Arkansas, was that my father was German and my mother was Mexican, the word Mexican somehow translating in my father’s ear to Spanish, the same way our eyes see things upside down. The adoption agency did their best, telling my father ‘we try to place babies with families who are ethnically similar to the child.’ They did fairly well. My father, Mr. Nulick, is German, and my adoptive mother, now deceased, was a Cherokee Indian from Des Arc. Cherokee, Spanish… close enough, yes? I imagine Mrs. Pusey thinking well they’re both dark, aren’t they? But perhaps I misrepresent her. I met Mrs. Pusey a few months after I turned eighteen, asking her if my court-sealed adoption records could be opened, and she was kind enough. My father sat in the office with me. I asked him to come. The answer was No – not without a signed affidavit from one or both parents. I signed the affidavit, my part of the bargain, and walked out of the office. After a few years of not hearing anything, I forgot about it.
I was living in a dorm room in Cedar Rapids when my biological father called. My roommate casually said some guy name Vince called for you. I don’t know anyone named Vince. He said he’s your father. Stunned, I looked at the number my roommate left on my desk on my side of the room. It was October 1991. I waited a few days before dialing the number. I hate talking on the phone, to strangers, to loved ones, to anyone. Laughing, nervously remembering the ‘I am your father’ line from The Empire Strikes Back. He lived in Phoenix, not California, as I had imagined. The reality was different from the adoption agency narrative, as it was noted both my biological parents had planned on moving to California once this nasty business had been taken care of.
My girlfriend Rachel drove me to Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital, where the rhinoplasty would take place. I had saved five thousand dollars in wrecking yard money for a new nose, though my father, who owned the wrecking yard, had no idea I was doing this. I’m not sure if anyone in my family knows, thirty years later. I lied and told them my face was altered in an automobile accident. I lived in Iowa, they lived in Arizona. It seemed plausible. I was back in Phoenix for the summer before starting my senior year at Coe College. Rachel and I had dated off and on all throughout high school, though I told her more than once I was queer (my father’s word, though now more politically charged than his bluntly tossed-off Arkansasism). Maybe it’s just a thing, Rachel said. We’d planned on moving in together, getting married, having children. Our first son’s name would be Gabriel. How many times had I been a cruel bastard to her, just to get her to leave, leave me alone? It never worked, and we were together for several years before I figured myself out. My father asked if I was queer when I was twelve years old. A terrible question to ask a child, I lied and said no, my insides a furnace, my arms at my sides, unmoving. I cried because he asked the question in front of a customer, another man. I lied because I wanted to be who he wanted me to be, a boy he bought and paid for. But at age eighteen I was tired of lying.
I lie in my bed
My eyes wide open
I’m in rapture…
If Bjork could be beautiful with slanted eyes, why couldn’t I?
I am the ghost of a love that died long ago. He still sends her a birthday card every year. She does, too. Though she can’t recall if he sent one last year. He has a new girlfriend, a bug-eyed Mexican woman my younger blood sister, an entirely different story, and one of the few good things in my life, lovingly refers to as La Llorona. He’s selfish. My biological mother is, too. You’re not the son I was expecting. I never wanted to have children. These are actual words he and she said to me, respectively, after meeting them, he in Arizona, she in California, when I was twenty-two. Then why chase her? The blind dumb stupidity of sex? Why open your legs? Her father, my dead grandfather Ben Romero, a nobody with a name so common I couldn’t find an obituary, was a Catholic who forbade abortion. Instead of the do it at home or the frost-crusted drive, I was circumcised and given up for adoption, having no say in either matter. I asked my biological mother – let’s call her Maria – if she held me after I was born. They wouldn’t allow me. They didn’t want us to bond. My paternal grandmother later told me she held me for a few minutes before they took me away. I was yanked into the world, held upside down, and touched by neither my mother nor my father. And yet my love for people is intense, it is close and tight-fingered, like a fist. The anger and bitterness dissolved somewhere around my late thirties, when I met my partner of twelve years. He has enough love when the world doesn’t. And bitterness is very unbecoming at my age. Life is much too short, and the anger I cloaked myself in for so long was a halo over my head, not theirs. Why didn’t you go back to California when you were pregnant with me, I asked. I could have been adopted by rich Jews who wanted an exotic child. Instead I got placed with the poorest couple in Phoenix. I didn’t think about it. Like a song, my life’s refrain, with little inherent meaning at all. At least it made for an interesting narrative.
My Asiatic eyes no longer bother me. I have become quite attached to them. And my nose, what did I know when I was twenty-one? I wish I had kept my old one, had used the five thousand dollars to backpack through Nepal with my friend Donald. I have been too selfish, and too concerned, with what others think. That’s all over now. I no longer care about my appearance, my foreignness. I’m old, I’m fat, and I don’t care about the grey on my scalp. Getting old minimalizes things, things you thought were important. Young men are frivolous, old men fritter away their days awaiting death. So I have this pointy thing on my face that cost five thousand dollars, paid in full with cash, salvage lot money, and it now reminds me of what I am not, not what I am. It took me forty years to accept who I am, continental drift, to accept I live a life in service of others. My biological parents, born in 1944 and 1950, haven’t learned anything, at least not about themselves, and will die alone. My adoptive father, the man who gave me his name, is still alive, and has enough love when the world doesn’t. I call him when I can, though I hate talking on the phone. He will be eighty-three in May.
My new nose, which I’ve had for twenty-nine of my fifty years, installed by a Jewish doctor who has an office in Scottsdale, we turn it inside out, you see, you won’t see the scarring, is a thin blade between the present and the past, a hairline continent separating Mexico from Germany, a useless rudder, horrific if it were missing, and like true North, a sextant pointing me toward my final destination, my death.
James Nulick @plexibubble is a writer based in Seattle, Washington. His new novel The Moon Down to Earth is forthcoming in late 2020 or early 2021.
Text and photos by James Nulick.
Banner: A Digital Art Piece Title: “DNA/Mannequin” by Robet Frede Kenter and Moira J. Saucer (c) 2020