Natalie asks him for a gift before he leaves, a part of himself to remember him by. Mathieu pauses in the doorway, considering this wild-haired girl lying on her stomach in bed, the sheets tangled up around her waist. Then he takes off his nose and hands it to her. She is taken back by the gesture; Mathieu is a sous chef and his nose is critical to his job. It’s too serious, too fast, but she doesn’t know what to say, so she just accepts it, holding it like a nervous parent. They kiss before he leaves and Natalie thinks to herself, his face is so different without his nose. The crooked line of his nose defined his face. Without it, his face is shapeless and round.
Once he’s gone, Natalie crawls out of bed and goes to the closet. She parts the sea of stiff-collared work blouses and her tight club dresses and there, in the back, is a shelf with a dozen glass jars filled with body parts: feet, kneecaps, elbows, lots of fingers, a few ears, and even one eye.
Natalie picks up an empty jar and unscrews the lid. Overcome by an impulse she doesn’t understand, she kisses the tip of Mathieu’s nose before she sets it in the jar.
At work, people can sense that something has changed; they ask Mathieu if he got new glasses or put product in his hair. His best friend at work, Tobias, drops a bundle of onions on the stainless-steel counter and says, “You’re different. I can’t tell what it is, but there is something… different about you.”
Mathieu just smiles, slicing cleanly through the layers of the onion to its tender core. His knife kicks up the enzyme in a faint spray and his eyes begin to water. His tears, used to catching in the flares of his nostrils, drip silently onto the stainless counter.
“So, what’s the problem?” Natalie’s friends ask her at the bar that evening, over tequila shots rimmed in salt.
“He’s too…” and Natalie waves her hands, already three or four shots deep, and wonders if average is an acceptable reason to not be into someone. After all, who does she think she is?
But it’s not about being average or normal or boring. She has been with those kinds of men before. Some of them she even remembers with a certain degree of fondness, like one might remember an apartment they inhabited briefly a long time ago.
“He didn’t enchant me,” she finally says. And then, with a pause, to give the effect of being an afterthought. “And also, he gave me his nose.”
“Jesus, you lucky bitch,” cries one of her friends. “I can’t even find one guy to give me part of himself and you’ve got a whole fucking collection in your closet.”
The words sting like acrylic nails digging into Natalie’s face. On paper, her life is perfect. But she’s not paper. She’s flesh and blood and bones, ribs lacing her up as tight as a corset. Her lungs burn. She excuses herself, mumbling something about the bathroom.
When the first wave of cool evening air hits her, the shock is as violent as jumping into glacier water. Natalie can only imagine what she looks like – her hair a mess around her face, her body sweating even in the frigid air – she probably looks like she’s having a heart attack, which is ironic because she doesn’t have a heart anymore.
Tobias pesters Mathieu all week. “Did you get the promotion? If you did, you can tell me. I won’t be mad.”
He wants to tell Tobias, of course – they’ve been friends since they were six years old, the two of them making mud pies in the backyard of Mathieu’s step-father’s house – but he is afraid because he knows that once he begins talking, he won’t be able to hold back; the words will flood out of him, like oil spreading across the bottom of a hot pan, and the moment that he and Natalie architected out of beer and her fingertips pressing into his back and his eyes locked onto hers never truly felt real, especially now that it has been twelve hours and sixteen minutes since they said goodbye casually, without even a “So… text me?”
That’s why, even though Mathieu knows in his gut that that moment between her and him — that moment in which they alone existed, when their world was narrowed down and bounded by the four posts of her bed — was different than all the other moments he’s shared with girls in the past, doubt is already eating away at that certainty.
“Do you smell mothballs?” Mathieu asks Tobias; maybe it’s the insecurity or maybe he’s just going crazy, but ever since he gave Natalie his nose, the smell of mothballs has been growing steadily stronger.
Natalie spies the newspaper abandoned on a table at her favorite coffee shop. She is on her way out the door, but she has an extra minute; Natalie flips the paper over and scans for her go-to section: the horoscopes. On her way, she stumbles across one of those snarky love-advice columns. Before her eyes flit away, she catches the question, “When should I tell the guy I’m dating that I don’t have a heart?” Natalie drops into the seat. The empty space in her chest pounds. She spread the paper wide with trembling fingers. Smooths the creases as she reads.
Mathieu texts her after work. Asks her to come over to his place to have dinner. He isn’t stingy; he would take her out, but he cooks for a living and Mathieu knows that she’ll be delighted with the dinner he has planned. While Natalie was in the shower at her place, the night she brought him back home, he rifled through her produce drawer. It was an invasion of her privacy, maybe, but a small one, and justified by his intentions: a dinner cooked so perfectly that she can’t help but fall for him.
Natalie is supposed to arrive at 7; by 7:15, Mathieu has imagined a dozen disastrous scenarios – maybe her phone died and she didn’t write down his address, maybe she took a nap and overslept, maybe she got hit by a car when crossing the sidewalk in front of his apartment building – but the moment Natalie arrives, the doubts settle, her presence ushering in the eye of the storm.
She sits nervously on the edge of her chair. He is in prime condition in the kitchen; he minces and sautés and tops off her wine glass, thinking the entire time how magnificent she looks in her dress.
They spill the first few sips of the second bottle on his sheets. He waves it away, “Something to remember you by,” Mathieu tells her as he slides his lips lower on her body, and the words echo in her chest, throwing her out of the moment. Something to remember you by.
She agrees to stay the night, but at three in the morning Natalie gathers up her things in the semi-dark and slips out of his apartment. The hallway is barren, but bright, and her shadow looms over her. The dark pit in her chest feels like it is imploding, devouring her inside-out.
Mathieu texts her two hours later, a simple, “Hey, are you OK? Did I do anything wrong?” She turns her phone off, unable to stand the glare of the screen.
Mathieu shows up at her house a week later. He doesn’t ask why she left. He doesn’t ask why she hasn’t responded to his texts. Sure, yeah, at first he was pissed. But this isn’t the first time a woman has disappeared. He wouldn’t even be here, except that she has something of his and Mathieu needs it back.
“Where’s my nose?” he asks her when she answers the door.
Natalie thinks about lying, telling him she doesn’t have it, that she threw it away. He’ll be mad, of course, but mad is an emotion she is used to. Mad is an emotion Natalie can handle.
Something about his face, perhaps the lack of nose, even, is ultimately too vulnerable; she can’t lie to him.
“It won’t work,” she tells him.
“I don’t care about us. I just need my nose back. I screwed up. I need it for my job. It’s the only thing I have.”
“No, you don’t understand. Even if I give it back to you, it won’t work again.”
“I have to at least try,” pleads Mathieu.
Natalie examines him quietly, then takes his hand and leads him inside. From the closet, she retrieves the jar. Opens it and gently shakes his nose loose. It falls into Mathieu’s cupped palms like a mushroom.
He turns it over in his fingers, lining it up, and presses it against his face. For a moment, Natalie feels a faint flicker of hope – not for them, no, but for him. That he might be different. Whole. But when Mathieu removes his hand, the nose falls.
Natalie doesn’t tell him I told you so. The pain is too acute. She remembers the day her fiancée left her. On the morning of their wedding, he showed Natalie the ticket to Thailand, said he needed some time to “find himself,” that he was too young to get married. He gave Natalie back her heart as she slipped the ring off her shaking hand.
Alone for the first time in years, Natalie sat on the couch in their living room, sobbing so hard she thought her ribs would splinter. She finally fell asleep, cradling the heart in the crook of her elbow, the same way she cradled her favorite stuffed animal when she was five.
When she woke and saw the heart, Natalie picked it up in both her hands. Anger flooding her, she opened her mouth and popped the heart inside, pushing it past her tongue, past her gag reflex, into the thick of her throat. It slid, slowly, painfully, down her esophagus.
She waited – that day, the next, all week – for something to happen. For the veil of numbness to lift.
And then, almost two weeks later, Natalie woke up in the middle of the night with a searing pain in her chest. It took the ER surgeons six hours to remove the fetid heart, to scrape off the gangrene that had started to spread into her lungs, her throat, her stomach. Six hours to make her “good as new,” according to the nurse who released her—minus the four-inch scar running down her sternum and the empty space in her chest. “You can get a prosthetic,” the nurse told her cheerily. “They’re truly excellent quality, saline cardiac implants – feels just like the real thing.”
“You don’t need it,” Natalie tells Mathieu. “You’ll learn to live without it.”
“It’s not easy,” she says. “You’ll never be whole again. You’ll develop coping mechanisms. We all do.”
Natalie looks up at him. Her face is wet. She hasn’t cried in years. Mathieu’s fingers skim the edges of her face, pulling her desperately close. He kisses her forehead, then the bridge of her own still-intact nose, moving down her cheekbones, kissing her cheeks, her chin, her mouth.
“No,” he whispers against her skin; the words vibrate the wisps of her hair like chimes in the wind. “I refuse to believe that.”
Mathieu’s arms fold around her like a rib cage. Natalie can hear his heartbeat. She can feel his blood circulating in his chest. The warm pulse of it is an emotional dialysis machine; standing there, in the threshold of her closet, in the grip of the man she is afraid to love, Natalie feels the particles of hurt being filtered, slowly but surely, from her long-stagnant blood.