By Jill Christman
Ella was not quite three on the afternoon of the googly eye. My husband, Mark, had gone to work, and Ella and I were sitting at the kitchen table eating avocado sandwiches.
Laying a finger aside of her nose, Santa-style, Ella looked me in the eye and said, “Mommy. My nose hurts.” She paused. “I have a googly eye in my nose.”
A “googly eye,” in our family lexicon, is a three-dimensional white eyeball containing a shiny black disc that jiggles around behind a transparent plastic cornea. That’s what makes it googly. (I Googled “googly eyes” and learned they’re also called “wiggle eyes” or “moveable paste-on eyes.”) Googly eyes are flat on one side—the paper side, the side used for gluing eyeballs of various sizes to paper, shells, and upside-down egg cartons to make monsters, crabs, and silly caterpillars. The other side, the googly side, is convex, like the surface of a real eyeball. The googly eyes Ella’s babysitter had brought over to stick onto funny monkey faces a few days earlier were big ones, at least half an inch across—not the kind of thing you’d want to have in your nose, especially if you were three and in possession of such a small nose.
I considered all this as I chewed a suddenly over-large mouthful of bread that had turned hard and dry between my teeth. Washing it down with a gulp of lemonade, I studied Ella’s face, her miniature button nose. How would a half-inch googly eye fit in that itsy bitsy nose? Pulse quickening, I mustered all my parenting skills to keep my voice level and calm. As with most circumstances involving human error, I began with denial. “What, honey? What did you say?”
She was watching me as carefully as I was watching her. Ella knew I had heard exactly what she’d said.
“Oh, Mommy,” she said, reading the panic under my act. She tossed her hair back in mock hilarity. “No! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! Ha ha ha! I don’t. I was just kidding you around, Mommy.”
I didn’t know what to do. How did she even think to say a thing like that? I have a googly eye in my nose.
“Honey,” I said. “Do you have a googly eye in your nose?”
“No,” she said, glaring now. “I said I was kidding you around!”
I let it rest. Maybe together we could pretend this one out of existence. And really, how could Ella have a googly eye up her nose? That would be nuts. That would be a medical emergency. And furthermore, how would it have gotten there? Ella’s a smart girl. She wouldn’t be foolish enough to insert a googly eye into her nostril.
* * *
An hour later, I tiptoed into her room to check on her during her nap. She was snoring like a piglet. I put my face right up to her face as she lay on her pillow, cheeks pink, blond hair sticking every which way, cherubic as all get up. The snore really was more squeal than snore—and, was I imagining this?—the sound seemed to be coming from just one nostril. The right nostril. Yes. A kind of whistling wheeze.
While Ella slept and sang, I consulted a book. Foreign objects, Nostril. The book said to not, under any circumstances, attempt to remove the object at home using a pair of tweezers. Tweezers! I thought. Of course! What a good idea! I read on. The removal process was a delicate one and not only could a hapless, panicky parent with a pair of tweezers damage the delicate nasal tissue, she could also make matters worse by a) lodging the object more deeply in the nose, or b) actually pushing the object into the throat, which could cause choking. The thing to do, the book said, was to call the doctor. I considered a plan of action, contemplating the possibility that this was all in my mind, and waited for Ella to wake up. I leaned over her face and studied her nose. Was that a lump on the right side?
Meanwhile, Mark was still at work at the University. Talking about poetry.
* * *
When Ella woke up, I was waiting. She sat up and rubbed her nose. She whimpered and repeated her confession: “My nose hurts.”
I pulled a book light from a shelf and sat on the edge of her bed. “Okay, honey. I’m just going to look up your nose and see what I see.”
As I moved in with the light, I heard echoes of that fierce child from William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force”— the flushed and feverish girl the country doctor has to hold down, using a big silver spoon to pry open her teeth so he can see her throat. It’s not quite that bad, but Ella fights it. Just as the wild-haired, blue-eyed Mathilda refuses to reveal, and thus confirm, her diagnosis—diphtheria—Ella wants to hide her own disaster. “No, Mommy! I was kidding you around! I don’t have a googly eye in my nose! I don’t, I don’t…”
Swinging a leg over her little body, I pinned her forehead to the pillow with my left hand. Gently. Then I angled the thin beam of the book light up into her right nostril.
How do I describe what it was to look up into my preschooler’s nose and see an eye, a googly eye, staring back at me? Accumulating mucus had slicked the surface, giving the eye a shining, evil glint. Ella twisted under my hold and let out a squeaky cry. In this sudden burst of air, the eye shifted and the dark pupil rattled with a menacing shimmy. I wanted to scream. Holy shit. But good, calm, handling-things mothers don’t scream when they shine lights into their children’s noses, do they? Even if there’s someone there, staring them down? I blinked, and looked again. Crap.
I flicked off the light and released my grip on Ella’s forehead.
“Okay,” I said. “Okay. Okay, sweetie, there is a googly eye in your nose.”
* * *
I wanted to grab the tweezers and get the eyeball the hell out of Ella’s nose. But I restrained myself and walked steadily to the phone. I am no good in a crisis. I have friends and relations, quite a few actually, who work as nurses and doctors in emergency rooms. This is what they choose to do. Not me. I simply don’t possess the disposition.
I dialed Ella’s pediatrician. It was 4:00 p.m. Of course it was. The nurse explained that because it was so late in the afternoon, there was no time to squeeze Ella in, but she reminded me that the after-hours emergency pediatric care, PrimeTime, would be opening in an hour. If we got there early to check in, we might be able to avoid a long wait. “Don’t try to get it out your- self,” she said before I hung up. “Really. Don’t.”
I was so tempted. This whole ordeal could be over in 30 seconds. By the time Mark got home, it could be a funny story instead of a medical emergency. We would eat dinner. I would finish grading that stack of essays.
Lining up all the tweezers I had in the bathroom, I chose a pair with a satisfyingly tapered and blunted tip. What could it hurt? I turned them over in my fingertips. Glint. How tempted we humans are to follow one misstep with another. I could fix this, I thought. Yes, mistakes were made, but if I do this right, I could get us all out of this mess. In an instant, everything could be okay.
* * *
Tweezers in hand, I checked my watch and called Mark, who was just then getting out of class.
“She has a what in her nose?”
“A googly eye,” I repeated, and then I broached the plan with the blunt-tipped tweezers.
“No,” Mark said. “Jill. No.”
Now, at least, I had someone to be mad at for this mess. Now, thanks to Mark, the risk was too great, and I would not be able to make it all better. Plus, where had he been in our hour of need? “Fine,” I snapped. “Just come home then. We’ll be ready to go by the time you get here.”
With Ella, I remained upbeat. “Sweetheart! Come to Mommy so I can give you a nice hairdo!” My inflection was cloying, way off. Ella eyed me suspiciously and I imagined her third eye, rattling, sharing her disapproval. My own mother calls me “sweetheart” when she is feeling one of two emotions: annoyance or helplessness. Here, the false-ringing endearment contained nuances of both.
* * *
At PrimeTime, I answered all the receptionist’s questions with a straight face.
“Reason for visit?”
“She has a googly eye in her nose.”
“You know, a googly eye. Those little plastic eyes you can glue on to make faces? A googly eye. I don’t know how long it’s been in there. And it’s pretty big.”
I wrote it that way on the form she slid across the counter to me: googly eye in nose. Later, on the bill, I noticed my description had been modified: foreign object/nasal cavity. Whatever.
* * *
The doctor’s name was unpronounceable, but the nurse recognized this and told Ella she could call him “Dr. Rock.” Dr. Rock was not a man of great humor, and so I tried to sit back and let the man do his work without too much intervention on my part, but his gravitas made me edgy. He shone his special nose light up into Ella’s nose. I can only imagine he saw the same thing I did. He flinched a tiny bit, mumbled something about taking a minute, and left the room. Dr. Rock didn’t come back. Long minutes ticked by.
“He’s looking it up,” I whispered to Mark. “He doesn’t know what to do.”
We read the same Sesame Street board book over and over, and Dr. Rock remained gone.
* * *
When he finally returned, two nurses flanked him. Shit, I thought, It’s going to take three of them? What are they going to do to her? What does he think is going to happen here? Can’t he just pull it out with a pair of tweezers?
Indeed, he had a pair of tweezers, albeit super-long ones with an astounding slanting beak. The nurses were giggling a bit. One of them asked Ella why she did it. “Did you think you were going to be able to see up your own nose?”
Ella didn’t answer. She wasn’t talking. Sensing the fear in the room, she sat in my lap as rigid as a stone.
* * *
The actual extraction was scary. First, Dr. Rock gave Ella a tissue and tried to get her to blow out the googly eye, but in my limited observation, nose-blowing is a skill that develops wondrously late in children. Even at almost three, Ella always sucked in instead of blowing out. Besides, she wasn’t exactly in the mood to follow instructions. Dr. Rock glided in on his wheeled stool. He was verrrrry deliberate and careful with his long tweezers, but they let me hold her. They never made me hand her over to the grinning nurses. That would have really freaked her out. It took way longer than I thought it should. It was not over in an instant. There were many missed attempts. Dr. Rock had to wriggle the beak over the top of the googly eye and pull it down. This was a delicate operation.
Finally, out it came. The googly eye.
“Ugh,” I said, “it’s even bigger than I remembered it.”
Dr. Rock held the googly eye aloft in his needle beak, both for the benefit of the nurses and his own consideration. He looked at Ella. “So now you know that we never put anything in our noses or our ears.” I waited for the “smaller than your elbow” bit, but it never came. He plunked the googly eye onto a tissue and handed it to me. Ella, still snuffling, asked if she could take it home for her memory box. I agreed that was a good idea, and with the anxiety of our own situation abated, I quizzed Dr. Rock about the kinds of things he pulls out of kids’ noses. I thought he was going to tell me that he extracts something from a nose every week or so, but in fact, he said the things-in-noses visits averaged three or four a year.
“I would have thought it would be more,” I said. “What kinds of things do kids put in their noses?”
“Mostly vegetables,” he said. “Beans, peas, things like that. Also, little stones.”
He finished writing on the billing report and handed it to me.
“What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever pulled out of someone’s nose?”
Dr. Rock thought for a moment and then said, “A high-heeled shoe.”
I gasped. “A shoe?!”
“Belonging to a Barbie,” he clarified, raising his substantial eyebrows. Still, he didn’t smile. Silly, hysterical mother who doesn’t supervise her kid well enough to prevent the introduction of foreign objects to the nasal cavity. Then he shook our hands and left the room.
For her trouble, Ella got a purple Care Bear sticker, which she stuck in the bag with the sticky eye—the googliness of which seemed intensified, or maybe, somehow animated for the time it had spent in a living body. Eek.
* * *
The next morning at breakfast, I asked Ella why she did it. What, I wanted to know, compelled her to stick that googly eye in her nose?
“I thought it would be different,” she said, looking sad.
Oh, I thought, yes! That’s it. Ella’s assessment explained a lifetime of my own biggest mistakes. I thought it would be different.
As a kid, when I jumped off the roof of the house with a garbage bag as a parachute, I thought it would be different. In high school, when I signed up for that course in trigonometry, I thought it would be different. Still in high school, when I climbed into the Jeep with the way-too-old-for-me boy who’d been drinking Blue Hawaiians out of a milk jug, I thought it would be different. Having survived and made it to college, when I stuck out my tongue and accepted the proffered tab of LSD at the Oregon Country Fair, I thought it would be different. Later, in graduate school, and certainly old enough to know better, when I traipsed after my girlfriend in the steaming, snake-infested Alabama woods at midnight to find a skinny-dipping hole, I thought it would be different. When I was laboring with Ella and I refused to let the nurse find a vein and put in a heplock, I thought it would be different.
* * *
In all of these unfortunate circumstances, before I stepped forward and entered my own mistake, too deep to extract my- self without feeling the pain or embarrassment or both of my own bad choice, I thought it would be different. I neglected to consider how hard the ground, how unfathomable the function, how drunk the driver, how potent and troubling the drug, how thick the underbrush, and how much a woman can bleed. What, then, had I wanted? How had I thought it would be different? Well. I thought the bag might catch the air and carry me, like a paratrooper or a butterfly, gently to the ground; I thought my mastery of sines, cosines, and tangents—Some Old Hippie Caught Another Hippie Tripping On Acid—might elevate me to another level of intellectual superiority in my high school; I thought the boy in the Jeep might think me adventurous and cool, and in return, would love me; I thought the LSD might take me somewhere beautiful, away from the stinking port-a-potties and patchouli of the dusty fair to a place of pure happiness; I thought the swimming hole would be right down the road, just five minutes, and that the Alabama moon shining on the water would illuminate everything; and I thought I would give my baby safe and natural passage into this world without drugs or intervention. On this last one, thank God, I got what I wanted—sort of—but I did have to receive a blood transfusion to counter what my doctors surely considered a grave misjudgment.
I thought it would be different. Of course. I wondered what Ella had wanted when she stuck that eye up into her nostril. What had her desired outcome, that different ending, looked like to her? “Different how?” I asked, watching her listlessly skewer a piece of waffle with a toothpick.
She couldn’t say. “I thought it would be different,” she repeated, as if that were all I needed to know, all I deserved to know. Maybe she thought the big googly eye wouldn’t slide so easily into her nostril, but would dangle humorously from the end of her nose and make everybody laugh. Maybe she thought she could stick things all over her face, as she and her babysitter had done to the monkey faces, and in this way become a kind of living craft project. Or maybe the giggling nurses were on to something. Maybe she thought if she stuck an eye up her nose she would be able to see the inside of her body.
Whatever the answer, Ella either didn’t know or she wasn’t telling, but what struck me as I watched her crunch down her apple slices was what she already knew about what we humans do when we mess up. Not even three, and Ella had known she shouldn’t tell. Her mistake would be her secret. How did she know that? Had we already modeled concealment for her? I gripped my coffee cup like a talisman, holding onto the lesson of the googly eye. I knew if I let that instinct for cover-up stick in my daughter, and deepen, the next big error would be mine to regret.
“Can I play now?” Ella asked. I nodded and she slid down from her booster seat, dutifully parroting Dr. Rock’s good ad- vice, using the not-so-royal “we” of adults talking to children. We NEVER put anything in our ears or noses.
But then, what if we could stick googly eyes in our noses to see the dark secrets of our bodies? How cool would that be?
Author’s Note: Seven years have passed since the googly-eye incident, and Ella is now a sophisticated ten-year-old with a six-year-old brother to keep an eye on. She has never forgotten Dr. Rock’s admonition about all that we must never, never put in our noses. (In fact, apparently she’s still peeved about his tone. “I was three,” she says now. “And Dr. Rock was talking to me as if I’d just committed some terrible crime. I was three! I didn’t know!”)
Jill Christman‘s memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, won the AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction and in 2011 was reissued in paperback by the University of Georgia Press. Recent essays have appeared in Barrelhouse, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Teeth, and many other journals, magazines, and anthologies.She teaches creative nonfiction writing in Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program and at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Visit her at www.jillchristman.com.