She slides closer, puts her hand on mine. Outside I can see teenagers throwing beer bottles into the Danube, laughing. Across the table, Nick and the other girl (also our age, also speaking surprisingly good English) are still introducing themselves. They haven’t hit it off nearly as well. I ask, what did you think when we walked over? Nick came up with the line, you know. I thought that ‘are these seats taken?’ was too cliché. She laughs. No, no, it’s fine, she says. I’ll tell you, I thought you were very handsome. I thought you were a very handsome guy from straight away. But I have to ask —
—I have to ask about the nose.
The thing about having a big nose is, sometimes it gets in the way. I didn’t hit my growth spurt until seventeen, and with the extra foot of height came a new schnoz, glorious in its shape and wild disproportionality with the rest of my face. The closest analogue, I think, is Picasso’s 1931 Bust of a Woman (Marie-Thérèse), with its protrusion beginning well above the eyes, extending outward horizontally before falling gracefully at a forty-five degree angle. Or, if I’m being generous, Adrien Brody.
You’ll forgive me, she says. We don’t meet a lot of Jews in Austria. Yeah, but whose fault is that, I shoot back, and mean it.
My tone is harsher than I intend. I don’t think she’s an anti-Semite, probably more curious than anything else. I apologize. But the nose is an identifier — the identifier — of the Jew, and it makes me uneasy to sense the Germanic gaze on it again. Besides, Nick and I are in Berlin for the summer studying post-Holocaust memory politics. On Monday we’re scheduled to tour Sachsenhausen, and next weekend we’ll go to Budapest as a group, with a focus on the slaughter of Hungary’s Jews.
I don’t want to talk about that now. We’ve come to Vienna as a break, and I’m eager to explore the city, maybe reenact the plot of Before Sunrise. All she wants to know is what life is like with my Jewish Picasso nose. Have I ever been mobbed? (Not that I can remember.) Have I ever been bullied? (Not until now.) Have I considered a nose job? (People usually don’t seem to mind.) She doesn’t love the sarcasm. I tell her, truthfully, that I don’t come from a long line of Jew-nosed Jews. We think my grandfather may have had one as a young man, but after breaking it at an Army base during the Korean War, he had it replaced with a WASPier model so he could look more like his classmates from Boston Latin.
But my family members have worn other markers of their faith. My father spent his childhood in Jerusalem after his family escaped communist Romania. When he was ten they moved to Los Angeles, so he spoke Romanian at home and English with an accent. He’s now lost all his Hebrew and has no identifiable accent, and sometimes I forget that he wasn’t born in the States. Both my maternal grandparents are from Boston, but my grandmother works Yiddish into daily conversation, perhaps trying to preserve some of her mother’s tongue. For decades my grandfather could see the glass ceiling erected each time a new employer glanced at his last name.
In Goodbye, Columbus, Neil Klugman, the narrator, says about Brenda’s father: “there was a bump in [the nose], all right; up at the bridge it seemed as though a small eight-sided diamond had been squeezed in under the skin. I knew Mr. Patimkin would never bother to have that stone cut from his face.” Tonight, I think I finally understand him. Especially here, in a place where they don’t have enough Jews to know that you’re not supposed to ask a Jew about his nose, any more than you’re supposed to ask a black woman about her lips or an Asian man about his eyes. Where I — the New Jersey native, the occasional synagogue attender, the assimilated Jew — wear our original marker and am asked to justify myself to an Austrian girl in a waterside Vienna bar, seventy years after the Holocaust. I feel victorious over the Nazis. I feel ashamed.
By 2:30 AM, the four of us have had a few more drinks in this bar and gone to a McDonald’s for burgers and fries. The girls like how bad our German is, tease us when we prove that we can count to fifty. Siebenundvierzig, achtundvierzig, neunundvierzig, fünfzig. We say goodbye at a subway station, and she gives me kisses on the cheek. This isn’t how you expected the night to end up, is it? She asks. You have no idea. Nick and I head back to the hotel laughing, still tipsy.