Venus was born of sea-foam, and then Zephyrus, the west wind, blew her to the shore so she could begin spreading love and beauty to the world. Ella, on the other hand, was born on Dr. Thomas Loeb’s operating table, and although she had just been made beautiful, her creation was no pastel-hued affair; no gusts of winds accompanied her, no waves crashed in the background. Dr. Loeb opened an unconscious Ella’s face, broke her nose, reset it, shaved the bone down, and then stitched everything up as he bopped to ’80s synth pop. If Ella had been awake, she would’ve pondered how Black Sabbath would have made a far more appropriate music choice, because when you think about it, nose jobs are very metal; however, the witty part of Ella had been metabolized along with the anesthesia in her IV. There was nothing on her mind. The Oxycontin she would take when she woke would make sure of that.
After a year of her swelling reducing, Ella’s nose would eventually come to be small and upturned with soft, delicate curves, which would contrast her oversized, round features nicely. Four days after the surgery, though, she looked like she’d just lost a heavyweight fight. The violence of the procedure had temporarily turned her usually long and narrow face-shape into an isosceles trapezoid. Under her eyes and along her jaw were purple and green bruises. Over the previous night, Ella’s swelling had gone down so dramatically that her nose cast had fallen off. As every day was an Oxycontin blur for her, and every night was an Ambien mirage, when Ella woke up on Day Four, she thought she’d dreamed of losing her cast until she looked in the mirror and was confronted by the malformed carnage of her new nose. Her scream had brought in her mother, who called Dr. Loeb’s office, only to find out that there was no reason to get another cast.
Ella retreated to the guest room, which had become her recovery center, as it was located right next to her parents’ bedroom, so her mom could easily wait on her hand and foot. She felt like plastic surgery recovery had been made out to be this glamorous thing, represented in pop culture by a scarf tied around someone’s face, big dark sunglasses to hide swelling, and a small bandage on the nose. In real life, this was not so much the case. Dr. Loeb had told Ella that she wouldn’t be able to wear sunglasses for at least four months, as not to damage the bridge of her nose, which could still be fragile and swollen for up to two years post-op. And, although Ella was hardly aware of this, and wouldn’t find out until she quit painkillers cold-turkey the next day, if she hadn’t been taking drugs, she would’ve been in excruciating pain like none she’d ever felt before. Invasive plastic surgery, it turned out, sucked.
Lying in bed, rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Ella started to wish she could see the future. She wanted to know if her nose job would work magic. Would she finally love herself? Realistically, she wouldn’t for years, as she was a fifteen year old girl, and her mental health was about to unravel as soon as she stopped taking pain medication. Would boys start to notice her? Yes, but perhaps this was also because all the medication she was going to start taking for her soon-to-be-diagnosed Bipolar Disorder would make her gain twenty-five pounds, which would mostly go to her boobs, making her a 32DD. Or maybe it was because in a few short months, she’d finally get her braces off. Ella was too young to realize, though, that her nose job wouldn’t cast any spells, but rather would give her the confidence to enchant people with the charm that she’d had all along.
Ella let out a hollow-sounding fart. It smelled an upsetting amount like spoiled meat. She whimpered, and then winced because doing so sent a twinge of pain to her stitches. The gas wasn’t new. She’d been on a diet of pills, ice cream, and rice for four days, which was bound to do weird things to anyone’s stomach. She got up and went to the bathroom. As she was washing her hands, Ella caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. For a moment, she saw herself as she was, and then she began to notice that behind her reflection, a mist was forming. She turned on the bathroom fan. It did nothing to dissipate the now-heavy fog. Did the light blue walls and gray tile floor of her bathroom always have such green undertones? Ella didn’t think so, but wasn’t certain that they’d changed until the washing machine and dryer dissolved away, too, and in their place stood tall, thin trees, whose leaves were billowing in the wind that had begun to blow. “Ruh roh,” thought Ella. She took a seat on the now-invisible toilet, unsure if she was about to faint.
Suddenly, where the mirror once stood, a woman appeared, bringing with her the smell of peonies and salt water. The woman was naked, and her body was soft and curvy and slight and delicate. Her impossibly thick golden hair was billowing in the wind, and the ends of it wrapped around her body to preserve her modesty. The woman’s face was serene and alluring at once, all doll-like features, alabaster skin, and pink cheeks. A half-shell took shape under her. “And Venus was her name,” Ella noted to herself, too confused to give anything more than a weak smile at the goddess in the room. Venus beamed back at Ella, which nearly melted the young girl.
In a voice that could only be described as mellifluous, Venus spoke. She said, “As I’m sure you already know, Ella, beauty is pain sometimes, but you should also know that it doesn’t have to be. Your Before picture was just as pretty as the After. And how gruesome is the During?”
How could someone who was just born on her bathroom floor already be so wise? Ella felt simultaneously on the verge of laughter and tears. “Yes,” she managed to choke out.
“And you know,” continued the goddess, “with great power comes responsibility. But that doesn’t mean you can help the fact that men are jackasses.”
“Like Helen?” mused Ella.
“Exactly. She was beautiful, but that doesn’t mean she was asking to get kidnapped,” Venus rolled her eyes, and then returned them to meet Ella’s gaze. Her irises seemed to flash every color imaginable, including colors that Ella didn’t know existed, like mischief, and all-knowingness.
Although Ella was quite curious, something told her not to ask Venus about the goddess’ Greek counterpart, Aphrodite’s, role in the Trojan War. Ella shook her head. “Fuckin’ Paris. Am I right, ladies?”
Venus laughed, and then quickly grew more serious. “Ella. For women, it isn’t that you get what you give. It’s that you should take what you give, if not more.”
“My mom always says essentially that.”
“Smart woman,” smirked Venus.
“She also tells me, ‘if you ever have sex with a boy with nail polish, be double sure to wear a condom.’” Ella had been too young to quite understand that advice when she’d gotten it, but nonetheless, it had sounded important coming out of her mom’s mouth, and so she’d written it down. Someday, when she went to NYU, Ella would see memes about guys wearing nail polish fingering girls and either giving them UTIs because they couldn’t see the dirt under their fingernails, or not wearing topcoat and leaving OPI chips in vaginas everywhere, and her mom’s advice would come in handy.
“Cute,” said Venus, but actually, Ella thought she detected some jealousy in Venus’s voice. Perhaps Venus wished she had come up with that one herself. “My girl, you want to be the one to walk in the sun. But always wear sunscreen.”
Cyndi Lauper? Ella had been kind of on the fence about whether Venus had originated the phrases she’d been preaching, but now Ella was certain that actually, Venus had a bit of a culture vulture streak. The goddess was totally going to pirate Ella’s mom’s advice. “Venus,” Ella joked, “I think that’s plagiarism.”
“Pobody’s nerfect.” Venus was too cute to get mad at. Ella made a mental note of that tactic. Although she wouldn’t remember her encounter with Venus once the painkillers wore off, in fact, Ella would use the cuteness strategy in all of her romantic relationships down the line, with a whopping 75 percent success rate.
“I want to be the girl with the most cake,” said Ella, abandoning academic honesty for a moment, “but life will suck if I don’t throw a party and share it.”
“Now you’re getting it!” cheered Venus. “Listen, Ella, I’ve got a brunch thing to get to in Rome, but you’re a good kid, and you’re in the home stretch with this whole recovery thing.”
The molecules that formed Venus started to separate, and the fog in Ella’s bathroom was clearing rapidly.
“Any parting advice?” Ella shouted after Venus.
“Dance like nobody’s watching!” called Venus, and as her voice grew fainter, she added, “But if you notice a very creepy man watching, stop dancing, glare at him, and then find a different place to dance.” And then she was gone.
Ella blinked and found herself standing in front of the bathroom mirror. Her head was spinning, and so was the entire room. She knelt in front of the toilet, opened the lid, and unleashed a well-aimed stream of projectile vomit into the bowl. As Ella would find out concretely the next day, the nausea was due to her body withdrawing from the pills, and this was only the beginning, as the next day, she wasn’t going to take any Oxy at all. The force of her puke hurt the sutures both inside and outside of her nose tremendously. Ella returned to the guest room, half-crawling, and texted her mom to ask for a bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Half Baked. At that moment, everything seemed simple in a way that it wouldn’t again for years afterwards, and she wouldn’t even get to remember this feeling. Someday she’d learn all of Venus’ lessons for herself, but she was young and life is long. Unaware that she still had a ways to go, Ella closed her eyes, and as she did, she began to sing to herself, “Yes the girl on the halfshell/ Would keep you unharmed.”