From Terra Ziporyn’s Permanent Makeup:
“She understood that the moments we call the past, present, and future coexist, so that everything that had ever happened or would ever happen was always present, and of equal consequence. For that reason, she supposed, it didn’t matter that you died; it mattered that you lived.”
Sit still in the chair of permanent makeup artist Maxine while she dispenses chicken soup for the soul and gives you a makeover that goes way deeper than the skin. The South Africa she fled, her casual Judaism, the husband who used her as a meal ticket, her current gentleman’s depressions, her daughter’s floundering, her love of her profession, and her love of having a profession—all are in the soup kettle.
Unbeknownst to Maxine, her daughter Dodie, a social worker, hides battered Shelley at nighttime in Maxine’s shop. When Maxine finds out, she hires Shelley as the replacement for her awol assistant and launches the re-making of Shelley into a woman who can go out into the world with a new identity and, hopefully, with the capacity to break a lifetime pattern as a victim.
Just as the test of a pudding is in the eating, the test of a book is in the reading. Let me give you some samples of Terra Ziporyn’s pudding:
Maxine, of her profession: “Micropigmentation, you see, is merely a glorified word for tattooing. We wouldn’t call it that to the patients, at least not initially, but that is essentially what it is.” … “Tattooing is an ancient art, my dear. We humans have been tattooing our bodies since the ice age. In many cultures. For many reasons—more than you ever want to hear, believe me. And by no means just the lowlifes were getting tattooed. No, the aristocrats got into the game as well. Why, the European royalty used to decorate themselves with tattoos back in Queen Victoria’s time.”
Maxine of her long-ago first marriage: If she was not earning a living for the three of them, she was waiting hand and foot on him, ostensibly in gratitude for his (official) renunciation of freedom. And here she could never be adequate, no matter how hard she tried. The roast was never cooked to the desired tenderness. The beer she bought was the wrong brand. The house was a bloody pigsty—didn’t she know how to dust? The telly was fuzzy—and that, somehow, was her fault, as she must have hit some dial while ineptly dusting. The baby cried too loudly, or too often, or too inexpediently.
Maxine’s daughter, Dodie, of her own faltering marriage: Perhaps the problem wasn’t that men coerced women into lives they didn’t want, she thought, or that men, even the most well-meaning of them, robbed women of their freedom and autonomy. Perhaps the problem was the women themselves. Could it be that even the freest of women, of which she considered herself to be an example, robbed themselves of their own liberty?… How was it, she asked herself, that the moment you stopped being young you started being old?
Maxine’s gentleman friend, thinking of his life: His scheme to lose 50 pounds somehow turned into gaining 15, and his hopes to open a deli somehow turned into a day in bankruptcy court. His desire to provide supportive guidance to his children somehow turned into general neglect, punctuated by misplaced but well-directed barbs about their vulnerabilities, particularly those he secretly shared. His promise to be a devoted, loving husband somehow turned into acrimonious, prolonged divorce proceedings that left him with little but bitterness for family life, and for people in general, as well as the conviction that he was fated to a life of loneliness, and that, worse, he deserved this fate. Speaking to Maxine of his attempt to write a history of a man found frozen in ice since 3300 BC: “From a longterm perspective all persons, all decisions, all matters, are alike, alike in utter insignificance.”
Maxine’s battered client Shelly, of the man she had stayed with through years of beatings: Once he started thinking she didn’t love him, it was like something got unplugged in his brain. That was how it always started. Like someone overcome by epileptic fit, or possessed by a golem, Rocco, feeling unloved, exploded, striking, pushing, shoving, speaking in what seemed like Satanic tongues. This fit would continue, unresponsive to all external stimuli, until his raw rage and atavistic aggression had reduced her to an unresponsive heap on the floor. She held her breath when he came at her and just waited for it to end. … Of why she stayed with him: It was like being sucked between two oppositely charged magnets, her own will depolarized by Rocco’s desperation to have, and his determination never to have, her. Either force by itself she could have escaped, and would, in fact, have longed to escape. Coupled, these forces were irresistible.
Maxine, reflecting during Yom Kippur service: Somehow we have a sense that only the moment that “is” counts, and that all other moments are not as real. Thus, we mourn the past and crave the future. If we could only develop a sense that these non-coincident moments are just as real, we would no longer suffer for not “having” them. It is the need to “possess,” and the feeling that we only possess the present, that leads to this oppressive yearning. That morning, though, she understood that the moments we call the past, present, and future coexist, so that everything that had ever happened or would ever happen was always present, and of equal consequence. For that reason, she supposed, it didn’t matter that you died; it mattered that you lived. … Furthermore, as long as she had memory, these accumulated moments, of which she now had a vast collection, she had nothing to fear from time, or her delusions of time. These moments, in fact, could come together to stop time. The girl who sat in that gold-laden shul at age 14 contemplating whether chewing a stick of gum would “count” as breaking the fast turned out to be the same person who sat in this streamlined temple today. Her age, her clothing, the softness of her seat or the smells and closeness of her companions, were irrelevant. Nothing at all had changed.
Maxine comparing her feelings for her son, Dennis, her daughter, Dodie, and her lover Rufus: She adored Dennis, too, and always would, but she had never been tangled up in him like his sister. She felt tied to him, naturally, certainly felt a love for him that surpassed who he was or what he did, but even as an infant Dennis had been in his own world, devoted to her and appreciative of her, but his own man, always. He would do right by his mother, and she would give her life for him, but even when he was small she knew he was answering to someone other than herself. What she felt for Dodie, in contrast, was as perfect and complete as it was terrifying and inescapable, and nothing she felt for Rufus Alvarez could ever come close to making her feel as distinctive, indispensable, or alive. Maxine speaking to daughter Dodie: “You hunt high and low for something to bring you down, as if that something isn’t going to find you very well on its own.”
Of a time when Maxine had first emigrated to the US from South Africa and lived with daughter Dodie and her husband: Nor could Dodie have possibly enjoyed it when Maxine insisted on stopping everything for afternoon sweets, rearranged the living room furniture, swept the dried oatmeal and peas that Dodie had never even noticed from the kitchen floor, or laid out the table for breakfast the night before to save time in the morning.
Permanent Makeup is focused on three generations of women, Maxine and her daughter and granddaughter. The book, in fact, offers itself as a heartfelt explanation to the disenchanted granddaughter and reaches a deft, gripping climax that moved this reader to tears—not of sentimentality, but of feeling for characters facing modest successes, seemingly greater failures, and the ticking of life’s clock, all too familiar to me.
Permanent makeup photos from freetattoodesigns.org, older synagogue photo from de.wsdg.com, newer synagogue from gushkatif.net, ice man photograph from donsmaps.com.