PRIVATE FACES, PUBLIC PLACES : Cosmetic Intimacy Colors a Most Intimate Ritual

In the old days in Russia, women began and ended their lives in the bath house. They went there to give birth; they went there as brides, the day before they married. And when people died, it was in the baths that women washed the bodies. The intimacy of tired flesh, of forgiveness and renewal--where do women know such closeness now?

In the old days in Russia, Zhanna Khotik was a factory’s production manager. She was a university graduate, a person of position. Her husband was an engineer, a man of stature who carried himself well. Before she came to America, she had not thought that her husband would toil here as a construction worker, or that, in this brave new world, she would end up waxing hair from legs, bikini lines and armpits.

Her customers like Zhanna: She is large, soft, comforting, old-fashioned as they themselves have no wish to be. Her long Titian hair is tucked untidily away in a bun; her smile is broad; she wipes her hands on a fresh apron as if it were an apple pie that she were tackling, not stubborn hairs to be pulled by the roots. She remembers what others forget: whose family doesn’t talk, whose father is sick, whose child has nightmares, the small sadnesses that find no other home.

She has set up her beauty bed, her pot of warm and syrupy wax, in the back room of a nail parlor on Santa Monica Boulevard. It is a parlor of Russians and Romanians and the air is alive with the velvet of their language: Adrianna, who specializes in pedicures; Maggie, plump and cozy in the corner; Gilda, all glittering drama by the front door--her husband has done better than most--and, against the far wall, Virginia, silent and broad, nodding over nails that are broken, talons created over stubble, coats of invincible lacquer.


The clients’ armchairs, deep and club-like, face into the room. They talk constantly: diets, divorces, the triumph of shopping, with petulance over stains on silk, of maids who let them down. And while the lacquer sets, they sink into other chairs, hands twittering, toes curling out from rubber stands to keep the ruby or the shocking pink from smudging. The talking never ceases; its intimacy gives no clue as to who is a close friend, who a face glimpsed today for the first time. The salon hears of the man who cannot commit, the weekend that soured, the ex-husband who tries not to pay--neither privacy nor restraint. The great knowing eyes from Kiev and Bucharest absorb it all.

To Zhanna, locked in the little back room, they relate their lives: operations, marriages, vacations, and in her kind and equable way, she worries for them. Somewhere are aunts who are never phoned, mothers rarely seen, grandmothers long forgotten; Zhanna becomes them all in the hour of half-legs and under-arms.

She treasures what 11 years in America have brought her: a home in distant hills, college education for her sons, a car, a holiday once in New York. And she keeps to herself the sadness for her own mother who died so far away, for her mother-in-law’s present suffering. Each night after work, she drives for hours to the hospital, grateful to have found one that would take a sick old woman with the wrong insurance. “You have to be lucky in life,” Zhanna says. “Even in dying, you have to be lucky.”

Unspoken sorrows: They are not plump, these Russians and Romanians, because they do not care--but because they care too much. They hold up the sky so that others may walk beneath.

And what of the clients, who drop $19 for a pedicure or a nail fill, $170 for a handbag, on a whim, from a visiting peddler? How many tip as generously, or remember to ask about Adrianna’s surgery, her aching back, the constant fear of bad times? Ah, the profligacy of a smile where friendship is not the greatest gift in our possession.

In the old days in Russia, women began and ended their days in the bath house. Have we reduced intimacy to the size of a finger nail, the depth of a hair root?