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at cvs on thayer st. [narrative]

a trip down shampoo lane

I stand in the haircare aisle for six minutes. 

There are other customers near me, so I press myself to one side, sheepishly smiling at them as they squeeze past me in the narrow aisle. They really should’ve designed the aisles better: They’re not quite large enough for two people to walk by each other without one twisting their body sideways in order to make it through. 

The interruptions and awkward shuffling distract me from the task at hand. I look across the shelves again and then back down to my phone. And then back to the shelves. And back down to my phone again. At this point, I’m just hoping for a sign from God that will let me know which shampoo and conditioner to buy. Until then, I’m trapped here in my indecision. 

The tab I currently have open on my phone is a Glamour article on the best shampoos for wavy hair in 2021. There are six other tabs open that all have similar titles, all on different sites. I don’t want my decision to be biased, and I’m not sure how much I can trust this Glamour writer. As I scroll through, quickly scanning the list and then looking up to see if this CVS has that particular shampoo in stock, I chastise myself for forgetting, once again, to do this before I got to the store. 

For me, there is a delicate art to buying shampoo and conditioner, a balancing act I often fail at. My standard ratio is one bottle of shampoo to two bottles of conditioner: I use just enough shampoo to clean my hair, and follow that with more than double the amount of conditioner needed to detangle it. I have used this practice since elementary school, when I would make myself cry as I tried to brush the snarls out of my hair. But despite this self-knowledge, I still regularly find myself running out of conditioner. 

I’m aware that some might find it odd to think this much about your hair products, but hair matters. Not just superficially, as in how your hair affects the way you look, but also in how it makes you feel, how it identifies you. I’m also sure that some people aren’t aware that the scent of your shampoo and conditioner lingers. It loiters in the unsettled air you leave behind, on the blankets you sleep under, on the shirt you rest your head against. When you use the same shampoo or conditioner for long enough, it becomes linked to who you are. 

I can never stick with the same shampoo and conditioner for very long. I think it’s because I always end up wondering if I could be using something better. My hair agrees. Whenever I switch shampoo and conditioner, I swear that for the first few days, my hair looks better than it ever has before. Every bottle has its own set of promises, its own reasons why it’s the perfect product for you, and of course, its own smell. My dad once told me that there’s a nerve that goes straight from your nose to the memory center of your brain. That makes sense to me. So when I inevitably reach the bottom of a bottle and find myself at CVS or Walgreens or RiteAid, I often decide, as I stare at the lines of bottles begging me to take them home, that it’s time for a change. Then the analysis paralysis kicks in. 

It can feel somewhat surreal to stand in the store and look down the shampoo and conditioner aisle. The colors and the words start to blur together after a few minutes. It’s like staring out at a crowd at a party; when you blink the world back into focus, there are a lot of faces you don’t recognize, some that you do, but only a few you’ve had any intimate experiences with. The familiarity of those few bottles and colors and names you do know can feel like a safety net. It’s not someone you’re planning on going home with, but someone you can occupy yourself with for a little bit. Shoot the shit. Maybe even reminisce. 

Today, nothing new is grabbing my attention, so I look back. 

Garnier Fructis - Sleek and Shine

The bottle is bright green and joyous. Suddenly, I’m six years old again. I’m in my cousins’ bathroom. There’s white light pouring in and the shower curtain shrieks against the metal rod as I pull it open. I scan the space and up there, in the corner, are my new shampoo and conditioner for the weekend, courtesy of my cousin Margot. When I pop open the cap, the whole room starts to smell like too-sweet fruit and citrus and summer. I’m convinced the shampoo is magic. 

When we get home from my cousins’ house, I persuade my mom to let me buy a bottle for myself.  

OGX - Coconut Milk

The wooden floor of the outdoor shower is slick with some sort of dark mold. The simple white bottle is pretty tame compared to the others around it. I’m scrubbing salt and sand from my body and trying (in vain) to detangle the knots whipped into my hair by the wind. Frustration bubbles up as my fingers get caught, yet again, as I try to comb them through. I’m up in Maine, spending as much time as I can in or on the water. I don’t think too much about my coconut-scented shampoo and conditioner besides whether it does a good job in helping me remove strands of seaweed from my hair. 

OGX - renewing+ Argan Oil of Morocco

A very particular shade of light blue. A staple in my routine for a while. They also make this one in the tiny travel-sized bottles, so I return to it now and again. I pack the squat, curved shampoo and conditioner with gold-ish caps last in my carry-on, so I have easy access when I go through TSA. It reminds me of Powell’s Books in Oregon and too-hot beaches in Florida and endless driving in California. It reminds me of my grandparents’ house in Maine and hotel showers and too-soft beds, somewhere familiar and somewhere new.  

Pantene - Moisture Renewal 

Two years ago, my then-boyfriend said something like, “A girl walked past me today, and I swear her shampoo smelled just like the one you used when we first started dating.” I didn’t know how to react. I half-smiled at the screen, tracing patterns onto the soft fabric of my bedspread. He was in Portland, I was in Providence. I wondered whether the next time he visited I should buy that old shampoo, in its unimaginative pearlescent bottle, just to see what his reaction would be. 

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I thought about it for a while, and then I decided that I did not want to regress. 

Garnier Whole Blends - Honey Treasures

The bright yellow bottle sends me straight back to my dorm room in Caswell—the room with the tall ceilings and the chipping molding and the windows I left open when it rained. I kept an extra pair of bottles stuffed in the corner of my closet. I always forgot they were there. When we went home for the pandemic, I decided not to buy it again. 

A little over six minutes after I enter, I walk out of CVS, the chaos of Thayer St. assaulting my senses. There’s no colorful bottle in my bag, no mile long receipt crinkled up and stuffed in the bottom. I’m leaving empty-handed. I tell myself I’ll be better prepared next time. I’ll research more beforehand. I’ll avoid getting caught up inhaling memories. 

When I go back in a couple of days, I’m only inside for four minutes. 


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