We first met three years ago, under the unflattering fluorescents of the neighbourhood Shoppers. She lingered in my aisle for what then seemed like eternity, studying every label of every product. It was late spring but her hair was mostly stuffed up into a lumpy toque, with two long strands attempting an escape behind her left ear. The toque was meant to disguise what she determined to be a bleaching mishap but could easily pass as an intentional style choice. That insecurity would be the cause of many late night drug store decisions. She stood directly in front of me, completely oblivious to my existence, as she considered the generic conditioners. She finally realized I was standing there all along and grabbed ahold of me as if she thought I was the answer to all of her problems.
She took me home that day and almost immediately took me in the shower. She was eager and determined and desperate, so sure that I would undo all the years of heartbreak and poor decisions—and almost immediately disappointed. I could only promise so much and it was clear I fell short of her expectations. Despite our failed first attempt, she kept me around. But she sought instant gratification while I demand commitment and patience, and what I thought would be a daily occurrence became an occasional dalliance. Eventually she started ignoring me altogether, leaving me to witness her continuing streak of bad decisions and terrible habits. She barely touched me. Now, to get called for duty is a religious holiday. I am drained slowly.
I often recall our first meeting. She hemmed, she hawed, the fluorescents hummed. Back and forth she went between the orchid and vanilla passionfruit and the island coconut verbena. How much time she spent comparing smells and costs and product descriptions! Did she want bounce and shine or lustrous radiance? Did she want to restore her roots or protect her DIY dye job? All that investment into choosing one of us and all of my benefits, squandered. She wanted a miracle; she needed me. We never really got started but, three years on, she can't seem to let me go. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
When I took up residence in my spot on the ledge, I met my first mate. He was at half-life and intimated that he'd never had a companion in his time here. Our collaboration would be short-lived, but I estimated I wouldn't be too far behind him. Within weeks, he was gone while my shelf life continued to extend and my definition of eternity redefined. His replacement was a complete mismatch. We never had a chance of working together but were forced to stand shoulder to shoulder. Or shoulder to Head & Shoulders.
Occasionally a smaller, plucky sort takes residence next to me, his duty to protect the freshly coloured mane. He quickly finds we do not protect anything except the tub's ledge from muck beneath our bottoms. Lather. Rinse.
She could reach out to me so easily! If she would spare one minute. Sixty seconds more here and she'd save the three minutes she spends struggling against the tangles she's created. How much more smoothly her day would go if she'd just condition herself! Lather.
Living on the ledge, you see a lot of stuff. If you can call this living. I've been here for three years. I've seen colleagues come and go. Sometimes she brings in a perfect match for me but leaves me to watch him die a slow death. I once sat high upon a store shelf, surrounded by like-minded colleagues, all waiting to fulfill our duty. Now I stand with my back against the wall, surrounded by the residue of fallen comrades. The alchemy of moisture and dust have left a grey muck on my head and neck. It gathers around me. Mildew builds up behind me. The drain clogs before me. Lonely strings of hair stick to the tile above me. I was once part of a beautiful and fragile rainforest. I was supposed to unleash my herbal essences to tame and control and repair. Now she doesn’t even pick me up to rinse me off. Rinse! Rinse, goddammit!
This is a room of great vulnerability as clothes and inhibitions are shed. It's behind the bathroom door where you'll find deepest insecurities unveiled and darkest confessions revealed. I've been audience to one-sided arguments and witty retorts come too late, performances of half-remembered pop songs and acceptance speeches, and utterances of wishes and prayers and regrets. I've heard the secrets that lovers keep from each other and the sobs of the lovelorn. From the tub's back ledge, we see all the worst angles. We are privy to the most delicate, what even humans have not dared to see—the backs of knees, the undersides of bottoms, and all those hard-to-reach places. We see the spots and lumps that go unnoticed for years but can change someone’s life one innocent August afternoon.
I've looked on as she liberally applied shampoo to pixies and page boys, blunt cuts and bobs, and the unfortunate permanent, which, fortunately, wasn't. She's been brunette, blonde, ginger, black, and back to brunette again. Every change is an opportunity for us to reunite, to start that routine anew. Yet, here I stand, a bottle mostly full. Not that I’m alone in my neglect. I take solace from my view of a glass cabinet filled with lotions, creams, ointments, sprays, and capsules—a collection of whiteners and brighteners, all touting similar promises of life-changing results, some preceding my own arrival. The cabinet is a shrine to North American beauty standards of the new millennium. We look on as she pulls and pokes at herself instead of applying any of her products. She grimaces and grins at her reflection, inspecting every microscopic imperfection. She jabs her stubby fingernails into the red spots along her chin when a row of pimple creams and spot reducers are at arm’s length. Her morning routine consists of toothpaste, soap, and shampoo. Is she saving us for some special occasion that never comes?
But, what would become of me otherwise? Had we stayed the course from the beginning, my end would've come along ago. And then what? My body is comprised of 20% post-consumer recyclables. Would I be refashioned into something more useful, more sustainable? Would I come back to her? Would I find new life in a landfill, giving more body and volume to seagulls' feathers? Would it matter? If the shower door slid the other way, I'd have been too busy to consider my own fate, just done and gone one day. Lather. Rinse. Repeat as needed.
Today, she looks quite different from our first meeting. Older, yes, but sullen and raw and bald. The toque fits loosely on her shorn scalp. She removes it and takes her usual position in front of the mirror. She doesn’t poke at the red spots on her chin or pull at the skin around her eyes. She simply stares into her tired reflection. She exits and returns with a cardboard box, into which she deposits the contents from the glass cabinet. All of the bottles and tubes of emollients, exfoliants, salves, and balms tumble and clatter against each other as they land in the box. She turns her attention to the tub, picking out the dull razors, the body scrubbers, and the tiny remnants of forgotten soaps. She stops and stares at me, or perhaps through me, just for a moment and her gaze softens.
Now, after three years, I know her better than she knows herself. I know she'll never come back to me—at least not for the purpose found on my fading label, words penned by a copywriter thumbing through his thesaurus for another way to make hydroxypropyl methylcellulose sound sexy: Lather. Rinse. Repeat. I now realize that I bring her comfort. I am not merely a hair detangler, but a bottle of good intentions and the promise of a better hair day. A shinier outlook is just a dime-sized dollop away. I am her someday.