On Nostalgia

Author: Martha Zaytoun

My hair is particularly sensitive to the products I use. And, for some reason, the different scents of Dove conditioner have varying effects on the sheer size of my hair. There is a certain scent of Dove conditioner that I normally avoid purchasing because it doesn’t hydrate my hair the same way that other scents do — meaning, it gives my hair a certain amount of body that closely resembles a lion’s mane. Every now and then, though, when I have squeezed the last remnants of conditioner from the various bottles littering my shower ledge, I’m forced to reach down and pump a handful of conditioner from that bottle — any conditioner, after all, is better than none. And each time I do, invariably the scent of home, or particularly the beach, envelops me. My mind returns to the summers I spent completely in the sun, scorching my skin, without a care in the world. The lazy summers when even packing a bag and walking out onto the beach felt like a chore; when all I wanted to do was sit, read and jump in the ocean. 

It takes me back to the outdoor showers beneath my grandparents’ beach house. The ones with the wooden doors the younger grandchildren were always afraid to close for fear that one of the annoying boy cousins would come along and try to lock it from the outside, leaving us to scream loudly for an adult to rescue us. The mismatched shampoos and conditioners sat in a bucket on the bench inside; half were empty and the other half had been there so long that I repeatedly wondered if hair products could expire. Every afternoon the grandchildren would all straggle in from the beach, various shades of red, and join the quickly growing line outside of the showers. There were two. If you begged, some cousins would let you jump in their stall with them. You would walk in and sift through the plastic bottles, assessing their varying levels of emptiness, often forced to yell through the wall to the other shower-goer, asking them to pass their conditioner when they were done with it. A few minutes later, a conditioner bottle would come flying through the hole in the upper reaches of the wall separating the two showers. You would duck, hands over head, then stand and pick up the offering, grateful for any product, expired or not.

Opening the cap, the same smell — despite probable differences in brand and scent — always seemed to envelop me. The same smell that envelops me every time I am forced to use that less-hydrating scent of Dove. Frankly, I’m not certain what the scent is supposed to be. I’ve never cared to look. I just know that the moment I open it, I will be transported back to those summers. Those beach days when my dad forced us to bike everywhere. When the heat and humidity was only made bearable by the readily available saltwater. 

There’s an extent to which that certain scent of Dove conditioner (that I can’t quite name), perceptible changes in temperature (like a warm day permeated by the first cool breeze of the season) and James Taylor’s Christmas album (or any music with strong childhood ties) evokes a similar sensation in me. Perhaps it’s what you call nostalgia: a longing for a time far gone. Why these particular things trigger such a visceral reaction is unclear; a function of my brain that is unknowable, if not completely random. A chemical response. 

These days, as the end of senior year approaches, I throw around the word nostalgia a lot. As if I have some clear conception of what it means. It’s partially a casualty of reflection, my tendency to dwell, to over-analyze. But, in the end, it’s just a sensation. A sensation that I don’t — and likely can’t — fully understand. It’s the feeling of missing something before it’s gone; of listening to last year’s Spotify playlists and immediately calling memories to mind, the ones that seem to come from nowhere, a deep recess of the brain. I frequently joke about how poor my memory is. Things of the past — even as recent as last semester — acquire a dream-like quality before disappearing altogether from my mind. I think of the past, experiences and days, and they feel like a product of my psyche, rather than something that was once tangible. Then, they simply disappear. 

But, I really do feel as though my most salient memories are of nature. I can't remember what I ate two nights ago, but when I close my eyes at night and imagine myself on the coast of North Carolina, I can almost feel the grains of sand shifting beneath my weight, the salt drying on my skin. I can smell the breeze and taste the saltwater. It is present in my mind in a way that the duller, more mundane, less beautiful memories are not. But particular memories of the beach — of my childhood — still require instigation. They require me to reach, unwillingly, for the “bad” bottle of Dove conditioner. So that I can crack it open, so that the scent can bear me back into the past.