The iconic teardrop shaped bottle of VO5: a fixture in the windowsill in our bathroom in the 1980s. It was a heavy and greasy hair conditioner and smelled exactly like the 1970s, which would have been fine if we weren’t living in the aforementioned 1980s. It was the wood paneling of hair care products; from a past too recent to be vintage or kitschy, and just old enough to be out of style. I hid the bottle when friends came over.
Three daughters under one caved-in roof meant hair conditioner usage was monitored like underground earthquakes near a volcano, where one big jolt of conditioner used in a single shower would make the entire household melt down into a pool of lava.
At less than a dollar a bottle, VO5 didn’t even bother to put on one of those flip-top caps that allowed you to control the amount that came out of the bottle. You had to unscrew the top and then whack on the side until a random-sized blob flopped out into your hand. It was immeasurable, a surprise every time. You would slap, slap, slap and either a dime-sized dab or three-quarters of the bottle would come out and fill your hand. Half of the time you’d end up having to feed most of it back into the bottle, like you were stuffing unspecified meat parts into a sausage casing.
It was like VO5 knew you were poor and didn’t have an extra postage stamp to write a complaint letter. I bet if we did, they would have sent back a postcard that said, “You’re lucky it didn’t come in a sandwich baggie with a rubberband around the top. Suck it, loser.”
Finesse, at nearly three dollars a bottle, was the “In” conditioner, a status symbol. I kept the empty bottle under the bathroom counter and swapped it out for the VO5 bottle when friends came over. It was the Gucci of grocery store hair care products.
Finesse only showed up in our house on two occasions: (a) One time a year when Mom’s tax refund arrived and she felt like splurging, and (b) When you had lice.
Finesse had a strong, legitimately fancy scent, enough to overpower the smell of pesticide from otherwise wafting off your hair as you walked down the hall at school after a rousing evening of delousing. It was good conditioner, too. My mother swore by it for combing nits out of kids’ hair, and she always sang its praises as she glided the little comb through my hair, collecting the dead lice and their now-orphaned eggs.
Any time I would walk through school, my scalp freshly de-bugged, the unmistakable perfume of Finesse in the air, I imagined the girls in the hallway whispering, “What’s her secret? Did she spend the day at the spa?”
Then I would look at the imaginary television camera, put my hand up to the side of my mouth and whisper, “She had lice again.”