L'escharpe by Alexis Nelson

hen I was thirteen, everything important I knew I had learned from my best friend Sarah’s older sister, Cathy-Anne. For instance, I knew what gelatin was really made of, and I knew about how chicken factories purposely bred chickens to not have any legs so that all they could do was sit around and get really plump. Cathy-Anne was twenty-four, a vegan and a deadhead and a genius. After college, she’d travelled the world, following the Grateful Dead. Now she was going to medical school so that she could one day ride around in a van giving free pap smears to homeless women.

Cat never shaved; she didn’t wear bras or underwear or anything made from leather. I did wear underwear, and I would have worn a bra if I’d needed one, but otherwise, I tried to dress exactly like Cat. To accomplish this, one item was absolutely essential: the hippie skirt. Long and flowy, the ideal hippie skirt bears a faded paisley pattern, or a ring of Indian elephants along the bottom. To say that the hippie skirt is timeless is not quite right, but I’m sure that the same patchouli-scented shops on Haight Street where Sarah and I went for ours in the nineties are still selling them, and had probably been selling them for decades before that. Still, none of the skirts I bought for myself ever seemed to match the beauty of Cathy-Anne’s.

On August 9, 1995, everything changed. That morning, Jerry Garcia was found dead in his room at a rehab clinic. Groups of mourners spontaneously gathered in the Haight and Golden Gate Park, where they erected pretty shrines of sunflowers and scarlet begonias and little messages that read, “We will get by, we will survive.” At Sarah’s house that night, the mood was bleak. I learned that Cat had been crying all day, and for two more days straight, she cried. On the third day, Sarah and I were in the living room watching Mama’s Family when Cat finally emerged from her bedroom. Without saying a word, she went into the kitchen and made herself a sandwich of lettuce, tomato, and Fakin’ Bacon. Then she joined us in the living room and announced, “I feel like going shopping.”

Within a couple months, Cat had acquired a whole new wardrobe. She bought tight jeans and corduroys and pastel shirts made from strange, blended materials. She bought a pair of canvas sneakers from the Nike store at the mall.  The Nike store! She trimmed the ragged edges of her hair. She bought lipstick, and deodorant—all natural deodorant, but still. In desperation, I suggested she go on tour with Phish; I said I’d heard Phil Lesh was going to start out on his own. But Cat just gave me a sympathetic look and said, “It’s over, sweetie.” She said she felt bad for all the poor hippies who hadn’t realized that yet.

Cat let Sarah and me each pick a favorite item from her old wardrobe before donating most of the rest. I took a skirt with pretty purple flowers on it and a drawstring finished with little metal bells. The bells jingled when I walked, making me feel like a gypsy princess. But the skirt was too long on me, and when the edges started to tatter I grew fearful that the whole thing would come apart, and stopped wearing it.

In the fall 2010 issue, Alexis Nelson wrote about Gustave Flaubert's disastrous workshop experience.