OFF THE TRAIL by Stella Padnos-Shea
I. A Guide to Being 28 Years Old
AT THE CEMETARY DON'T act like you know what you’re doing or how to behave. Be too friendly. Giggle as you throw the second flower on the coffin, after his father. Thank everyone profusely for attending this most inauspicious occasion. You may never again have this chance to be a celebrity, to carry a burden as gracefully as a pashmina shawl, to question yourself as a stranger.
“Stella, how can you be so strong?” Pretend instead that she air-kissed your cheek, hug her and go on beaming. Grief makes you beautiful. Not eating for three days accentuates your cheekbones; the tears open up your big brown eyes. Black is always urban flattering, even in New Jersey suburbs. A bit of pink lipstick, a hint of blush, waterproof mascara of course. Everyone should have this honor, a funeral instead of a wedding, black skirt instead of white gown, the boy’s family footing the bill. Your father is still paying off your death.
I was stunned; I barely moved; who’s in that coffin? You will look paler than usual so remember your blush; you are in mourning; you can get lucky easily. Ask the aunt for a spliff. Take advantage of your own vulnerability. Make it work for you. Men light your cigarettes — who are they? Ask them. Give them attention, stare at their eyes, memorize the color. A man who is worried about you will soon want you. There are only so many forms of attention. Keep your hair down. It’s sexy because it keeps something hidden.
Would you like a sandwich? No, I’m really not hungry — I just ate on Thursday. Can I sit here? We just went food shopping and bought so many dairy products. They will all spoil — who will eat them? Will you take a walk with me? I won’t let you go too far off the trail — I’ll remind you why we’re here. We are devastated. We have lost everything but this cigarette and my keys to a home I left.
SO-AND-SO WASHES HER hair twice weekly, if a special occasion calls for it. Mostly she prefers hair powder, baby powder, the addition of gels, mousses, gelees, applied with the utmost un-care to amplify a look of styled decay. That is how she would describe her mother if someone asked, but only to herself in her innermost monologues, the ones so intimate that they are not even monologues, but mostly wordless floating ideas, pillow-like silvery things she can rest her head into after a long day. So many long days. Walking home from work after the train to the bus to the bodega for two turkey and American cheese sandwiches, extra mayo for softness.
Ma calls. So-and-so knows it’s ma not so much from the ring, not from the time of day, but from the quick quiet after the answering machine picks up, the “I’m not home right now, so please leave a message,” beep, then the gathering of breath to talk, the peace of ma sucking the air. “So and so, pick up the phone. I know you’re home. I have some new things for you — you know, old things. Pick up, baby.” But not today, knows So-and-so. Today I’m alone, she wants. Going to start a new biography, someone else’s, the last was George Hamilton’s, his teeth more lustrous than the marooned velvet draped behind him.
STELLA PADNOS-SHEA's poems can be found in Chest Medical Journal, The Comstock Review, Lapetitezine.com, and ldyprts.tumblr.com, a collaboration with jewelry artist Margaux Lange. Having been employed as a college instructor, jewelry maker, and therapist, she now works crazy hours as mother to 11-month-old Mirabel. Please find her in Brooklyn or at Stella.Padnos [at] gmail.com.