Mother has always been excruciatingly devoted to God and my imperfections, in that order. Saturday nights I stumble back home seventeen minutes-thirty minutes-an hour past curfew, and there she’ll be standing, statuesque in our kitchen, worry lines flooded by the fluorescent light, arms crossed under her chest. She rakes her eyes over the half-hidden bruise on my collarbone, the rumpled chaos of my skirt, the soft smudging of my bubblegum-pink lipstick, but says nothing.
In my hand, my phone is still open to a video I just took: untitled boy’s lips on my cheek, lips on my lips, hand possessive on my left thigh. I tilt the moving screen away from my mother’s dissection.
Mother had once been a good girl, in the suffocating Stepford wife sense. Her skirts probably never dared to ride up past the dimples of her knees. When I picture it, her mouth is always stretched into an almost grotesque eager-to-please smile and her hair is always neatly brushed into mahogany quietude. A girl with respect for authority in abundance.
Mother had once been young & unaware that a man would burden her with not only a lifetime of guilt and a yearning to inflict purple-blue-banana-yellow bruises on the pale expanses of her thighs, but also a child: a shrill baby girl loudly resistant to being controlled.
Philomena, she reluctantly named me, a woman once martyred, newly forgotten.
My mother, now, is relentlessly pious: knees bruised in homage to the ground, face strained with conviction as tendrils of moonlight filter through our window. Baptism by nature’s incandescent rays. She’d surely crucify herself on the browning grass of our front lawn under the heavy dominion of both God and a late summer afternoon sun if only for capital-s Salvation.
My faith is irreverent, unhallowed, in comparison. I worship the simple act of being known: soft gaze on soft skin on soft sheets, a passing nod, an acknowledging half-smile. Loving scrutiny, no matter how brief. Unadorned appreciation in the neat squares of my Instagram page: made-up, painted-on face, body contorted. Red lips drawn up like a puppet’s, back curled like a dancer. Immortality in the bleached-white glare of my phone, lust from the fingertips of strangers. I keep my real name far away like a taboo, replace it instead with something weightless.
She who stares coyly from my screen reminds me of the characters my classmates and I used to conjure up in the fifth grade, one-dimensional and grossly perfect. I use her to search for my own absolution: Fingers soft and assured around my wrists, hot breaths on my neck, eyes dark in my gaze. Releasing me from my mother’s relentless expectations, forgiving my existence.
I am sixteen and my mother dreams of life before me and as me. Instead of her usual examination, she looks through my body, through taut youthful skin, through bright hopeful eyes, like I am a vessel to her. Her own dreams inflate me, set me afloat, and I fight to keep above the water.
Philomena, she reprimands, voice harsh and insistent. The way she says my name is always the same, tinged with a little bit of violence, dressed up in grievance. The list of complaints is long: put down your phone. Straighten your skirt. Cross your legs. Have faith for once. Pay attention when I’m speaking to you.
It’s a sharp contrast to the way boys whisper my name: a little bit unsteady, a little bit like a prayer when my mouth is on theirs. Sometimes I feel like I’m sucking their soul away, filling my own vacancies with their generous affection. Their words vary yet are always really the same: you’re so hot. I love you. Let’s go see a movie sometime. Here is my heart, let me have yours.
In seventh grade I learned about how some families used to drown newborn babies for the sin of being born female. Blue limbs thrashing in the cold. Hands closed around a tiny neck, a snap. Wails bubbling up from a scalding coffin. Wasting away into a husk.
I’ve never stopped thinking about how easily that could’ve been me or you. A different kind of immortality, and not the kind I yearned for: instead, the permanence of death without remembrance. If a girl dies alone in the woods and no one is there to see it, did she actually ever exist? We pay the shared price for our original sin, an eternal punishment. Eve plucks an apple from the tree: disobedience.
Mother looks at me like I am not enough, but I look away. My gaze slips unharmed from hers when the world sits in the palm of my hand, when a boy, hard/soft, blond/brunet, whispers like poetry/like commands, sings prayers to me as I do to him. Meaningless nothings, reverent in their delivery. His pulsing heart warm in my hands as mine is in his.
For I know the real truth to immortality: even as I leave my sanitized portraits floating untethered to reality, it is in memoriam that I plan to live forever. Philomena branded on countless tongues; bronze hair diffused in collective memory.
Isabel Su is a junior at the Hotchkiss School in Connecticut. She is an editor for her school’s literary magazine, and her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Short Vine Journal, Hypernova Lit, and Cathartic Youth Lit.