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We have as yet hardly spoken of the infant; that little creature, whose innocent life had sprung, by the inscrutable degree of Providence, a lovely and immortal flower, out of the rank luxuriance of a guilty passion…

“What does that letter mean, mother? – and why dost thou wear it…?”
“Silly Pearl,” said she, “what questions are these? There are many things in this world that a child must not ask about…”

The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne*


I’ve never seen my mother naked, is that weird? I’m not saying I want to—that would be weirder, like I’m some freak and I’m not. I just wonder about her breasts, sometimes, if they’re like mine, now that mine have puffed out a little. Hers are probably bigger though, less girlish. Maybe she nursed me when I was a baby, but that’s weird to think, her doing that. It’s hard to imagine having her in my mouth. It’s just this puny little apartment for the two of us, we’ve always shared a bathroom and bedroom, we’ve always even shared a bed, and I keep my back to her but she still sleeps pushed up close to me, her breath on my neck, she holds on like I might twist away from her grip and flutter away in the night, which makes no sense when most days it’s like she hates me. Sometimes she looks at me like who the hell am I, where did I come from, am I even her kid. It’s scary. When I’m eighteen I can move out but that’s still four years away, and when I mentioned it that one time she looked so hurt, like I’d already abandoned her, this poor lonely mother of this one child, and how can I even think of doing anything so cruel

But even to sleep she wears those hideous pink scrubs, and a long-sleeved tee underneath, so at least I don’t have to feel all her skin on me, thank god. Her scrubs are the shapeless bubblegum-color kind, she wears them all the time and not just the uniform for her job, she wears them even when they’re splashed dark with her patients’ blood or vomit or I don’t want to know what else. I think she likes wearing them even more that way, like Look at me I’m so helpful to the sick, look how I minister to others, like those stains are a badge of honor or act of penance and it makes her all saint-like when I can’t even imagine her nursing me, her own daughter. I bet she used a bottle to feed me soy formula. Anyway, going around always dressed like that she’s really just showing off how virtuous and self-sacrificing she is, and that’s another thing I hate about her, she’s such a fucking martyr, my mother. 

And she always locks the bathroom door when she’s in there, even when I was little I remember sitting on the floor outside the bathroom door crying because I couldn’t get in to her, I needed her, I might have been hungry or scared of something, and what kind of mother does that, leaves her almost-still-a-baby baby locked outside alone for what, modesty, or shame? Doesn’t that seem a strange thing for a mom to do, even with all her religious fervor bullshit? I mean, even the Virgin Mary nursed baby Jesus, I saw it in a book in my art history class. Is it so sinful for a mom to let her own daughter see her breasts? Although even the word “breasts” is weird to use about my mother, but I can’t say “tits” or “boobs,” those are so childish and crude, and I try to always use the correct words for things, that’s why I read a lot and already study lists of SAT prep words so I can get into a good college some day and get far away from her and this stupid town. Although she rolls her eyes at that, too, tells me I’m being full of myself and a brat and only booksmart, that I understand nothing about people. The other word I could maybe use is bosom, but that’s the kind of prissy old-fashioned word she’d use herself, so no.

But maybe she just didn’t or doesn’t know how to be a normal mom. She never talks about her own mother, would never answer my Why don’t I have grandparents, and maybe they threw her out of the house when she got pregnant with me, maybe they were as freakishly religious as she is and called her a fallen woman or maybe even a whore for sleeping around, or maybe she was just a druggie or delinquent, I think that’s the word they used back then, and maybe they had Social Services come take her away like she always says will happen to me if I don’t control my fierce temper and stop being so wild, desperate, and defiant all the time. So maybe it is all my fault and I ruined her life, maybe I really am just devilish to wonder who my father was or what happened to him or what my mom would look like naked. Sometimes I realize I’m staring at her chest, all hidden by that baggy pink polyester, and wondering if my poking-out nipples are the same as hers, and does she have that same vein as me on the left one that curves around like calligraphy or embroidery and disappears under the breast-pooch.

Maybe my wondering is just morbid curiosity. A guilty imagination. We’re all of us full of hidden sinfulness, she always says.

Maybe she does really hate me. 

Maybe I’m a “child of rape,” like that lady cop calls herself on the TV show I watch when my mother is out working a double shift, the one about special victims, there was an episode where the cop’s mother was all “I could have aborted you, but you were the one good thing to come out of all that, you’ve been my reason for living,” and my mother is like that with me sometimes, not in words, when she’s all strict control and judgey, but I can tell when she looks at me with her push-me-pull-you love, it’s an anxious love, or hugs me with a kind of fierceness that says I’m the sole treasure in her life, how she’d be all alone in the world without me. And the lady cop is all tortured and guilty, because what if it’s a genetic thing, what if she inherited the violence and evil of her rapist-dad, what if she’s really her mother’s punishment, a constant reminder of that dark thing, and my mom’s dark scary thing was my father, and now it’s me. Now I’m the one who brings her a world of pain. Now I’m a symbol, like my teacher teaches us about in my English class, where I always get big red As on my papers. So I never ask anymore about my father, I used to beg her to tell me, but the last, final time I did she just turned away with her prissy, lady-like church-face, said I needed to seek a Heavenly Father because I’ll never know an earthly one, she’s so obnoxious when she gets in one of those moods, like she’s a model of piety, said I really need to get over this father-fixation of mine, and why would I need more parent than her and God anyway, all we need is each other, we will stand all three together at our final judgment. But maybe God aside she’s always regretted not aborting me. Maybe she regrets that I had been born at all. Maybe she’s just always waiting for me to explode with all my horrible ugliness and malevolence any second now.  

Okay, it did happen once, I think it was only once, when I lost it a little. When I was really little she caught me throwing rocks at a bird. But that’s just a phase all kids go through, isn’t it, when you feel these hostile feelings but you’re just a kid so the feelings have to cram up inside you really tight, they’re squeezed hot into this puny space of your body and so it does explode sometimes, the temper, it has to explode out onto something or someone, and there was no one there, it’s not like there were other kids around, she always gave some excuse why I couldn’t have playmates, couldn’t go with girls for Dairy Queen milkshakes after school or someone’s house for a slumber party, better I stay home with her, better it was just the two of us, meaning better she keep me all to herself, so I never went and after a while other girls stopped asking me anyway, because of my freakishness. But who cares, who needs those stupid other girls and their jeering laughter, I don’t, that’s what I thought when I saw a bunch of them from homeroom crossing the street like to get actually away from me and go get their stupid ice cream. Okay, I guess it was only a year or so ago and I wasn’t that little, but I wished they would all just drop down dead, I wanted to pick up stones to fling at them but they were gone. So there I was pelting this one little gray bird, and my mother came by in her hideous flaunted scrubs, she must have been walking home from the hospice, she started screaming at me all appalled, how can I be like that, where did that come from, she’s tried so hard to raise me right and with good discipline and if Social Services ever comes to take me away it will be all my ugly-tempered fault, or maybe she’ll just call them on me herself because I have a sick and morbid heart and she doesn’t know what to do with me anymore. I get so scared, I really try to ignore my mother’s threats, but still, that just seemed extra mean. And the bird was okay, really, it just fluttered away with a broken wing, and I tried to explain with words about my insides getting twisted up small and hot, my puny wrath, and I don’t know why I’m like that sometimes, the turmoil, the anguish, and despair, I really do try to be a normal and okay kid. But she hasn’t let me forget I did that, like a ha, there it is, my wild, heathen nature bursting out of me, so maybe it’s in my genes like a disease and I’m doomed.

Maybe I really am something ugly and evil. A demon offspring

Maybe I’m not truly worthy to be loved.

Maybe that’s half a truth, and half a self-delusion. I don’t know.

Or maybe I’m a product of incest and that’s the big mystery, there was another show about that once. Gross. Maybe she had one of those illicit love affairs with her own brother, a creepy guilty passion, but of course it’s the woman who succumbs to temptation and must bear the stigma, she’s told me that, the girl is always to blame, so she was the one the family blamed and set apart to infamy for her perversity and maybe that’s why she never dates and keeps her hair bunned tight and lives like some dried-up nun in a cloister with only me to touch. And it would explain how she looks at me scared sometimes, because I’m inbred, I’m a born outcast, her emblem and product of sin, maybe I’ll even turn out deformed one day, her mark of shame, all imprinted in the flesh, and everyone who sees me will know. 

Although none of that would be my fault, right? Anything wrong with me would be all her fault, and my father’s fault, who or whatever he is, they’re the guilty ones, and it’s really not fair for me to be the one token of her shame

What do you do when your own mother thinks you’re a freak?

But then grabs at me, hugs and kisses me all hungry like we have some secret bond, some secret intimacy of connection, it’s the two of us against the world, but it’s a smother love, there’s not enough air in our tiny apartment or bed, I’d need the whole wide world to breathe in just to get a single breath that’s my own, without her neck-breathing love, her polyester love. Her love is all grip. Her love is all leech. Her love pelts me down, and I will never be able to flutter away.

The person I don’t understand is her. I don’t have the right words, no matter which ones I choose.


It’s so weird to see her there, through the window, just eating ice cream like anyone. I can never imagine her out in the world, just her round-trip trudge through town of home-hospice-home, and I wonder if I should go in and plop down at her table and say Hi, Mom, as if we’re a normal mother and daughter, and over sundaes and under Dairy Queen fluorescents I’d tell her about my algebra and American history day and she’d tell me about her dying patients, she’d point out whose bright blood stain was whose on her chest, and we’d walk home together through town, maybe even hand in hand. I’m not positive it’s her, though, her back is mostly to me and her hair is rippling dark and rich down her back, and then it hits me I’ve never seen it loose that way, all unbunned, and that’s another weird thing about my mom, and this one scares me. 

But I go in, and then I see she’s not alone, there is a man in the booth with her, a strange man sucking hard with fat lips on a milkshake straw. So I linger behind the soda machine to maybe catch bits of their talk, and I see him reach out and touch her hand, as if they’re intimately connected. And I hate the man. I see more of my mother now, I can see most of her face, and she looks so pretty, and I think princess. There’s a glow of strange enjoyment, a wild-flower prettiness about her, and I can see what can only be, okay, the only word is a happiness in my mother. I see her sex, her youth, the whole richness of her beauty as she smiles a radiant and tender smile at this man, a smile I’ve never seen, it’s never been for me, but I guess I’m just her daughter. 

Then I hear my mother’s voice

“I don’t know how to deal with her,” she says. “Advise me what to do.”

He touches her hand again, with a triumphant smile and an air of authority, and I hear him murmur “highly disordered mental state.” 

And she nods again. Then, 

Only a few days longer,” she says.

And it’s happening, I know, I feel a fatality, a feeling so irresistible and inevitable it has the force of doom. 

Then I realize she isn’t wearing her scrubs, or even one of her long-sleeved crew tees, she’s wearing a top I’ve never seen, it’s a snug and skimpy sweater top like a homeroom girl would wear, with a deep deep V, I can see the exposed creamy skin of her neck and throat, the shadow deepening down between her breasts, and it’s like she’s sitting there stark naked, my mother, and I realize the outward guise of purity was but a lie, that she has been the evil one not me to lie for so many years, and now I think fallen woman, I think whore, and fucking hypocrite, my mother, displaying herself without fear or shame for this man, for the whole Dairy Queen, for the whole stupid town and the rest of the wide world but me, to see.


I feel her get into our bed and I pretend to be asleep, I wait for the clutch of her traitor arms and I wait more until her neck-creeping breath is soft and regular and her grip loosens a bit in her sleep, and I slowly squiggle around in her arms, so I’m facing her. Her asleep face is like a mask, or, rather, like the frozen calmness of a dead woman’s features, and I have never seen her so calm, gentle, so at peace.

I put my hands on the slight gap where her scrub top and tee have ridden up, and feel her belly is soft and warm, feel I’m a kitten kneading its mother’s belly. I slide my hands up until I feel the soft curving weight of her in my palms, I take her pendant motherhood flesh in my hands, I press gently but firm and I hear her breath change in her sleep, the leap of heart thump beneath my hand, the sound from the back of her throat like a cat purr, and her nipple slips between my fingers and I squeeze and squeeze, it grows larger and harder and longer and I hear my mother’s moan. I bend my head, hungry little kitten in its blind mewling search, I put my mouth to it, I kiss it, I lollipop lick, I take her in my mouth and suck hard, feel the swell of her in my mouth as I suck and suck, I want to draw her into me, more of her, so I bite, I use my teeth and her moan turns to a gasp, then a sudden start, and a struggle and cry of pain, I feel her try to push me away, free herself from my grip but I’m not letting go, my grip is harder than hers ever was because this belongs to me, and I bite hard, I bite beyond bruise, feel the sweet cream of her turn to salt in my mouth, I see the bright scarlet stain on her skin, and I will scar her forever, I will brand her so the world will know it is my love crushed so deeply into her heart and when she forever looks down and sees the mark upon her breast she will know that she is mine.

* All text excerpts in italics from The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1850

Tara Ison is the author of the short story collection "Ball"; the essay collection "Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies"; and the novels "The List," "Rockaway," "A Child out of Alcatraz," and the forthcoming "At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf." In another life, she was the co-writer of the cult class film "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead." You can find her on the web at

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