A Private Revolution

The baby was crying, really crying, but GraceAnn didn’t know what to do. She dumped the little boy, kicking and screaming, into his crib and closed the door to the nursery. Her arms and neck were stiff with rage. That damn woman! Lord, please forgive me for cursing, thought GraceAnn, even though she had said nothing, only thought it. She had tried holding the baby in her arms and gently rocking him, singing him lullabies, which used to work all the time. Now he just struggled and screamed. She had tried giving him a bottle, which he just pushed away. He was nine months old and he had some teeth pushing through. And lately, he’d just wanted his mommy. Every morning at seven-thirty, GraceAnn arrived, and little Sam would be happy to see her, at first. Then, as Suzanne finished getting ready to go to work and her departure became more apparent, Sam would start fussing. Suzanne’s behavior didn’t help, either. She took longer than necessary to get out of the house, whining about having to leave, talking in a high baby voice to her son. It just made it harder on Sam. Once GraceAnn had said to her, “Don’t say goodbye forever. It makes it harder. Just go.” Suzanne gave her that look that she often gave GraceAnn, that how-dare-you-talk-to-me-that-way look. That I’m-your-boss look. But it helped a little. Speaking her mind like that. Suzanne made an effort to cut back on her lengthy goodbye routine. For a while.

When GraceAnn first started working for Suzanne, Sam was just two months old. Suzanne and she had gotten to know each other and GraceAnn liked her all right, even though she was Jewish. And even though, while nursing Sam, she’d bring out her large white breast, with its wet, pink nipple, and breastfeed him shamelessly in front of GraceAnn. As if she weren’t even there. As if she were invisible. One morning, maybe two weeks ago, Suzanne walked out of her bedroom in her underwear and bra and then lifted her veiny breast out and nursed himthere in the kitchen where GraceAnn was cleaning up the breakfast dishes, nearly naked, her thick, wiry pubic hair hanging down her thighs for everyone to see. The baby’s nursing noises filled the room, the sucking and grunting and slurping. He let out a big fart. Suzanne—rich, white Suzanne—in her shiny, burgundy underclothes, laughed and stroked his hair. And as if that weren’t bad enough, she asked GraceAnn to bring her a glass of water. Shocking. Insulting. She felt like a slave.

But if she compared Suzanne to her friend Lily’s boss, she felt lucky. At leastSuzanne paid her decently and came home when she said she would. And these white women’s breasts were everywhere, all over the Upper West Side. There was no getting away from them, but GraceAnn just couldn’t get used to it. All these women whipping out their breasts, even nursing two- and three-year-olds, in the playgrounds, in the coffee shops—everywhere. Long tubular breasts hanging out under loose tee shirts, round, rocket-like breasts poking out of the tops of stretchy blouses. She’d seen a woman at Sam’s baby gym class roll up a clingy number, rolled it up right above both of her enormous breasts, so that her two-year-old could go from one to the other, fingering the one that wasn’t being sucked on. Where was the dignity? They were not in heathen country, for goodness sake. How could it be that the poor of Jamaica had more class than these rich white Americans? GraceAnn chalked it up to a lack of Christianity. These white women were sensualists. They didn’t know the Lord. And so Suzanne nursed Sam, even though she was back to work full time, even though he was nine months old, even though he ate noodles, carrots, and peas, as well as took two bottles of formula from GraceAnn during the day. No matter, Suzanne, upon arriving home around seven in the evening, immediately undid the buttons on her blouse, even before taking off her shoes, and offered her breast to the boy. GraceAnn had nursed Simone for only two months before leaving for New York. She remembered that her mother said Simone had the milk fever for a while, after switching to cow’s milk, but she came through. She came through.

If she’d known that witnessing Suzanne’s breasts every day would be a part of her job, she mightn’t have taken it . . .

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. Her first job had been cleaning houses. That had been backbreaking work, and it took her nearly two years to find a nanny job. Working as a nanny for a wealthy white couple in Manhattan had been her dream. Regular, long hours, much less hard work, and a baby all to herself. Her own baby, Simone—now almost three! she’d seen pictures—was back in Jamaica with her mother. At first she thought about her girl all the time. While cleaning houses, she’d distance herself from the disgusting work she was doing by getting lost in thoughts about her daughter. But after a year or so, she stopped thinking so compulsively. She still sent her mother money every month, and she still talked to them both on the phone quite regularly (although Simone couldn’t talk on the phone so well; she was, after all, not quite three). But then, while wiping off toilets seats or mopping kitchen floors, GraceAnn began thinking mostly, if not entirely, about her life in Brooklyn: her friends, her church, and for a long time, how on earth she was going to get out of housecleaning and into babysitting.

Growing up in Treasure Beach, on the southwestern part of the island of Jamaica, GraceAnn had never imagined that this would be her life, this big city, with its crowds and evil everywhere. Treasure Beach was a rural and remote area, an over-two-hour drive from either Montego Bay or Kingston. The largest nearby city was Black River, which was still primarily a fishing town. The brownish sand on the beaches and coves as well as the distance from the airports made for less tourism than other areas. People still farmed and fished and the quiet was often so fierce that GraceAnn, looking back, realized that her mind would roar with it. Like much of the population of Treasure Beach, GraceAnn had reddish, light skin with freckles and blue-green eyes. The standard, textbook theory was that a Scottish fishing ship had crashed on the shore in the seventeenth century and the sailors stayed and intermarried. GraceAnn’s theory was different. She believed the sailors had raped the women relentlessly for years and years, and then they forced the Jamaican men, at gunpoint, to build a new ship so they could return to Scotland. She’d told her mother this theory once, when she was still a student, when she was maybe fourteen and was learning the history of Treasure Beach. “You’re morbid, girl,” her mother had said. “Don’t say such horrible tings. Keep that stuff to yourself. Who gonna talk to you if you say stuff like that? Watch yourself.”
GraceAnn’s light skin had made it relatively easy to get a job babysitting. “White people like light-skinned girls better,” Lily had told her. She’d met Lily at church. Between cleaning jobs, GraceAnn would visit with Lily in the playground in Central Park, and this is how she met Suzanne, her new employer. Suzanne was friends with Ellen, Lily’s boss. Lily watched Ellen’s two children, a little three-year old girl named Sophie and a baby boy, Sam’s “friend,” named Eli.

The interview had gone like this: Do you smoke or drink or use drugs? Do you know infant CPR? Where do you live? Can you read and write? Write your full name, address, and phone number here then. You know my baby is the most important thing in my life? Do you have references? I like Lily, and she’s your friend. That makes me feel good. Are you married? Do you have children of your own? There is no yelling or spanking in this house, do you understand that? Can you use the baby food grinder? I don’t like processed foods. If he cries, you pick him up. Never let himcry in his crib. We don’t do that here. I pay two weeks’ vacation and any other days I decide to take off, I’ll pay you. But I don’t pay sick days, since I have to stay home with him on those days and my job doesn’t guarantee me pay on days I take off.

Suzanne paid for GraceAnn to take an infant CPR class after hiring her right away. GraceAnn didn’t tell her about Simone. She decided it was none of Suzanne’s business, since it wasn’t like Simone was here, living with her. That’s what she wanted to know, whether or not she’d be worried about her own kid, or miss days because of her own children. GraceAnn wouldn’t be missing days because of Simone.

She had felt so lucky at first. Three hundred and fifty dollars a week for working seven-thirty until seven, five days a week. And seeing Sam, holding Sam, having him smile and squeal at her, had made her so happy. That little boy loved her, she knew. And now he was screaming in his crib. She actually never let him do this. She never ignored him like this. But nothing she did was making him feel better! He just wanted those breasts. It was Suzanne’s fault. She’d taken all of GraceAnn’s power away with those breasts. He was just too big now to be fooled by the bottle. He now knew the bottle wasn’t the real thing. She couldn’t stand the sound of him screaming in there. What could she do?

If no one who knew Ellen was around, Lily ignored Sophie and Eli. When Sophie was just two, she was constantly falling off of playground equipment because Lily was too busy sitting and talking with her friends to get up and spot her. And the baby, why, that baby got a bottle thrown in the stroller at him, that about summed up the attention he got. GraceAnn didn’t want to be like that. She liked Lily, Lily was a good Christian, but she was so bitter and hateful toward the family she worked for and she took it out on the kids by neglecting them. GraceAnn hadn’t wanted to be that way. She had wanted to be happy with her job. She had wanted to be good. Grateful. She had wanted to be better than her friend.

She decided to pack the diaper bag and get the stroller ready and take Sam out. Some fresh air would do him good. She filled a cup of juice and put some Cheerios in a Ziploc and made sure she had diapers and wipes. She plucked the grocery list Suzanne had left for her off of the fridge. Then, steeling herself, she went in to get him. He had pulled himself up in his crib. He stood there, wobbling, his mouth open, snot streaming down his face. When he saw her, he threw himself face down on his mattress and wailed. She wasn’t his mommy. GraceAnn felt ashamed. How was she going to leave the apartment with him screaming like this?

She shoved him into his snowsuit, then into the stroller. Then out the door, quickly. GraceAnn just put blinders on, deciding to ignore anyone she ran into in the hallway. What do they know? And only a minute later, as soon as they got to the elevator—Sam loved the elevator—he quieted down. The lit-up buttons, the dinging at each floor. GraceAnn felt her neck relax. Sam squealed and tried to reach for the buttons.

It was a cold, dark day. The playground was out of the question. There was no baby gym class, no baby music class today. She should have tried calling Lily before she left. Too late. She couldn’t stand going back to that apartment. She decided to go to Barnes & Noble. It was a place they all met on days like today—Lily, herself, and other babysitters in the neighborhood. Where else were they to go? They weren’t allowed, for the most part, to invite each other over to the apartments where they worked.

Hours later, when she finally got back to the apartment, Sam was asleep in his stroller. GraceAnn managed to gently lift the little boy into his crib without waking him. She walked quietly into the living room and pulled out the Good Book. She put her socked feet up on the coffee table—her sneakers neatly lined up by the door—and she started to read; “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not his benefits, who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit.”
Suzanne came home, yelling, “Sammy, Sammy, Sammy! Mommy’s home!” GraceAnn had Sam in the tub. She’d fed him dinner already and they’d had a nice evening. He was such an easy boy most of the time, a sweet, complacent little thing once the day got going. She’d put off the bath until very late as a new strategy. If Sam were in the tub, how could Suzanne nurse him? Suzanne came barging into the bathroom, shoes still on, her blazer still on. “Hey GraceAnn! Sammy, Sammy, Sammy! How’s my little boy! Hi sweetie!” Sam nearly jumped out of the bath at the sight of his mother.

“Come here, bunny, come here, sweetie.” Suzanne reached past GraceAnn and lifted him out, dripping water everywhere.

“He hasn’t been washed yet,” GraceAnn said.

“That’s okay. How dirty could he be?” Suzanne wrapped him in a towel and took him out of the bathroom. By the time GraceAnn hoisted herself up and went into the living room, Suzanne was nursing him.

“He doesn’t have a diaper on. What if he pees on you?”

“He’s still in a towel. And I don’t care.” Suzanne looked at GraceAnn for the first time since she’d arrived as she said this, and GraceAnn registered the annoyance in her gaze. Suzanne was a pretty woman, tall, with bleached-blonde hair and big blue eyes. Gold jewelry in her ears, around her neck, and on her fingers. She looked like a movie star, or something like that. Sometimes GraceAnn felt pride in working for someone so pretty in that movie star way. Sometimes she hated her for it. “Can you work late tonight? I thought I’d meet Adam for dinner. If you could do it.”

“I can do it.”

“Great!” She turned her head back to her nursing son. He was sucking on her like his very life depended on it, both hands cupping her breast. “Oh baby, oh sweet baby,” cooed his mother. Heat poured into GraceAnn’s face. She felt dizzy. She went into the kitchen and started boiling water for the bottle nipples. She looked inside the refrigerator. She was happy to work late tonight. She could always use the extra money. But why did Suzanne have to make it so hard for her? Sam would throw a big tantrum when Suzanne left again. She knew it. Her heart pounded. She went back into the living room.

“You know he threw a huge fit when you left this morning.”

“I know, poor thing. He’s going through separation anxiety.”

“Well, nursing him like this makes it hard. He’s gonna throw another tantrum tonight.”

“Ellen doesn’t nurse Eli and he still throws tantrums when she leaves him. It’s the stage of separation anxiety. It’s normal. It’s healthy in fact. It just means he’s properly attached to his mother, that’s all.”

“Well, I think the nursing makes it worse.” There. She was saying what she wanted to say.

There was some silence. Suzanne put Sam on her other breast, leaving the other, spent one out for GraceAnn to see. It hung there in her open blouse, pale and smallish. She had less milk than ever, this was for sure. Her breasts were shrinking. It wouldn’t be much longer. It couldn’t be much longer until there would be nothing left for him.

“I’ll leave you extra money for takeout. You can order from the menus in the kitchen. Do you know where they are?”

“Yes, I know where they are.”

Suzanne, with her baby cradled in her arms, went into the nursery. Forty minutes later, she came out. “He’s asleep,” she said, smiling as she shut the door behind her. Then she disappeared into her room, emerging minutes later in high heels, a slinky skirt, and a new blouse. In and out, as if magically, from one place to another. One minute she’s the all-giving mother, the next, she looks like a high-class whore. There was something so swift about her, so transforming. Who was this woman she worked for? GraceAnn recognized something in Suzanne, dressed as she was for sex. She, too, had donned that look before, although it wasn’t so sophisticated. Not that being a sophisticated whore was any different than being a poor one. A whore was a whore, especially once the costume came off, which was the whole purpose of it, wasn’t it? That it would come off. “We’ll see you later,” Suzanne called as she, again, shut a door behind her.

And GraceAnn hadn’t even been able to put the boy to sleep. No, the minute Suzanne arrives, it was as if she disappeared.

She wished she could call her mother. But she only called her the first Sunday of the month, when her mother would take Simone to the one house that had a phone in her area. She’d like to hear her daughter’s voice tonight. “Say hello to your mother,” her own mother would sternly say and the little girl would get on the phone. “Hello maddah,” she’d say, her tiny nasal voice still learning about words. And what did “mother” mean to Simone? Did it mean something important, or did it just signify that moment when her granny made her talk on the phone? It had been so long. But children know certain things, regardless of their circumstances, no? She had friends with mothers around. She knew what a mother was.

GraceAnn then realized that her mother and Simone were probably in Kingston right now anyway, visiting her mother’s sister, Anna, after whom she was partly named. Her mother had told her they’d be there at this time. When GraceAnn had been a little girl, she loved those regular visits to Kingston. Her mother brought baskets that she’d woven to try and sell them there. The crowds! How she loved the crowds then, even in the slums, in Trench Town, where Anna and her family lived. She didn’t love the crowds anymore. But it had been exciting then, as a little girl from the sleepy countryside, and yes, as a blossoming young woman later on.

That’s where she’d met Simone’s father. Her mother had gone to sell baskets and she’d stayed back. How could her mother have let her stay back? Didn’t she know there’d be trouble? Anna’s son, her cousin, a boy her age, just sixteen, took her out walking around. He was doing well now. Studying at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, so she heard from her mother. But back then, he’d been some trouble. That was normal for a boy, being some trouble at sixteen. And there were no consequences for him, for boys causing trouble.

Her light skin and freckles made people look twice at her in Trench Town, whereas in Treasure Beach everyone looked like her. Not that there weren’t other light-skinned people there—her aunt Anna was light-skinned—but there were less, for sure. And she stuck out as a country girl. That, too, brought looks, laughs, attention. The attention! She loved the attention. How she’d changed. How that visit changed her. She loathed attention now. She’d learned her lesson.
“Your ancestors been raped by the white man,” he said to her. His skin was black like coal. And he said just what she had told her mother not two years before! His hair, dreadlocks, piled high in the black, red, and green knit cap. He smelled strongly of ganga, of something else earthy—was it from his hair? Simone, Simone was light like her, but not quite so light. She had some of her father in her.

“I’m a Christian,” she’d said, but her heart was full of lust. Her breasts heaved at this man, and she wanted to give them to him. She wanted his dark fingers, with their white crescent moons, on her.

“You pray to a white man’s god, woman!”

Woman! No one had called her woman before.

“‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise,’ says the Lord,” she’d quoted at him, trying to impress him. Why? Why this man? “Christ is our salvation. He’ll return to free us.” He pulled a huge toke from the joint he smoked and passed it to her. She took from it. The dizziness, the disorientation. Where had her cousin gone?

“I could teach you things that would free you. Ethiopia is the promised land. Haile Selassi is the real Jesus. The Jesus you pray to isn’t the real Jesus. The whites be the devil, you see, and they make Jesus out to be a European, a Jew, to hide you from your true dignity. To keep you down, woman.”

“That’s blasphemy,” she’d answered, shocked, truly shocked, but intrigued nonetheless.

“God is black, woman. Blackness is holiness,” and then he’d laughed, laughing so as to show his white teeth. Where was he now, this man? Studying with her cousin at the university? Most likely not, he was older, for sure. But then the memory was so vague, her shame had been so great and she’d never tried to contact him. To find out who he was. No one had asked, either. Not even her mother.
She thought of little Simone in Kingston, enjoying the crowds, enjoying all the bustle after the quiet of Treasure Beach. Anna had some grandchildren around. They would play, the cousins. But what of later? What of all that lack of talk? That lack of things said?

This line of thinking made GraceAnn feel cold and sweaty, thinking of her daughter’s future. But that was, supposedly, why GraceAnn was here, taking care of Sammy, to ensure her daughter a different future. Supposedly. Who knew, really, if the plan would work. One thing was certain, GraceAnn wanted her daughter to know things. She wanted Simone to have knowledge, so she could prevent bad things from happening; she wanted her to know about consequences. Everyone made mistakes and no matter how much money she sent her mother, there were no guarantees in life. Here she was, working for white people, thinking only of money, and yet she had had these ideas once, these dreams. She had been young, only a few years ago, she had been young. How long would Simone’s youth last?

She wanted, most of all, to talk to her daughter.
Suzanne and Adam came home late, smelling of liquor and cigarettes. Adam walked right past her there on the couch, without saying anything, and went straight into the bathroom. Could she hear him urinating? Did he not close the door? GraceAnn’s mind was foggy. She’d been asleep, the Bible in her lap. She had read, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” but found herself wanting anyway. And then she’d slept, lightly, listening out for the baby, half awake, half asleep.

“Oh, we had so much fun tonight! Thanks sooo much for babysitting!” Suzanne was drunk. She talked too loudly. “We went out with old friends of Adam’s from college—they live in Connecticut—and we never see them anymore! It was fun, although I would never want to live in Connecticut! It’s all white people! I don’t want to live where there’s only white people! Not that we have tons of black friends or anything, but just to be exposed to that diversity, to walk down the street . . .”

“Suzanne?” GraceAnn interrupted her. What would she say? What did she want to say to this woman? And she wasn’t awake yet, not really.

“What? Did Sammy wake? Is Sammy okay?” Suzanne’s drunken face looked distorted with worry. She held her hands to her breasts.

For a moment, GraceAnn felt the remnants of a dream. Her daughter on her knee. The rustling noise her skirt made on her nylons as Simone slid to the floor to go across a thick, blue rug that cushioned GraceAnn’s sore feet. And then her eyes—adjusted now to the soft light of the room she was actually in—rested on the woman before her. She’d been wrong to interrupt. She was not really awake. She was confused, because she had nothing to say to her.
Cover of TLR's "Women's Studies" issuePaula Bomer is the author of Inside Madeleine, Nine Months, and Baby and Other Stories.
“A Private Revolution” originally appeared in Women’s Studies (TLR, Winter 2015).