Miles has the tablet while Billie leans into him, chin on his shoulder. Whatever game he’s playing reflects red and blue swirls on both their faces as half-eaten, elephantine croissants languish before them. Her children thus occupied, Kaye catches the eye of the younger mother seated diagonally across the café. Kaye sends her a smile—the warmest, most sisterly, I’ve-been-there-honey smile she can muster—but the woman’s face remains stonelike. The babe at her breast is a snowy shade of mixed—just how Miles was as a newborn. Mom is brown, as brown as Kaye if not more so, and Kaye feels her. Needs the woman to know it. What wouldn’t Kaye have given, back when Miles was new, to have someone smile at her and let her know she wasn’t alone among the bright-white mother-mass of their little Brooklyn enclave? Oh, the Slope is woke politically. Everyone who lives there is liberal. It’s diverse too, Kaye will admit, but on an aesthetic rather than cultural level.
Kaye remembers herself in the woman’s shoes, sitting alone and nursing, but not at ease, not relaxed like the white breastfeeding mothers of Brooklyn. Kaye’s clothes were neatly pressed, the baby blanket soft and fresh, Miles’s onesie clean, bright-colored and adorable. His five strands of hair were impeccably combed as was Kaye’s own perm. The white mothers pushed their Bugaboo strollers, confident in dingy, unlaundered new-mom clothes, their hair carelessly bound in sloppy new-mom ponytails. With impunity they could dress their infants—whether white like they were, or adopted, Black, brown or Asian—in ill-fitting, spit-up stained clothes. The only other Black women Kaye saw were Caribbean nannies. The other mothers smiled uncertainly, did not befriend her on the park bench as they did one another. The nannies also looked at her askance. She appeared to be Miles’s nanny, but how was it that she could nurse him? The pair of them made no sense to anyone.
Finally, after a Music Together class for infants, Kaye was in the lounge area with three other mothers who had lingered to chat, change diapers, and nurse. Almost simultaneously, the four of them—Kaye included—turned their babies horizontally to face them and pulled their shirts sideways as the infants latched on. All four shared smiles of recognition, sharing in this sweet pas de deux of early motherhood. There was relief in their camaraderie, or so Kaye thought, until one of them spoke to her.
“Please don’t be offended.” The mother—short, thin, and pale with mousy brown hair and incongruously enormous breasts—had the kind of soft, unassuming voice that downplays the boldest of statements. “How can you breastfeed that baby? There’s no way he’s yours.”
Kaye was shocked into silence, flooded by every nightmare she’d ever had about strangers accusing her of kidnapping her own son. She tamped down her indignation, beating calm into her face, as another mother—a chunky brunette with acne pocked cheeks—said to the sweet-voiced offender, “Allie.”
Which gave Kaye the courage to find her sense of humor. She leaned forward slightly, squashing Miles enough to pop off her breast, face pink with exertion.
“Well of course not,” Kaye said, beaming unblinkingly at Allie. “I’m the wet nurse!“
Allie’s mouth dropped open, but the other two mothers erupted in approving guffaws. And just like that, Kaye was in. Even Allie applauded her blunt honesty. And voilà! Kaye had a group of Mom-friends.
When Kaye was honest with herself, she would acknowledge that she belonged with this set only as long as she adhered to a scripted role: the bold, no-nonsense Black Mama. The fearless one who defended and supported, who told it like it was in a loving way. Kaye had become what she swore she’d never be: the only Black friend of a slew of white women. Each of them could point to her—to Gabriella, a Puerto Rican mother who joined them, to Josie, another mom who was half Vietnamese—and consider their group diverse. Kirstin, a white woman who had a baby, Jamal, from her Black ex-boyfriend, joined later on, when she moved into a sublet on the ground floor of Kaye’s brownstone. Jamal and Miles have grown up tight as twins, Billie tagging along behind them wherever they go. And, thanks to the kids, the stiff, neighborly civility between Kaye and Kirstin has evolved into a closeness as well.
But there have been no Black women friends to come her way. Kaye’s sorority sisters moved out of the city to places like New Rochelle or Maplewood, New Jersey. They’re close enough to visit occasionally, but too far away to be fixtures in her children’s lives. And, while Kaye’s sister Michelle moved in four years ago with no inclination to move out, Michelle isn’t like having a girlfriend. Michelle has no children and is currently between girlfriends herself, since the last one broke her heart.
There is no one around to go, Girrrl! and settle in for a real talk. Another reason Kaye feels so warmly toward the stone-faced woman nursing across the café.
Billie glances at Kaye, then follows her mother’s gaze. Billie’s eight and a fan of babies. She nudges Miles, who’s ten and oblivious to things that are not electronic.
“You can see that lady’s booby!” Billie whispers.
“Shut up!” Miles, fearful of losing life-points, barks at his sister. And the woman’s eyes focus momentarily before going blank again.
“Booby,” says Billie once more, cracking herself up.
“Billie.” Kaye gives her daughter a look, which makes the girl stop mid-giggle. “That’s not a word we use.”
“Sorry, Mama.” Billie takes a slurp from her smoothie. “Mama?”
“That’s a cute baby, right?”
“As far as I can see. The baby’s face is pretty busy right now.”
Billie grins. “Did you feed me like that?”
“You know I did. Till you were a year old.”
“Miles too.” Kaye feels a momentary echo of the despair she felt on the first birthday of each child, the mourning of infancy, where her body was the sole source of comfort and nutrition. Both children were ready to move on before she was. As the young mother across the coffee shop sighs, Kaye exhales along with her, vicariously living what she recalls as pure exhilaration.
If he were paying attention, Miles would voice his dismay over all talk of bodily functions, the transfer of fluids. The kind of talk Billie cannot get enough of. Their quirks, their differences, never cease to surprise and amuse Andy and Kaye. Will that nursing mother get this same kind of pleasure as her child grows? Of course she will. She just doesn’t know it yet. Life is still all spit-up and diapers and sleepless nights and no sex. Kaye rises, tells the kids to sit tight for a few minutes, and crosses the café.
“Hi,” she says, boldly sliding in across the booth from the mother, whose eyes widen, broadcasting alarm and fear. Why fear? Kaye wonders. Then evaluates her decision to join the woman as ill-advised. Who knows what kind of sister she is? The massive ring on her finger along with the pale tint of her baby suggest she married a white man, as Kaye did. But why should Kaye assume this lady is yearning for friendship with another Black woman? What if she’s stuck in a place of self-loathing? What if she knows too well that a Black woman alone in these parts is acceptable diversity, but that two Black women together—perhaps laughing, chatting with audible familiarity—are viewed as a threat? Kaye knows this too, but has learned not to care.
Don’t worry, she wants to tell the woman. I won’t blow your cover. But she doesn’t. Nor does the woman return her greeting. She simply stares.
Flustered, Kaye introduces herself. She adds, with a nod toward her brood, “Those two over there are mine.” Which should be more than enough to explain her reason for connecting.
The woman’s eyes shift from Kaye’s face in the direction of Miles and Billie. Billie is still looking over her shoulder at them. She flashes a sweet, Billie smile and waves. The woman looks back at Kaye. No wave back at Billie, no smile for a friendly little girl in pigtails. Kaye’s blood heats up instantly. Be cold to me all you want. What kind of monster can’t return the greeting of an innocent little girl?
Kaye keeps her eyes on the woman’s. As she’s thinking of what to say to extricate herself, tears flood the woman’s eyes. She blinks and rivulets pour down her smooth cheeks. By now the baby is done nursing and has fallen asleep. The woman weeps noiselessly, letting her child drop from the still-exposed breast into the cushion on her lap.
“Careful, she’s going to—”
Kaye swings her body to the other side of the booth, just in time to save the infant from rolling off her mother’s lap onto the hardwood floor. The woman doesn’t move. The child, still in a post-nursing stupor, merely stirs as Kaye lifts the tiny figure onto her shoulder. There’s a well-worn space there, carved out by Miles and then Billie, that the infant relaxes into. Out of habit, Kaye rubs the tiny back in small circles. An audible breath escapes the lips of the mother as Kaye covers her breast with a section of the baby’s blanket.
“Are you all right?” Kaye says.
“Yes.” The woman does not dry her tears but shakes her head as if awakening from a trance. “Yes, I’m fine. Thank you.”
She opens her hands to take the baby back. Kaye hesitates only for a second, places the child in her mother’s arms, and returns to the other side of the booth.
“I’m sorry,” says the woman, righting the blanket, bouncing the baby on her shoulder like any ordinary new mother would. “I’m a little out of it. Sleep deprivation, you know?” Expression flat but almost normal.
“Please,” Kaye says, smiling with relief at the reference to common ground. “My two never slept at this age. What is she, six weeks?”
“Seven. No—eight.” The mother’s smile is weaker than Kaye would like, her laugh a bit too forced to inspire confidence. But she’s speaking at least. The woman adds, “I can’t keep track of anything these days.”
“Oh, I know how that is!” Kaye says, with exaggerated gusto, as if she could make up for the woman’s oddness. “It gets easier. Then you forget and have another!” She laughs at her own joke.
“That’s what my sister says,” the woman tells Kaye. “She’s got two as well and makes it look easy.”
Again, her words are appropriate, but the tone, the “as well”—it’s all too strained to trust. But what can Kaye do? Call Child Protective Services? For what, exactly? It crosses Kaye’s mind that perhaps she’s created some narrative about this woman out of her own need for companionship.
She tries, “Hey. I know it can be isolating at your stage. You want to join us over there? Miles is lost in his game, but Billie’s a sucker for babies and always good for a laugh, you know?”
“Oh.” The woman’s eyebrows knit, mouth twists briefly. “It’s just … I think maybe—”
“No need,” says Kaye, waving a hand, brushing off the rejection. She shouldn’t have asked. “I understand.”
The woman drops her eyes and they sit in the awkwardness until Kaye rises, meaning to return to her children. But to desert this mother—whose loneliness is palpable, achingly familiar—Kaye can’t do it.
“What will you do?” she says.
“If I go away, what will you do? Keep crying onto that baby’s head or what?”
Kaye’s words startle the woman, piercing her bubble.
“Yes,” she says, eyes still full of tears, but also a hint of irony—of life. “I just might.”
And Kaye thinks she can see this fellow Black mother for real now, imagines swapping confidences, embarrassing mother moments, goofy husband stories. Going Girrrl, please.
“Should I stay here a bit?” Kaye takes a step toward the booth. “My two are fine on their own.”
The woman shakes her head, shifts the baby. “No. I appreciate it, but I’m okay.” Whatever opened a moment ago seals shut, leaving Kaye nothing to do but return to her brood.
Billie, ever-observant, says, “Mama, what was wrong with that lady?”
“Nothing, Sweet. Just tired like everyone else with a new baby.”
When they get up to leave, the sad woman is nursing again, staring straight ahead. Kaye locates a travel pack of magic markers in her purse and hastily scrawls her name and cell number on a napkin. This she leaves on the sad woman’s table before ushering her children into the brisk October air.
Outside the café, helping Billie with her jacket’s stubborn zipper, Kaye catches a glimpse of the younger mother, still nursing, one arm supporting the child’s body. But with her free hand, she is reaching across the table for the purple-marked napkin. She slides it toward her, encloses it in her palm.