What Neni misses most after her departure from the Hamptons is the food, all of which was catered for the Edwards family’s cocktail parties. It was so good that she called Fatou one evening and told her that she had “died and gone to food heaven.” It was the kind of food that Neni had seen in magazines: sesame seared tuna, beef tenderloin, California caviar, mushroom caps stuffed with jumbo lump crabmeat, and steak tartare. Neni loves the latter most, though she never thought she would one day like raw meat. So, Neni is glad when Anna calls and asks if she can help out with a brunch that Cindy and her friends are having in Manhattan. Neni and Anna will serve and clean up.
The food symbolizes the luxury that the Edwardses enjoy on a daily basis. Neni’s exposure to such food—and her newfound love of steak tartare—reveals that she has tastes that she never believed existed. Through food, Neni becomes exposed to the Edwardses rarefied world of privilege, while the Cameroonian cuisine that Neni later prepares for Vince and Mighty exposes them to a cultural world to which they might not have otherwise had access. In other words, food is a key point of exchange between the families.
The brunch takes place at June’s apartment, where Neni arrives the next Sunday afternoon. There are no more than six children there, and Neni is thankful to see that Mighty is one of them. He runs up to her and hugs her so tightly that she reminds him that he isn’t her only baby, but that she also has one growing inside of her. He tells Neni that his last days in the Hamptons were boring. Neni says that next time she’ll stay instead of taking off her last two days, and that maybe Mighty can go with her to Harlem where they can continue making puff-puff for breakfast. Mighty says it’d be “cool” to go to Harlem, then he remembers that there’s no beach there.
Neni’s appointment of Mighty as her “baby” reveals the attachment that can form between nannies and their charges. For Mighty, Neni has become an important source of comfort and constancy, particularly in lieu of his parents’ increasing arguments about his older brother, which demonstrate less concern and attention toward him, and his mother’s drug and alcohol abuse. He associates puff-puff with that warmth and constancy because he and Neni make it together.
Neni walks the appetizers around the room before setting the leftovers on the table, always smiling and nodding at Cindy’s friends, all of whom she’d met in the Hamptons. They are kind and polite to her. They offer advice on prenatal yoga and tell her where she can find the best studios in the city. They remind her to call them by their first names, though she can’t bring herself to do this; it’s a sign of disrespect in Limbe. They compliment her on her smooth skin and ask her how long it takes to get her braids done. Neni is surprised by their friendliness, having expected that they would be indifferent to her, like rich white people in the movies.
Neni’s interactions with Cindy’s friends reveal not only the cultural gulf between them but also their steep differences in class. It never occurs to anyone in that room that Cindy’s servant may not be able to afford prenatal yoga classes at Manhattan’s best studios. Their curiosity about her hair and compliments on her skin border on an occasional tendency to fetishize blackness, but Neni is taken aback by the fact that they wish to interact with her at all.
Cindy is the “kindest and politest” of everyone in the room, reminding Neni not to overexert herself. While watching Cindy laugh and chat with her friends, Neni finds it hard to reconcile her joyfulness with the strange episodes in the Hamptons. Then, Anna whispers in her ear that they need to talk about Cindy. Anna asks if Neni noticed Cindy’s “problems” in the Hamptons. Neni doesn’t say anything. Anna then tells her that Anna came in for work in the morning and noticed that Cindy reeked of alcohol. She says that, last week, she saw three empty bottles of wine in the garbage. Neni admits that she noticed the same problem in the Hamptons. Anna says that the family has “big problems.” Neni thinks about telling Anna about the pills but doesn’t want to upset her any further.
Cindy’s expression of kindness toward Neni is probably a show for her friends to display how generous she is with her staff. This, in addition to Cindy’s façade of happiness, is how she wants to present herself to those within her social circle. That self-presentation vastly differs from what her servants witness. Anna’s concern about Cindy’s “problems” is probably the result of authentic concern for someone whom she has known for two decades, just as it is also concern for whether or not Anna would remain employed in the event of Cindy’s death.
Neni figures that Cindy will one day stop drinking, which is a habit that Neni thinks is no big deal. In Limbe, lots of people drank every day, and one of her uncles is “the best drunkard in Bonjo,” who serenades the neighborhood on his best days. Anna says that servants who’ve worked for families with problems like the Edwardes’ end up losing their jobs. Now, Neni is worried. Anna goes on to talk about Cindy’s mother and sister, about how unkind Cindy’s mother was to her, and how her sister cut Cindy out of her life after their mother died four years ago. Anna says that Cindy has no family, except for Clark and the boys.
Neni doesn’t take alcoholism seriously because it wasn’t taken seriously back in Cameroon. Anna knows, however, how prevalent substance abuse is in the U.S., and that it also exists among the upper class. When it impacts this group, it can also impact the lives of those who work for them. Anna suggests that Cindy abuses drugs because she feels that her husband and eldest son are slipping away from her, and they’re all she has.
Anna wants to tell Clark about Cindy’s alcoholism, but Neni insists that they can’t. She walks to the kitchen, picks up a bottle of water, and gulps down half of it. Maybe Anna’s right. Though she doesn’t want to get involved in other people’s marriages, Clark works all the time and could never know the extent of what Cindy’s going through. During the weeks in the Hamptons, Neni only saw him during cocktail parties, where he and Cindy acted as though they were together all the time. The first party was to celebrate Cindy’s fiftieth birthday. Cindy blow-dried her hair and looked like Gwyneth Paltrow in her orange backless dress. Toward the end of the party, they stood with their arms around each other while Cindy’s friends toasted her selflessness and beauty. By the next morning, Clark was gone, as was Cindy’s “ceaseless smile” from the previous evening.
Neni faces a moral dilemma. She doesn’t want to disobey Jende by getting involved in the Edwardses’ messy lives, but she’s also worried that something can happen to Cindy and that it may come as a surprise to her family when it does. It seems that the other Edwardses only see the neat façade that Cindy presents to show how good she is at managing her family life and her social life. The “ceaseless smile” that she wore during the party could be likened to a mask that hides Cindy’s true pain and sadness. The praise of her friends do not fulfill her need to belong.
During the brunch, Anna prompts Neni to talk to Clark, while people were starting to leave. Neni nods and starts walking toward the living room. She decides not to say anything to Mr. Edwards about the pills—only about the wine. Then, she remembers that Jende will be furious if she brings this up. She tells Anna, but Anna insists that this is only between them.
There are two possibilities as to why Neni doesn’t want to say anything about the pills: she doesn’t want Clark to worry and she doesn’t want him to think his wife is a drug addict. Alcoholism is deemed more socially acceptable, she figures, particularly among their class.
Neni stands with a tray of scones, unsure of what to say or how to say it. Instead of talking about Cindy, she asks Clark if he’s related to John Edwards. Clark turns toward her, chuckling, and says that he isn’t. Neni rubs her belly at the spot where the baby is kicking her, as though admonishing her for being so silly, and tells Clark that he resembles the politician a bit. Clark says “that’s funny” and suggests that Neni go offer the scones to the other guests. When Neni runs back to the kitchen, Anna asks if she told Clark about Cindy’s drinking. Neni shakes her head and buries her face against the fridge.
Neni’s hesitation stems from fear of how Clark will react. Will he argue with Cindy as he did in the Hamptons? Will Cindy then blame Neni for sowing additional discord in her marriage and, worse, fire Neni or refuse to pay her in revenge for exposing her secret? Her comparison of Clark, who is stern and authoritarian, to the affable John Edwards is rather ironic.