Not Inside or Outside, but Quietly There
On the third floor of the boy’s house, white picture frames line a long hallway. Each frame holds a photo: the boy, his father, his mother, his sister, his brother. No dust lingers on the frames or glass. The boy’s father hires women to clean their faces; absence of dust signifies wealth, or attention to detail, or both. No nannies appear in the photos, though nannies have looked after the boy his entire life, including me. They sometimes told me, as a compliment, that I seemed like family. Because a simile highlights difference, this phrase created a separation between us.
As the riddle goes, “what lies neither inside nor outside the house but no house would be complete without it?” A window, of course. A nanny, like a window, completes the family. And, like a window, you can choose to ignore it, focusing instead on what you see through it: sloping lawn behind your house and the fountain, where water comes out of a jug held by a clay cherub. Not inside or outside, but quietly there, the window does invisible labor; you will see no nannies in Keeping up with the Kardashians, not even picking up toys or wiping a child’s nose, not even in the corner of the frame.
When I was one of the many windows in the boy’s house, my value lay in my glass-like qualities: spotlessness, transparency. This self-effacement began with the agreement I signed not to talk about my experience, an agreement I am breaking right now. Good windows, like good nannies, stay invisible; only the bad windows, scratched or dirty or warped, are noticeable. “Has he been a good boy today?” His father asked me every day, knowing only one answer.
Insert Image: I am dipping my hair into a bucket of soapy water to
clean the minivan. My hair, dark and thick, covers my face. The car says
“wash me” on the back windshield. I wipe the words away. Dirty water
drips down my neck…
Sometimes, however, in a startling moment, you can’t help but see the window there, being looked through. Or you notice it after the fact, when you close your eyes and a photo negative of the frame imprints against your closed lids. At her death in 2009, the now-lauded photographer Vivian Maier left behind hundreds of thousands of images, negatives, and exposures: street photos, architectural subjects, and lots of self-portraits, striking self-portraits reflected back in a standing floor-length mirror in the window of a pawn shop, in a rear view mirror, in the reflective sheen of a hubcap, in the theft prevention mirror.
One of the most-discussed details of Maier’s life: she worked as a nanny for over forty years. One of the children she nannied later remarked, “I don’t think she liked kids at all really. I think she liked images. When she saw an image she had to capture it. ” Critics can’t figure out 1. How could a nanny also be such an accomplished artist? 2. How could such an accomplished artist choose to nanny, if she didn’t like kids? The idea that a woman would choose to nanny for economic, rather than emotional reasons, confounds those who work outside of the care professions. The window never asked to be a window, but how many of us desire what we later become?
In fact, I always hated the word “nanny, ” partly because it sounds ugly, and partly because it made me a nanny-goat, tits heavy with milk, kept on hand to mother the lambs when the sheep mother rejects her young. The human nanny, likewise, serves as a facsimile parent—”like family. ”My tasks included giving the boy the good night kiss he asked for before bed. I slept at the house often, and I watched him fall asleep, watched him sleep the heavy sleep of a ten-year old, and watched him wake up, a level of attention I have paid no one else and hope to never pay anyone again.
I am typically an observant person, but the quality of my gaze intensified by a job that hinged on watching over, watching out for, looking after, looking at, keeping eyes on. I spent so much time watching the boy that I had little attention left to give to anything else. I underwent a crisis of looking, the way that a word becomes strange when I write it too many times, or my face in the mirror when I stare too long. I spent so much time looking at one thing that my own life became a shadow I walked through. What else did I do during that time? Outside of him, I have few memories.
Insert Image: I am killing my houseplants by lying in bed. They die
slowly, over a long stretch of time, their leaves curling up and away
from the light. Time stretches out long like wet chewing gum. Each
hour seems the length of a whole day. I set a timer to remind me to
water the houseplants and when the timer goes off it sounds like bells.
I roll over to my left side.
At work, I watched the boy. I watched him at pool games, tennis games, soccer practice, soapbox races, the frozen yogurt store, the movie theater. I watched him destroying the rose bushes with a stick in the backyard, tearing up his sister’s drawings, chasing the black lab down the hill. I watched him open the automatic window in the car and yell out of it at people walking past. I watched him bathe. I watched him scream. I knew the micro-expressions in the corners of his eyes, changing from mood to mood, the jut of his jaw right before a tantrum, his teeth up close, his eyes up close, his mouth, his nose. I knew the details of his face better than my own, better than anyone I’ve loved.
It is pleasant to imagine that attention stems from love. Simone Weil: “Attention is the rarest form of generosity. ” Or, framed as a leading question in the film Ladybird: “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?” Certainly, attention links to perceived value; as a child, no one watched me the way I watched the boy. But there are also things I love that I prefer to keep a little uncared for. Not looking—at a partner’s texts, at a friend changing her bra—is a form of trust.
And attention can just as well signal generosity’s opposite, as any woman who has had a stalker knows. I have kept a careful eye on many things that I certainly did not love, the boy among them. Once, he screamed in my face, “Leave me alone! Stop watching me!” I understood his feeling. I cover my bedroom windows with curtains. I delete my search history. I lock my social media accounts. The whole time I worked for the boy’s family, I tried to find the cameras littered throughout the house. I didn’t steal, but would I have, if I hadn’t been afraid of being watched?
Insert Image: I am sitting on the sidewalk, outside the school. School’s
still in session. I drop parts of my sandwich for the pigeon. She looks
straight at me with glossy, shrink-wrapped eyes. She does not eat.
“Constant and permanent visibility, ” to borrow Foucault’s phrasing, leaves us vulnerable. For the boy, I formed one side of the frame that surrounded him. For my part, I felt silently acquiescent, unable to shutter. And I, too, had power, over all of them in that house. I was there from morning till night, weekends, weekdays, in the house, outside the house. I knew more of them, though peripherally, than they ever knew of me. I knew the good, the bad. A window is passive, clear glass, but it can transform when the light dies outside, taking on a reflective quality: the insidious trick of your own reflection partially obscuring what you are trying to look at. Why force a non-disclosure except out of fear of what the window has seen, the fear of seeing yourself in it, as you really are?
But it is a vanity to presume that you are the object of another’s gaze, that they might want to expose you. In one of her many self-portraits, Vivian Maierholds the camera at hip height, looking down as she takes a photograph of her own silhouette in a museum window. She stands on the street; carved across her thighs and waist are the figures of two women inside the museum, contained within and obscuring the outline of her body. In another, a woman is talking on the phone through a window, the outline of Maier’s arms, holding the camera, barely visible in the shadow around the figure. She left behind no images of the children she was paid to watch.
After the boy fell asleep, I sometimes walked through his family’s house. I looked at the products inside the bathroom sink. I read the addresses on unopened envelopes and held them up to the light. I touched the fabrics of the racks of his mother’s designer clothes, took heavy dresses off the hangers, pressed them up against my own body. I snapped a picture of myself in her closet, as big as my bedroom. I still have that reflection of myself in one of the floor-length mirrors of the huge room, alone in the house, as if I owned it, as if I lived there, alone.
Insert Image: I stand alone in front of the door, the lock like a face
with a little nose where the key would go. I turn the deadbolt. It clicks.
Two beams come down the driveway, the night guard’s headlights. I
step back, noiseless.
The boy and I often watched Vine compilations on the little window of my phone before bed. Each video composed a little six-second loop, strung together into 20-minute videos, each individual loop a window into a moment. Each compilation had a name: Vines for when you are laying alone in bed at night. Vines for when you’re insecure and don’t know what for. Vines for when you’re lonely and forget who you are.
Erin Marie Lynch is a poet and multimedia artist. Her writing has appeared in journals such as New England Review, Gulf Coast, TriQuarterly, DIAGRAM, and Bennington Review, while her performance and video work has been featured at a variety of exhibitions and festivals. She is a former Hugo House Fellow and has been the recipient of support from the University of Washington, University of North Texas, and the Bill & Ruth True Foundation. Born and raised in Oregon, she is a descendant of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. Currently, she is a PhD student in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Southern California.