The little black kitten of jealousy

kitten

My phone dings and I look to see a dozen pictures of the sweetest little black kitten.

This darling new addition to my friend’s family, which they are calling Faun, causes me to start ahhhing loudly.

The kids come running.

“What is it?” they ask.

I flip the phone around and show them.

My girl immediately starts crying.

Not just little tears either.

Big, fat ugly tears which quickly turn to sobs.

Oh no.

As much as I’m aware of her wish for a kitten, this possibility didn’t occur to me.

I feel mean, as if I’d done something to hurt her on purpose.

The jealousy and anger pulse from her. She tries to calm herself, but the feelings are beyond containment. I let her cry and rage until the intensity ceases a bit.

“You are jealous because you want a kitten,” I say.

She nods and cries a bit more.

“I feel like a bad friend,” she says through her tears. “Have you ever felt jealous?”

Have I ever. I tell her about growing up and being incredibly jealous all the time. My friends got more presents at Christmas, had prettier hair, more boyfriends and took elaborate vacations my family would never be able to afford. I didn’t even fly in an airplane until I was in college.

I know a little about jealousy.

“Did you grow out of it?” she asks.

No. I have to admit that I have moments as an adult where I feel the pang and sting still. More moments that I care to acknowledge.

I want a kitten too. I want a new laptop. I want a real summer vacation. I want to be smarter, more successful and drive a nicer car.  I want to be skinny.

Longing for things you don’t have is as human as it gets.

“What do you do about it?” she asks and hugs me tight.

I can feel the desperation in her voice and I know I have to get this moment right.

I pull back a little and look in her eyes.

There are different kinds of emotions, each balancing the other out, I explain. Like in the movie, “Inside Out,” where Joy can’t exist without Sadness.

She nods.

“When I think about jealousy, I picture purple,” she says. “Like grape jelly. So I picture her being purple with a pale green dress on.”

“Sounds good,” I reply. “Who balances jealousy?”

I ask this question and realize I don’t have an answer. My emotional growth is about the same as her in this department. Well, maybe a bit better. I don’t cry all the time. Not all the time.

“I don’t know,” she says.

We both sit there for a few minutes thinking about it. Jealousy makes you want things other people have. What is a word for being happy with what you got?

“Contentment,” I finally say. “I picture her as wearing all pink and having a sweet voice. She says things like, ‘my room is so beautiful’ and ‘I love my family so much!”

“Yes,” she says. “Contentment tells me ‘I’m lucky to have a mom that rubs my back and talks to me’ and ‘I have awesome red hair.’”

Exactly.

We list off more and more things which make us feel content.

It feels good and the ugliness of the longing for what others have starts to fade for us both.

We cuddle up closer. She points to the picture on her wall of us nursing when she was a baby. She tells me she looks at it every night as she is falling asleep.

“I just pretend you are laying next to me,” she says. “Then I fall right asleep because I know you love me.”

My heart does complicated leaps of joy and sadness.

I tell her jealousy won’t go away and will be with her the rest of her life.

“Just be sure to let contentment have a voice too,” I say.

We agree to keep this conversation going.

“Maybe when I’m in college I can Face Time you,” she says. “Might even have holograms by then and I’ll project you laying right next to me.”

“Absolutely,” I say.

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The judgmental jerk next-door

I scurry quickly to the mailbox. By the time I turn around with several days worth of junk in my hands, he is standing outside waiting for me.

I really thought he’d gone out. Guess that was his wife’s car leaving a few minutes ago. My mistake.

I quicken my pace and keep my eyes cast down, pretending an advertisement for pizza is the most interesting thing I’ve ever read.

“Hey neighbor,” he calls out. “How are you?”

I consider pretending I didn’t hear him. I don’t look up for a few beats and foolishly think maybe he won’t try again.

“The kids sure are getting big,” he says.

He has mastered the art of starting a conversation before the other person can get away, a black belt of verbal assault.

“When do they start back to school?” he continues and takes a step toward me as I try to sneak past his perfectly green lawn.

Despite brown grass in every other lawn, he stubbornly refuses to allow his oasis to be thwarted by the government. He believes the drought is some conspiracy and he refuses to acknowledge it. Somehow Obama is behind it.

“We have about a month left of summer,” I say in a rush. “The kids are waiting on their lunch. I better hurry back. They get all cranky when they are hungry.”

“The girls are good,” he starts and I brace myself.

He stands squarely in the middle of the sidewalk and there is no polite way to leave now. I’m trapped in the social obligation of good neighbor.

I remember when we moved in. His sweet face all smiles and welcoming. Polished, handsome and always working in his perfect lawn and doting on his beautiful French wife. They seemed the ideal representation of the American dream.

Over the last 12 years, I’ve seem him age dramatically. He looks tired and unkempt today in a thin white t-shirt and sweatpants. He stands stooped and looks frail. There is a slight odor of aftershave mixed with something else that I can’t put my finger on.

That phrase “the girls are good” is always what he starts with. Those words have a physical effect on me. My blood pressure goes up and I get agitated because I know what follows: story after story about his three perfect granddaughters. His love for them is both beautiful and incredibly nauseating.

“Did I tell you that Samantha got straight A’s?”

“Hey did you hear that Celeste’s volleyball team made it to nationals?”

“We are sending Teresa to France for her senior trip. She is so excited!”

His love and dedication to them has been the topic of thousands of sidewalk conversations with rarely a chance to get a word in. I always smile and tell him that he must be proud.

“You know I have to take care of them,” he always says. “I have to be everything I know their father would have been.”

I remember the first time I was invited into his immaculate home, everything white and gleaming. In the living room is an enormous photo of his son. He is standing in a park somewhere, a handsome blond with tan skin. He has one daughter in a pack on his back, one attached to his leg looking up at him and the third he is pushing on a swing.

His son died shortly after the picture was taken. Brain tumor. Sudden. Tragic.

sidewalkThere have been many tears over the years on the sidewalk between our houses, as he would recount memories of the boy he lost. He and his wife put flowers on his grave every Sunday after church. Every spring they use a special cleaner to polish the gravestone.

His son’s death broke his heart and set him on this course of obsessively caring for the three young girls that were left behind.

I’ve watched as they’ve grown up with voice lessons, private school, yearly Hawaiian vacations, clothes, cell phones and anything else they could ask for. I’ve watched as he bought them each matching brand-new white Cadillac’s when they turned 16. I’ve listened to the stories of their trips and accomplishments.

I have watched these girls grow up and I’m not going to lie, I’ve been jealous. The ugly kind of jealousy that makes me loathe the sight of their privileged little blond heads in their matching Caddies as they park in front of my house to pick up cash from their loving grandparents.

I never had grandparents who thought everything I did was brilliant, perfect and worth bragging about. Never went on exotic vacations or had someone to ask for help paying for school. My legacy was mental illness and emotional distance. I was given bibles, prayed for and made to feel never enough.

Basically, I began feeling all kinds of sorry for myself. That turned into hatred of the girls for the “perfect life” that I observed from my place next door. I have spent over a decade developing my distaste of anything to do with them.

“The girls are good,” he says again and starts in.

The oldest is studying at an Ivy League college and is traveling through Europe for the summer. She is planning on being a doctor and studying the kind of tumor that killed her father. I have heard him tell me that for years now and have often wondered if it is her dream or her grandfather’s for her.

The middle girl is in Tennessee following her music career goals and he is certain she will be the next Taylor Swift. She has a boyfriend that is famous and has hired her to sing backup on his next album.

“Voice of an angel,” he says and trails off.

He stands there and kind of sways a little. I could see there was something he wasn’t saying. I was worried his cancer was back, or his wife was sick or something had happened to his daughter.

“It’s heroin,” he finally says, spitting out the words with a mixture of anger and pain. “I just don’t think I can save her. How did it happen?”

His youngest granddaughter, the athlete with the promising volleyball career, is a drug addict.

With a shaky voice he tells me how he keeps trying to get her to rehab, but she keeps leaving.

He tells me about picking her up at a filthy motel, the guys she was with wanted money and he had to call the police. He had borrowed a friend’s gun and was prepared to protect her, but realized he was over his head.

“I’m 74-years-old,” he says. “I can’t put myself in that position again. I could have been killed.”

The tears fall down his face and I hug him as hard as I can. We stand there for a few minutes and I cry into his shoulder. His sobs keep coming and I worry he might fall. He finally stops, steps back and looks at me.

“Pray for her,” he asks weakly. “Will you?”

“Of course,” I say.

He turns around and walks up the driveway without looking back. Wiping my face, I head inside to make lunch.

I have no idea why this young girl has turned to drugs. Abuse. Mental illness. Depression. Loneliness. I really have no idea.

All I know is that she is broken, her grandfather is being torn apart and I’m feeling guilt for all the bad things I’ve thought about her and her beautiful sisters.

I am the jerk next door.

The middle chapters are usually like this, aren’t they?

I tear open the candy bar wrapper and take a little bite. Just one bite I tell myself. Just enough to shove down the tears.

The most perfectly fit couple is getting into the car next to me. They have on workout gear and a bag of new golf balls. They are smiling and he opens the door for her. I think they kiss, but I look away before seeing it.

Shame and jealousy overwhelms me. My face burns as I sink down from the judgment I feel through the glass.

I wait until they drive away and then I eat the whole thing.

I don’t even taste it.

The tears come again.

Fuck.

I hear voices and dry my eyes. A woman is ushering a few kids into the van parked next to me. The exact same van as mine. Grey. Plain. Completely practical. The official vehicle of women like us. She makes eye contact with me and I know she sees the tears and the chocolate pooled in the corners of my mouth. She looks away.

I do too.

I keep having these epiphanies, but they fade. Like a dog being fooled by the same trick of throwing the ball, I keep running ahead just in case it was really thrown this time.

Next time I’ll get it.

This part of my life is boring. The monotony and responsibility of being an adult is such a huge letdown from the optimism and hope of youth.

If I am to believe Facebook, I’m alone in this feeling. Yet I know better. I know the truth.

All those memes about changing perspective and living in the moment aren’t just for my benefit. All those pictures of our kids that we post, the one’s where they are smiling and happy, aren’t just to make others think we are so great.

We are all trying to shift focus. Stay in the light. Find the good.

It’s not a lie.

Not really.

It’s just not the whole truth. It’s a version of the truth we all tell ourselves.

FullSizeRenderIt’s the middle of the story and not much is happening.

It’s the boring part of the book you skim, the endless paragraphs of bullshit self-reflection.

It’s the part when the main character wallows in self-pity until you want to punch her in the face and tell her to wake up.

Yeah. That’s where I am.

My story isn’t over.

I think about Abdi, this Somali refugee I heard about on This American Life. He won the U.S. visa lottery, but still had to go through some ridiculous shit to make his American dream come true. He had some real reasons to cry and shove sugar into his veins. Yet his is a story of endurance and patience.

I think about my mom. A few weeks ago, I hugged her goodbye and put her on a plane destined to meet the daughter she gave up for adoption before I was born. She has waited decades for this time, the pain never really going away, and now she got to hug her and look into her eyes and tell her all the things she’d whispered quietly to herself.

I think about waking up in a tent and having my two children climb into my sleeping bag with me to get warm. They giggle and jostle closer, elbows and knees and mangled hair and wet kisses. They love this broken-down woman they call mamma and don’t care she is extra squishy and cries quickly.

I think about this cashier at the grocery store by my home. She is always smiling. Always. Not the fake “can’t wait to get of her look” either. Real. Genuine. I ask her how she is and she always says, “Blessed, thank you.” She means it. It’s not bullshit. I’ve seen customers be rude and throw fits. She handles herself with grace and ease.

I think about this place I’m stuck in. This self-imposed crazy whirlpool spinning me around until I’m disorientated and I want to just sink down in defeat. Happy. Sad. Up. Down. Defeated. Motivated.

Here I am. Right here. I’m at the part of the story when the character has to decide to do something. The time has come for action.

My story isn’t over.