The waiter’s tattoo said, “envy is ignorance.” I replied, “No, it’s a deadly sin.” He smiled and gave me a roll, but there wasn’t time to tell him the whole story, though I’ve told it to my children so often that they can recite it from the first line.
I was a quivering mass of insecurities in my 20s, eager to please anyone who looked like the father who didn’t give a rat’s ass, kept from an early grave by manic energy and an inborn capacity for locating the closest emergency exit. I’d planned to marry at 27, and I did. To a good man, as it turned out, a lawyer. He lived on Guam and so did I – both conditions that wouldn’t endure but embracing impermanence wasn’t something I’d master for a very long time. So those days seemed like forever.
Kate worked in “the” law firm. The one my husband joined. She was many of the things – at the time I thought everything – that I wasn’t — mostly the confidence she brought into a room. It’s a confidence I have come to associate with prep school, that sense that everyone’s looking at her and that’s as it should be. Yes, in retrospect there was a certain, “preppiness” to her though at the time I just thought she had things together. She did have most things well in hand: a matching husband who knew how to work a room, two babies who knew not to cry, drool, or drip snot in public, a house, real furniture doubtless bought new, silverware that matched (something I’ve still not managed to achieve) and my scruffy old beloved even thought she was smart.
The envy crept up on me. I was just curious at first, sniffing around for the flaw, observing with disinterest the community’s embrace. Expat lawyers have a built in radar for detecting their own. With me the “blip blip” meant “foreign object approaching.” But she slipped underneath into the welcoming smiles of senior and junior partners alike. She was, truly, in. And as I realized that I was not and never would be the envy got its first toe-hold. In time I couldn’t meet her smiling eyes. I’d say something banal about the bouncing babies – “Oh my, have her eyes changed color?” Remembering little old me, crying in the bathroom stall when the inevitable drops of blood signaled failure of our meek attempts at reproduction. That was probably the crux of the matter, though the husband didn’t help. Charming and all, he never did remember my name.
Years passed. My own babies came. We moved away. Lacking anything to draw us together with loads to push us apart, I forgot about Kate. Rumors of her divorce trickled out from Guam, triggering a brief image of perfection marred. She left the law firm, went out on her own to do divorce work. Hers had been “acrimonious,” we heard, with a nasty custody dispute that spun out for years. I couldn’t figure out why she wanted to keep revisiting divorce. You’d think she’d have run like hell. As it turned out, she should have.
Friday August 12, 1989 was the middle of Guam’s rainy season. Clothes and shoes full of mildew, streets slippery with coral oil, smells magnified by heat and moisture and nerves frayed knowing that it will go on and on. Timing is everything, and at 9AM Kate walked up the courthouse steps for the fourth hearing in a custody dispute almost as ugly as her own. Turns out the husband was waiting for her in a dark corner of the parking garage, smoking cigarettes (several) with his new hunting rifle in hand. He was a good shot – hit her right in the back of the head with a bullet that killed her instantly. Kate’s children went to her husband and my green-eyed envy turned into guilt.
Guilt tinged with a hint of sadness. I’m not sure why. I don’t really think I could have saved her – really. But she was suffering and I missed it. Suffering’s a magnet for me, that’s why I went into social work. On some naive level I think “trouble shared is trouble halved.” So yeah, if I hadn’t been so busy cringing in the corner and feeling sorry for myself I might have been able to help. I think that.
Emerson to the contrary, envy is not ignorance. It’s a deadly sin.
A version of this essay appeared in 2010 in Bravado, a New Zealand Literary Magazine, 18, 44-45.
Jean Spurr and what brought this back up for you today, my old friend? August 5, 2009 at 10:49pm
Ginny Richardson WOW! Amanda this brought tears to my eyes. It’s raw, so genuine, and so real. Why can’t more of us be “real” like this. We all have these should’ves and could’ves and you were courageous to write eloquently about your experience and help the rest of know we’re not alone. Thank you Amanda. August 5, 2009 at 11:09pm