We sat around the table, a convivial group of five adults and two children. We had met at a big, soulless, mall complex to let our children – at the time, still only children and both under four – use the play area for a bit, run up and down the mall, and generally burn off some early-fall steam. OK, really it was so that Jenny and I could sit and chat for a while in an afternoon of Parenting by Benign Ignorance, but everyone benefits from that sort of setup, right?
For reasons unknown, three of Jenny’s friends decided to join the escapades: a married couple and another, single woman. Nice enough, all of them, but I was a bit baffled as to why they would want to spend an afternoon watching other people’s children run around. They seemed happy enough, so I didn’t ask questions.
Once the kids were sufficiently de-spazzed, we headed to a California Pizza Kitchen for lunch. Emily is about 20 months older than Jenny’s son: close enough that they both enjoyed the same play area activities, but far enough that her lunch experience was quite different from his. She was able to independently use the bathroom, discuss her choices for entree, and generally engage in the process more, at 4, than he could at almost-2. So lunch was fairly relaxing for me, having spent enough time with Emily to be reasonably confident that she would behave appropriately in public and would eat nicely when served.
I set her up with some crayons and paper, and sat back to talk with the adults. There were a few moments of idle chatter, and then the single woman – whom I had met precisely three times, two of which were on group interview days for graduate schools, and who seemed nice enough but a little… intense – turned to me and said, “You know what? I hate you.”
I blinked. Took a sip of water. Blinked again. Checked on Emily. And throughout, flipped frantically through my mental Rolodex for the proper response when a near stranger spews wrath at a supposedly cordial, casual luncheon.
The best I could come up with was, “Excuse me?”
“I hate you. I really, really do.” She seemed content to leave it at that, and gave me an odd half-smile. I employed my powers of raised-eyebrows-and-silence until she decided to elaborate. “Well, it’s not you, personally, really. It’s just that you have everything I want. You’re married, you have a child, you have another one on the way, you’re pursuing your career, you own a home… you have the life I thought I would have, and I don’t have any of those things. Except the career, but even that has not been what I thought it would be. So, I hate you.” She giggled a little, and after one of the longest, most uncomfortable awkward pauses in the history of awkward pauses, someone found a new topic and the group, gratefully, segued away.
Three weeks later, I began what was to be a month-long process of a second-trimester miscarriage. I wondered, once in a while, whether she would still be so jealous if she knew how much my heart hurt, not to mention my body.
Then I realized that I still had the husband and the daughter and the career and the house. Yes, she was probably still jealous. Hatred-level jealousy. The kind where she laughed a little when she said it, but the truth was close enough to the surface to erase any effort at softening the sting.
It’s the only time in my life that I had a clear, unpleasant encounter with jealousy of me. There have been plenty of murky, confusing moments, and a few clear but not altogether unpleasant ones (I have known people to express their jealousy in a complimentary, woeful sort of way that doesn’t create that screaming chasm of silence after the statement). But that is the only time I can remember feeling so distinctly uncomfortable and minutely observed for my own good fortune.
To my knowledge, she is still unmarried and childless. I hope it hurts less for her now, or that she has found other ways to feel better about what she does have. She “friended” me on Facebook a few months ago, and I don’t see myself developing the heartless courage it would take to ask.