I’m sitting at my kitchen counter answering previously ignored emails and knocking out a few house chores. Dishes left in the sink overnight have been washed and the bed made. I’ve put away shirts that had been hanging up in the laundry room for days and I’m tending to a large pile of books once teetering at my bedside. Before leaving for yoga, Leslie had joked that she’d counted thirty-five paperbacks and hardbacks on my nightstand. “Enough to start a little library,” she said. This was a not-so-subtle hint. Most of those books are now piled next to me on the counter, soon to be on their way to the writing shed. I’m not prepared to carry them there just yet, and not ready to head to my college office either, as I’m discovering far more overlooked emails. Plus, I’m not dressed for work, sitting here barefoot, unshaven, and wearing old gray gym shorts and a black tee-shirt. And Sam is not ready for me to go. She prances toward me with Leslie’s clothing in her mouth—first a brown cotton top and then a beige pullover, items Sam has snatched from the hamper. Look what I have. I’m very proud of this. She then delivers a neon-green tennis ball and nudges it into my lap. Play with me. Play with me. She drops the ball at the foot of the stool and steps back to look at me. Do you see the ball? You must see the ball? I smile, but mostly I disregard her, feeling a bit guilty about that. There are the emails, and I’m also searching my phone for the latest podcast from The Guardian featuring Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard before the battery dies. It’s at a perilous 2% and I’ve left my charging cord in the car.
“Damn it,” I grumble, rise from the stool, and reach for my keys. “Sorry, Sam,” I say. “I’ll be back.”
Sam stands at the entrance to the kitchen and watches me move to the door and outside. What are doing? Where are you going? I have the ball right here.
I lift the cord from my car and as I turn back toward the house’s entrance walkway, I see a neighbor, a woman, walking her golden retriever.
“Morning,” I say. She says the same, her dog pulling on its leash toward me.
“Hey buddy,” I say, not remembering the dog’s name or the woman’s. I rub the top of the dog’s head and scratch under its chin.
“She’s your best friend, now,” the woman says as the dog’s eyes widen and its tail wags.
“Oh, you just want a little lovin’, huh?” I pat the dog on its back. “Enjoy your day,” I say, addressing the neighbor. “You, too, buddy,” I add, smiling at the dog. And as I step toward the front steps, through the window of the storm door, I see Sam, standing, watching. I wave. Sam only scowls, a piercing glare, at least that’s what it looks like to me.
I open the door and Sam steps aside, observing my every step into the house and the kitchen.
“I’m cheating on you, aren’t I, Sam,” I joke.
She does not appear to find my words funny, offering no welcoming nuzzle, the kind I have always received when I walk in the door no matter how long I’ve been gone. There is no wag of the tail. There is no whimper for attention, only this unwavering stare.
“We’ll get in a walk, Sam. I promise.”
Jealousy is a complicated emotion. Enigmatic. And although veterinarians might insist that dogs do not have dense, complex feelings, what I see before me now is unmistakable jealousy. I know it when I see it. I wouldn’t call myself a jealous person, but I have fallen into its grips, and I know what it is. It has come to me in small bites, nipping at me like an angry Yorkie, or in a big chomp from a Great Dane, although not very often. Other men have flirted, even in a subtle way, with my wife. I don’t like it. I know it is a caveman-like reaction. But it’s real. I feel it. I’m not proud of it. And I wouldn’t say I’m insecure, although somewhere deep down, maybe I am. Either way, I try not to show it and most times the jealousy never results in anything of worth; I don’t allow it to rule me, trigger me to do stupid things. On this, I am certain. But a dog? Sam? I’m not sure how jealousy fully displays itself, if that’s truly what it is. However, I know what I see—Sam’s angry glare.
I put on shoes and toss water on my bed-head hair, and snap the leash to Sam’s collar. Her scowl is still there and I’m hoping a walk will make amends.
The morning is bright, despite a low sun, as autumn is only a couple of days away. We head west past the road construction trucks near the corner. Workers have been building new curbs and will soon repave part of the east-west street. It’s not our usual walking route, but I need something fresh today. Sam appears to agree. After a turn south I see a familiar brick home, a Pittsburgh Steelers flag flies at the front door. That’s my favorite team, but that’s not why I like this home. It’s the windows—white, retro, with detailed framing. I like the front entrance with its cozy old-style foyer, more of a mudroom, really. I’d love to have an entranceway like that. Jealous? No, this is envy, jealousy’s cousin. It’s minor envy, but it’s envy nonetheless.
Two houses farther south sits a home with a fenced yard. Sam sees a small red ball on the other side and she pulls toward it. I tug her back and then hear a dog bark and show itself at the fence. It’s a small dog, brown and white, a mutt. It sees Sam and the barking intensifies. It then seizes the ball in its mouth and runs out of sight. Sam watches, looks at me, and returns to search out the dog. Jealousy? Envy?
Such reviled emotions—painful, hurtful, debilitating. But I wonder if they can be something better if channeled differently. Maybe the emotions can be seen as positive signals of something amiss, something unbalanced, something we can fix, repair. Maybe they are signs of too much emphasis on the material, not enough self-respect, not enough time spent building a relationship or finding a happy life full of contentment. Maybe these emotions are signals, small or big. Maybe experiencing envy leads to curiosity. Maybe Sam just wants me to know that her neon-green tennis ball is rather ratty, dirty, and old, and she wants a new red one.
We cross the street and in the front lawn of another home, sunflowers bloom. Big, bold, and yellow, thriving in the sunshine. They are not wild, but planted on purpose. Someone knows what they’re doing. We have no sun like that in our yard. We can’t even grow healthy grass let alone beautiful flowers.
My bald head wants hair. My sixty-year-old belly wants flatness. I’d like to be taller, but age is shrinking me. And up ahead, a younger man, maybe in his 30s, marches by on his way to the train station. He’s tall, lean, and sports a full mane.
“This way, Sam,” I say, turning east at the crossroads. I don’t need to see this while I walk about in wrinkled shorts and an old tee-shirt.
On any other morning, jealousy and envy would not have been following me around. Most always I can tramp it down when it rises; kill it like a small garter snake. But there it is anyway, a vermin that unearthed itself when Sam saw me with that other dog. It’s a small dose. It does not consume me. But the feeling is human. I am human. Sam, she is not. But I wonder.
Nietzsche called jealousy and envy the “private parts of the human soul.” Therapists have written about how of all the issues of the mind, jealousy and envy are the toughest ones to tame. Malcolm X said that envy blinds us. Socrates called it an “ulcer.” Emerson called it ignorance. The Spanish poet, Miguel de Unamuno said “envy is worse than hunger, since it is hunger of the spirit.” Emotions like these are festering gashes in our psyche. But yet, like all other human feelings, it’s not the emotion that cripples us, but how we deal with it, for those emotions are only chambers in our already fragile hearts.
Sam sniffs along a row of red and white impatiens that appear to be holding on to what is left of the season in a garden at the edge of the sidewalk. She is most interested in the mulch and the patches of weeds growing next to the railroad ties the homeowner has used to mark off the garden bed. Sam, as I’ve written before, is a world-class sniffer. And although I know dogs sniff to sense what is near and what has been before, I wonder what it is she smells now. What is so interesting? What’s the scent, the aroma? Is it earthy or sweet? Does it smell of the wild? Smell of a rabbit close by? Is it the scent of a squirrel that had once found a nut near the tree? The nose of a dog is an incredible instrument. But I would not want such an intense ability. I do not envy that nose. What I smell as a human is plenty. In the air now is a hint of autumn, like sun-dried leaves. And later today, I again will smell the earthiness of coffee or the scent of sea in salmon cooking on a hot iron skillet. Smells I love, smells that are mine alone. And maybe that is the cure for being strangled by envy, this dubious emotion, to realize it is a destroyer of individuality, of who we truly are by fueling distrust in our own self worth. Wanting what someone else has takes away from us. We should not accept that. And jealousy, an involuntary emotion born of a past wound, is rooted in our old self, someone who no longer is. Still, envy and jealous live on, rising up unexpectedly to remind us how vulnerable we are.
The east-west street ends at the north-south street and Sam and I turn north. She is done with her sniffing for now, and walks ahead of me. When the leash stretches to its fullest, Sam is tugged backward. She turns to me, as if to wonder why I am not keeping up.
“Hang on, Sam.” I say, asking for patience.
Sam waits and wags her tail. I pat her head.
“What’s the hurry, girl?” I ask.
There is none, of course. She is just excited to be here, outside, in the sunshine, sniffing, and with me. She knows I’m not going anywhere. I’m here right now with no one else but her, not petting some other dog. I am hers alone.
In a couple of days, Leslie and I will be away from the house for an entire day, some eight hours, renting a truck to move a bed frame, a large rug, and a propane grill from her son’s old apartment and hauling everything back home to sell. And during those hours, while Sam is alone, she will stick her nose into my open messenger bag and snatch from it a pair of Bose headphones. She will sit under the table in the living room and chew away, nearly destroying one of the ear pads and leaving teeth marks in the plastic headpiece. I will scold her and Superglue the ear pad back in place. And I will wonder if the destructive behavior came from boredom, if she had been angry that we’d been away so long, or was she jealous that Leslie and I had been together all day long without her.
I’m unsure of the answers. But there are two things I do know: the manifestation of jealousy remains a mysterious thing, and despite the damage, my headphones still work.