Dear Man on the Stover Bench
It's been over a year and I'm still mad at you
Dear Man on the Stover Bench,
I must admit that one of the reasons I even started this newsletter was so that I could address you. My partner and I still talk about you, a summer and some change later, as a mix between cautionary tale and ethical dilemma.
You probably remember the day—you and your family drove three hours to the city so your daughter could do a photoshoot, spent an hour looking for parking, the dog ran away in the park, when you found him he had been rolling around in an inexplicable mountain of shit, and a helpful park staff member offered a hose for your wife to wash the dog.
Even if you don’t, my partner and I certainly remember your day. While your wife washed the dog, you escaped and found the Stover Bench, where you called a friend and shouted this story, then repeated it in a less-shouty voice before finishing your voicemail message. You sat in simmering silence until your wife appeared and asked if you wouldn’t mind holding the dog’s leash so she could wash her hands—a request that you refused and to which she was incredulous. Your daughter and her photography subjects were nearby, and you spent the next hour reluctantly trailing them or sitting on the bench in that same quiet rage.
We were on the other side of the bench, reading and discussing what we had read. Or trying to—there was something distracting about the stress and negativity rolling off of you, even after you left that voicemail and stayed quiet. When your family came by to chat and snap photos, I raised my head from my book. You immediately apologized, then walked back in the direction of your side of the bench to sit alone. It was likely the only apology you would give that day. When you and your family finally left, you waited for your wife and daughter to be out of earshot before whispering to us dryly, “Don’t ever get married.”
You bizarro man. You pathetic, absurd, hilarious dude. My partner and I left the park later that day and discussed you at length—he was empathetic to your situation, I was mildly entertained and infuriated. We both agreed you were a huge jerk. We bring you up in conversation every now and then, thinking about how inescapable you found your life that day, whether you had any choice in the matter of changing it or not.
I don’t feel like discussing you as a cautionary tale or ethical dilemma today. Lately, I’ve been focused on how my partner and I must have looked from your point of view—a young couple reading and relaxing on a beautiful summer day.
It’s not the first time a stranger has given us unsolicited advice. There was that birthday party at the American Girl Cafe where a mother at a table of too many children and too few parents (and weirdly even fewer dolls) looked over at us and stress-giggled, “Don’t ever have kids.” These statements are never really aimed at us. They’re aimed at the ideal of us, a youth that you and this mother think you can preserve by advising us to refuse the decisions you made. Honestly, it irks me.
I’ve wanted to write about jealousy for some time now. I’ve tinged my stories in it, and I want to address it head-on in an essay someday, although I’m not sure where to start. I’ve been trying to articulate the feeling of being the object of jealousy, as well as in what instances I do or don’t feel jealousy myself.
To put bluntly, I don’t think I’m the kind of person who begrudges others’ hard-earned successes. Ergo, I’ve been weirded out by the times when others have torn me down for publications, for awards, for receiving attention for the work I had done and work that they could do on their own. In a past life, I’m sure I was a cheerleader, and I’m happy to see peers succeed for the work they do as well.
If I can think of an instance in which I do feel jealousy, it’s reserved for the privileged who waste what resources they have and remain miserable, the asshole of the friend group who continues to promise change without actually doing the work of changing, the writer who had the same time and access to classes and lessons as I did but thinks they’re above it all—I’m jealous of the opportunities they take for granted and how they can feel so comfortable with themselves even after doing so little because they can more easily blame the world around them. I wasn’t built to think that way and I know things would be easier if I could.
This, I think, is what bothers me so much about your jealousy—that I saw you feeling this same jealousy born from “unfairness,” but in that moment, you didn’t recognize it as such, and my partner and I weren’t deserving targets of it. There was a discomfiting respect you had in us, something you wanted to protect us from, the jealousy becoming paternalistic in the way you apologized not for your own actions but for the family you had, your instructive tone full of sleazy overbearance. It was gross, like you tried to salvage the day with a self-pitying, false wisdom that merely left a film of grease over us. We get it, we’re young and unmarried. We don’t think we were flagrantly wasting ourselves that day.
It’s been over a year and I’m still mad at you. I’m sheepishly grateful as well—I was relieved to learn that even in this instance, in which I was the object of your jealousy for a quality that you thought we might “take for granted,” I saw myself shying away from even this attention. I’ve often felt foolishly self-aggrandizing when I say I don’t delight in jealousy, but here, finally, was proof.