On Jealousy and Superstition, with excerpts from A Decent Woman

During a recent coffee date with a new writer friend, we discussed the green-eyed monster called jealousy, that can rear its ugly head at any time, even in the kindest and most self-aware among us. Jealousy can be the toxic stuff of nightmarish situations, both for the jealous person and the receiver. Think Glenn Close boiling Michael Douglas’ bunny. In films and books which deal with the theme of jealousy, the outcome isn’t usually a happy one.

I don’t like the word, jealousy. I prefer using the word, envy, as in,

“I’m envious you just won the lottery for $500 million, paid off your home, cars, school loan, all your bills, and the bills of each and every family member and close friend. Except for mine, of course. You didn’t pay off mine, did you? And I envy that you’ll be living in the South of France indefinitely with your gorgeous, young boyfriend, who adores you.” Yes, I definitely envy those people; who doesn’t? Of course, this is said tongue in cheek…except for the hunky boyfriend.

I’ve always found it particularly distasteful to hear or read, “Oh, my God! I’m SO jealous of you!” or “I hate you! I’m so jealous!” I instantly cringe inside and out, and have actually blurted out, “Please don’t say that!” to several people in my life. It’s an immediate reaction–I hear those lines and I want to spit away the demons like my Greek landlady used to do, cross myself like the good Puerto Rican I am, and say, “Mashallah” as my Persian friend insists I say when I direct any praise to her children, or about her home, or her job. In her Persian experience, don’t mention the children. Just don’t. Mashallah, which means “God has willed it”, is employed as a protection against jealousy, envy and ill intentions or, more specifically, the “evil eye”. In Puerto Rico, as in many countries, the evil eye is worn as protection against the evil eye. Yes, you read that right.

Two of the many themes in my historical novel, A Decent Woman, are spiritual and religious superstitions, and jealousy. I wrote about the jealousy between women of differing socio-economic levels, and the jealousy between families.

Excerpts from A Decent Woman,

Serafina ignored his last comment. “I still have chicory left; that will stretch the coffee a bit. Oh, and stop at the botánica. Ask if they have any fists made of black azabache.” She made a fist and stuck her thumb between her index and middle fingers to illustrate what she hoped for in a black stone amulet. “Or even a tiny evil eye charm to pin on Lorena’s clothes.”

Roberto shook his head. “No, no. I’m not going there.”

Serafina put her hands on her hips, and let out an exasperated, confused sigh. “Why not?”

“One reason is because I don’t have enough money for that. Two, it’s out of my way. And three, I don’t believe in that nonsense Doña Ana is feeding you.”

“Ana doesn’t speak nonsense, and I don’t ask for much. Please look for el mal de ojo. The evil eye is all around, and we must protect Lorena! People are jealous,” she said, pressing a hand to her clammy forehead.

“I’ll go in, and if I see it, fine. But if not, I’m not asking. And who’d be jealous of a baby?”

“People are jealous, Roberto!” Roberto followed her inside. She placed Lorena in the wooden cradle and arched her back. “Besides, I have an account with the santéro. He says I can pay him later.”

Roberto grabbed his pava and with one swift motion, he planted the straw hat on his head. “Evil eye, my ass. The santéro should keep carving saints and stop selling trinkets to bored housewives!”

“Stubborn man,” Serafina muttered when she heard the garden gate slam. She went back out to throw more kindling on the flames now blazing on three large, flat stones surrounded by three concrete blocks. Surely, he could buy her the black fist to protect Lorena. One amulet couldn’t cost too much. She peered around the old avocado tree, making sure he was out of earshot. “You buy rum without a guilty conscience, ah? That’s where our money goes!”

And this excerpt,

“Oh, but I am worried,” Ana whispered, gathering mint from her garden, firm in her belief Serafina was already infected. Ana dropped a handful of chopped mint leaves into hot water, added a small amount of farina, and pounded the mixture in a mortar and pestle until it resembled a sticky mass. She dropped several cotton cloths into boiling water and removed them with a long wooden spoon. When the cloths were cool enough to handle, Ana spooned out a small amount of mixture in the center of three cloths. She folded the cloths into small, loose squares, and set them aside. Serafina returned with two bags bulging with clothing and the dog following close behind.

“Lie down,” instructed Ana. “If the sun sets, the healing will not take place.” Ana placed the squares upon Serafina’s chest and throat area, and knocked three times on the wood table to call the orishas to her. “Eleguá, I ask permission to invoke Osaín in the healing of my friend. Please help me, as you help all healers,” Ana said, brushing away tears with the back of her hand. She flicked Agua Florída cologne around the house to cool and appease any hot-headed spirits, and with a gnarled, wooden broom, she briskly swept the negative energy out the front door and down the stairs. She tied a brown, felt scapular to the bedpost in honor of El Niño de Atocha, the god Changó’s Christian counterpart, and waited. Ana frowned as she stood at the foot of the bed waiting for a sign the spirits were with her, and noticed Serafina had fallen asleep. “There’s something in this house. I can feel it,” Ana said.

And on jealousy,

“Listen, marriage is a woman’s introduction into the sisterhood of decent women. You are now a member of our women’s club, an exclusive club, and as a pregnant wife, you are no longer considered a threat, or a potential husband snatcher like those bad women.”

Serafina tilted her head and pursed her full lips. “What do you mean by ‘bad women’? Are you talking about prostitutes?”

“Yes and no,” continued Mercedes. “There has always been an unspoken war between women to catch good men and keep them; you know that. Life is hard for women with no husbands, who will stop at nothing to steal your man. The camaraderie between comadres, us, is very important, Serafina. You and I are very fortunate. We’re married to successful men, and God has blessed us with beautiful children. We have a lot to lose, and we’re not about to lose as much as a hair to another woman whether she’s a prostitute, a waitress, or another society wife, right?”

Serafina nodded in agreement. “I see. We band together like sisters until one of us betrays another sister.”

“Exactly,” Mercedes said with a smile. “Then we destroy them socially, no matter who they are. We encircle our wounded sister. Important social doors are closed to the accused society woman, and we deny employment to the trigueñas and mulatas if they so much as sniff around our husbands. I’ve seen it done many times.”

A Decent Woman is coming in Spring 2015 with Booktrope Books!

Please sign up for my newsletter for the date of our fun book launch, and for important book news and events. 

Thank you! Eleanor x

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