by K.M. McMullen
Two sisters could not have been more different. Born twenty years apart, Jade and Autumn still were destined to be at odds with one another. Jade, a peaches and cream head-turner with eyes as pale as the gemstone, reveled in her beauty and femininity and wore them well. Displaying the brilliance expected of a jewel, she lit up any room she entered. Secure was she in her ability to charm whatever she desired from whichever man she desired it, since for Jade men existed seemingly for her exclusive use and amusement. Flashy and flamboyant. Seductive and stunning. This was Jade.
The younger Autumn, a deep dark and delicious sister, exuded an air of self-sufficiency and independence singed with a bit of indifference. In Autumn you had a loyal and thoughtful friend, but one with candor who told you not what you wished to hear, but what you needed to hear. She dismissed those who accused her of being hard on people since she simply expected no more than she gave. Like her namesake, Autumn could be unpredictable Ėsurprisingly warm sometimes, startling chilly at times Ė with a subtle hint of the coldness that was coming if you crossed her. With irreverence once she closed the door on you Ė if you gave her reason to close that door Ė it invariably remained shut since Autumn seldom forgave or forgot. Your best friend or your worst enemy.
This was Autumn.
The phone rang and winding down from a long day Autumn almost let the machine pick it up. The effervescent voice on the other end introduced herself as Priscilla and reminded Autumn she was entitled to a 20-minute free psychic reading. Autumn had earned it racking up hundreds of dollars in frequent calls in an effort to gain direction in her life since the loss of her mother. Mama had died suddenly of a stroke. It was a cold crisp Monday before Thanksgiving when while preparing to do some early Christmas shopping Autumn heard her mother call out from her bedroom that she was feeling uncomfortably hot. Arriving to apply a cold compress to her head, Mama was convulsing and falling to the floor. The paramedics, unable to revive her, urged Autumn to call an undertaker. Such was Mamaís passing Ė shocking, sudden and frightening.
Tonight Priscilla predicted a close female relative Ė a child Ė she hadnít seen in a long while needed her and would be coming around soon asking for help. The psychic suggested it could possibly be a daughter whom Autumn had somehow been separated from. Autumn had no children, but she immediately knew whom Priscilla was speaking of. Jade was in many ways emotionally and psychologically like that of a child. Mama always said Jade was living her life as if the world owed her something, but she would never clearly explain what she meant by that statement. After Mama died, however, it all suddenly became clear.
Priscillaís prediction did come to pass. A few days later Autumn sat in the office of one Dr.Dorothy McGregor. It seemed that during sessions with the psychiatrist, Jadeís repeated references to her younger sister Autumn had prompted the doctor to invite Autumn in for a talk. "Itís a rather unorthodox move, but critical to Jadeís treatment," McGregor had explained over the phone. Autumn found the whole scenario a bit unsettling. Undoubtedly Jade had issues Ė she always had Ė but whatever was driving her to seek help now remained a secret the good doctor was unwilling to divulge. Autumn thought about some of the moves, the choices that Jade had made over the years Ė moves that made her shake her head in bewilderment and wonder what her sister could possibly have been thinking. Autumn surmised that Jade - a woman who thought she would always be able to depend upon her looks for survival - was now getting older and reluctantly losing her grip on an audience she could once captivate and manipulate. Jade was also often guilty of thinking with her heart instead of her head; decisions made based on emotion rather than logic with the inevitability of her life made considerably more difficult than it needed to be. Drama - Jadeís life was characterized by drama. She seemed to thrive on it.
The doctorís office was very smartly furnished obviously by one with a deep connection to her African-American roots. The impressive advanced degrees that decorated the walls read Dr.Dorothy McGregor, but the woman facing Autumn from behind the desk could easily have doubled for actress Pam Grier. Autumn wondered if the doctor knew of the uncanny resemblance and was tempted to ask but thought better of it. Perhaps this was not the time.
McGregor smiled warmly and asked Autumn how she would describe her relationship with her sister. "Polite and cautious," offered Autumn, "meaning when we do talk on the phone we take care to stay on the safe subjects like whatís happening on our jobs and what we did for the holidays Ė nothing too deep or important."
"When was the last time you saw Jade?" asked McGregor. When Autumn admitted it had been a year or so, the doctor questioned whether she was purposely avoiding her sister. The answer was yes and no. Autumn knew she would see Jade again, but she just didnít know when. Autumn was a young woman alone Ė not lonely, just alone Ė trying not only to survive, but prosper. Adopting and maintaining a positive state of thinking as well as being in the company of positive people were crucial to her survival and success. She simply could ill afford to be around people who resented her or had issues with her Ė whether those issues were conscious or subconscious. The negative aura could undermine whatever progress she was attempting to make, so Autumn sought to limit her exposure to people with negative vibes. And it didnít matter if she was related to them or not.
Listening to Autumn, the doctor noted the sisterís tone and body language which suggested a steely resolve with an icy undercurrent. Thought McGregor, "Anyone who meets Autumn wonít soon forget her. If Jadeís recovery depends on her reaching an understanding or acceptance with this sister, there may be much work ahead."
Autumn had searched her past and decided she hadnít done anything unkind to Jade. "People make choices in life." she continued. "Maybe two sisters can make totally different choices and over a time the benefits and consequences of those choices come to pass. It is then that one sister may look over at the other and feel the other has faired better with her choices - even having an easier life because of them.
Then comes the envy, resentment, and propensity to blame others since that sister must at all costs avoid looking in the mirror and admitting that what has gone right and what has gone wrong in her life is primarily due to the choices and decisions she has freely made." Autumn paused for a moment, expecting the doctor to interrupt, but she didnít.
She was too busy studying Autumn. "The young woman who sat before her had erected a glass about her inviting all to look, but few to touch Ė and perhaps not because she wanted to but because she felt she had to. Of the two, this sister was clearly the stronger. And she obviously had given a lot of thought to the dynamics between her and her older sibling. But while it might be a bit premature to say, Autumn appeared to be one who worked hard at proving she didnít need anyone."
Autumn had concluded long ago that for someone who was unhappy with the direction his or her life had taken it was much easier to blame oneís parents, a mother in particular. A mother could prove the perfect fall-guy unless of course there was a sibling nearby who had also reached adulthood and turned out good and was by her mere existence disproving and driving a stake through the bad mother theory. Then what other alternative would there be but to conclude that other sibling had been privileged in some way. She must have had it easier growing up. Thatís the answer. What else could it be? But under no circumstances would one look in that mirror, since that would require not only taking responsibility for oneís life, but taking the steps to turn things around. And who in the world would want to do that?"
Autumn stopped suddenly, pausing to catch her breath. It surprised her that McGregor had allowed her to vent nonstop in this manner, a diatribe prompted by the simple question of whether she was avoiding a visit with her sister. A quarter of the way through the doctor had even stopped taking notes, seemingly intrigued by what was being said.
Jade lay across her new Italian sectional, the aroma of new leather still wafting through the air. The color Cognac had looked so pretty in the magazine ad and later even better on the showroom floor. And it had sounded so exquisite as it rolled off the salesmanís lips. Russell had been so generous. The men in her life often were Ė she insisted on it. Jade wondered how the session with Dr.McGregor was going. Autumn had thrown her a curve by even agreeing to go; and it was only after the doctorís insistence that she had asked her. While Autumn had been a bit reluctant at first, she seemed to warm quickly to the idea of speaking to the doctor alone. "When was the last time she and her sister had actually seen one another or had any meaningful contact?", Jade wondered. "Oh yeah", she remembered, "it was about a year ago when their mother had died."
Late one Sunday evening Jade had heard voices in the hallway outside her door. "Iím looking for Jade Bradley," a female voice inquired of her neighbor a few doors down. Not expecting any company, she was at first tempted to pretend not to be home. Often the men in her life also had wives in theirs. Jade didnít concern herself with such details though, having long ago subscribed to two basic philosophies in life that had served her well. One - a woman is crazy if she thinks she has a man all to herself! Two - itís a poor rat thatís got only one hole! When the doorbell finally rang, the cutting edge to Jadeís voice when she answered was meant to not only catch the caller off guard, but let her know she was on hers. Ironically, it was she who was ill prepared for the news her sister was bearing or the way she had chosen to deliver it.
It was no accident that Autumn didnít know exactly where Jade lived. Jade never understood why her sister while in college could work part-time only twenty blocks away from Jadeís apartment building and never pay her even one visit, not one. No visits and no calls. So when Jeffrey was generous enough to move her into her new co-op, she saw little point in mentioning it to her sister or their mother either for that matter Ė whom she credited with the reasoning behind her sisterís behavior.
There had been a disapproving tinge to Autumnís voice that Sunday night. There was no preparedness. There was no dispensing of, "Sit down, I have something terrible to tell you." None of that. The news came blunt and to the point as if this was just one of the many stops Autumn would make that evening, and she was therefore anxious to be on her way. Jade remembered on some subconscious level the tone of Autumnís voice almost suggested she blamed her sister for their motherís death, that somehow it was her fault. Their mother had been gone less than a week, but all the arrangements had already been made without Jade. A wake would be held there in New York and Mamaís body would be flown the next morning to her hometown Chicago for burial. When Jade even thought of objecting, she received a quick reminder that her address and whereabouts were at first unknown, and the funeral home couldnít be kept waiting. And yes everything was paid for, including the round trip airplane ticket she was then handed. There were no hugs and embraces of shared sympathy or mourning, and as she exited through the door Ė not bothering to even turn and face her sister Ė Jade recalled Autumn shot back, "See you in Chicago!"
McGregor seemed to study Autumnís face for what seemed like an eternity. Finally she asked, "You bring up an interesting point of your mother as the fall-guy. Do you see your mother as having little or no influence or obligation towards your sisterís self-esteem or lack of?" "I think people like to rewrite history, casting themselves as the hero or the victim, whichever role they feel most comfortable with," began Autumn "and Jade enjoys her role as the victim. Itís nice and cozy and alleviates her of the burden of taking responsibility for whatís gone on in her life."
But the good doctor persisted, "but as the younger sibling by so many years, would you agree that position afforded you more opportunities or financial and/or emotional support?"
It was then the bell rang. It was then that Autumn knew the doctor too had been sold Ė sold Jadeís portrait of herself as the tragic figure. Autumn almost laughed at the implausibility of it all, but she had to admit Jade was good. She must be Ė look at how many she had sold before. The doctorís questions also offered a peek into what confidences Jade must have entrusted her during their sessions. But even this peek must have happened with Jadeís permission or even her blessing since she resisted going there directly with her sister. Jade was not an actress, so to be so convincing particularly with someone of McGregorís training and experience she had to truly believe in her plight, her unfortunate upbringing. Autumn believed it was no coincidence that she dared never confront or even approach their mother on this. She couldnít risk anyone who had actually been there injecting a dose of reality into her convoluted spin.
Autumn was not a patient person; she was the first to admit that . And she knew this was a bad way to be. Subscribing to Karmic logic with its boomerang theory, with certainty she believed that what you did to others would surely come back to you. Therefore if she was impatient with others, they would be impatient with her. But she just couldnít help it. Her reaction to those like Jade who persisted in nurturing, even wallowing in their childhood issues Ė "Get some therapy. Get some pills. Get whatever you need to get, but get over it."
Autumn did not want to lose her patience or temper with the doctor. Losing it in front of a psychiatrist was not a wise move. Further this was not the doctor speaking. It was Jade speaking through her. So Autumn began her side of the story, choosing her words gingerly. "Dr.McGregor, my sister has always believed that I had it so much easier growing up. She holds fast to this delusion of me with a silver spoon in my mouth living in the Hamptons somewhere, an image that exists only in her mind. The reality is I grew up in the Projects. I was a latch-key kid who let myself in after school and stayed home alone until our mother arrived from work sometime after midnight. Jade complains as a teenager I had more clothes than she. Thatís because I had a job. She never did. Iíve been working since I was fourteen years old. We can sit here all day going back and forth. The truth is my sister and I grew up in two totally different times in two totally different environments. Sheís taken her hits and Iíve taken mine. We both have issues from our childhoods. I donít know that you can grow up Black and poor and not have some issues, some unresolved conflicts, some hurt. If White kids from wealthy families commit suicide, then Iím certain we have pain. But Jade persists in believing somehow I got a better shot at life than she did. Things happened to me too; things that Iíve never told anyone, things that I will take to my grave. But I got through it and over it and she will too."
"A latch key kid. A latch key kid," McGregor repeated to herself. That might explain Autumn being so at ease with her own company, rarely feeling lonely. She had spent so much time alone as a child, she not only had become accustomed to it, she now probably preferred it..
Hopefully unnoticed by the doctor, Autumn had swallowed hard during her last sentence. Deep down she questioned just how completely she had healed from some of the acts that occurred in her most innocent and formative years Ė visions that even today she could summon at will and replay almost in their entirety. Had she really gotten over it? Had those issues in fact been resolved or just repressed? There was a time when atrocities against children werenít headlined with such regularity. There was a time when someone who was trusted, but undeserving of that trust, could count on a girl in her fear, shame and confusion not to come forward and disclose the unspeakable done to her. A mother who worked nights. A stepfather who enjoyed Fridays off. A scenario just too tempting for someone weak to resist.
Jade awoke with a start, breathing heavily and grabbing at the side of the sectional. Quickly surveying her surroundings, she reassured herself that it was just another one of those nightmares. So vivid and so real, they were what had prompted her to begin seeing Dr.McGregor. In every episode she was facing death Ė sometimes by fire, other times by drowning or falling. This time she was being buried alive, her casket lowered into the ground with Mama and Autumn beginning to heap dirt down into the hole. "Unresolved conflicts between her and her mother and sister", was the doctorís initial diagnosis. "Much work was ahead in uncovering those deep-seated issues."
It didnít surprise Jade that whenever her mother or sister made an appearance in her nightmares, they always appeared together and were in agreement with each other -working in concert - while she was always at odds with one or both of them. So too had gone their real life relationship over all these years. Mama and Autumn agreed on everything; and whatever Mama wanted her to do she did. The two always thought alike and as a result Autumn could do no wrong in Mamaís eyes. "Of course Autumn had graduated college and become a success," thought Jade "Who couldnít with the right support?" She remembered her goals in comparison were often met with lukewarm encouragement at best or downright ridicule at worst. And Mama possessed this startling uncanny taboo power where as if you confided your plan to her at its early stages and she pooh-poohed and disagreed with it, that disagreement transformed somehow into a magical whammy and the plan inevitably failed. And this of course further fueled Mamaís propensity to state, "See I told you it was a crazy idea and it wouldnít work." Jade had to admit though to Mamaís credit her reaction was never one of the superior - Iím smarter than you - variety. It was more an air of exasperation as in "Goodness, what lunacy are you contemplating now?" There seemed to be no escaping her and the power of the taboo. So finally Jade recalled just shutting down and not talking. But it was okay. She considered herself a success Ė a star even Ė in her own right. She would never forget as a young girl the last statements her father made before walking out the door, "I canít live in a house where the woman wears the pants. But donít worry about me baby girl, I can lie too good not to survive." Then he burst out laughing. "And besides, Iím pretty. That helps."
"How long has my sister been coming to you?", Autumn asked the doctor. "Twice a week for two months." Continued Autumn, "And itís my understanding you will not disclose whatever you and Jade discuss in your sessions, but you promised to tell her whatever is said here today." "Yes Iím afraid that is right." Autumn wondered to herself, "Now whatís wrong with this picture?" She also wondered what man Jade had conned into paying for those sessions. After all this therapy could go on for years. Jadeís hostility ran deep and had a nasty habit of flaring up at the most inopportune times.
Autumn was fifteen when Clarence died of heart failure. Clarence was Mamaís second husband and Autumnís stepfather. Technically he was Jadeís stepfather as well, if the 35 year old had felt the need to claim him. Death could not have come to a more deserving fellow. It just should have come sooner. Clarence was the reason Autumn held such a low opinion and innate distrust of men - Black men in particular. Clarence was the reason why all women raising young daughters should consider very carefully before remarrying. Mama had met Clarence at the park. Sometimes things are better left where they are found.
But regardless of the man Clarence was or the stepfather he wasnít, Mama had married him and was entitled to the same sympathy and respect due any widow. Besides no one knew or would ever know of what went on in that apartment when Mama was working. Autumn vowed that. So there was Mama grieving and playing host to an apartment full of out-of-town inlaws when in struts Jade Ė latest sugar-daddy in tow. "Well I guess you wonít be able to keep Autumn in Catholic school anymore, huh? Paying all that tuition. With no help, see what you do now!" she baited Mama. "Public school is good enough for her," she hissed "It was good enough for me."
"As if anyone ever asked her or Clarence for a dime," thought Autumn. Yes the seeds of resentment had implanted a long time ago and would not easily be uprooted. She looked around the room. There was going to be a lot of therapy going on up in this here office, a lot of therapy!
"Doctor could you explain something to me about my sister - without betraying any confidences of course.," Autumn asked. "If I can." "What is this perception my sister has that it was our motherís fault the marriage to her father failed. Why does she blame Mama for his walking out?" "Perhaps your sister felt her father was the more supportive parent emotionally."
Autumn never understood all the commotion surrounding the antics of
Wellington Bradley or Wells as he was affectionately known. Just imagine his parents actually naming him Wellington. Clearly they conspired to have him be the center of attention from the start and it worked. But at least Jadeís dad was in her life, especially during the formative years. Even after the divorce, he was notorious for his surprise visits. Mama had said so. Autumn by contrast had only a passing acquaintance with her father. Her parents never married; she was a product of the infamous one-night-stand. They hadnít even actually slept together; they just fell across her bed and enjoyed each otherís pleasures Ė leaving the bedcovers virtually undisturbed. And while Jade had the luxury of arriving when Mama was young, energetic and in her prime, Autumn was a
change-of-life baby making her debut as Mama turned 44. But Autumn never cared how she got here just that she was here and set on making the best of it.
"Iím sorry doctor, what were you saying?" "No I just wanted to add that in addition to possibly believing her father was more supportive, it might also have been thought the he loved her more."
Clearly Jade never understood Mama. She loved both her daughters; she had given both of them life and wanted only the best for them. But sometimes it was hard to like Jade. She mostly resembled her fatherís side of the family Ė particularly in temperament. Now here was a crew that didnít believe the sun shined until they got up in the morning; and if they didnít like you or thought you were beneath them, they let you know it. They never really accepted Wells marrying someone darker than them. Mama had said the Bradleysí looks and appearance meant everything to them. They were heavy into health and beauty regimens, very disciplined about their herbs and vegetarian diets. Their neighbors loved to smirk and claim the Bradleys acted as if their shit didnít stink; but with all the colon cleansing and detoxifying that family did, little did those people know that their statement might have actually had an element of truth to it.
A week later the sisters were summoned to appear together before Dr.McGregor. Barely ten minutes into the session she invited the two to cite one life decision or perspective where they were in agreement with each other, but not their mother. She listened to them search for exactly four minutes and decided to end their suffering. "Let me help you," the doctor offered, "The two of you have no children by choice." Allowing the ladies to momentarily rebound from having been slapped with the obvious, McGregor checked her beeper and apologizing that she absolutely must return this call, got up from her chair and walked out of the office. Jade never recalled the doctor interrupting one of their sessions before. "Maybe some of her other patients are even more messed up than we are," guessed Autumn. They both laughed.
Outside in the reception area, McGregor and her assistant discussed the possible serious ramifications of applying permanent color to relaxed hair. There never was an urgent call requiring her immediate attention Ė just an urgent need for two sisters to finally sit down and talk. A half-hour later Jade checked her watch. "I know she doesnít expect me to pay for this visit."
"You got that right," agreed Autumn. "Sheís not coming back. Letís go." The sisters gathered their belongings. "You still drink coffee?" Autumn wanted to know.
"Canít get through the day without it," answered Jade.
"Come on, Iíll buy you a cup."
"Iíd like that."