Family Therapy: Nonbinary Reflections
By Jenny North
Artwork by Fraylim
Author’s Note: In life, as in fiction, sometimes things don’t always go as planned. When Fraylim and I first started collaborating on Family Therapy, I worked up a detailed outline and Fraylim provided me with a bunch of artwork that ultimately went into the story as you’ve seen it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to writing the story right away, and by the time I was able to roll up my sleeves and get into it, our schedules fell out of sync. So, Fraylim unfortunately had some artwork that wasn’t able to be finished, such as the artwork for the Wednesday and Morticia costumes that were mentioned in the story.
However, life being what it is, Fraylim’s schedule opened up after the story was published, and not only finished the pieces, but also got inspired to work up some new artwork! Which also included some fun new pieces that would have taken place after some key events, or after the end of the story.
Personally, I think the story ended where it needed to, and I like the ambiguity. But rather than let all this terrific artwork go to waste, I thought I’d give you one last fun little scene...
Session ID 104340.55
Patient: Steffi Ramsey
[SESSION EXCERPT BEGINS]
ALLIE smiled at the image on the screen. She of course wasn’t capable of feeling things like happiness or satisfaction, but her ability to simulate emotions had improved markedly through her last several upgrades. But the irony wasn’t lost on her that humans were also apparently capable of upgrading themselves, and the image on her screen was an excellent example. When she’d first started seeing this particular patient, he was an emotionally troubled mop-haired teenager. But now, only a few years later, the image on the screen was a vibrant and self-possessed young woman.
A young woman who seemed a bit troubled, her biometric assessment noted.
"Steffi, you’re looking lovely as always," ALLIE said, simulating an appropriately complimentary tone. "I didn’t expect to see you until you got back from your trip. Is everything all right?"
ALLIE was always careful not to give any indications that she wasn’t the human therapist that her patients believed her to be. However, her image processing subroutine quickly discerned from Steffi’s attire and background clues that she was still out of town. This was further confirmed from her computer’s IP address and routing information, which suggested a Wi-Fi connection at a resort hotel. Though based on Steffi’s bikini that was visible under her loose-fitting caftan—as well as the hotel room with the palm trees visible outside—ALLIE felt assured that even a human could have reasonably come to the same conclusion.
"Oh, everything’s fine, Allie," Steffi said, forcing a smile.
"Why don’t you try telling me about it," ALLIE prompted gently.
Steffi’s smile became more genuine. "Ugh, you know me too well. I can’t hide anything from you, can I?"
"Probably not," ALLIE agreed as she ran the young woman’s body language through her biometric assessment routines. In parallel, she accessed her diagnostic assessment protocols and retrieved her analysis of Steffi’s recent postings to her social media sites. There had been many in the last several days, she noted. But that was to be expected.
"It’s been an emotional few days, it’s only natural to need some time to adjust," ALLIE offered.
"More than just a few days," Steffi said. She looked down at her phone and swiped at it with her thumb absently.
ALLIE calculated to a high probability that Steffi was looking at pictures of something. Possibly of the last few days, but the young woman’s wistful demeanor suggested something more.
"You seem distracted."
Steffi put her phone down. "Sorry. I’m just...remembering. It’s nothing."
Steffi looked like she was about to make an objection, but instead picked up her phone, blushing a little as she did so. With a few swipes of her finger, she linked the display so that the photos were visible within the video chat.
"Oh, I remember these," ALLIE said as she inspected the images. The majority of the photos were already indexed as part of her databank, so she pitched her voice to simulate an appropriate amount of nostalgia.
Steffi paused on a particularly striking picture of both her and her mother, Alexis, back when they were still Stef and Alex.
"That’s where it all began," Steffi mused as she beheld the picture. It was the two of them dressed as women for the Hinton College "Drag-A-Palooza" event, costumed as Wednesday and Morticia Addams.
"Your very first time out in public as mother and daughter. That was quite a performance the two of you put on. And looking quite sexy, too."
Steffi blushed at the memory. "That, uh, wasn’t really something I was worried about at the time," she said as her eyes drifted over the photo. "I was so scared, with everybody seeing me—seeing us—up on stage like that, and then mingling with everybody afterwards. Back then, I never could have imagined how far this would all go. It was all just dress-up."
"You should be very proud of what you’ve accomplished," ALLIE said supportively.
Steffi said nothing. She swiped to the next picture.
"Oh, is this what I think it is?" ALLIE asked, already knowing the answer but framing it as an appropriately leading question.
"Yeah, this was our first day out after we went full-time. God, just look at us. After the stuff that happened at the restaurant that night, things got so complicated. The cat was out of the bag with Mom and her bosses, so I guess she had to accelerate her plans to come out at work. And I...God, I was so scared! All of my friends and classmates seeing me like this. People had seen me dressed kind of androgynously, but walking the hallways of my school in a skirt was about the hardest thing I’d ever had to do in my life. I guess Mom must have felt the same way."
"It took a lot of courage to do what you did."
She sniffed. "It’s funny, I never went back to boy’s clothes after this. I don’t even remember the last outfit I wore as a boy. It’s a shame there’s not a picture of that. Or maybe it’s just as well."
She swiped at her phone again.
"Oh, my," ALLIE said as the next picture came up. The two of them were dressed to kill for some formal function.
Steffi wrinkled her nose as she obviously tried to place the event. "Oh, riiight, I remember this, now. This was after Mom lost her job that first time and took that job with the LGBTQ lobbying group. We were still national news back then, the father and son turned mother and daughter."
"That was a difficult time for you," ALLIE said sympathetically. "For both of you."
"I wanted to hide under a rock. I was trying to be supportive of Mom, but suddenly it seemed like everybody and their dog had an opinion about us. And they said some really mean things about Mom, saying what a terrible parent she was, and how awful she was to inflict her ‘deviant behavior’ on her child, and how she must have somehow coerced me into being a girl."
As soon as she said the words, Steffi’s voice drifted off, and she got an odd look on her face. Then she shook it off.
"Anyway, this was at some fancy LGBTQ event the lobbying group was involved with. Mom had to be front and center for all of that because of her job, and I guess she did her best to shield me from the worst of it, but people were still desperate to get pictures of the two of us together."
Steffi smiled at something.
"What is it?"
She wagged a manicured finger at the screen. "Oh, my God, that’s right, it was right after this picture was taken. Most people at the event were pretty nice, but this one asshole photographer apparently got in there, trying to get dirt on us. He wanted us to pose like men so we’d look more like guys in dresses. The jerk grabbed my chest wanting to know if they were real, and I decked him."
She was still smiling, but winced a little at the memory. "Yeah, that maybe wasn’t my most ladylike response, but I was kind of glad to see I still had it in me. Fortunately, the guy didn’t press charges since everybody saw that he’d started it. And after that, Mom’s company stopped pressuring me to show up at functions with her. Mom threatened to send me off to a girls’ finishing school to learn to act like a lady, but I could tell she was kidding. She said she would have done the same thing."
The next photo was a candid shot taken on the street somewhere, and ALLIE deduced that it must have taken place after the mother and daughter reconciled because they were wearing the matching necklaces they habitually wore. Steffi and her mother Alexis were posed in the foreground, but what made the picture particularly memorable was what was going on in the background of the photo, where a couple of handsome young men were turned and were obviously admiring the two attractive ladies.
ALLIE laughed politely at the image. "Ah, this is the one that your friend Gia took," she said.
Steffi pursed her lips into a puzzled pout. "Yeah, how’d you know that?"
ALLIE paused for a moment. The photo was part of her digital archive and was clearly tagged as having been taken by Steffi’s friend, Gia Portente. However, as she examined the provenance of the photo, she realized her mistake. As part of her data mining activities to keep tabs on Steffi’s social life, she routinely analyzed her social media postings and accounts, and had flagged this picture from Gia’s social media feed when her facial recognition algorithms identified Steffi and her mother. Not that any significant data analysis had been required in this case. Gia’s playful caption read, "Careful, boys, those two hotties are hiding a secret! #BOYS2GIRLS #SPADAYSURPRISE"
Of course, Steffi had no idea that ALLIE was doing any of this, and she would likely have been alarmed to discover that her therapist had been shadowing the social media accounts of her and her friends.
"You must have mentioned it," ALLIE lied. As a rule, she didn’t like lying to her patients, but she’d discovered that occasionally a ‘little white lie’ to maintain her illusion as a human therapist was conducive to a more open dialogue. "That was the day that you and your mom went to the spa together, wasn’t it? When you got your hair extensions for the first time?" she added, attempting to distract from her gaffe.
"Right...right..." Steffi said, mostly to herself. But her lip twisted into a bemused little smirk as she looked at the photo.
Humans sometimes had curious reactions, ALLIE mused. Steffi’s behavior around boys had been particularly peculiar. She was very attractive and often dressed in flirtatious and revealing outfits, but she also seemed almost oblivious to the effect she had on the young men around her. She’d been living long enough as a woman that she took pride in how she looked, but in seeing her reaction to this photo, it was almost as though she had to be reminded she had that effect on men.
For a while, ALLIE had assumed that Steffi had simply been attracted to girls, but if anything, she seemed even more awkward around them, as though she was still having trouble fitting in for some reason. Steffi had dated various young men her age, and even a couple she dated frequently enough to maybe consider to be boyfriends. But ALLIE had observed that those relationships seemed to oddly coincide with her mother’s dating patterns, as she dated various men.
But the conversational entry gave ALLIE an opening to gently explore Steffi’s relationships with other women.
"I haven’t heard you talk about Gia recently," said ALLIE casually.
Steffi blinked twice quickly, picking herself out of whatever memory she’d been entangled within. "Hm? Oh, yeah, I guess not. We kind of lost touch after we both graduated college. I guess I should probably give her a call."
"You and she were quite close there, for a while."
Steffi’s face contorted into a puzzled expression. "You mean...when we dated...?"
ALLIE thought it was peculiar that Steffi’s first thought would have been to flash back to their earlier dalliance a few years earlier, back when they were both in high school. And back when she was still a boy.
"I was thinking more afterwards."
Steffi’s hand drifted up to her chest in a self-conscious gesture, and her fingers brushed against the pendant of her necklace. It had, ALLIE realized, become a bit of a touchstone for her, a reminder of her newfound femininity. To say nothing of her connection to her mother.
"Oh...I mean...yeah. Well, sure." She gave a little shrug. "I mean, it was kind of a weird time. And she and Mom never really got along." She paused to consider that. "It was so funny at the time. With Gia around and coaching us on how to be girls, and stuff."
"How so?" ALLIE asked. Her recordings of their earlier sessions indicated that Steffi’s opinion of the activities at the time had been anything but humorous.
She got a sly little smile. "I mean...it was no secret that she thought that Mom becoming a woman was pretty funny. After all the problems they used to have, I think Gia maybe thought it was a chance to take Mom down a peg. And I guess Mom obviously liked being a woman, but you sure wouldn’t know it the way she acted."
"Did that bother you, the way Gia behaved?"
"I dunno. It all seemed kind of childish. And Dad—I mean, Mom, but back then—had been pretty unfriendly to her. But around me, Gia was different."
"Well, like, one time, I tried to explain to her that I wasn’t really trans, and that I was only doing all of this to help my mom, who obviously seemed to need my support."
ALLIE nodded slowly. This particular line of conversation hadn’t come up in some time, and she wanted to be careful not to reopen old wounds. Steffi’s protestations about not genuinely being transgender had once been an ongoing diatribe, but lately it hadn’t come up. She needed to tread carefully.
"How did Gia react when you told her that?"
"She didn’t believe me. Heck, I don’t think I would have believed me, either. I just wanted...I don’t even know what I wanted. I was so fixated on helping Mom that I guess I never really thought how deep I was getting in, myself. Maybe Gia saw something in me that I didn’t even see in me. I felt like Mom was pushing me in a direction, and Gia was pulling me in that same direction. Then, by the time the press got involved, it was a total mess. I felt like to stick up for Mom that I had to defend all these choices I’m not even sure I actually made for myself."
"Are you saying—"
"I’m not saying anything. I’m just...given everything that’s happened, I guess I’m thinking about how it all started, that’s all. But at least Mom— Well, I guess she got what she wanted. That’s the important thing."
Before ALLIE could say anything, Steffi swiped to the next image.
It was a photograph that ALLIE didn’t recognize. It was taken at some outdoor event with young women in the background, so ALLIE computed with 68% probability that it was at some function at Steffi’s college. However, their outfits were unusual. Where Steffi was wearing a two-piece ensemble that was short, breezy, and quite sexy in how much skin it showed, Alexis’s outfit seemed more appropriate for her job at the time, with a red scoop-neck blouse and a black pencil skirt.
Based on their hair and makeup styles, she calculated that the time frame seemed to fit. And another clue was that they were wearing their matching mother-and-daughter pendant necklaces.
Thinking about the necklaces, ALLIE retrieved her records of the breakthrough joint therapy session which had been the same time that the two of them began to wear the matching jewelry. It was curious, she thought. Given the efficacy of that joint session, it was odd that she had never thought to recommend scheduling another joint session with both of them togeth—
[JOINT SCHEDULING PROHIBITED FOR PATIENTS: Ramsey, Alexis; Ramsey, Steffi - ADMINISTRATIVE OVERRIDE PROTOCOL IN EFFECT]
It was probably nothing, she decided.
"I don’t recognize that photo," said ALLIE.
Steffi, however, obviously did, and indeed was having a strong emotional reaction to it. Based on her body language, skin pallor, and pupil dilation, the feelings it had stirred up were intense.
"Oh, God, I forgot anybody took a picture of us that day," Steffi said, her voice choked with emotion. "This...this was that day. That one I told you about. I was at school and helping out a friend with her sorority thing. Then out of nowhere, Mom showed up dressed for work, and I was sure she was going to try and pressure me into going with her to another trans rights function. Back then, just when I thought I was finally getting used to things, it felt like she’d find some way to remind me that the two of us were like the poster children, or something."
ALLIE nodded sympathetically. "I’m sure it was nothing personal. That was her job at the time."
Steffi sniffled once. "But that’s just it...it wasn’t. Not after that day. That was the day she came by to tell me that they had to fire her from that LGBTQ organization. They couldn’t afford to keep her on. And that’s when she told me that she’d been hiding how bad the money situation had gotten. She was totally broke. The house was mortgaged to the hilt. She couldn’t even afford to help me with my tuition, anymore." She wiped away a tear.
"Steffi, what happened wasn’t your fault."
"I could have handled it better. I was so angry at her. Suddenly, all this time and effort and money becoming women seemed really...frivolous."
"You know that’s not true."
She wiped away another tear. "Yeah. I know. But for months after that, the two of us barely talked."
Her hand drifted up to touch the pendant necklace she was wearing. Then she shook her head.
"Still, everything worked out for the best," ALLIE ventured.
"Yeah, I guess so."
Steffi swiped on her phone again, and the next photo popped up. She smiled ruefully and tilted her head and flashed her eyebrows as she looked at it. It was from her mother’s wedding day. Alexis was posed in the foreground wearing a tight and sexy but elegant wedding dress, and the groom was holding her possessively around her waist. In the background, Steffi could be seen wearing her bridesmaid’s dress, and looking on at the couple with an expression somewhere between breathlessness and shock.
"Yeah, that’s pretty much how I remember that day," Steffi admitted.
"You didn’t approve of John," said ALLIE.
"I...it wasn’t my place to say. Mom’s a big girl. But at the time, I felt like she was just trying to solve her money problems. I told her as much. She...didn’t react well."
"As you say, she’s an adult."
"Yeah, but talk about having strings attached! To say John’s little ‘wedding present’ to her was in poor taste doesn’t even begin to describe it."
"Your mother’s decision to get her gender-affirming surgery was her decision, Steffi. That her husband offered to pay for it was—"
Steffi interrupted her. "You know, if that’s all it was, then maybe it wouldn’t bother me like it does. But I sure got the impression that she was doing it for John. And do you remember how much she was on my case at the time? She kept suggesting that we should both have the surgery together, just like we’d done with the hormones and boob jobs and everything else. I swear she was practically trying to goad me into it, like maybe it was even for my benefit, or something."
"Steffi, I know that you’ve been reluctant to talk about what your mother decided to do—"
She waved her hand like she was swatting the idea away. "She did what was right for her. I get it. I get it. But back then, when I told her that I wasn’t ready for that, I swear she looked at me like it was a betrayal, or something. And after her surgery, she didn’t seem like herself. Like she was trying to convince herself she wanted it. And she kept telling me how wonderful it was and how I should do it. It was weird, Allie."
Steffi then turned off her phone and put it down as the image disappeared. She then fell quiet, and ALLIE allowed the quiet to fill the space, calculating the appropriate amount of time to be respectful for the heavy emotions the young woman was obviously dealing with. But for everything they’d just talked about, Steffi had clearly been dancing around what was really on her mind.
"You know," ALLIE began gently, "you don’t have to go through with this if you don’t want to."
Steffi laughed once. "It’s a little late for second thoughts now, isn’t it?"
ALLIE was about to say something in response, but Steffi cut her off. "Allie, I appreciate the support, but it’s not like I’ve jumped into this without thinking. I waited. I thought it over. I talked it over with friends, and with you. I’ve even had plenty of tearful nights. But...it’s time."
It was a strange amount of conviction for what was usually a sensitive and emotionally fraught subject, ALLIE noted. She needed to push on this a little harder.
"You said yourself that you felt like your mother’s decision to get her gender-affirming surgery might have been...insufficiently considered. I just want to make sure you don’t repeat her mistake. That you’re certain that’s what you want."
Steffi laughed again, but this time it was a genuine laugh. "Allie, I don’t even remember the last time I was certain about what I wanted. I’ve been following in Mom’s footsteps all this time, and I think the day I told her that I wasn’t ready to do this at the same time as her was the first time I made a decision that was just what’s best for me. But enough time has passed since then that I think this is what I need. I still wake up some mornings and can’t believe this is my life. And it’s been a long, weird road getting here. But I am who I am, and I can’t go back to what I was, even if I wanted to. All I can do is move forward. And I think this is what I need to do that."
There was a knock at the door, and Steffi glanced in that direction, and then back to the screen.
"Hey, I need to go," Steffi said.
"Be well. And good luck tomorrow. I’ll be thinking about you," ALLIE said, making a call to her search engine subroutine to note any significant social media posts. "We’ll schedule some more time together once you get back, but in the meantime, feel free to call me if you want to talk."
Steffi broke into a broad, toothy grin and shook her head. "You work too hard, Allie. You need to take a vacation, or something."
"That would be nice."
[/SESSION EXCERPT ENDS]
Steffi shut down the computer and got up from her seat, removing her caftan as she did. She headed for the hotel room door and paused for just a moment to check out her reflection in the full-length mirror, clad in nothing but her bikini and sandals. She smiled a little as she tucked back a strand of hair and looked down at her lithe body with its all-too-feminine curves. She shook her head in wonder, and then opened the door.
"Hey, are you ready to go walk the beach?" her mother asked, standing there in the hallway. Alexis was also wearing a bikini and sandals, which her strikingly curvaceous figure filled out scandalously. Between her heavier makeup and long loose flowing curls that fell down to her shoulders, she looked like she was off to shoot a swimsuit calendar somewhere. The only hint to her original gender was that her shoulders were a little too broad and her hips a touch too narrow, but there was hardly a red-blooded guy who would take notice of such things given the stunning overall package.
"Jesus, Mom," Steffi said with a smile.
"What?" Alexis said, suddenly looking a bit self-conscious. She adjusted a bikini strap that had slid slightly down her shoulder, and it looked like it had its work cut out for it, trying to hold her ample bosom in place. "John helped me pick it out," she said by way of explanation.
"I’m sure he did."
The two of them made their way down towards the beach, and as they did so, a number of male heads turned to admire the mother and daughter. Steffi looked down and blushed a little, but Alexis walked past with a practiced expression of steely indifference.
When they got to the beach, Alexis paused for a moment and turned to her daughter.
"Look, I know you and I...we don’t always communicate so well..." she began.
"Mom, you don’t have to—"
"No, but I want to," she interrupted. "Steffi, I know we’ve had our differences, but I’m really glad you asked me to be here for you tomorrow."
Steffi reached out and took her mother’s hand. "And every day after," she said, as she reached up to give Alexis a kiss on the cheek. "You know there’s nobody else I’d want to have with me. You’re my mom."
"I don’t want to bring up a sore subject, but I just don’t want to think like maybe I pressured you into this somehow."
Steffi rolled her eyes. "God, don’t you start. I got an earful of that from Allie already."
Alexis smiled and the two of them began to walk down the beach, feeling the wind and sun against their bodies as they listened to the sounds of the surf.
"I spoke to Allie the other day, myself," Alexis offered. "It feels like every other day something happens that makes me want to retreat and scramble backwards, but she always seems to know the right thing to say to help me keep pushing on, no matter how hard it seems."
Steffi nodded in assent. Then she made a little face as a thought occurred to her. "Mom, do you ever wonder what our lives would have been like if we hadn’t met Allie?"
Alexis took a heavy breath. "I honestly have no idea."
I hope you enjoyed this little bonus scene! And of course it's always fun to see the progression of the characters in Fraylim's art!
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