The house at the tip of the cul-de-sac was old. Not the kind of old that elderly, millionaire house-hunters lusted after. There were no window dressings, no hand-tiled, sloped roofing. Not a townhouse, sandwiched between a hundred other brownstones. No, it was old in the sense that it had been around for years. It was lived in, and showed its age.
It was far more welcoming that way. There was no second story to loom overtop of me. Everything was linear, the path from the sidewalk leading right to the front door without so much as an untrimmed bush to block my path.
I read the note I’d been given and peered up at the metal numbers above the door. 1221. For better or for worse, this was the place.
All that I had to go off was a single newspaper advertisement. Nothing flashy, no graphics, pictures, colours. Just a rectangle with a number, listed as a “relaxation” workshop. Evidently, the minimalism had not worked in their favour. The only car parked in front of their house was my own.
Work had been hell, as it was every other day. I hated the way I looked with my dumbass apron on, I hated the way I looked without my dumbass apron on, I hated the coupon moms, I hated trying to sell people fun-coloured broccoli so I could earn minimum wage. I hated every minute of it.
I’d seen a few counselors about my body and life situation. But you can only sit through the same visualization session so many times before it feels just as dry and boring as everything else. I couldn’t pretend to metamorphize myself into a butterfly anymore. It was like every one of them got the same script. Whoever was on the other side of the wimpy looking screen door would be my 5th shrink in a month.
I checked my watch. Supposedly, the workshop had already started. Traffic was a crawl in the inner city, especially now that everyone was getting home from their 9-5 jobs. I tapped my knuckle against the screen door’s metal frame and waited for a response, hoping that whoever was inside could hear me over the quiet music from the living room.
“Who is it?”
The voice was booming and friendly, clearly audible from inside.
I cleared my throat. “I’m here for the workshop?”
She laughed heartily. “I completely forgot about that. I honestly didn’t think anyone was going to come! You’re in luck, though.”
The idle sounds of the television ended as the old CRT set made one last static-y pop and shut off.
“Sorry if I’m interrupting…”
The springs on her futon creaked as she stood up and rounded the corner, into the hallway. Her slippered feet dragged along the drab carpet towards me, her hand idly twisting the long curls of hair around her shoulders. The rhinoceros before me was at least 6 feet tall and built like a linebacker, adorned in a university sweater and khakis. Despite her sleepy haze, she had a friendly smile and bright eyes.
She was really, really cute.
“No, no, you’re not interrupting. I’m glad you’re here.” The handle clicked as I stepped away, the screen door slapping against the adjacent wall as she swung it open.
She motioned me in, closing the door behind me. It clicked shut as the rhino wandered into the living room, leaving me alone with the overwhelming smells of the house.
From the mysterious advertisement, I’d pictured a sterile room and a couch to lay on, maybe a few potted plants. For the most part, though, her little house smelled like dope and microwave dinners, and was filled with… axes. Like, battle axes. They were sat right above the futon where she had been sitting only moments before. Held up by tiny nails, it became evident that she wasn’t particularly fearful.
“Like the collection?”
I nodded. Pretty sweet.
“I don’t remember buying like, half of these. They just happen. You know how it is.”
I nodded again, but I didn’t know how it was.
“Well, here. Sorry everything’s a mess. Take a seat on the futon while I prepare, yeah?”
I moved around the glass coffee table and plopped myself down, watching the dust fly and settle with my impact. The rhino swept the empty plates and lifestyle magazines off and onto the floor with one massive crashing noise before slipping the handwritten session plans onto the tabletop.
She looked them over for a while, nodding in agreement with her own writing. The notes seemed impossibly long, her chicken scratch nearly unreadable. What I could make out was meaningless to me, as though an entire thesaurus had been jam-packed into a few pages.
“Let’s see… We talked on the phone, right? Self-image issues?”
I half-heartedly nodded. “Well… It goes a little deeper than that, but yeah.”
She stopped scanning the papers for a moment. “What do you mean by that? Just out of curiosity.”
I peered down the front of my raggedy sweater, all pastel pink, the fabric sagging and awkward where my breasts should have been. Everything was too small on me, the clothing meant to make me feel comfortable only exaggerating my burly frame. It was really getting to me tonight.
“I feel like…… I don’t know. Do you know what dysphoria is?”
The girl beside me gave a deep, sympathetic sigh. “I know more about it than you’d probably think I would.”
“Oh!” Those words put me at ease, if only for the moment.
“Yep. Still fighting with it today.” She huffed, continuing to flip through the notes on the table. “And you said that this is your first session… of this nature?”
“Ok. We’ll probably start with something simpler, then.”
She plopped down in the space next to me, the little futon allowing just enough room for me and her, and nothing else. I was pressed close to her arm, feeling her muscles tense as she cracked her knuckles and reclined. There was a comforting warmth around her too, in sharp contrast to the cold air outside that floated in through her screen door. Lucky for me, her eyes were focused on the barely-functioning ceiling fan, and not my blushing.
“So, legally… I have to tell you that I’m not a doctor.”
I did my best to keep the worry from seeping into my face.
“Not to say I’m unqualified or anything. But the legal system isn’t particularly trustworthy of those with the power to manipulate minds. So they won’t authenticate me.”
That worry receded a bit.
She nodded, rolling her eyes.
“Well, you know. It’s hard to regulate and stuff. Anyways, here.” She extended her hand out to me. It was built like a travel pamphlet, but the illustrations were hand-drawn. “It’s kind of like… a portfolio of what I can do. Obviously, you don’t have to do any of this. It’s just what’s possible.”
My eyes scanned the paper. No words, save for captions explaining the diagrams. This was by no means a regular therapy session. More than half of the illustrations resembled surrealist paintings, bodies floating in a void, and the captions were smudged and outside my vocabulary.
“I don’t get it.”
“That’s alright. Chances are, none of these exercises would be of much help to you, so… Let me explain it like… uh, like…” She clicked her tongue, deep in thought. “You know those robot cartoons where they pilot mechs and fight each other?”
“It’s like that, except if the humans piloting them had self esteem issues and the robots wanted the pilots to get better through continuous therapy.”
I laughed a little at the thought.
After a brief moment of silence, she took my hand in hers. I grimaced at the sight of my own fingers, gnarled and dry, the skin cracked at the joints. These were the hands of an elderly man, not a woman. I could only bite my lip and hope she didn’t notice as hers passed overtop of them. She squeezed her fingers between my own, hands interlocked as her eyes shifted up to meet mine.
“We’re starting with something a bit simpler, like I said. Just a quick visualization exercise from my childhood, nothing intense. Give it a few minutes, but if you feel like it’s not working, just cut me off and we can move on.” She shuffled a couple sheets of paper with her free hand. “Ready?”
I nodded, but stopped halfway through. “Wait, before we start… I didn’t catch your name.”
“Oh, right.” She shook her head. “I’m so bad with introductions. You can call me Ellen.”
“Oh! That’s a nice name. I’m Jen.” I resisted the urge to delve into uncomfortable small-talk. “…Sorry, now I’m ready.”
Her eyelids fluttered closed, orange eyeshadow revealing itself to me in full. Her breathing was shaky, her grip getting a little tighter.
“You’re going to feel faint. Try not to freak out.”
I made no promises.
The tips of her fingers pressed into my knuckles, kneading gently, wisps of light worming their way out and up into hers. I watched as they curled around her nails, orbiting like satellites until crashing down into her skin where they disappeared from view. True to her word, my head rocked to and fro, weakness already setting in.
She put her spare hand beneath my chin, whispering reassurances to me. I let it drop, my neck no longer supporting the weight, letting the rhino do her work. She was the professional, after all. I admired her clean-cut fingernails through tired eyes, my eyelids fluttering in a desperate attempt to stay conscious.
“You can just let them close.”
I did as I was told, enveloped by a peaceful darkness in seconds. Her hands moved away for a moment, my head falling against her neck as she pulled me closer. I was pressed against her, body completely limp as the last of my energy was sapped. She seemed to pull me away from my own form, my spirit drifting across the short distance between us. Now, for better or worse, I was under her care.
With that, a single hand reached up to hold the back of my head, short fingers through long hair as sleep finally caught up to me.
A gentle breeze stirred me awake. It was unclear how much time had passed since I’d fallen asleep, but I could tell that I was no longer in the heart of the city. A collage of green leaves shook and shifted above me with the breeze as my eyes fluttered open.
I turned to look over my shoulder, admiring the trunk of the hearty oak tree I was propped up against. Its branches were long and bared many leaves, shielding me from the golden sun that painted everything else in the field.
I was not alone. The rhino sat next to me, a comical sunhat over her eyes as she snoozed. Her outfit was a mix of pink lace and soft fabrics, elegant and comfortable at the same time. Looking down at my own clothing, I found it to be quite the same. I took some time to tidy the bow on the collar of my frilly shirt.
Ellen shifted around a little, rubbing her eyes as she adjusted to the new landscape. Her gaze turned to me, fiddling with my new clothing.
“Well! Welcome to the other side.”
That phrase made me extremely nervous. It showed on my face.
“No, no, not THAT ‘other side’. You’re inside my head now.”
That was slightly more comforting, though thinking about the science behind all the magic stuff we were up to was making my brain hurt.
“Do you know where we are?”
I looked around the field, nothing but grass and far-off crops of canola for miles. The tree we were sitting under seemed to be the only landmark. The landscape surrounding us was painted with deep blues, shining golds and emerald greens. It was a peaceful snapshot, with the colour saturation cranked all the way up.
“Not really… it reminds me of a movie.”
She nodded, the flower on her sunhat moving with her head.
“Spot on, actually. Did your mom ever make you watch those godawful mid-afternoon specials on cable? They were on, like… every day of the week.”
I shook my head. We didn’t have cable growing up.
“Well, ok. There was this one, slightly better than the rest, but not by much. It was your stock ‘country belle is saved by dashing gunslinger’ script, except… There was this one scene, right at the end. The happy couple sits in the shade of a huge tree as the credits roll. The camera was sat up nice and close, it felt like I was right there with ‘em.”
She motioned widely to the space around us. The only thing missing was the dashing gunslinger.
“For whatever reason, that visual, her face, her outfit… that all stuck with me. I was young at the time, right around the seventh grade.” She exhaled deeply. “So, puberty had just started hitting. I was already the kid that like, ate glue, and spent all her time alone. Add to that the fact that my everything was changing, and more than ever I was just… I was this horribly depressed kid, caught up in weird gender feelings. So, you could imagine…”
“It made for good escapism.”
“Yeah. Coincidentally, I started honing my powers right around the same time as all those feelings. Which was… great. The inside of my head was really the only place I could wear a getup like this.”
She took off her sunhat and ruffled her curly hair, letting it fall around her shoulders.
“Sorry, I tend to overshare to strangers.”
I shook my head.
“No need to apologize. It’s nice to hear from someone with… similar experiences.”
She stretched her arms over her head, lifting herself up and walking out beyond the shade of the tree and into the sunlight. I stood to join her, standing up carefully in an attempt to keep my pretty outfit in pristine condition.
I stepped into the sun beside her and put my face to the sky, feeling the warmth spilling down on me. It was like a gentle kiss.
The rhino spoke, keeping her head to the sun.
“Do you have a place like this? Not that I could replicate it or anything, just curious.”
I thought about it, long and hard.
“I guess… I guess, I usually just picture myself in the future. A few years on hormones, really starting to look like who I am in my head. I’m happy. I’ve got a good job. I have a wife. And we’re just, on the couch together, watching trash television.” I sighed. “But it seems so far off, that it just feels mean. Like my own head is teasing me.”
Those two words were all I wanted I hear. She put her arm over my shoulder, the loose lace clothing flapping in the wind as it picked up. She pulled me a bit closer, now held tightly to her side. I felt safe in her arms.
“Sorry our happy places are so… different. I hope this is cutting it.”
The nature that surrounded us, the quiet. Even just being beside her made me feel separated from my real life. It felt perfect. A perfectness that I couldn’t hope to achieve.
“I love it, it’s just…”
I peered down the front of my dress, looking at the loose fabric where breasts were supposed to be. My arm hair, my leg hair, the way my voice scratched in my throat. I could hear it now more than ever. The illusion I’d felt at first had disappeared.
“I can’t stay here, right? It’s already falling apart on me. I can’t stop seeing my real self.”
She shook her head.
“You’re not seeing your real self.” She turned to face me, green eyes burying themselves in mine. “I can see your ‘real self.’ What you’re seeing is a mockery, an image of yourself made for the sole purpose of upsetting you.”
If anyone else had said it, I’d have brushed it off as reassurance, a lie to make me feel better. But there was something in her tone that made it genuine.
“They say that you’re your own harshest critic, after all. You only get to see what you consider ‘bad.’”
I blushed sheepishly, the girl next to me plopping down in the grass. I flopped down next to her, laying on my back with my eyes to the clouds above.
“It’s hard, though, learning to overcome that image of yourself. Like… Guess how long I’ve been on Spiro.”
“I don’t know?”
“That’s not much of a guess, but I’ll take it.” I giggled. “2 years.”
“Yeah. I had to jump through so many hoops to get it. I rushed through everything to get my hands on it because I thought that as soon as I put that pill in my mouth, I was going to be the girl I wanted to be. Peppy, beautiful, busty, outgoing. You know.”
She fell back too, our eyes focusing on the same fading cloud.
“But it didn’t. And I kept struggling to feel right. Shit, I still struggle.”
There was a terribly long moment of silence as she tried to compose a sentence. I could hear her struggling with it.
“I’d look in the mirror every day and beat myself up because I was built like a brick shithouse. I took the pills, but HRT did so little for me. Because it affects everyone differently, right? And I just. I felt like it was all placebo, like I was being lied to. That nothing was happening.”
“I just… Stayed inside. I didn’t want anyone seeing me. Shit, I’d pay people to pick up my groceries for me. I struggled through it the whole time, and I did it alone, because I thought everyone else saw the same version of me that I did.”
The scene around us was still.
“I only came out of my shell a few months ago, and every day, my brain tries to push me back in, you know? I’m just… glad I finally have someone to talk to about this. I don’t want you falling into the same pit I was in.”
Her lips wobbled, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. “Ever been to a support group?”
The last 4 years had been a long, Whole Foods-shaped blur. “…No, not that I remember.”
She let out a bit of tear-stained laughter.
“Okay, because I haven’t either.” She used the cuff of her shirt to wipe away the tears. “It’s like the only choice I have is to try and shake myself out of a slump, by myself. I don’t feel like I try hard enough. I don’t feel like Spiro does enough for me, it doesn’t make me look enough ‘like a woman’. So I never go to the meetings. I feel like I’m just… interrupting.”
Her voice was shaking, but she was trying her best to hold it together. I reached over to grab her hand, fingers slipping between hers. We rolled over to face each other, misty eyes meeting with misty eyes.
“You know how hard it is… To look at yourself, and see only the good. I still can’t.”
She hoisted our joined hands to her chest, pressing it to her heart.
“Sometimes… It takes someone else to see that good for you.”
I moved closer, letting her arms envelop me. My head pressed into her chest as she cried quietly, barely audible. But I could feel it. My hand slipped free and pressed against her back, rubbing in little circles as she cried over my shoulder. It was something my mother always did for me.
“I wish I could have been there with you.”
She sniffled. “You’re here now.”
I had more to say, but the timing wasn’t quite right. I let her hang over my shoulder, her tears dripping down her chin and into my lace. Her crying became quieter and quieter until it was just deep breathing. As I pulled away from her chest, I realized that I’d been crying too, the wet marks from my teardrops visible on the frilly fabric.
She let out a shaky sigh, doing her best to bounce back form that bit of emotion. “God, see, this is why they won’t authenticate me. You should just take over. I’ve got too many feelings to be working in a field like this.”
“No, no, it’s fine, oh my god. Look, see? I was cryin’ too.” I pointed to the wet spot on her shirt. “You’re doing fine.”
Neither of us said anything, looking deeply into each others eyes. Her wobbly smile and still-misted eyes captivated me in every way. I hadn’t seen emotion like this in a long, long time. It was comforting, in a way. The people in my life never cried. They avoided it, treated it like weakness, and criticized me for feeling anything but neutrality.
She was so different. It was such a shock, coming out of work, and just being able to… talk about how I felt. I felt like a human being, instead of a robot made to work and go home to mope by myself. I felt as though I needed to tell her how important she was. She deserved to know.
“I hope this isn’t inappropriate for the topic at hand, but… can I admit something dorky?”
She nodded, rubbing her eyes and smiling softly.
“When you first opened the door on me, I thought you were the prettiest lady I’d ever seen. And I mean that! You had this huge smile and these rosy cheeks, a confident sway to your walk. Your hair was so bouncy, your personality was so laid back. That was the first time I’d seen real emotion, or been allowed to talk about my feelings with someone who gave a shit…”
I paused, realizing I was just rambling nonsensically. Deep breath.
“You’re the kind of person I aspire to be. I was flustered. I just did my best to hide it.”
She let out a long sigh of relief, blushing as red as a tomato. She already looked like she was about to start crying again, but she spoke up before I could start backpedalling.
“Oh, thank god... The feeling was mutual.”
My eyes lit up with surprise.
“What? You really mean that?”
Ellen shook her head excitedly. “Yeah! I don’t say things I don’t mean!”
My eyes shifted down the front of my shirt, completely bewildered. I was so flat and lanky, virtually no feminine features to boast.
“What… did you see in me that you liked so much?”
She tried to put it into words, but she seemed completely overwhelmed by all the thoughts. She grasped my hand, fingers slipping between fingers, just as she had done in the apartment.
“Here.” She squeezed her digits to my knuckles again, the wisps of light moving again. “Let me show you, through my own eyes.”
A flock of birds moved overhead as the scene faded to black.
Ellen awoke facing the ceiling with a passenger inside her mind. This was a completely new sensation to her, but she seemed to handle it well. It was hardly noticeable; her head just felt a little heavier, for whatever reason.
She spoke out loud in the sleepy little apartment, addressing me directly. Her voice was groggy from sleep.
“Jen, are you okay?”
It was no different than floating in a pool of still water, just watching everything happen on a big screen.
Simultaneously terrifying and really cool. For the moment, I was doing just fine, and I took a moment to pat myself on the back for not freaking out about being inside someone else’s cranium.
My voice felt as though it had barely traveled beyond my mouth, but she had caught it, giving herself a thumbs up. I was watching through her own eyes, simply an audience.
She sat up a bit, eyes darting around the house. Everything was in it’s right place. The sun that had previously filtered through the curtains was all but gone, replaced with a pale blue moonlight. The magazines on the floor rustled with the cool wind that blew in from the screen door. And then, her eyes shifted down to my body, laying on top of her, with my muzzle tucked into the crook of her neck, and our hands still intertwined.
My long, black bangs of hair were tangled and dumped unceremoniously across my eyes. I was breathing steadily, my hoodie wrinkling and un-wrinkling as my chest moved up and down. My legs were thrown every which-way, hanging off the futon and dangling above the floor. I turned in my sleep, nose lifting away from her neck as I laid on my back.
The rhino’s fingers moved through my bangs, hair separating between the digits like water as she combed through it. She moved it all aside, revealing a face dotted with freckles, deep in sleep. Her eyes wandered across my face, but didn’t pause to look at my acne-riddled upper lip, or the shadow of facial hair that I tried my best to hide. No, her eyes were more focused on the little smile, and the heavy eyelids.
She swiped a warm hand over my cold forehead, letting the hair fall back over my eyes.
“Did you see that? The smile, the gentle nature of your expression?”
I recalled the face of the sleeping fox from moments ago. It barely registered as my own.
“Well, that’s what I see. Your personality shows up on your face. It shows up all over your body, from the way you walk to the way you speak and interact with me.”
I blushed, realizing how transparent I was in trying to hide my feelings.
“I know, it’s not something that dawns on you right away. It took me a long time to learn that I was more than just a body.”
“What do you… mean?”
She pursed her lips, searching for the right words.
“The body isn’t who you are, no matter what your brain tells you. It’s the spirit inhabiting it. That personality shines through everything, permeates through every pore in your body.”
I took a deep breath, processing what she was telling me.
“I only see people for who they are. You can have the sweetest face on earth and still be rotten to the core, because that personality will always seep through the cracks. It’s that kind of fake, sickly sweet that makes you want to throw up.” There was a comfortable silence, before the rhino began talking to the empty room again. “But your face… your face is genuinely sweet, like honey. I can tell you’re a kind, caring woman. I know, it’s hard for you to see. It never gets easier to look at yourself that way.”
Her fingers pressed into my knuckles again, kneading gently as the scene faded. Dark crept up on me, just as it had the first time, the room spinning. I closed my eyes.
“But you have to keep trying, keep telling yourself that every single day. Because it’s the important truth, and you deserve to hear it.”
When my eyes opened, I was no longer looking down at myself from another’s perspective. There were a few quiet minutes for reflection before Ellen opened her eyes. She groaned, lifting her arms out from underneath me and lifting them above her head.
“…There. All back where you should be?”
I nodded, and sat up slowly, attempting to balance myself on top of the other lady. I swung my legs over the sides of the couch and reached my hands to the ceiling, stretching out all the joints that hadn’t fared so well in my awkward sleeping position. Her legs swiveled too, yawning deeply as she went to sit beside me.
“Sorry for getting so emotional, earlier... I hope I got my feelings across.”
A wobbly smile crossed my face as I remembered her gentle crying over my shoulder. She’d gotten her feelings across quite well.
“Don’t worry about it. You did great.” She moved a little closer to me, leaning her head against mine. “A thousand times better than my old shrink, that’s for sure.”
I felt her horn brushing against my cheek as she nuzzled up against my face. I dared not return the favor for fear of poking my eye out, but I loved the affection.
I cleared my throat before asking the question I’d been dreading.
“Do you want to do this… again? Maybe with less existential thinking and metaphysics, though.”
She turned to face me.
“You mean… Like… A date?”
I nodded. “Yeah!”
“YES!” She pumped her fist in the air before dropping it to her side. “I have to walk you through my axe collection! I have a bunch of shitty sitcoms on VHS! I have enough microwaveable food to make it through a nuclear winter!”
I smiled at the concept, thinking about being curled up on the couch with her, head resting against hers as we stared at the same screen, a popcorn bowl between us.
“Yeah, that all sounds… really, really good! I’d be honoured to spend another night here!”
She was positively giddy, all the serious undertones from our previous session completely evaporated. Her big, goofy smile was absolutely infectious, leaving the two of us vibrating with anticipation next to each other.
A thought dawned on me. “Actually, we could just. Do the date, like, right now. We’re already at your house.”
“Oh, yeah!” She laughed, slapping her forehead with an open palm. “I just need to ‘prepare’ some ‘food’, and then we can just lounge around! I’ve got a lot to talk to you about.”
She went to stand up, but hesitated.
“But, first…” Her big, green eyes met mine. “Can I kiss you?”
I nodded, and in a split second, our snouts were pressed together, lips interlocked. I pressed my hands into the couch cushions, leaning back as she took me by the shoulders. The combined heat that rushed to our faces could have powered a steam generator, both of our blushes red as tomatoes. It was electrifying and soothing all at the same time, which made it last all the longer.
It was minutes until we’d managed to pull ourselves apart, a puddle of feelings laying on top of a ratty old futon. It was a perfect moment, the two of us looking out the window, watching the moon rise above the city skyline.
“That was fun. Wanna watch Friends?”
I laughed. “Fuck yes.”
Almost done reuploading! This one contains a bit of Trans Feels