"Please sit down, Sterling." Dr. Meriam indicated several options, there was a couch, of course, an armchair just like the one they were standing in front, and an old-timey rocking chair.
Sterling's eyes rested on the latter, she wasn't sure if it was appropriate on her first appointment to make herself quite this comfortable. Then again, lying down on a couch... she was overthinking this. She chose the armchair.
She hadn't said more than 'hi' upon meeting her psychiatrist, her mother had talked more before being dismissed to the waiting room. Now it was on Sterling to talk, she knew, but she felt awfully tongue-tied.
"You're new to this, am I right?" Dr. Meriam asked.
Sterling nodded. "Yes, m'am," she recalled her manners while sitting primly on the edge of her seat.
"M'am," the psychiatrist mouthed, seemingly uncomfortable with the title.
"I'm sorry, I should... What is your preferred pronoun?" Sterling asked nervously.
Her opposite smiled. "You know, you're the first one to ask."
"Am I also the first one to call you 'm'am'?" Sterling put in.
A short laugh. "Actually, yes. Some try 'sir' but it never lasts long. For the record, my preferred pronoun is 'they,' though I'm not mad about either 'she' or 'he.' I'm non-binary. Of course, that won't really register in our time together since we're addressing each other with 'you.' Do you have more questions about that?"
Sterling thought about it but couldn't think of anything more to ask. She'd never met a non-binary person, not that she knew at least.
"Is it okay if I'll address you with your first name, Sterling?"
"Yes, of course."
"Good, then you can choose to do the same. My name is Max. I know that it's difficult for some young people to address their elders with their first name so I won't press the issue."
"Max is nice, a good name," Sterling stammered. She was calling Bowser by his first name and Yolanda by hers, this shouldn't be any different, right? It felt different. Everything here felt different.
"To start with, I would like you to tell me why you're here."
Sterling took a deep breath. "It's really complicated. What did my mother tell you why I wanted to talk to someone?"
"She said, you had a little bit of bad news and are struggling with it."
Sterling couldn't help barking a humorless laugh at this. "A little bit of bad news? Are you a Southerner, Max?"
"Yes, I am. Born and bred in Georgia."
"Do you ever notice how Southern women live for drama but the moment something really... devastating happens, it's a 'bit of bad news'?"
"I have relatives like that, yes. So what actually happened was devastating to you?"
"To me, my family, our relationships. It's bad."
"And by downplaying it as your mother did--"
"Can we... I mean, could you call her Debbie? I would like to call her Debbie if that's okay. You'll understand when I tell you. But would you, please?"
"Of course," Max said. They made a note on their legal pad. "It's probably best if you just start with what you want me to know."
Sterling nodded. She licked her lips and wondered briefly if she should make herself more comfortable. But now she felt self-conscious about it and stayed seated how she was. "There's so much, I gotta think about where to start."
"Take your time."
"Okay, so, my sister Blair and I were working for a bounty hunter." She noticed that Max wanted to interrupt at this point. "I know it sounds weird but just bear with me?"
"One night, we, Blair and I, were driving my dad's hunting truck home from a date with our boyfriends. I'd just had sex for the first time and Blair was so surprised by that that she lost sight of the road for a second and we crashed into a car. The driver was fine, we were fine, but Blair wanted to check on him and so..." Sterling told the story she'd told April a week ago. She didn't go into any details with the bounty hunting, it merely served as background. She also didn't say more about her relationships or the lock-in, she really concentrated on the story of her family and how that night had changed everything. When she finished she felt exhausted.
"That is... not what I expected. And you were right, it's certainly more than a bit of bad news. How are your relationships with your individual family members at the moment?"
"Well, Anderson and I... we're mostly good, I guess. The thing is, Blair was always closer to him and I was closer to... Debbie. That's just how it was. I don't blame him as much as I blame Debbie."
"Even though he lied to you too."
Sterling nodded. "But I feel like he... wanted to come clean several times before that night. And also... it wasn't really his secret. It was Debbie's. And Dana's."
"And that why you're angry with Debbie, more than with Anderson?"
"Yes. She lied and she made him lie."
"Blair didn't know," Sterling defended her sister immediately.
"Sorry, what I meant is how has this impacted your relationship with her?"
Sterling sighed. She wondered if she should tell about the broken twin-connection. Looking up at Max she saw nothing but sympathy. "We were told we were twins our whole life. It was a part of us. And then... Dana took that away. We're cousins but I still love her like my sister."
"You said Debbie and Anderson adopted you, so, that's what you are."
"It's more than that. We've been twins our whole life but that night changed something. We had... we had a connection, you could call it telepathy. I could hear her thoughts, she could hear mine, we could hold conversations just by looking at each other. And it's gone." The tears came so suddenly, Sterling had no way of stopping them. And she didn't have a tissue since she was wearing her stupid skirt.
Max got up and reached for a box of tissues. They put it on the end table beside Sterling's chair.
"Thank you," Sterling sniffed and used a couple of the offered tissues to get her leaking eyes under control. She blew her nose. "I'm sorry, I don't know where that came from."
"You don't?" Max asked.
"Well, I mean, sure..." Sterling shook her head, this was all very confusing, and infuriating, and... and... She kept shaking her head, trying to push away the emotions to be able to think and tell. But the tears kept coming.
"Do you really feel differently about Blair now that you know you're not... born sisters?" Max asked after a while.
"No, I love her. She's my sister, my twin."
"Does she feel the same way?"
Sterling nodded emphatically. "Yes, she said she did."
"And you believe her?"
"Yes, but... it's not that simple. We're really cousins and she... she..." More tears. "She still has her parents but I don't."
Sterling couldn't keep the tears in, she was sobbing, leaning back against the back of the chair, hiding her face in tissues. She hadn't even known that she resented this fact, that she felt so alone. And it hurt, so much.
"Sterling?" Max's voice was insisting.
Sterling pushed herself up again, wiped her face with another tissue, tried to control her tears, her breathing but it was next to impossible. But she looked up at Max.
"You know they're still there for you, right? I don't mean to belittle the deceit, it's something you will have to work through with them. But until then, they're still there. They are, aren't they?"
"Yes, they are."
"Do you think that's enough?"
Sterling raised her shoulders. "I don't know."
"If it's not enough, Sterling, you need to tell them what else you need. You need to look into yourself and find out what you need from them. I know that's not easy. Maybe you can start with Blair, you two seem to be closest. Think about what Blair can do to make you feel better, safer."
"Is that my homework?" Sterling asked. She pulled her school bag onto her lap and reached for a notebook to write it down.
Max smiled. "It's one of the things you should start thinking about. You don't need to nail it down just yet, we've got a little time. I've got some homework for you that I actually need from you. I have a questionnaire I want you to answer." They got up again and reached for some pages off their desk. They handed them to Sterling.
"These are some more general questions about your life. We won't discuss them unless one of your answers raises a flag with me."
Sterling nodded and put the questionnaire into her bag.
"How're you feeling now?"
Sterling sighed. "Exhausted."
"I can believe that. It's really quite a lot you're dealing with. You mentioned a boyfriend earlier. Do you talk to him about all this?"
"We're not together anymore. Luke... we're friends and I've told him about the kidnapping, not about Dana being... my birth mother."
"May I ask when you two broke up?"
"Uh, some weeks ago. It wasn't about this, I just felt that... I guess in a way I felt I'd outgrown Luke. He's a sweetheart but his whole life revolved around our relationship and I... I wanted to know more about myself. I guess I got my wish." Sterling took a deep breath because she felt a new wave of tears coming up. She wasn't ready to have another meltdown, though, and fought them successfully. She rubbed their remnants from her eyes.
"Have you told anyone about what all happened that night?" Max asked.
"I haven't even told you what all happened that night," Sterling said with a sad smile.
Max lay their head to one side and raised an eyebrow.
Sterling felt herself smiling. "It was a really long day. It started with Blair and I skipping school to find out more about our... mom and ended with my real mom getting arrested."
"Is that how you think about Dana? Your real mom?"
"No, she's... Dana. She's more like the ghost of a person. She comes in halfway through the story, kidnaps me, binds and gags me, and then throws a bomb into our family."
"Sounds more like a villain than a ghost."
"Maybe. I feel like she would see herself as the victim of the story with Debbie as the villain and me... I don't know how she sees me. I know she wanted me for like five seconds but then I became a burden to her, a responsibility, then a chance to get more money out of my parents. She's no mom."
"It's okay to feel conflicted about her, Sterling. No person is just one thing and no person is just one thing to you."
Sterling nodded. She made a note in her notebook. Dana. Who is she to me? Multiple things?
"Our time today is almost up. Is there something you need to ask or say before we finish today?"
Sterling looked up. "There's... there's a girl, April. We have some kind of... complicated history. We were friends and then we were more like enemies, or rivals, or something, but now... we... we had feelings for each other for a while... or... I guess we still have those feelings but her family is very conservative and she's not ready to come out. But I wanna be with her so much and she says we can only be friends and her parents can't even know that. But... what I think I wanna know, do you think there's something I can say to her that might change her mind? I mean we don't have to be out, we could just... not tell anyone. I just... I feel I can't be without her and I told her that I want to be with her a few days ago and she's not talking about it. We're nice to each other but... she holds back."
Max leaned forward with their elbows on their thighs. "You know that you can't force someone to come out, right? It's a process Sterling, one everyone needs to figure out for themselves. Sometimes people get outed and that's not okay."
"I know that. I would never out her. Well, I kinda did to Blair when I told her... that April and I were hooking up. But she would never tell!"
"If April sets boundaries for you, you need to respect them, Sterling. I know it's hard, believe me, I've been there more than once. April needs to protect herself. The thing is, you need to do the same. You can set boundaries, too. If you feel like you can't be friends with her or only friends, then you need to tell her that too. This is not a one-way street. But if you feel that your friendship is worth saving and you need it in your life then you can have that. It just seems that you can't have more at the moment. Not if April doesn't want it."
"So, there's no way to... talk her into it?"
Max gave Sterling a small smile. "You're teenagers. If you both want it badly enough, it'll probably happen at some point. But you need to listen to each other, keep each other safe. Don't risk April's well-being just 'cause you're horny, Sterling."
"Good. That's all the time we have today. Do you think you want to come back?"
"Next week? Same day, same time?"
"Works for me. Thank you, Dr... Max." Sterling stood. She reached out her hand and Max shook it.
"Take care, Sterling. And remember that questionnaire."
"Will do. Bye."
Sterling left the office.