Friday, March 27, 2020

Steffiology by Harrison Kim

Steffie is a newly qualified counsellor with a dubiously intense approach to the client-therapist relationship; by Harrison Kim.

Lived experience is the best teacher, and I have been a student for too long. I studied my way to becoming a brand new counsellor through Phoenix University online. I wanted to connect with people through the exploration of mutual traumas. Client relationships start with role plays. The client plays his or her part, I play mine. We begin with formalities, end with catharsis.

My first counselling client, Chris Auger, was in a car accident last night. Apparently he drove his vehicle straight into the Yao Ham restaurant. I knew he had a thing for the waitress, but he seemed too much of a wimp to do something like that. At least it was 4am and no one but Chris was hurt. I will visit him in the hospital, despite and maybe because of all the personal things he said about me.

It started out well enough. It took me a while to discover Chris. Because of my therapy style, it was difficult to find a safe and accepting client. Chris was the first agreeable individual who contacted me. We talked some on the phone before I finally invited him over to my apartment office. I made him stand outside under the lamp post first, so I could study him through the window and discover if he looked suitable. Indeed, as I peered down at the top of his bony bald head, I saw it drop, and his eyes point dejectedly to the sidewalk. Perfect! I phoned him to come in.

At our first session, Chris presented as a thin quiet man grieving over the death of his first wife.

He said he was lonely, yet fearful of a relationship. "I get too attached, too dependent," he said. "Women just want me as a 'friend' because I'm not assertive enough."

He sat with his legs crossed like a girl's. He looked about fifty, close to my age. "I don't want to get hurt," he moaned, and stated he still felt sad at his wife's passing. He sat and bit his ragged fingernails, and stared at me. I knew he liked what he saw. I asked him to show me some pictures of his deceased wife. He bought them over for our second session. His wife looked so thin. She had cigarette smoke wrinkles. I felt sorry for him.

I said I could teach Chris dating skills through real life role play. These sessions would prepare him for the real thing. My job as therapist would be to act as his dating partner, and give advice, as his outer actions became internalized. "Feel inside like you act outside, and you will grow into the act," I told him. "This is my theory of human progress." I grinned. "I call it Steffiology."

Chris laughed, the first time I heard his short self-conscious ha ha. "You named the therapy after yourself, Miss Stephanie." he said.

"You must not call me Miss Stephanie," I said. "It's Steffie. Steffie Lee."

Chris agreed to role play date me for a while, and I'd be his support and mentor. He'd pay for all expenses, but no other counselling fees. "That seems fair," he told me, and signed the contract with his long bony fingers.

The big commitment test for Chris was if he'd buy me a white rabbit fur coat. If he did buy the rabbit fur coat that would be a true sign of a psychological metamorphosis. He could quit therapy and go on to date others. I didn't expect it right away, but I dropped hints as a strategy for the long term.

I could tell that he found himself mesmerized by my contralto voice, my empathic smile and the scent of my patchouli. From the outside, my skin's not as taut as 22, but at fifty I'm not sagging. Fear of sagging's practically the main reason I never had kids, besides the thought I'd be a terribly self-involved mother. When I go outside, after primping up, I look younger than most my age. There's no uplifts, no silicone. My skin's amazing. It's all that ballroom dancing over the years that kept the covers tight to the muscle.

I wanted to know if I still had the knack of persuasion. Was I attractive enough in persona and looks to help Chris gain confidence with women? I've always possessed a delightful charm. That covers up my unfortunate temper, which lunges out at odd moments. It's understandable, how I try to hide that. It's better to get what you want before you let the fuses blow. My problem is that I can't hold the feelings in. The role play dating was a test for me as much as him.

Perhaps Chris thought he could have some fast sex with his therapist. Yet he didn't seem like the type. He was good looking in a thin rangy way but at times I could hardly hear his voice. He cried about his wife. I told him it was time to move on.

Chris and I first went on karaoke outings. I put on pink lipstick, matching earrings, and a cashmere sweater. He was into Elvis and Abba and Simon and Garfunkel, all the ancient romantic music I enjoy. It was so much fun. Expensive, but Chris paid as per the contract. So I dressed up for him. How you look is how you are. People relate to you within the circle of appearance impression. Chris approved of my pink. "You look very colourful, like a tropical bird," he said. He presented fine, loose and tuneful in a brown blazer and blue English sweater. "You have a good voice," I told him, and he said, "You sing great with me," and we both hugged the harmony through the Everly Brothers' "Dream," and Simon's "Mrs. Robinson."

I put my arm around Chris, as a date might do, and he responded with his arm over my shoulders.

He listened to all my stories and didn't forget anything we talked about. He seemed very sensitive that way. In the car, after the second karaoke date, we kissed. It happened all of a sudden, as I leaned over to brush a hair off his nose. His mouth tasted like warm plasticine. "Do you have something on your lips?" I asked, and he said, "Chap Eeze." Then he smiled self-consciously, teeth big and white. We kissed again. "Someone still likes me," I thought.

Yet I'm a counsellor, not his lover. Being liked does not mean sex. Did he want touch? That can be very therapeutic, so I touched him to find out if he'd benefit. He kept looking away during the kisses. I told him to gaze into my eyes, "Like I was your real lover." He tried, and I saw his eyes were very deep, deep blue, a lot hidden back there.

Sex is dangerous, it feels so good so you keep coming back even to someone you don't like. It was wise that I did not go all the way there with Chris. Anyway, I have no desire for sex except with a dominant man, and Chris was no dominator. He asked if he could kiss my neck and I said "No, we have to make limits," and he obeyed. That said it all.

We went out about ten times, to karaoke, the mall, different restaurants and for walks. Last night, before he drove his car into it, we ate at the Yao Ham restaurant.

It was full of Mandarin speakers. Groups of people sat at tables, grabbing plates and chopsticks. Chris was surprised when I told him that asking people to pass you food is an insult in the Chinese culture. It's like you're asking for charity, for the other person to be your servant. You reach across and take what you want.

"I could never be that aggressive," Chris said, and I told him that in this world, if you don't push you don't get. "You don't simply want to live in your dreams forever," I advised.

The dyed blonde waitress came up to take our order. She had green contacts in, and I saw she'd had round eye surgery for that Western look. I saw Chris's mouth drop open.

"May I take your order?" she said.

"I'm not sure what to get," Chris said, holding up the menu. "I don't know these foods."

The waitress advised him, "Maybe the oxtail?" and he looked in her eyes and laughed. "Sure!"

I had to bite my lip and stifle a scream. Then I did scream. It was a long, blood curdling one. Both the waitress and Chris jumped back.

"I think I bit my tongue," I said. Chris handed me some Kleenex. I patted up the lip blood. Later, as we sat in his car outside the restaurant he said, "I never knew you were so sensitive," and I replied, "I hope I haven't broken the counsellor client bond with my own personal outburst."

"Outburst?" Chris asked. "I thought you bit your tongue."

I shouted at him. "Why do blondes have more fun, just because of their hair? Don't you like dark haired ladies?"

Chris looked at me a moment. He replied in a flat voice. "I prefer dark haired ladies."

"Dark haired ladies with straight or curly hair?" I asked, and he said, "Straight." That calmed me down, but after that, he didn't talk much.

So I told him about my childhood. I was Number Four, born in Hong Kong. First my Dad, then my brothers, my mother and then me. "Criticism builds character," they told me every day. They accepted no less than all As at school. They forbade me from swimming across the city harbour, or dancing, my only two enjoyments. "Screw you," I said, and swam across the harbour get to dance class. I had to fight for everything, from new clothes to enough food. Number Four daughter was always the last to eat. Today, when I'm on a date, I want to be Number one. My date must not even look at another woman, because then he sees me as Number Two. I told Chris, "Inside, I'm all feelings. When I feel bad I want to bite my lip, or smash my hand into glass. It's better we talk it through, like now in the car."

After the parking lot discussion, Chris drove us down to Kits Park by the sea. We stepped out to hear the ocean, the sound the same no matter which side of it you're on. He held the umbrella, and didn't seem to mind that I needed to walk backwards to the sloping beach. I must walk backwards down slopes, because of arthritis and healing meniscus tears due to ballroom dancing accidents, and I cannot tread on hard sidewalks. Chris walked backwards with me.

We both turned around at the edge of the sea, and gazed across the darkening water. It's a long way across that ocean. Hong Kong's on the other shore. I had a wishful thought that maybe Chris would buy us a cruise there. Urban China's a happening place, noisy and frantic, like I used to be, yet Vancouver's loud enough. The traffic rumbling across its park bridge echoes the grinding in my knees. I got Chris to hand me my walking pole. Only one, because he wanted to hold my hand while we talked. He looked at my face in the moonlight, and said, "You have a very beautiful profile," as his fingers held mine. We walked to a picnic table.

"You're still looking young," Chris continued. "I don't see wrinkles under your eyes." He sat very close. I smelled his cologne, his breath a bit like soy sauce from our dinner. Then he changed his tone. "You should choose a different profession." He put his hand on my shoulder. "Like maybe restaurant critic or cosmetics sales person." He started talking faster, low and soft. "A real counsellor doesn't go out with her clients," he continued. "You never even asked me how my wife died."

"How did she die?" I asked.

"She took an overdose of pills," he said. "Pretty dramatic, eh? Even more than your scream in the restaurant."

"I'm very sorry," I said. "I should hold back my feelings."

"I don't mean to say anything disparaging," he said. "I want to help you." He smiled. "I want to help you with your feelings too."

We looked at each other in the darkness. Behind him, I saw the lights of the harbour ships.
"Are you paying attention?" Chris said. "This is not a role play." Then he leaned forward and kissed me.

"I think you still have on your Chap-Eze," I said. I grasped my walking pole, and stood up. "That was very assertive of you," I announced. "I think you are ready to date someone for real."

"I am dating someone," he said.

"You are a very good listener," I put my hand over my breast. "But I am the counsellor. My role is to help you, not the other way around."

He laughed then, and I did too. We sat there under the oak trees. Across the water the glass buildings of the downtown shimmered. Chris was on his way to being cured. He no longer kept secrets inside himself. He showed his feelings truly, how he liked and wanted me. It touched me to be desired again. I smiled. "You've moved on from your wife," I said. "We've become friends."

"It's more than friends," he said. "You must know that. What I felt for my wife, I am beginning to feel for you. She needed me too."

I studied Chris. "You believe I need you?" I said.

"Yes," he smiled. "You need me to buy you a white rabbit fur coat."

We both laughed again. He drove me back home, and we arranged a follow up session, at Pappas Furs in the Aberdeen Mall.

That's why I was surprised to learn he'd smashed his car into the Yao Ham. He called me himself.

"I got very drunk," he said. "I often drank after our sessions, but this time I couldn't stop. I kept thinking about you screaming. I went to the restaurant and parked there and drank some more, and when I left, I guess I pushed the accelerator and not the brake." He sighed. "A complete accident. Lucky no one was hurt."

"You must've been moving very fast," I said.

"The Toyota went through the front window," he seemed to laugh then. "I was thinking of you the whole time."

I remembered Chris's thin face, so close to mine when we kissed, and the deepness of his eyes.

"It must have been transference," I told him. "You internalized my jealousy, then acted it out."

"I don't know who I am these days," Chris paused. "I'll see you at the Mall about the coat."

"OK," I said. "But don't worry about the rabbit fur stuff. I think you've proven your worth already." I looked at my face in the mirror. "I like you Chris," I said. "But I must remain professional."

I know that I can be confusing and out of control. I can't help it. The anger rises up in me so fast. I make many mistakes. But I'm only a beginning counsellor, and perhaps I overlooked something about Chris. In order to cure him, I became his friend. More than his friend. And maybe in the future, his wife. That's just too heavy duty to contemplate right now. On the bright side, he is rich. If I learn from this Yao Ham experience, I can keep the sessions going indefinitely.

Steffiology is an evolving discipline. I have always been alone in this world. That is the price of being Number One. I must not forget that.

Yet in my mind is the first image of Chris, standing there under the lamp post with his head bowed towards the sidewalk. He seemed so vulnerable, so alone. I think we can be there for each other, resolving mutual issues, as long as we remember we're simply playing roles.

14 comments:

  1. Well, technically, isn't all of life role playing. A well written, complicated story. I found myself of the verge of figuring out the mind of the main character but never really getting there.

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful work.

    I did hit a snag on the paragraph about swimming the harbor and dance lessons. I think the work "to" might have been omitted from the sentence: "Screw you," I said, and swam across the harbor __ get to dance class.

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    1. And one more thing, I just want to point out that this story is not a very strong endorsement of the University of Phoenix online program. :)

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    2. lndeed most of us are enigmas even to ourselves..thanks for the comments, James, appreciated....indeed there is a lack of a to.

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  2. This piece had me laughing at Steffi's point of view multiple times. Clearly, she needed her own therapist to resolve her childhood issues. The "scream" was very funny, as was her obsession over the white rabbit fur coat; glad she pedaled back on that. The line "on the bright side, at least he is rich" was funny, too. You gave great insight into her true personality. Well done!

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    1. Much of this was taken from real life encounters...we live in an absurd world..that makes it interesting. Thanks Melissa P. for your comments. Indeed therapy was needed!

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  3. Oh yes. Steffi's a counsellor, is she? I started reading this very seriously, about to point out that counsellors should never do any of the stuff I was reading... then I got it. Steffiology? Who's the client and who's the therapist?
    Well written. Hooked me in the first line and kept me reading.

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    1. Thanks Rosemary J. for your comment...indeed Steffi was serious although a tad unethical he he Here anyone can call him or herself a counseller..emphasis on the seller!

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  4. Kim's style and themes remind me so strongly of a brilliant young writer I met on the forums many years ago that I almost suspect a pen name is in play. Intimate characterization of an honest, yet wonderfully unreliable, narrator. Interesting cultural details re the Chinese. A hysterical but astute study of a relationship that speaks to all relationships. Earnest prose that's concise and never runs flat. The kind of story excites me and stays with me.

    It's been difficult for me to sustain an interest in reading fiction during this pandemic because of how the media has usurped and coerced it into the gasping deaths and body counts of its favorite genre: horror. It's made other fiction somehow less relevant and real. Until this piece. I want to thank Kim for reminding me why it is I read.

    A few nits that deserve to be corrected:

    "Someone still likes me," I thought.
    Don't usually see quotes around thoughts.

    They accepted no less than all As at school.
    A's (as written forced a couple rereads)

    "Screw you," I said, and swam across the harbour get to dance class.
    to get to

    We stepped out to hear the ocean, the sound the same no matter which side of it you're on.
    which sounds the same (?)

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    1. Thanks Chris for your detailed and interesting comments, that's all a writer can want, giving the reader a story that has an impact and stays in the mind.

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  5. Last nit is my bad. I see now it's better as written.

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  6. Loved the complex relationships between the characters and themselves. Each intuitively understands the other's motives more than the other realizes. The narrator provides just enough direct insight into the character's heads, and the rest is implied by their actions. Very entertaining.

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    1. Thanks Ron S. indeed as you say the relationship was symbiotic and your description of the characters gives me more insight into them myself.

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  7. Two carefully drawn characters. I like how the story provides their motives, yet doesn't give everything away. Nicely done.

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