Cover Photo: Tallulah Pomeroy
Tallulah Pomeroy

Born Stillborn

“The night therapist asked pointed questions that wormed under his skin.”

Haupt’s therapist had started coming to him at night as well, and even though Haupt knew, or at least suspected, that the man wasn’t really there, wasn’t really standing beside his bed with pencil in hand listening to him and writing notes on the wall about what he said, he seemed real. There was writing on the wall when Haupt awoke. He could not read it but, being familiar with his therapist’s unruly scrawl, its illegibility struck him as proving nothing. Their nighttime sessions felt, when he was honest with himself, just as real as his daytime sessions felt. Maybe even more real.

*

He did not report this to his therapist during the day. Instead, he waited to see if the therapist would mention it, and when he did not he decided that it must be some sort of test. No, as with so many other things, he would not share this with his therapist unless he was asked about it directly.

But during the day the therapist rarely asked about anything directly. He might say, “How was your week?” or “Did you have any dreams?” He was never more specific than that. At night, however, standing beside the bed, the night therapist would ask pointed questions, questions that wormed under his skin. When Haupt lied to him, he would say, “How gullible do you think I am?” When Haupt told only part of the truth, the night therapist would wait, tapping his pencil against the wall, for him to go on. And Haupt, at night, usually did go on, slowly extruding more and more of the truth through his mouth. It was as if the therapist was one thing at night and quite another during the day. Or even, it occurred to him, as if there were two of him, two different therapists who, for some reason, looked identical.

*

“Are you a twin?” asked Haupt once during a daytime session.

And the day therapist, usually reticent to talk about himself, was caught off guard enough to say, “Yes,” and then, shortly after, “no.”

“Yes and no?” said Haupt. “How can it be both?”

“I . . .  had a twin. He was born stillborn.”

But when Haupt tried to question him more about it, the therapist shook his head. “We’re here to talk about you,” he claimed.

*

Born stillborn, Haupt thought now, late at night. What an odd way to phrase it, considering that in fact what you were saying was he wasn’t born at all. Why not just say, He was stillborn?  How was born stillborn different from simply stillborn? What had the day therapist been trying to tell him?

The night therapist was there beside him in the darkness, tapping his pencil against the wall, wanting something. What was it again? What had the man asked?

“I’m sorry,” Haupt said. “My mind was elsewhere. What was the question again?”

The pencil stopped tapping. “Elsewhere,” the night therapist said. “Where would that be?”

“Nowhere,” Haupt lied.

The night therapist made a disgusted noise. “The mind’s always somewhere,” he said.

“I was thinking about something,” Haupt admitted.

“About what?”

Haupt hesitated, trying to find a suitable lie. But the tapping of the pencil against the wall kept interrupting his thoughts, creating blinding little bursts of light in the darkness of his head.

“I don’t want to tell you,” he finally said.

The tapping of the pencil stopped. Suddenly Haupt’s head was dark again. “There,” said the night therapist. “Now we’re finally getting somewhere.”

*

“Did you have any dreams?” his day therapist asked. They were sitting in his office, the chairs arranged as if for a staring contest. The day therapist wore glasses that, Haupt felt, gave him an advantage. Did the night therapist wear glasses?  He must, since the day therapist did, but Haupt didn’t remember for certain. With the day therapist right there in front of him, he had a hard time imagining the night therapist.

“No dreams,” Haupt said. And then he said, “I must have had some dreams.” And then, “I’ll be damned if I can remember them.”

Damned, he thought, wincing inside. Interesting choice of words.

But his day therapist just tented his fingers and nodded.

*

“How is an apple like a banana?” asked his night therapist a few nights later. The man had run out of space to write on one wall beside the bed so had moved closer to the window. There, in the cold glow of the streetlamp, he looked exceptionally pale, as if he had been chiseled from ice.

“Excuse me?” Haupt said.

“You heard me,” the night therapist said. “Don’t pretend you didn’t.”

“How do you know if I heard you or not?” he asked, irritated.

But the night therapist did not bother to answer.

“How is an apple like a banana?” Haupt mused. “They’re both fruits,” he said.

The therapist turned from the window and smiled. “Wrong,” he said.

“Wrong?”

“They both have skin.”

“Why is that a better answer than that they’re both fruits?”

The therapist didn’t say anything, just scribbled madly on the wall.

“What are you writing?” asked Haupt, but the man didn’t answer.

“Why is yours the better answer?” Haupt insisted, but the man simply said, “The answer is, they both have skin.”

*

The therapist can’t possibly be there at night, Haupt thought near dawn, finding himself alone. It doesn’t make any sense. And besides, I didn’t give him a key. And yet the man looked exactly like his therapist. He spoke in a cadence exactly like his therapist. If it wasn’t his therapist, who else could he be?

He rubbed his eyes. What else has skin? he wondered idly. And then thought, I do.

He was like a banana and he was like an apple. If you were to draw a circle and put an apple and a banana in it, he would also be allowed to step into the circle. Nobody could stop him. Who was out there doing that, drawing circles around fruit, drawing circles around people?

He considered the chalk outlines that were drawn around dead bodies. So, it didn’t have to be a circle exactly. Just a shape that could contain a fruit or a human or some combination of both.

*

During a lull in the conversation, he asked his day therapist what it was like to know you had been born a twin but would never meet your twin.

“Excuse me?” said the day therapist.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” said Haupt, using a phrase he’d often heard his day therapist use, usually at moments when Haupt suspected the man least meant it.

“How would I know what it’s like to have a twin?” asked the day therapist.

“But,” said Haupt, and stopped. “Weren’t you . . .  Didn’t your twin brother . . . Wasn’t he born stillborn?”

But the day therapist was shaking his head. “What twin brother?  I was an only child.”

Hadn’t the day therapist told him he’d had a twin brother born stillborn? Haupt remembered the conversation nearly perfectly. There had been no possibility of misunderstanding his words. Why was his day therapist lying to him now?

He bought an apple. He ate it slowly, puncturing the skin with his teeth and chewing the skin up along with rest of the apple, except for the seeds and pith. An apple wasn’t like a banana, he thought. His night therapist was wrong. They both had skin, but with an apple you could eat the skin, and with a banana you couldn’t. You could peel a banana easily with your fingers; an apple you couldn’t. To peel an apple of its skin, you needed a knife. A person was more like an apple than a banana. You couldn’t peel a person easily with your fingers. With a person, you needed a knife. With a person, like an apple, you could eat the skin.

He told this to his night therapist, but the man just stood at the window, motionless, not even writing. Haupt couldn’t tell if the man was paying attention. He finished speaking and then waited, but the night therapist didn’t turn his pale face away from the window.

“What’s out there?” asked Haupt.

“What’s out there?” echoed the night therapist, turning abruptly to look at him. “The whole world is out there.”

But what, wondered Haupt, was the whole world?  What did that even mean?  If you were to draw a circle that contained the world, what else would belong within that circle?  And where would you even draw it?

“What were you thinking about just then?” asked the night therapist. He was looking at Haupt now, eyes hungry, gaze steady. Haupt, unable under such a gaze to come up with a suitable lie, chose instead to try to change the subject.

It had never worked before, changing the subject. Not with the night therapist. There was no reason to think it would this time. The question he asked wasn’t a question he’d planned to ask—or would have asked if he had time to think it over. It was simply the question that was lingering, unanswered, there within his skull. “What was it like being a twin but knowing you would never meet your twin?”

The therapist stopped, held very still. “How,” he said slowly, “did you know I was born a twin?”

*

The world is a strange place, thought Haupt, alone in the dark, almost unbearably so. And yet, it is the only place I have. And I’m not even entirely sure I have it.

Why would the day therapist first admit he had a twin and then lie and pretend he did not? What sort of game was the man playing with him?

Suddenly, he knew the night therapist was there. Haupt drew the blankets judiciously up to his neck. He could see the therapist standing near the window, pencil poised.

“Shall we continue where we left off last time?” the night therapist asked.

Haupt shook his head, and then, worried that the gesture wouldn’t be seen in the darkness, said, “No.”

“No?”

“Who are you really?” asked Haupt.

“What do you mean?” asked the therapist. He turned to look at Haupt and again Haupt was struck by the paleness of the man’s face.

“Were you born stillborn?” asked Haupt.

“Born stillborn?” asked the therapist slowly. And then his mouth stretched into a wide, mirthless smile. “What a curious way to put it,” he said, in a kind of wonder.

“Would I need a knife to peel you?” Haupt asked.

That same mirthless smile, even wider now. “Why don’t you find out?”

Haupt threw back the covers. Underneath, he was wearing his clothing. He had been wearing his clothing all night. He approached his therapist, knife in his white-knuckled hand, but the therapist did not move.

He lunged with the knife, but he must have closed his eyes briefly, for the therapist wasn’t quite where Haupt thought he was, and was unscathed. He lunged again, and this time saw the knife pass through the therapist’s chest effortlessly, as if it wasn’t there at all. But when he looked up at the man’s face, he found his mouth to be full of blood.

The man laughed, and the blood spilled down his chin. Haupt pushed the knife through him again and more blood came out of the man’s mouth but there was still no sign of a wound on his body, still no feel of resistance as the knife went in.

“What’s wrong with you?” asked Haupt, alarmed.

“What’s wrong with me?” said the therapist. “How can I answer that?  Don’t you know by now that our time is supposed to be about you? Haupt, what’s wrong with you?”

*

Time passed. At some point, Haupt dropped the knife and made for the door. But there was the night therapist, just in front of him, no matter which way he turned. Haupt, more and more confused, had felt parts of his mind growing numb, shutting down. What sort of treatment is this? one of the remaining parts of his mind was wondering. Isn’t this the sort of thing frowned upon by the therapeutic community? But when he asked the therapist, the man just laughed and came closer. Shouldn’t I have been given a safe word? another part of him wondered.

“A safe word?” said the therapist, though Haupt was certain that he hadn’t vocalized the thought. “Has anything I’ve done suggested that this was a game of any sort, let alone one of a sexual nature?”

“Are you alive?” asked Haupt.

“Are you?”

“What are you?” asked Haupt.

“What am I?  I’m exactly what you think I am.”

And when Haupt’s mind turned inward, trying to understand what he thought the man to be, the man moved closer, licking his bloody lips.

*

He woke up in the morning on the floor, sore. There were shallow cuts on his hand, and his lips, though uncut, were black with blood. With a groan, he got up and picked up the knife. He took a shower.

He would talk to his day therapist, he told himself. He would confront the man. He would ask why he was coming at night. And if he wasn’t coming at night, if all of it was his imagination or something much worse, well, then at least he would know.

*

He ate an apple, then ate a banana. There was something wrong with the banana—it was harder to chew up than he remembered bananas being: it tasted stringy, bitter. But the apple tasted just like he remembered apples tasting. He chewed slowly, washing them both down with water.

*

“How was your week?” asked his day therapist.

“Fine,” he said. He was hunched over, his hands in his jacket pockets, folded in on himself.

“Did you have any memorable dreams?” asked his day therapist, after a long silence.

“No,” he said. “Not a one.”

All the while he was thinking, Born stillborn. Stillborn and yet born. What a terrible thing that must be. If a twin doesn’t survive in the womb, he was thinking, it is usually because the other twin takes the nourishment meant for him. If that twin is stillborn, it’s fine: he can be buried and forgotten and he will stay in the ground. But if a twin is born stillborn, well, where does that leave him exactly?

His day therapist was staring at him. How long had he been staring? Perhaps a great deal of time had gone by.

“What is it?” asked Haupt.

“What were you thinking about just then?” asked the therapist. Behind the lenses of his glasses, his eyes looked attentive, alert.

“This and that,” he said.

His day therapist stayed still, waiting him out, more like the night therapist than the day therapist. Again Haupt wondered whether he should think of them as one person or two.

The day therapist was still staring at him. Haupt moved his hands within his pockets until one of them found the handle of the knife and closed over it. He squeezed it.

“I was thinking about apples,” he said.

“Apples?” said the day therapist, surprised.

“And bananas,” said Haupt. “What do you suppose apples and bananas have in common?”

The day therapist’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Is this a trick question?” he asked.

“Of course it is,” said Haupt. He imagined his knuckles going white around the handle of the knife. The day therapist was more like an apple than a banana. He would not be easy to peel. Perhaps it would be better to chew all of him up. “But answer it anyway,” Haupt said. “Humor me.”

Brian Evenson has published a dozen books, including most recently IMMOBILITY and WINDEYE. He has won the O. Henry Prize three times. He teaches currently at Brown and, starting in January, at CalArts.