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Doctor Hebert did not immediately make much over the fact that Rachel had been born under a caul. “Napoleon was born under a caul too, you know. Napoleon and Freud.” So Doctor Hebert had told her upon learning of this auspicious fact of her birth. “It’s an interesting thing.” And with that, he seemed for at least some time to have forgotten the matter. With that, he let his hands fall again to the streaky, fingerprint-marred surface of his desk and began once more to manipulate a paperweight from side to side. He returned to his legal pad, and their session continued its course. Rachel could not then have imagined that she had already, with only so few words, betrayed their therapeutic relationship irreparably. Doctor Hebert had, after all, straightaway resumed that rigid posture which had always invited comparison to the plaster-cast busts irregularly peopling his office. His sheeny pan of a brow once again took up its single, characteristically serious fold. Moreover, her story had enjoyed the advantage of being true, which could not be said for everything that she told her analyst. It was the harmless caul anecdote of dinner party icebreakers and HR getting-to-know-you exercises. Where do people swap birth stories, after all? And yet— in explaining the business months later to another analyst blocks away to whom Doctor Hebert was professionally known— Rachel would have to admit that it was at this point that something had once and for all slipped into their dynamic, and it was from this point that the dissolution of their work together would begin its course. After all, it had started happening that, if she were to lean too far forward or listen too closely, Rachel would catch Doctor Hebert. She would catch him in weighing his words, turning them over to himself again and again in a covetous vesper that she was always slightly embarrassed to have overheard: “Caul birth.” As she caught him, his lips would go slack for a split second.
Between every third conversational beat and behind every pregnant pause, Rachel could make out Doctor Hebert (the man himself blanching as pale as his peeling, eggshell wallpaper) carrying out the words “caul birth” on his stale breath. This went on for weeks. Doctor Hebert in time began to recount to her long stories about figures in history born under the talismanic hood. He talked himself into confidence. He talked himself into curiosity. Soon enough it became clear to Rachel that Doctor Hebert’s holding forth on the portent of the caul, his asking if she had always understood herself to be “marked”, his leading questions as to whether or not, in her time alone, she still felt the heft of the caul’s always-heavier embrace— soon enough it became clear to Rachel that these concerns could only come to take up the effective entirety of their twice-weekly sessions.
And so it wasn’t too long after this that Rachel resolved that she really ought to start seeing another analyst, preferably on another side of town altogether.
Looking out over the bridge of her grease-filmed glasses, picking at her ham and cheese sandwich as it began to slowly settle into its wax paper shell, Rachel confided to Maxine that she had something of a problem. They were elbow-to-elbow at the chrome lunch counter that day. Maxine, on instant form behind lacquered nails, was quick with her chorus of “it’s perfectly natural.” It was perfectly natural and healthy that Rachel should have been moving on from Doctor Hebert’s attentions. Doctor Hebert came very highly recommended; that Rachel could refuse him suggested something like character, and certainly strength of resolve. Such was the story, in any case, that Maxine would be sure to help spin to the pair’s shared circle—a social itinerary of champagne parties and weekend warrior day hikes. The fact was that things like this would never cease to be difficult. There’s no other way about it. Maxine shook her head and pushed away the remains of her meal, too full from a late breakfast to finish her regular off-menu order of ibuprofen and a single scoop of Neapolitan. “These episodes are tough but necessary.” Better to pull the bandage now, as Rachel had, and to be done with the business entirely.
So what’s to be said for the caul? But it’s not about the caul, had never been about it. Of course Rachel would now and again indulge in maudlin longing for the caul, that veil of hers so rudely despoiled. And of course these matters could not exactly be without interest for her analyst. But it was Doctor Hebert’s fixation. It was his fixation that made the prospect of further work with the man inconceivable. By the end, Doctor Hebert had become just plain creepy. Rachel had always had enough of creeps. She’d used to keep a ledger of known creeps in the back flyleaf of her dog-eared Sex and the Single Girl— but she’d been made to stop, as the list soon became too long.
“I won’t even tell you what Francis was on about this morning.” Maxine toyed back and forth with a long coil of her inky-black hair. Francis was Maxine’s own analyst, who’d had repeatedly to insist that Maxine use only his first name. He’d been sure to make clear that this was an integral part of his technique. “Francis could hardly contain himself. He was so agitated. It was this wild story about his old two-room schoolhouse.” Maxine had months ago relayed that Francis had grown up to some degree Kentucky Pastoral. “Workers demolished Francis’s hometown high school only last week. And, prying up the floorboards—do you know what they found?” Rachel could not have known what they found. “They found mercury. From all those years of broken thermometers in science class. It’d soaked all the way down to the foundation. Francis is worried. He can’t sleep nights. He’s convinced he’s sick. Do you know what mercury does on sheetrock?” Rachel did not know. “The stuff just pools,” Maxine with wide eyes assured her.
“In any case,” Maxine continued. Down the counter, a 2:00 PM crème de menthe egg cream was being served. “In any case, Francis has asked me if I’d be comfortable meeting his parents. On Montauk.”
It had been a long time, since college perhaps, that Rachel had been without an analyst. Rachel had even before that time long suspected that she might take well to analysis. But it was only sophomore year that she finally met the man who would become her College Analyst—only that autumn night, through an unlikely coincidence involving a friend of a friend. By the end of the evening, Rachel had already accepted her College Analyst’s slow dance at a faculty party they’d gatecrashed alongside a small group. Their time together had been halting and inexpert, but he had been also long-suffering and patient. They drifted apart in time, and it was Rachel who had ended the analysis before it had charted a full course to its natural conclusion. Her College Analyst would go on to become a brand consultant, putting his advanced degree to work at the helm of a long-term consumer demographics project—a project he hoped might prove at least a few of his long-held pet theories plausible. Looking back on her College Analyst years later, Rachel found it difficult to place her finger on just what exactly she had felt for him then.
Then it was Rachel’s First Serious Analyst, with whom analysis would soon become a tiresome adventure in over-commitment. Rachel believed she had a lot at stake in her First Serious Analyst. And it took a lot of growing up before it became clear to her that her First Serious Analyst would never return from Fulbright. But there remained the question of what it might have looked like to build a life with a First Serious Analyst, to take the afternoon air with a First Serious Analyst, to laboriously research and finally push the button on a set of expensive Japanese cookware with a First Serious Analyst. In retrospect, her months with him seemed all in soft focus.
But for sporadic periods thereafter, she engaged the attentions of a string of Unremarkable Analysts, though of these a number could boast of being well-regarded within the narrow bounds of their analytical specialty. Among these Unremarkable Analysts were an age-indeterminate androgyne, several bores, and briefly Maxine’s Francis. It was eying the salt water tank in Francis’s waiting room that she had first met Maxine, and through Maxine that she had in turn begun to see Doctor Hebert just over two years ago. “No one is right for every analyst. No analyst is right all the time.” Such had been their refrain, and it had been years since Rachel last felt the kind of untroubled female friendship that she did with Maxine.
After all, it was with Maxine that she could talk about those things that she would never dare mention to Doctor Hebert. She should never, for reasons obvious now in retrospect, have told Doctor Hebert about her long personal struggle coming to terms with the fatidic manner of her birth—it was simply so remote from their work together. She likely could not have explored with Doctor Hebert her long notice of that behavioral pattern which involved her always giving too much of herself away to the same repertoire of two or three pathological personalities. More even, the steady stream of anxiety medications coming out of Maxine’s lifted Rx pad was an unqualified godsend. Their friendship was meted out in long, thoughtful “I’m listening” faces caught in the lunch counter mirror. And Rachel was certain that, for the both of them, it had always been more than the matter of a mere “I’m listening” face. Rachel had always thought of herself as a listener, and it was in her listening that she was most proud when she took pride in the maintenance of her relationship with Maxine. They’d wanted to make their friendship beautiful, a thumb in the cynics’ eye. They spent a languorous season jackknifing into rooftop pools. They quit smoking together.
And so Rachel met the news of Maxine’s engagement with unqualified excitement. It was in a public park, filled with new mothers pushing prams in groups of three and four. “Francis is always so nervous, but this was a different nervous,” Maxine relayed between nostril jets of the kind of breath you can see in the cold. She took a long pull on her poison green cough drop. “Francis told me that the mercury scare has given him a new lease on life. He said he finally remembers why he went into analytic practice in the first place. Then he lost nerve again, and he made me listen to that same old rant of his about how Teddy’s tragedy was in his not having had the good sense to die that night on Chappaquiddick.” Maxine had earlier set up the Montauk weekend scene. Picture Maxine and Francis stolen away to the snowbird oceanfront property owned by his hovering octogenarian parents. They are on the beach. The ecologically integral and sensitive sand dunes are roped off with a heavy twine, and the pair mark their course in footsteps made in the skimming ebb of a high tide. They share back and forth a dark rum cocktail that Maxine has mixed in a chilled Snapple bottle. Francis with hand-wringing consternation long dodges the question with his prefab spiel on the Kennedy clan. Maxine all but demands that he had out with it. “And then he asked me.” In their public park, presently, it began to rain. Rachel and Maxine ducked into a coffee shop and split between themselves a Napoleon puff pastry.
It was from the dull rumble of her morning commute one unremarkable Thursday that Rachel lost a tooth by total surprise. On the subway platform, in the clear midst of her fellow professionals, she felt an unmistakable pressure—one of her left premolars shifting first back and forth, then side to side and around. With a sound of friction, her tooth slipped painlessly from its cavity, and by reflex it was immediately out on the tracks in a pool of bloody froth, staring back at her with its animal-inanimate brand of accusation. There’s really no accounting for such things. Such anyway were Rachel’s thoughts as an express train sounded its piercing signal and shot by in a summer-warmed gust.
Doctor Dalrymple would gladly take up the theme. Doctor Dalrymple— found through the third-hand connection of a business associate of Rachel’s high-powered aunt—boasted an office filled to bursting with cascading piles of continuous-form, sprocketed printing paper. He was sure to make Rachel know straight away that his foremost commitment was to radical honesty. “I consider it a form of cultural resistance,” he’d explained immediately on Rachel’s taking her seat. “Allow me to be radically honest with you: I have halitosis; sure—I’ve done work on a contract-to-contract basis for the RAND Corporation; in fifteen minutes I’ll pretend to need the restroom, but for purposes of radical honesty I’m really practicing my golf swing in there.” Doctor Dalrymple was in a disarray to boot because a colleague in whom he placed a great deal of professional esteem had last week accused him of being merely good. Rachel nodded in a courteous mock attention as her eyes slipped slowly to the rhythmic glaze of rain pounding against Doctor Dalrymple’s office window, and from there on into the middle distance. He might have been a handsome man: the close crop of his wet-combed hair lent him an aerodynamic quality; his effete fingers would not look out of place in bringing cake fork to fluted glass by way of making a dinner table announcement; his chest was not so concave as it had right to be. Rachel caught herself submitting the cuticle of her left ring finger to a pensive chew.
She at last had out with it that she was coming to Doctor Dalrymple’s office out of just over two years in Doctor Hebert’s care. And at that Doctor Dalrymple’s face broke wide, and his lips hugged his teeth: “Oh, you know him too?” And so that was the matter—so as fact would have it, both men served on the board of an exurban regional hospital, home to several famous surgeons, all sharing each a different specialty in pulmonary procedure. The lung is simply fascinating. Doctor Dalrymple gave a long exhale.
Further discouragement could only stress increasingly the case for Rachel to get herself back out there. This became more and more difficult, as the plain fact was that Rachel’s being born under the caul had early and decisively set her upon a track for the ominous. Her foreboding soon undermined any project she might put to herself, as dread slowly set in. She spent whole afternoons gripping her knees in a dry bathtub. She was made to once more begin wearing her boiled mouth guard to bed. In larger ways every day, Rachel found herself becoming increasingly eccentric: taking new routes, adopting different hours, developing uncompromising preferences for products she’d before never enjoyed. The word headway no longer made sense to her, not under the nausea-inspiring heft of unmet responsibility. Her nailbeds were by now near-serrated and shot through with off-white hairline cracks. Under the circumstances, the question of seeking help came to seem academic and beside the point.
It was on Rachel’s couch, as the pair watched game show reruns deep into the early evening, that Maxine told Rachel that the whole thing was all “becoming, by now, a little sad.” The program holding their attention was a long-cancelled Merv Griffin production by the name of Smart Cookie, on which contestants answered questions posed to them by a mohair-clad host. The host winked winningly into the camera and introduced himself every half hour. “Cor-rect!” the host would say at odd intervals, or else “Try again!” He read the clues off of cookie-embossed cue cards as he tore demonically between the liberally abstracted chocolate chip set-pieces framing the sound stage on either side. The contestants were on understandable tenterhooks, as they stood to win considerable cash prices or else home appliance gift sets. Rachel let Maxine’s words settle. She caught a furtive look of Maxine, whose own eyes remained fixed fast to the blue-green strobe of the television set. “Cor-rect!” the host screamed through his teeth as the audio popped.
And in Rachel’s head there convened immediately, and much to her surprise, an ad hoc tribunal of teensy tiny Rachels—an adolescent Rachel, a Rachel who had decided to pursue the piano more seriously, a long-dead Rachel—who all set to consulting old yearbooks and folding together construction paper cootie catchers, asking of these augurs whether or not Maxine had always been a good friend. Maxine had always been a good friend. And so Rachel was made to admit that her friend was correct. It had all become, by then, just a little sad. Rachel conceded, and in celebration they toasted together old times with a long nip of grenadine before tearing through the phonebook. There were, after all, analysts for the having. Rachel sighed in long relief.
The wind carried with it the sound of breakers, this as pink summer dusk clouds blushed overhanging the pale surf that night at the end of Long Island. Maxine’s and Francis’s wedding had been, thanks to no little string-pulling, funded in its near-entirety through partnership with the Ford Foundation. And the Ford Program Officer beamed among the groomsmen making up the wedding party’s left flank—standing on the near side of the toxicologist who’d written for Francis a clean bill of health after the administration of a painstakingly devised, mercury-targeting heavy metals detox. Francis stood at the outdoor altar, fresh-faced and newly hale. He rocked back and forth on his feet and seemed nervously to hum a tuneless march. His hovering octogenarian parents each threw him a smile and a wave.
Rachel eyed the groom peripherally, herself a member of the party on Maxine’s side and so turned facing the grinning maw of slack-jawed friends and family. She squirmed slightly. Weddings could always be counted upon to bring out in Rachel that throbbing tug of the long-gone caul, making purr deep inside her some subterranean and load-bearing fiber. The same was true for her of christenings and of wakes. Often even, the musk-rich smell of a wood-paneled worship space would be enough to set her off—this evening’s beachside venue notwithstanding. It was, more than anything, the sharp taste of the fatal that served to stir. As the guests waited with smiles affixed, the hum of an electric organ was borne away on the breeze. Rachel stifled a sneeze and screwed her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose with one long finger.
The ceremony would prove uneventful. Maxine shone proud down the aisle. Francis smiled long and often, basking in the security of the fact that—though fortune chiefly favors the litigious—true love and an ironclad prenuptial agreement meant that he could also count on standing pretty for no short while. All hands erupted into long sat-upon applause at their marks. The electric organ whined once more and roused the guests into the awaiting reception, where decorum would of course mean an exchange of words with Doctor Dalrymple. “I can tell you’re the kind of analysand looking only for someone to validate her choices.” His face was lit animatedly by the glow of jarred candles. Rachel listened back with the case-hardened face of a thing long caught. “In any case you look great.”
In the evening’s newly gathered darkness, Rachel slipped off her shoes and weaved her way across the still-warm sand to the table where Maxine sat entertaining her menagerie of assembled well-wishers. Lounging with her shoulder blades pressed half up the back of her card chair, Maxine seemed to be spilling. The sea breeze irregularly buoyed her dress up and around her as she sunk, exhausted, back into its folds. Supine while seated, the aspect Maxine struck described a figure at once limp and dynamic, variations on the bride in her fatigue. From the far end of the dance floor, the Ford Program Officer and Francis’s toxicologist looked to be locked in involved conversation.
“Here’s a joke,” said Doctor Dalrymple, without preamble, from Rachel’s elbow. “Have you heard the latest about Karen Carpenter?” Rachel started and turned. Forced perspective made Doctor Dalrymple look to be all at once face, nothing else—and he throbbed with a glow that would later be chalked up to amorous instinct, stoked at the prospect of sealing the deal on one more interminable analysis.
He flashed a sheepish mouth of teeth. Time to make a break for it.
Cornered, Rachel feinted left and made to disappear behind a column of guests as they shuffled through the involuted motions of a DJ-helmed conga line. Turning at the far end, she met with Doctor Dalrymple again, panting now doubled over with his hands on his knees. “It seems you’ve deliberately misunderstood me,” he got out between labored breath. With a tight pirouette she again lost him and shot off into the darkness for the surf. Hearing his wet padding plomp its way on her tail, she spun once more and set a running course for the newly served buffet dinner in its stainless steel serving domes.
The service in white gloves had meticulously arrayed there a fish, a red meat, and a vegetarian option each in their sauce. The tidily-conceived meal was as meticulous an on-trend display of natural food options as could be squeezed out of Ford Foundation funding. Rachel’s slow scan over the table lit upon: a lemon-zested spinach strata fighting for air beneath an intricate lattice-work of farmer’s cheeses, a meat thermometer stuck jauntily in a sharp-angled loaf of Levantine kibbeh cru, an impressive salad dripping in grapeseed oil dressing, a done-up fried white fish, an unpretentious cabbage soup. A server in white tie dress wiped a stubborn splash of brown gravy away with a steam-pressed cloth and made off with a craftsperson’s dignity in a job immaculately done, unable to help from letting go his vendor’s grin in bringing such a well-manicured bill of fare to the evening’s table.
Breathless, Rachel stopped short of the slowly collecting buffet line, with a winded Doctor Dalrymple in shouting pursuit. He had ended his street joke and since launched into a lengthy catalog of facts concerning shipping lanes on the Long Island Sound. In three strides he had recovered her advantage in ground and stood before her expectantly, with a flat-footed weight.
They regarded one another for a beat.
And then with the sudden force of a return, Rachel recovered at once the strength and the fury lent her by the imperious manner of her birth. The irrecoverable caul demanded from Rachel its overdue satisfaction, and Rachel watched herself with dispassion as she shot her hands wrist-deep into a modest hill of milk-damp desert muesli, piercing the new-fallen silence with a full-throated scream. Doctor Dalrymple maintained eye contact as he took first one uncertain step back and then another.
In a flash he was set upon.
Rachel, with her fists crammed full of wedding food, beat him about the chest and arms. She felled him to his knees with a tureen to the midriff, whipping torn clumps of French bread at his crumpled frame. Falling back at last upon that axis on which the intimate and familiar mutely turn despite themselves, Rachel pried open Doctor Dalryple’s mouth and cemented the wriggling cavity with a solid wallop of sand-mixed vegetable mash. Exhausted, she relinquished her straddle of his shallow chest and took a solid, well-postured breath. Around her the guests had formed a crowded circle. With a stare meeting no one’s, Rachel took one laden step forward, followed by a second, and broke through their ranks into the night. At last the fatidic veil, half-consummated, withdrew and resumed, deep in Rachel’s craw, some new clandestine place of purchase.
Doctor Dalrymple choked now with a gray pudding film dripping from that dome narrowly fitted between his white-shocked temples. Someone shouted that a paramedic ought, by rights, to be summoned. The sky above drew, twisted, into itself and began its long-threatened downpour in a flash of light and sound.
Drew Dickerson is a writer living in Chicago. He has written previously at The Onion and ClickHole, and his fiction has appeared at Queen Mob’s Tea House.