Excerpt: 'The Mermaid Chair'

Last fall, after we'd gotten her settled at Vanderbilt, Hugh and I'd rushed home so he could play in the Waverly Harris Cancer Classic, a tennis tournament he'd been worked up about all summer. He'd gone out in the Georgia heat for three months and practiced twice a week with a fancy Prince graphite racket. Then I'd ended up crying all the way home from Nashville. I kept picturing Dee standing in front of her dorm waving good-bye as we pulled away. She touched her eye, her chest, then pointed at us--a thing she'd done since she was a little girl. Eye. Heart. You. It did me in. When we got home, despite my protests, Hugh called his doubles partner, Scott, to take his place in the tournament, and stayed home and watched a movie with me. An Officer and a Gentleman. He pretended very hard to like it.

The deep sadness I felt in the car that day had lingered for a couple of weeks, but it had finally lifted. I did miss Dee -- of course I did -- but I couldn't believe that was the real heart of the matter.

Lately Hugh had pushed me to see Dr. Ilg, one of the psychiatrists in his practice. I'd refused on the grounds that she had a parrot in her office.

I knew that would drive him crazy. This wasn't the real reason, of course -- I have nothing against people's having parrots, except that they keep them in little cages. But I used it as a way of letting him know I wasn't taking the suggestion seriously. It was one of the rare times I didn't acquiesce to him.

"So she's got a parrot, so what?" he'd said. "You'd like her." Probably I would, but I couldn't quite bring myself to go that far--all that paddling around in the alphabet soup of one's childhood, scooping up letters, hoping to arrange them into enlightening sentences that would explain why things had turned out the way they had. It evoked a certain mutiny in me.

I did occasionally, though, play out imaginary sessions with Dr. Ilg in my head. I would tell her about my father, and, grunting, she would write it down on a little pad -- which is all she ever seemed to do. I pictured her bird as a dazzling white cockatoo perched on the back of her chair, belting out all sorts of flagrant opinions, repeating itself like a Greek chorus: "You blame yourself, you blame yourself, you blame yourself."

Not long ago -- I don't know what possessed me to do it -- I'd told Hugh about these make-believe sessions with Dr. Ilg, even about the bird, and he'd smiled. "Maybe you should just see the bird," he said. "Your Dr. Ilg sounds like an idiot."

Now, across the room, Hugh was listening to the person on the phone, muttering, "Uh-huh, uh-huh." His face had clamped down into what Dee called "the Big Frown," that pinched expression of grave and intense listening in which you could almost see the various pistons in his brain -- Freud, Jung, Adler, Horney, Winnicott -- bobbing up and down.

Wind lapped over the roof, and I heard the house begin to sing -- as it routinely did -- with an operatic voice that was very Beverly "Shrill," as we liked to say. There were also doors that refused to close, ancient toilets that would suddenly decline to flush ("The toilets have gone anal-retentive again!" Dee would shout), and I had to keep constant vigilance to prevent Hugh from exterminating the flying squirrels that lived in the fireplace in his study. If we ever got a divorce, he loved to joke, it would be about squirrels.

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