Michael Martone’s fiction often toys with the idea of authorship and identity. His 2005 self titled novel, Michael Martone, is a series of fictional contributor notes of Michael Martone. In this piece from 2001, he’s also wrestling with identity. The many different ways of seeing a girl named Susan.
Susan took him home to meet her parents. Her parents had kept her bedroom exactly the way it had been when she was in high school. He was on the four poster bed looking through her yearbooks, The Cauldron. He turned to the back of one from her senior year. The freshman pictures were minuscule, cells in a hive. The pictures enlarged as he paged though the classes, sophomores and juniors. The seniors, finally, stamp-sized and autographed. Susan’s portrait, an embarrassment of hair, a string of studio pearls at her neck. He could see the Susan he knew in it though shadowed now by age.
“Susan,” he said to her, “a lot of Susans.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “Just as many Michaels.”
On the table was an ancient lazy susan. Her father had made the same old joke about it and his daughter’s name. It rotated slowly on its own as they removed and replaced dishes and plates, condiments and seasonings. It was a function of gravity and balance, the frictionless slide of ball bearings, but it appeared motorized like a display at a grocery store or museum. After dinner, they did the dishes at the sink while her parents rocked on the glider on the front porch. Susan spun the lazy susan like a wheel of fortune, a spinner from a board game. It twirled and twirled. She was standing at the foot of the bed watching Michael as he flipped through the pages. On every page three or four Susans at least. Susan, Susan, Susan.
Her parents had turned on the television in the family room. They had eaten dinner with her parents in the breakfast nook. The table was a round maple thing with heavy turned legs. The whole house was Colonial with milk glass lamps topped by frilly shades, hardwood chairs with spoke backs and curving arms, talon feet and pinecone finials. In the corner, a Franklin stove boiled over with philodendra. The television was shuttered in a cabinet originally carpentered by Jefferson.
Susan stood at the foot of her bed watching him skim through her high school yearbooks. They had been lovers for years now though they were maintaining the illusion that they were not for her parents’ sake. During the visit, he would sleep in her brother’s room. Her brother was an actuary in Milwaukee. She looked around her old room at its clutter of souvenirs, every innocuous object emitting its own secret life. She pressed herself against one of the bedposts, the one she had used as a child. The post had been lathed, swelling and contracting, cut with channels, knobs and grooves. The wood was stained and distressed on its corners, the cherry color looked worn away. It wasn’t until she moved out of this room that she started to touch herself. This was always better, but she had thought, back then, that her rubbing right here, again and again, had worn off the paint, had smoothed it finer than the finish on the rest of the frame, its polish another kind of stain.
It had been years since she had done this and this still fit, the knurl scored in the wood, the abrading layers in her clothes, her skin beneath, the prickliness of her hair, how it felt again as she imagined again how it had been before, how always before she believed she even felt the grain of the quarter sawn oak. Coming this way, she never made a sound. No one should hear. It was as if Susan was somewhere else, and this Susan, who was coming, was here but not conscious of pressing against the smooth wood, that turned, rippling whorl. With her hands on the post, she steadied herself, forgot she was there. She hardly moved, only pressed deeper into the infinitely complicated template of the wood, subtly molding each organic edge, fitting into the scooped out shell of her past.
Susan, naked but for her glasses. She keeps them on. Sometimes wears an adjustable black elastic athletic band attached to each earpiece to keep them in place. She lets me slide the rubber loops onto the curving plastic, cinch them tight with the tiny slides. She puts on her glasses like goggles, reaches behind her head and snugs the buckle tight. Her glasses. The frames. Black plastic frames the top halves of the lenses that are outlined with silver wire rims below. Silver rivets at each top corner and at the temples. The delicate clear plastic pads resting on each side of her nose. Men’s glasses. Vince Lombardi glasses. Colonel Sanders glasses. Malcolm X glasses. “I want to see,” Susan says. I like looking at her naked, naked but for those glasses.
She lives in one city, and I live in another. We don’t see enough of each other. And when we do see each other we are more than likely. We like to meet in hotel rooms, motel rooms either here or there. The smaller the room the better. More mirrors then, designed for the illusion of space. She sits on the sink counter, her back against a mirror, looking over my shoulder as I stand in front of her between her legs. She is looking into the mirror on the closet door behind me. I look into the mirror her back presses against, see my back, my ass flexing. See Susan, her chin on my shoulder, looking into the depth of the mirrors reflecting back and forth. Susan, Susan, Susan. I sit on a chair. She sits on me. She tells me what she sees in the wall mirror since I can’t see. I take the elastic strap between my teeth. I pull it tight. I gnaw on it. On her hands and knees she angles a hand mirror between her legs she watches me go in and out behind her, above her. On her back with me on her, she hovers the hand mirror above us. The silver of the mirror pools between her legs. As I lick her, I see the mirror fog and clear. Fog and clear. She catches sight of us, shadows reflected in the blank screen of the television. We are unfocused ghosts from another channel bleeding through. I watch her watch herself on the screen. I watch her as she comes. She doesn’t close her eyes. I see myself focused on the surfaces of the lenses of her glasses as she comes. I see through those transparent images, my refracted face, its contrasts of planes and angles. I see through the lenses to the other smaller versions of me, motes, floating on each glossy pupil’s black concave dilation.
Susan, you call. Your husband is out of town, your kids in bed. I walk over. All your neighbors have cut their lawns. The evening steams. There is that chorus of locusts, a hatch this year, the sibilant sawn to fricative and back, the z’s spent to s’s. The s, s, s, s. You are sitting on the front steps, drinking from a cold bottle of beer. You touch my arm with it and lead me to where it is cooler. The dishes from dinner are still stacked on the counter, the spice tins, the pepper mill, the spent mix boxes, the flour jar open, the pans and skillet in the sink, a very slow drip from the faucet. “The place’s a mess,” you lisp, “and I’m a little drunk.” You don’t want to go upstairs.
The kids are restless in the heat. You want to fuck in the kitchen, half-clothed on the table, the chairs. On a whim you grab the almost empty plastic bear of honey, pull the cap free with your teeth, the nozzle sweet between your lips, and turn it on its head. Kissing me, you wait forever, for the honey to run down, coating the inside. You squeeze its belly, run a bead of honey along my cock, smearing it with your fingers, then spreading it with your tongue so that it coats the whole length. It takes hours to work my cock inside of you. A drop of water collects on the lip of the faucet. There is a dewdrop of honey clinging to your hair. You rub your clit, tease your hair stiff, then lick your fingers and smell the resin of the rosemary, the tupelo, the tulip poplar, the alfalfa, the clover the honey was made from. We can hardly move, my cock caught fast deep inside you, our mouths stuck to each other, sucking the honey coming to our lips. We are still there. Why move? The children never wake up. The dishes are never done. Your husband never returns. The grass never grows again. The trees are studded with hundreds of cicada shells. All the bees are fossilized in amber. That drop of water trembles on the lip of the faucet, always about to fall.
“Susan?” I hear him whispering in the corridor. I have a roomette on the Lake Shore Limited from New York to Chicago. He was riding coach on the Boston section. In Albany, the two trains hook up, the electric power blinking on and off as the cars are shunted back and forth in the yard. The old Pullmans creak as they are eased into each other, a shudder ripples through the cars as they couple, then again when the new engines pull the slack out of the train and accelerate into a curve sweeping out onto the bridge over the Hudson.
He is looking for me. We arranged this meeting. We haven’t been lovers for years though we stay in touch by phone, postcard, email. This is for old times’ sake.
“Susan?” he says. “Susan? Susan? Susan?” he whispers as the train reaches speed outside of Schenectady. Now it is dark outside and the tracks are running though a cut, the high banks are a sheet of black smeared here and there by a smattering of luminous rash reflecting the moonlight.
I have the shade all the way open. I’ve turned out all the lights in the roomette except the dull blue night light near the floor. The little fan whirs above the door. I love the old pre-war cars with their stainless and gunmetal painted steel, the coarse orange brown fabrics smelling like old theaters. The nickel-plated hardware of the vents, switched, and fixtures gleam in the subtle shadows. And I love the ingenious efficiency of the space, the way the sink folds into the wall, the pocket doors and the cubby holes for glasses and jewelry, the racks for luggage, the disappearing closet, the secret compartment for my shoes that has another access door in the corridor for the attendant who will shine them overnight and return them polished in the morning.
“In here,” I breathe.
I have already unfolded the bed, collapsing the chair with its complaining springs and hauling the mattress, bedding and pillows from the hidden drawer behind the once upright seat. I’ve done this already naked as it is almost impossible to undress once the bed is in place. So I undressed while the train rocked past West Point, folded my clothes away. I put in my diaphragm balanced precariously with one foot resting flat on the cleaver scissored armrest of the lounge chair and my butt, cold, propped against the mirror affixed to the inside of the sliding door. I tried not to think how I looked as I eased it inside of me, past the ingenious folds of my vagina. It expanded into place, foreshadowing the contracting and expansion of the roomette I then set about to transact.
He finds me at last. I am stretched out on the bed beneath its covers and blankets in the dark, punctuated only by the flashes of light sweeping the window. He immediately begins to undress in the tiny space left between the bed and the door, which he has locked, manipulating the many moving parts of the metal handle and latch. My eyes adjust to the light. In the shadows I can see him contort, wrestle with his clothes as if he is shedding skin too soon, as if he is making love to somebody else. He drapes his clothes over the recessed hooks, balls them in the corner. His penis springs up as he shimmies out of his shorts. It is at my eye-level and, in the dull blue light, I watch it expand and arch upward, another ingenious design. Above me, his head catches in the collar of his shirt he is too rushed to unbutton. His taut cock inches from my face transmits the rhythm of the train’s movement, quivers and twitches as the steel wheels stutter over the joints of the rail beneath us. I fight my way out from under the covers as he strips off his socks and toys with the clasp of his watch. I work my way up onto my hands and knees. We say excuse me to each other as we bump and lurch into each other and with the train. At last, I am facing the window, my knees on the edge of the bed, my feet flat against the door on either side of his knees. He stands with his back against the door. He fumbles looking for the spot. I reach back though, making a few jerking attempts to grab his flexing cock as it recoils against my thigh, my cheeks, and then to guide him in.
I wanted to do this, this pushing against the picture window, pushing back against him. Outside, the train is running along a wide, flat river, the water level route, an advertisement of a smooth ride, no heavy hauling over hills, over mountains. The compartment leaves so little room that behind me he can just grind against me, pushing against me and then pulling at my hips, pulling me hard against where he is pinned. Outside, out in the country illuminated by the natural light on the moon, the layers of distance emerge—the streaking pattern of things close by and the slow creep of the outlined details in the distance.
I follow the lazy meander of farmyard light as it falls away behind, a blazing billboard on a distant hill as it burns out. There are sudden bursts of red at the crossings, the Doppler of sound, streaking across the window like rain. “Susan,” he says. I feel him come. I can’t always feel it inside—the sloughing of the spasms, each less intense than the last—through the skin, but this time I do.
And later, after a series of intricate maneuvers, we have bent and twisted our bodies into this position of rest. He’s turned on the reading light over his head by flipping a toggle by my big toe. Instantly, we appear, reflected in the window, tumbled together, entwined with each other, the bed, the roomette. He consults the national timetable, noting that we will gain an hour as we head west. He reads to me the names of the towns we will go through, through the night, passes time relating the nicknames of rail lines: The C&NW, the Cheap and Nothing Wasted; the Rock Island Line; and the New York, Susquehanna & Western, the Suzy Q. He turns off the light and toggles my right nipple with his left hand. In the dark, I feel around for my vibrator I’ve stored above the folding sink, an old Sunbeam with the heft and graceful lines of a Lionel gauge toy train car. I connect it up to the A.C. socket by the reading light.
At the head of the train are three massive diesel engines powering generators creating current for the electric motors turning the driving wheels pulling us along at eighty miles an hour. I plug into a tiny fraction of that power, some spilled amperage. The vibrator hums like a toy train’s transformer. The thrum of those real engines get communicated through the metal of the cars, carried across the couplings where the gaskets kiss. I feel his hand wrap around mine on the machine. The steel wheels squeal on a radical curve that brings us back to that river. We can feel the inertia of all the weight as the train coasts down a grade. The timetable says we have hours and hours, and the trains are never on time. The hum of the vibrator harmonizes with the pitch of the engine throttling up, four cars forward. We can see the engines, their strobing lights as they wrap around another curve ahead. The current streams back though the train as the sound of the horn peals off the skin. I nudge the vibrator’s nob along the water level route, tracing the contours of the terrain. We are in no hurry. We are taking the train. He whispers, a decibel or two above the purring running through our fingers, through our arms, into out shoulders, though our bones. I listen to the names of the stations we’ll be passing through, our possible destinations: Sioux Center; Sioux Falls; Sault Ste. Marie; Soo Junction; Sooner, OK; Susie, Iowa; Susanville; Susanna, someplace; Susan, Susan in Montana.