The other Suzanne

We lost the lease on our old apartment and moved out to the suburbs. It was a combination of factors.  My job situation changed so I didn’t have to be in the office so much. Susan, my girlfriend, wasn’t really working regular hours. We both thought we needed a change. Besides, for our money we could rent a large apartment in a quiet part of town, with a garden out the back and an extra bedroom.

The commute was long, but I had a bicycle and I quite liked the time I spent riding from our new place through the quiet neighbourhoods. It gave me some alone time to think and get things straight in my head. Susan stayed home and fixed the place up. We cooked more and watched movies in the evening. No hard liquor in the house, though I had beer and sometimes we’d open a bottle of wine.

There was nothing much in our neighbourhood except starter homes. The people on either side were nice but a bit dim. The whole area was yet to enter any phase of redevelopment or gentrification and there were no restaurants or bars nearby, no nice shops or parks, just row upon row of cheaply constructed but spacious housing, filled with young parents and retirees.

We’d joke about it, Susan and I, and it was funny for a while. We’d joke that this was what we’d become – and the old, childless couple who lived in the apartment upstairs from us, we started referring to them by our own names, as if they were a future version of us and were there showing us what we had to look forward to.

‘There goes Susan, out for her morning walk,’ I’d say, looking through the window at the old woman from upstairs as she shuffled down the street on a Sunday morning.

‘And where are you off to now?’ Susan would say, watching the old man from upstairs creaking down our shared path towards the mailbox.

For a couple of months, we stuck it out, and then Susan started spending nights in the city. She’d go out with her friends and text me in the early hours to say she was staying over with someone, that she had an early job the next day or she couldn’t get a cab, or she just wanted to stay up longer with some people she hadn’t seen for a while. I didn’t mind; it gave me an evening to myself in the new place. I’d play music loudly and stay up watching old movies, and wake up hung-over on the sofa.

Her nights in the city became more regular. She came to spend two or three nights a week downtown, only really coming home for sure on weekends. She was younger than I was and I couldn’t begrudge her the fun she was having with her friends, but I suspected she probably had a lover. She and I never questioned each other about those things so I let it go, but it came to feel as if I were living out there in the suburbs on my own, and she was more of a visitor who would pop by and spend the weekends with me.

I didn’t like that, and I too started spending nights in the city. After work I’d go out with friends or anyone I could find rather than make the journey back to our empty apartment. I’d drink in the salaryman bars and stay until everyone else had gone, then wind up at another bar with some stranger, drinking until the early hours. Sometimes I staggered off back home, but more and more I wound up in a hotel. It didn’t matter, work was going well and they’d made me a partner in the company. I paid for my room with the company card and no one ever questioned it, and I started sleeping with a girl who worked at a stationary store under our office.

I was seeing Susan less and less. Sometimes I’d get back to our place after a few days in the city and see that she’d been home to change clothes and pick up some things, and that was the closest I came to her for a week. Friends started asking whether we were still together. I told them we were, but questioned it internally.

In truth, I didn’t want to break up with her, so I went and found her one night. We were sitting in a boho wine bar that we used to go to when we first got together. She told me she hated living in the suburbs and never wanted to go back there. I agreed and that night she moved into my hotel room. Soon we rented a little apartment on 12th Street, in a neighbourhood close to where we’d lived before and we dove into city life. We had old friends over for long, boozy, midweek dinners. We covered the walls with posters, went to art openings, got loaded on cheap white wine and stayed in bed until 6pm at weekends. It was like we’d both scrambled back on board our old lives after an uncomfortable dip in a chilly sea, and for three months, we never mentioned our place out in the suburbs. The lease was for a year and it was still ours, still filled with our stuff, but we refused to go back, bought thrift store plates and glasses and ate on the floor and revelled in the scruffy charm of the situation.

Then one day I said we should take a drive out there and see what was going on, take a look at the place and see how things were. Susan raised an eyebrow. She had a mischievous little smile on her face. I told her it would be funny, that we could visit the old place and see whether anything had changed, pick up some of our clothes. I could see her going through the cupboards in her mind, cataloguing the dresses and shoes she’d left behind.

We took a cab out that Saturday afternoon. Of course, everything looked exactly the same. We got to the door and instead of reaching for my key I pressed the doorbell. We both waited on the step and then another guy who looked exactly like me opened the door. It looked like he was expecting us. I heard music playing and could smell something on the stove. The guy, who was quite clearly me, smiled and waved us inside.

The apartment was neat and tidy. Freshly cut flowers stood in a vase on the coffee table. The music was something I owned but didn’t listen to any more. Someone who looked exactly like Susan, except perhaps a little plumper with a bit more makeup and longer hair, came from the direction of the kitchen wiping her hands on a cloth. She said hello and embraced Susan and then she and I shuffled around each other, unsure of which greeting to use, before I finally dived in and gave her a peck on the cheek.

We stood in their living room. No one knew what to say. At last I told the guy that I liked what they’d done with the place. He smiled warmly, missing my sarcasm, and offered to show me around. It felt a bit ridiculous, being shown around my own apartment, but the guy seemed sincere. He showed me how they’d moved the bedroom around. He showed me the spare room. They’d pushed the bed up to the wall and put an illustrator’s desk under the window. He described it as Susan’s studio.

‘She really works in here?’ I asked him, because she had never got any work done in the apartment when we were living there.

‘She’s in here four, five hours a day,’ said the other me. ‘Beavering away.’

Those were his exact words, ‘beavering away’.

We went back into the living room. The girls were setting the table. No drinks were offered and there were only water glasses. We sat down while the other Susan went to and from the kitchen, bringing out dishes. My Susan and I exchanged a glance. She was smirking.

‘So, you’re happy out here?’ I said.

‘Oh certainly,’ said the other me. ‘It took a bit of getting used to, as you know, but once we settled into it, it was great. So much space here. We’ve got the little garden at weekends. And it means less time in the office for me.’

‘And you don’t miss the city?’ said my Susan.

‘It’s still there last time I looked. We take a drive up there some nights when we want to see the action, be around the crowds, but that rarely happens any more. We’re happy here. I think we’ve found our place.’

The other Susan came out of the kitchen wearing oven gloves and carrying a crockpot. ‘I hope you two are hungry,’ she said.

My Susan pointed to a table arrangement that the other me had just cleared out of the way. It was in the shape of dog with droopy ears and looked like had been made by a child out of clay. ‘Where did you get that?’ she said.

The other two laughed simultaneously. ‘Susan made that,’ said the other me. ‘It’s horrible, isn’t it?’

‘It’s hideous,’ said my Susan.

‘Guilty,’ the other Susan said, holding up her hands. ‘I enrolled in a pottery course. They have one at the local arts centre. It’s terrible, of course, all these old women making flowers out of clay. ‘But, I don’t know, it find it quite relaxing. You of all people know how much I’ve wanted to start playing with clay again.’

‘Playing with clay,’ said the other me. ‘That’s what we call it. “When are you off to play with your clay,” I ask her. Every Saturday morning I ask her that, don’t I?’ He looked from one woman to the other.

‘I know it’s horrible, of course,’ said the other Susan, picking up the dog with the droopy ears. She held it up to her cheek so her face and the dog’s were side by side. It looked like she made the basic structure of the body with a toilet roll. ‘But I kind of like him. He looks so sad and miserable, it reminds me of him.’ She pointed at the other me.

‘It does not look a bit like me. If anything it looks like your droopy face.’ They beamed at each other.

My Susan couldn’t contain herself any longer and burst out laughing. The other me joined in at first, and then saw that she was laughing too hard to be laughing at what he’d just said, and his face fell. A microwave pinged and the other Susan got up to go into the kitchen.

The evening went on like that, with them making conversation, dinner party chat, and Susan and me trying to keep a straight face. We made our way through three courses. My Susan had never been a big eater. She pushed the food around her plate in an attempt to disguise how little she was eating but it didn’t work. The other Susan scolded her for not finishing what was on her plate and made platitudes about how she was getting too thin.

The other me talked to me about the neighbourhood, all the interesting people who were moving in. He told me about the coffee franchise that was coming to the local high street. ‘It’s not there yet,’ he said. ‘But we’ve seen the hoardings. It’s certainly on the way.’ He pointed his fork at my Susan and said, very seriously, ‘We’ve seen the hoardings where it’s going up.’

No drinks came out. No wine. At one point I got up on the pretext of going to the bathroom and wandered into the kitchen to see if I could find a bottle. It was my apartment, I thought. And I was a guest here. I figured anything I found I could probably open, but there was nothing there, and the other Susan came in after a few minutes and found me rummaging and I had to pretend I had come in to help her clear.

‘This is intolerable,’ I said to my Susan when the other two were out of the room – him to fix coffee, her to the ‘little girl’s room’. ‘How did we get to be like this?’

My Susan was laughing so hard tears were welling up in her eyes. ‘It’s amazing,’ she said. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it. Is this what we were like, those months that we lived here?’

‘Pottery class at the local arts centre?’ I said. ‘We were never like this. This is how we could have ended up.’

‘This dog,’ she was shaking with laughter, holding up the pottery ornament. ‘I have to have this dog. I’m going to put it in my purse.’

‘Don’t take the dog,’ I said. ‘Why do you want to take the wretched dog?’

‘It’s just so perfect,’ she said. We heard a toilet flush.

Susan put the clay dog in her handbag just as the other Susan came back in the room, rubbing her hands together. ‘Sorry about that,’ she said brightly.

Coffee was served. We took it into over to the other bit of the room and sat around the coffee table. ‘We must do this again,’ said my Susan.

‘Yes we must,’ said the other me. ‘A lot of our friends don’t want to make the trip. They think it’s too far to come, but it’s really not. It’s only 25 minutes at this time of night, if you get a good run on the highway.’

‘That’s not far at all,’ said my Susan. She was winding up to plunge the knife into this man, I could always tell from her tone of voice. ‘Only 25 minutes, that’s what we spend sitting in traffic on a Friday night just going out to a restaurant.’

‘Precisely,’ said the man. ‘That’s what I try to explain but they always seem to think it’s too far to come out.’

Susan said: ‘Maybe it’s not the distance that puts them off?’

The man looked at her and gave a little chuckle. I saw him stare at her in a way that felt familiar, and for a moment I sympathized.

‘Yes, it’s not that bad,’ he went on, quietly. ‘Maybe we don’t see our friends as much as we used to, but in a way that’s been good. You make new friends, and you realize how you can get on fine without others.’ He looked up at my Susan. ‘I don’t know, sitting around in a bar, everyone getting drunk and talking about themselves. I don’t miss any of that. Half the time in the city I had to drink myself into a stupor just to find any of those people interesting. To find myself interesting, really.’ He gave me an easy, relaxed smile. ‘And our life there, where was it going? We were just doing the same things week after week, working a job I hated, getting drunk or getting high all weekend just to give ourselves something to do. Susan pretended she was working down there, but she never really did anything, did you my love? She hadn’t really done anything for years.’

‘Surely not,’ I said.

‘Well,’ he said. ‘She talked about working, sure, but never really finished anything, certainly nothing good. And us two,’ he reached over and patted his Susan’s leg. ‘We were falling apart. From the outside things looked fine, but it was over, really. Neither of us had the courage to admit it so we kept going round and round and pretending to everyone else that things were fine, but the life was hollow. Take away the wine and the distractions and there really wasn’t anything there.’ He slipped his hand off the woman’s knee, sipped his coffee and made a face of appreciation.

Susan and I didn’t talk in the cab going back to the city. When we got there, she threw her bag on the sofa and went to take a shower without a word. I poured myself a drink and stood by the kitchen sink, drinking it down with the bottle open, ready for another. Susan came out a while later, wearing fresh clothes and said she was going out.

She picked up her bag, about to sling it over her shoulder and then she stopped. I knew why. The dog was still in it, that heavy clay dog with the drooping ears. She started to open the bag to take it out but then she stopped and re-zipped. Neither of us wanted to see that thing. If she took it out, she would have to put it somewhere, and then it would have been the two of us, standing in that room, staring at that dog. She couldn’t do it, and I was thankful to her for that. She put the bag over her shoulder, pecked me on the cheek and told me she might be late, which was her way of saying she wouldn’t be home that night.

By Zammo Taylor

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