Water Dog

Illustration for Water Dog by Christina Kelly Holmes

I was wearing a soaking wet dog outfit, so I can’t say I was surprised he noticed me. Anyone would notice me. He called out my name across the room, but I didn’t look around. It’s never a good idea to look around. A slap on the back later he was sitting next to me ordering us shots of tequila, guiding the bartender’s hand lower and lower down the shelf.

“That’s the one, mate. This is good stuff. Gets you sloshed,” he said.

“What are you still doing here?” I asked.

“Well isn’t that a tale to tell, Jesus.” 

I stopped listening and thought back to meeting him my first year of grad school. During our first day introductions, people announced their purpose. Su Ling,“The bird from China” as he called her, explained she was working for the ministry of defense in exchange for a state-sponsored scholarship. She also had a cat she loved very much, which she had to leave behind. He stood up and announced he was from England, having gotten his first degree in Biochem, and listed his favorite things as: a cold pint, his best mates, and girls. 

“Ledge stuff.” Laughing, he turned to Su Ling and winked. It was unclear if she knew what the wink was for.

Afterwards, for some godforsaken reason, he came up to me as I was packing my bag and asked if I knew any local pubs. I told him I wasn’t from around here. Neither was he, he offered, now winking at me. Even when I looked him hard in the eye, he didn’t get the hint to leave me alone. We found a bar down the block on the corner and had a beer. Well, I had a beer. He had several.

By graduation, people in the program had mostly warmed to him. He started a softball league – he was apparently infatuated with baseball as a child – and many of us joined. After every Sunday game we had a beer at that same corner bar. He would tell us stories about the stupid things he did while he was drunk; one time he was so drunk he crawled into bed with his Grandma thinking it was his hot second cousin during some family gathering at his parents’ house. No one seemed to mind that he would sleep with his own cousin, it just seemed about right for him.

Later that term, to keep the laughs up, he showed up to the bar with a batch of t-shirts printed with one of our nearly retired, almost dead, definitely bigoted professors with the word “bellend” underneath. He took special care in explaining this concept to Su Ling.


“Want to meet her? She’s upstairs now.” 

I hadn’t lost track too much of what he was saying: apparently he had married an American woman – girl, he said – and moved in with her above the Mexican restaurant we were now sitting in. Her name was Harriet, which I heard clearly because that’s also my girlfriend’s name, but I didn’t comment on this out loud. I really didn’t want to divulge any identifying information on my life to him.

“Do you get free burritos?” I asked. 

“Ah fuck man, you gotta pay your way through everything in this world,” he said.

It was the most serious thing I had ever heard him utter, and we had been assigned a project together on refugee migration in Sudan our last semester of school.

I paid my tab and we headed outside. It was still raining. He had a cigarette under the awning then walked me to the very next door, his building. The stairs placed us just above the restaurant, and sure enough this was his apartment. Or at least he had the keys for it. 

“You’re gonna love her, man. She’s a looker,” he said and unlocked the door.

“What does she do again?”

“Talking head. Hard to keep up with her but always interesting, am I right?”

He punched me lightly in the stomach and stepped out of the way to let me in first. The glow of the red sign below filled the living room with an eerie light, but he quickly flipped on the switch and called out to his new bride. 

“She’s probably in the kitchen. You know women – they like to be near food at all times,” he laughed.

I followed him into the kitchen, where the lights were already on. A laptop on the countertop was playing a cooking video.

“Harriet, meet my good friend here,” he said. 

I strained my eyes to look around the room. Maybe he had caught her behind a pantry door I hadn’t seen yet. 

“Oh, so great to meet you! Great costume,” a voice said. 

I looked around again, this time behind me.

“You guys bump into each other downstairs? You’re always bumping into people down there hun, it’s so funny!” The voice said, now closer to me.

I turned back around. There he was, beaming, standing next to a floating head. 

I couldn’t quite articulate it to myself or to anyone else at the time, but whatever my feeling was, I stayed. All I knew was that I saw a head – a woman’s head – with beautiful thick dark brows and dark curly hair and a mouth stained red and a nose thin and graceful. Really she was a looker, or at least the little bit of her that I could see. For some reason, the first thing that came to mind was the cloak of invisibility magical beings like Frodo and Harry Potter had at their disposal. She must have had one draped around her body.

“We went to graduate school together. He didn’t fuck off nearly as much as he should have though,” he said. “What are you up to, hun?”

“Oh, just trying to make dinner. Some recipe from a cooking show. Help yourself to some beers,” she said. 

How could she cook? She had no arms, no body. Was my invisibility cloak theory that outrageous? But even with one, at some point an arm would have to poke out to cut or pour or whisk. Her head bobbed along the kitchen counter, smiling. 

“Let me get that for you,” he said and paused the video. He then grabbed two beers and handed one to me.

“So, you live nearby?” She asked. 

I told her I lived in the East Village, but was headed to a Halloween party uptown and stopped by here, a place I sort of knew, when it started to downpour. It was half true, but what did it matter? 

He suggested we move to the living room. I backed out of the kitchen and waited for them to follow. He took a seat on the couch and the head trailed him, bopped down to his eye level, then remained still with a lippy grin. I chose to sit at a familiar-looking bar stool across from them, my shaggy suit still damp. I set my beer down on the makeshift coffee table between us: a piece of plywood painted red on top of cinder blocks.

“We’re inheriting some furniture from her great aunt,” he said. 

“Were you close?” I asked. I really was trying hard at this point. 

“Oh, she’s still alive. We’re not that close, but between my cousin and me, I’m more worthy of her things. Plus my cousin couldn’t really use furniture, he’s in jail,” she said. 

I nodded and didn’t say a thing. Who knew where that story could lead. He filled the silence talking about Halloween in the U.K. and how it’s another American thing they’ve reluctantly adopted over there, like sitcoms. British TV shows know when to end, unlike American ones, which go on forever until someone gets married or pregnant. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her head turning to him and swiftly agreeing with a bop to everything he said.

When my beer was gone I saw my out. I refused the offer of another, saying I had to be at the party soon.

“I do love a good costume party,” he winked.

“I never dress up anymore,” she said. 

I couldn’t help but think they were ganging up on me, trying to get me to say something, anything, about this floating head in front of me. But at this point, I was too stubborn. And I needed to leave. 

He walked me to the door and patted me on the back. I thanked him for the beer and told him I’d see him around. As I was halfway out the door, his hand on the handle to close it behind me, he spouted out: 

“But what a face, am I right?” 

“Yes, seems perfect for you,” I said.

On the subway to the party, I thought about Harriet and how we first met. My Harriet, that is.


“Where have you been?” Harriet asked.

“Let’s get married,” I heaved out, having crawled up six flights of stairs to the party. 

“Everyone just thinks I’m a brick house.” 

A sloppy drunk passed her and paused for a moment. “Oh I get it, you’re a…” 

“Dog house. Dog. House,” Harriet bit out, pointing from me to her.

“Punny,” the guy said, not laughing. He continued on to the bar set up in the corner.

“And that’s who my cousin’s fucking. Incredible.” She turned to me and started petting down my wet polyester fur.

“You’re all wet. And we’re not getting married,” she said.

We fixed some drinks and talked with the hosts, who congratulated us on our costumes and questioned our desire to dress up as a bitter moment in the lives of couples. Harriet explained that she grew up in a home where they kept their dog in a doghouse in the backyard, and never really understood why the expression was bad. Her dog’s house was pretty nice. I think tears came to my eyes when I smiled. 

When we were alone again at our apartment, she asked me where I was earlier in the night. I told her I had bumped into an old friend from graduate school, and he introduced me to his wife. “The wife was sweet, way too good for him,” I said. Harriet rolled her eyes. 

“You were getting drunk alone to avoid getting drunk in a social situation,” she said. 


When I first met Harriet’s parents on their farm out in Iowa, they felt it necessary to compare and contrast my “East Coast mixed parentage” with their “straight-out-of-Germany, milk-fed stock”. I wasn’t supposed to take offense, after all, it’s all the intermingling of genes that made me so handsome, but who was stronger in the end: Harriet or me? I looked intently out their kitchen window, trying to seem amused yet vague about where I stood on the issue, but really I was counting pattern repetitions in the red and blue valance just above it. Across the yard was the doghouse.

After five years together, they kept calling her and asking: what was next? She seemed unfazed by the question. Harriet texted me while I was at work about the expression her mother started to use: Shit or get off the pot. How hilarious.

I was still making minimum wage at a so-called fellowship for post-grads. I wasn’t sure what was making me more bitter: her parents’ underlying assumption that I couldn’t provide, or my own. Harriet insisted she wasn’t such a traditionalist, and that’s why she got a high-paying finance job. She never assumed anyone was going to take care of her, and it was a bad idea for any modern woman to believe such a fallacy. 

Floating-head Harriet, she seemed old-school. I suspect if she had a body, she would have been wearing an apron that night. That’s the type of woman he would marry. Small, submissive, apron-wearing. But what can I judge about a woman from the husband she marries? What could I say about my Harriet, if it came down to that? She’s not my wife, so I guess I can delay the question a while longer. 

My phone buzzes again and I expect another quip from Harriet, but instead it’s a text from him. Good to see you the other night mate! The old ball and chain loved ya. Wants you back over for a proper dinner. She makes Sunday roast, did I mention that? This one work? 

He didn’t and it doesn’t. Sundays were my day to catch up on pretending to engage with sports fandom. I was part of several fantasy teams and trades weren’t going to make themselves. I started to tap rain check, but then it struck me that perhaps Harriet needed to meet Harriet to verify her non-bodied status. I wanted a backup pair of eyes.

Okay, I’ll bring my girlfriend. 

Don’t hire a cheap one, don’t want all my stuff nicked. Ha Ha 

Truly, he was revolting. 


“They live above a Mexican restaurant? Do they get free burritos?” She asked, climbing the stairs slightly behind me.

I told her I had asked the same thing. I hadn’t told her Harriet was a disembodied head. But I didn’t want to seem insane. If she saw it, I wouldn’t feel crazy. If she didn’t, I’d pretend I wasn’t crazy for the rest of my life. It seemed like a solid plan.

He was waiting with the door open for us. We heaved up the last steps, already plucking off layers of winter coats, scarves, hats. 

“Didn’t realize I ordered a coupla strippers?” He said with that same wink to me.

“We only take cash, upfront,” Harriet said, turning to me to smile and raise her eyebrows.

“I like her already!” He slapped a thick hand to my back again, stinging my sweat-polished shoulder blade. 

The red sign from the restaurant below still illuminated the already lit room. Maybe it got brighter. He took our coats from us and invited us to sit down. A used corduroy La-Z-Boy featured prominently as a new addition to the furniture set. Did the great aunt finally die, I asked? No, just a big sale at a thrift shop benefiting an AIDS organization down the street.

“Can you believe it? Me. Charitable,” he said. 

Really I couldn’t. It’s as if he got a degree in IR to help countries better bully each other. His final project at school involved how to dismantle China’s biggest online retailer through international sanctions. He looked at Su Ling the entire time he clicked through the presentation. Come to think of it, she grew up in Taiwan. God, I’m an asshole. At least I referred to her by her actual name.

Floating-head-Harriet bopped into the room from the kitchen. She smiled big at my Harriet and me.

“So nice to see you and to meet you, Harriet! I’d come kiss you on the cheek, but I have a bad cold,” she said scrunching up her sliver of a nose.

“Oh, that’s been going around in my office. It seems pretty bad this year,” Harriet replied.

I looked to her for a glimpse of recognition, a sign that what we have before us is a real, live, well-formed head supported by thin air. But I saw nothing. My Harriet started to make small talk when Head Harriet presumably took a seat (“I was named after my grandma, too”). My Harriet nibbled at the pre-sliced sandwich cheese on a plate in front of her (“Is this cheddar?”). My Harriet related to her on some point of contention in the neighborhood (“Oh that building is hideous, I agree”). Nothing extraordinary, everything ordinary. I felt my stomach grow tight.

Dinner was served in the living room in the same seats we were sitting since they had no table to accommodate all four of us. The British groom set the table so Head Harriet didn’t have to move a muscle.

The roast was really, really good. I asked Head Harriet how she made it, hoping it would all come out, the hoax of having invisible limbs, but she just listed out the ingredients for the dry rub she used, and told us how long she left the potatoes in. I wrote it all down in a note on my phone. She herself didn’t eat a bite, an upset stomach. 

After the rest of us finished our meals, the man of the house wiped his mouth with an extravagant stroke of a frail paper napkin and slammed it down in declaration.

“So, is anyone going to ask?” He looked at me and then at my Harriet.

“Ask what?” She said. 

“You haven’t noticed. She can’t eat. Certainly can’t drink. I think she’s definitely showing by now,” he said. 

A pause and another long stare down. 

“She’s pregnant. What, did you think she was just fat?” 

Both Harriets laughed at this. 

“Congrats!” My Harriet shot off.

“I’ve only met her once before, I wouldn’t really know, comparatively, what she’d look like,” I trailed off. 

He smacked me on the back and grabbed my shoulder the way a kid might when he’s about to climb his friend to get to something taller than him.

Then to me, he whispered: “Chuffed, I am. Imagine me, a dad.”

I really couldn’t associate anything wholesome with his life. But who says kids need wholesome lives? Plenty of kids grow up dirty and poor and mix-bred and end up at low-paying jobs with two degrees and an unfathomable amount in student loans. I look over at the Harriets mulling over terms and due dates. 

“Harriet and I are thinking of getting pregnant,” I said, for some reason.

My Harriet shot me a look and rolled her eyes. How she does both at the same time so fast, I’ll never know. She never reprimanded me when I lied, just rolled her eyes. 

“I think it would be only me getting pregnant if science taught me right,” she said.

“It takes two to tango,” I said, again for no real good reason.

She smirked and turned back to Head Harriet to ponder more over her invisible uterus. I wish I knew more about gestation. A kid I grew up with bred hamsters in our apartment complex, but I never really paid attention to his weird hobbies.

When it was time to go, we packed on our coats and said our goodbyes: an overly firm handshake from him and a sweet tilt from Head Harriet. My Harriet wished them well with the pregnancy. We climbed down the stairs and headed for the subway, riding in silence back to our apartment. Harriet seemed distantly upset in the way only time and space helps. I was happy to keep quiet until we crawled into bed later that night and she could tell me how I was wrong.

On the subway, I kept thinking it was strange he didn’t poke his head out the apartment door after we left, like how he slipped out last time to comment on his wife’s attractive face. I was waiting for him to shout down something obscene or ridiculous to us out his living room window. He usually liked getting the last word, but this time he carried on like an adult. Someone with a past that doesn’t affect his future. Someone with a wife and a kid on the way, bodiless or not. It was perplexing, the whole thing.

Christina Kelly Holmes is a 2020 graduate of the screenwriting program at The American Film Institute Conservatory. She is the recipient of both the 2020 Russo Brothers’ AGBO/AFI Development Grant, and the 2021 AFI Writers’ Room Ready Award. Her identity as a first-generation Romanian and mixed-race woman, and her experiences as a third-culture kid, influence her storytelling. Christina was born in New Jersey, raised in London, and received a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Colorado College. After working as a strategist for various startups in the tech industry, she redirected her career toward writing. She was most recently a Writers’ Assistant on Amazon’s CITADEL.