42nd Writing Contest • First Place, Fiction
Elizabeth Amon of Seattle, Washington has won the New Millennium Fiction Prize for “Hair of the Dog.”
She will receive $1,000, a certificate to mark the success, and publication both online and in print.
–This award is Elizabeth’s first literary prize for fiction.–
“Each time I read Amon’s story, the lines of a favorite Paul Simon song, ‘Slip Slidin’ Away,’ ran through my head. For anyone who worries that the best parts of life have gotten away from you, this story is here to remind us that sometimes we let things escape because otherwise they would have consumed us whole.”
Hair of the Dog
By Elizabeth Amon
When Rudy begins licking her toes under the desk, Alex doesn’t immediately stop him. Normally she hates his sticky tongue grooming her, but this afternoon, the terrier’s attention is a welcome distraction. She’s been sitting in front of the computer in her home office, cataloging photographs while waiting for Berks to arrive. She’s labeled and organized the images from her most recent job, but it’s tedious work and she’s bored.
She gazes out the window. Her neighborhood is as still and silent in the August heat as if it were a photo. There are no scrambling squirrels, no singing birds, no barking dogs, no children playing. She moves her head slightly, weighing the possible crops to the landscape if she uses the window as a viewfinder. Along the left of the picture, the Black-eyed Susans are motionless against the rusty iron fence that runs along the front lawn and driveway, making a strong line. Click. She’s captured it in her mind, but nothing changes after the imaginary shutter opens again. The stillness and the silence out the window make it seem as if time has been suspended. But it hasn’t. The minutes keep slipping by, and Berks is now hours later than she expected.
He’d emailed her to say he was flying into Boston and wanted to make a detour on his way to New York to see her this afternoon. He’d written yesterday to say he was leaving first thing in the morning, but even with traffic she’d expected him to arrive by one or two. It’s now after four.
She tucks the loose strands of her straight brown hair behind her ear as she stares at her phone, willing Berks to call, fighting the temptation to phone him. She opens the folder on her desk with the pictures she’s chosen to show him. There are five. They are crisply focused portraits of children. She has subtly digitally manipulated them so their effects are unsettling despite the innocence of the subjects and the superficial prettiness.
She slaps the folder shut, pushing away these thoughts as she turns to the computer and her paying work. Under the portrait of a one-year-old boy, she types a few brief words of identification. The toddler, unsteady on his feet, wears a striped train engineer’s hat and clutches a sagging white stuffed horse. His nose is wrinkled, caught in a smile that shows new teeth. Her own children are long past this age, and for a moment, she feels nostalgia for their babyhood: the tightly clenched fists, the hot, sour breath, the dead weight of their bodies as they sleep.
A pick-up truck barreling down her neighborhood street interrupts her thoughts. The dented blue truck turns into the driveway. Before she can fully rise, Rudy has run to the kitchen barking, his shaggy ears standing up. Though Berks has never been to her house in the seven years since she and Martin have been living there, he doesn’t hesitate. He takes the little stone footpath from the driveway around the back and calls out her name through the kitchen screen door. He’s in the house by the time she hurries through the living room and down the dark hall, lined with dozens of family photos. When she enters the kitchen, Berks is crouched next to Rudy, rubbing his white and tan polka-dotted belly. Before Alex can say anything to either of them, Berks throws his arms around her. He smells faintly of sweat and something sweet, maybe shaving cream, though his cheek is rough as it grazes hers. He’s still skinny, like he always was, and his hug still feels right. They are both 5’10’’and fit together perfectly. Pulling away from the embrace, he holds tightly to her arms as he says, “Oh my god, look at you. I forgot how beautiful you are.” That disappoints her. The compliment is too generic to be genuine. She wonders if he’s nervous.
Berks has aged in the two years since she’d last seen him, though he still looks good. He is handsome in a rugged, slightly dangerous way. The scar at his temple has faded so that it’s difficult to see. The cleft in his chin, acquired after he lost a chunk of skin during an assignment in Chechnya before she knew him, remains an intriguing marker on the map of his face. The lines on his forehead and around his mouth have deepened, but there is still a spark in his blue eyes. He has a charisma that is hard to pinpoint but that women always notice.
“I was getting worried you were lost,” Alex says.
“I would have called but my cell phone is dead. And you know how it is. I had drinks last night with a reporter who was in Ramallah with me last year and then slept through the alarm so I rushed here as soon as I could.”
He’s late because he is hung over. How many times has he ruined their plans or wasted whole days because he was hung over? The Thanksgiving before her father died is at the top of the list. Then there was her college roommate’s wedding, and finally that last Valentine’s Day. Alex pushes the thoughts away and forces a smile. She doesn’t want to start with a fight. She decides not to ask if the reporter with whom he was drinking was a woman. It’s no longer any of her business. “How was Somalia?”
Berks shrugs. “Depressing, as you’d expect. Brutal—really, brutal. I shot some decent stuff, but they ran almost none of it. There’s a new editor at the magazine. I have to meet her in person. I don’t think she likes me.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Alex jokes. Something about the forced nonchalance of Berks’ shrug makes her suspect he’s truly upset. “She probably wants to sleep with you,” she adds.
But Berks doesn’t smile. “She told the agency I was more trouble than I was worth.”
“Sounds like she already did sleep with you,” Alex says, finally getting Berks to laugh.
“No,” he protests, “she’s pushing 50 and—” He abruptly closes his mouth, an embarrassed smile tugging at the corners.
I’m not anywhere near 50.” At 43, she’s not that far from it, though. And while the lines at the corners of her eyes are multiplying, she looks younger than she is.
“You are not old.” Berks smiles, an attempt to charm her. “This editor, she’s old. Mentally.”
“Give it up.” She shakes her head.
Berks reaches into his black canvas camera bag and pulls out a small box he offers her. Smudged black Arabic letters are stamped on top of a red and gold swirled pattern.
“Treasure from Somalia?” She leans in and sniffs. The box smells of soil and faintly of rotting fruit. She has never been to Somalia, but the scents bring memories of narrow, twisting market streets in Egypt and Jordan. Dark, crowded shops filled with perfume, briny olives, bright fabric, strange spices and gold so shiny it looks fake. Buried beneath the folds of a piece of faded cotton floral fabric inside the box is a pair of earrings: gold filigree with a deep green teardrop-shaped stone. They are so beautiful She can’t speak for a moment.
“You like them?”
“I can’t believe you can still buy pretty things there.”
“You can’t.” Berks laughs, revealing his crooked, yellowed teeth, his one serious physical flaw. Alex used to tell herself that it gave him a more European look. “The box had tobacco in it when I bought it in Mogadishu. I got the present at the airport in Paris. They’re meant to remind you of the color of the Mediterranean.” He looks at her through eyes half-closed, like a cat after it’s caught a mouse but before it’s killed it.
This was the subject of their first fight, a ridiculously fierce argument about whether the Mediterranean off the coast of the Italian volcanic island where they were staying was blue or green. It became a reference point over the years for their differences of opinion. Alex holds up the earrings to better admire them. “So sweet of you to remember that blue is my favorite color.” She is rewarded by his approving laugh.
As she slips on the earrings, Alex watches Berks survey the kitchen. He stares at the small appliances on the counter—an oversized juicer (hardly ever used) and a shiny cappuccino maker (often used.) Without realizing it, Alex has been holding her breath. Seeing it through his eyes, it is strange. The opulence and the comfort. When she and Martin moved here from Brooklyn, she felt as if she were fooling everyone, posing as a housewife with children. Now it feels normal, and her former life with Berks feels like it belongs to someone else.
“I guess Martin is doing all right.” Berks lifts his chin in a gesture meant to refer to the house and all its contents.
“Yes, great.” Alex is annoyed by the remark about her husband but doesn’t want to discuss her finances. Martin has his own law firm where he does a little of everything: wills, real estate, divorce, adoptions, and bankruptcy. A small inheritance from his parents has helped them through the leaner times, a fact Alex is careful to conceal from Berks and just about everyone.
“The town is cute too, but it’s so Norman Rockwell, it’s creepy. It’s a little freaky that you live in the middle of nowhere.”
“The Hudson Valley isn’t the middle of nowhere,” Alex protests. “It’s two and a half hours to New York—spitting distance from that dump of yours in Queens.”
“But it’s a long way from Kigali.”
“Everywhere is a long way from Kigali.” Alex shakes her head. The last time they shot together, 11 years ago, was in Rwanda. The photos flicker in her head. Lush green hills, covered with a dense canopy of trees. A dusty road, still in the blinding morning sun. Hastily abandoned thatched houses, smoking from smoldering fires. The flies, thunderous as they bob on and off the blackened blood stain on the yellow and orange dress of the dead teenage girl. The frightened eyes of the infant beside her, nursing.
She shakes the memories away and motions to the stool next to the counter. “Something to drink?”
“I suppose you drink wheat grass and eat only organic heirloom vegetables?”
“My body is my temple,” Alex replies archly and is immediately conscious of her body. It is not the same body Berks knew a decade ago, before she’d had children. Then she had the narrow hips of a boy, and with her flat chest and cropped hair, she’d often passed for one while working. She is no longer skinny; motherhood added curves she never imagined she’d possess. She’d spent a ridiculous amount of time deciding what to wear today, finally settling on jeans that are a little bit tight across her ass, distracting from the slight bulge above them, and a t-shirt that emphasizes her breasts, now much fuller.
“You probably go to yoga too,” he says.
“Pilates.” He’s uncertain if she’s joking, which pleases her. She’s never actually gone to a Pilates class. Mostly, she runs. “Would you like me to make you some wheat grass in the juicer? I hear it does wonders for Irritable Asshole Syndrome.”
He laughs, and as he throws back his head, she feels a sharp pain, a thin slice between two ribs, dangerously close to her lungs. She wants to grab his hair, the dark curls that will be coarse and a little greasy, and wind her fingers through them like she did when she was 23 and first in his thrall.
“Do you know,” Berks says, “I’ve known you half your life. Soon, I’ll have known you longer than I’ve not known you.”
He’s off by a couple of years, but she doesn’t correct him. The remarkable thing for Alex is that it’s now been eleven years since they broke up—longer, finally, than the decade they were together. “What makes you so sure you know me? Or ever really did?” But of course that was the problem. He had known her— too well.
“People do change,” Berks says, uncharacteristically grave, which makes her sad. The last time they saw each other, she’d gone to visit him in New York, after he’d returned from Iraq. He was sick, shaken and depressed in a way she’d never seen before. His translator’s wife and youngest son had been killed in a bombing at a market in Baghdad. The incident had garnered 250 words in the U.S. papers. She brought soup to his hotel room (he’d sublet his apartment so he couldn’t stay there) and then listened to him rant about the atrocities of war. Finally, after a couple of hours, she’d also listened to him weep over Sarah, his girlfriend of the last three years, who’d left him. Berks had had a fling in Baghdad with a TV producer, someone he didn’t even really like. Sarah had caught him cheating once before and given him a second chance, but she wouldn’t give him a third.
That night, it was a relief for Alex not to be talking or even thinking about Theo and Lucy. Lucy was 2 then and managed to consume nearly every waking moment of her days, though they passed with a pleasurable monotony. Berks’ stories, with their chaos, sadness and instability, affirmed her choice to drop out of that world. After a while, Alex put her head on Berks shoulder and fell asleep. They lay there sleeping for a couple of hours, as the car horns and police sirens and the world went about its busy afternoon. When she looked back on that day, it felt like a dream.
Berks studies the framed black and white photos above the kitchen table, pictures of her kids from several years ago. The photos are nearly abstract. One is of Lucy’s back, a white hill among the black sand at the volcanic beach in Maui. Another is of Lucy’s tiny feet juxtaposed next to Martin’s, the lines blurry beneath a couple inches of Cape Cod pond water.
“Where are the kiddies?” He asks. The word annoys Alex, but she tries to let it go. It was always easy to get furious at Berks over little things when she should have been angry with him for the big things.
“A neighbor took them to the local pool,” she says.
“Where’s my drink?” He asks as he finally slides onto a stool.
“Hair of the dog?” She pulls a bottle of Jamison from a cabinet above the stove and holds it up.
“I thought you’d never ask.” He grins.
She pours them each a shot. They clink glasses and Berks drains his quickly.
He stands. “Now, let’s see the photos.”
“I told you, you’ll hate them,” she warns. She’s knows he will hate them, but she’s curious to hear why. The only person she’s shown them to is Martin. “They’re interesting—layered,” Martin said. It was what she needed to hear then. But now she’s ready for something stronger, a proper critique. “Are you sure you don’t want another drink?” she asks.
“You’re stalling.” Berks turns and walks ahead of her through the hall toward her office.
Rudy trails after him. She and Martin met over a dog. She was looking at rental apartments in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood, after her fifth and final breakup with Berks. They’d been working far apart and fighting whenever they were together. And then he’d cheated on her, though he’d insisted it had happened during a narrow window when they were broken up. By then, it almost didn’t matter. Almost.
She was walking down the street, depressed both by the breakup and by the idea of living alone in a horrible apartment, when a dog darted out into the street from behind some trash cans. The dog was a small, tan pit bull, a new mother with two rows of heavy, drooping teats. Martin was driving down the street and couldn’t stop in time. He hit her. The dog, bleeding from her nose, ran toward Alex. She squatted down and scooped the dog up and then hopped into Martin’s car. “We have to find a vet,” Alex told him. They were silent, tense in the car ride as she held the dog close to her chest and murmured reassurances. The vet whisked the dog into surgery, leaving the two of them to wait. They talked for hours, until they were assured that the dog would recover. The next day they returned to the neighborhood and taped fliers up trying to find her owner. No one ever responded, so Martin adopted her. Honey, he called her. They married a year later.
In her office, Berks goes directly to the computer and stares at the pictures of the 1-year-old boy on the screen. He looks up, opens his mouth and closes it. He turns his head toward the window. Alex has been bracing herself for his criticism, but it still hurts. “Not those.” She steps between him and the computer and hands him the folder she’s prepared. On top of the small pile inside, the toddler from her computer is dancing a drunken, new-walker dance with the stuffed horse. His fierce scowl transforms what was an act of joy into a bizarre, frightening ritual. Berks spreads the photos across the desk. They all capture children at unguarded moments. The backgrounds are dark and blurry—dream-like. The kids though are in sharp focus, printed in high contrast with unnaturally saturated colors. Alex digitally manipulated the kids, subtly resizing a part of each child’s body. The little boy’s head is slightly too big. In another photo of twin girls, one stares blankly off into space, her eyes unnaturally large. The other leans over with an elongated arm to pick up a crumpled rag doll. The changes are not immediately apparent, but the shift in proportions gives a sense of ominous disharmony. Or so she hopes.
She watches Berks study the photos, sometimes picking up the prints with his sun-darkened, chapped hands, and she feels relieved. A friend once asked her how she could live with a man with whom she was always in competition. She had a hard time explaining to her that she liked the competition. As Berks stands there, his left hip jutting out in a familiar, oddly feminine way, she’s glad he is taking the work seriously, even if he doesn’t like the photos.
“Interesting.” Berks uncocks his head and turns to look directly at her. “But of course, I think you are wasting your talent. You don’t need to manipulate photos. You’re talented enough to shoot what’s in front of you.”
“What’s in front of me are children.” Alex nods toward the computer. “But you hate pictures of children.”
“Commercial portraits, of course.”
“Documentary ones too. Sally Mann, what did you call her? A housewife with too much time on her hands?”
Berks laughs. “Did I say that? It’s true.”
“No, it’s not.” Alex tries to keep the creeping tone of annoyance out of her voice. Of course, anger was what fueled their passion half the time. And remembering that intensity makes her miss it. She wonders what it would be like to be touched again by hands that don’t feel as if they are repeating movements so familiar they could be doing them in their sleep. Hands that don’t expect you to be there tomorrow. She forces herself to take her eyes off of Berks’ hands.
“I like your old work and there were children in those photos,” Berks says crossly. “In fact, your crowning achievement was a photo of a child. But it was a news photo.” Berks sets the folder on the desk. “It’s the intent. You know that.”
“And what is the intent you see in these photos?” Alex gestures to the folder, chasing away the voice in the back of her head that tells her Berks is right. “Or fail to see in my photos?”
“You know what I’m talking about,” says Berks. “I know your photos. Your photos were raw and real. These—I understand you are trying to talk about hidden wounds or something, but they’re contrived. I can see them hanging on a gallery wall, Alex, but is that really what you want? To make arty photos?”
“What’s so terrible about arty photos?”
Berks shakes his head. “You don’t have the slightest regret about selling out?”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Alex protests.
“Come on. You’ve got this cushy home filled with expensive things. You take pictures of rich people’s kids in contrived settings. And then, later, you add your own fantasies. It’s not real. Babies aren’t about this.” He waves a hand at the photos spread across the desk. “Or this.” He points to the photo of the boy on the computer. “Babies are about shitty diapers and screaming and mess.”
“Babies? You’re telling me about babies?”
“Don’t give me that crap, Alex. People can understand things even if they don’t directly experience them.”
“You have no idea what babies are about.”
“And neither do you, Alexandra, outside your upper class, white, American suburban life,” Berks retorts. He’s using her full name to bait her. She’s always hated it—how formal it is. But he doesn’t need to call her that to get her angry—she already is.
“It has nothing to do with class,” Alex growls. “It has to do with feelings.” She’s trying not to shout. “Babies, all babies, are about hunger, love, sadness, joy. Babies are about expressing real feelings, not keeping them buried. Babies are all the existential stuff you espouse but don’t really feel because you have to put it away to capitalize on other people’s feelings.”
“That’s a justification.” Berks’ mouth is tight, his lips set in a mean line. “You traded something real for this. This suburban mom thing. You had something important and you gave it away. You shut it up. Is it still in there?” He pushes a finger against her chest, bone on bone.
Alex shakes her head. “Why can’t you stop thinking about the photo?” The photo, her “crowning achievement,” as Berks always refers to it, is a picture of a mother and a baby. Months before they broke up for the final time, Alex shot it for a magazine story about the effects of the allied bombing in the no-fly zone in Northern Iraq. It won the Foreign Press Association’s highest award the following year. The photo was of a woman bending to place a flower before a makeshift shrine in a cave that had been used as a bomb shelter. She had a horribly disfigured baby wrapped in a cloth on her back. Its tiny eyes were sunken slits beneath an oversized forehead. Its mouth was open in a scream, a huge circle of black taking up most of its face. Above the clutch of flickering candles was the shadow of a person, a woman carrying a baby. The figure had been fixed forever against the wall as a result of the blast from a U.S. plane that dropped a bomb on the shelter in Al-Amiriyah. The U.S. mistakenly believed the four hundred people inside were part of a military group. Alex’s photos documented the shrine and the hundreds of children living in the no-fly zone who were deformed or dying of leukemia from what was allegedly depleted uranium in the bombs left littering the countryside.
“It was more than a decade ago, Berks.”
Alex forces herself to unclench her teeth. If she closes her eyes and reaches into her memory, she can remember the thrilling feel of taking that photo, of publishing it, of winning the award. She’d been sickened though by the realization that her career had been boosted by others’ pain and suffering. Taking photos filled her with such intense highs and lows. But that was a long time ago now, and a lot of other things have happened in her life. And in the world. “No one even remembers it,” she tells him.
Berks turned down the assignment so he could go to Kosovo, where the war was beginning. He’d recommended Alex for the job. They never spoke about that, but it was always part of this conversation.
“Jesus, Alex—that doesn’t matter. You uncovered something no one wanted to see. Something no one in America was paying attention to. That photo was seen by thousands of people. It forced people to acknowledge what was happening.”
“We’ve been through this, more than once.” Alex purses her lips.
“You wanted to do something in the world, to make it better, and you did,” Berks continues. “You of all people can claim to have done so. That’s why it’s hard to see you doing this now—making happy baby pictures of rich people’s kids.”
“People need a little joy in their lives, Berks, a little happiness now and then. Including me,” Alex says wearily. “I’ve told you, I couldn’t take it anymore. It would have consumed me.” She’s repeated this enough times that it sounds like a lie—a line memorized for a play. But it is true.
“That photo was brilliant. I don’t understand how it could make you quit.”
It wasn’t actually that photo that made her quit. Alex has told him this many times before, but Berks has a way of remembering what fits his narrative. The photo casts a shadow over everything she did and still does. It defines her. Alex shakes her head. “Sometimes, I wish I had never gone there, never taken any of those photos.”
“I wish to God I had,” Berks replies.
“Me too,” Alex snaps. It’s not true that she wishes she’d never taken the photo. But Berks always twists what she says. It still makes her furious. “If you’d taken it, then maybe you wouldn’t still be hustling misery to an American public who doesn’t give a shit and mistreating a string of girlfriends because you’re impotent to change the world.”
Berks shifts from one foot to the other and stares at her.
She hadn’t meant to say it, but she isn’t going to apologize.
“I’ve made some bad calls personally, but I do not think devoting your life, risking your life, to exposing the atrocities American tax dollars are helping to pay for, is anything to apologize for,” Berks says slowly.
“No, it’s not,” she agrees, turning away. The street outside her office window is just as still and quiet as before. It astonishes her how quickly she and Berks can get back to this place, years later. And it annoys her how jealous he is that she won the press association award that year even though he’s won a pile of prestigious awards.
“I never meant to hurt you,” Berks says quietly. “And I’ve changed, Alex. I really have.”
She nods slowly, but she doesn’t trust herself to speak. He will hear the disbelief in her voice.
Berks gently pulls on her shoulder until she turns to face him. “I don’t envy Martin this.” He grins. “You were always good at fighting. You always knew where to aim your blows.”
“Martin and I never fight.” Alex sits on the sofa in the office. She looks out the side window. The red dahlias in the garden along the fence separating her property from the neighbor’s house bloomed early and now look as if they have exploded, stems drooping toward the ground with their heavy blooms.
“So what does he do when you blow up at him?” Berks asks.
“I never blow up at Martin. That only happens when I’m with you.” She folds her arms across her chest. That isn’t the truth and Berks knows it. The truth is, she does sometimes yell at Martin when they have a disagreement, but he rarely gets angry in return. “The few times it’s happened,” Alex says, “Martin says very rationally that he’s sorry I’m upset and then says, ‘Let’s try to figure out what to do about this.’”
“But of course, that drives you crazy.” Berks sits down on the sofa next to her.
She laughs. “Yes, it does.” She feels a twinge of guilt, as if she’s betraying Martin in confessing this. But in truth it was also what had attracted her to him. She was tired of fighting all the time.
“We’re soul mates, baby.” Berks grins. “Time doesn’t change that.” He takes her hand in his and spells out the word on her palm with the tip of his finger. It was a mode of communication they’d established when they first met.
Soul mates. Martin had never claimed to be her soul mate—he probably didn’t believe in soul mates but she guesses he would object to Berks casually claiming the role. Martin won’t admit it, but he doesn’t like Berks. And while he has silently tolerated their visits and the late night phone calls over the years, he avoids Berks if he can.
Berks glances at his watch. “I’ve got to run.”
“I thought you were staying for dinner?”
“No, I’ve got to be in New York by 6.”
“Oh, come on,” Alex says. “Your agent or your editor or your girlfriend— whoever it is—can wait a little longer.”
“Actually,” Berks says looking uncertain and then gripping her arm so hard, she’s afraid he’s going to tell her he’s dying. “It’s my fiancé. I’m engaged to this amazing woman, Mai, and she’s flying into JFK tonight.”
Alex opens her mouth to say congratulations, but nothing comes out.
“I wanted to tell you in person. I’ve finally found her. The one. I’m truly tired of my old life and ready for this,” Berks says.
“How long have you known her?” Alex asks.
“Almost five months. She’s Moroccan though she grew up in France. She’s fearless. She’s a photographer as well. She’s more reckless and ambitious than me.”
“If she’s so fierce, can’t she handle JFK on her own?” Alex tries to sound light but knows she sounds cranky.
“She’s never been to New York. And I haven’t seen her in three weeks.” Berks gushes like a teenage girl. If they haven’t seen each other in three weeks, that means they’ve only known each other four months, Alex calculates.
“How old is she?” She tries to make the question sound as casual as she can.
“Twenty-three. But she’s an old soul.”
That’s how old Alex was when they first met in the West Bank during the First Intifada. “She’s twenty-three and ready for marriage?” Alex keeps her tone arch, as if she’s amused. “Marriage isn’t too conventional for her?”
“She needs something stable in her life. She comes from a crazy family—her parents were very religious but she rejected that life. She has no home, like me. She says I’ll be her touchstone.”
“Touchstone,” Alex murmurs. Not soul mate, but touchstone. Maybe he has really changed. For years he’d tell her about his girlfriends with a sarcastic, distanced bravado.
Berks missed her wedding. He was on assignment in the West Bank, covering the Second Intifada. She wasn’t sure if he’d made up the excuse because he didn’t want to come, or if he’d wanted to make it clear what he thought was more important. Probably both. “When are you getting married?”
“We’re not sure yet. Maybe Christmas. It won’t be anything big. Then I’m moving to Paris. We’re going to live in her apartment.”
Alex smiles, but she wants to scream. She and Berks had always talked of moving to Paris. Instead, they ended up in a dark apartment with peeling linoleum floors and a mildewed bathroom in Jersey City. The neighborhood was dangerous and despite Alex’s wartime toughness she was uncomfortable going out alone at night. It made her feel like a prisoner. Berks convinced her it was worth the cheap rent since they were both away so much, but she considered it one of the biggest mistakes of their relationship. It isn’t right that Berks has taken their mutual dream and made it his and someone else’s, even if she’s the one who left him, long ago, to make a new life with someone else.
“Does she know what a slob you are?” Alex asks. “Remember that time someone broke into your apartment, and you didn’t realize it for a couple of days because the place was already such a mess?”
“This time it’s different,” Berks says. “I know, I know—I’ve had some crazy relationships and they’ve ended badly.”
“They’ve all ended badly.” Alex thinks back over the three or four relationships he’s had since theirs. There have been clothes thrown from windows, drunken rages leading to lamps smashed against walls and a lot of personal property stolen. “Have you had any relationships where you haven’t cheated?”
“I’m different. She’s different. We’re different together. I can’t wait for you to meet her. You’ll see.” Berks squirms and grins. He’s almost gleeful. He checks his watch and rises. “I’m driving straight to JFK, so I better get going.”
“I thought you hated picking people up from the airport.” Alex is ashamed to be saying this, but she can’t stop herself. She isn’t ready for him to leave.
“See—I am different,” he says as he turns toward the hall.
Alex looks at the photos spread across her desk, tossed there when Berks was done with them. He spent less time looking at her work than talking about his girlfriend. She neatens the photos into a pile and puts them back in the folder. Berks is already at the back door. He’s standing, waiting for her with his heavy camera bag over his shoulder.
“I’ll call you,” Berks says. “We’ll figure out a time you can come to New York. One last time before I’m a married man.” He leans in to kiss her goodbye. There is an awkward moment when they move their heads in different directions, before his kiss lands on her mouth. His lips are soft and richly textured, just like they used to be.
The front door bangs open and Theo yells, “I call the bathroom first.” A door bangs and Lucy squeaks something unintelligible.
Berks yanks his head back. “I’ve got to run,” he whispers as he slips out the back door. The truck engine coughs to life and squeals as Berks pulls out of the driveway, Alex touches her cheek and thinks about his lips: full, crooked, pressing.
Elizabeth Amon is an award-winning journalist and has also worked as a photojournalist. Her work has been published in “The New York Times,” “Harper’s Magazine,” “The American Lawyer” and “Bloomberg News” among others.
She graduated from Oberlin College and received an M.A. in creative writing from City College. She’s been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and a Soros Fellowship for her writing.
–This award is Elizabeth’s first literary prize for fiction.–
"Hair of the Dog" © 2016 Elizabeth Amon