Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2021    poetry    all issues

Cover of Fiction Summer 2021


Diana Akhmetianova

Michael Kozart

Emily Hancock
Catching Tadpoles

Anastasia Carrow

Ronita Sinha
Leaving Behind

Travis Lee
A Mermaid's Garden

Broderick Eaton
Ann, Without

Olivier FitzGerald
The Woodfall Home

D.E. Hardy
Media Studies

Ashleigh Catsos
Black Beans

Parker Fendler
Three Dollar Ticket to Happiness

Elizabeth Lyvers

Jeffrey S. Chapman
The Bikini

Mary Tharin

Joey Porcelli
Parachute Drop

Writer's Site

Mary Tharin


The waiter with the short ponytail appears next to my table.

“Back again, signora?”

I muster a smile that I hope looks sincere, then nod and order a macchiato. The waiter disappears into the cafe and I wonder what he must think of me. The American with grown-out bangs, puffy from the humidity, who has sat alone at this sidewalk table every day for a week. He probably assumes I’m an aimless tourist with no agenda and a fondness for over-roasted espresso. He can’t know that I chose this table for its view of the building across the street.

The building is the color of a raw egg yolk. Green shutters jut from its windows, flower boxes burst with geraniums and dangling ivy. Varnish peels from window frames and stucco has chipped away in erratic patches, exposing faded brick below. The building is elegantly stressed, like those effortless women who look flawless in old T-shirts and tattered jeans. I am not one of those women.

On the first day, I walked straight up to the door and scanned the bronze nameplates on the wall. The bottom name on the right made me catch my breath, and I pressed the shiny button next to it. Nothing happened. I tried again, holding the button longer. Still nothing. After the fourth try, I became aware of the people walking past. Of the security camera pointing down at me. Of how odd I must look, lingering there on the doorstep.

I have not been back to the door since. Instead, every afternoon I sit and watch it for several hours with a leather-bound notebook open in front of me to defray suspicion. In it I’ve jotted down some things I might say to the man who lives in that building.

How have you been?

Are you pleased surprised to see me?

When did you leave Rome?

How was your last tour?

Do you remember when we used to sit at cafes like this one all afternoon?

Do you ever think of me?

Next to each line I’ve copied down the Italian translation, supplied by an app on my phone. But Alberto will do all the talking. He could squeeze conversation from a stone.

Meeting Alberto was how I learned that some people could make you fall for them without any effort. On that night fifteen years ago when I first saw him perform, he mesmerized the whole crowd in that smoke-filled underground bar with just three words into the mic. After his first song everyone whistled and cheered, spilling beer on the floor. It didn’t even matter that he couldn’t sing the highest notes.

Alberto thought I was exotic. Really I was disoriented, far from home, and willing to be whatever he wanted. At least for a while. The glossy photos of our time together are tucked in a box somewhere, but I can picture him sitting across this small round table, guitar case propped against the cafe wall. Dark messy hair, flannel shirt and ripped jeans. He would appreciate that I came here to find him, that I didn’t write or call first. He loved spontaneity; most people bored him. I was more adventurous when we were together. I could do that again.

I think of another question and pick up my pen.

Did you hear about the—

“Scandal” sounds too dramatic. But it’s the most appropriate word. Scandalo. I copy it into the translation column.

At the click of a latch—a sound to which I have become singularly attuned—I drop the pen and look up. The door of the building across the street opens and a woman stands there, her back framed in the rectangle of empty space. A long cotton dress the color of marigolds swishes around her calves. I slump down in my chair and watch her prop the door open with her hip. She pulls a stroller across the threshold and swings it around, then down the shallow steps. The wheels jostle as the bulky contraption bounces from stone to stone. The infant hidden inside starts to scream.

Maybe there’s no such thing as an effortless woman.

On the evening of Symbal’s IPO gala, the venture capital guys clustered around me, cooing their congratulations. They were all wearing patterned bowties that seemed somehow mocking, and they were only talking to me because they couldn’t find my husband.

“Preston’s done a brilliant job positioning the company,” one of them said.

I tightened my grip on my champagne flute. Yes, sure, my husband spent four years leveraging his connections into meetings with musicians and big-label executives. But I was the one who’d “positioned” the company. I’d led the analysis of the music-streaming market, drafted the business plan, spent late nights reviewing UI specs with engineers. I’d signed the lease on this building, designed its open-office concept. I’d even planned this stupid party.

But I was familiar with the looks I’d get if I pointed this out—the widened eyes, raised brows, sideways glances. So I stayed quiet and flashed a cheerful, acquiescent smile that was fine with everyone. They didn’t expect me to say much.

“Sonia, can I have a word?” Tessa was behind me, a tablet tucked under her arm. She always knew when I wanted to be interrupted. We escaped the knot of bowties and I followed her to an empty corner of the rooftop terrace. The sun was setting over the Bay, diffusing the fog with a dusty mauve tint.

“Preston was scheduled to start his speech five minutes ago,” Tessa whispered, though no one was close enough to overhear. The salty wind brought a slight flush to her cheeks.

“Ok, thanks. I’ll find him.” I downed the last of my champagne and cringed as the bubbles climbed up my nasal passages.

“I think—” she trailed off, pressing her lips into a pale line.

“Is something wrong?”

“No.” Her eyes went from her watch to the sky to her shoes. “I think you should check his office.”

I had espresso machines installed in Symbal’s employee kitchens as a nostalgic nod to my semester in Rome. But no one knew how to use them, so they were always clogging and spewing coffee-scented sludge all over the minimalist office decor. Eventually they had to be removed and replaced with Keurig machines.

“It feels like a personal defeat,” I told Preston on the balcony of our twentieth-floor SOMA apartment one grey Sunday morning. He sat across from me, legs stretched long beneath the table so I had to tuck mine back, holding a vape pen in one hand and his phone in the other. He glanced at me and flashed that perfect, triangular smile. “You’re so cute when you try.”

Down on the Bay, container ships the length of city blocks crept past each other through the fog.

“You shouldn’t use that so much,” I said.

“This?” He looked at the vape as if he’d forgotten it was there. “Jesus, Sonia. You need to lighten up.”

This was our dynamic. I told myself it was healthy. Preston was the yin to my yang, the chill half of the power couple. It had been that way from the beginning, in business school, where he’d been the ultimate catch. A man who radiated confidence, but who managed to stay endearingly self-effacing. Never in a hurry, because life moved on his schedule. Everyone had wanted to be in Preston’s orbit, to revel in a bit of his reflected glow. I was simply the most determined. I sidled up to him at every bar during every happy hour and class mixer. I drove him home when he got too drunk to stand. I helped him pass his classes. I never flinched when he slept with other women, when he told me he loved me one day, then disappeared the next. I needed that glow.

“I don’t understand what you’re asking.”

Nine men in suits shifted uneasily around a long oval table. They’d put me at the head, in the seat closest to the door. Beyond the boardroom’s glass walls, sea and sky blurred together in a haze of amber, the color of marine layer and slanting sunlight. No blue at all.

A week had passed since the first allegation went public, and the harassment claims against Preston were now blooming like mushrooms. It had started with his assistant, the one I’d found leaving his office the night of the gala. If I hadn’t seen her face at the exact moment she’d shut the door behind her, I might not have believed the report. But that expression—that mix of disbelief and anger and shame—left no room for doubt.

Preston resigned four days later and flew to his family’s beachfront property in Mexico. He didn’t ask if I wanted to go with him. Anyway, I didn’t. I had to stay and manage the fallout.

“The Board thinks it would be better if you took a step back.”

“Back where?”

Furtive looks flitted around the table.

“Sonia,” said the suit next to me. “We’re asking you to leave Symbal.”

Each meaningless word spoken after that, along with every intervening sound and pained expression, carved itself into my memory like a cave etching.

“It’s a matter of optics. People associate you with Preston. You two are a . . . package. With him gone, and all the mess in the news, the Board feels it’s better for the company if you step away.”

“But it’s my company.”

A pause, more glances.

“Not anymore.”

Another pause.

“The Board has already voted. We have to do what’s best for the shareholders.”

A cough.

“If you’d like to collect your things from your office, Tessa will escort you.”

My singular thought as I left the room was that I would not cry. I would not.

“They want me to watch while you pack up,” Tessa said, standing just inside the door of what had been my office. “I’m not going to do that. Just buzz me when you’re done and I’ll walk you out.”

I descended into the ergonomic desk chair. “Tessa—”

She shifted her eyes to mine. It seemed to take great effort.

“I’m glad you decided to stay.”

Her lips tightened and she nodded.

“But . . .” I couldn’t say ‘I thought we were friends.’ It was too pathetic.

Tessa’s accusation against Preston had come out last, a miserable coda to the parade of horrors that had kept me awake all week. I didn’t know the other women well, but this was my Tessa. The bright woman I’d plucked from the intern pool, the one I’d been grooming. Grooming for what, I wondered. Maybe for something she never wanted.

“Why didn’t you tell me?” I asked finally.

A flash of contempt crossed her face. I shrank back and my eyes fell to the desk. Then I heard her sigh. “For a while,” she said, “I forgot who I was.”

I couldn’t look up. I heard the door close, the click of her heels fade.

Of course I’d known something was wrong. But when Preston started coming home late, making excuses about meetings that I knew weren’t real, I told myself he was just blowing off steam. And when six months passed without the barest hint of intimate contact between us, I told myself it was the stress. Once we got past the IPO, we would be better.

On the night I woke up to the heat of my husband’s body on top of mine, it had been months since we’d so much as held hands. The sensation of him pressing into me had a far-off quality, and I thought at first I was dreaming. But his hand clamped my hip, and the pain was real. I lay still and waited for him finish. The glow of the alarm clock caught his eyes staring at some spot on the wall far above my head.

I felt no shock, no anger. Only gratitude. That he still wanted me. That I remained worthy.

It wasn’t until after the sun had seeped through the blinds, when I was in the shower, a longer one than usual, rubbing the loofa absently back and forth across my stomach, that I remembered about the tampon. I squatted under the spray of the shower and tried to find the braided string. I forced myself not to panic, to let my muscles relax, so that I could reach up and claw it out. Finally the finger-sized hunk of cotton emerged, curved and solid crimson like a sickle cell. I choked back a sob while water and blood swirled around my feet and into the drain.

I should have said something, then, there. I should have shrieked, thrown things, slapped his face, torn the curtains, burned the building to the ground.

But I didn’t make a sound. Because I knew what he would say. So he got a little carried away. I was his wife, wasn’t I? And anyway, I hadn’t objected.

Lighten up.

I scrape the last of the milk foam from the bottom of the little white cup. It’s sweet with a hint of bitterness at the finish. The shadows of the table legs have stretched and thinned, marking the hour to switch from coffee to wine. Tables around me are filling with old men sipping grappa and teenagers ordering their first evening spritz.

It wasn’t strictly ethical to look up Alberto’s home address. But after Preston’s tornado-like destruction of everything in his path, I felt entitled to one small transgression. In those last few minutes before my accounts and passwords were deleted forever, I found him in Symbal’s client database. I scribbled a street, number, and town onto the back of an old receipt, folded it twice, and tucked into my wallet before Tessa escorted me out.

“Can I get you anything else, signorina?” The waiter smiles down at me, a black tray balancing on his tented fingers. I return his smile and think, not for the first time, that he must know where Alberto is. The man is a celebrity now, and this is a small town. With a simple question I could put an end to this desperate crusade. The idea exhilarates me for one thrilling heartbeat, then passes. This chair, that door; without them I’m lost.

“No, grazie.”

Waiter, tray, and cup disappear. I stack a trio of coins on the table but don’t get up. Around me the street buzzes as a human tide shifts from work to home. Bicycles rattle across flat, square cobblestones arranged in imprecise rows. Locks click and wooden shutters bang open. I close my eyes. Someone is playing a violin in the piazza and the sound stretches through the air like taffy. The wobbling, imperfect notes hit me in waves until I almost cry. It would be so much better if I could. Instead I sit rigid, adhered to this chair, trying to gain back some echo of what I’ve lost.

A voice pierces the suffusion of sound and I wonder, again, if I am dreaming. The staccato words, too fast to comprehend, punctuate the clattering wheels of a suitcase. I don’t need to turn around to know it’s Alberto. But, anyway, I do.

He’s wearing a bluetooth in his ear and big, square sunglasses. His hair is slick like lacquer, his white linen shirt matches his pants. The teenagers at the table beside me elbow each other, lift their phones to snap photos. Alberto doesn’t notice them. Or me. A cigarette balances on the edge of his lip, forcing him to speak from the side of his mouth. I told him over and over that he should quit. Each time he’d say the same thing. Lasciati andare.

Lighten up.

At the door he pauses and fishes into his pocket. Then, in one sweeping movement, the door is open and he is through. I feel the subtle quake of it shutting, like a train passing beneath my feet.

The notebook lies open in front of me, full of desperate words repeating themselves. One by one, I tear out each inked sheet. I crumple the paper into little balls. I toss them in the ashtray to mix with the burnt-out remnants of things spent. When I tuck the notebook into my bag, only ruffled strips of frayed pulp and blank pages remain. I stand, and decide I’ll follow the cobbled street to where it curves up toward the piazza. A place I’ve not yet seen.

Mary Tharin is a former attorney from the San Francisco Bay Area who now lives in Italy. Her work has appeared in Five on the Fifth and Collective Realms Magazine. She is currently working on her first novel. You can find her on Twitter @MaryTharin or Instagram @bymarytharin.

Dotted Line