Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Summer 2018    poetry    all issues

Summer 2018 Cover


Cover Michael Lønfeldt

Emily Rinkema
Child A

Alice Martin
A Hole to Nowhere

Fan Li
Dromedaries in America

Judy Colp Rubin
The Crossing

Rebeccah Dean
Forgotten Dreams

Marianne Stokes

K. Ralph Bray

Zoë Däe
Bugs Under a Spaghetti Strainer

Charles J. Alden
Double Feature

Ateret Haselkorn

M. M. Ehasz
A Shanghai Concession

Kitty Bleak
Sooner or Later

Barbara Fischer
From the Gentlemen at the Bar

Wendy Cohan
The Sweetness of Cowboys

Judith Colp Rubin

The Crossing

The delay was almost an hour. The absence of air conditioning, or any kind of ventilation, combined with the menopausal heat to stain Mira’s T-shirt. She drank mineral water from a large bottle and felt the downward flow pressing against her bladder. But she didn’t think you were supposed to use the toilet if the train was lodged in the station. Outside, train after train pulled away for destinations unknown. Norm would have gotten off long ago after complaining about Italy’s failed economy, the validity of ethnic stereotypes, and the folly of romanticized travel. She would have followed him.

Now she stayed put. The face to face blue vinyl seats, sticky from the heat, seated four passengers. They unfolded into a bed and above each one was another bed. When she had booked a so-called couchette, Mira had imagined the compartment attaining a slumber party atmosphere. That she was the sole occupant—the train was nonstop—made her feel foolish and lonely. Maybe she should have asked Ben to accompany her. But she hadn’t wanted to bring him as her escort for the wedding. Besides, she liked the idea of traveling amongst strangers, of being alone but not actually alone.

Mira tried to get interested in reading from her frayed copy of The Odyssey. But a headache made it impossible to concentrate. She took out some postcards purchased at the station. One showed a photo of the enlarged front of a gleaming Trenitalia train rambling down a track as if it were about to crash into the viewer. She scrawled a message on the back: “Sitting on the night train bound for Sicily.” She then wrote her home address. Sending a postcard to herself was an old habit. As a teenager when she received a postcard of a sun setting over pristine water, she was reminded of the best parts of that trip to the Bahamas, not the fight with her sister or the jellyfish sting.

Another half hour passed. Finally, without warning, the train jerked forward. The electricity snapped on and cool air flowed into the compartment. The train departed the station slowly, like a runner getting his footing, and then increased speed until it settled into a steady rocking motion. Through the encroaching darkness, Mira made out sooty and crumbling buildings, patches of weeds littered with empty pasta boxes, bottles, plastic bags. Gone was the elegance of the Spanish Steps, the designer stores lining the Via Condotti and the tiered grandeur of the Coliseum. Now, there was just the uniform ugliness of poverty.

Sliding open the door, she treaded along the rumbling corridor to the toilet. Behind the other compartment doors were ebony-skinned, lanky Africans in colorful prints, women in hijab and shapeless long dress coats, or hard-faced children toting enormous bags that engulfed them.

How far this all seemed from the Italy she’d fallen in love with almost 40 years ago. Back then the country was filled with young men in tight pants with hair black as shoe polish, all looking like Al Pacino. Women tottered on spiky high heels with gold crucifixes bouncing around their exposed cleavage. That was summer following her freshman year in college when heartache—an unexpected break-up with Howard, the pre-Med she was dating—prompted Mira to buy an unlimited Eurail pass which took her all over the continent. She met her counterparts from around the world: Australians on leisurely seven-month tours of the continent; Germans outfitted with sturdy sandals and so-called rucksacks who were efficient and thrifty; Iranians who had fled the revolution and were living as refugees in Paris or Turkey wondering if they would ever be able to return home.

Mira traveled solo with no set itinerary. She loved the freedom of jumping spontaneously from country to country. And she let herself go sexually on that trip, sleeping with several men, including those she never would have considered back home such as the high school dropout turned U.S. soldier stationed in Heidelberg. This was the age before AIDS. The most to be feared was getting pregnant or a bad reputation. But she was on the pill and no one had a reputation while traveling.

Only once had it been scary. She had been on a night train somewhere in Spain when a middle-aged Frenchman seated next to her started rubbing her thigh. She bolted up and ran into the café car where she spent the rest of a sleepless night. But a few days later she had flirted with a good-looking Israeli on a train in France and had had sex with him in the bathroom. It was fun to feel desired, come together and then separate. Never before, or since, had comings and goings been so easy.

The toilet was filthy. Others had clearly not waited until the train moved. Mira willed herself not to look into the hole as she enjoyed the relief of uncorked pressure. When she returned to the compartment, she found she was no longer alone. There was a young man sitting opposite her seat, having apparently spent the delay elsewhere. He was slight, wearing frayed jeans and a simple blue T-shirt. Around his plastic sandaled feet was an oversized and overstuffed nylon bag with holes crudely patched over with tape. He looked to be in his mid to late-20s, younger than her only child. His face had that unblemished look of youth coated with a soft olive sheen—darker than most Italians—with the faint outline of a mustache. Thick dark hair fell into his eyes; if she was his mother she would have told him to get a haircut. There was a weathered look about his appearance as if he had experienced life beyond his years.

Mira smiled at him in greeting. He nodded wordlessly. But did she detect curiosity? She wasn’t sure as he turned toward the window, although there was nothing to see because of the darkness. They might have been anywhere, even on the Metro.

With her headache now gone, Mira opened The Odyssey. At the private school where she taught English she had successfully fought to get the classic once again included in the ninth-grade syllabus. She believed that teenagers should be pushed to come out of their comfort zone with books.

The young man looked with interest at the book’s cover showing a drawing of ancient Greek warriors armed with shields, arrows, and swords; fallen soldiers splayed around their feet. When Mira’s eyes caught him, he turned toward the window again. She put down her book. She had always been good at making small talk with strangers, although Norm had discouraged it.

“Do you speak English?” Mira asked.

He smiled widely as if she’d opened the right door.

“Yes, yes, I speak English.”

“Are you Italian?”

“I am Albanian. And you, where are you from? England?”

“No, the United States.”

“The United States of America?” His voice rose even more in obvious appreciation.

“That’s right.”

“Oh, this is a wonderful country, best country.”

“Thank you,” said Mira, unsure how else to respond.

“Which part? Which part of America, please?”

“Washington, D.C.”

“The capital. Most important place in most important country.”

She felt personally complimented. “My name is Mira. What’s yours?”

He straightened up as if making a formal presentation. “My name is Ardit.”

“Does that name have a meaning in your language?”

“Yes, golden day.”

“How lovely.”

The compartment door opened, and the conductor staggered into the compartment. He towered over them, reeking of cigarettes and impatience.

Biglietti,” the conductor said.

Mira realized that she’d forgotten to remove her ticket from the money pouch hidden under her shirt. She could imagine Norm sneering at her rookie mistake in security. As she tried to discretely fish out the pouch the conductor’s eyes passed over her body. After he made holes in her ticket, the conductor turned to Ardit who got to his feet and reached into his jeans pocket, revealing a swatch of downy bare skin but no ticket. Ardit spent several seconds searching his pockets but still came up empty-handed. Mira saw the conductor glaring at him with visible impatience. Finally, to her relief, Ardit produced a crumpled ticket. Wordlessly, but still clearly sneering, the conductor scrutinized it and then punched the holes. Then the conductor turned toward Mira.

“Madame, you want me help you sleep?”

“Excuse me?” Was he propositioning her? Here? Now?

“Private sleeper. I get you one. 70 Euros. You want?”

“Oh no, that won’t be necessary,” she said, feeling foolish at her misunderstanding. “I’m quite comfortable here.”

“Private cabin better, no?”

She shook her head again, annoyed at his persistence. The conductor shrugged, perhaps assuming she couldn’t afford it even though her money pouch bulged with Euros. But she was not taking this trip just to be sequestered in a private cabin.

The conductor slid open the compartment door and it clanged shut behind him. Mira reattached her money belt under her shirt.

“Goodness, he wasn’t very friendly,” Mira said.

“Italians, they don’t like Albanians. He feel, how do you say, he feel he must protect you.”

How absurd that anyone would think she looked like a woman who needed protecting.

“Where did you learn to speak English?” she asked.

“I study in university.”

“What did you study?”


“Do you work as an engineer?”

“No, not possible in Italy. Please, may I ask? You come to Italy for holiday?”

“In a way. I’m going to a wedding.”

“Wedding? You have Italian friends?”

“No, my son is getting married.”

“He marry Italian?”

How did one explain to this young Albanian the concept of a destination wedding? Aaron had insisted it was both his and Serena’s idea. But Mira suspected her future daughter-in-law had talked her son into it. She had wanted to like Serena, whom Aaron had met less than six months ago at some party. But Serena wanted an oversized engagement ring and a down payment on a McMansion in Potomac which Mira knew was beyond their means. Neither Serena nor her parents talked about anything except material things. Dislike of Serena was one of the few subjects she and Norm had ever agreed upon so fully. Both knew, in that heartbreaking way parents know, that their only child’s pending marriage was doomed.

“His future wife is American, but she thought it would be fun to marry in Sicily.”

“Please, may I ask? Why you take train to Sicily? Better for you, I think, to take airplane.”

Others had said the same. Ben had emailed her several articles describing the horrible conditions of the Rome to Palermo train. Serena had expressed concern, albeit not to her directly, that Mira wouldn’t be able to sleep on the train and look “haggard” in the wedding photos. Norm had put it the most bluntly: “What middle-aged and middle-class American woman in her right mind takes a 13-hour night train?”

Several years ago, during a trip she hoped would revive their sinking marriage, she suggested taking the night train from Paris to Nice. Norm, the economist, lectured her about the illogicalness of train travel during the age of airline de-regularization. When she said that trains were romantic and exciting, Norm rolled his eyes. “There’s nothing romantic or exciting about wasted time,” he said.

Only Aaron had understood why she wanted to take this train trip.

“Sounds like fun,” he said.

She thought there was a wistfulness in his voice.

“Come with me,” she said.

He laughed. “Serena would kill me.”

When Aaron was a preteen she had taken him on a road trip during spring break while Norm was abroad. They visited Civil War battlefields and small towns where people spoke with thick accents. Once they ate at a diner with knotty pine wall paneling and a most curious installation hanging upside from the ceiling: a circular table set for a meal alongside two hard-backed chairs. She and Aaron had both found delightful this mirror image of where they were eating.

When she called Norm that evening to tell him about the diner, he seemed uninterested. Then she said they would drive all the way to Charleston, South Carolina. He argued that it was “a bit much” and tried to talk her out of it. After she got off the phone, Mira decided to drive there anyway. But when they reached the North Carolina border she suddenly panicked and turned around.

She first heard about the Rome-Palermo train journey from Gabriele, one of the owners of the Pines of Rome, a longtime favorite restaurant. Gabriele had once described how, many years ago as a young Sicilian, he had waited 18 hours to purchase a one-way train ticket to Rome where there were lucrative factory jobs available. Having scored that magic ticket, he put on his heaviest coat, sure it would be freezing in Rome, even though it was July.

“I never forget that crossing,” Gabriele said.

The route was the last place in the world where passenger trains were still put aboard ships to pass through the Straits of Messina. Mira, intrigued by the concept, did some online research. She was delighted to learn of a coincidental literary allusion which further seemed to justify taking the trip. The strait’s turbulent waters were symbolized by Scylla and Charybdis, mythical sea monsters from The Odyssey. Navigating past the monsters threatening from both sides was one of the many challenges facing Odysseus in his return home. Mira planned to take a video of the crossing on her new iPhone to show her class when they discussed the book.

“And you? Are you going home?” Mira asked Ardit.

“I go to Sicily.”

He didn’t volunteer whether that was home. Mira suspected the answer was complicated. Mira knew little about Albania, except that it wasn’t a country where you wanted to be from. Vaguely, she remembered once reading an article about the sinking of a boat of Albanian refugees trying to make it to Italy. Or was she confusing that with a story about a boat with refugees from Central America headed to the U.S.?

As the train sped through the darkness Ardit asked Mira question after question about the United States: Did she eat meat at every meal? How many cars did she have? Had she ever met the president? How much money did people in America make? What did Americans think about immigrants?

She couldn’t recall ever having met any foreigner so curious about her own country. These days, foreigners felt they knew everything about America, much of it negative. Trashing America had become disturbingly trendy. A British guest she was chatting with at breakfast in her Rome hotel allowed herself a snide remark about the “incompetent” U.S. president. She had seen red graffiti splayed in the station: “Fuck USA.”

“One day you must visit America, Ardit,” she said.

“Difficult, I think.”

“Maybe I can help.”

How foolish she was. What could she do to help Ardit? She didn’t have connections in getting visas and even if he could somehow get a visa he would likely never afford to travel to the U.S. She imagined he dreamed of many things that would never happen. Meanwhile, her friends had bucket lists of adventures that they could feel confident of achieving such as parachuting, going on an African safari or hiking in the Himalayas.

She had questions of her own for Ardit: How and when had he come to Italy? How did he support himself? Where was his family? Why was he even on this train? But Ardit answered all the questions vaguely and then immediately asked her another question. He wouldn’t share any details about his life.

When Mira reached for a package of Biscotti from her carry-on bag, eager to offer him something to eat, her Michelin map of Italy fell out. Her misdirection was a family joke. Once, after they first moved to Washington, D.C., she directed Norm the wrong way on the George Washington Parkway. They missed an exit and ended up at the CIA and then in Anacostia. “Mira almost got us killed, twice,” Norm said when he told people the story.

“Ah you have map. Please may I see?”

“Let’s look at it together.”

He moved over to sit next to her. He smelled earthy and sweaty, like a freshly mowed field. How often did he have access to hot water? Did he ever floss his teeth? Outside, the landscape of the world’s most famous boot whirled past invisible in the blackness, like a film reel flapping on an old projector. Ardit asked her the time and when she consulted her phone and told him, he knew exactly where they were. Surely, he had taken this trip many times before.

“We leave Amalfi Coast. Now we go Salerno, then we arrive Cosenza.”

Mira loved the sounds of those names. Perhaps those were places to visit one day. Maybe she would even get a Eurail pass and repeat the trip across the continent from so long ago.

Ardit scraped a chipped and dirty fingernail against the speck of blue on the boot’s shaft: The Straits of Messina.

“So small. I think we can swim,” he said.

Mira tapped The Odyssey and explained how perilous it was for Odysseus crossing the Straits. He was advised by travelers to avoid Charybdis, a lethal whirlpool that could suck in all his men at once. Instead he passed by another monster, Scylla, who scooped up six of his men.

“Imagine them in the monster’s mouths, their head and feet kicking in the air,” said Mira dramatically. “They call out ‘Odysseus, Odysseus,’ one last time. But it’s too late. Odysseus calls it the most horrid sight that he saw up until then in all his travels. But, unfortunately, there would be many others.”

She paused. Being pedantic was an occupational hazard. But Ardit seemed interested in the story. He said the book reminded him of an Albanian saga which he described as a “long, long poem” about warriors and zanas, spirits who live near springs, and vampire-like creatures known as lugats and drangues. There probably wasn’t a country in the world without its own version of The Odyssey, a point she should make in class.

“I would like to read your book,” said Ardit.

Mira’s copy of The Odyssey was marked up with her notes. But maybe getting a new copy would spark some fresh ideas. It would surely mean so much to this man to give him such a present. She extended the book to him.

“Please take this. It’s not an easy read, but it’s worthwhile. I think you will enjoy it.”

He held up his hands as if surrendering. “Please, I cannot accept such a generous gift.”

“You can, and you will.”

He placed the flat of his hand on his chest. “Thank you.”

He stuffed the book into his lumpy plastic bag and then inspected the map again.

“They must, I think, build a bridge over this water,” Ardit said. “Job for good engineer.”

“It will take more than a good engineer, I’m afraid.”

Mira knew from her research that Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial former Italian prime minister, had wanted to build what would be the world’s longest suspension bridge. But the plan had been spiked and was unlikely to be revived. Building a bridge was too expensive, harmful to the environment and vulnerable in an earthquake. But an underlying reason, and perhaps the major one, was that mainland Italians didn’t want to be so easily accessible from Sicily, synonymous with poverty and the Mafia.

“It’s incredible to think they’re going to put this entire train on a ship without us even having to move,” she said. “Have you ever seen it?”

“We will go together to see, yes?”

“That sounds good.”

Mira produced some Trader Joe’s granola bars which Ardit examined like objects from another galaxy and then appreciatively ate one. She helped him read the information on the packet. He’d never get through The Odyssey, but he could still enjoy owning the book. She then suggested it was probably a good idea to get some sleep since they’d be waking up in a few hours to see the crossing.

“Somehow these seats turn into a bed,” she said. “Let’s call the conductor to help us.”

“No. I do.”

He stood up and moved toward Mira. With a quick movement, he flipped over first her seat and then his, so they were transformed into side by side beds.

“Please,” he patted the bed. “For you.”

Then he stretched out on his bed and she slid onto the bed facing him covering herself with a blanket she had brought for the occasion. He motioned toward the compartment door.

“I lock?”

Why should the door be locked? There seemed no reason.

“Let’s leave it open.”

He shrugged and reached to turn out the light. How strange to sleep in this compartment alongside this young man, as if they were intimate. The churning of the train’s wheels felt warm and sedating, like being rocked by one’s mother.

“Mira, may I ask question?”

“Yes, Ardit.”

“Why you have no husband?”

“I had one. We divorced.”

“He must be sad without you.”

That was a joke. “Not exactly. We didn’t get along.”

“He is stupid man. I do not like him. Now you have boyfriend?”

The frankness of the question surprised her. But she thought about how to answer. Ben considered himself her boyfriend. But sometimes she wanted someone, as she told a friend, that would make her heart pound more with desire. A friend had joked that at their age, a pounding heart was a sign of an imminent heart attack.

Still, Mira kept up her online dating profile. She sometimes received flirtatious messages from men, although many of them were 10 and even 20 years younger than her. The first time she received such a message she thought that perhaps all that exercise and careful eating had paid off. Then she learned that such solicitations were common among women her age who were perceived as easy lays and potential sugar mommies. In contrast, most men her age wanted someone younger.

“I have a boyfriend. But what about you, Ardit? Where’s your family? In Albania? In Italy?”

“There is no family.”

“Your parents?”


“I am so, so sorry. Has it been a long time?”

He yawned. “I sleep now.”

Mira lay awake listening to this young man’s gentle snoring as colorful images flashed through her head: The simple grandeur of the White House which all visitors said looked smaller than on TV; Lincoln’s graceful but almost sad visage overlooking the Tidal Basin where Martin Luther King told of his dream; the sparkling of the Potomac in spring. She imagined Ardit taking in everything, determined not to miss anything the city had to offer. Why couldn’t she do this? She would somehow help Ardit get a visa and then buy him an airplane ticket. He could sleep in her guestroom. She’d make him breakfast, hand him fresh towels for his shower and take him out for Thai food and a jazz brunch in Adam’s Morgan. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. Soon after the divorce, she agreed to let one of Aaron’s college friends stay for a week while he was doing a training program in Washington. The visit had been fine except for an embarrassing moment when the friend barged into the bathroom while she was taking a bath. She had learned to be more careful and lock the door.

The next thing Mira knew she was being jarred awake by Ardit sitting on her bed. He placed a finger on her lips and then into her mouth where he probed her teeth. Then he kissed her, his tongue lashing around her mouth with a sloppy ferocity. She struggled to get up, but he held her down. He unbuttoned her shirt, removed her bra and sucked on her breasts before pulling down her pants and unhooking her money belt. Everything fell in a heap on the floor.

Mira was aware of how she could try pulling him off. She was aware of how she could cry out. But mostly she was aware that his sweaty scent was nicer than Ben’s old age odor and that he wanted her. Ardit unzipped his pants and, along with his jockey shorts, pulled them to his knees. Discreetly almost, he covered them both with her blanket and then roughly entered her. His erection, full and insistent, was so different from Ben’s flaccid one. She felt herself churning through a whirlpool mimicking the train’s motion. It was a roller coaster ride, equal measures terrifying and thrilling, as it sped towards its destination. She reached the end first and then he joined her with a loud grunt.

Ardit rose and reached for his jockey shorts. She saw now that the waist band was shredding and were several holes in the posterior. After he put on his pants, Ardit dealt with Mira’s money belt. He removed the entire stash of Euros, U.S. dollars and several credit cards. He also took her new phone which was pushed into the side of the bed where she was still lying. But he didn’t touch her passport. If he had, he would have found her debit card. She watched him stuff her items into his bag. She did and said nothing.

Finally, he opened the compartment and slipped into the darkness. Mira rose herself and dressed quickly with trembling hands. She accidentally tripped on something: the discarded copy of The Odyssey. The ridiculousness of her gift felt almost as painful as what had just happened.

She was desperate to go to the toilet and wash herself, but she didn’t want to go outside. She couldn’t face the possibility that she might see Ardit or someone who could have seen them.

Mira lay on her side in the bed in the fetal position. The train’s movement reminded her of her orgasm which led to thoughts about AIDS and other STDs. When she returned home she would have to visit her longtime gynecologist and request blood tests. It was too embarrassing and frightening to contemplate.

Mira wasn’t sure how long she lay there when the train’s rocking abruptly ceased. The train groaned and creaked as if it had become a monster or was in the mouth of one. There was a curious sensation of the car being lifted. This was surely the sign: They had reached San Giovanni, where the train was shunted in half as it was put onto the ferry. Mira rose. She hadn’t come so far to miss seeing the crossing.

There was a festive atmosphere in the corridor as bleary-eyed, but animated passengers moved forward, guided by the same conductor who had taken her ticket.

“You are okay, madam?” he asked her.

He seemed to be looking at her strangely. Did he know what had happened? She thought of him sneering at Ardit and how easily she could send him to jail or get him deported.

“Everything is fine,” she said hastily.

A stepladder materialized, and Mira joined the others climbing it. They were now on the deck of a boat. The air was crisp with a tang of salt, and the sky was a pinkish mauve reminiscent of that lovely refrain from The Odyssey: “rosy-fingered dawn.” The water looked inky black and turbulent, enough to believe in the presence of monsters.

A man with a thermos hawked espresso for a single Euro, but she couldn’t even afford that. The other passengers took photos and videos, like the ones she imagined displaying on the overhead screen in her classroom as she read from the text:

“Thus, we sailed up the straits, wailing in terror, for on the one side we had Scylla, and on the other the awesome Charybdis sucked down the salt water in her dreadful way.”

Would this be the last time she would have a thundering orgasm like that? Probably, if she stayed with Ben. And yet perhaps there was a chance for something different.

The ship tossed about, yet easily sliced through the strait’s choppy currents. There were many photos and videos online of the crossing which she could show to her students. No one would know she had not taken them. She could afford to lose the cash and could cancel the credit card. Even the iPhone could be easily replaced, possibly at the train station in Palermo when she used her debit card to withdraw money. Such was the advantage of globalization.

Hopefully, with the stolen money Ardit would get himself some decent clothes or pay rent or buy food. She would take a taxi to the hotel and insist on spending time alone with Aaron. She would make sure that he wanted to go through with this wedding. If he was she would apply extra make-up to conceal the rings under her eyes and smile for the photos.

Then she would return home—by airplane now—and immerse herself in lesson plans. She would get several blood tests and tell Ben she needed a break. She would then plan another trip abroad because everyone needs a future trip in their lives.

In a few weeks, she’d get the postcard which she would stick in the drawer of her nightstand and never look at again.

Judith Colp Rubin is a former journalist, blogger and the co-author of three non-fiction books, including Hating America: A History. She is a longtime resident of Tel Aviv, Israel and has two children.

Dotted Line