Dotted Line Dotted Line

Fiction Winter 2013    poetry    all issues


Tristen Chang

John Shortino
Final Notice

Chris Belden
The Woodpecker Problem

Naima Lynch
And I Will Bring You Oranges

Daniel C. Bryant

Susannah Carlson
Killing Methuselah

Afia Atakora

Mackenzie E. Smith

Sabra Waldfogel

Lainey Bolen Burdge
Paper Thin

Erin Rodoni
Crossing the Street in Hanoi

Tim Weed
The Afternoon Client

Rick Kast
Of Wolves and Men

Andy Jameson

Thea Johnson
Baby Doll

Charles Alden
Holy Orders

Julie Zuckerman
Birthday Bash

Kathryn Shaver
The Fourth Monkey

Chip Houser
The Goatherd of Naxos

Erin Rodoni

Crossing the Street in Hanoi

I find Robin up to his chin in a flooded gully. His blinking eyes look large, bovine, reminding me of the water buffalo we often see wallowing the marshy rice paddies. “What are you doing?” I ask. “The mosquitos,” he answers, “they’re attracted to wet skin. Once I got in I couldn’t get out.” I check a log for leeches before lowering myself down to wait for our guide. The water looks tempting, cool and green, lapping at Robin’s sparse blonde goatee, but I know anything could be lurking down there. Our guide has already lifted numerous innocent logs and leaves to show us the snakes and spiders that dwell beneath. But after six hours in this heat this nature walk feels more like a death march and I long for the flat dusty beach near the hotel. I sigh as I imagine cooling my feet in those litter-thick waves that had looked so unappealing this morning when, at Robin’s enthusiastic insistence, we signed up for the jungle tour.

I first met Robin a few weeks back when he strode into the lobby of my hostel in Hanoi. He extended his thumb like a hitchhiker to the general assembly of dreadlocked girls in Thai fisherman pants and couples decked out head-to-toe in waterproof REI and asked in his casual surfer boy drawl “Which way ya headed?”

Hanoi was the first stop in Vietnam for both Robin and me. Everyone else had already come up from the south, crossing the Cambodian border and making their way to Ho Chi Minh City on a slow boat up the Mekong. I had flown in from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand where I had just finished a yoga retreat. Robin had flown in straight from LA. He wasn’t exactly the exotic lover I’d imagined myself hooking up with on this journey, but there was something about the cocky way he tossed his shaggy, sun-bleached hair . . . . Besides, he was the first cute guy I’d seen up close in weeks. So I slipped up to my room while Robin was busy swapping traveling stories with some crusty guys who’d just been to India and smelled like patchouli. I brushed my hair, curled my lashes, and threw on a push-up bra. I knew I had his attention when I returned to the lobby, draped myself casually across a chair and felt his eyes explore my breasts and long dark hair. It wasn’t long before he told me, with his trademark arrogant grin, that I should join up with him if I wanted to see the “real” Hanoi.

In Hanoi the streets are scaled with lichen and when it rains they become shallow streams. Algae lifts from between the cobblestones and feathers your toes, slicking your flip- flops from your feet. Robin was delighted, tromping through puddles like a kid, never afraid to fall on his ass in front of speeding mopeds. He taught me how to cross the French-built boulevards that seemed to stretch for miles without any sign of crosswalk or traffic light. “Follow the little old ladies,” he said, “they know how to do it.” I watched these tiny women step gently into the constant current of traffic and disappear. Thousands of bicycles and mopeds seemed to turn and weave in unison like a school of minnows, occasionally channeling between and around clumsy tour buses.

Robin and I stepped off the curb behind a woman half my size balancing a huge basket of dragon fruit on her head. “The trick is to just keep moving,” he said, “never slow down or speed up, don’t try to avoid the traffic and the traffic will avoid you.” A few steps from the curb I found myself enveloped in motion, a cacophony of horns and engines. Robin gripped my hand, urging me forward. The woman we followed kept her head bowed, serene as if she were walking along the tide line at a beach. I tried to ignore the mopeds that scattered mud and wind against my thighs, the baskets of clucking chickens that swept by inches from cheeks. I just watched my wet sandals, listened to the smack of each step against my heel. I inhaled with one smack, exhaled with the next, and when I finally noticed we’d reached the other side Robin was still holding my hand. We looked at each other, giddy with the small miracle of our survival.

I wasn’t supposed to be “getting involved,” as my mom called it, with anyone on this trip. I was supposed to be breaking “my unhealthy cycle of serial monogamy” and “getting in touch with myself,” again my mother’s words. She offered me such insights into my own character often, usually some sort of fusion of pop psychology and new age mystical rhetoric. She was the one who organized and paid for my yoga retreat. She “gave” it to me as a twenty-fifth birthday present, though I understood there would be a severe escalation in attempts to get me into therapy if I didn’t go. “I don’t think you’ve been single for more than a week since you were fourteen,” she told me. “You’re twenty-five years old now. Do you even know who you are when you’re alone? I know I don’t.”

After two weeks of staring blankly into my journal and attempting to force my inflexible muscles into all manner of pretzelesque shapes, I began to think my mother was right about me.

It wasn’t until I arrived in Chiang Mai that I discovered it was an all-female retreat and it was being held in a monastery for Buddhist nuns. “Very sneaky,” I thought to myself, “but there’s a whole city out there just teeming with hot European backpackers.”

Orientation quickly doused those fantasies. This retreat was all about isolation and discipline. The only off-monastery privileges were trips to visit other monasteries and religious sites. I could have left, I mean there were no guards or anything, but I figured maybe this really would be good for me, maybe I would actually experience that joy of singleness my friends were always professing to enjoy after every break-up. How wonderful it felt to have the bed all to themselves, to wake up and make themselves a leisurely breakfast of whole grain waffles and fresh-squeezed OJ. “Sure,” I always thought,” it’s nice to have the apartment to yourself for a day or two, but really, who makes gourmet breakfasts for one? How sad is that?” But now that I was alone here in Chiang Mai I figured in a few years I’d be married and have children, then I’d never be alone again, so I might as well give being single a try, maybe I really was missing out on something.

I ended the retreat with a pulled hamstring, a journal full of methodical lists on the pros and cons of getting back together with Jimmy, my most recent ex, and a scattering of random New Age sounding phrases I’d heard some of the other girls throwing around, like “I really felt my root chakra opening when I was doing downward dog this morning” and “I’m trying to align myself with the universal energy flow.” But I didn’t want to go home without at least one exotic tale of romance to regale my friends with. I called my mom on the last day and told her I was planning to stick around in Southeast Asia for a while. She was so proud of me for having the “self-discipline” to make it through the whole retreat, and even prouder when I tried out some of my New Age lingo on her (“Yeah mom, it was a totally awakening experience, I feel so free and like, awake”), that she agreed to pay for the rest of my trip.

I decided to go to Vietnam because I had dated a half-Vietnamese guy a few years back and he was always telling me how beautiful it was. Besides, I loved the spring rolls. But Hanoi wasn’t like Chiang Mai; the tourists were much more serious. I guess it was hard not to be when kids with missing limbs tried to sell you pirated DVD’s every five minutes. I spent the first few days wandering the same couple of blocks and eating at the same restaurant around the corner with the English menu. They didn’t even have any spring rolls.

Then Robin showed up. He took me to all the dingiest restaurants in Hanoi, where the tables were overturned buckets and the only chairs were your own heels. He ordered all manner of internal organs I’d never even heard of. And I ate them all, whether stewed in fiery broths, deep fried or nearly raw, even though Jimmy had been a vegetarian so I hadn’t eaten meat for almost two years. Robin always paid and though I knew the food cost next to nothing, I began to notice him handing out thickish folds of US bills to everyone who served us: the cooks, their wives, their kids, their kid’s friends. He did it subtly, like you would to a maître d’ at a fancy hotel, but once I caught a glimpse of a twenty. I began to notice the premeditated quality to his scruffy clothes, the way the holes in his jeans looked a little too perfectly asymmetrical, the cuffs frayed in all the right places. How he never seemed to wear the same thing twice, though I’d been rotating the same five sweaty tank tops and sarongs since I’d arrived. I began to realize Robin might be travelling like a backpacker, but he definitely had money. And since he was a few years younger than me and had grown up in Orange County, I was pretty sure he’d always had money

He knew enough Vietnamese to question the locals about their favorite places, and he always slipped them some bills in exchange for their recommendations. Every night he crawled into my bed, babbling excitedly about another ruin, waterfall, or festival he’d heard about that we just had to check out. “That guy I talked to at dinner said only Vietnamese people know about it. It’s not even in Lonely Planet.” Those were the magic words for Robin. Anything not in Lonely Planet had to be good. Inevitably, after travelling for hours in crowded buses because Robin would never agree to take one of the air-conditioned minivans reserved for tourists, we would arrive at some colorful festival or natural wonder cheapened by tacky souvenir stands, already crowded with Teva-clad backpackers and food hawkers offering nothing but Doritos and Coca Cola.

Cat Ba island was no exception. Robin and I were both quiet on the deck of the creaking wooden ferry as it weaved between the hundreds of tiny islands jutting from Ha Long Bay. I was mesmerized by the narrow stone fingers reaching from the glinting waves, the scraps of jungle that sat atop them like green thimbles. Every now and then we’d come upon the floating villages I’d read about. Fishermen and their families lived in tiny shacks built on rafts made of plastic bottles and rotting wood. One raft was leashed to another until a small community was formed. I watched children chase each other, leaping from raft to raft, women cooking the evening meal on butane burners, the blue flames bobbing in the long shadows cast by the pushpin islands. I knew what I was looking at was poverty, but I didn’t feel pity, only wonder. “Imagine growing up like this,” I whispered to Robin, “Imagine if this was your whole world.” Robin wasn’t even looking, he was glaring at a particularly loud group of English girls arguing about which island The Beach was filmed on. “Listen to those morons,” he fumed, “they don’t even know the difference between Vietnam and Thailand. They probably don’t even know what country they’re in.”

We arrived in Cat Ba town at sunset and were immediately surrounded by hawkers from competing seafood restaurants, each trying to convince us of the superiority and freshness of their fare. We made our way to the only hotel along with the group of English girls and all the other tourists. I thought Robin would be annoyed, but he was too excited about the adventures he had planned for the next day. After all, we hadn’t travelled all this way to see Cat Ba Town. We came here on the recommendation of the toothless old man who seems to squat perpetually in the doorway of Robin’s favorite pho place. We came here seeking an isolated village in the jungly interior of the island where we were hoping to find the best sweet and sour catfish stew in Vietnam. But when we met our guide at sunrise and were joined moments later by a middle-age German couple, a wiry looking Italian and the group of English girls in nearly identical waterproof Khakis and windbreakers, I knew Robin was in for another disappointment.

Our guide emerges from the jungle trailed by the rest of his now sweat-soaked, mud-caked entourage. He nimbly slides down the slick bank into the gully like a skier, followed by the English girls who inch down single file on their butts. He doesn’t look happy. “I told you, no going ahead,” he reprimands in a soft voice without making eye contact, “You could get lost. You could hurt yourself.” “Sorry man,” Robin yells from the water, “I can’t help it, I’m a fast walker.” Our guide just shrugs, hoists his bag of baguettes and bananas onto his head and strides into the neck-deep flood water. “Come on,” he urges over his shoulder, “This is the only way.”

A few hours later, we emerge from the jungle, arms and legs red with mosquito bites and small trails of blood left by leeches frantically torn from our skin. A narrow valley slowly opens before us, steep slopes giving way to saturated green rice paddies and a scattering of bamboo cottages. Our guide leads us to an open-air hut at the center of the village where a small, hunched woman is ladling something from a simmering cauldron into chipped mismatched bowls. I watch Robin reverently approach, palms up as if about to receive a communion wafer. I watch the steam hit his stunned face as the woman ladles a generous portion of boiling water into his bowl to saturate the waiting block of powdered broth and instant noodles, while a little boy hands out warm, dusty bottles of coke.

We are given an hour to eat our lunch and explore the village. After attempting to rouse several elderly men from their hammocks by waving American dollars under their noses and jabbering something about catfish, Robin retreats to the shade to sulk and gnaw a stale power bar. I don’t bother to console him. I sit on my heels and slurp down the noodles. Then I wander the rice paddies, nursing the syrupy coke, letting it enliven my sweat-laced, aching limbs. White oxen seem to float like lilies in the rippling green tapestry of fields, and faces beneath conical hats lift from their work to smile as I pass. I decide this has been the best meal of my trip, maybe even my life.

When I return to the restaurant hut, the soup woman gestures to a hammock stretched between two palms. I smile gratefully as I settle into the gentle rocking. I feel the ropes against the ridges of my spine, the heavy sun weighing my muscles into relaxed submission like a thick quilt. It reminds me of one of the guided meditations we used to do in Chiang Mai. I can hear the slow breathy voice of the yoga instructor telling me to imagine that each chakra is a door, to imagine each door opening and then step through it. In Chiang Mai I usually fell asleep, but now instead of visualizing chakras I’m seeing the men I’ve been with. The boys and men I have been opening like doors to new worlds, new identities for as long as I can remember. Men who have introduced me to Ethiopian food, pot, bluegrass, trout fishing. Men who have taken me to visit parents in South Dakota, Vermont, Mexico, Hawaii. Men I have left one after the other, doors slammed behind me when after a few months or a few years I realized they hadn’t led me to wherever I was trying to get to.

I feel suddenly ashamed of myself for getting caught up in Robin’s quest for the “real” Vietnam. This country doesn’t owe us its treasures or its secrets. Whatever Robin and I are seeking, it isn’t going to be found at the bottom of any authentic local stew, or in the eyes of unknown people in a village untouched by tourism. If this place is willing to pause for a moment, like a skittish deer, and let us run our hands along the surface of its beauty, then who are we to ask for more.

Robin doesn’t say much on the ferry back to the mainland. I guess I don’t either. Back at the hostel in Hanoi we retreat to our separate rooms. It’s a humid night. There was no rain this afternoon and I can feel the atmosphere’s unshed pressure waiting above the rooftops, poised to crush us with the weight of downpour any minute. I peel off my sweaty clothes, flip on the ceiling fan and open the journal my mom gave me for the retreat, intending to write about my experience on Cat Ba Island. Just then there’s a knock at the door. I wrap a towel around me and open it to Robin with his huge, bumper-sticker-covered backpack strapped to his shoulders. “I’m heading south,” he says, “Well first I’m gonna crash at the Intercontinental for a couple days, get some R&R, but anyway I just wanted to see if I left any clothes in here.”

“Did I miss something?” I ask, “You’re just leaving, just like that?”

“Look,” he mumbles, looking at the floor, “we had some fun together, but you’re just not adventurous enough for me. I saw how happy you were just lounging in a hammock today, admiring the scenery like all the other tourists. You’d be better off signing up with a tour group or something; they’ll make sure you see everything you’re supposed to.”

No one’s ever broken up with me before. I’m too stunned to speak, so I sit on the bed while he collects some random socks and underwear, gives me a quick peck on the cheek and is gone. I pick up the journal again, but I can’t think of anything to write, so I put it down. The room seems suddenly very dingy, very bare. I imagine Robin’s room at the Intercontinental—the whirlpool bath, the satin sheets, the air conditioning—and I can’t believe I let him get away.

I wake up the next morning resolved to track down Robin and prove to him that I’m a serious traveler, not a tourist. I decide to pack up all my stuff and bring it with me, that way I won’t have to trek all the way back across town when Robin invites me to stay with him.

The morning bustle is in full swing. Makeshift market stalls spill from the sidewalks into the streets, bursting with piles of lychee, durian, papaya or half-butchered ducks dangling by their feet. It occurs to me that I could really impress Robin if I found us some new, totally authentic restaurant to eat at. I put away my Lonely Planet map and allow myself to weave into the labyrinth of narrow alleyways that branch from the main roads in every direction.

It is dark and damp on the back streets. I jump over puddles and mushy piles of rotting fruit. Some of the alleys are so narrow my backpack grazes the moss on the walls. Through open doorways I see families squatting on concrete floors, but nothing resembling a restaurant. I’m about to turn around when I pass a man standing over a large cauldron surrounded by several of the overturned buckets I recognize as tables. He looks up from his work with a toothless smile and beckons me inside.

Suddenly a force from behind slams my face against the grease-stained wall. I feel a hand squeezing my neck, my backpack being wrenched from my shoulders. I stagger backwards and wheel around to find the restaurant empty, the cauldron still bubbling away.

I run through the alleys, calling out for help, but no one will meet my eyes. Eventually I find myself back in the market. I think about going to the police, but realize I have no idea where to find them. I have no cellphone, no cash, no passport. My only hope is to find Robin.

I have to plead with the doorman to let me into the lobby of the Intercontinental. He seems suspicious of my muddy sarong and dirty cheeks, but he eventually relents when I explain I’m the girlfriend of a guest. I guess he’s used to even the scruffiest looking foreigners still having more money in their pockets than he makes in a month. I slip into a bathroom to clean myself up and then settle into a plush ornate sofa to wait for Robin.

After about an hour the elevator doors open to reveal Robin arm in arm with a gorgeous Vietnamese woman in a stylish black cocktail dress. I cover my face with my magazine and watch her slinky hips as they make their way into the bar. I feel burning tears gathering behind my eyes. I know I’ll never be able to bring myself to ask Robin for help now, but I continue to sit there anyway, totally paralyzed.

“Are you alright Miss? I couldn’t help but notice you’ve been crying.” I look up into the face of a middle-age, vaguely European-looking man in a perfectly tailored business suit. He lowers himself onto the sofa beside me and offers me a Kleenex. He speaks English with a crisp international accent. Something about the line of his jaw makes him look handsome in a powerful sort of way. I tell him everything, about Robin, the robbery, my complete and utter helplessness. As I talk he inches closer and puts his hand on my knee. He leans in as he whispers “I think I may be able to help you, if you’ll let me.” As the implication of his words sinks I can’t help thinking, “Well, this certainly isn’t a situation your average tourist would find themselves in.” A shiver of excitement laced with revulsion rifles through me.

His room is just as opulent as the lobby. The huge mahogany bed draped in sleek red sheets hulks in the center. “Please,” he tells me courteously, “feel free to use my bath. Take your time.”

Adrenaline is jangling my nerves far too much to enjoy the whirlpool tub, so I shower instead. I examine my body in the steamed-up mirror. I’ve lost some weight so there’s a slightly girlish quality to my breasts and hips. “He’ll probably like that,” I think, “Pervert.” I look at my naked body and tell myself it doesn’t matter, he’s not bad looking; it’s just like a one-night stand. Plenty of girls my age have them now and then, and at least I’ll get something more out of it than an awkward goodbye kiss the next morning and promises of a phone call that never comes.

He’s already naked when I step out of the bathroom, a little thick around the middle, but not too bad. I take a deep breath and let my robe slip from my shoulders.

Afterward, as he rolls over into sleep, he tells me the money’s on the table if I want to leave, but I’m more than welcome to sleep here if I have nowhere else to go. I lie rigid on the bed until I hear him snoring, then I quickly dress and count the money. $1000. More than enough to get me to Ho Chi Minh where I can go to the embassy for a new passport and catch my flight home. I sit on the couch clutching the money and shivering until the first hint of light appears in the sky and it’s safe enough to walk to the train station.

On the southbound train, as I watch the morning sun ignite the gnats that hover above the flooded rice paddies, I realize I’m in no hurry to rush back home to the safety of Jimmy, or my mother. I look into the unreadable eyes of my ghost-like reflection superimposed upon the landscape and decide to get off the train in Hue, the next stop on the southbound tourist trail.

I run into Robin a few days after arriving in Hue. I’m weaving on a rented bicycle through the billowing crowds on a tree-lined boulevard when I see him careening toward me on a belching yellow moped.

He skids to a stop, spraying mud from last night’s rain onto several unfortunate pedestrians. I balance my bike against my hip and we face each other as the traffic parts around us. I can’t think of anything to say. I don’t feel like bringing up the Intercontinental or the Vietnamese woman, who I’m now pretty sure was a prostitute. And I certainly don’t intend to tell him about my recent experience in that area, even though it would probably impress the psycho. “So what do you think of Hue?” I ask eventually.

“Not much,” he answers irritably, “Did you go to the DMZ? They make you stay on this paved trail the whole time and they hardly let you explore the tunnels at all.”

“Isn’t that because there are still unexploded land mines all over that area?” I ask.

“Whatever,” he shrugs, “it was still lame. Anyway, I’m heading to Cambodia now. I met this Australian guy who says it’s still like totally undiscovered, as long as you don’t go to Angkor Wat. He says you can buy your way into anything down there, you can pay guys to take you into the jungle and just like leave you there, you know? Listen,” he sighs as if he’s about to make some huge concession, “you can come with me if you want, I mean if you’re finally bored of this shit.”

I take in his handsome, boyish face, his cocky smile, his reckless, helmetless head. He still looks like a door about to open on an adventure. For a moment I’m tempted to drop my rusty bike and jump on the back of his moped, let his wildness and speed sweep me away from the solitary meal that awaits me tonight, and tomorrow morning, from the days ahead in which only I will decide which museum or temple to visit and what I will think of them. I feel I’m discovering myself like a character in a difficult novel that you can’t really get into for the first couple chapters, but suddenly some passage, something the character thinks or does draws you in and you have to know what happens next. For the first time in my life I really want to know what I will do.

“I hope Cambodia is everything you want it to be,” I say as I straddle my bike. I hear Robin rev his moped behind me; hear him peel away across the rain-slick stones. It’s afternoon and the schools are letting out. Girls in lilac Ao Dais spill into the streets. They glide toward me giggling on their bikes, long black hair streaming behind them. I close my eyes as the soft wind of their passage buffets my skin like petals. Suddenly there’s a fracture in the current of the traffic, a whirlpool gathering behind me. I turn to see a young boy splayed beside his crumpled bike, blood in his hair and his elbow bent at an inhuman angle. I see Robin gunning his moped, attempting to flee the scene but the crowd is laying down their bikes and mopeds, the crowd is pointing their fingers, closing in around him. He reaches into his pockets and pulls out American dollars, scattering them like scraps to a pack of growling dogs. But the crowd tramples the bills like dead leaves as they move toward him. I hear the sirens getting closer as I plant my feet to my pedals and rejoin the current.

Erin Rodoni is a recovering nomad and new mom. She is the recipient of a 2013 Intro Journals Award in Poetry from the Association of Writing Programs. Her poems have appeared in Colorado Review, Verse Wisconsin, Word Riot, Midwestern Gothic, Antiphon, Serving House Journal, and others. She holds an MFA in poetry from San Diego State University. Crossing the Street in Hanoi is her first published short story.

Dotted Line