The Train to Modena: Suzanna's Story by Rozanne Charbonneau

Suzanna visits her Italian friend, but cuts the visit short to hide an indiscretion, and gets sexually harassed on the train back to Paris; this is the first instalment of Rozanne Charbonneau's award-nominated trilogy.

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August, 1982

I wake in the night to fingers stroking the flesh of my inner thigh.

So do you want to go again? Let me touch your lips, let me kiss your hair. Don't rush so fast up north, or it will be over, before it began. What happened? Is this really you? Last time you fumbled like a boy, but hey! you've come back as a man.

I breathe in, hungry for the scent of cinnamon and earth on his skin. The fumes of Drakkar Noir cologne hit the back of my throat instead.

"Who are you?" I shout and sit up with a start.

The man who was sitting across from me in the train compartment puts his finger to his lips.

"Be quiet! There's no need to wake my daughter," he whispers, motioning to the sleeping child in the shadows. She clutches a purple rabbit and her cheek is glued to the seat.

His mouth is thin, like a scar that won't heal. A paunch hangs over his belt and he is wearing burgundy colored shorts. Typical. Italian men tend to favor these pantaloons after a certain age. Once they slide them over their hips, they roam the streets like noblemen in search of their subjects' wives. He inches closer and reaches for the hem of my dress. I put up my hand and he sighs.

"I'll beg, if it would help."

It is Ferragosto weekend, Italy's mid-August holiday. The entire nation is traveling up and down the boot to join their clans. I needed to leave the holiday home of my childhood friend Flavia in Agrigento earlier than planned, and am making my way up to Paris, where my Junior Year Abroad will begin September 5th.

My friend Flavia was so hurt to see me standing on the landing, suitcase in hand.

"I don't understand. We haven't seen each other in years. I counted the days before you arrived and now you're running off to France?"

"I should get myself settled there..."

She folded her arms in front of her. "You've only been here two weeks and you promised to stay with us the whole month of August!"

"You can always come and visit me in Paris later on..."

"Admit it. We bore you. Sitting on a beach with my family isn't intellectual enough for Miss Simone de Beauvoir."

"I never said you were boring, Flavia."

"You're keeping something from me, Suzanna. When we were kids, we could fight and clear the air. Neither of us would just walk away."

She bit her lip and retreated to her bedroom. The clack of the door sounded so final. I shrank, already feeling the loss.

We were inseparable as kids when my parents were stationed in Rome. I was so scared on my first day in an Italian school at twelve years old, but she already spoke a little English taught by the family au pair and invited me over to her house for lunch. Her parents were delighted to see us feed off each other's respective language and score top marks in class, but for us, it was all a game. We spoke English to keep our secrets, and Italian to face the world as good girls. Just as we turned sixteen, when young women need each other most, my family returned to the States and we thought our hearts would break in two.

This was supposed to be the summer to make up for the lost years and seal our bond for decades to come. But now I had to leave. Before anyone found out what I had done.

I walked into the driveway, where her father Daniele was sitting in the driver's seat of the car. The engine was already running and he gave me a curt nod to hurry up. I glanced back at her bedroom window. She did not open it to wave goodbye.

All I want to do is sleep on this crowded train. Is that too much to ask? I look up at my heavy suitcase. Yes, I had allowed Don Giovanni here to put it on the overhead rack when I boarded at Cosenza. I was exhausted from sitting in the heat during a three-hour delay and maybe I flashed him too broad of a smile. His daughter looks around four years old. She had flirted with me through her hands to play peek-a-boo, and I indulged her for a few minutes before falling asleep. Most people would find her game just darling, but not me. I don't dislike these little people, but I can't get excited about them, either.

It is time to find another seat. We won't stop for another hour, so he can't walk off with my suitcase. Not that he would have much use for my vintage sundresses and potions, anyway. I pick up my purse and make my way along the corridor.

The train picks up speed and my mind returns to the first days of August. Flavia and I were treading through the waves along the shore.

"Aren't you afraid to be alone in Paris for a whole year? I can't imagine living away from home," she said.

"No. I'll share an apartment with two friends. Ronald Reagan is a jerk, but the dollar is strong. We should be able to find something nicer than a dorm."

"I love Marcello, but sometimes I wish I had your freedom."

"And sometimes I wish I had a fiancé like him. He treats you like a queen."

"Anyway, I'm glad he's working in Rome this summer. It gives us time to just be girls together."

Two men stopped in front of us and ogled our breasts as we walked past.

Flavia squeezed my arm. "Don't look back, or we'll never get rid of them."

They're probably flipping a coin for her right now, I thought. She's pasted three leopard paws onto a body that won't quit. My black one-piece might pass as subtle in the States, but on this beach? Where's my station wagon and three kids?

Flavia's mother rose from the sand. The lioness sensed danger. If these men so much as tapped us on the shoulder, she would pounce. She was baring just as much flesh as her daughter. Who knows what they would think if this beautiful woman, her limbs glistening with Bain de Soleil, warned them to stay away from her cubs? Would they flee or ask her for a drink? Her father Daniele and her younger brother Alessandro stood further down the shore, ready to intervene. My friend and I were both twenty years old. Was her family's behaviour out of synch with the times? Yes, but I loved them for it. My own father left us a month after we returned to the States, and my mother remarried in haste. She couldn't wait to see me off to college as her new husband and I do not see eye to eye at all.

We drew closer to the patriarchy. Daniele and Alessandro wore Ray Bans, and their briefs would make the biddies faint at the neighbourhood pool back home. Alessandro was slighter than Daniele, but he was now eighteen and clearly a man.

The afternoon I arrived, Daniele grasped my hand and pulled me towards him for the customary three kisses. His five o'clock shadow scratched my cheeks and I caught a whiff of cinnamon and earth. He hadn't masked his scent with cologne. Alessandro's skin was softer, but he smelt the same.

We waded out of the water at their feet. It must have been 90 degrees. Dazed by the sun, I could no longer tell them apart and inhaled.

After dinner, Flavia, Alessandro and I would walk to the village together, as my friend needed to call her fiancé from the public phone booth in the bar. On the first evening, Alessandro opened the door for us and put his hand on the small of my back as he surveyed the customers in the room. The men playing cards in the corner followed his sister with their eyes as she crossed the bar to the booth. Once their angel disappeared, they nodded at him in deference and turned back to their game. Alessandro pulled out my chair at the table and sat very close to me during the entire hour Flavia was on the phone. We chatted about old times and I did not move away. I remembered making cream puffs for his afternoon snack when he was a boy, but I kept the memory to myself. It would have offended his masculinity if I played the older aunt, and besides, his tan complimented the flecks of honey in his eyes.

The following night, Alessandro leaned in as soon as Flavia left us to make her call.

"I hope you don't mind my father sending me out with you every evening."

"Oh no! It's very gallant of you."

"You can't be too careful in Sicily." His eyes scanned the men in the room. "There's no one else in this bar you'd rather meet?"

"Your company is just fine."

He grabbed my hand and pulled it under the table.

"Good. I like to watch over you. It's the best part of my day."

This was a far cry from the American dudes at college, whose idea of courtship was to pass you a bong. And God forbid if they held back your hair as you leant over the mirror for a line of coke. They'd expect you to put out pronto and make no demands. I stared at Flavia in the booth, wrapping the cord around her fingers as she spoke passionately into the phone. She was so happy to marry this eligible bachelor next year and I wished my life were as romantic as hers.

Why doesn't my college have a junior year in Rome? Why am I even going to France to study a subject as impractical as "philosophie", when all I ever wanted was to belong to these people? Flavia already has a nice job in an ad agency, and Alessandro will follow his father's footsteps as a diplomat. They know where they're going and I don't have a clue. Shouldn't I give her brother a chance? If we got engaged, I would become part of this family forever.

Alessandro dropped my hand when Flavia exited the booth and I felt slightly distant from her. Not a mile, but three steps back.

He doesn't want her to know. He'll want to keep his parents out of the loop, too. It would be stupid to blab before it's clear where I stand...

Even the compartments in first class are full of people, eating, arguing and smoking. They eye me with suspicion as I walk by and dare me to impose on their space. One the way back, the conductor is standing outside of my compartment. Perfect. Surely, he will listen to my tale of woe.

"Signore! The man in this compartment has been bothering me. He will not keep his hands to himself."

The conductor looks me up and down and then peers inside. I reclaim my seat and wait for him to warn the defendant, but he clips his ticket first and clucks his tongue at the little girl.

"What a wonderful child! I could eat her up."

"Hey! I just made an official complaint about this passenger."

The conductor looks at the man, who shrugs and lowers his eyes. He turns to me and I hand him my ticket.

"What do you expect? A beautiful young woman like you should not be traveling alone."

Only in the south of Italy. No conductor north of Rome would talk to a female like this. And in the States? I could sue him.

The man nods at the conductor. "There was a slight misunderstanding. It won't happen again."

"This is unacceptable. How do I know he won't do it again?"

The conductor lets out a sigh of exasperation. "Because he gave you his word."

I burst out laughing. The girl stands up and walks over to me.

"I need to make pee pee," she says, and grabs hold of my hand.

"Your father will take you."

My foes pretend that they are deaf.

The girl tugs at my hand again. "But I don't want to go with Papa. I want to go with you!"

The man bites his lip. "She is not used to doing her business with me. She prefers to do this with her mother."

The conductor folds his arms and stares me down, as if I had stolen the candy out of her mouth. "The little lady is shy. Can't you see that she needs your help?"

Oh for Christ's sake. I bet this son of a bitch hasn't changed a diaper his entire life. I can't wait to get out of this country with all of its double standards and medieval codes. Vive la France.

"Okay, you win."

The girl holds onto my hand tight as I lead her down the corridor. When I open the door to the bathroom at the end of our carriage, she shakes her head.

"It stinks. I don't want to make pee pee there."

I sigh and lead her further down the train. My own grasp grows tighter as we cross the gangway between the two carriages. There is no hole, but what if the plates on the floor were to separate and she fell through the cracks?

The first class bathroom smells of tobacco and shit. The little girl insists that I hoist her onto the seat, then smiles as she tinkles into the abyss. She counts four squares of toilet paper off the receptacle, folds them over twice, and wipes herself front to back. Someone has taken pains to train her well.

My own bladder protests under her weight as she splashes her hands in the sink. Ever so slow, she rubs the pink liquid in between her fingers.

"Come on, now. You're getting heavy."

She takes her time and lathers up the foam. "At home, Mama makes me stand on a stool."

What is correct here? Should she wait outside? The image of an empty corridor flashes before my eyes. How could this man trust me with his child? How does he know I will protect her like my own? The girl watches me as I pull down my pants to pee.

The stream finally stops. "What is your name?"

"Mirella." She turns and jiggles the lock on the door.

I pull her hand down. "I'm Suzanna. Just let me finish..."

Mirella tries to climb onto the toilet seat while I turn on the tap.

"Mirella! The lady who comes in here next does not want to sit in the dirt off your shoes."

"I want you to pick me up. I want to see."

"Come on, now. I'm not an octopus with eight arms."

Her lower lip quivers. The floodgates of hell will open at any second so I prop her up on the tiny counter next to the sink.

"Will I look like you one day?" she asks.

"I am sure you will look like your mother," I reply, rinsing off.

Mirella lowers her eyes. "Mama is pretty, but she is not strong like you."

What does she mean? Her father must be at least forty, so maybe she is around the same age? Did a birth at thirty-five exhaust her?

I lead Mirella back to our compartment and open the sliding door. The man clasps his hands and smiles.

"Thank you, Signorina. That was most kind..."

Yeah, yeah. Flattery will get you nowhere.

I pick up Mirella's storybook and sit on the seat next to the window as far away from him as possible. Mirella jumps up to my side, creating the perfect barricade from her father. Hilarious. Tonight, we will read the Italian translation of "The Three Little Pigs".

I raise my voice at the end of the story so its message is not lost on the man.

"Then, just as the wolf was coming down the chimney, the little piggy pulled off the lid, and plop! in fell the wolf into the scalding water. So the little piggy put on the cover again, boiled the wolf up, and the three brothers ate him for supper."

"Your Italian is excellent, Signorina," he says.

I nod in thanks and stroke the hair of his daughter. She snuggles her head in my lap and her breath blows soft on my legs. The man looks at us as if he had just arrived home after a long journey.

He shouldn't take this too far. I'm not a whore, but I'm not the blessed Madonna, either. Those misty eyes might work on his wife, but not me.

"Mirella is comfortable with you. As an only child, she sometimes gets lonely."

Then have another one and leave me alone.

"You mustn't wait too long to have children. You never know when it might be too late."

I bet his wife has been on the pill in secret for years. Waiting on these two is a full time job.

Despite my animosity towards him, a sweetness seeps into my heart for the creature on my lap. Will I change my mind and have a little girl someday? Why do I get so involved with people and let them pull me in every direction? The train rocks my head side to side and carries me back to the final day in Agrigento.

Daniele was driving me to the station. We had just left the family's holiday home.

"My son is way too young for you, Suzanna. He is eighteen going on thirteen."

A wave of guilt washed over me. "You knew about us? How did you know?"

"It was the way he put a slice of peach to your lips one afternoon. No man feeds a woman like that out of charity."

He took his right hand off the steering wheel, turned to me, and shook his finger in front of my face.

"He shut everyone out of the room under your spell."

The car swerved to the side and he grabbed the wheel.

"I didn't mean for it to happen."

He raised his eyebrows and concentrated on the road ahead. "Of course you didn't. You are the perfect house guest."

He was right. I had slept with my host's son. To go forward, I needed to ask one question.

"Are you going to tell Flavia?"

"Certainly not. And I'm sure Alessandro won't tell her, either."

His last comment made me feel soiled.

"Is that all there is?" Alessandro's eyes asked me after he came. Lying under this wisp of a boy, I should have known that this was his first time. He refused to come out of his room the next day and we did not speak again. Flavia was oblivious to what had happened, but I knew that our friendship would never be the same if she found out. Why didn't I tell her about my feelings for her brother beforehand? If I had been honest, who knows? She might have folded her arms and said, "Okay, but don't break his heart." This way, I was no better than my father, who chased any young thing that moved.

Daniele parked the car outside of the station in Agrigento and I turned to face him.

"I'm sorry."

He put his fingers to his chin and sighed. "Some of this is my fault. I raised my children with an iron fist and now Alessandro doesn't fit into the changing world."

But at least you care, I thought.

He pulled my bag out of the trunk and walked me to the platform.

"You are different than us, but you'll find your way."

He shook my hand and left me alone.

The train creaks to a stop and I open my eyes. For a moment, I have no idea where I am. Rays of sunlight flood the empty compartment. Mirella and the man are gone, but he has left my suitcase on the floor. I open the window for air.

The platform is empty, except for a woman in a wheelchair, waiting under the sign for Modena. She is so close to the carriage I can see the withered legs under her dress. Mirella runs up to her and she leans forward. My little girl hugs her real mother hard. The woman smiles and her arms tremble under the strain. Mirella puts her hand on her knee, but does not climb up on her lap. The man approaches and kisses his wife on the cheek. Mirella turns to me, and waves. She says something to her mother and the woman looks at me with curiosity. The man stands behind the wheelchair, his eyes beseeching me to be discreet. His life is not what I imagined at all. Today, he will go home and care for his wife and child the best he can. Some days will have meaning, others will close like a camera's iris, shutting out the light. I stick my head out of the window and wave back.

"Goodbye, Mirella and Signore! It was nice to meet you."

I can see the relief on the man's face as the train pulls out of the station. At least one of us is at peace. Will Flavia ever forgive me for running off? When she sits down with her mother to write her wedding invitations, will she send one to France? I would still be thrilled to receive one. Before answering, I would need to call Daniele at his work. I predict that he will allow me to attend. My absence could draw attention to the buried story.

"Unfortunately, there won't be room for you at the main table. The numerous sisters of the groom must be seated with our family on the big day," his silver tongue will warn me.

He is a diplomat. He will employ this strategy to keep me as far away from his son as possible. Alessandro will shake my hand in the receiving line as if I were an acquaintance of his parents. He won't ask me to dance and I'll pretend that I don't care. From the table closest to the kitchen door, I will clap when the groom removes Flavia's garter and throws it at the guests of the inner circle.

This is the burden of secrets. The fact that I already know how to carry them spells trouble down the road. Will I betray my future husband? Will my voracious need for love drive me into the arms of another man? Right now, this train is racing towards Paris and I'm glad to be on it. But I'm still stuck. How do you make amends when you cannot come clean? I will have to learn everything all over again.

Navigate to the second part of the trilogy.


  1. Great story! The narrator is a lot of fun.

    1. Thank you! I am glad you liked it.

  2. The protagonist is a complex character, she is at that powerful age of being desired by every man, she senses sexual attraction everywhere, and she takes the one she wants, bearing the consequences. Even the man on the train is not a bad person, he is captive to her youth and beauty. The ending to me is poignant and true. Well written.

    1. Thank you, Harrison! I didn't want to portray the man as the vilain preying on "the victim".

  3. From its arresting start to the poignant finish Roxanne Charbonneau’s story was enlightening, well told and satisfying in every way. It captured beautifully the heroine’s evolving perceptions of those around her and illustrated the issue of sexual harassment with extraordinary emotion and skill. I loved this story. Bien joue, Rozanne.

    1. Thank you, Bill! I am so glad you liked the story.

  4. As others have said this is a very well written which shows great character depth in terms of her perceptions and story. A powerful piece of writing for sure.

    1. Thank you, Paul, for your support. Glad you liked it!

  5. This is wonderful. Well written, seamless between a well-crafted backstory and the events on the train. Lots of characters, all sketched with enough detail to be vivid without the pace getting bogged down in too much detail. A vivid, matter-of-fact portrait.

  6. Thank you, David!¨I am happy that you liked it.

  7. Good job, Roxanne. You demonstrate deft control of details in a way that make the settings and tension between characters clear to the reader without bogging down the narrative. Nicely done!
    Cameron Spencer

  8. A comment by an Italian reader - but not connected with the protagonist! La scrittura che con precisione sceglie di fare luce sul minimo della scena e da quel minimo creare tutto un quadro è di strabiliante equilibrio - mi piace leggere una storia, scarna eppure indelebile, esattamente come la vive e se la ricorda un cervello medio, come il mio, che si incaglia su certi aspetti o dettagli, in attesa che si compia, anche in ritardo, il quadro completo del vissuto.
    Mille grazie alla autrice!