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

Can Flavia marry her best friend while seeking sexual satisfaction elsewhere? The second story in Rozanne Charbonneau's trilogy, after The Train to Modena: Suzanna's Story.

Image generated with OpenAI
Rome, December, 1982

Carlo rolls off my chest and stands up to take me in.

"Does all this belong to you?" he asks me, his eyes roaming over my curves.

He grins, then heads to the bathroom, where he will rinse his prick in the bidet. I don't mind being objectified. My fiancé Marcello has never truly desired me and I find this more disturbing. But Carlo's compulsion to remove every trace of me today jangles my nerves. I have always been careful to wipe my lipstick off his cheeks, and never wear perfume on the days that we meet. I know better than to cause trouble for him at home. He tells me that he sleeps in a separate bedroom from his wife, and that they both want to obtain an amicable divorce for the sake of their five-year-old daughter. Any whiff of me during the settlement phase could prove very expensive.

But now we have to move this story forward.

Yesterday evening, my mother pulled a magazine for bridal dresses out of her bedside table and began chatting about the wedding preparations.

"A pure white gown can look rather provincial. Ivory colored silk or even champagne will project more class."

I leafed through the pages to appease her. The models in their sacramental finery looked completely clueless.

"This is only for inspiration. If we don't find anything we like, we can have it custom made."

Hiring a seamstress would buy me time. The well-known ones are booked way in advance.

"That might be the way to go, Mamma."

My mother smiled. "I am so happy that you found Marcello and that we all get along. I've never told you this, but your grandfather Paolino objected to my marriage to your father."

I was surprised, but her confidence could work to my advantage. "You were only eighteen."

"Your grandfather thought I was marrying down, as Daniele was a farmer's son. He never thought your father would amount to anything."

"I am only twenty-one. Times have changed."

My mother laughed and stared off into space. "We had a modest wedding with your aunts at the justice of the peace. Then we drove to Paris in a Fiat 500."

I handed her back the catalogue. "I know that part of the story. You've always made it sound so romantic."

My mother's face fell, hurt by my sarcasm. "I knew what Daniele was made of, and I didn't let my father's mendacity sway me. But this break with him brought a weight into our young marriage. This is why I want your wedding to be perfect..."

I stood up and clenched my fists. "Why? To make up for your own loss?"

My mother's eyes narrowed. "What is the matter with you?"

"Is that the worst thing that has ever happened to you in your charmed life?"

I expected her to shout and order me out of her bedroom, but she stared at me in silence. My skin felt hot and my throat tightened. Finally, I confessed that I could not marry Marcello.

"But why not?" She stared down at the bride on the catalogue's cover with longing.

"We have been growing apart for some time now," was the only excuse I could come up with. I was surprised that she did not interrogate me further. Instead, she burst into tears and reached for the Valium on her bedside table. "I have lost a son," she whispered, dropping a tablet onto her tongue. Then she cut a second pill in half for good measure.

Yes, she had lost a son. Over our three-year courtship, Marcello and I had become like brother and sister. If I am honest, we were more like siblings from the beginning. I remember walking our German shepherd Max in the park outside of our apartment in Rome as a timid teenager of seventeen. A handsome young man with dark hair was sitting on a bench. His blue eyes followed me as I walked past. I looked back at him then lowered my head, embarrassed for being so bold. He stood up, but then sat back down. It was if he already knew the steps he would need to take to win my heart and those of my family. The next evening he crossed my path with a dachshund that he had borrowed from a friend. As the dogs sniffed each other's behinds, he invited me for an ice cream.

"My parents are very strict, and want to know all of my friends," I warned him after I finished my kiwi coupe.

Marcello squeezed my hand. "I would be honored to meet them," he replied, then walked me home.

My father is a colonel in the Air Force and works with the Ministry of Interior. My mother suffers from agoraphobia. Like many great beauties of the upper class, she has been sheltered from danger and disappointment her entire life. Growing up like a hothouse flower has perpetuated a morbid fear for my safety and virtue, and she only feels at peace when I entertain my friends at home. Of course, my parents are more lenient with my younger brother Alessandro.

In the beginning, I didn't question why a red-blooded man would show up at my house every evening and cater to my family's every whim. For years, he ate dinner at our table, played four-handed bridge with us, and soaked up the sun on our terrace. On Saturdays, Marcello and I would drive my mother to every flea market and antique auction in Lazio. He was so enamoured of my mother's taste, he became a passionate collector himself. My father enjoyed discussing his admiration for the Christian Democratic Party with this bright young college student and my brother Alessandro taught him how to sail. You might be thinking, who is this chameleon? Does he have any will of his own? All I can say tell you is that his own father had died when he was young and that he lived alone with his mother. Going to college and being part of our clan gave him both a sense of belonging and expansion. Out of respect for my father, Marcello did not want to pet for the first two years of our relationship. After that, it only happened when one of our families left town and we had free reign of the apartment. We thought it beneath our divine love to mate like animals in a car or a hotel.

"We can wait, my darling. I don't want to push you..." he would whisper as he lay on top of me and ground himself into my hip.

Neither of us knew who we really were.

My mother swallowed the other half of her bitter pill. "But he still visits us every day, even when you stay late at the office. How could the two of you deceive us like this?"

I started to cry as well. "We didn't know how to tell you. Not after all you've done for us."

Six months ago, my father summoned me to his study. At fifty years old, he has lost all of his hair, but is still handsome. He leaned back in the chair behind his desk and lit a cigarette. We both watched the smoke rise like silver filaments towards the ceiling to hide our inability to chat.

"I have made the necessary call. Marcello will receive a position with the Ministry of Interior."

I jumped up and threw my arms around his neck. "Oh, thank you Papa. We will never forget it."

My father sighed and looked me in the eye. "One fine day, someone will come knocking at my door. I will need to return this favor, no matter what they ask."

It is very difficult in Italy for young graduates like Marcello to find suitable positions in the workforce. Even if you are a brilliant med student, you will not become a doctor without the right connections. Marcello has studied Italian history and his mother knows no one in academia. She works in an office, just like me.

So now my fiancé would become a spy. Don't get me wrong. He would not have to run through the forest with a knife between his teeth. His working hours would be spent in the intelligence department, gathering data about hostile countries to Italy. At the time, I was not thinking about what it could cost my father. I kissed his cheek and this seemed to please him. I was only dreaming about my wedding and using the money that I had saved from my three years of employment to put a down payment on an apartment for Marcello and me. This was the benefit of living at home. I would never be able to do this if I had thrown my salary down the drain on rent. Anyway, Italian women don't leave home before marriage unless there is serious abuse.

But now I am using this same apartment to find another life. Let me be clear. It is only the men that I wish to exchange. I love my job and wouldn't leave it for anything.

After high school, I went to the finest secretarial institute in Rome and graduated with honors. I could type seventy-five words a minute, and my short hand and English were excellent, thanks to my American childhood friend Suzanna. At risk of sounding vain, I was not surprised when the personnel manager ticked "Excellent" in the box rating my appearance during my interview.

I have been the personal assistant to Signor Contini, the creative director at the advertising firm Fontana e Mellora for three years now. After learning how to anticipate his needs, I am no longer afraid of him. He is not your typical advertising man. He has never chased me around his desk and he could not care less about the persona he presents to the world. His jeans are so impregnated with sweat they could stand up in a corner all by themselves. This eccentric man medicates himself with warm white wine that I bring to him in a plastic cup throughout the day. He never dines with anyone and only needs Buitoni frozen pizza to prevent himself from total collapse. But he is brilliant, and he relies on me to protect him from time wasters of all kinds. Interruptions are the death to his imagination and I am the defender of his creative process.

Signor Contini now allows me to try my hand at copywriting after work. I am grateful for his trust, and he tells me that my female point of view is invaluable to the company.

"Go on, Flavia, tell me what women really want from a brassiere."

Some of my co-workers think that he is exploiting me, but this is when I come alive. Sometimes I dream that I am walking the plank of a pirate ship. At the end, I look into the churning sea and there are no sharks. Subtitles appear in the water, giving me the perfect slogan for our product and I wake up with a start. I scribble the words down with urgency, as if finding my lost self. They may be banal, but they often unlock the code I have been trying to break. What do women want from their bra? Perfect scaffolding. Plus, the reassurance that it will not disintegrate in the wash. Yes, what about a picture of a building with construction workers hanging off the ledges. A beautiful woman walks by in a tight business suit that shows off her best assets. The men take off their helmets and bow. "Belladonna Brassieres. Built to last."

I should be more careful at the office for Carlo's sake. At thirty three, he is the youngest executive to handle an automobile account for the firm, and Alfa Romeo loves him. His ambition is a true aphrodisiac, and we often discuss our accounts after we make love.

One day I told Signor Contini that the ad campaign we were developing for a perfume was problematic.

"'Secrets' is a rather clichéd name for a woman's perfume," I told him as I inspected the black bottle in my hand. "It makes me think of Lady Chatterley in her garden shed."

He laughed and made the sign of the cross. "Or nuns and priests. I am sorry my dear, but this is the direction the client wants to take. If I gave it to you to work on, I would just be wasting your time."

"I understand. Carlo told me that it is pretty much a done deal."

Signor Contini looked at me in curiosity and lowered his voice. "You have discussed this with Carlo?"

I hesitated, realizing my mistake. Before I could nod yes, he handed me his cup for more wine and waved me away.

"Never mind. I don't want to know."

My comment was foolish. But when you are in love, your happiness tends to leak out of your pores, no matter what the consequences.

I look around the apartment at all of the furniture that Marcello has arranged after we closed on the sale. He has a talent for juxtaposing ultramodern pieces with antiques and the effect is always elegant, but never contrived. However, he has been spending the last two months as a decorator instead of consummating our relationship.

My eyes scan the marble floor, searching for the scratches near the record player, and I remember the last time that Marcello and I were here together.

I was wearing nothing but my stiletto shoes and his houndstooth jacket. I lowered the needle onto the turntable and Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" flooded the living room. He looked at me with caution as I whirled like a dervish around him, boogying down in desperation. What was the matter with this man? When Carlo had begged me to do this, I was a bit embarrassed, but the desire in his eyes was raw.

"Be careful, sweetie. You might scratch the floor."

I dragged my heel across the stone's sheen in defiance, then turned off the music.

"You are different," Marcello said, then walked over and stood behind me.

I closed his jacket, feeling cold. He put his hand on my shoulder.

"You've learnt something from someone else."

I turned to face him. "I can't marry you, Marcello. Look at us."

His lower lip trembled. "But I love you so much."

I stretched out my hand and stroked his cheek. "Well, maybe you should have loved me less."

He knelt down and buried his face in my stomach. "I don't care what you've done. Please don't leave me."

I stepped away from him. It was if I were seeing him for the first time.

He put his fingers to his temples. "You are my dearest friend, Flavia. I would let you see other men if that is what you need."

My mind wandered back to last summer. We were lying on the beach in Ostia, watching my brother Alessandro pull himself out of the waves. Marcello observed him intently as he walked towards us.

He turned to me and clucked his tongue. "He will be a real heartbreaker one day."

I remember thinking, "Yes, Alessandro is becoming handsome, but he is also neurotic."

I was more worried about my brother's moods to really pay attention to Marcello's comment.

If only I had picked up on the signs earlier, the two of us wouldn't be in this mess now.

"Why? So you can do the same?" I asked.

He stood up and looked at me with real fear in his eyes. I was cruel, and needed to pull back. He never wanted to deceive me, or my family. I could do real damage if I played the armchair psychiatrist and accuse him of deceiving himself.

"I won't tell anyone. No one needs to know."

"There's nothing to tell. You know I had girlfriends before I met you. I still want you as my wife and I'll wait for you to finish this affair."

I sighed. How many times had he told me, "I'll wait for you..."?

"You belong to me."

He was right. Even though I needed to leave him, I knew that I would think of him every day. He was the kindest of friends and he'd made my life with my parents so much easier to bear. Part of me would always be his.

Carlo strides out of the bathroom in his suit. I slip into my dress as he pulls his keys out of his pocket.

"Same time next week?"

I sit down on the sofa and motion him to do the same.

"I need to know what we're doing here..."

Carlo groans and shakes his head. "Not again..."

"You need to tell your wife. We need to start making plans."

"How many times do I have to tell you? It's much easier to break off an engagement than to untangle a marriage."

"You're afraid you won't see your daughter Steffi, but that isn't true. There's a spare bedroom for her here and she can come anytime she likes."

Carlo takes my hand and squeezes it. "Are you sure that's what you want? Would that be enough for you?"

He has told me before that he does not want any more children. I always imagined that I would have two, but sometimes you need to compromise. I nod and he looks at me in surprise.

"You're so sweet, but we should wait a little longer. My wife's father is ill and I can't cause her anymore pain."

I am disappointed, but he is a good man.

"What is Steffi's favorite color?"

He laughs. "Fuchsia."

"I can wait. But one day I will paint her room fuchsia and buy her a dress to match."

Our clothes fly off again and visions of the three of us eating breakfast together fill my head. What would Steffi like on her toast? Nutella or apricot jam?

As we exit my apartment building, I spot my mother standing in the parking lot, not a hair out of place. Alessandro is by her side. I turn to Carlo to warn him, but my mother rushes up to me and slaps my face.


Carlo instinctively tries to put himself between us before she takes another swing.

"Now wait a minute, Signora, there's no need..."

She shakes her finger at him. "You stay out of this. We know where you live."

Carlo looks alarmed.

Alessandro sizes him up, but decides he is too big to fight. He grabs my arm and pulls me towards the car. "Your father is waiting for you at home."

"No. I want to go back to the office."

"It is 8pm. Get in the car."

Carlo turns to me. "What did you tell them?"

"I didn't tell them about us, I promise."

My mother shakes her fist at him. "And you, Signor Carlo Pedretti, need to stay away from my daughter or I will tell your wife."

I throw up my hands, afraid that my mother will drive him away for good.

"Okay! I am coming home."

We get into the family's Fiat 500. It bears many a scar as both Alessandro and I used it to practice for our licenses. Clearly, these two wanted to blend in with the other modest folk in the neighborhood. They must have been afraid that I would spot my mother's Lancia from my terrace above.

I turn back and watch Carlo open the door of his Alfa Romeo. I wait for him to look up, but his eyes are not searching for me. Alessandro puts our heap in reverse and we lurch backwards towards the headlights of my lover's prize. I scream and Carlo jumps away at the sound of the crash.

My mother re-ties the silk scarf around her neck. "Be quiet! I cannot stand drama before cocktails."

My brother burns rubber, leaving Carlo to curse in the dust.

I enter the apartment with my mother. For once, Marcello is not here. She points towards the master bedroom.

"Your father collapsed this afternoon when I told him what you have done."

Whenever I hear about his heart, my own constricts in my chest.

"I don't even think he should see your face, but he insists on it."

I knock on the door. A nurse cracks it open, then hurries past me with lowered eyes.

My father lies in his bed under the covers. The only light in the room comes from the last rays of sun filtering through the window. His face is pale. With his broad shoulders and height, no one would guess that he has a weak heart.

"I am sorry, Papà."

He raises his hand to silence me.

"I want you to do me a favor. If I die before my time, the Ministry of Interior will come to the door after the funeral and offer your brother a job. This is how they operate. Under no circumstances are you to allow him to accept it."

I nod my head.

"He must go to university. The money they offer will be tempting, but his career will come to a standstill later on.

"Yes, Papà, I understand."

"They could even send him to Libya. You owe me this."

He closes his eyes, blocking me out of his sight. This is worse than my mother's Neapolitan temper. After all of these years of wanting to leave his house, I am afraid that I no longer belong.

"Marcello says he still wants to marry you. He is prepared to forgive your..."

He massages his forehead, searching for the right word.


He opens his eyes. "If you are smart, you will set a date for your marriage before you lose him forever."

My mind wanders back to last October, when the American Embassy held a Halloween party for the younger generation. My parents cooed in approval from the bridge table when I entered the living room dressed as Snow White. It took another thirty minutes for Alessandro and Marcello to make their grand entrance. Both were dressed in drag. My mother burst out laughing when she saw how her son had overstuffed her bra à la Jane Mansfield. His false eyelashes were as long as spider legs. But Marcello was beautiful. The stockinged leg peeking out of the slit in his gown would make any model green with envy. The breasts that he had constructed were compact and elegant. Each one would have fit in a glass of champagne. My father did not smile.

Oblivious to his unease, Alessandro turned to him and wiggled his boobs. "So Papa... are you a breast man or a leg man?"

My father laid his cards on the bridge table. "Apologize to your mother!"

My mother patted his hand. "Honestly, Daniele. There's no need..."

He smashed down his fist and splintered the veneer. "Apologize to your mother."

"So sorry, Mamma, I did not mean to disrespect you," Alessandro mumbled.

All three of us hurried into the night, leaving the tension behind.

My father sat up in the bed and looked at me with despair. "How could you ruin yourself like this? No other man will want you if they find out what you have done."

I kept quiet. If I even whispered that Marcello might prefer men, it could destroy his career before it began. "Don't ask, don't tell," is the Ministry of Interior's pseudo-liberal philosophy. But deep down, they are all as homophobic as my father.

The following morning, I walk into the Caffè Barolino next to our office. Carlo has summoned me here to talk. How can I clean up the aftermath of yesterday? Will he break up with me? I hope that I did not blow up my life in vain.

He sits at a table in the back, skimming the newspaper's front page. I take a seat and wait for him to fold up La Repubblica's headlines.

"Your family is crazy."

"Yesterday was inexcusable. They don't usually behave that way "

"My wife is not buying my story about an anonymous hit and run. She thinks a rival at work is jealous of my success," he says, inspecting the immaculate half-moons of his fingernails.


"There are far too many questions."

"Look. If you came to the house to meet everyone, if they knew who you are and what you mean to me..."

He leans forward and looks me in the eye. "We need to take a break from each other."

My heart sinks. I have never been rejected before.

He lifts up his hand and flashes his wedding band. "I'm married. I am not saying that we can't start up again in the future, but your family will never see me as your knight in shining armor."

"But you said you wanted a divorce..."

"Look. You are way too young to understand my relationship with my wife."

I think about how I should go forward. How will I be able to face Carlo in meetings? And Marcello? My parents will see me as a fool when I don't give our love another chance. And then what will happen to him? My father will find it very strange that I would rather be alone than marry a decent man who is prepared to forgive this affair.

"Most important, is that we retain good relations at the office. I know that it can be awkward, but I am sure we can find a way to work together."

He could have met me in the park to tell me this. He picked the office's local watering hole because he knows I won't dare make a scene. But what if I just screamed instead for revenge?

His eyes scan the room for the waiter. "I should get back. It's probably best if we return to the office separately."

He smiles, uneasy. I don't smile back. The subterfuge in the beginning was titillating. Playing the same game as a pariah will be heartbreaking.

A shadow of fear crosses over his face and he touches the knot of his tie. He always does this before he appeases a client's emotional outburst.

A woman with short black hair in her early thirties approaches our table.

Carlo jumps up like a schoolboy saluting his headmistress. "Why Tiziana! What a surprise."

The woman looks down at me with suspicion.

"Let me introduce you to Flavia, my colleague and upcoming copywriter."

It is time to collect my wits. I stand up and shake his wife's hand.

"We thought we should step out to discuss the new lipstick campaign for Collistar," Carlo says.

I panic. "Yes... the client has such contradictory criteria I am bound to make a mess of the first draft."

Tiziana's expression softens when Carlo insists that she sit down with us. He motions to the waiter to bring us more coffees and brioches.

"I thought I would drop by your office to discuss our schedules for the rest of the week, and lo and behold, I catch the two of you in here." Her voice is sweet, but the words still have an edge.

"But not until you've tried the Barolino's famous pastries and the two of you get acquainted," Carlo says.

Tiziana turns to me. "So Flavia, how long have you worked at Mellora e Fontana? My husband has never mentioned you."

Carlo looks at me, nervous. This is my cue to play the good girl. I could make an excuse and hurry back to the office, but if this woman remains suspicious, I will never have a chance to win him back.

I tell her that I work in the art department. I explain that I am the protector of Signor Contini's creative process, and how much I admire him. Anything to steer her off the scent. Tiziana's smile becomes maternal when I confide my hopes and dreams to become a copywriter.

"Collistar lipstick has so many shades," I announce. "Women will want to buy ten for every outfit and mood. The standard Jungle Red is a relic of the past."

Charmed, Tiziana tells me about her part-time work in the office at her daughter's school.

"You're so young. I guess you haven't thought about having children yet."

Carlo looks at me in suspense. The conversation is becoming way too personal.

"Oh yes! I want two children. Just like my parents."

I pull my wallet out of my purse and show her a picture of Marcello and I. It was taken a year ago when I thought we could be happy.

Tiziana beams, truly secure that I am of no threat to her. I take a few bites of my brioche. It tastes like dust.

"Well. I must get going and let you settle your schedules..." I say.

Carlo looks at me in gratitude as I stand up. Tiziana shrugs and raises her hands in the air.

"Juggling a family and work is complicated, but I wouldn't have it any other way."

As I leave, Tiziana's confides to her husband, "Such a nice young woman. She reminds me of myself at that age."

It is 8am the following morning. I sit in my car outside of Carlo's apartment. Tiziana exits the building with her daughter and a woman in her sixties. This must be her mother. Until now, Carlo's wife did not touch me anymore than a flood victim in Bangladesh on the television set. You can never have real empathy for someone so far away, and my job was to keep her at bay by pretending I did not exist. What a mess.

Carlo mentioned that they have a three-bedroom apartment. Are they really living separate lives inside this building? It does not look like it. I follow their car through traffic until it stops at a kindergarten. Tiziana jumps out and trusts her daughter to the teachers waiting in the playground. I then trail behind them to the main hospital.

The two women get out of the car. Tiziana takes her mother's arm and leads her across the parking lot towards the steps. She is not frail, but leans on her daughter for emotional support.

"My wife's father is sick," Carlo said, the last time we met at the apartment.

Shame washes over me. How did I dare tamper with this woman's life? Or with her daughter's? Or even her mother's? But feeling guilty about your actions doesn't make you a better person. It is clear what I need to do.

I work late into the evening on the new campaign for Collistar lipstick. So many colors! My slogan is seductive and sly. "There are no rules. Just lips" will draw the women in. The telephone rings. No one but Carlo would call at this hour. How dare he interrupt me?

"You did well, baby. You erased all suspicion from Tiziana's mind," he will say, and propose another tryst.

Afterwards, he will remove every trace of me in the bidet. This poor man. At thirty-three, he does not know who he is or what he wants any more than Marcello. But these men are no longer my problem. I pull the plug out of the phone socket in the wall and return to my desk. From now on, my ass is wed to this chair. My fingers fly over the keyboard. I feel a sense of control as the letters stab the page. The words might just save me.

Navigate to the third part of the trilogy.


  1. Just like in Rozanne’s first part of her trilogy, Ms. Charbonneau has a manner of beginning a story which grabs your attention—and fairly takes your breath away. And like the first, this second installment is a wonderful character study of what this time is a rather sheltered young woman who finds herself in an outlier’s bed. The story explores with honesty the homophobia rife in 1982, which marked, not coincidentally, the early days of the AIDS epidemic. The soulless and self-serving nature of her married lover are revealed again and again and one wonders when Flavia will awaken to his lack of character. When she at last discards both the prospect of a passionless marriage and a philandering Lothario, we are both happy and relieved for her. I feel like I’ve waited a long time, Rozanne. You didn’t disappoint; in fact you made my day.
    I sincerely wish I could write as well. I’m looking forward to the final episode.

    1. Thank you, Bill, for your kind words. I'm glad I didn't disappoint.

  2. Good story - Tony ^

  3. Now I must go back and read parts one and two! This is a compelling story, like a book I cannot put down.😊

    1. Thank you, Lisa, I am glad you liked it.