Home -> Bookstore -> Becoming

book cover for Becoming Becoming
a novel by Charlotte Vale-Allen

It happened while she was stirring the lemon juice into the pan, hurrying so that the veal wouldn't go cold. Suddenly, without warning, she'd arrived at the end.

"I'm leaving," she said aloud. Amazed at herself. She went right on pouring the lemon-butter sauce over the veal - her bastardized version of veal piccata - able, for a moment, to enjoy the aroma of the food.

"Leaving what?" Frank said.

She looked up at him then, wondering why she'd chosen this particular moment. Yet she felt her face forming itself into an unfamiliar expression. Her face was deadly serious, angry, alert and ready for battle. He smiled because it had to be some kind of joke.

"What are you saying?" he asked, thinking this was a lousy time for a conversation. The food would go cold.

"You know," she said evenly, toying with the wooden spoon she'd been using to stir the sauce, "that's one of the reasons I'm going."

"What? What reason? What?"

"You don't listen. Do you know that? You never listen. And you don't have anything to say either. I'm leaving."

"You're leaving," he repeated stupidly.

Her appetite had vanished. The smell of the veal suddenly made her feel faintly nauseated. That and the words, thoughts fighting their way into her brain like frenzied women battling their way toward a bargain.

"That's right. I'm going to leave." Her throat was throbbing. A small animal racing back and forth in the cage of her neck. "I'm sick of this."

"You're sick of this." He kept waiting for the punch line. For the joke. Something. This wasn't real, wasn't actually happening. Then there was a kind of click in his brain and his responses seemed to snap into action. "You're sick of this," he said again. "I'm sick of this."

He was going to turn everything around, going to claim the initiative as his own. She could see it and stood, stunned, watching the anger transform his features. He turned and marched out of the kitchen.

"Sick of this, eh?" he said. "You're sick of this. I'm the one. Me."

Dazed, she followed him, wiping her sweating palms down the front of her apron. They made a small parade that came to a halt in the bedroom where he flung open the closet door, grabbed two suitcases and tossed them - the lids opening with the force of the gesture - onto the bed. Then he started opening the dresser drawers, lifting out armloads of shirts, underwear, socks. And she stood beside the bed watching the shirts she'd ironed and the underwear she'd laundered and the socks she'd carefully folded one inside the other and rolled into neat little balls all get dropped into one of the suitcases. Dazed. The bastard had reversed their roles, making himself the decision-maker; robbing her of her moment even in this.

"I'm the one who's leaving," she said, amazed as always at how easily he was able to achieve an upper hand.

"Nobody walks out on me," he said, on the go, moving back and forth, sucking things out of the drawers with his arms like a human vacuum cleaner. "I'm getting the hell out of here."

"Frank, this is stupid," she began, then stopped.

"Right!" He snapped the locks on the first suitcase. "Goddamned stupid. To put up with ... you're no prize, Sid. You know that? You're fat. You're lazy as hell. Who needs this? I don't need this."

How did this get turned around? she wondered, automatically smoothing the bedspread, struggling to come to terms with the unexpected flood of outrage sweeping over her.

"Where do you think you're going to go?" she asked, chewing on her lower lip, hating the way he was forcing her into the defensive.

"Somewhere," he said, haphazardly folding a suit into the second bag, then going back to the closet to lift down another suit - hanger and all - and push it into the suitcase on top of the first one. "Nobody's pushing me out of my own house!"

"Nobody said anything about pushing," she said. "I said I was going to leave and somehow you're the one who's leaving. You always do this," she said, somewhat breathlessly. "I ... eight years. It's long enough. We sit in the living room every night with the set on while I read the local newspaper and you read your evening newspaper and Walter Cronkite ... It's as if we're old. I'm too young ... I'm stagnating out here."

"And what'm I supposed to do?" he asked hotly, glaring at her.

Her throat felt sticky, reluctant to let words pass through. She half wished this hadn't ever started.

"You ... there's no reason for that." She indicated the bags. "I thought I'd just ..." Again she stopped. She had no idea of what she'd thought she'd do. She hadn't thought.

"There's all kinds of reasons," he said. "I guess you'll have to put the house up for sale. I need the money."

"What do you mean you need the money?" She had the feeling now that they were talking about entirely different things.

"You started this," he said threateningly. "It would've been fine. Just remember you were the one who started."

"What?" She stared at him, bewildered.

"I would've given you more time," he said. "But you forced this whole thing. I'm going to need the money."


"Because," he said defiantly, "I'm going to marry somebody else. And we're going to need the money."

She sat down on the side of the bed thinking, He's lying. Retaliating. Drumming up the most hurtful things he can think of to say because I said I wanted to leave. And I can't be the one to make decisions - of any kind. So now, now he's going to punish me.

"You can just climb up off your duff and do something. Eight years you've been feeding off me like some kind of goddamned parasite. It's about time you did something. You're not crippled. Go out and get a job."

With that, he hefted the bags off the bed, marched out of the bedroom and through the living room to the front door where he parked the bags. Reaching into his pocket, he extracted his wallet and pulled out several bills.

"Here's a hundred," he said, waving the money at her. "Take it! I'll give you another one in a couple of weeks. After that, we'll let our lawyers decide how much you're going to get. But it won't be much, Sid. So I'm telling you, you'd better move your ass. I don't know what the hell you'll do," he said, a gleam of malicious satisfaction in his eyes. He'd won, he believed. Moved himself right into the driver's seat. "I mean, about the only thing you're any good at is cooking. It's not much to get a job on."

He opened the door, picked up the bags and carried them down the front walk to where the car was parked. Like some kind of windup toy - so furious she couldn't think of one coherent thing to say - she chased along after him, watching as he opened the trunk, lifted the bags inside, closed the trunk, then dusted off his hands and turned to face her.

"Listen," she said, trying to get him to stop moving. "Listen!"

He paused dramatically, faking a smile, his hand on the car. Waiting. Pretending he was prepared to listen.

"You always do this," she gasped out the words. "Always. This time ... I made the decision. But you always have trump cards you've been saving. Always." She looked confused, felt horribly frustrated at not being able to put the proper words to her anger. She squinted into the early evening summer sunshine, willing the words to come to her; willing her mouth to open and let fly all the stingingly articulate expletives, curses. They wouldn't come. "Where are you going?" she asked finally, momentarily defeated.

"Away from here," he said summarily. "Who the hell d'you think you are anyway telling me you're leaving? I'm the one doing the leaving."

He got in the car, started the engine and drove away.

She stood there a long time, long after the car had vanished from sight. Just like that. In about fifteen minutes he'd robbed her of everything. Again. Taken the decision from her, usurped her right to make decisions or take stances. Like the supporting act determined to outshine the star, he'd seen her intention, noted her direction and leaped in to force her off the road and race on past her.

She turned and walked back up to the house, to sit down in the rocker in the living room, moving back and forth, trying to make sense of him, of what he'd done.

Tears welled up in her eyes, spilled over and snaked down her cheeks. Eight years. Being what you wanted me to be, Frank. When I was twenty, you said you wanted me because I was exactly the kind of girl you'd always hoped to find. Someone who wanted a home, a husband; someone who loved to cook, and preferred a quiet life. I never had any other ambition then. Just you. But what you wanted was someone you could best, someone you could control. I'm fat and lazy. Bastard. No chance even to state my case. Taking everything, even my right to say I've had enough. Creating another woman, creating a need for money. Why didn't I create another man? No chance. There was no chance. You rush away and I'm still here where I don't want to be.

All at once, she couldn't bear sitting there, swaying back and forth in the rocker. She got up and went into the bedroom to take off all her clothes and look at herself in the mirror. To look at herself and feel the anger throbbing in her temples, beating at the sides of her skull, seeing the pads of flesh on her hips and the roll of fat around her middle. And her breasts huge. How did I let this happen? she wondered, moving closer to the mirror to get a better view. A close-up of bulging thighs and a pendulous rear end. And her face. Pudgy. And I refused to let myself notice. You. You ate everything I cooked, making such a fuss, smacking your lips, saying, "Terrific. Really terrific, Sid." A ploy. Keep her busy at the stove and she won't have time for any thinking. But I sneaked a little time to myself and the decision got made and you couldn't allow that. Look! A forty-five-year-old body and I'm only twenty-nine. Why did I let this happen?

She pulled on her robe and wandered out to the kitchen to dump the dinner into the garbage, then replaced the dishes on the shelves and started cleaning the skillet. When suddenly anger was a tidal wave that crashed down on her and, vibrating with fury, she pulled the skillet out of the soapy water and hurled it with all her might through the kitchen window, hearing the glass shatter and the thud of the pan landing on the grass outside. She punched out the bits of glass still clinging to the frame until none remained. All the edges clean, glass-free. Air flowing serenely through the now permanently open window.

She backed away, turned out the kitchen light and went to stand in the middle of the living room, distantly aware of pain in her hands as she turned to look at this living room she was going to leave, at this house she had to escape. The pain finally caught her attention and she looked down at her tightly clenched hands to see them smeared with blood. Blood dripping on the carpet. Dry-eyed, rage a hollow yet substantial blockage in her chest, she walked through to the bathroom to hold both her hands under the cold water faucet. And finally, with frozen, numbed hands, she lay down on top of the bed in her robe, staring at the ceiling for what seemed like hours until suddenly it was morning and she'd slept. The night was over. The first night she'd slept alone in more than eight years. And that was some sort of minor victory.

With morning, she was better able to examine Frank's actions without the off-balance perspective of the night before. Her determination returned. Frank's departure had been only for effect, the sort of thing he felt obliged to do in order to keep her in her place. Give her a day or two and she'd fall back into line. But not this time. Coupled with something that felt like a very real injury somewhere on her person was an anger that gathered force with each passing moment. So that when he called as usual mid-morning, magnanimously prepared to accept her apology and return home, she greeted him in a barely controlled voice saying, "I'm not changing my mind. You can have this house. Obviously, you're going to be needing it if you're going to start another marriage with someone else. I'll be leaving as soon as I can pack. I'll let you know where to reach me."

Unable to trust herself to conversation beyond this point, she hung up and hurried to the bathroom to shower, make up and ready herself to follow through on this decision. I've decided and I won't allow you to maneuver me into a corner.

Her breathing was fast and shallow, her heartbeat rapid as she hurried through showering and making up, dressing in the dreadful navy dress that had been Frank's favorite, rushing out of the house to the car she had bought before her marriage. She drove straight to the bank.

With a thumping feeling of success pounding guiltily in her ribcage, she withdrew the entire balance of seven thousand, eight hundred and twelve dollars and sixteen cents from the savings account. It's mine, she told herself, waiting while the teller prepared a cashier's check. It's my money. I worked for it. You get the house. I'll take the money. It's fair. My labor is worth something.

She fled back to the car considering the question of fairness. Turning everything around so he could be the one to leave. I'm taking the money. That's fair. She slid into the driver's seat, and all at once her momentum was gone. What do I do now? All this money. I'm leaving. Going somewhere. The air left her lungs in one long, slow exhalation. What do I do next?

Think! she told herself, gazing blankly through the windshield. This is what you wanted. Think carefully! Try to form a plan. Be realistic. Seven, almost eight thousand dollars. It won't last all that long. It's expensive to live. I have to live somewhere. She pictured herself installed someplace snug where she could sit very quietly and think, determine priorities. Yes. I must have somewhere to think. That comes first. Most important.

She started the car and drove a few blocks to the main street, parking the car in the lot behind the stores. She picked up a newspaper at the corner store, then continued on to the coffee shop where she settled herself at the counter. The look and smell of the breakfasts others were eating was sickening. Feeling highly visible, as though everyone must know she was running away from home, she ordered coffee. Opened the paper to "Apartments to Rent Unfurnished" and with a marker in hand, began carefully scanning the ads. First things first. Vital to find a place. Once I find a place, then I'll be able to decide on the next step.

With four specific ads circled, she got five dimes from the bleary-eyed waitress, went to the pay phone beside the front door and started calling. One was already taken. Three were still available and she made appointments to view them. Excitement back again, knocking in her chest, she felt decidedly proud and returned to the counter to have a second cup of coffee and a quick look through the help wanted ads to get the feel of what was available.

That brought her down. Hard. My God! she thought, feeling herself downsliding. I can't do anything. I can't type. I can't even file. Looking the way I do, I couldn't possibly even be a receptionist. I'd hate working in a factory, anything like that. Or a restaurant. She glanced at the waitress who, she saw, was staring at Sidonie's hands.

"Have an accident, hon?" the waitress asked with a gentle smile.

She looked down. Her hands looked terrible. Starting to scab. "Yes," she said. "Glass. A window."

"Yuwanna take care. Some athose look to be gettin' infected."

Sidonie stared at her hands as if she'd never seen them before. "You're right," she said, amazed by the number of cuts she saw. "I'll have to get some antiseptic. Thank you."

"Lookin' for a job, uh?" The waitress smiled again, refilling Sidonie's cup. "Lousy time to be lookin' with the inflation, what-have-you. My old man's laid off close on five months now. Hard on him, you know. Rough on a man having to stand around collectin' unemployment."

Sidonie glanced down at her now-filled cup, saying, "Thank you."

"Take care, hon," the waitress chirped, carrying the Pyrex pot down the counter.

Laying a dollar bill beside her untouched coffee, Sidonie left the coffee shop and returned to her car. For some reason, the waitress's concern made her want to cry. A total stranger had seemed more interested in her in the space of twenty minutes than Frank had in years.

She drove into the city, lifted as always by the sight of familiar old buildings, familiar old streets; heading into the center of town to the first address on her short list. On the fringes of Remington Park. Her favorite area of the city. An expensive, old area; the one-time nucleus of the city's very rich. Now the impressive houses were split up, sectioned off into apartments, a few still privately owned by the very rich.

During her years in high school, she and Leslie Browning used to walk Leslie's Irish Setter, Beethoven, down to the Park, speculating on the houses and who lived in them.

She wondered about Leslie and what had become of her. I'll have to find out. I always liked Leslie. And Sally Endicott. Dinah. I used to have friends. What happened to them? Not even Christmas cards anymore. She passed the street where Leslie had lived and felt a gripping pang of nostalgia, recalling how the two of them had walked along the streets with Beethoven straining against the leash. Leslie had made a big-deal ceremony of allowing Sidonie to take temporary charge of the attention-getting, splendidly groomed setter.

I married Frank and surrendered my friends like my personal charge plates I had to give up, allowed myself to be fitted in with Frank's friends because it was expected. But I never really found the right fit. The thought of Frank's friends gave her a claustrophobic feeling. His friends. Where are mine? She tried to think - scouting the perimeter of the Park for a place to park the car - of one person who might fall into the category of "her friend." She couldn't think of one. All couples. All friends of Frank's. I have no friends, she thought, backing into a very tight space. I'll have to see if I can't get in touch with some of my old friends. I must have some left somewhere. They can't all have moved away. Not all of them.

"Writer and his wife lived here," the woman explained, showing Sidonie through the apartment. "Lovely folks. Just lovely. A teacher she was. Prettiest little thing y'ever wanna see. Died a few years back. He stayed on. 'Til last week. He moved out."

"She died?" Sidonie asked distractedly, moving through the rooms. Two bedrooms. What on earth could she do with two bedrooms?

"Cancer. Sad. Young woman, too."

Sidonie wasn't listening. She was too involved in the apartment, appreciating the brightness of the spacious living room, the charm of the master bedroom with its adjoining bathroom, the potential usefulness of the smaller second bedroom.

"Ad only came out in this morning's paper," the woman explained. "You're first. Very reasonable rent, considerin' the area."

"How much?"

"Two seventy-five. Won't find a thing around here for that. Not with two bedrooms, two bathrooms. Newly painted. Floors just done. I was you, I'd snap it up."

"Yes. Yes, I will."

"You'll take it? Two-year lease, you know. First and last month's rent, a month's security."

"When could I move in?"

"Any time you like. You married?"

"Y ... No. I'm getting divorced." The words were easy enough to say. But the feeling was devastating. As if she were the sole survivor of some terrible tragedy. "I could move in today? This afternoon?"

"What about your furniture?" the woman asked.

"I'll have to get some, I guess. I have a few things. I'll get the rest."

"Well, okay. You might as well come on downstairs while I get the lease ready. You wanna cuppa tea?"

Sidonie looked at her finally. A pleasant face.

"Thank you. I'd like a cup of tea."

Downstairs to the woman's tidy but cluttered apartment. Boston ferns, African violets lining the window sills. A smell of damp soil, growing things. Warm. Cozy.

"I'm divorced, too," she volunteered. "Eleven years. Sonofabitch took off with some kid, just left me high 'n' dry with an eight-year-old. Lucky thing for me I got this job. Otherwise, I'd of starved to death. Sonofabitch."

"Boy or girl?" Sidonie asked, sitting at the old-fashioned wooden kitchen table.

"Boy. He's off to college in a coupla weeks." She smiled proudly. "What's your name, anyhow? Mine's Aurora. Damnedest name, eh? That was my mom all over the place, givin' me a highfalutin la-de-da name like Aurora."

"Sidonie ... Graham. I suppose I'll start using my maiden name again."


"Sidonie. It sounds similar, but spelled S-i-d-o-n-i-e."

Aurora laughed. "Musta had one a those kinda mothers, too."

Sidonie laughed with her. It felt odd, as if it was something she hadn't done in years. The facial muscles protesting this unexpected exercise. "Sounds that way, doesn't it?" I'm going to like you, she decided, guessing at Aurora's age. Forty or thereabouts. "Tell me about the couple who lived here, the woman who died."

"I'll tell ya, it was sad." Aurora placed a cup of tea in front of Sidonie along with a box of shortbread. "Nicest couple you'd ever want to meet. From the looks of it, they didn't tell a living soul she was sick. I'd see her toward the end there, you know, sittin' over to the Park. Just sittin', watchin' the kids playing. Smiling, always talkin' to the kids. Then, next thing anybody knows, she's off to the hospital. One day she's rushing off to school - did I say she was a teacher? - smiling, so friendly. Next day, school's over and she's off to the park most afternoons. Then bingo! She's dead."

"What about the husband?"

"Went to live in England. Has a daughter, grandchildren over there. Lived right here in this building close on twenty years, he did. Came at first with the daughter. Then, later on married up with that one." Aurora sipped thoughtfully at her tea. "Tell you how nice she was. I sat down here and cried like a baby when I heard. Still think of her sometimes, see her in my mind, like, sittin' over to the Park. Well." She cleared her throat. "So much for that. Lemme go get those leases. I can fill 'em out while we're sittin'."

She left the room and Sidonie sat drinking the tea, trying to form a picture of the couple. She couldn't. All she could think was that she wanted to live in this place. She'd have someone she might talk to occasionally. And a nice place to live. I'm doing all right, she thought. I'm going to get through this. You're not going to kill me off, Frank.

"Lissen," Aurora said, returning with several copies of a lease. "There's a whole loada stuff downstairs you might wanna have. Been left over the years by tenants. You know?"

"That might be very good."

"You can have a look after we get you all signed on the dotted line and so forth. Just gotta fill in this crap. Hate this part of it." She sighed. "But there's only twelve apartments and they don't change hands all that often. Matter of fact, this is the first vacancy in close on three years. Thank God! And the landlord's a nice fella. That's important, you know."

"I suppose it is."

"Any kids?"

Sidonie shook her head.

"Better that way, you ask me. Less hassles. Well, might as well get these signed and outa the way." She pushed the forms across the table.

Without more than a glance at the amount for rent and various deposits, Sidonie signed her name at the bottom of each copy of the lease, then wrote out a check for eight hundred and twenty-five dollars. While writing the check, the thought came to her that she had no idea what she was doing. She simply knew she had to get away from that house, away from where it had all happened. Like a fugitive, she thought humorlessly. On the run. Looking for a safe hiding place.

Aurora studied the signature on the check, then folded it neatly, separated the copies of the lease and passed one over to Sidonie. "I guess you wanna have a look downstairs now, see if there's anything you'd be able to use."

"Oh, yes. Please."

Aurora studied the younger woman, deciding it was none of her business so she wouldn't go asking a whole bunch of questions. Easier 'n' hell to go puttin' people off that way, asking a whole lot of questions. She did think, though, that this Sidney might be real good-looking if she wasn't so fat. Go figure people! she thought, leading the way to the basement.

Aurora took great pains to look her best. Kept an eye on her weight, had her hair done once a week and shopped around the good thrift shops for expensive, scarcely worn castoffs. Bad enough she had to be a glorified janitor. Damned if she'd look like one.

This one, she thought, looks more like a janitor than I do. Go figure it! Got the money to sit down and write out a big check like that. You got the money to do that, you got the money for doin' something about how you look.

There was an old, ornate headboard against the far wall of the storage room. Sidonie made her way toward it wishing the light were better.

"This is beautiful," she said, turning to look at Aurora. "Does it belong to anyone?"

"You, if you want it. Been down here must be ten years. There's a footboard, slats around somewhere, too. Have to buy a mattress and box-spring, though."

"Oh, that's all right. I really would love to have this."

"I'll get Abe to bring it up for you. Abe's the handyman. You need a washer on the tap, or anything broken upstairs, you call me, I'll send Abe."

It was like a dream, Sidonie thought, looking through the discards in the storeroom. She found a table, badly stained and scratched. But with stripping and a fresh coat of varnish, it would do nicely as a bedside table. She also found a stately old armchair with a wide, curving back and rolled arms.

"These are wonderful things!" she exclaimed. "I can't believe no one wants them."

"Plain amazing what's junk to some folks, treasures to others," Aurora observed, as Sidonie moved around. "You just go ahead and pick out whatever you like. I'll be glad of the extra space."

In the end, she also opted to have a faded Oriental rug, an oak coat rack hidden beneath countless layers of paint, a round pedestal occasional table and a green glass lamp. Aurora talked her into having a huge carton of odds and ends of cookware and dishes.

"Never know what'll come in handy," she said. "What you don't want, Abe'll bring back down here. Leavin' clean, eh?"

"What?" Sidonie looked up.

"Not plannin' on taking anything you didn't go in with."

"That's right," Sidonie said firmly. "Only what's mine."

"Me," Aurora said. "I got the lot. The whole dump, fulla twenty-year-old overstuffed crap. One a these days, I'm gonna get rid a the whole kit and caboodle and get me some a that nice Scandinavian stuff."

Sidonie left there with a set of keys and the first real sense of accomplishment she'd had in years. She drove downtown to Hamilton's to order a mattress and box-spring and a sofa, as well as shower curtains, burnt-bamboo shades for the apartment's many windows, two Ege Rya area rugs that would coordinate well with the colors of the old Oriental.

Then she drove back to the suburbs and started sorting through the things in the house. Methodically. I have to be fair, she told herself. No matter what kind of dirty, unfair tactics he uses. So she took half the sheets, blankets and towels. Half the dishes and pots and silver service. She found several cartons in the cellar, filled them and carried them out to the car. Glad of her old station wagon, she maneuvered things around so that she was able to take her rocker, a lamp she had chosen herself, two small tables that had come from her old bedroom at home, and the ten-inch portable color set. Let him live with the antique black and white monster!

By the time she finished, the car was absolutely crammed, including the front seat and the well on the passenger side. With that fugitive feeling pressing her again, she got into the car and drove to the city. To her new home.

By eight that night, she'd made three trips back and forth. The house looked somewhat denuded without her books. (Frank's books consisted of one on contract bridge, several computer manuals, and an interoffice telephone directory.) But it was still a house filled with furniture, and her new apartment was a jumble of boxes and books and clothing all dumped in the middle of the living room.

Driven by some compulsive interior force, she began hanging away her clothes. She created tidy rows of books, filling the built-in shelves in the living room and bit by bit reducing the accumulation of articles in the middle of the room.

With each item that came away from the mass and was settled somewhere, she felt more and more pleased with herself and more and more desperate. The desperation pulsed in her temples, sent perspiration streaming down her body and kept her moving. At eleven she realized she'd eaten nothing all day and went out to the car to drive to a still-open restaurant outside the Park for a hurried hamburger and coffee. Her stomach cramped after the first few bites but she finished the tasteless food and the acrid coffee before hurrying back to the apartment to stow away the kitchenwares.

Two a.m., and she couldn't make one more move. Her body refused.

She slept that night atop several folded blankets. In her new bedroom. The first time in her life she'd spent an entire night in a place entirely her own. Despite the turmoil inside her head, despite the urgency that forced her to set the alarm for an early hour, so that she'd be up and able to finish clearing the living room, she felt good about what she'd accomplished so far. Still desperate. But pleased.

Screw you, Frank, she thought, fingers trembling as she switched off her new green glass lamp.

Order Becoming