New Year's With Violetta

I didn't know it then, but that day was one of the happiest of my life

Violetta's headshot

Violetta and I spent New Year's together. It was 1987, turning into 1988, in cold and snowy Chicago. The two of us met in acting class and had recently started dating. We were relatively young then—me, recently divorced and in my early 30s, and Violetta, perhaps around 27.

Violetta was a pretty combination of Hispanic and African-American. I'd not dated a woman of color before and was attracted to her dark skin and naturally wavy hair. She also had a sweet and gentle nature. I don't know what she saw in me.

The first time Violetta and I made love—on the floor of my studio apartment at the shore of Lake Michigan—I fetched a blanket off the futon mattress and spread it out to keep her from getting rug burn. Violetta laughed at me and said, "Ah, such a gentleman."

I don't remember much else of our short time together as lovers. We must have gone to the movies, out to eat—all that first-together stuff. I do remember that Violetta was very afraid of the Chicago cold, usually choosing to stay inside my steam-heat apartment rather than venturing outdoors. Violetta suffered from severe asthma, something I knew little about. She told me that the cold could bring about an attack. It could even kill her. To be honest, I thought she was exaggerating.

Another thing I remember: Violetta dreamed of traveling to exotic places in the world. But she told me this was something she would never be able to do, that she always had to be close to a hospital. Again, I thought she was exaggerating.

Oh, and Tiddly-Winks. I remember throwing a little party at my place with two other couples and Violetta. After whatever meal I managed to produce, we played Tiddly-Winks on the same rug Violetta and I had made love on. I have no idea why I even had a set of Tiddly-Winks, but the memory is ineffably sad to me now.

That New Year's Eve, Violetta and I met downtown for dinner—at a Hamburger Hamlet restaurant, a place I'd chosen. Not a very romantic setting, I recognize now. But I had a good friend who was the bartender there and thought it would be fun for us to sit at his bar before our meal.

It was very, very, cold outside.

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I arrived early at the restaurant and had a drink, talking to my friend, the bartender. Violetta arrived. She lived on the far south side of town. I lived on the far north. Neither of us had cars and we had both taken the train downtown. When Violetta walked into the restaurant, I remember being disappointed, perhaps even a little upset. She had straightened her hair. She did it for me, I guess, but I liked it natural and wavy.

I had tickets for a play. I like to think that I sprung for a cab and that we didn't take the subway, but I no longer recall. The play was by Tom Stoppard. It was very funny, but Violetta never laughed once. That, too, upset me a little. The tickets had been expensive.

Cab or train, we made our way back to my place. Once there, Violetta relaxed. We exchanged Christmas gifts. I think I gave her a handmade African bracelet. She gave me two presents: a book about silent film actress Louise Brooks, whom Violetta knew I had a crush on, and also a little dog puppet. It was one of those things where you push the button on the bottom of its base and the dog moves around.

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We must have then made love, but I don't remember. I do remember Violetta in my pajamas. We must have rung in the New Year together when the clock struck twelve.

The next day, New Year's Day, we slept late and then stayed in bed together, all day. I had a little black-and-white TV I'd purchased at a pawn shop after my divorce. "On the Waterfront" with Marlon Brando was playing on channel nine, without commercial interruption. Violetta watched it while I slept. Then came "Casablanca" with Humphrey Bogart, again without commercial interruption. Violetta then slept while I watched. By the time both films were over, it was dark outside. Violetta got dressed and I called a cab to take her home to the south side.

I didn't know it then, but that day was one of the happiest I was to live.

Shortly into that new year, I met the woman who was to become my second wife and the mother of my only child. We fell in love. Though I'd never broken up with a woman before (and only one time since), I knew I could no longer see Violetta. I'm just not made that way.

We met at a restaurant downtown. Violetta just had new headshots made and was excited to show them to me. She gave me one to keep.

I told Violetta I'd started dating someone else and that we could no longer see each other. She didn't take it badly—I don't think she was in love with me—but it was hard and awkward.

I only saw Violetta once after that, a month or two later. I'd gone to the acting studio we both attended to take a class and she came out into the lobby in a negligee, preparing an acting scene she was about to perform. She smiled, said hi, and that was about it.

A few months later, I was working the lunch shift at my job as a waiter in a restaurant downtown. It was crazy busy, as always. As I juggled drinks and food, my best friend, also a waiter, caught up to me and said, "Hey, you know who died? Violetta." My friend had been among the Tiddly-Wink players, but he said it casually, in an off-hand manner. I was stunned—and furious at him.

Violetta had been cleaning her apartment. She opened a cleaning fluid and the fumes set off her asthma. She died before she could reach her phone.

Now, as New Year's 2018 approaches, I'm thinking of Violetta. She was so young. I think I treated her badly. The gifted book about Louise Brooks has long disappeared, but I still have Violetta's headshot. And the little puppet dog sits on my shelf. A memory of someone who died too young shortly after a long-ago New Year's Day.