The Story of Viviana
Viviana is on my Baby Names spreadsheet and hers is just one of my 8 million stories from the naked city.
In the early 90’s I was fresh from the Army, fresh from a marriage and fresh off the turnip truck. Most of the people I’d known up until then were the same as me, more or less. Then I moved to New York City.
I met Viviana while working at an investment banking firm. We were both administrative assistants and that is precisely where our commonality ends. She chain-smoked at her desk. Only the executives did that. She spoke with a thick Chilean accent. She lived in Brooklyn. She was reserved and elegant, poised and particular. She was at least 54 to my 24. She wore her hair back in a low bun every single day. She had a green card. She had a college-aged son of whom she spoke rarely but when she did it was with reverence and awe. She friend-mothered me through the input onslaught that is New York City and the wounds that even a brief, ill-conceived marriage can inflict.
One night she invited me over for dinner and that’s when I saw her brownstone, her Moonstruck brownstone, all houseplant, am/fm radio, ashtray and peeling paint four stories of her Boerum Hill brownstone. She grew cherry tomatoes on the fire escape. She lived there alone while her son was at school and her husband was. . . where, I have no idea. It didn’t matter. I’d never in my life known a woman so independent and cool. She used cloth napkins. She made for us a spinach lasagna. When I asked her for the recipe she looked at me like the child I was, shaking her head. I pleaded, she relented. I still make Viviana’s lasagna today.
Born and raised in Santiago, Chile, a dancer in her youth, Viviana tasted the cultural offerings of NYC and already under her wing, insisted I broaden my horizons past any of the McIrishName pubs a block from the office. When she suggested I join her for a season’s subscription to The Joyce Theater however, I was reluctant. This was a fortune to me at the time but who better an ambassador? So I traded in dozens of White Russians (good God) and shots of chilled black Sambuca (for real) for a glimpse of the divine. We would leave the office together, smoking, dine at any fabulous place in Chelsea and go on to watch the performance. It was a long and lonely return to my Bronx shoebox but I became a better woman for at least one season, if not my entire life.
I wrote Viviana a couple of years ago and tried to convey my gratitude for her friendship. I didn’t hear back but nor was my note returned for an incorrect address. I like to picture her on that fire escape, my note on the grates, tomato in one hand, cigarette in the other, sun shining on her knowing face.
Viviana, Viviana, Viviana.