This is my friend Luis.
That’s a photo of him from high school in the Philippines, taken when we were sophomores. I don’t remember exactly how we met that year — we were never in the same classes together — only that we found ourselves hanging out in overlapping social circles during recess and after school, cracking jokes or geeking out over TV shows or talking about nothing in particular. He was a big guy (and was always the first to point it out and joke about it), bespectacled (as was I), with a cracking baritone voice. He was funny, whip-smart, gentle, wise, curious, good-humored, open-hearted. No wonder everyone loved him.
We became good friends and confided in each other. We shared our favorite books, favorite bands (his were always cooler than mine), crushes, dreams, fears, and the generally restless, feverish, amorphous wanderings of our teenage brains. I remember sitting by the family phone in our house — in the primordial epoch before email and smartphones — cradling the clunky black receiver against my ear and chatting with him for hours: aimless conversations with long stretches of companionable silence, a lazy hangout session conducted over telephone wires, until the irritated click of the party line forced us off.
Luis was nonjudgmental with people and always saw the best in you, and it wouldn’t have surprised me at all if he’d forged similarly close (or closer) connections with many others. For my part, I considered him my best friend.
We really only had a year to enjoy that friendship in person. After sophomore year ended my family and I moved to the United States.
I never saw Luis again.
We kept in touch for years, exchanging letters and mixtapes. (I remember sending him the Gipsy Kings, while he sent me Aimee Mann, Erasure, and Echo and the Bunnymen; I believe I got the better deal.) As I finished out high school I wrote him angst-filled missives about grappling with the shock of my new life. In college I proudly sent him a novella I’d written, which won a school award; he wrote back with very kind words. I sent him a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I’d had signed by Douglas Adams, who had visited my campus; Luis wrote back, grateful and ecstatic.
In return, Luis wrote to me about music and philosophy and literature, the women he gave his heart to, the joy of having a new niece in his life, his growing menagerie of hamsters and cats. He wrote about switching his college major (from math to creative writing), his writing and teaching gigs, his published essays and stories. His messages were, for me, a window back to the world I’d left, as well as to the formidable literary force my friend was becoming. My image of him had stayed frozen in time with that high school photo, but it was clear that Luis, curious and questing as ever, was forging new connections and going on new adventures without me. I watched from afar with pride and pleasure (and perhaps just a smidge of envy) as he found — or founded — communities of like-minded writers and artists; wrote for and edited an increasingly impressive number of magazines and blogs; racked up awards and accolades; and became an official, bona fide Voice of His Generation. Way to go, Luis!
Then: we drifted out of touch. I suppose it was to be expected. Our branches had diverged; I admired his branch in bloom, and moved on. I moved to New York, married the love of my life, had a child. We still corresponded occasionally, but the stretches of time in between grew wider, deeper. 9/11 happened, and Luis was one of the first people to call and make sure I was okay. A few years later he emailed to ask if I could contribute an article to his magazine (which I did) and a story for his anthology (which to my knowledge he never published; and we agreed that my story wound up being unworkable anyway). In our final email exchange, he let me know that his girlfriend’s band was in the States and playing a couple of gigs in Brooklyn. I couldn’t make it to either.
After that, nothing for years. But this, I thought, was simply the way of things with old friends. You may drift apart, but you’re secure in the knowledge that your friend is still there, as if on the other end of the line, ready to resume the conversation after an amiable silence. And perhaps, insecure in some of my own career choices, I wanted to live a little more before that conversation resumed: to collect a few more experiences and accomplishments, and have a little something to show off against his formidable professional achievements, when next we talked. And surely we would talk again — sometime, somehow. We were only in our late 30s, then early 40s; surely I had the luxury of letting our long association lie dormant for just a while longer. Surely there was ample time to pick up our friendship again.
Except — and of course, dear reader, you saw this coming — there wasn’t. Time ran out.
I am not active on social media, not even a little bit. For half-forgotten reasons of privacy and inertia — reasons that seem stupid at times like this — I never signed up for an account on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t get notifications from old or distant friends, or friends-of-friends, when some earthshaking event comes crashing into their lives. And so I was completely oblivious when Luis was hospitalized last December for complications arising from diabetes. For months he lay sick as my wife and daughter and I celebrated the winter holidays, watched Spring Awakening and Hamilton, agonized over our cat’s surgery, threw a dinner party for our daughter’s fifteenth birthday. I had no clue that his friends and colleagues were holding fundraisers to help pay for his medical bills. No idea when he suffered a stroke and slipped into a coma. And not a whisper of an inkling when he passed away two nights ago.
A cousin of mine found out through his connections and kindly let me know. I found out the rest from Google, that heartless purveyor of blunt information. And here we are.
Luis was 41 years old. He was a brilliant writer and a good man. And he was my friend. He had many friends, many of whom are certainly much closer than me. But for a long time, though we were divided by an ocean and by years of life separately lived, I considered him my closest.
Yet I had taken our friendship for granted and let it dwindle, believing there would be time to renew it. And now I will never see him or speak to him again. That door is shut, as so many of the doors in the middle of our lives are starting to shut.
There’s a song from the musical Spring Awakening, “Left Behind,” that destroys me whenever I listen to it:
Melchior sings a lament for his young friend Moritz, who has taken his own life. He grieves for all of Moritz’s possible futures that now will never be; they have become a ghost, whistling through those other ghosts still left behind — we, who mourn, who survive and regret and remember. And though Luis enjoyed a far longer and richer life than poor Moritz, I still grieve for his years unlived, now forever shut away behind that locked door, that awful finality. Would he have married, had children? Would he have written plays and novels, each one surpassing the last? What would he have thought of this new band, that new movie, and all the twists and turns of humanity’s ever-unfolding story? What new and hard-won insights would he have shared about love? About friendship? About growing old?
I sit here grasping at ghosts.
His book of essays is in my hand — the words he left behind. The last piece is about being in-between, about wanting to be “at a safe distance from extremes or pat definitions… I think I just wanted to achieve a state where nothing really is expected but everything seems possible.”
This was the space I occupied with him, in that aimless teenage year we shared. To be honest, it’s a space I still struggle with in some ways. But for Luis, that changed:
Lately, I’ve been having pleasantly sleepless nights. I’ve been pacing around, looking up at the sky, wondering at the way things work, about how it sometimes seems that so much can happen in so short a time. About how, sometimes, it really does seem that things work out for the best, in the end, about how regrets and recriminations can slide away like so much shed skin…
Now I think about objects at rest and objects in motion and the lines have blurred. I sit here before the computer monitor, my back straight, my hands resting gently on the keyboard, my body almost still — and yet I feel a humming of sorts, from deep inside, that seems to be getting louder, more resonant. I know, I know. I can’t understand it either. And no, I haven’t been taking any illegal substances lately.
I don’t feel as if I’m in-between any more, or in a safe rut, which, when you think about it, is the same thing; and I don’t feel as if I ever want to be in that state again. It all comes down to this. I feel as if I’ve wasted a lot of time, and I don’t want to waste any more.
He certainly didn’t.
And now my scrapbook of high school memories lies open and I am looking at the note he wrote to me at the end of our year together, before the start of our lives apart. One more ghost.
…for, after all the things we’ve shared,
the jokes we’ve laughed at,
the emotions that turned our lives upside down,
the joys we experienced…
the opinions and advice and sympathies and everything else —
We have infused a little bit of ourselves into each other —
A little bit of me in you,
and a little bit of you in me.
And no matter what happens,
I’ll always have
that little bit of you with me.
So what do I do with this? Luis’s death, a cousin’s death, the deaths of other friends taken far too soon — the doors keep shutting, their echoes loud through the corridor of my own life. Asking a question, posing a challenge. “Death doesn’t discriminate / Between the sinners and the saints,” says Hamilton’s Aaron Burr: “It takes and it takes and it takes / And we keep living anyway / We rise and we fall / And we break / And we make our mistakes.”
And maybe that’s all we can do, can ever do: to keep living, to make our mistakes, to rise and fall and rise again. And to live as best we can, for ourselves and for those who no longer can — who live on only as long as we remember and honor them, with our courage and the fierceness of our living. No matter what happens / I’ll always have / that little bit of you with me.
I’ll remember you, Luis. I am honored and deeply grateful to have known you, to have been your friend, and to have watched you shine.