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Life And Poker

Our entry into high school comes with a yearning desire to make new friends, a need to fit in, and a selfishness for the top locker. These timely characteristics were no different for me. I entered this time in my youth as someone who had been outcasted from the “in” crowd during grammar school. I had big teeth, which I still have today, and my parents didn’t have the funding to get braces. This was more than enough to be made fun of and exit stage right. Needless to say, high school couldn’t come soon enough.

Quickly, I learned that some of us embody a unique talent of seamlessly infiltrating cliques and being loved by all. This was Luis Malave. He was my first high school friend, and nothing less than a socialite. He would invite me to his house every morning for breakfast and PlayStation. I didn’t own a PlayStation myself. He became  fond of  me through our mutual love of sports. However, neither of us were ever good enough to make an organized team, but we both considered ourselves sports trivia champions.

When I arrived at his home for the first time, I could not help but notice the endless sea of sneaker boxes that towered to the ceiling, and drawers so full of fitted caps that closing them became a task. Regardless, for the hour we were at his home, none of this was of significance. We were but two kids competing in a basketball video game where he picked his favorite team, the Sacramento Kings, and I never swayed from the Los Angeles Lakers.

When the games concluded, we had little time before school began. Luis would ask me to help pick out an outfit for the day. He had a wide selection of clothes to choose from, and it was exciting to see how color schemes brought it all together. He would teach me a thing or two regarding fashion. We became weekday morning fashionistas, but only he would walk the runway.

Lucy, Luis’ mom, was a long time employee of J.P. Morgan Chase in their Human Resources Department. My mom was only beginning to lay the groundwork on what would later become a tax firm. Unfortunately, we were still a ways away from where we needed to be financially. Regardless, Luis made it clear that he and I were the same.

One morning, on our way to school, he noticed I was wearing an outfit that would go well with a pair of sneakers he owned. He would go on to hand me a sneaker box and say, “Wear these.” Wearing someone else’s attire, even once, would be considered a social offense, but Luis would keep things silent. He went on to keep me afloat fashion-wise for a long time.

This was all superficial, and we were aware enough to understand that. Neither of us cared much about what each other would wear amongst ourselves. The items we concerned ourselves with were only done for the appeasement of those who cared for such things.

Regardless, he still held an attribute of befriending all with ease… a trait I could only wish but garner a fraction of. From the lead cheerleader, to a future scientist, who would later become class valedictorian, Luis befriended them all. Somehow, he accomplished this while still being mindful enough to inform them that I too was someone they should befriend.

He would not leave me behind because we knew each other’s story. He understood my insecurities were built from a forever absent biological father, and, at times, an overbearing stepfather. I knew he had diabetes. This seemed small, but for one reason or another, he kept this information from many. At times, he put his own health at risk in doing so. More importantly, he and I witnessed something at his home we couldn’t shake from memory…

It was once again game night at Luis’ house, but this time, deep into the night, Luis’ father bursted into the room exclaiming, “Do you want to see a fight?”. He proceeded to go after his mother. He came into our room knowing we would stop him. His father may have understood that is what he needed us to do. We did just that, but police were already on the way. Lucy was a small, 5 foot tall, Puerto Rican woman from New York City. Needless to say, she was tough, and her mental fortitude in this situation spoke volumes. Luis’ father avoided jail that night solely due to her.

That night, I mentioned to Luis that the small scar on my forehead was due to my father launching me across the room when I was a toddler. This was during an argument between my parents prior to their divorce. I would hold no judgement based on what just occurred, but neither he nor I could unsee what just unfolded. We were kids staring into the face of an adult problem. To us, that meant we would walk the streets late at night talking out our issues, and acting as one another’s therapist. We thought we had solutions, and of course we didn’t, but we had one another.

The next day, Luis wore a unique pair of sneakers. I knew his closet inside out. He didn’t do this often, as some of the pieces were for special occasions. I was next to him while he was getting his desired attention. Luis and I only looked at one another. The complimentary voices seemed distant now. At that moment, through eye contact and our friendship, I understood that he didn’t care for the compliments this time. It was a cover. He was drowning the pain he held with material items. Today, no one else had his problems; not even me. This is what he meant when he mentioned we were the same.

We graduated, but the bond didn’t break. We were each other’s biggest supporters. At the time, we were two young kids lost in an unforgiving world. We took odds jobs, and were in and out of school. With all that, however, we had dreams. Dreams neither of us dare shoot down.

Over time, I began to gain traction in my career field. My ability to network, frankly, was the sole cause of this upward movement. I was afforded opportunities I didn’t deserve if they were accolade based. Finally, I had learned some of what came to Luis so naturally. I remember him reviewing messages I would send to peers, and him changing the wording to make me sound more interesting.

Luis kept a close eye. I traveled often, and his girlfriend Kathy was someone he needed to tend to. Regardless, a text from him came in often stating, “I saw an article with you in it!” Little felt better than a friend supporting me in a field that does nothing but beat you down with subtle glimpses of glory.

It was August 7th, and I had just finished booking a flight home after a long summer in Las Vegas with few days off. I was eager to spend my upcoming birthday in New Jersey. That day, I received a different message; a message that Luis had suffered a heart attack while driving alongside his girlfriend. Luis died.

I proceeded to lock myself in a room I had rented for the summer. Tears began to trickle down my cheeks with little stop in sight. I had lost a person that made my life much easier, and I wasn’t sure if he knew that to be the case. I could no longer thank him for the moments which were small to him, but so large to me.

It took over a year to write this, and I want nothing more than to keep writing, as I don’t want to close the book on my dear friend. A screen blurred through tear-filled eyes as I begin to search for our final paragraph…