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 My friend Rafat is gone. Like, forever. He’s not dead, thank God, but for all intents and purposes, in my world, he might as well be.

I sat right across from Rafat for nine months. Anytime my eyes would veer away from my work computer screen for even a second, I would see Rafat. Rafat has surely seen me pick my nose on several occasions, and he, probably better than anyone other than my roommates and my mother, knows just how bad my feet can smell. (This is the point in the column where everyone who knows me chimes in: “Actually, Will ...”)

When you sit across from someone every day, when he’s as much a part of the scenery as the coffee maker or the elevators, you don’t think of him nearly as often as you should. These people are just simply there, reliable, like the guy who makes your coffee every morning or the same crossing guard by the school, 7:30, every day, friendly wave, off we go, best to you.

Rafat and I couldn’t have been more different. He grew up in India, which, I learned, is nothing at all like Indiana. I remember one day at work, when shit was really going down back home; he sat at his desk, looking paler than me. There had been some sort of bombing, or an attack, or something, and his uncle was unaccounted for. He was instant-messaging with family over there, and everyone was in a panic. Who knows what to say in that situation? I told him I was rooting against the Indiana Pacers in their game with the Bulls that night. I’m not sure if he got the joke. I’m not even sure there was one.

Rafat often struggled with the clash of his upbringing and his life in America. On one hand, his parents were devout Muslims who frowned on alcohol or sex or, you know, anything fun. On the other hand, he had a Nerve personal ad and a work friend who was constantly trying to persuade him to down tequila shots. Rafat became a closer part of my social circle, even accompanying my then-girlfriend and me to a dinner celebrating the visit of a close friend of mine from out of town. He even warmed to a nickname we gave him, “Rartfat,” just because we thought it sounded funny. Which it does.

He came to a party my roommates and I hosted once. He just lived down the street here in Inwood, so, unlike everyone else, he had a brief, easy jaunt home. Using this information, I talked him into taking his first swig of hard liquor. To document the occasion, I commandeered my friend Lindsay’s Polaroid camera. On three ... one ... two ... let’s go Rafat ... and pound! He looked like someone had just stuck a branding iron in his anus. The photo is classic. I don’t know where it is now. I’d love to have it.

He didn’t like beer, so I had him drinking Mike’s Hard Lemonade. He was also in charge of the digital camera, and most of the shots of people drunkenly wailing during karaoke were taken by him. He’s not in any of those pictures. Most are, not surprisingly, out of focus anyway. He had a great time that night.

He was here on a work visa, sponsored by my company. This posed a problem. If our magazine ever went under, I would just have to go find another job and make sure I could pay my rent. But Rafat, he’d have to go back to India. He had been in America too long; he had little desire to go back there. He knew what it could be like.

Bad news came in. We’re having money troubles. Rafat started looking pale again. He had been dating this girl — not a nice girl, if you ask me. He brought up the notion of possibly getting married so he could stay in the country, in case anything went down. Rafat was a little too public with this notion, in my opinion; soon everyone at work knew about it. I told him to shush a little; he asked me to be the best man, if it went down. He liked this girl anyway; he could make it mutually beneficial.

A turn for the worse. A few people left their jobs. Our staff dwindled. We all suddenly found ourselves doing the jobs of two or three people, and it was stressful and tiring and, occasionally, demeaning. Rafat had a falling-out with the girl, and soon it became evident that not only would they not be marrying, they wouldn’t be hanging out much at all. He had a run-in with his roommate that made his home a place he tried to avoid whenever possible. The walls started closing in.

Rafat stopped talking much at work. I would ask him how he was doing, and he’d put his head down and shake it, slowly, and say, “Not good, man, not good.” He would go into no more detail. The spiral had begun.

Our company’s business started to pick up. I took this as good news, particularly for Rafat. But the die was already cast with him. He was already lost. He would show up to work later and later, and leave later and later. He grew haggard and, when he spoke at all, complained of an inability to sleep. I wish I could have been there more for him. But I had my own stuff going on. We always have our own stuff going on. There is only so much that we can do.

It happened one Friday. We were all sitting around, doing our work, me rocking out to the White Stripes while typing up details of a recent investment by 3i, “one of the more active venture capitalists in the world, with more than $3.1 billion capital under management.” Rafat hadn’t spoken all morning. He stood up, walked into my boss’ office, and about 10 minutes later, they left in the elevator. I received a call about an hour later from our boss, saying Rafat wouldn’t be back in today, could you pick up his work? I said fine, and asked if everything was OK. My boss, hardly one of my better out-of-work pals, sighed and said, “We’ll see. I hope so.”

I left three messages for Rafat over the weekend, none of which were returned until a week later. By then, our office had already made up its own rumors. He told me he was medicated, so bear with him. He then said he was leaving for India in a week. I did not press him for details; the battles he was fighting clearly were ongoing.

The night before he left, he dropped by my apartment. My roommates and I were watching Survivor and preparing to dye my hair. (Long story.) We went in my room and talked for an hour. Then he had to go home, to bed. Lots of work to be done before he hopped on that plane.

“Thank you, Will. You have been a good friend.” I shook his hand, and shit, why not, hugged him. “You take care of yourself, Rafat. You’ll be missed. You be safe.”

He said thanks. There was nothing more to be said, really. His flight left the next day, and now Rafat is gone. I’ll never see him again, but hey, whaddya gonna do? People come, people go, little supporting characters, popping up in the side of the frame, maybe making an impact, maybe not. I do wish him well.

Man, I gotta find that picture.



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