Losing a friend to violence has the awful but poignant effect of causing you to realize that almost every other pain you felt in your life was insignificant by comparison. It also forces you to evaluate what really matters in the world. On October 31st, 2017, my childhood friend Nicholas Francis Cleves was murdered in the New York City terror attack.
I’m sharing this story to honor our friendship and the warmth and kindness he showed me in the time that I knew him.
Nicholas and I attended Little Red School House in the West Village for elementary school. Children of the 90’s, we both adored Pokémon. This was before the Internet elevated speculation and commentary to new heights. We had no leaks or datamines, only our imaginations and our sense of wonder. We were living in a time when the saddest thing we had ever seen was the episode of the Pokémon anime where Ash almost releases Pikachu.
My parents got divorced when I was 6. I changed schools and moved away. One of my fondest memories is of being invited to a birthday party of a mutual friend. Everyone treated me weirdly. I was that kid people barely remembered whose parents got divorced. Nicholas didn’t. Nothing had changed for him. We were still friends, and that was what truly mattered.
Middle school, high school, and college rolled around and went along with a thousand other friendships that lived and died. To my surprise, Nicholas would reach out to me over social media shortly after graduation.
He saw that I was playing Pokémon Moon on Instagram and we started chatting again in the winter of 2016.
At that point, I was astounded by how easily and warmly we communicated with each other. It had been close to 15 years since we had any contact with each other, but here we were getting into long and lively discussions about these video games.
For months we planned to have a battle with each other. We swapped ev spreads, strategized, and traded mothers and Dittos. We pondered the answers to deep questions like “Which Poké Ball would best suit Alolan Marowak’s colors and personality?” We couldn’t decide between Dusk or Luxury.
His favorite Alolan Pokémon was Tapu Koko and mine was Tapu Lele, two of the Alola region’s “guardian deity” Pokémon. Even now, I find it funny that he enjoyed Tapu Koko because aside from blondish hair, the two had very little in common. Tapu Koko is known for its fickle, impulsive, and fiery nature. Nicholas was one of the kindest people I have ever met. I never knew him to say a mean or spiteful thing, and he was always there for people in need.
While we talked A LOT about Pokémon, we also spoke about many other things. We talked about growing up, finding work whilst living with our moms–Nicholas was employed so much faster than me! He was a gifted and hardworking software engineer.
Nicholas found it difficult to find time to play because he had so much work to do. His father had passed away suddenly in 2013, and Nicholas was dedicating as much time and energy as possible to his family.
We decided that when we finally would have that Pokémon battle between us, it would be in person. Sadly, it never happened.
The last time I saw him was for my annual Chinese New Year party this past February. He couldn’t get to my apartment before the craziness of the parade crowds. I can still laugh at the messages between us that day. Nicholas had to swim through an ocean of angry Chinatown residents and stressed out tourists to reach me. He didn’t let anything stop him.
There were too many people from different friend groups for us to just play each other that day. It breaks my heart to say that we never got to have that battle. Between work and other commitments, scheduling was difficult. I always thought that we would have more time to make up for not seeing more of each other in our childhood.
For the past few days, I’ve been left with a terrible feeling of survivor’s guilt. I often shop and work out in the area where the attack occurred several times a week, and by some stroke of luck didn’t happen to be there that afternoon.
I’m thankful that Nicholas and I had Pokémon Sun and Moon to bring us together, despite not being in close touch for so long. That type of love and friendship is what the games are all about, and I feel lucky to have had that. I’m going to think of Nicholas fondly and use Tapu Koko on my team, whenever I can. The image of him braving the insanity of the Lunar New Year Parade just to see me will remain with me forever.
Within 24 hours, Nicholas’ story rose to the top of the page with over 30,000 views, 8,000 upvotes and hundreds of lovely comments, well wishes, and prayers. People are even saying they want to nickname their ingame Tapu Koko “Nicholas” after him.
I don’t think I will ever be in a place where I can say I’ve done enough for my friend’s memory, but I wanted to start by sharing his story and goodness with the world.
Rest in peace, Nicholas. I love you. Thank you for everything.