This morning, I learned about the loss of someone I haven’t spoken to since possibly 1983. And yet, this was a person who had at times been my closest friend, my mentor, and the only other person who knew what I was going through.
His name was Nestor Tajalle. He was one year older than me and one grade higher.
When I entered Valley High in 1980, he was already established prominently on Valley’s stage. He had a voice too large for the school’s theater. He possessed a talent too large for the entire school. There was something great about him, even in our little corner of Santa Ana, a magnitude that was undeniable. Yes, he was physically large but that’s not what I’m talking about.
Nestor embodied all the qualities that make theater great. Sure, his performances were huge and his voice clear as some perfect bell but he also possessed a terrific generosity of spirit that I’ll never forget. When I was cast in my first play, in November 1980, I worked right alongside with Nestor. I remember him telling me to remember that nobody else knew anything I didn’t know. They were guessing, too. He would share with me my best qualities, always the ones I was too embarrassed to embrace. When I made a misstep, in theater or in life, he would let me know – always very gently – where I went wrong.
I needed Nestor because I needed someone to believe I could be great, too. As I rose on our school’s stage, Nestor and I found ourselves working together often. And there was no one better. He made me better, and I needed that because I wasn’t all that terrific.
We spent three years performing together, and there is something of those three years that anchors the core of who I became. Those years were invaluable; it just took me 30+ years to understand it. It took Nestor’s death to understand it.
When 1983 came, so did Nestor’s Senior year. His sadness over losing the most plum spot on Valley’s stage took the shape of what I misinterpreted as hubris. I won’t kid you; I thought it was ego. Nestor had an ego nearly as large as my own. He had every right to it. We had both been chronic scene-chewers but when his Senior year came and Nestor took every opportunity to milk every moment out of every performance, I am ashamed to say I thought he was showboating.
And we got into a fight.
And Nestor wasn’t the kind of person to do anything halfway, so our fight got ugly. And this person who meant so much to me, I allowed to pass out of my life because I was too embarrassed to do anything else. I spent more than 30 years in that embarrassment, in that shame. I wish I could tell you that Nestor and I spoke before he died but that was not the case.
When I screw up, I tend to allow my regret to isolate me. I isolate myself. Hell, I screwed up so much at Valley that I still don’t talk to most of the people I knew there. I never dared show my face at a class reunion. Maybe, if I had, I would have met Nestor. Maybe, if I had, we would have realized how silly our distance really was and I would find myself, today, thinking not about the wasted years after that stupid fight. Instead, I would find myself thinking about the friend I had found once again.
One day, perhaps, I’ll find it easier to show my face in a world where I feel so much shame over so many trifling nothings nobody but myself even remembers.
Nestor’s death reminds me that I should. His loss reminds me that I must.
Nestor will always be an inspiration. He will always be the person who believed in me. I am grateful to have that much.