This is a remembrance I wrote for Kai’s memorial:
Kai and I became friends 13 years ago at NYU when he told me he really loved a short film that I made with my dog. He seemed genuine and smart. I was insecure and needed affirmation. Maybe he sensed that. He was good at giving compliments. He saw the person you one day hoped to become and treated you as if you already were.
Kai and I quickly discovered that we had a lot in common. We both grew up in small towns in rural areas, went to Big Ten schools (we’d always watch the Penn State - Michigan football game together), and even shared a birthday, almost. His is the day before mine. For years we’d have a combined birthday party at this bar Spuyten Duyvil in Brooklyn that would switch from his to mine at midnight. I really enjoyed these.
One year we decided to combine our birthdays with the USA’s for a huge July 4th bash. Kai reserved the roof of his friend Brieh’s apartment building, got his friend Robbie's band to play, hired a bartender, and… I hated it. The party was way too much. I left early and got in a fight with Kai on the phone. We resolved things by deciding that the USA was simply too big to share a birthday with.
Kai was a great artist. He was the cinematographer on my grad school thesis film and came up with the most memorable shot in it. He made a number of memorable short films of his own. He saw beauty everywhere. It was amazing and infuriating. Sometimes I wondered if he loved his 1000th most favorite thing more than I loved anything. Sometimes I thought he was full of shit.
In 2014, I moved to Los Angeles. Kai was already living there — in a soon to be uber-luxurious house in Malibu that was then going through major renovations. He stayed in the only room that had a roof and four walls (upon which he was writing a screenplay). The whole place overlooked the Pacific Ocean. This was Kai at his most larger than life.
He was making a film at the Malibu house. Or maybe he was throwing the world’s greatest party. Seemingly every person he knew in LA would pass through at some point. I remember the regulars: Peter, Sarah, Anna. And the neighbors: Craig and Phoebe (and Beso). We played Balderdash with the first line of books and ping pong on a round table. We drank Banquet beer which Kai carried around in a belt. We hiked up the mountain every evening to his special peak to watch sunset, and, for a moment, we all forgot that our lives had ever been or would ever be anything but perfect.
How Kai ended up in living situations like the Malibu house is one of the great mysteries of life. To say it’s simply the generosity of friends like Jen Li is hardly sufficient. Here’s how I explain it to myself: Kai was charming, magnetic, handsome, and a con man of the most extraordinary sort. Because his con was not with us so much as with reality itself. He wanted us all to participate in the grand circus in his head. He’d be the ringmaster, and we'd all be more weird, wild, and wonderful versions of ourselves. Maybe this was his great art project. Maybe it’s just how he dealt with depression.
My favorite memories of Malibu were the quiet ones. Hiking to Sandstone Peak together. Exploring the ocean caves at El Matador. Inventing a game of two-on-two touch football where you had four downs to get as far out into the ocean as you could. And, when the house was finally finished, having a sauna (he made a real meal out of the word — “sow-oona” — I guess that was a Yooper thing).
The last time I saw Kai in person was when he emptied out his storage unit in LA. The days at the Malibu house were long gone now and Kai was living back home. He and his dad Mark were going to pack all they could into a big SUV and drive back to the UP on a fun cross country trip. I’m pretty sure his dad wanted to rent a hotel in LA, but Kai insisted they crash with me. I offered to help with the storage unit, but Kai said I didn’t need to. That it would only take "an hour or so."
That was a gross underestimate. Anyone who’s ever worked with Kai won’t find this surprising. It took forever. Kai had way more stuff than he thought. And he hadn’t planned well. It was a Sunday and there was no staff there and no garbage service or Goodwill drop-off nearby. Finally, a security guard, who barely spoke English, gave us an address where we could dump the excess stuff. It turned out to be homeless encampment in a park. I was pretty frustrated at this point. But, as Kai began handing out his belongings like some bizarro hipster Jesus, I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of it all.
After that, we hugged, and Kai drove off with his dad. He sent pictures from Zion National Park and a text that read, “Thank you so much Levi. You are a seriously awesome person. I am glad for our friendship. Talk soon.”
I wish I told you stuff like that more often, Kai. I wish we talked more on the phone. I wish you'd be at my wedding. The past few years I’ve been dreaming of a motorcycle trip across the country on small roads. I always imagined coming through the UP, and staying with you. Finally seeing that magical place you call home. I promise I’ll still see it.
I love you, Kai. Rest in peace.