Seven months ago, I was eating a guava pastry, warm from the oven, edges caramelized where the filling had spilled out, when the need to piss came over me like a scratchy, stinging, insistent yellow waterfall. I excused myself from the café table so fast, I spilled my coffee.
It hurt to pee, so I didn’t notice him enter the men’s room. He stood at the urinal next to me.
“I know who you are, old man,” he whispered in Armenian, a language that is quite common in my town of Glendale, California.
“Of course you know who I am. Can’t I take a leak in private, or do you want me to autograph toilet paper?” It was an idle offer because the bathroom had run out of toilet paper.
“Maestro,” he said, baring his darkened gums. A smoker. He rubbed his yellowed fingertips together. Nail biter. “How are things in Sis these days? Isn’t that near your family’s home?” He leaned in and whispered, “Someone I know is from there, too. She recognize-ed you.” He said the word in English, as if it had five syllables. I could only see his head and shoulders above the stainless steel divider that smelled of industrial cleaner disguised in lemon scent. His hair was so closely cropped, his lashes were longer. They fanned down in a lush curve onto his cheeks when he blinked his large, wide eyes. He would have looked innocent if his thick eyebrows didn’t meet at the bridge of his long, straight nose. It was a face that could have appeared on an ancient cave wall, a gold coin or under a knight’s visor. I shook myself dry, zipped up my pants and walked toward the door.
“Aren’t you going to wash your hands?” he asked.
“Are you the police?”
“It’s good hygiene.”
He seemed sincere, so I washed my hands. It was almost 4 P.M. and I had an appointment to keep. That was March 24, 1992. I’d been eating a very late lunch with my agent, Viktor.
“Rupen jahn, the public loves you. You’re our most celebrated musician. An icon!” Viktor said when I came back from the bathroom, waving a sandwich in the air for effect. He’d helped himself to half my medianoche. We sat by the window at the Cuban bakery. With the first flaky bite of chicken empanada, I’d felt guilty. I should’ve been down the street at Bakery Opera. The place with the red velvet curtains and the heavenly rosewater cookies. The one my friend owned.
In Glendale, switching bakeries is like changing a gang affiliation. Cross a baker here and you can kiss fresh bread goodbye. On both cheeks. And never ever ask for the family recipe for rosewater cookies. That can get your tires slashed. Or worse, no fresh bread. I drowned my remorse in Tapatío hot sauce, holy water, which I shook onto the sweet-savory crusts of the pastry.
“If you spread any more butter on me, you must swear to roast me at 425 degrees and turn me every half hour,” I said. Viktor got me to do many things with flattery. We conversed in English because his Armenian sounded like Portuguese spoken while juggling toothpicks in his mouth. He’d been brought up in Brazil.
“How many people here can say that three hundred paying guests want to spend a couple hours with them on their eighty-fourth birthday?” Viktor moved his arm in an arc like he was the coming Messiah, and I let him put on his own song and dance for me. I might as well enjoy the production. As any pushy agent worth his percentage, mine was chasing me into the coop for a tribute concert. “Honestly, Rupen, you should be very proud.” He tried to look hurt.
“Viktor, have you ever considered chewing with your mouth closed?” I handed him a paper napkin.
Around me, people stockpiled dozens upon dozens of empanadas and guava pies packed in glossy yellow boxes as if they could smell approaching unrest and planned to build a defensive perimeter with pastry. Despite my ill-fated trip to the bathroom, I’d eaten two chicken empanadas. I stockpiled on the inside. A few of the customers smiled at me. One even bowed slightly. I tipped my beret. If I didn’t get the occasional glance in Glendale, I wouldn’t get it anywhere else. I was famous in my hometown. This is funny to me now that I sit here in my music studio and reflect on my circumstances. My dull pencil floating above these words in a notebook I should have used to write my magnum opus long ago.
“Are you sure you’re not going to eat the other half?” Viktor’s fingers trembled at the rim of my black plastic plate, itching for the particular solace of medianoche. I didn’t answer not because I cared for my sandwich, but because the boy from the bathroom crossed in front of our table and walked out the door to join his friends. Viktor didn’t give up. “I don’t want it to go to waste.”
“Help yourself. I’m watching my figure.”
We both laughed.
“You and Pavarotti,” he said. “But seriously, you have lost a bit of weight. It’s been years since I’ve seen you in that jacket.”
“Merci. I’m trying.” I brushed the arm of my old plaid Pierre Cardin blazer. Vintage, my granddaughter called it.
“Well, you’ll have to play for a half hour or something.” His voice trailed into the roasted pork for two sloppy bites. “But that’s okay with you, right? You won’t be too tired? I’ll schedule some singers and dancers to fill up the rest of the program. You know how we are. We want our money’s worth.”
Outside, the pack of Armenian youths, dressed almost identically in black, their hair slicked back in defiance of their willful curls, leaned against a single Mercedes-Benz. A goddess of a car. Shiny black, and the car’s gold-rimmed hubcaps matched the boys’ abundant gold chains and crosses. The car stereo blared loud enough to reverberate in my gut. I recognized the song: Kani Vur Janim or in English, “As Long as I Am Alive,” an eighteenth century melody. It was set to a techno beat. The boys slunk into the refuge of the bakery when a squad car slowed down in front of them.
There he was again. The boy.
“They look like trouble.” I motioned at the pack with my head. “Kids with nothing to do in the middle of the day give us a bad name with the Americans. What could they possibly be doing in here?”
“The guava pie,” Viktor whispered, leaning closer. “It’s the best.” He was a frequent bakery cheater.
I looked at each one of them, scanning their recently depimpled faces. Did they even understand the poetry they were listening to? I caught the boy’s eye. He didn’t look away.
“So, we’re okay for April 24, right?” Viktor asked, examining the contents of my coffee cup.
“Okay, Viktor jahn. Okay.” I put my hands up like the prisoner I was.
“Bravo, Maestro. I’m glad to hear you say that. We already gave away some promo tickets to the concert last month.”
“Why do I even bother with you?” I asked. “Come by the studio later and we can go over the details.”
“What? I’m allowed back into the temple?” he asked, his right hand clutching his chest.
“As long as you don’t try to auction my things again.”
“Merci, Rupen jahn.” Viktor took a sip of my second coffee. “Since it’s also our Remembrance Day, it will be so special.” His eyes filled for a second, then he blinked the wetness away. “Also, I forgot to tell you. There’s a journalist from the Times who wants to interview you that evening.”
“Good God! Why?”
“You’re Rupen Najarian. The world’s most famous duduk player.”
* * *
A concert. The genocide remembrance. A journalist. Too much.] But nothing like the boy. I couldn’t shake him, and it wasn’t for lack of trying. The fool followed me after I said goodbye to Viktor outside the bakery. He left his friends eating guava pies on the hood of their shiny deity and jaywalked across Brand Boulevard, an orange backpack slung across his shoulder. I walked briskly up Wilson Avenue, toward the park, and he kept on my heels without saying a word. I couldn’t see him but he lit a cigarette, which I could smell in the breeze.
Now why did he mention Sis? It’s true. That was close to my village, sixty miles north of the Mediterranean in a place and time so long ago it felt like a suitcase on an airport carousel. Black and familiar but probably not your own. I walked faster and turned into the atrium of my apartment complex. He’d never dare to enter such a fancy building. But he did and he cornered me by the cacti. I’ve always found that garden feature to be dangerous.
“You can’t run away,” he said. “My grandmother told me about you. She knows you.”
I tried to imagine what his tatik must have looked like in her youth. One of those girls with red hair and blue eyes? That’s what Armenians were supposed to look like before the depredations of other cultures. Or did she have dark curls and the limpid eyes of a gazelle? No matter. I didn’t permit memories of the village. My life started after the fire when no one who knew me was alive. My palms were sweating. I blinked from the sun reflecting off his plastic sunglasses.
“What are you talking about?” I fantasized about stuffing his cheap Russian menthols down his throat and choking him with the leather belt he couldn’t afford to replace. His sweat was as sweet and cloying as an overripe pineapple. “I’m very busy, young man. You’d better leave before I call security.” I put my hands on my hips and stepped forward even though he was taller, stronger and younger. I’d seen elephant bulls do that to scare their enemy on the Mutual of Omaha nature show. My heart thumped. What could he possibly mean?
“I know about you.” He looked around for the security guard and took a step back. “I know your secret.”
“What drugs are you on?” He seemed unsure yet tempted to answer the question. We stood still, me in my pachydermic pose and he, the nuisance tiger cub. His phone rang to the tune of the Armenian national anthem. He didn’t bother to turn it off. Let it shine against the enemy. The song seemed to brace him.
“You’d better leave now or I’ll call the police.” My voice steely, I made like the elephant again. So, this was how I’d be undone? By a hoodlum. But the boy wasn’t just any hoodlum. He was going to be my personal hoodlum. And just then, my neighbor, Captain Cooper of the Glendale Police Department, in his uniform, walked in. The boy walked out, postponing our inevitable collision.
Captain Cooper and I took the same elevator upstairs. My hand trembled as I pressed the button.
“You okay?” he asked, taking off his jacket.
“You know what convergent boundaries are?” I asked him.
“Convergent boundaries. It’s what the Caltech scientist used to describe the big earthquake in Turkey the other day.”
“No kidding,” he said. He was more comfortable with my non sequiturs than my family.
I nodded. “In that place they now call Erzincan—the same place we call Yerznka where the temple of the goddess Anahit once stood—the plates of our earth crashed into each other in a most destructive way. Five hundred people died. And they may have been the lucky ones.”
“Sometimes it feels that way,” Captain Cooper said, getting off the elevator. “Devastation is hard to clean up.”
This is the year of earthquakes, major and minor. Convergent and divergent. This is the year of secrets buried so deep it took an earthquake to heave them to the surface.
* * *