It has been twenty years since I last visited the university library in Fresno. At that time, the library was home to about 600,000 books, and still kept track of its holdings by means of an impressive card catalogue that occupied a large room on the ground floor. It was at this library that I first discovered Constance Garnett�s translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky�s A Raw Youth, as well as a great many other books, the names of which escape me, save for one title I have never forgotten: The Heart of Beethoven. This was a short non-critical biography of the composer written by someone who had obviously been inspired by Beethoven�s life and music.
The library itself was a pleasant place, and provided a welcome change from work on the farm. The aisles were narrow, the stacks loomed high overhead, and there were a number of quiet, dimly lit nooks and crannies with little desks and lamps where students and patrons could sift, like miners, through their findings. After spending an hour or two in this holy atmosphere, I would check out several books and wander back outside into the glaring, oppressive San Joaquin Valley heat.
In those days, I also used to visit a good friend in Fresno who, before coming to this country at the age of nineteen in the mid-1970s, had been a seminarian at the Armenian monastery of St. James in Jerusalem. During the few years we had known each other, I had learned a great deal about life in the Armenian Quarter, as well as the Divine Liturgy of the Armenian Church, all of which is sung in an ancient form of Armenian known as Classical Armenian, or grabar, rather than spoken. In fact, I still have a little book he gave me that was printed on the monastery�s press in 1946. The book contains the liturgy and the service for the repose of souls, which is performed forty days after a person�s death, and thereafter down through the ages upon the request of surviving family members, their progeny, and anyone else so moved. A weathered little treasure with tiny print and yellowed pages, the book is one of the few tangible reminders I have of the time we spent together.
Every so often, I open the book at random, sing a few lines, and think of him. And because I learned the church service from him, the way I sing it is the way he used to sing it, which in turn is the way he learned it at the monastery in Jerusalem, which means, of course, that I sing it the way they do in Jerusalem. It might not be very important or meaningful, but it is true nonetheless � one of those strange threads that make up the fabric of a person�s life.
* * *
And now I will eat a tangerine. You see, it happened like this: I stood up, stretched, went into the kitchen, washed my coffee cup, looked out the window above the sink, and peeled a tangerine. Now I am eating it, and writing about it, and thinking about how, sometime before we moved to Oregon in the summer of 1987, my friend also moved in the opposite direction, to Los Angeles.
Since then, I have seen him only once, when he and his brother from Istanbul drove along the California and Oregon coastlines all the way from Los Angeles and visited us here in 1988.
After that, other than a couple of Christmas cards early on, we have had no contact at all. Each of us simply fell silent. And yet I know we are still friends. Somewhere along the line, I heard he was married. I could make an effort to find him, to find out where he is, to pick up the telephone and call him, to write him a long letter. And he could do the same. But this is something I know we will not do. Not now. For some reason, our reunion, if it is to happen, has to happen differently. In all likelihood, it will be an accident. We will meet in an airport, or run into each other thousands of miles away in Armenia, either in downtown Yerevan, or in the ruins of a monastery somewhere.
And speaking of monasteries, he said something to me once that has stayed with me all these years. Probably late at night over coffee and a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes, he said churches should be built only in places that are difficult to reach. A church should be high on a mountain, approachable only by a steep, rocky path. Then, he said, we will see who enters.
April 3, 2006
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