Read The Stranger in the Lifeboat Online
Authors: Mitch Albom
Tonight, in his twelfth installment, Tyler Brewer profiles another victim in the sinking of the
, a promising young ambassador cut down in his prime.
Yannis Michael Papadapulous was born outside Athens in 1986. His father was the nation's former prime minister, his mother a well-known opera singer. Yannis spent much of his youth traveling, and was sent to the prestigious Choate prep school in Connecticut before enrolling at Princeton and staying in the States to earn an MBA at Harvard.
He became known for several start-ups in Greece, and launched a vacation rental service that became the most successful booking agency in his country.
Yannis was catapulted to fame when
magazine, in a special edition dedicated to foreign celebrities, named him Sexiest Greek Man Alive. He was cast in two small films and became a regular presence in international party spots like the CÃ´te d'Azur, Ibiza, and St. Barts.
His father, Giorgios Papadapulous, insisted Yannis return to Greece when he turned thirty to “get serious with his life.”
“My son was very gifted. Even as a boy, he was able to solve difficult math equations in his head. I imagined if he focused on something like economics, given his natural leadership, he could be a great help to his country.”
Yannis won his first election to parliament a year later, thanks largely to his celebrity. A few years after that, over objections from other cabinet members, he was named ambassador to the United Nations, the youngest person in Greek history to achieve that status. Critics claimed he was given the job as a political favor to his father. But Yannis became an effective spokesperson, and helped secure international loans to bail Greece out of its serious financial crisis.
At thirty-four, Yannis Papadapulous was the youngest person invited to join Jason Lambert's Grand Idea voyage. He is presumed dead, his short life and promising career a victim of whatever happened that fateful night at sea.
It is nearing midnight on our seventeenth day. I apologize, my angel. I have not been able to write until now. Ever since Yannis snapped that bird's neck, it's like I've been drugged. I don't know why it affected me so. The feathered carcass falling limply against my chest. I can't get that out of my mind. I feel heavy, and can barely pull myself to a sitting position.
Maybe you're wondering what happened next. Nothing. Not for a few minutes anyhow. No one on board seemed to know what to do with that dead bird. We just stared at each other. Finally, Jean Philippe spoke up.
“Miss Geri,” he said, quietly, “may I have the knife?”
He then began to skin the creature, plucking off the wings, cutting off the head. Nina cringed and asked if Jean Philippe knew what he was doing. He said yes, he'd had
to do this as a boy in Haiti, usually with chickens, but this wasn't much different. He did not seem happy doing it. Perhaps he wasn't happy doing it back then, either.
We shifted away as the blood and guts spilled out. Eventually Jean Philippe cut out the breasts, which were the meatiest part, and sliced them into stringy pieces. He told us each to take one.
“We're supposed to eat it raw?” Lambert said.
“You can let it dry in the sun,” Yannis said, taking a piece, “if you want to wait two days.”
Yannis began chewing. Nina looked away. Geri took a piece and handed it to little Alice. As has become her pattern, she gave hers to the Lord, so Geri handed her another. Soon all of them were chewing with exaggerated jaw movements. I could not bring myself to do it.
“Please, Benji,” Jean Philippe said. “You must eat.”
I shook my head.
“Do not feel bad about killing this creature. You did it for all of us.”
I looked at him, and my eyes watered. If he only knew the truth. That I did nothing for all of them, not when it mattered.
I glanced at the Lord, who was eating his piece and looking at me the entire time. He swallowed and smiled.
“I am here, Benjamin,” he said. “Whenever you wish to talk.”
*Â *Â *
This evening, just after sunset, I noticed Nina and Yannis sitting next to each other. Who you sit next to on this raft means little, given how compact everything is. You are always on top of somebody. It's strange how quickly we've grown accustomed to the cramped space, twisting our backs to allow each other passage, shifting legs so that someone can stretch out. I imagine Lambert, Geri, and Yannis are used to huge rooms in huge houses. How odd this must be for them, no real estate to themselves.
Still, Nina and Yannis were sitting close not for practical purposes but for companionship. Yannis had his arm behind her, resting on the raft's edge. At one point she leaned her head against his shoulder, her long rivulets of hair brushing against his chest. His hand squeezed against her arm, and he kissed her forehead.
I instinctively turned away, out of privacy or envy, I am not sure which. We burn for water, we growl for food. But what we yearn for most is comfort. A soft embrace. Someone to whisper “It's all right. It's all right.”
Perhaps Nina and Yannis are finding that in each other. I find it in these scribbled notebook pages, Annabelle, in thoughts descending from my brain to my fingers to the pen to the paper. To you.
I find it in you.
It seems clear now that I will die on these waters. If so, I want the world to know a few paragraphs about me, about my life. I have no reason to expect this notebook will go anywhere that I won't. But when all your big ideas are gone, you cling to the small ones. Perhaps something will happen to bring this story to light.
*Â *Â *
Here, then, is my life summation: I am an only child, born in Donegal, Ireland, in the small northern town of Carndonagh, hard by the waters where the Atlantic Ocean and the Sea of the Hebrides converge. My mother, like many Irish kids, used to play golf on a nearby course. She became so good that at age eighteen, for winning a local tournament, she was given a ticket and a bus trip to watch the Open Championship in Scotland. There, I later learned, she met my father, or rather encountered him, because that was also the last she saw of him for years. I was born nine months later. My mother never spoke his name, no matter how often I asked. She also never played golf again. Sometimes, as a child, I heard her arguing late at night with a deep-voiced fellow out in the kitchen, and I thought this might be the man I should call Dad. But he was merely an old flame who might have married my mother had she not gone off that week to Scotland and “ruined yourself.” He yelled those words over and over, enough for me, with my
head in a pillow, to become permanently ashamed of my existence.
I had an aunt, Emilia, Dobby's mother, and an uncle, Cathal, her husband. One morning, when I was seven years old, they drove my mother and me to the county airport, which had just replaced its grass landing strip with a paved runway. We gave our suitcase to a porter. We flew away.
We arrived in Boston in the middle of a snowstorm. I did not understand the accents and was overwhelmed by the cars and the multitude of billboards that hung everywhere, for Dunkin' Donuts, for McDonald's hamburgers, for various types of beer. We lived in a flat next door to an Italian bakery, and when my mother found a job in a tire plant, I was sent to school. A city school. I did poorly. The teachers were old and distant. They seemed as relieved as I was when the bell rang to end the day.
I never understood why my mother chose that city, or America, until one afternoon when I came home from school and found her standing before a mirror in a tight silver dress that I had never seen before. She had done up her hair and applied her makeup, and it was almost like looking at another woman, that's how startling her sudden beauty was. I asked where she was going, and she just said, “It's time, Benjamin,” and I said, “Time for what?” and she said, “Time for me to see your father.”
I didn't understand what she meant. America was still
a mysterious country to me, and in my childish imagination, I pictured her going someplace outside the city, high on a hill, where fathers waited in lonely rooms for their long-lost brides to return. She would report to a person at the front desk who would yell out her name to a crowd of anxious men. One of themâhandsome, strong, with dark stubble of a beardâwould rise and yell “Yes, that's me!” and run to embrace my mother for the answered prayer of her arrival.
It did not go that way.
Whoever the man was, he did not receive my mother well. I was awakened that evening by her smashing things in her room, and I ran in to see her running scissors through the dress she had worn. Her makeup was tearstained, her lipstick smeared, and when she saw me she screamed, “Go away! Go away!” But even then I could tell she was only echoing my father's reaction to her.
She offered few details about him. I learned that he was rich and that he lived in a house in Beacon Hill. My mother tried to insist that he cared about me, but I knew it was a lie. I saw the heartbreak in her eyes as she told it. I understood, at that moment, that she had been planning all my life for that night, to try and make us whole, to try and make us a family, to unruin herself, and that she had been rebuked, an act that, in my mind, cemented my father as forever a bastard, and me, by definition, a bastard as well.
My mother was a contradiction in many ways. Skinny and frail, she had nonetheless uprooted us, by herself, to a strange new country. When her hoped-for rendezvous collapsed, she did what she had to do. She worked tirelessly at that plant, taking overtime, going in on weekends. She had the endurance of five men, I swear. But one day she fell from a scaffold and damaged her spine so badly that she couldn't walk. The plant, trying to avoid a large payment, said in court that she was negligent. My mother had never been negligent in her life.
After that, her spirit waned. She would watch television with the sound off. Sometimes she went days without eating. She never spoke of the plant accident, or what happened with my father, but it was understood that her grand plan for a better life had tried and failed, and that failure hung in the air of the tiny kitchen where we ate our meals, and in our dull-green bathroom, and in the peeling paint and faded carpet of our bedrooms. Sometimes, when we went for walks, with me pushing her in a wheelchair, my mother would cry for no reason; when someone passed with a dog, or when kids were playing baseball. I often felt she stared at things but saw something else. Broken people do that.
My mother's most repeated advice to me was this: “Find one person you can trust in your life.” She had been mine for my turbulent childhood, and I tried to be hers in the
years she had left. After she died, I felt heavy all the time. My breathing was labored, my posture stooped. I worried that I was ill. I realize now this was merely the weight of love that had nowhere to go.
So I carried that love, searching the world for a place to lay it down, but never found anywhere or anyone until I found you. I have been a poor man in many ways, Annabelle. Perhaps, upon reflection, even an unlucky one. But I was lucky in the most important way. That night after the fireworks, you told me your name and I told you mine. And you looked at me with your eyes wide open and you said, “Benjamin Kierney, would you like to take me out one day?” I was so overwhelmed, I couldn't answer. I think that amused you. You got up, smiling, and said, “Well, maybe one day you will.”
The rest of my life seems inconsequential after thatâwhere I worked, what neighborhood I lived in, what I thought about certain things. There was you, Annabelle. Only you. I am near the end of this page and realize I can sum up my life before I reach the bottom.
I am thirty-seven years on this Earth, and I have been a fool for most of them. In the end, I failed you, as I always feared I would.
I am sorry for everything.
LeFleur chugged the remainder of his coffee and killed the engine on his jeep. The morning was cloudless and the forecast was for hot, steamy weather.
As he carried his briefcase to the front door of the station, he was already thinking of what hours he could carve out to continue reading the notebook. He had barely begun when Patrice interrupted him. But he'd read enough to know something strange had happened on that life raft, when they discovered a man floating in the sea:
Nina touched his shoulder and said, “Well, thank the Lord we found you.”
Which is when the man finally spoke.
the Lord,” he whispered.
LeFleur had been perplexed enough by the mere existence of this notebookâand all the questions it raised about the
sinkingâbut now he felt compelled to learn the passengers' reaction to this self-proclaimed deity. LeFleur had a long list of issues he would raise with God, should he ever have such an encounter. He doubted God would like them.
He thought about Rom. He'd told him to come by the office around noon.
The guy doesn't even have a cell phone.
As he pushed the station door open, two figures quickly rose to their feet. One was a rather large man in a navy suit and open-collared shirt. The other LeFleur recognized immediately. His boss. Leonard Sprague. The commissioner.
“Jarty, we need to talk,” Sprague said.
LeFleur swallowed hard. “My office?” he said. He chided himself for sounding defensive.
Sprague was a puffy older man, bald and bearded. He'd had the job for over a decade. Normally he and LeFleur met at headquarters, every couple of months. This was the first time he had come to LeFleur's place.
“Am I to understand you found a raft from the
?” he began.
LeFleur nodded. “I was just writing up my reportâ”
“Where?” the other man interrupted.
“Where did you find the raft?”
LeFleur forced a grin. “Sorry, I didn't get your nameâ”
“Where?” the man snapped.
“Tell him, Jarty.”
“North shore,” LeFleur said. “Marguerita Bay.”
“Is it still there?”
“Yeah. I had the localsâ”
But the man popped up and was heading to the door. “Let's go,” he barked over his shoulder.
LeFleur turned to Sprague. “What the hell is going on?” he whispered. “Who
is this guy
“He works for Jason Lambert,” Sprague said. He rubbed his thumb against his fingers. Money.