Stavros moved slowly on the ferry, gathering his robust figure into the small corner he had located, nearest to the exit but far enough from all of the commotion. All he had packed was one pair of pants, two shirts, a worn sweater, and an old loaf of bread he found in the dark kitchen at dawn before tiptoeing out his back door, down the steps and to the dock. As the boat pulled away from the shore of the hometown he so adored, he had little hope left and a long journey ahead of him. Stavros felt a twinge of regret as he made out his parents’ house in the distance and his brother and sister’s as well. He knew that, unlike him, they had done something right to make his parents proud, to lead a successful life. But it was a life too demanding for Stavros, who felt he fell short every day. He knew that his siblings’ children were going to grow up to do something remarkable. He knew they’d wear good fabrics and have feasts for every holiday. His children were going to be fine, but that was it: fine. Adequate. Not good enough. He was not making his parents proud of their son. He would not make his children proud of their father. They were going to read his note and know that they were better off without their “Papa.” And for his wife, she would weep for days, but she would move on fast enough. She would find another man who did not need to steal to support his family. Her spirits would not shatter. Stavros needed to believe his family would be fine so that he would not feel such pangs of guilt for leaving this life behind. But his other half wanted to know that his family could not function without him. He wanted to feel needed. What killed him is that he knew they were all better off without him.
“Group B…Group B, please proceed forward to this side, we are going to visit some lovely Greek artifacts next,” the tour guide shouted as she led her group around the bend to view the ancient artifacts. This jolted Stavros from his reverie and brought him back to the present. He knew he had to stop looking
back at those shameful times. He had a new life in New York and did not need his family, he did not need Greece. He should not stress about the past when he had enough on his plate in the present. The Metropolitan Museum was his escape; Stavros knew he did not need to bring his troubles into this safe-haven. His Greece.
As Stavros maneuvered his way around the strollers, children, seniors and officers, he began to think about all of the items on his to-do list: Pay electric bills, hire a new waitress, stop by the restaurant and check on the night’s menu. It all kept piling up. Every free hour he had to spare he would try to get to the museum. He took the subway to the Metropolitan and just sat on the benches, admiring and analyzing every artifact from Greece, every painting, pot, and sculpture. Sitting amongst these bits of his home made him feel understood. This exhibit was what he had left, so he was going to savor it — again and again. It did not make a difference if the display lay out of reach in a glass case; it came from his home and he would always be able to touch it.
For Stavros, being in the restaurant business was not a big challenge. “Athenia” was cooking the food he knew to cook: Tzatziki, crispy Calamari, Galaktobouriko, and they were seating just enough people to support his life in Queens and his staff. There was not much else to it. When Stavros came to New York, he had nothing: a sweater and a pair of pants. Stavros worked as a dishwasher and began to meet people who were interested in starting a small Greek restaurant with him. They decided it had to be in an affordable place. They settled on Astoria, Queens. And the rest was simple. There was not much design to be done besides some paint slapped on the Stucco wall. Kitchen goods were purchased, but nothing fancy: five pans, three pots, thirty plates, thirty five glasses; nothing more than Stavros could handle. He kept things simple because he didn’t want to fail at this. If the goals were possible, he would reach them. He wouldn’t be ashamed like he had been in Santorini.
Stavros walked out of the museum and as the blazing afternoon winter sun hit his face, he knew he was content, but a part of him still felt like there was nothing. No one knew where he was, they most likely thought he had died. His wife was probably re-married and wanted nothing to do with him. Not even his best friend– his brother– knew where he was. Stavros was certain that no one cared about him from his old life, or even his new one. He had to get his mind off of it, so he hopped back on the train to check that his kitchen was preparing for dinner.
Nothing much happened at the restaurant most of the time. Not much commotion, no fights or dilemmas. Everything ran smoothly. That’s the way Stavros liked it. Somehow, he always found himself wrestling with time. He knew it was because he did not want to have a free moment where he could recognize that there was no one around to love him. He told himself that he was busy, too busy to be lonely, to busy to weep.
A few days passed before his next museum visit. One Wednesday afternoon, when he could see the restaurant was quiet, he decided to return to his favorite place. As Stavros was sitting on his usual bench, contemplating the story of one precious shard before him, he heard a deep voice a little ways away. It was a voice he would have recognized from one hundred miles away. But he just could not believe that it was possible. In disbelief, Stavros slowly turned around. There he was. Stavros’ brother, standing right there, staring at a piece of art with some colleagues. Christos was right in front of him. In panic, excitement and anxiousness he felt himself get up and tap his brother on the shoulder. “Christos! It is me, your brother, Stavros.” He exclaimed nervously. Christos’ eyes became huge, his mouth went agape and everything else was simply frozen. Christos looked stunned: There was no way this could be. It was simply not possible. “Stavros, what is this? What is going on? What have you done? We thought you were dead.” Christos said with unhappiness, anger, and firmness, “Have you gone mad?”
“No, Christos. I most certainly have not. Please let me explain, will you? I know you are busy, but when you are done with your colleagues, can we please meet on the steps? I have gotten too old to let this pass and I need to explain.” Stavros spoke with compassion and hope. Christos agreed to coffee in front of the museum after his tour. Stavros was overcome with emotions — sadness, guilt, and regret –but most all, he was feeling ever so hopeful. This was his chance to explain, to beg forgiveness, and connect with his family again. He hoped that his wife was still searching for him far and wide. He hoped that she had not found another love and that his kids were waiting for a father-figure.
Christos paid for coffee at the run-down stand in front of the museum and Stavros got them sandwiches. He explained everything, he begged for forgiveness, but Christos just could not listen to his explanations anymore.
“Stavros, we had been looking for you for so long, but there was no hope. After seven years, we declared that you were dead. It was the only reasonable thing to do at the time and there was no way your wife could move on without some closure. She has remarried to a very kind and loyal man. Your children refuse to forgive you every time your name is mentioned. I am sorry my brother, your decision was a bad one and it came with repercussions. It seems that you have made yourself a nice life here, but I have no place in it, and neither you in mine.”
There it was. The cold, hard truth that Stavros knew he had to handle. He knew that there was no way he could return to Greece and that no one would utter a word to him if he did. His children were told that their father had stolen but no one told them why. They didn’t know it was for them — to eat fresher fish and wear shinier shoes. Everyone back at Stavros’s home thought he robbed was because he was selfish and reckless. Stavros knew that it was because he wanted to be better than he was, to give more than he had, but he was too embarrassed to admit it. There was no way Stavros could live with this looming guilt every night. He acted childish, and ran away from everything that he knew and cherished. Stavros could not admit to his failure, so he hid from it instead.
They finished their sandwiches and their coffee was getting cold. Christos shook his brother’s hand but there was no embrace. One more exchange, and Christos was gone. The protective shield that Stavros had built for himself over the years collapsed as his brother walked away. He knew that he needed a family, but the irony of it all was that they no longer needed him. He walked the gloomy walk to the subway, hopped on the F train, and rode home alone.
Age 12, Grade 7
The Dalton School