She was short and whiskered. It was her 74th birthday.
She stared at the phone in her lap as she sat. I stood in front of her to one side with my arms folded on my chest, obliquely facing the window that looked out on the excavator cleaning up the shattered building across the street. The federal agent stood off to the other side, making notes, glancing up occasionally to check on his truck in the bodega parking lot.
She was talking about Ben.
He friended her on Facebook in the spring.
He was a soldier, younger than she, on some secret duty far away. He saw her picture, he wrote, and her profile, and he wanted a friend.
And before long they were in love.
And she was in her savings.
He was sick once and his son needed a present once and his pay hadn’t come through and he would pay her back but he needed it now and he said go to the store and get an iTunes card and give me the number. It went on that way for thousands of dollars.
She gets $400 a month in Social Security.
She has an open compression sore on her backside that she hasn’t gotten any medicine for because he has needed the money.
You love me don’t you? I can’t wait to see you. Tell me your ring size; I want to come to you and put my promise ring on your finger.
It is an old building. It has been on the news. There are code violations, and the odor of urine and mold, and an empty vodka bottle discarded in the hallway.
And she looked at her phone and smiled, scrolling through the day’s messages from him.
It all came to a head on Tuesday. He was going to come to her, from the Army, to be with her on her birthday, to finally meet her, to take her in his arms and make her his, to fulfill every girlish dream and womanly desire, to bring happiness and escape, and an end to loneliness. He was coming.
Her Ben was coming.
But the damned Army. It screwed up his pay. It didn’t get his money to him. And he was enraged, and despondent. He ranted in his texts, the rapid-fire blocks of dialogue on a burner app he told her to put on her phone.
He didn’t have the money to come to her.
Did she have it, he wondered. Could she send it to him, so they could be together?
She couldn’t. Her savings were gone, and when she went to the bank last summer and tried to borrow $2,000 to send to him, they told her she didn’t have the credit.
She couldn’t, she wrote him, I don’t have any left.
Which is when he threatened suicide.
His friends wrote her, asking her why she was killing him, why she didn’t care that he was so sad.
The federal agent and I looked at one another, and we each tried again what we had tried before.
To tell her that it wasn’t real. That he wasn’t real. That it was a scam. That he had stolen her money and her heart. That it was Nigerians or jihadis or a drug gang or some Russians or some other industrial scammers playing her like they and those like them played thousands and thousands of others. It is a massive fraud, a breaking and entering, burglarizing her life via Facebook and her phone.
We told her to engage with the real people in her life. The management team in her building, the man from Adult Protective who stopped by, her neighbors, her relatives across the country, the real people on the periphery of her real life.
The federal agent was encouraging and polite, telling her that she musn’t send any more money. I was firmer and called for action. I told her she had to delete the app and get off Facebook, that she had to scrub her social media identity and burn the bridge over which the intruder gained access to her life.
Do it now, I said. Do it now.
And she said she would, and she looked down and brought her index finger to the screen, and it dinged, and she smiled.
This little whiskered lady on her 74th birthday, in a dank building where people know that a horrible place to live is better than no place to live.
“Oh!” she started, and smiled.
It was a note from one of his Army colleagues. From Officer Ramos. He was wishing her a happy birthday.
She was beaming when she looked up.
And I knew we had lost her.
There had been an unconscious calculation, and we had lost her. The reality that she was robbed, or the fantasy that she was loved.
Played out on the other end by some monster.
Received on this end by a lonely woman with a glowing phone in her hand, a conversation and a narrative and a friend, a lover, a dream, a hope. Priceless things, in a way. Maybe worth the cost, a heart might say.
So we left.
And took our horrible truth with us.
Cover photo via Getty Images