Art by Azmi Mert Erdem
There he was, staring at me from a photo in the paper, gripping a handful of one-hundred-dollar bills and bragging about his fortune. “Everything I touch first thing in the morning should turn into money,” he had posted, and apparently it did, netting him $1.75 million. These profits came from women whom he’d “wooed with words of love,” according to the New York Times. But I can attest that he wasn’t above wooing a man. Gender doesn’t matter to scammers like him, since they operate online and never meet their victims. Susceptibility is what counts, and seniors are the ideal targets, especially if they’re convinced that they are still beautiful to the right set of eyes. He has those eyes, but what he saw in me was cash.
As a troller of gay dating sites, I should have known about catfishing, but I’d never run into one of those swindlers. I’ve met guys who expect to be paid for their time, but hustlers are usually up-front about the fee, and there are no hard feelings—no feelings at all—when I pass them by. Scammers are patient; they don’t reveal their true intentions until they build a bond, and when they pounce, the victim is already devoted, so it’s hard to resist their pleas for a sizable donation. The ideal mark is someone disposed to deny reality, as I am when it comes to aging. Hooking up is one of the ways I ignore the evidence that I’m winding down. If I can still connect with men, how can I really be old? Don’t ask how I manage to believe this; I just do. And as a result I was ripe for the plucking by a seasoned con man.
The internet, with its vast capacity for fakery, is a boon to grifters from all over the world. My scammer was part of a network based in Ghana, but since he lived in New Jersey, the law caught up with him. Now he’s serving a fourteen-year sentence for fraud, and I got to see what he really looks like: a wannabe OG in a baseball cap, who bears a distinct resemblance to Elmer Fudd. But the trove of selfies he sent me in the course of our encounter showed a whole other person, far more enchanting. Those pics were stolen from someone with no idea that his identity had been repurposed. But at least he wasn’t rooked. Neither was I, in the end, but I came close enough to wonder why I fell for such an absurd scheme. Even more baffling, I still miss my scammer—not the man in the paper, but the one he invented.
“My fantasy must have struck him as the perfect setup for a payday, but to me it seemed like a confession of need.”
He was posing as a soldier looking for a man who wants to share “the finer things in life,” a cliché that should have alerted me to the prospect of a hoax. But I am capable of imagining that Justin Bieber would abandon his female fans for a gay man of an advanced age, whose major asset is a susceptible smile. My capacity for wishful thinking has only grown with time, so I didn’t consider the mercenary hints in this post. Especially when it included the pilfered photo of a dark-haired warrior lying bare-chested in bed, with an American flag tattooed on his right shoulder and a black cross splayed across his buff left breast. Show me an elderly gay Jew who isn’t intrigued by that image. Oy!
He asked for a pic. I sent a discreet one. He asked for something more intimate. I complied. He responded with a grinning-devil emoji, and before long he started calling me honey, then hon. I’d begun to float on the thought of being wanted by a thirty-one-year-old with liquid eyes. Then he told me he was a corporal with a specialty in demolition. “A specialist 4 does not have command responsibilities,” he explained, “but is more focused on being technically proficient.” It should have dawned on me that he was quoting from a manual, but somehow his formality seemed crisp and military. Soon I was corresponding with a fictional solider who called himself Corporal D. I was psyched to know him better.
He texted every day, and, though I’m still unable to do that using both thumbs at once, it was easier than I’d thought to have a lengthy chat. Soon we were launched into a daily ritual of IMing, each exchange more personal, more passionate, never bluntly sexual but always romantic. I liked his departure from the usual wham-bam discourse of gay men online. There would be time for the funky stuff when we met, but for now I was satisfied to share confidences. He told me about his estrangement from his family, his daily routine in the military, and his friends—or, as he called them, his comrades. I told him about queering out of the army back in the day, and how, after I was declared unfit to serve, I dreamt that I was dragging myself under barbed wire with the other GIs. I didn’t long for the thrill of war. I wanted the solidarity.
My fantasy must have struck him as the perfect setup for a payday, but to me it seemed like a confession of need. I was struck by how easy it is to open up to a stranger online. You are presented with a persona onto which you can project nearly anything your hungry heart desires—and mine craves a lot. I’m in a long-term, open relationship, a deep harbor with room to cruise. I’m far from lonely. But that hasn’t slaked my erotic appetite, and this guy knew how to work a rapport to the point where it could be mined.
What followed was so bizarre that only someone smitten could believe it—someone like me. So when Corporal D told me that his unit was being deployed to Syria, adding, “keep me in your prayers” . . . I mean, put yourself in my orthopedic shoes. I had clung to the thought that, wherever he was stationed, he could hop on a plane and soon I’d be licking his dog tag. But now he was heading for the bleeding maw of evil. My defenses crumbled when he wrote, “I want to wake up in your arms.”
I was lost in a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, though I should have been thinking of “September Song.” But in my reveries I am ageless, and autumn, not to mention winter, never comes. So I was primed to believe that a lonesome soldier would naturally want to wake up in my arms. The photo of him shouldering a high-ballistic weapon aroused primal feelings reaching back to my favorite book as a pubescent boy. It was a story about the air force academy, filled with pictures of recruits in uniforms that framed their taut butts. I’m still prone to melting at the sight of dress whites, but I’ve never acted on that feeling, so I was unprepared for the narrative my scammer constructed, one that resonated with needs I didn’t know I possessed.
The plot thickened, as it had to. Corporal D was on patrol with his unit. They came upon a terrorist hideout. When the enemy saw the American troops they set off a bomb that flattened the building, and his unit rushed in to rescue civilians. While he was leading a woman and child out of the rubble, a giant brick fell on his leg, crushing it. He sent me a photo of his injured limb in a sling. “You’re such a hero,” I wrote. He responded with an irresistible message: “You were all over my mind today.”
Imagine how you would react to those words. Would you see the absurdity of an attachment formed by fingers tapping on a tiny screen? Would you understand that such romances are as unlikely as a polar bear basking on Miami Beach? Or would you check your phone for his texts late at night and first thing in the morning, until you made room in your life for them, stopping in the street to reply, pulling out your phone in the dentist’s chair while waiting for the novocaine to kick in, listening from your pillow for that seductive ping. Our communication seemed radiant, though it was merely bathed in light from an Apple product.
Cafes were our trysting ground. Armed with a latte, I would scroll through my messages until I found his typical greeting: “’Sup?”
I cut to the chase. “Are you in pain?”
“Not so bad. It’s just boring.”
By now I was in full-on nurturance mode. “How can I make the time pass while you heal?”
He requested an iTunes gift card, and I sent him one on the spot. “ur so caring,” he wrote.
It was a seminal moment for a con man, a sign that the mark is willing to give him things. But that didn’t register on me. Instead, I focused on the nimbus that enveloped us, the warmth and flattery. What does it matter that I am no longer able to execute the most audacious stunts in my sexual repertoire without risking a cramp, that I must rely on a blue pill to keep up with my partners, that the blemishes on my body make low light optimal? Who cares about these hindrances? If I keep at it, I will find the polar bear on Miami Beach, waiting for me to nuzzle his fur.
Now comes a tale so tall that only someone flying high on vanity could believe it. My hero gets a message from his commanding officer. The man whose family he rescued has a reward for him: forty-five kilos of gold bullion, worth about $1 million. But there’s a hitch. Soldiers aren’t allowed to accept gifts. The only way he can keep the gold is to move it off base, and that’s where his honey comes in. Would I keep the loot until his tour ends in a few weeks?
This was a ridiculous idea—I got that. Yet I chose to twist the obvious until it took on a more alluring shape. I concluded that he was part of a CIA scheme to spirit out of Syria the assets of a local informer who had provided them with useful intelligence. Not even Ed Wood could have created such a zany scenario, but I needed to believe it. I wanted to throw myself into an adventure whose denouement would surely involve his dog tag and my tongue.
To preserve the shreds of my objectivity, I asked him how the gold could be transported to America without raising the suspicion of customs. He was ready with an answer. There was a diplomat who brought things in an out of the base. Soon I got a message from his accomplice, who identified himself as a “private diplomat” working with the military. Two certificates were attached, one from the Syrian Ministry of Mines and the other from the UN declaring that the delivery was legit. There is no Ministry of Mines in Syria, nor does the UN certify the transference of gold from war zones into private hands. All of that should have been obvious, but none of it occurred to me. My mind was fixed on storing his reward.
I could rent a vault, but I thought it might be unwise to schlep a hundred-pound crate of bullion into a bank. Then I remembered the locker where I keep my old vinyls, bongos from my beatnik phase, and erotic memorabilia of the sort that isn’t allowed on Antiques Roadshow. I spent a hectic afternoon throwing stuff out to make room for the booty, and when I got home there was a message from the diplomat. He was about to fly from Damascus to New York, and he would let me know when he arrived.
I had a panic attack, long overdue. What if I’d been snared in a plot to smuggle gold, maybe involving Chechen mobsters out to poison my Diet Coke. I was caught in something I couldn’t control. It was time to call a friend who has written about internet scams. “Dude, you’re not getting one hundred pounds of gold,” he said. “At some point, they’ll ask you for money.”
His reasoning was indisputable, but I was desperate to prove him wrong. “Do soldiers call each other comrade?” I asked my friend. “Maybe the Vietcong,” he snarked. Then he suggested that there was no Corporal D. He might actually exist, but someone had snatched his identity and created a new persona. My only solace was that the scheme hadn’t cost me much. The other victims may have parted with thousands of dollars, but I’m even stingier than I am naive. So I took my friend’s advice and told the scammer I was out of his game. “You’re breaking my heart,” he wrote. I felt a sharp pang of remorse; despite it all, I didn’t want to hurt him. But I’d made up my mind, and, after several attempts to ’sup me, he vanished into the cloud of someone else’s dreams
At first I felt liberated, then ashamed of my gullibility, and finally dejected. Without the romance of his texts, I’d have to face the truth that wrinkle creams deny. Though my desires are abundant, my erotic opportunities are not. Soon there will come a time when these forays take so much energy and produce such a meager return that I’ll happily settle for the man at the center of my life—and the consolation of pornography. Still, every now and then, I’m seized by a burst of expectation, and I play the odds on a swipe-right site. I tell myself not to worry about meeting another fraudster, since I’ve learned to play that game and I know how to end it at the mention of a monetary request. But there’s always a risk that I will lose myself in the heat of a flirtation. In order to be fully aroused, I have to believe that I’ve met someone whose desire for me is sincere, even when it’s hidden by a racket. That’s how I’ve managed to persevere in the face of being duped. I’ve turned my scammer into a character whose need for love is so profound that he can’t admit it. His con is a defense against pain. So is my relief at being rid of him.
The truth is, I miss him. I miss the aura of our intimacy, the imagined scent of his crevices, the spark of sharing between two very different people. I miss his cultivation of my sentiments and his arousal of my latent femininity. It was painful to let those feelings go, but being helpless before my delusions was worse than losing him. Maybe.
On my desktop, I keep one of the photos the scammer provided—a selfie of the real soldier boy, whoever he may be. Gazing at that buff man with the cross tattooed on his chest, I still whisper, Oy.
Fall / Winter 2023
Richard Goldstein is the former executive editor of The Village Voice and the author of Another Little Piece of My Heart: My Life of Rock and Revolution in the 1960s. He lives in Manhattan with his demilitarized sweetie and their dog.
Azmi Mert Erdem
Azmi Mert Erdem is a New York-based Turkish-American multidisciplinary artist working with video, photography, performance, and installation. Mert received his BA in Film and Television from Istanbul Bilgi University and attended the One Year Filmmaking Program at New York Film Academy. He received his MA in Liberal Studies from CUNY Graduate Center, where he focused on film studies and LGBTQIA+ representation in the cinema of Turkey. His work has been exhibited in New York, Istanbul, and Tongyeong, and his award-winning short films have been featured in festivals internationally. Transient Exposures is an ongoing exploration of embodied affect through photography and movement.