Today, I checked my workplace email and yelled “Oh no!” very loudly; my neighbours upstairs probably heard me. My work-related email, that I had deliberately kept free of personal mail, now included an email from Isaac. This is a circumstance as unwelcome and unexpected as spilling red wine on a white blouse during a first date. (Yes, I have done that.) No, it’s worse. You can bleach out a wine stain.
I thought I had ended it, cut the cord, blocked, junked, ignored, and otherwise dumped this guy so many times now that he had got the message. Apparently, he had not.
There had been a time when his emails were welcome, eagerly anticipated, and joyfully reciprocated. We were pen pals. He was in Kenya and I was in Canada. He was interesting, his life was exotic, and he wrote well. Given the execrable writing of some of my students, it was a delight to read good English. We corresponded for years. In that time I helped him get an online education and sort through the red tape of immigration applications. He helped me cope with my home, work, and family trials, and he made me feel smart, beautiful, and appreciated. He sent emails, he “buzzed” my phone, and he sent me text messages several times a week.
When he first asked me for money, I was more than willing to send it if I could do it without explaining it to my family. Because I was humbled by his daily struggles and valued his friendship, I sent the money. Over several years I sent a lot of money. I learned how to use bank transfers, Western Union, and subterfuge.
Eventually, Isaac and I were able to meet. I spent two weeks in Kenya and met him, his mother, his brothers, and his friends. They were very welcoming and keen to show me their country. I loved it and I loved them. I soon found out that I was considered to be wealthy, and so there were many occasions when I was asked for money for clothes, food, gasoline, medical treatment, and miscellaneous debts. Even though I was (and am) normally frugal, with normal middle-class debts, by comparison with their day-to-day struggles, I was rich. So, I helped them out. At the same time during this visit, I started to resent the assumption that I could provide, and I became more sceptical of the requests. Even so, it was a time full of new experiences and delights.
The Kenyan people I met were friendly, cheerful, and resourceful. They were willing to try any occupation, or trade any goods, to make a little money. They worked harder at looking for work, networking, or finding opportunities than most of us do in working at a regular job. They tap-danced around corruption and clan tensions, and they stood in lots of long line-ups. These sociable people supported their families and drowned their sorrows with enthusiasm.
Isaac, I discovered, was occasionally charming and often drunk. He didn’t provide the conversations I had hoped for, but even so I was glad for his friendship. I knew then that I appeared to be the stereotypical vulnerable older woman, and I had a hunch that I was being mocked, but I told myself that this was different. I wanted my relationship with Isaac to be a rare example of a successful long-distance intercultural liaison. Within a few days, though, my determination to make it succeed had begun to wane. This was not the meeting of minds that it had seemed to be in writing– but it was still refreshing.
I came home feeling invigorated, wiser, and embarrassed by waste. Waste of money, waste of opportunity, waste of resources. I couldn’t go shopping any more. Going to the mall became anathema to me; I stopped buying anything that I didn’t absolutely need. Any time I thought of spending money, I asked myself if that money would be better spent by my friends in Kenya. The answer was always “Yes.”
While I was beginning to resent Isaac’s frequent requests for money, I was simultaneously more fully appreciating the need. While I was pulling away from my emotional attachment to Isaac, I was in greater admiration of his occupational, social, and cultural versatility.
Subsequent email exchanges took on a different character. It became clearer that Isaac was reinventing our history and drinking more. At one point I had to disabuse him of the notion that I had gone to Kenya to marry him and take him back to Canada. Where did that come from? Nothing I had said, I’m sure. Even so, I supported his application for a tourist visa to visit me in Canada, and expected him in May, then June, then July, then August. The delays, he said, were caused by bureaucracy and the ongoing need for bribe money.
Suddenly, life took an unexpected turn. I was involved in a serious car accident. When I woke up in hospital, I had to check to see if I was still alive. My second thought, after that, was to save Isaac the money I thought he was about to spend on a plane ticket. I asked my son to call him and cancel his trip.
After that, there was silence. He just stopped writing.
As I was recovering over a period of months, I kept checking my email hoping to hear words of consolation and support from Isaac, but they didn’t come. With some grief and some relief, and after a few brief requests for a word, I gave up the effort to communicate.
Then, as I gained the strength to go out an about again, the phone calls and emails began again. So did the requests for money. It was always for something urgent or essential. He had been mugged. His mother needed medical treatment. The family needed a lawyer to settle a land claim. He lost his cell phone. His brother needed irrigation equipment for the farm. All real, all really important, and all accompanied by flattery and affection. My heart gave me a stronger argument to help him than my head gave me an argument to ignore him.
Nevertheless, I tried. I didn’t send money every time. When I did, I sent less than he said he needed. I explained my reduced income. I told him my feelings had changed. I insisted that the relationship was over. I stopped writing. But the requests kept coming. Later, when I planned to work part-time, I made it clear that there would be no more money. It made no difference. The phone calls and the text messages started again, and the emails kept on coming. I stopped responding.
I found out that it isn’t possible to block a phone caller if what they are doing is not illegal. The only way to stop the phone calls was to change my phone number, so I did. I notified my friends and family of the new number and asked them not to pass it on. My son showed me how to block emails on Hotmail, and I blocked Isaac and all his family members. I de-friended his brother from my Facebook page and declined all friendship requests. I thought I had the problem solved.
I have now enjoyed three months without hearing from Isaac. Three months of not feeling anxious about checking my Hotmail, not feeling guilty about declining requests for money, not feeling shitty about having so much while he has so little, not having to think about him at all. It has been good. I have come to a grudging understanding of my naiveté, and I have even talked about it a little. I told a friend something about this relationship and said, “I let my heart rule my head. I will never let that happen again.” I have been feeling smarter and more self-assured, less vulnerable and more courageous.
So, today, when I saw his name on my workplace email inbox, my heart sank. I have configured my office email system to send all messages from Isaac to the Junk file, but it still feels as though the door that I thought I had closed has opened again, just a little.
If this were a movie, someone wise would say “I feel a disturbance in the force.”