Later that day– the same day I told him I wanted him to be my boyfriend in order to get him to stay near and not run away– I decided to stop ignoring the internal RED ALERT. Previously, I came across a name on his phone records, Johnnie Gomez. It was time to dig for real dirt.
I started just as I had before, with his phone number. It revealed all the same information I already knew: there was no trace of Raef… however, there were many mentions of Johnnie Gomez, consistent enough to make me want to excavate the digital terrain to find out more about who this Johnnie Gomez was and how Raef knew him. But not surprisingly, it’s a pretty common name, so I started doing image searches for the name, again I figured it was a method that was sure to prove fruitless. I scrolled through hundreds of photos, men who looked nothing like him. I was about to switch tactics when a tiny thumbnail photo caught my eye. I clicked on it…
There he was. The photo was undoubtedly him, and it was linked to an Instagram account @Johnnieboy69 — there weren’t many photos there, but enough to confirm that it was definitely him; the short bio on the account simply stated his name was “Johnnie Gomez.”
I then searched Instagram for users by that name, and another profile with his picture popped up: @Johnnie_77 — here, there were only 3 pictures, but they were telling photos. One with a horse, and two with the same man– “Enjoying a day off at the spa” was the caption of one of them. They were both clad in white robes. The picture was posted in the last 6 months, and pieces were starting to fall into place in my brain.
I did more searching online, and then finally found myself coming to a cyber-dead-end and needed a boost. I could have walked away right there… I probably should have, but I was determined to crack this case and get my money back. So, the next action that I took is exactly what any rational human might do– I purchased a month of unlimited background checks from Instant Checkmate dot com.
When I did that, I was finally cooking with gas, as they say. I ran a name search… I was able to confirm his birthday (which confirmed his age for me– he was telling the truth– 37 years old), some address in South LA that I had never seen before, a humble rambler with a handful of other residents with the same last name, and able to verify that he had no criminal history. I also learned that Johnnie Gomez had two aliases: Julio and Jaime. There was still, however, no mention of Raef anywhere. The $34.99 that I invested into this month-long subscription was proving less than fruitful. There was also no mention of the phone number that I had been using to contact him. Was this the wrong person?
I searched his phone number and was redirected to a page that required an upgrade in order to query phone numbers. Puh-leaze. I am not about to do that. What? Do I seem that desperate? Pfft. So instead, on a whim, I searched the street address of the house I visited a couple of times: 747 W Luscious Avenue. I knew that the house was purchased for cash about a year prior, but I didn’t know by whom…
The information page came up and the owners were listed as Mark Edwin and Jaime Monteith.
I didn’t know those people, I hadn’t stumbled across those names in my initial research, but I did recently learn that Johnnie had an alias: Jaime. Could it be the first real break in the case since I started investigating? I started looking for more information on both Jaime and Mark Edwin. Mark Edwin was well-established: multiple properties, a professional history, family– but no mention of Jaime on his profile. And Jaime Monteith didn’t exist prior to the purchase of the home one year ago. What is going on?!
With the new information about the house and its owners, I turned back to social media. I searched Facebook first… I found Mark Edwin, but there were no pictures of Jaime. I searched Jaime and there was nothing. Ready to give up again, I had one more idea: look for Johnnie Monteith.
There he was. Not only was it him, but his profile picture gave me all the information I needed: there he sat in a nice suit, next to Mark Edwin. Under an arbor. With flowers and hearts. It was so clearly a wedding picture.
Johnnie was Jaime and was also married!
My body was viscerally reacting to the information– not with anger from being deceived, but from shock that I had let my feelings open up to possibility with someone who was clearly shifty at every turn. I wanted to call him right there and say,
I know everything! I know you’re married! I know your name isn’t Raef! That’s not even one of your aliases… but I know your other aliases! And if you own such a huge house that you and your HUSBAND bought with cash, why do you need my $200!? What is your endgame here?! You used me, you made me feel special and then violated that bond we were forming.
But instead, I didn’t do that.
I didn’t even text. I just waited.
I started to think about the relational terrain, and there wasn’t much hope for a future now that we both had secrets– his secrets were actually deceptive, mine were that I knew about said deceit– but I had to play the long game in order to reclaim my money. I needed to not cause alarm and not scare him away. Not yet.
Discovering as much as I needed to know for that day, and knowing that I had another 29 days to dig deeper if I wanted, I logged off from the background checks. Still visibly shaken, and retuned to my actual duties of the day.
Eventually, I started wrapping up things at work when my phone rang. It was Raef/Johnnie/Jaime/Julio. It was like I could tell what his next move was– I knew that if I waited it out, he would call or text. My plan to stay in the game in order to eventually reclaim was was rightfully mine was working. I took a deep breath and relied on my years of acting experience to carry me through the next conversation.
“Hello,” I calmly started.
He hesitated, then, “Hi, are you still at work?”
“Yes, but I am literally walking out of my office now. I can chat.” I threw my bag strap over my shoulder and closed my office door.
“Ok. How are you?”
We made small talk, he seemed calm and perhaps even a little happy to be talking to me. After a few minutes of catching up over the details of his day and the surgery that never was, he said, “I am sorry. You deserve so much better than what I am giving you right now.”
No, don’t run! I thought to myself. Is he trying to tell me that it’s over and that he can’t give me what I am looking for?! I’ve heard that phrase a few times and am quite versed in the variations of how it starts. THIS was definitely one of them.
He went on, “You deserve better, and as soon as I get all this paperwork sorted out, we can finally spend some time together. I miss you.”
He wasn’t going anywhere.
“And I just want to get all this lawyer stuff sorted out so that I can actually be focused on you. I am sorry– it will all be better soon. I promise.”
I smiled, half believing him and half remembering that I didn’t know the person who was talking to me at all. “I am looking forward to spending time with you,” it hurt to lie, but it was a means to an end. Or was it a lie at all? Was I actually hoping to have something come of this convoluted onset of a romance? I couldn’t tell anymore… but I knew that I couldn’t let my heart get any more involved, even if my head was wanting to think otherwise.
We ended the call and the next few days brought a sporadic sampling of affectionate text messages, but no immediate plans to see each other until I received the following text message:
“Your money will be ready next Wednesday.”
Out of the blue– a text about the money I lent him. I responded letting him know that I was appreciative of that news and would meet him wherever he wanted to in order to reclaim what was rightfully mine.
“I will only be able to get you $140 right now. But will get you the rest soon.”
How is it that a millionaire cannot scrounge up 60 extra dollars? Even I can gather enough loose change and take it to the coin-to-cash machine in order to get $60. I was having a hard time with the information, but of course I didn’t let on that it made me question his whole narrative; I just went along with it. “That’s ok, babe. Anything will help. Looking forward to seeing you soon.” And then like a punch to the gut, there it was again; that uneasy feeling of playing a game in order to salvage my tiny fortune. I swallowed my ethical code and moved forward with knots in my stomach.
More days passed and some short and stilted messages were exchanged… eventually the day of the lunch meeting was upon us. I confirmed our meet-up an hour prior to the set time. The bubbles indicating his impending response appeared, and it was taking much longer for him to reply with a simple, “Yes” than I imagined. Therefore, I started thinking worst case scenario– he was going to flake; he didn’t have the money; he could meet me but needed more money first… I started to spiral and then his response came through,
“Yes. But running 10 minutes late.”
Oh. Ok. Why did that take so long to type?! But I moved on… “Great. See you soon.” I wanted to keep it short so as not to scare him off and get one step closer to figuring out more of his story and making his debt to me closer to void.
I walked to our meeting spot; in true form, we met at a Starbucks… my signature move. As I strolled up, there he was, sitting on the patio, waiting for me. He stood and greeted me with an almost-hug. The embrace landed somewhere between a chest-bump and European kiss on the cheek. He immediately removed money from his back pocket and handed it to me. “Here,” he said as he forked over a Benjamin and two Jacksons. Then I asked if he wanted anything from inside, and he said, “Well, I don’t really have any money.” And like the fucking chump kind person I am, I offered to get him whatever he wanted and we could sit and chat for a bit. He accepted my offer and we both got a sandwich and an iced tea.
After ordering, we stood to at the counter where they serve you your items, I felt the uneasiness wash over me again. I knew so much information about him– his real name, he marital status, to point out the most glaring of the facts with which he not only chose to NOT share with me but also willingly mislead me. I glanced at his left hand, noting no ring on his ring finger… but then unintentionally did a double-take and he quickly withdrew his hand.
“What?” He smiled, clearly uncomfortable.
I hesitated, “You have a tan-line on your ring finger. Um,” I smiled and then asked with my best non-confrontational tone, “Are you married?”
I remember so clearly what he said next because it was the most egregious question one could ask it that situation, “What? Are you crazy??! No, I am not married.”
Am I crazy? AM I FUCKING CRAZY!? No dude, you’re crazy. And seriously. The audacity to lie to my face!!
“Oh. Well. That’s quite the tan-line you have on that finger. Do you often wear a ring on that finger?”
He smiled, “No. Why?”
I laughed a little, “Um. Seriously? Because there’s a very distinct tan-line. Were you ever married?” Here’s your chance to make up for the lies you just told… I am giving you an opportunity…”
“Yes.” The truth! “And sometimes I still wear my wedding ring. It’s a beautiful ring.”
At that point, I couldn’t tell what was true and what wasn’t, although I can tell from that tan-line that he wore the ring daily and was very clearly, as per social media, still married. But still, I dropped it.
After getting our food and drinks, we moved back to the outdoor patio area and sat, sipping and noshing. The conversation was some of the worst I have ever had: stilted, surface, banal. Finally, I couldn’t take the tedium anymore.
“So, when is your birthday?”
He looked at me stunned for a second. “I told you already.”
“No, you didn’t. You told me your age… are you a Gemini? A Leo? I mean, I don’t even know your last name or your birthday. I’m a Gemini. My birthday is May 28. When is yours?”
He laughed a little, “October 21, 1980.” Wrong. The correct answer is October 18, 1980.
“Ok. There’s something I know about you now,” even though it was an inaccurate fact. I was learning that I can’t trust a single thing he said; I was finally making a case to not believe any of information he previously fed me… information that I consumed with abandon and carelessness.
There was a pause. The knot in my stomach tightened as we half-smiled and held each other’s gaze, “Have you been honest with me?”
“Yes,” he lied, holding my gaze. He was good at this. No facial ticks, nothing to indicate his bluff.
I paused, then, “100%?”
The chink in his armor was finally revealed. Less certain than the previous assertion, “Why?”
I breathed deeply, calmly. “Because I know Raef isn’t your real name.”
It was as if my body could finally relax again– my heart raced, but I felt relief… and yet, he held my eyes with his. “Ok,” he started, “Then what’s my real name?”
Expecting some sort of reveal, I waited. Then he said, “Ok.”
That was all. He said no more so I went on, “And I just want to know why. I mean, I went into quite a rabbit hole… and found out a lot about you. So… Why lie to me? Why willingly mislead me? Why do you need the money? For some reason, I am still here, and I am not even mad at you… I am really not angry, because I don’t think you’re a bad person. I think you’re maybe a bit confused… and maybe you’re not certain of what you want… but you’re not a bad person.”
He just looked at me and then uttered, “I’m really messed up,” and barely missing a beat, “I start seeing a therapist on Monday to talk about all of this stuff. About why I do this.”
I smiled, “That’s a really good idea. I think if you’re really doing that… you’re on the right track. But you have to tell the therapist the truth. You don’t get to lie about it.”
He laughed condescendingly, “Well, yeah. That’s the point.”
“Um. The point of getting to know someone is also to show your true self. Not deceive. So, based on experience, I feel like my advice is warranted.”
There was another silence.
“So, why ‘Raef’?”
“It’s my new name. I am getting rid of my old name, because I have no use for it anymore. That person doesn’t exist anymore– no family, no one knows me from that life anymore. So I want to start fresh.”
As much as the dishonestly annoyed me, I understood his philosophy. It made sense… in a very real (and sad) way. But I had to keep reminding myself that he could have been upfront with me. It wasn’t even about the name. People go by nicknames all the time, so that wasn’t my issue. The issue was the wedding ring tan line. And the birthday inaccuracy. And the house number. And the hospital stay that was clearly just him sitting next to his pool. With all that in mind, I was back to my fact-finding mission.
“So, are you and Mark Edwin still married? Getting a divorce?”
Another chink in his armor, “Who?”
“Your husband. It was quite a deep rabbit hole.”
He hesitated and shifted for the first time since we arrived. “How do you know about Mark Edwin?”
I smiled, “So it’s true. You’re married. I mean, I thought you were, but I hadn’t fully confirmed it. And now your reaction, your response just tells me everything I need to know.”
He sat silently.
“So, are you guys still together? Are you splitting up? Is that what this is about?” Why was I offering him choices for this conversation? He could pick any one and just run with it. And he did.
“Yes,” he started. “We are separated.”
I continued, “So, why?!”
“I’m fucked up. That’s why I’m seeing the therapist. I don’t know. I need to figure out more about myself. Why I do these things.”
Watching him, I believed it. I didn’t see a liar, I saw a messed up man who maybe wasn’t afforded a lot of opportunity to thrive early on and perhaps he was acting out on it now. Perhaps he was taking control of life in the only way he knew how… to manipulate, to gain power by holding the ultimate truth.
I broke the silence, “So what now? Will I ever see you again?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“For some reason, I am still sitting here,” I continued. “And I can’t tell if it’s because I care about you, or because I don’t think you did this to hurt me– but I think you need help. And I hope you still talk to me. So… can I see you again?
He nodded. “Yes. I think we can be friends. But I am too fucked up to have a boyfriend right now.”
“Well, yeah.” It slipped out of my mouth a little too easily. “I mean, it sounds like you have a real opportunity to make some changes in your life, and I hope that you take the time to do that.” There was another silence. “Well, it’s really nice to finally meet you.” I extended my hand over the table. He laughed a little and shook my hand.
I continued, “I should get back to the office, but… I hope to see you soon.”
“Yes, for sure. Soon,” he replied.
“Plus, you still owe me 60 dollars, so… I will find you.”
He laughed again. “I will pay you back soon. I promise.”
We embraced each other somewhat coldly, and then I was walking away.
A week went by and I didn’t hear from “Raef,” so I reached out to him. My text was met with silence. I had made peace with the fact that I would never see the rest of my money– hell, I made peace with the fact that I would never see the money again when I initially lent it to him.
Another week passed and I changed my tactic. Rather than asking how he was, I just said, “Hi.” Almost immediately I received a response.
“I have the rest of your money I can meet you at Starbucks tomorrow at 12 noon”
That was it. No punctuation. Just a couple of sentences drawn together to make a collection of words. I was shocked, and looking forward to finding out what sort of progress he was making in his life.
The next day rolled around and I arrived at the Starbucks on time… no sign of him. Last time he was early, so I sat at a table and waited. And waited. And just when I thought he might not show up, I saw him walking across the parking lot in the signature Burberry print, a button-down shirt. The millions must have arrived.
I was about to give him a hug and before he was close enough to embrace, he extended his arm and handed me a wad of cash. It felt like more than $60, but I didn’t look at it; I just put it in my pocket.
“I have to go: meetings, therapy.” That’s all he said. He turned to walk away.
“I like your shirt.” I didn’t.
He smiled, thanked me, and then turned away again.
“Hey!” I called after him. He looked back and I continued, “Are you doing ok?”
“Yeah. I’ll call you.”
I watched him walk away and get into a white Ford SUV. He got into the front seat. I forced myself to not look at the license plate and do more research. I removed the wad of cash from my pocket, unwrapped what appeared to be a roll of $20 bills, and found inside a bunch of $1 bills. I counted them: $62. He gave me 1% interest. Classy.
I wanted this chapter of my personal memoir/burn book to be over, and yet somewhere between my heart and my brain, he was lodged… like that chalky pill you try to dry swallow, and it just gets stuck in your esophagus. It was like that: annoying, inconvenient, and totally not going to kill you because you know it will eventually dissolve.
And it did. He dissolved in my life.