14 Febrero 2017 11:58
After reading this story, you'll think twice about what you agree to on WhatsApp.
Esther is 29 and at the pinnacle of her career as a ballerina. She has just performed for the royal family with the National Dance Company. And yet, this Christmas, like every Christmas since she was 14 years old, she has to suffer the same inquisition from her family about when she's going to get herself a boyfriend.
The only difference is that what had been limited – during Esther's teenage years – to light-hearted teasing, had turned into a sort of all-encompassing blanket of concern that unfairly obscured her achievements in life.
It's New Year's Eve. Esther throws a party to see off the old year and show off her new loft apartment in the city. It's small – barely 50 square metres – but it's a loft. Esther and her guests drink, dance and toast each other's health beneath a print of the painting Love and Pain that takes up half the wall. Eventually, the guests say their goodbyes and Esther and the Munch are left alone.
Esther sits on the confetti-strewn sofa and takes a swig of wine straight from the bottle. The truth is, Esther never used to mind being alone. Unlike her friends, she'd never needed a special someone – a companion who would stick around when everyone else left. But lately, she'd started to think differently.
Esther picks up her phone and opens Facebook. The chat is empty, but there's a new friend request:
Ernesto Seguí. 30. Architect. Buenos Aires. 15 friends in common.
Esther doesn't usually accept friend requests from strangers, but she checks out his profile and sees that they have similar tastes. Plus, he's not bad looking, so she makes an exception.
Minutes later, she receives a message.
Ernesto: Hi. I hope you don't think I'm being too forward. We've never met, but I read a comment you left on a friend's timeline and I think you're really funny.
Esther: Hello! Which friend?
Ernesto: Ana Marcos
Esther: We're good friends! How do you know her?
Ernesto: She's an old school friend.
Esther: Oh... but aren't you Argentinian?
Ernesto: Not exactly. I've been living here since I was 13, but I was actually born in Barcelona.
Esther: Ah! OK! I see... :)
Ernesto: Hey, now that I can see your photos, I just want to say that you're as pretty as you are funny. What do you do?
And so began a conversation that lasted the rest of the night. It was as if they'd met at some after-hours bar and ended up watching the sunrise together. And in a way, that was exactly what they had done, except their conversation took place over Skype, and they were living in different time zones. But it was the same sun, after all.
Ernesto had been a architecture wunderkind. He'd designed his brother's house while still a teenager, and, by the time he'd turned 20, he'd already helped build a hospital. Esther found articles about him in Argentinian online news. In the photos, Ernesto looked very different to how he looked now. The trauma of the past few years had clearly taken its toll.
Because the boy with a remarkable past – and an even brighter future ahead of him – had his life violently derailed three years ago when he crashed his car, killing his fiancee. Ernesto had entered into a downward spiral of self-destruction, losing everything he'd worked so hard for over the years. Sunk deep in despair, and incapable of drawing a single line, he now lived in his brother's basement, in the house that he had – in happier times – designed.
Esther had learned all this gradually. At first, they'd just send each other messages at night, Spanish time, when Esther was in bed and about to turn off her phone.
Then Ernesto began to send her longer messages at night when she was asleep. She would read them as soon as she woke up, and reply while travelling to rehearsals on on the Metro. After a while, Esther started to feel desperate for each working day to end so she could get home and talk to Ernesto on Skype.
When she wasn't dancing the only thing Esther did was speak or write to Ernesto. She had stopped seeing her friends altogether. She felt like Ernesto was the only person who really understood what she meant when she spoke. The imaginary date nights that they recreated during their Skype conversations were more perfect than any real-life encounter could have been.
They were desperate to meet, and had already started talking about the possibility of Ernesto moving to Spain. Fate had brought them together for a reason. She was his saviour and, for the first time in her life, she had found meaning outside her career. As a ballerina, Esther had already achieved everything she had ever dreamed of. She was also very aware that – at the age of 29 – her career would soon be over, leaving a gaping hole in her life.
The only problem was that Ernesto was broke.
Fortunately, his brother had promised to help them. Enrique managed a small bank in Buenos Aires and he was looking for an intermediary in Europe. He wanted Esther to help him carry out some transactions with clients who needed to change currency. Specifically, he wanted her to receive large sums of money that neither Western Union nor MoneyGram would accept.
All she had to do was receive the money and then send it to Enrique. In return, he would lend his brother what he needed to visit Spain and settle down with Esther.
Esther wasn't great with numbers, and she didn't much like the idea of getting involved in internacional business transactions that she didn't really understand, but she felt the reward would be worth it.
The next day she opened an account and soon began receiving money from all over the world.
€30.000 from France
€16.000 from Norway
€25.000 from Australia
Sometimes she had to go and collect the money in person. One middle-aged man said, as he handed her €9.000 in cash:
'These are my life savings. I hope you're not conning me.'
'Don't worry, if this is a con, then I'm getting conned too.'
Esther was no fool. She suspected that something strange was going on, but she chose to concentrate on the romantic movie with a happy ending that was playing in her head every day. Her obsession was such that she began to neglect her ballet career.
When the bank closed Esther's account, suspecting her of taking part in fraudulent activities, she simply opened new accounts with other banks and carried on as if nothing had happened.
Ernesto would arrive in time for Christmas.
Esther: Guess what? I bumped into Ana Marcos in the street today. I mentioned you to her...
Ernesto: Oh, yeah? It's been such a long time... how is she?
Esther: Fine, but she doesn't remember you...
Ernesto: Well, that's no surprise. We were only in the same school for a couple of years
Esther: I thought you were friends...
Ernesto: Hey, I've got something important to tell you. Today I managed to design something. It's the first time since the accident and it's all thanks to you...
Ernesto: Look, this is our new house :)
A couple of weeks before Ernesto was due to board the plane that would bring him to Esther, his mother became very ill. The trip had to be postponed.
Around the same time, Esther was replaced by another ballerina for the main role in Don Quixote. She was given a minor part instead. More of her bank accounts were closed, forcing her to open others. She needed to make more money for Enrique so that Ernesto could bring his mother who he wouldn't leave behind.
One day, as Esther was trying to open a new account, the police showed up at the bank.
They took Esther to a room and began asking her questions about Ernesto and Enrique and the transfers she'd been carrying out for them. The police told her that Ernesto and Enrique were scammers who had been conning people for some time. She was not the only one: there were others like her – lots. Esther barely heard the word 'scammer'. But the phrase 'others like her' rang in her ears.
Ernesto had been talking to other women – that was what really hurt. But she wasn't going to give up: she would show him that she was the only one. The only one who would stay by his side. The only one he could count on. She would never let him down.
Two days later, Esther goes back to the bank to pay in €15.000 that a housewife has given her. The bank teller becomes nervous and stalls for time, telling Esther that they have a computer problem and she must wait.
The realisation begins to dawn on Esther... but it's too late. The police arrive, arrest Esther for fraud and take her away in handcuffs.
She is distraught. How will she get in touch with Ernesto? Fortunately, she has the right to one phone call. Of course, she calls him...
Esther: Ernesto, Ernesto, listen, I don't have much time...
Ernesto: What's wrong, sweetheart? Calm down...
Esther: I can't, I've been arrested... Tell Enrique to hire the best lawyers.
Esther: Ernesto? Are you still there?
But all she hears on the other end of the line are the beeps telling her that she is now talking to herself. Something in her head breaks like a crystal vase filled with roses and, for the first time since New Year's Eve, she asks herself:
Was any of it real?