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Tenacity and A Long Trail

My WhatsApp line just rang. “Don’t hang up, it’s X!” I thought it might be a scam but stayed on the line, skeptical but curious. “It’s X from unit 6,” a whispered voice, one I barely recognized.

It was a former tenant, someone I paid to leave over two years ago and whose cockroach infestation cost a small fortune to resolve. She left a broken window, a pile of debris, and filth burrowed deep into the crevices of cabinetry, drawers and floors. Her toilet seat was missing, the shower floor was cracked, and smoke detectors were destroyed. Nonetheless we parted on mostly good terms. She’d lied to me on numerous occasions, and she continually indulged in behavior that would be intolerable in a neighbor, but our interactions were polite. Her visitors came and went at all hours. They double parked, making it impossible for other tenants to get to work or pick up their kids. And she blasted music loud loud loud. I called her out on these things regularly.

Once I found a bag of her belongings, along with lots of suspicious items, in a locked vacant apartment. I never learned the story behind that weird incident, like how that stuff got in there, but when I saw that bag, I knew it was time for X to go.

When we parted, it was just business. I could no longer take the chaos she wreaked on my life and that of her neighbors, and she stood to gain financially by leaving. I offered forgiveness of her unpaid rent — around $2k — plus $500 in cash. She tidied the place up to the extent that she could and told me she and her kids would go live with friends in a trailer. I gave her the cash, wished her the best, and had the locks changed.

Two years went by. Then today, a few minutes ago, I heard her voice again, an echo from my past over the tinny-sounding connection of WhatsApp. X said she was in Mexico and asked me to call M, a social worker in Northern California. She spoke in a whisper, quickly gave me a safe word to relay, and spelled the name of the town she was in. I didn’t know if this was the beginning of a scam that would bilk me of my life savings, but in the chance that it was real and that she was in danger, I stayed on the line. Remarkably, I knew M. I’d worked with her many times to provide housing for at-risk populations.

While I used google to determine where X was, I grabbed my husband’s phone, called M, and put the two phones next to each other. By that time, I was able to figure out that the call originated from southern Mexico in a state bordering Oaxaca. Having lived in that area briefly, I knew it to be rugged.

Pretty soon X and M were talking. X relayed the safe word again, and since I could overhear the conversation, I was inclined to think that X was in serious trouble. She spoke mostly in English so people around her wouldn't be able to understand and said she was taking notes by writing on her skin with a pen. I could hear construction noise, dogs, babies. At one point, I heard X tell someone in Spanish that she was just looking at photos of her kids.

Through WhatsApp, X shared her exact location. I screenshot it and texted it to M who said she’d call the US Embassy, the FBI and the Mexican police. X described what she was wearing so authorities could identify her. She told us that someone had taken her passport, money, phone and SIM card. She hadn’t eaten in two days and was beat up. Who, I thought. Why? How did you wind up in Mexico?

Part of the problem with X is that during her tenancy in unit 6, she’d told me some whoppers. When she first moved in and I had no reason to suspect she was a chronic liar, I believed most of what she said. But soon the impossibility of her stories became insufferable. Weirdness and X went hand-in-hand, like having a bag of belongings in a locked apartment without a plausible story as to how it got in there. While I kept her on the phone today, hoping by some miracle that a Mexican police squad would rescue her, I also wondered if this whole scenario was a lie.

When X moved out of her apartment with my $500, I thought I’d never hear from her again. I can picture the face of her kids, the toys they left behind amid the debris.

M texted me to say that authorities were on the way to help X. They’ll try to get her into a battered women’s shelter and then back over the border to the United States. I hope that happens and that she gets the help she needs. Until then, like so many of my tenants, X will live somewhere by the tenacity of her wits, leaving a trail behind her.


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