Con­fi­dence Woman

The woman who called her­self Tatiana Aarons gave me an ad­dress that led to a va­cant lot

Geist - - Features - Stephen Henighan

In the late af­ter­noon of Satur­day, April 23, 2005, I was read­ing a novel on the edge of the Praça do Comér­cio in Lis­bon, Por­tu­gal. A petite woman in her late twen­ties, with long dark hair, emerged from a side street to the west of the square. She ap­proached me with a breezy man­ner and, in a South African accent, asked me what I was read­ing. I had been in Lis­bon for three weeks, pre­par­ing for a re­search trip to An­gola. I was on my own, and was im­mersed in the his­tory and lit­er­a­ture of Por­tuguese-speak­ing south­ern Africa. In­tro­duc­ing her­self as Tatiana Aarons, my new ac­quain­tance told me that her South African par­ents had taken her into ex­ile in Mozam­bique dur­ing the apartheid years. When I showed her the An­golan novel I was read­ing, she added that she had also lived in Lubango, An­gola, which, I knew, had been a refuge for white left­ists dur­ing that pe­riod. I felt my­self pro­jected into the world of Jewish South African Communists de­scribed in Na­dine Gordimer’s nov­els Burger’s Daugh­ter and A Sport of Na­ture.

“We should keep in touch,” Tatiana said. In my agenda, which was open at that day’s date, she wrote her ad­dresses and phone num­bers in Mozam­bique and South Africa. She added a third ad­dress: that of a back­packer ho­tel near the Ros­sio, Lis­bon’s cen­tral square. As it grew dark, Tatiana and I walked to­ward the city cen­tre. A grad­u­ate stu­dent in psy­chol­ogy in Jo­han­nes­burg, she had come to Lis­bon for a con­fer­ence. Air France—“air Chance!” she laughed—had lost her lug­gage, which in­cluded her credit card. While wait­ing for her suit­case to ar­rive, she had run out of cash. “Could you lend me 60 Eu­ros to get to the air­port?” She scrib­bled her room num­ber on a card from the back­packer ho­tel. I could find her there later and she would re­pay me.

Eru­dite, and with a clown­ish sense of hu­mour, Tatiana was charm­ing com­pany. Yet I couldn’t help but spot in­con­sis­ten­cies in her story. She wove such an ef­fort­less tale that I hated my­self for pick­ing holes in it. I knew that a 45 bus from the Ros­sio would take her to the air­port for less than 2 Eu­ros. We chat­ted at the bus stop. As the bus ap­proached, I pulled out my wal­let. Tatiana’s ebul­lient ex­pres­sion van­ished. I ex­tended a 10-Euro note as my com­pli­ment for a good story. She

leapt for the money, rip­ping it from my hand. I saw a feral des­per­a­tion in her clenched teeth. She scam­pered up the steps and stood hold­ing a pole, star­ing back at me, as the bus pulled away.

I wanted to be­lieve Tatiana. The next morn­ing I asked for her at the ho­tel. She had never stayed there. A year later, in Maputo, Mozam­bique, I looked for the ad­dress she had given me, and found that Avenida 24 de Julho, 543, led me to a va­cant lot on the city’s main thor­ough­fare. Even as I re­minded my­self that the side streets from which she had emerged were rid­dled with drug dens, I mar­velled at the de­tail with which Tatiana had pre­pared her story.

I was not alone.

Be­tween 2005 and 2011, the woman who called her­self Tatiana Aarons duped thou­sands of vis­i­tors to Lis­bon. I must have been one of her first marks. She later re­fined her story, iron­ing out the in­con­sis­ten­cies. The pose of be­ing a psy­chol­ogy stu­dent sep­a­rated from her credit card re­mained, as did the jokes about Air France. She switched po­lit­i­cal ide­olo­gies, telling later vic­tims that her par­ents had been landown­ers in colo­nial Mozam­bique who had fled to South Africa af­ter the 1975 rev­o­lu­tion. No longer pick­ing up trav­ellers, usu­ally sin­gle men, close to the city’s druggy ar­eas, she pa­trolled the stately, treed Avenida da Liber­dade, which runs from the Ros­sio to Ed­uardo VII Park and hosts some of Por­tu­gal’s most ex­pen­sive bou­tiques. Re­cep­tion­ists in bud­get ho­tels near the park re­ported that on some oc­ca­sions two or three guests a day told them that a South African friend was com­ing to the front desk to re­turn the 60 Eu­ros (or more) they had lent her. Ev­ery­one Tatiana scammed be­came fas­ci­nated by her.

In 2009 Tatiana scammed Tom Struyf, a Bel­gian ac­tor. Struyf, who said she was the best ac­tor he had seen, later re­turned to Lis­bon to re­search Tatiana’s ca­reer. Struyf’s one-man show, The Tatiana Aarons Ex­pe­ri­ence, charts his path from ide­al­iza­tion of Tatiana to con­fronting the re­al­ity of her mo­ti­va­tions. She asked her vic­tims for 60 Eu­ros, Struyf learned, be­cause that was the street price of two doses of heroin.

Tatiana’s scams oc­curred in a Por­tu­gal that had shaken off its hang­over from the fas­cist Salazar-cae­tano dic­ta­tor­ship (1932–1974) and the loss of its African and Asian colonies. Af­ter 2002, when the war in An­gola ended, con­vert­ing Por­tu­gal’s big­gest former African colony into an eco­nomic dy­namo, Lis­bon swarmed with An­golan, Mozam­bi­can and Cape Verdean singers, writ­ers, ac­tors. The city’s sense of it­self as be­ing on the edge of Africa was the back­drop to Tatiana’s sto­ries. This re­la­tion­ship soured af­ter 2008, when the econ­omy crashed, young Por­tuguese em­i­grated, rich An­golans bought the bou­tiques on Avenida da Liber­dade, the African artists ei­ther left town or re­de­fined them­selves as “Black Por­tuguese” and, to save the econ­omy, the city was opened to a mass tourism that over­whelmed its most tra­di­tional neigh­bour­hoods. To­day, when tourists, each armed with an iphone, stroll Avenida da Liber­dade in guided groups, it is un­likely that Tatiana would flour­ish. Al­ready, in the fi­nal months of her ca­reer, her vic­tims were be­gin­ning to com­mis­er­ate with each other on Face­book.

Mirac­u­lously, Tatiana ap­pears to have out­lived her heroin ad­dic­tion. Tom Struyf re­ports that in 2011, af­ter giv­ing birth to a child, she went into re­hab. In 2014, in Jo­han­nes­burg, I made it as far as Tatiana’s district of Sand­ton. I de­cided not to look up the ad­dress she had given me. As much as I hoped she had sur­vived, I knew that all I would find was a va­cant lot.

Stephen Henighan’s short story col­lec­tion, Blue River and Red Earth (Cor­morant Books), and his trans­la­tion of the An­golan writer Ond­jaki’s novel, Trans­par­ent City (Bi­b­lioa­sis), will both be pub­lished in early 2018. Read more of his work at geist.com and stephen­henighan.com. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Stephen­henighan.

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