Part 1 of a 4-story series
She had imagined their first meeting in person: catching sight of him in the airport, an overdue embrace, flowers, maybe a kiss. He had even talked about hiring a limousine.
But their meeting would be nothing they could have imagined, and a love built over two continents would be torn apart just as it began.
Internet blackjack was just a diversion, an easy way for a single mom like Albina Dragoli to socialize and unwind. No money was at stake, and players at a virtual table could chat through instant messages.
From her home outside Melbourne, Australia, Albina would play with friends in her country as well as relatives and acquaintances around the globe.
Sept. 16, 2008, would be a memorable day at the blackjack table, not for the cards she was dealt but for a joke she was told.
Albina, 46, was playing with about a dozen people. Some she knew, some she didn’t. The guys in the group were making cracks about how hairy they were. An American she didn’t know, whose online handle was RAT, chimed in.
He’s so hairy, RAT claimed, that he could knit two Indian blankets.
The Australian didn’t get the joke.
What do you mean by Indian blankets? Albina asked.
Those blankets some American Indians wrapped around themselves, RAT replied. He had enough body hair to make two of them.
I couldn’t stop laughing, Albina said. I thought, this guy I’d like to get to know.
It was the first cyber-click of many between her and RAT, aka Rick Allen Tesso of Fort Wayne.
Rick, 54, was born in Crestline, Ohio. When he was a teenager his family moved to Fort Wayne, where he attended high school and worked at a gas station.
In 1980, he moved to Florida and met the woman who would become his wife. A few years later they moved to Kentucky, where they married, and he found work as a golf course groundskeeper.
They divorced after about 10 years, and Rick returned to Fort Wayne in 1994. A single guy with no kids, Rick began living with his sisters, Debby Adams and Teresa Tesso, in a house on the city’s north side. He took a job delivering auto parts for the Dimension Ford dealership.
Albina’s circumstance was similar. She married in her 20s, but 10 years ago, she split up with her husband. Since then, she’d been too busy to devote time to dating. She was raising a son, now 12, and was working as a legal clerk for the Melbourne police.
She spent two decades in that job but changed course about three years ago and started studying to become certified as a day care worker. It was around that time a girlfriend first invited her to play Internet blackjack.
Soon after Rick and Albina met online, they became regular blackjack partners. At first, their interaction was limited to typed messages sent back and forth as they played. But after a couple of months, they exchanged numbers and started chatting on the phone.
They would talk about their lives, their families, the sports her son played, the differences between Australian and American football and whatever else might fill conversations that could last three hours or more.
With the 14-hour time difference, Rick would often wake up early and call her before he went to work, 10 p.m. her time. Albina would call him in the evenings, which was the next morning for her.
As soon as I walk in the door, you know, she’s calling, Rick said to his sister Teresa. She really must like me a lot.
Albina, who already had a webcam, bought one for Rick so they could see each other as they talked on the Internet. They had not shared any photos, so their initial conversation aided by webcams was the first time they had seen each other.
Rick could see Albina’s blue eyes and her dyed-blond hair parted in the middle, with bangs swept to each side. She could see his eyes were also blue and his hair was short, dark and curly. Rick looked like she imagined but not nearly as hairy as he had claimed.
Albina never expected to fall for someone overseas. But in Rick, who kept her laughing, she found her soul mate.
Back in the spring, Rick and Albina started talking about marriage. Though before any engagement, they wanted to meet each other in person and visit their respective countries.
Whether Rick would be able to afford such a trip was questionable. To boost his cash flow, he played bingo and bought lottery tickets. He also bought a motorcycle to save money on gas.
Albina, a self-described Harley girl, had encouraged him to do so. But a minor fall off of a motorcycle when she was younger reinforced her belief that riders should always wear helmets.
She would tell Rick to wear one, and he would say,
It gets too hot.
She insisted, and he told her not to worry.
Nothing will happen to me, he told her.