All our exes are bored, the meme goes, and nostalgic, and it’s so annoying, and so typical. ‘Crazy times,’ they say, ‘Hope you’re doing OK ;).’ The thing to do is to post the screenshot and complain about the ex’s ham-fisted manipulations while secretly reveling in the attention, smug and secure in the knowledge that we’re the ones who got away.
Don’t get me wrong: a ritual ‘checking in’ on significant figures from your past seems to be a harmless, if slightly disingenuous, emotional safety valve in a catastrophe. It’s not crazy to think this extraordinary crisis could be an occasion for redemption, reconciliation, and — maybe, a little, in some cases — rekindling.
Except for one thing: my exes aren’t actually texting me. What gives? Is everyone getting checked on without me?
It can’t be because I didn’t check on them. I’ve spent my entire adolescence and adulthood preparing for this moment. Someone wiser than I am may have been stocking dried beans and N95s, but I have been carefully cultivating a remarkable stickiness as an ex. Over the years, I have fielded wistful late-night texts. I have remembered birthdays. I have offered assurances of enduring respect and affection. I have met girlfriends, and in extreme cases, attended weddings. I haven’t received the apocryphal One Phone Call from jail, exactly, but there were a few panicked messages from a holding pen in the security station of a suburban shopping mall where one of these exes had explored too zealously his near-sexual interest in appearing in public barefoot. I was very supportive during that incident, by the way.
In short, I have all the qualities of a good ex: I’m empathetic; loyal; absolutely unyieldingly indulgent. And yet the silence has been deafening. I decided to investigate.
‘Are your exes texting you right now?’ I G-chatted this morning to a man I went on four dates with seven years ago, now one of my closest friends. ‘I feel really excluded from this narrative.’
‘They all do anyway,’ he replied, ‘haha’. To be a man in New York City, I think, and move on.
‘Just so you know,’ I texted to a love interest so recent he was actually within my quarantine window, ‘I may have been Exposed to The Virus. Thought I should tell you.’ How virtuous of me!
‘I’m not worried about it,’ came the reply, ‘I’m sure you’re fine.’
What about the bad penny of my mid-twenties, a writer whose preferred form of communication seems to be the long-distance apology? He lives in France now, where this whole coronavirus thing seems bad, non? We had an unbearably fraught falling-out a few months ago, after four or so years of other, slightly more bearable fallings-out. ‘Just checking in,’ I emailed him, ‘I unblocked you from WhatsApp, if you want to talk.’
The next day, a WhatsApp greeting arrived: a photo of raw chicken marinating in plastic tupperware. This may not sound exciting, but to the trained observer –me– it’s an invitation to the safe, halcyon past, when he would try to impress me with his bachelor nutrition. Now we’re getting somewhere.
‘Don’t put that in the microwave,’ I cautioned, lightly. Keeping the conversation going, see, giving him space for his inevitable declaration of care and concern.
‘I’ve been cooking healthy lately,’ he answered, accompanied by another photo: a table set, sure enough, with a spinach salad, couscous, grilled chicken, and…oh! What’s that? A young woman, just inside the frame! A demure and very French-looking girl with a middle part, in her pajamas, at dinner, in his apartment in Paris.
‘Looks good :)’ I replied, filling my pockets with rocks as I waded into the ocean.
So it appears love in the time of coronavirus isn’t my story. That’s OK; my quarantine-inspired investigation reminded me that I’ve moved the good ones over, on my emotional abacus, from ‘ex’ to ‘friend’, and my friends have been present, caring, and communicative during daylight hours. As many of us have discovered in recent days, the love of our friends and family is the surest balm on our uncertainty and fear.
My exes may be assholes. Yours may be, too — never mind. We’ve never lived through a more vivid reminder that life is short. So put down your phone, and do not text your ex.
Mary Kate Skehan works in book publishing in New York City.