Claire, a 33-year-old writer in Oregon, doesn’t speak to her ex-husband often. It’s not that she hates him, scorched-earth style — in fact, she says she feels “extremely indifferent” toward him. “The last time he reached out was when he was on his way to Burning Man, and he called to tell me he was ‘thinking of me and Millie,’” she tells me. “Millie was my dog I had to put down the year before.”
Despite her lukewarm feelings about him, Claire’s ex recently got in touch because of the coronavirus outbreak. He left her a 90-second voicemail in which he explained how he was there for her, hoped she was doing well and wanted very much to hear from her. “He sounded genuinely concerned,” she says. “So I tried to call him back twice, but he didn’t pick up the phone.”
The idea of clueless and/or shitty exes using the coronavirus as an excuse to reach out started as a joke. A few weeks ago, beloved comedian Desus Nice riffed on the toxic Future meme format, adding a coronavirus twist. “This virus is wild,” he joked in a mock text from a former lover. “I was singing ‘happy birthday’ while washing my hands and realized any birthday I spend without you won’t be happy. No need to respond, hope you’re well.”
But because shitty dudes are beyond parody, it didn’t take long for these kinds of messages to start flying around in earnest. Twitter users began posting screenshots of messages from their own real-life toxic Futures, warning others to batten down the hatches (“brace yourselves and put your phone on silent after midnight!”). Tess, a 28-year-old database manager in Atlanta, had an ex reach out with the following email, an earnest message that’s eerily reminiscent of Desus’ joke:
“This was like two weeks after he asked out my best friend in a highly embarrassing five-paragraph email,” Tess says. “I haven’t breathed a word to this man since January 2019, but he’s also been a regular emailer since then — because he sucks.”
Not everyone means harm, of course. Some people are on good terms with their exes, like Karl, a 29-year-old parliamentary staffer in Australia, who says he’s been the ex who got in touch. He did so because he “cares about her as a person” and was “curious to see how other countries were handling things.” “I still like her a lot,” he says of his ex-girlfriend. “But I know it’s not going to be a thing again, since she lives halfway around the world.”
Often, however, these messages leave their recipients feeling confused, upset and annoyed. Tasbeeh, a 28-year-old writer in L.A., had a dirtbag fuck buddy use the pandemic as an excuse to weirdly ramp up the intensity of their relationship. “We met on Tinder, and I discovered he was a total dick by the second date — so obviously I kept sleeping with him,” she jokes. This guy told her from the outset that he wasn’t looking for anything but sex, but he’s now sending her overly verbose and emotionally intense messages. “I love you in some weird way,” he texted. “I want nothing bad to happen to you at all, not even paper cuts.” She says the coronavirus has brought out a “soft side” to him.
Is a soft side coming out of these men, or are these manipulative attempts to be seen as the good guy, despite everything? The check-in from Claire’s ex might seem sweet, for example, but he was far from sweet at the end of their nine-year relationship. “Our marriage never really had a bad patch, he just suddenly decided it was over,” she says. “I think he thinks he’s a really good person, but I’m not sure what he hoped to gain from that call.”
Of course, women are capable of the same shitty behavior men are, and these messages aren’t always sent by guys. But there’s something distinctly masculine about this move — the self-centered obliviousness, the emotional TMI and the entitlement of expecting to always be able to pick up exactly where things left off. “My ex got in touch a few days ago because he had to return to our home country for quarantine, despite having previously blocked me,” says Victoria, a 26-year-old freelancer in Amsterdam. “We had a phone call that was very nice, but when I told him I was seeing someone else, he got very salty.” Now the two aren’t speaking again.
Some women say their exes are using the pandemic as an excuse to rely on them for emotional support, after their willingness to provide that support has long dried up. Olivia, a 22-year-old student in Canada, received a classic “thinking of you during all this” text from her ex, and made the mistake of replying to thank him and check how he was doing. He then immediately barraged her with his struggles around quarantine, illness and family. “He hasn’t contacted me in almost a year,” she says, “then decides to reach out just to get some comfort from me?”
Tess feels similarly unimpressed by her ex’s message. “This dude was an S-class narcissist who loves building a narrative as a masturbatory exercise, and he thinks this shit is romantic when actually it’s annoying and childish,” she explains. “What got me most about that email was the instruction at the end about how to correctly wash my hands, as if at that point I hadn’t heard it on 100 platforms and read it on 100 websites — it’s good to know that a year after the last time we spoke he still feels like he can tell me what to do.”
Whatever the reason for sending these out-of-the-blue messages, the overwhelming response from women on the receiving end is… don’t bother. “I definitely feel sad for him, but hitting up your ex for comfort just because there’s a pandemic sucks,” Olivia says. “The irony is, when I’ve come across my ex on Tinder, his anthem is a Future song — and he fully became the Future texting meme.”