I made it 23 days into a global pandemic before I texted my ex-boyfriend.
Disclaimer: I gave him most of my 20’s. He left me with two tattered Duke sweatshirts and the greatest heartbreak of my romantic career. We shared nine years, two pre-war apartments, one cat, and a mutual understanding that there was nothing left to say. For two years. Until we woke up to a world flipped upside down and a devastating pandemic where he was firmly on the front line. My ex-boyfriend is a doctor in New York City.
A chorus of whistles, claps, cheers: chills. I pad slowly to my slice of the outside world - a wide cast window that mercifully opens.
When my ex and I had come to look at the place, the landlord had regaled this window as a win for 650 square feet, all that natural light...nothin’ like it. We’d signed the lease right there on the spot. The idea that I’d ever live here alone, or that this window would be my only portal to an outside world during a global pandemic...never crossed our minds. Go figure.
I press a cheek against the cool glass pane and close my eyes, inhaling deeply as if to soak in the triumphant cheers, hopeful whistles, prayers whispered. It’s 7 pm, and this nightly ode to our heroic healthcare workers is one of the brightest spots of my day. I check my phone instinctively…
High-level: I’m fine. More than fine, I’m healthy, have a roof over my head and May’s rent in savings, enough work coming in to cover my expenses, medical insurance and access to care. I have a family back in Oregon that calls daily to check in on their ‘wild, wacky writer of a daughter who just had to move to the city.” I have the ability to ride this out from the safety of my apartment, a privilege unto itself. I have a freezer full of Trader Joe's staples, a few extra rolls of toilet paper, and a pretty affectionate cat.
I am fortunate, I am lucky even, and still - to witness suffering at this level, to live in the city at this time, it’s indescribable. It’s out of body. It’s completely and utterly otherworldly - like a bad horror film even I’d turn off (I didn’t turn off Texas Chainsaw Massacre, if that puts things into perspective).
There’s something about the current state of our world that has pushed all of us collectively to examine...everything. I won’t sit here and say this is a time of reflection for me - it’s a time of survival, a time for taking ‘it’ moment by moment, a time for raw nerve emotion. Maybe that’s why three days ago, I found myself scrolling through my contacts, past B’s, C’s, D’s...to J’s. Stop. There. Jordan. The ex. I hesitated for the rush of: Don’t do it, don’t do it, why would you do it...lectures from my gut, my inner critic, but nothing came. Not a peep.
Hi. Hey. It’s Ellie. With everything going on...I just wanted to check on you. Let you know I’m thinking of you. If there is anything I can do...
We hadn’t spoken in two years. There was nothing - and everything - left to say. You know how it goes. Small town girl fulfills a lifelong dream of moving to the East Coast for undergrad. Meets a true New Yorker - Long Island through and through. Falls in lust, like, love. I planned to write for readers around the world. He planned to help save the world. Together, we planned for forever.
Two college degrees, one med school graduation, four editorial jobs, two apartments, and half a residency in...forever slipped through our fingers. We tried, oh how we tried, to make it work, make it right, make it stick, but man, we lost it. Somewhere along the way.
It was a mutual decision - I’d keep the cat, the apartment with the window, and my four thousand questions of where our forever went. He’d take the bike, the bookshelf, our two couple friends and his answers. He’d turned from my daily, devoted confidante and partner in all things to a stranger, seemingly overnight.
A potted plant stood where his bookshelf used to be, but his contact stayed in my phone. We’d clumsily reached out in the beginning - a “happy birthday” text here, a “is your mom ok? I saw your Facebook post…” text there. Muscle memory took a full year to fade, my fingers no longer automatically tapping to shoot him a funny story, a picture of our cat, Pizza.
During med school and part of his residency, texting was our favorite form of communication. Flip flopped hours, I’d slip out of bed to write at a neighboring coffee shop...he’d slide into bed, scrubbed raw from the day - damp hair and all - deep into the night. We’d reconnect via text, and it was understood: we’d check-in when we could, but it wouldn’t just be mundane...it’d be everything: silly, sweet, sexy, fun, funny, everything we missed out on living together but never truly living together. We assumed we had a thousand days to fill together one day. We didn’t.
Before I’d deleted our thread post-breakup, I masochistically made myself reread a few, scrolling randomly to land on a day, a time, a season that felt like a lifetime ago.
Now, this new thread had started, my text looked so...odd and out of place, lonely even. The lone ranger reach out.
When news of COVID-19 broke, my mind briefly flickered towards him. He’d always had this profound ability to boil down big, scary scenarios down into a few simple sentences - settling my hypochondriac heart. I pictured him tucking my chin, “El, it’s fine, it’ll pass, just be smart.”
When New York City was named the epicenter for outbreaks in the United States, my family softly suggested I reach out. Just shoot him a text. He was practicing in the city, Facebook had told me as much. They threw the suggestion out after I politely declined their 11th: Can’t you just catch a flight home now, El? It’s safer, isn’t it...
I didn’t reach out. I didn’t catch a flight. I wrote. I watched the news. I shuffled in line alongside other self-proclaimed New Yorkers, for a chance to pick at Trader Joe’s depleted freezer bins. I attended two Zoom birthday parties and one FaceTime family happy hour. I fired off text after text to loved ones. I washed my hands until they cracked, and found saving grace in my group texts, Calm app, and that window.
Then images of doctors and nurses clad in flimsy material to suffice as PPE started flashing across my Twitter feed. I watched a video of a nurse crying at a local hospital - a few blocks from my apartment. With my heart in my throat, my phone in my hand, my fingers started scrolling. A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s...
It was time to reach out.
I got to J, clicked on his name, sent a text without so much as a second thought.
I didn’t wait for a response. I didn’t agonize or berate myself. Not even when friends jokingly sent around the “I don’t know who needs to hear this right now but don’t text your ex” meme in our group chat, to which I texted back a few laughing emojis. These were unprecedented times, unchartered waters.
I woke up to a reply, illuminating my face in the early hours of the morning with blue light.
El. Wow. Good to hear from u. U ok? U still in the city or did you make it out?
It’s funny. There might have been a time when hearing from one another other would feel like a mental chess game - a winner, a loser, and a dozen moves to be strategically made in the middle - but all bets were off now.
I’m ok! I’m good. Pizza and I are still here. Are you alright?
My fingers hovered over the glowing blue arrow to send, not because I wanted to wait out the clock, leave him hanging...I doubted the use of “Are you alright?” as if anyone could be alright right now, least of all those who are risking their lives as part of their jobs.
His response came an hour later. My coffee had gone cold, my parents would be calling soon, and my neighbor had texted asking if I needed a roll of paper towels. My second favorite text of the day.
Small acts of supreme human kindness peppered my days lately - all in the form of phone calls, WhatsApps, texts, chats. Check-ins from friends I hadn’t heard from in ages, neighbors I had barely talked to before, family who much preferred a catch up at Thanksgiving to ever picking up their outdated phones.
While the world practiced social distancing, we seemed more connected than ever - digitally. It warmed my heart.
Things are pretty insane here. I’m doing ok. We’re gonna get thru this. Pizza, too.
The way he typed “thru” vs “through”, convinced it shaved off a few seconds of time. The way he was able to make me smile with the motion of the spasmodic cat we’d shared - even after two years of silence and 23 days deep into a global pandemic. The way he’d take the time to respond and even offer me a slice of reassurance, as he faced the frontlines of this thing.
I took a sip of cold coffee, raked my hand through Pizza’s fur.
I know it isn’t much but I could get a meal delivered to your hospital maybe, or, something sent to your place. Anything, you know, anything you need. I’m here.
I realized I had no idea where he lived now. He could have a new apartment with a new window, or a new girlfriend. It would be safe to assume he had all of the above and more, a thought that pre-pandemic, maybe would have churned my stomach.
Now? Oddly nothing seemed to hold as much as sting as it once did. How could it? With destruction of this magnitude possible, how could we ever wish for anyone to have anything other than love, health, safety, and maybe a bright-light filled window?
I typed up another text, watching our thread inch longer:
You’re the smartest guy I know. And the bravest. Save those lives and stay safe, ok?
A day later, in the middle of the night, he responded. There were no butterflies, no sweaty palms at the flash of his name but simply, a sense of peace: he was still okay.
Ur sweet El thank you. I will keep u posted.
And then, by dawn, another response...
Maybe a picture of Pizza?
Fat, hot tears started. Deep, heavy sobs racked my body as I held his text, my phone, in my hands. I sunk into it - letting every pent up emotion and worry I’d been too afraid to name since this started - rush out and over my body. I cried for my city, my people, the world, it’s people, for every single man woman and child touched by this virus, for hope lost, faith lost, jobs lost, lives lost.
I cried until a neighbor texted: Ellie, it’s Lee, next door. Are you OK?
I took a breath. Turned my face to the window. In the face of so much heartbreak, so much uncertainty, the cruelest of unknowns - people were still so good. So inherently good. And simple. All we really needed and wanted was to know that someone somewhere was looking out for us.
I shot off a picture of Pizza looking so classically Pizza. No words necessary. He knew. I knew. Whatever he faced on those frontlines, exes or not, he had one girl, one cat, and one big light-filled window looking out for him.
The cheers flood all 600 square feet of my home, the chills creep down my neck. To hear one of the most incredible cities in the world come together like this...it’s indescribable. It’s haunting. It’s hopeful. It’s so New York city - the collective cries of its dreamers, doers, hopefuls, helpers, healers - coming together to say: we’re here, we’re still standing, and we’re looking out for you. Our city’s heroes, our healthcare providers. We thank you.
I open my texts. Our thread is still there. I won’t delete it this time. Tonight, I’ll sit over the glow of my laptop - creating a Keepster backup for the first time in a long time...because these messages are touchstones I’d ever want to lose. Proof of love existed, friendship remained, and dreams achieved: he’s saving the world, I’m writing for the world, and at the end of the day - that’s all we ever wanted for each other.
He promised to check in when this was over, he asked if he could call. He can. I sent lunch from our favorite NYC diner to his hospital anonymously - enough to hopefully feed a few heroes. I might even send him a dozen more pictures of Pizza, in hopes that even in the depths of this darkness, he can curl over the light of his phone for only a second, to know. We’re here.