Dressed up for the first time in lockdown, and wearing a full face of makeup, Annabelle Richards went to meet her first love. The last time she had seen Junior St Clair was in the summer of 1992. She was 17, and on a bus bound for London. He was 20 and standing outside Ipswich bus station, bawling. “As the coach pulled away there were tears pouring down his cheeks,” Annabelle recalls, “and I cried all the way home.”
In late March, after reconnecting on Facebook during lockdown, Annabelle met him for the first time in 28 years, outside an office block in Croydon, south London. “We sat on a bench two metres apart and talked nonstop for over an hour,” she says. “We were in awe of the situation. We made each other laugh, like no time had passed. After the meeting, we couldn’t stop messaging. I thought, do I still love this guy?”
It had started with a dream in the early days of lockdown. In it, Annabelle, who is a hairdresser, cut Junior’s hair. She woke up at 6.30am, found him on Facebook and sent him a message telling him about her dream. She wondered if he remembered her and hoped life was treating him well. At 9pm, he replied: “Annabelle – is this really you? You’ve been in my heart and mind for all these years. I am so sorry for the child I was – he’s different from the man I’ve become. Thank you for having the compassion to talk to me. You were my first love.”
“I was not expecting that,” laughs Annabelle, 45. “It was really powerful. I just burst into tears, my heart started fluttering.” It was the first time she’d thought about Junior, who is now 48, in decades. She hadn’t even daydreamed about their holiday romance in Hastings, in summer 1991, when Junior told Annabelle her bum looked nice in her Levi’s 501s. “He was always a smooth talker,” she says. She’d buried her feelings about their breakup the following year, after he moved to Ipswich without thinking about its effect on their relationship. But during their lockdown conversation, it all came flooding back. Junior revealed he’d moved back to London seven years ago. She realised they would have to meet up. “The feelings were becoming too intense,” she says.
After that first meeting, they kept messaging. The second time they met, they sat on a picnic blanket in a local park and Annabelle said she thought she still loved him. Junior said he’d never stopped loving her. She liked the fact that he remembered their song, CeCe Peniston’s Finally, even though it was cheesy. They told each other their stories; that they’d both been married and had since separated. “We opened up, told each other personal stuff about what we’d been through since we broke up,” Annabelle says. “There was no pretence, no playing games. Because of Covid-19, we just held hands.” Since lockdown has eased, they’ve had more dates and met each other’s families. “They’re over the moon for us,” she says. “We know we’re meant to be together. This is the start of the rest of our lives.”
Annabelle and Junior were not the only ones reconnecting in lockdown. Technology has ensured our exes are never more than a click away, but the pandemic has stirred many to hit send. Sexting between exes has thrived; who better to flirt with than those with whom we already share a lexicon of love? Our exes are also the regular stars of our pandemic dreams, with Google searches for “Why am I dreaming about my ex?” shooting up 2,450% in March.
The television hit of lockdown, the BBC’s Normal People, has been another trigger; the drama series that showed first love in all its sexy, chain-wearing intensity was a 12-part incitement to slide into our exes’ DMs. In normal times, we might pause before reaching out, but it seems that during a pandemic the usual rules don’t apply. So, what happens after we text the ex?
Alex, 25, is a man who threw caution (and government restrictions) to the wind for the sake of a dramatic reunion in lockdown. When his ex-girlfriend Lisa invited him from Glasgow to London for her birthday, he paused only to bake a batch of cupcakes. “A birthday doesn’t exactly constitute essential travel so we both knew that this would be flouting lockdown rules,” Alex, a student, explains, “but the illegality made it seem like more of a romantic gesture.”
Their 18-month relationship had ended amicably a year ago when Lisa moved to London for work. They’d stayed in touch, and spent lockdown texting about working from home, running 5km in under 20 minutes and their baking. Even so, the birthday invite was a surprise, says Alex. Another surprise lay ahead. He was 15 minutes away from Lisa’s flat in London when he got a message from her: “There’s a problem.”
“Lisa had assumed that her flatmate wouldn’t have an issue with my visit and had only mentioned it to her that evening,” says Alex. “When her flatmate heard that a strange man, who may or may not be carrying Covid-19, was minutes away, she understandably kicked off and told her that I wasn’t allowed to stay with them.”
With the city in shutdown, Alex and Lisa were forced to spend the evening on her stairwell, nursing his cupcakes. That was less cute than it sounds. “We spent most of that time arguing about who was to blame,” says Alex.
At about 1am, after the flatmate had gone to sleep, they snuck into bed. “But we were so irritated and tired at this point,” says Alex, “that sex was definitely off the table.” With nowhere to stay for the weekend, Alex caught the first train back in the morning. Since then, texting has tailed off. On reflection, Alex says, it’s a relief. “In the drama, we managed to dodge a serious discussion about our future relationship. We may have avoided getting back together and realising it still won’t work.”
Reconnecting with exes in lockdown has been a learning curve for many. When one Guardian reader messaged her ex to confess that she’d been dreaming about him, he, after some delay, replied with a less than enthusiastic: “Hi, that’s pretty weird. You OK?” Another reader messaged his ex to talk about what went wrong in their relationship, only to experience deja vu. “I felt the need to tiptoe around, afraid that the wrong word would lead to me being cast adrift,” he explains, “the exact feelings I had during the relationship.”
Few, though, can have immersed themselves as fully in their former relationship as Amelia, 29, who started seeing her ex-boyfriend, David, 28, during the first lockdown in Melbourne. They’d split up in January and neither of them had met anyone else before social-distancing rules were applied. They decided to hook up. “We were sexually frustrated,” says Amelia. “We just thought, it’s a pandemic, who cares what happens? Let’s just do something comforting and nice.” They had boundaries. “We explicitly stated that we would have sex but wouldn’t sleep over,” Amelia, a visual artist, says. This was partly because she wanted to hide the hook-up from her flatmates as it “felt like a stupid, self-indulgent thing to do”. After four and a half years together, the exes were also concerned about where it might lead. “We were both worried that we would fall in love again.”
Despite their best efforts to keep it casual, things quickly grew intense. “We had amazing, intimate sex, cried together, and had more honest conversations than we have ever had,” says Amelia. “We reflected a lot on the relationship and what went wrong.” Sore points, such as David staying up to 3am working on music when Amelia’s preferred bedtime is 11pm, were aired. They acknowledged the pressure both felt to get married and have kids, which neither of them wanted. They even managed to figure out how they’d introduce future partners to each other. “We agreed brunch would be the best format for that,” says Amelia.
When that initial lockdown was eased in Melbourne, Amelia and David realised they didn’t have an excuse to hook up any more. They celebrated. “We got absolutely legless on red wine, cried, chain smoked, and talked about how much we loved each other and wanted the best for one another,” says Amelia. That time in lockdown was clarifying, she says. “You don’t break up for no reason. Even though we care about each other so bloody much, we’ve come to the end of our journey.”
It is rare for a former partner to completely disappear. Even if it’s truly over, our exes are always #ThisOne on someone else’s Instagram. But what happens when your ex never leaves the picture? John, 43, and his ex-wife have maintained a good relationship since splitting up in 2009 after one year of marriage. They have a daughter together and see each other all the time. In the past few months, they’d been discussing home-schooling, the effect of lockdown on their wellbeing and “war stories” about more recent exes. Unusually, they began sharing memories from their marriage, which led them into uncharted territory, says John.
“I’d bought new shoes for work, which I noted were the same Loake brand that I got married to her in,” he says. “That seemed to be the catalyst to move the conversation towards feelings and ‘what-ifs’.” This led to tentative first steps in getting back together. There’s been a successful first date and a discussion about John moving back into the family home. “We have started talking about a possible future. We still have feelings for each other,” says John.
Moving on can be difficult at the best of times. In lockdown, where it’s Groundhog Day every day, it can feel especially challenging. Cristina, 23, moved back in with her parents during quarantine in central Italy. Some aspects of the routine were great, she says. “It was a pleasure to have dinner and watch TV with my parents. I don’t have to cook for myself. But also, I was extremely bored, and boredom is the enemy of rationality.”
Cristina sexted two exes: an American guy she dated for four years until 2019 and a local Italian she was with from October last year until January 2020. “It was a very weird situation,” she recalls. “I talked with both of them at the same time. Frequently, I sexted them simultaneously, without them knowing. Sometimes I even sent them the same message.”
No one seemed to mind the recycled sexts. After quarantine, Cristina met her Italian ex. “We decided to see each other to have real sex. It was great to leave my parents’ house for a bit and to go on a little vacation. And the sex was amazing.” It was, however, a final fling. “After the weekend together, we decided never to meet again. He wanted to be done with me. He was crystal clear about it,” says Cristina. She found the directness helpful. “The internet makes it hard to end relationships when there is any ambiguity. But this time, I knew not to be in touch.”
For Annabelle and Junior, for ever is a word that came up in conversation early on, as they held hands but kept their distance. “We’re definitely going to stay together for the rest of our lives,” says Annabelle. “We’ve both experienced a lot of trauma. We’re not particularly religious but we know that something more powerful than us created this situation. We know it’s right.” They are planning their future together, she says, but for now it’s “just baby steps”. Lockdown also allowed them to proceed with caution. “I don’t have a garden, so Junior couldn’t come to my flat,” says Annabelle. “We met outside, talking and getting to know each other again.”
When they could do more than hand holding, was it the stuff of happy endings? “The first kiss was awful because neither of us had kissed anyone for so long,” laughs Annabelle. “I’ve been single for nine years. It’s seven for Junior. There was nothing romantic about it. Both of us thought it was awkward and weird. But the next time, we kissed properly. That was perfect.”
• Some names have been changed.
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