At Long Last, Love

Wedding cake by the best possible friend ever! Photo by me!

When my husband, Joe, was in his mid-twenties, he applied for a job running the library of a woman’s prison in Central Florida. He got an interview, and they took him on a tour of the prison. He didn’t take the job and he doesn’t remember much about the interview, but he told me, “I do remember seeing a pretty girl with long dark hair, sitting outside the library reading a book.”

Whether that memory is real or imagined, we’ve decided that must have been our first encounter. At the time, I was serving a two-year sentence for trying to rob a drugstore, and I spent a lot of that time reading. That girl could have been — must have been! — me. (If you want to know the full story, you’ll have to read The Hummingbird Kiss.)

Instead of working at the prison library, Joe went to graduate school at the University of Florida to study creative writing with the late great Harry Crews. A year and some months later, I walked into a graduate creative writing class at UF. I was then an undergraduate but Harry had been impressed by the authentic details of a story I wrote about a young woman in prison and invited me to the graduate workshop.

Joe must have been in the class, but I only remember a circle of men’s faces, and Harry turning to me and saying, “Miss MacEnulty, you’re alone in a room with all these men. We could shut the door and have our way with you.”

I’m not great at snappy comebacks except, thank God, this time.
“You better go first, old man,” I said. “I wouldn’t want you to have a heart attack while you waited.”

He burst out laughing, and the class proceeded without incident.
I graduated with a Bachelor’s in communication and a minor in creative writing, worked for a video production company in South Florida for a while, and then decided to get serious about this writing thing so I enrolled in the Master’s program at Florida State University, where coincidentally Joe was pursuing a doctorate in Medieval Lit and working on a novel.

We were among a group of students known as “Jerry’s Kids” for our almost cult-like devotion to our creative writing teacher, Jerry Stern. Those were fun years, filled with much alcohol consumption, many writing workshops (even one in the midst of a hurricane), and lots of love affairs, marriages, and eventually some babies.

Women liked Joe. Well, everyone did. He had a receding hairline, wore glasses, and had the physique of a man who loved beer. He also had a wit dry as sandpaper, knew a wide range of facts about topics both popular and obscure, and possessed a rare inherent kindness.

I liked him, too, but my crush was a local musician who, well… no need to go into that. According to Joe, we shared one chaste kiss after a night out on the town with the crew, but five-minute romances were the norm so I don’t remember it.

Joe’s wedding to a cute, acerbic redhead was one of the highlights of those years. They held the wedding at her family’s farm. My best friend and I drank too much as we were wont to do. A dog wandered through the ceremony. Afterwards, fireworks. It was a glorious day. I kept the wedding invitation for years.

While I didn’t have a crush on Joe at the time, I loved hanging out with him and his wife. She was the entertainment editor of a local paper, run mainly by grad students, and she regularly published my reviews and commentary. I liked to show up at their small brick duplex and linger, drinking with whomever was there — and people were always there — laughing, listening to the Cocteau Twins, discussing Pynchon or R. Crumb.

Eventually, we all went our separate ways. They moved south. I got married and moved to North Carolina with husband and baby. Joe and his wife eventually had a child and moved back to Tallahassee. I stopped by for visits when I came to town. We were all adulting well.

Then in late 2008, Joe and I both wound up abandoned by our spouses within two weeks of each other. The same best friend who’d accompanied me to the wedding told me about Joe’s break up on the phone.

“Well, that’s not the worst news I ever heard,” I said.

“Right!” she exclaimed. I was coming to Tallahassee for a writing conference, and my friend set us up.

Thus began a ten-year long-distance relationship that involved weekends here and there, holidays with friends and family, exes we both still cared about, two teenagers (mine and his) and their growing pains, the deaths of our mothers, a zillion online Scrabble games, job changes, a few book publications, and then my ex-husband’s debilitating stroke.

So many times it seemed as though our relationship couldn’t possibly survive. When my ex-husband returned to North Carolina and tried to win me back, Joe was not sure how it would play out. I wasn’t going back, but negotiations were tricky. Brilliant people can be brilliant manipulators, and my ex-husband had no qualms about dragging our daughter into his reunification efforts.

Those efforts ultimately failed, but somehow he never quite moved on. It’s not as easy to cut those old ties as one might think. Even Joe still went to his ex-wife’s house for Sunday dinner.

When my ex-husband had a stroke and needed my constant care, I moved back in with him. I didn’t know if my relationship with Joe would endure. I was so sad and lost. I had little time or energy for anyone other than the broken invalid who needed to be fed, bathed, and have his diaper changed in the middle of the night.

At the time, Joe’s job entailed traveling from Florida to Ohio every week usually with a connection in Charlotte where I lived. So about once a month, he’d arrange his flight so that he could spend the night in Charlotte. He’d get a hotel room nearby. And I’d hire the kid next door to come watch my ex while Joe and I went out for a nice dinner where I would drink too much wine and get maudlin. Sometimes after dinner, he’d just hold me while I cried. Then I’d get in my car and go home to put my ex to bed. I couldn’t imagine why Joe stayed in my life.

After ten grueling months of dwindling hopes and resources, my ex died of pneumonia. Joe came up a couple of weekends and helped me empty his house. He stood by as I grieved for my ex-husband; he never seemed threatened by that.

We fell back into our long-distant relationship pattern. Thanksgiving we spent together in Florida. Christmas we went to Rome with our friends and my daughter. In one of the cathedrals, my daughter and I lit a candle for her dad.

Then the pandemic happened. Both of our jobs went remote. I packed up my menagerie — my little dog, the black lab that had belonged to my ex and my cat — and made my way to Joe’s house in Florida.

We went from a long distance relationship to a no-distance-at-all relationship in a day. Would it work? Had I recovered from nearly a year spent caregiving my ex husband? Was I willing to let go of my house, my friends in Charlotte, my independent life?

I gave myself until August to make a decision about the future, and in the meanwhile, we developed a routine. I worked on the couch. He worked at the dining table. One of us would make lunch or we’d get carryout from a sandwich shop. I usually cooked dinner and then we’d watch TV for a couple of hours, preferably old movies or old Perry Mason episodes. Sometimes we’d have friends on the patio for socially distant wine and conversation.

At the end of July, I needed to go back to my house in North Carolina and figure out my next moves. I asked him, off the cuff, if he would miss me, and he said, “Oh, you know me. I enjoy my alone time.”

“Okay,” I said with a shrug.

My eyes popped open at three a.m.

He doesn’t love me, I said to myself. I remembered him casually saying the happiest years of his life were the ones spent with his son. I got that. I love my kid, too. But what about me? He doesn’t care about me, I thought. If I leave now, it won’t matter. This voice of a fatherless little girl droned on inside my head for hours with its litany of pain.

The next day I was surly. He sat at his table and worked. I sat on the couch and worked. For lunch I made a burrito and took it into the back bedroom to eat by myself.

He came in the room with a confused look on his face.

“Is something wrong?”

“I’m going home, and I’m not coming back,” I announced. Then I burst into tears as I explained how he didn’t love me and how he didn’t care whether or not I stayed. It was like one of those scenes from a sitcom — the aggrieved girlfriend, the baffled boyfriend.
He sat down on the bed and took my hand.

“But I do love you,” he said simply.

I swallowed. Of course, he did. A man doesn’t wait for you to take care of your dying ex-husband if he doesn’t love you. He doesn’t Skype with you every night for ten years because he’s bored.

I went back to Charlotte, called a realtor, and began the process of shedding one life so I could start the next one. We got married in October, 2020 — a typical pandemic wedding, outside with just our kids, our two friends who’d been there from the beginning, and another friend who was our wedding officiator. I was home at long last with the guy who nearly forty years ago walked across the grounds of a woman’s prison and even now swears he saw a pretty girl reading a book.


  1. Connie on April 1, 2023 at 12:25 pm

    I had no idea! What a beautiful story.

  2. Jen Grisanti on October 15, 2023 at 12:42 pm

    I love this story! What a beautiful job you did writing it. Thank you for sharing your gift! I remember your talent from our writers’ retreat. Thinking of you! Bliss, Jen ✨ 💕

    • Trish MacEnulty on October 15, 2023 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks! I’m still plugging away. Currently turning my YA novel, Cinnamon Girl, into a feature screenplay. So appreciate hearing from you!!

  3. Mary Arnold on October 15, 2023 at 6:43 pm

    I’d say that is definitely love, not just a maudlin feeling but the faithfulness to even just be there. What a terrific account of all those years. May you be blessed with many more wonderful years together.

  4. Heidi on October 15, 2023 at 7:43 pm

    This is wonderful. Made me cry.

  5. KAT on October 15, 2023 at 9:56 pm

    My granny who was a very smart lady told me that if I wanted a happy life in marriage to make sure we were friends before hand. I married one of my best male friends and though our time was cut short because of his death by a 137 car pile up when I was seven months pregnant we had a wonderful life together and then before he was gone he gave me the best gift he could, my son. 40 years and two grandchildren later and I still miss him every day.So I can relate to this love story. I’ve learned that life moves on its own waves not always on our choosing. Have a wonderful week. Kat

    • Trish MacEnulty on October 16, 2023 at 9:24 am

      Wow. That’s a beautiful story!

  6. Neil Plakcy on October 15, 2023 at 10:16 pm

    What a lovely story.

    • Trish MacEnulty on October 16, 2023 at 9:24 am

      Oh, Neil! Thanks for reading!

  7. Latesha B. on October 16, 2023 at 1:45 am

    Wow, that is love. Happy Anniversary to you!

    • Trish MacEnulty on October 16, 2023 at 9:23 am


  8. Vicki Taylor on October 18, 2023 at 1:55 pm

    Happy Anniversary, Trish (I almost wrote Pat, lol!)

    I love the story of you and Joe, and I am ecstatic that you are at home and happy!

    Love you, and miss you my first writing teacher, colleague, and friend.


    • Trish MacEnulty on October 18, 2023 at 7:52 pm

      So good to hear from you, Vicki! And I still go by Pat, so that’s fine. I hope you are well! Keep me posted. Thank you for your kind comments.

  9. Tim McKee on October 23, 2023 at 8:27 am

    so touching and so beautifully told!! Makes me so happy for you and Joe!

    • Trish MacEnulty on November 6, 2023 at 7:41 am

      Thank you!! Good to hear from you!

  10. Kimberly Y on January 28, 2024 at 11:36 pm

    I just finished your book The Hummingbird Kiss. I loved it, I love humans and their stories and learning what ‘makes them tick’ so to speak. I have a dilemma, though, and I’m thinking perhaps you have some insight. Romantic relationships come and go and shape us. I have spent the last two years reunited with an old friend (was a purely platonic friendship from 25 years ago) but we have found ourselves simply and purely made for each other. I was married and not treated the best for 23 years. He had different relationships thru the years as he searched for the right someone. He has civil and kind friendships with exes. I trust him. I want to accept these relationships. Without feeling second best and without comparing. He wants me and only me. I want him and only him. How do I accept his willingness to maintain civil friendship (even the occasional I Love You comes out because he loves his friends) because he is *in love* with me. He has love for them but never felt *in love* with them. I know the difference. How do I feel enough security with myself to love him through this? We are worth it. I know we are. But it’s a struggle and I’m tired some days. He doesn’t deserve the weirdness I feel, and I don’t take it out on him. I want to focus on the present, the NOW. The future is US and I know it. Insights? From one who’s been there? Much appreciated….

    • Trish MacEnulty on January 29, 2024 at 7:46 am

      Hello Kimberly! Thanks so much for reading my book and for your kind comments. It sounds like you have found someone really special. What a gift. Every relationship is different, of course. But one thing I can tell you has helped me. Love yourself. Every single time you look in the mirror, say “I love you.” Do kind things for yourself. When that little voice tells you that you aren’t good enough, replace it immediately with words of kindness to yourself. You are good enough. The more you love yourself, the more you can love others even all those “exes.” My husband’s ex had Christmas dinner with us and it was lovely. Keep reminding yourself that you are worthy of love, and eventually you will know it and you will feel secure enough to appreciate this gift you’ve been given. Best of luck to you.

Leave a Comment