At Long Last Love

At Long Last Love

A man doesn’t wait for you to take care of your dying ex-husband if he doesn’t love you.

By Trish MacEnulty

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 my memoir 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-distance 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. 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.


Trish MacEnulty is the author of a historical novel series, crime novels, memoirs, a short story collection, children’s plays, and most recently, the historical coming-of-age novel Cinnamon Girl (Livingston Press, September 2023). Trish has a Ph.D. in English from the Florida State University. She currently writes book reviews and features for the Historical Novel Review and teaches magazine writing at Florida A&M University.