How My Tale in the Wetsuit Began… A Love Letter to Key West

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale,

A tale of a fateful move,

that took me from a tiny town

to a world of island groove…”

My tale begins back in late July 1999. I was a very inexperienced 23 year old and had just moved to Key West.  Until then, I had lived my entire life in a small town full of orange groves and dairy farms.  We will call my hometown “Ticlaw”.  Everyone knows everyone in Ticlaw.  I was having a hard time growing as a person and I was ready to exit stage left.  I felt stifled, boxed in and unable be anyone other than the girl that Ticlaw had known since kindergarten.  Now, please don’t misunderstand me.  Small towns can be wonderful, and I love mine, but at that time I needed to leave.  I worked for a supermarket and lived so far out in the sticks that it took three dirt roads to find my house. I didn’t know many people that didn’t look and behave just like me because that was my social group since I was a child.  If you looked up the words “unsophisticated” and “naive”?  My cheeseball photo would have been right there wearing a sunflower print skort with a midriff baring Baby-T and my fave knock-off Dr. Martens… Get off me, it was the 90’s!

Happy Rex Manning Day!
Happy Rex Manning Day!

Even after moving to Key West I was still working at the supermarket, I transferred so I knew I would have a job.  My paychecks were a stunning reminder that I needed to find a new path and I wanted marine biology.  I was determined to start at the local college and get my feet wet, literally.  I found a room for rent in a house on the closest neighboring island.  It was a 3 story stilt home with no air conditioning and the plaster would fall off the ceiling in chunks when it rained too hard.  I had a pair of feral lovebirds that nested in the tree outside my bedroom window that had no screens and the previous tenant had painted the bedroom floor blue.  The cherry on the sundae was my roommate, a senile 78 year old woman.  We shared the 3rd floor and a bathroom, lucky me.  She used to beat on the door while I got ready for work in the morning screaming she needed to get in to “do her enema to start her day.”  She truly was a gem but the room was only $450 a month including utilities and you couldn’t find a better deal than that.  So I dealt with her constantly walking around in her underwear and eating my food when I wasn’t home, only to deny it later and go into one of her “fugue states”.  Bless her.  Bless her batshit little soul.

grandma cat
Uncanny impersonation of my old roommate, Grandma Cat. Spot on!

“The roommate’s a braless granny nut,

The landlord gay and sure,

Five people in a shanty house,

Where all friendships were pure.”

My landlord, Di, was a nice woman who traveled quite a bit and was rarely home.  She was a founding member of the Women’s Flag Football Association, she and her partner were often out of the country with the team.  When everyone was home there were a total of 5 people living in the house; Di and her partner (downstairs bedroom), her assistant Tammy (living room couch), Me (upstairs dying of heat stroke), and the crazy enema lady (also upstairs and running around braless).  On Tuesday nights, all of their friends and local team mates would come over and play blackjack.  I joined them from time to time, I had never really met a lesbian before… at least not to my knowledge.  I was fascinated, everyone was so unique and everyone had their own style.  Their camaraderie was enviable and had such an ease to it, I loved them instantly.  They had a blast with me, constantly trying to convince me to be a cheerleader for their team since I would get creamed on the field.  I realized that, on paper, I didn’t belong with these women at all but they never made me feel that way.  I could be myself, even though I wasn’t sure who that was yet, and they didn’t care or judge.  They made me feel comfortable and at ease in a room full of strangers.  It’s the first time I truly remember ever feeling that way while simultaneously sticking out like a sore thumb.

But one of those things still belonged?
But one of those things still belonged!

“The island started getting rough,

My confidence was tossed.

If not for the visit of a fearless trans,

My tale would be lost.

My tale would be lost.”

One day, I found myself off of work with a whole day to myself.  I had been in Key West for about two months and was still working for the supermarket.  I had moved to the island but was hiding out, scared to venture out alone.  Before moving to the island I had never even gone to a movie alone.  I was “that girl” who would sit in the parking lot and wait for my friends to show at the bar so I wouldn’t be sitting alone, even for 10 minutes (this was before we had cell phones to play on to “look busy”).  I was already starting to wonder if I had made a mistake, everyone back home thought I had lost my mind and were just waiting for my inevitable return home.  I figured some Vitamin Sea was what I needed and prepared to head to the beach.  Suddenly, a knock on the door!   When I opened it, there was Bridgette.  I imagine my face was tantamount to something like this…shock owl

You see, Bridgette used to be a Naval officer named Chad.  Once she had completed her time in the military she began her tale of becoming Bridgette.  She was still transitioning when we met that morning.  Remember, I had just met my first lesbians recently.  I had most assuredly never had the opportunity to meet, let alone sit and chat with, a pre-op transexual.  I had NEVER met anyone like Bridgette; gay, straight, black, white, Christian, or otherwise.  She was an alpha female from the moment I met her, in charge and taking control.  She took one look at me and knew I was stumbling somehow.  How?  Because while I wasn’t struggling with my gender identity, I was struggling with who I was and wanted to be so badly (a marine biologist).  She recognized that general fear and inner doubt, it didn’t matter that it wasn’t the same exact struggle as hers.

The universe brought us together because she was there for the “Lesbians in Paradise” meeting and had gotten the wrong day.  I invited her in for coffee and so it began.  She flat out grilled me, wanting to know what brought me to KW and what was I doing with my life.  I soft pedaled my answers, which is the Southern way of deflecting, and she was having none of it.  Sitting on the couch, she put her hand over mine and I noticed the anchor tattoo on her forearm… a #TBT to her Navy days.  She looked me directly in my eyes and said, “Sweetie.  But what do you want to do?  What is your dream?”  So I told her and prepared for the look of doubt and possible laughs.

Me:  “I want to work with marine animals.  I want to care for them but nobody like me (average) gets to do that.  Besides, I’m just starting school so I would never get hired.” 

Bridgette: “Well, you won’t when you have already talked yourself out of it.  You know we have an aquarium here in KW, right?  Let’s go.  You’re going to go talk to them and we are getting you a job.” 

And off we went on her Honda Elite scooter.  I didn’t even change out of my beachwear.

You're damn right, I can!
You’re damn right, I can!

So, here I am on the back of Bridgette’s scooter and hanging on to her thin frame for dear life.  We had been talking for a whopping 15-20 minutes and now I’m letting this crazy lady drive me across the island for what I thought was an exercise in futility.  She dropped me off with a, “Don’t you dare chicken out and I’m going next door to talk to Coffee Mike.  I’ll be watching you to make sure you do it!  You go, girl!”

*Forgive her for the “You go, girl”… remember, this was the late 90’s.

So in the end, I did it.  I asked the ticket lady if they were hiring and they were.  The curator informally interviewed me on the spot and sent me for my drug test that day.  Guess who drove me to Truman Medical on the back of her scooter?  The funny thing is that when I told her they hired me on the spot she just shrugged, looked at me as though I was daft and said, “Of course they did.” Bridgette was the catalyst for starting me on my path, I like to think I have paid it forward over the years.  If I see an opportunity to encourage others I take it and I always think of her.  How differently would my experiences have been if she had just turned around and gone home instead of taking an interest in me that morning?  Just that simple kindness, that fundamental interest and intervention from a complete stranger meant everything.

Thank you, Bridgette.  I will always have you to thank for loaning me your bravery and energy that day.  It all led to me getting the hell out of the supermarket arts.  I am forever grateful to you.


“This tale’s aground on the shore of this

Well-charted desert isle,

With our Wetsuit Gal,

And Bridgette too,

The Flag Football gals,

And their wives.

The Crazy Grams,

The Aquarium and One Human Fam,

Here on Cayo Hueso!”

My tale didn’t end there, but that was the beginning.  I had many adventures in KW over years and found many friendships I treasure dearly.  I made Cuban friends, Haitian friends, straight and gay friends, rich friends, mentally ill friends (I love you and your wax teeth to death, Jerry), drunk friends (lots), sober friends (less), sailors, world travelers, singers and songwriters, homeless people and more.  All around they are the most unique group of people on the planet.  They made me a better person and I love them all for it.  The best thing about our little Island of Misfit Toys?  The only prerequisite to belong is to be kind.  That’s it.  You can be anything else, anything at all, but that is the only hard line you can’t cross.  It gave me the wide open space, on a 2 by 4 mile chunk of rock, to begin growing into the adult I am today.  The evolution continues but the constants are there; kindness, compassion, empathy, love, and respect.  I learned these from my family and had them reinforced by my Key West family.  At the end of the day, it all makes me a better animal care professional.

Key Weird gave me far more than what I gave back, even though I did try.  It was a gift I couldn’t hope to match.  For that I will always love you, Key West.  There may be others but I will always love you best.

I took this photo myself during one of hundreds of beautiful sunsets I watched to completion.
I took this photo myself during one of hundreds of beautiful sunsets I watched to completion.

I would like to dedicate this particular blog post to my KW family; The aquarium bunch (all of you over the years), Coffee Mike and Lynn, Crazy Jerry, Dirty Eleanor, Peter and Douglas, Shawn and Micheal, The “OG” Irish Kevin’s crew, The Sunny Days Crew, The Lazy Gecko Crew (no more shots, Nicole), Mr. Chapman and his stories, The Sunset Tiki and all the singers there who made my day worth living, Endless bartender friends and boating friends with nicknames (Grubby, Ogie, Jetski Mark, Moneygram Mark, Dom, Monster, CBell, Narby, Sassy, and many more), Jared Micheal Hobgood (Goodnight and Joy be with you, friend), Cap’t Tony Tarracino (flirting even in Heaven), My “brother from another mother” Brian who helps me remove doorknobs in the middle of the night, Pammy and Joey (Smokin’ Tuna after work?), Clinton and Julie, and everyone there that still keeps a candle in the window because we always come back.  I love you all so very much.

Hugs and Fishes, ya’ll.  Lots of hugs.


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