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Murky Waters: A Surprising Journey of Self-Discovery in Key West

Several months ago, I received a text from my close friend, Danielle, inviting Nick and me to Key West to celebrate her 30th birthday. The original plan was to be in Key West for Danielle’s actual birthday on November 17th. However, after comparing prices and logistics, the final dates landed on Dec 7th through 10th–one week before my own 30th birthday. 


“It could be like a joint birthday party for us!” Danielle said. 


“Yeah…Sure!” I replied, feigning enthusiasm. Don’t kid yourself, I thought. This is Danielle’s trip. Although I was excited to celebrate with her, I would never think to spend my own special day in a place like Key West. Too hot. Too much sand. Too little clothes to cover the weight I had recently gained. 



 


Edward Abbey describes three types of people in his non fiction work, Desert Solitaire: mountain people, desert people, and river rats. I’ve come to associate the latter with all forms of water. 


“Well, Hannah, I guess you’ve completed your transition from a water person to a mountain person now,” my dad told me over the phone a few weeks ago after regaling him with stories from a recent mountain adventure. 


“Dad…I’ve never been a water person,” I replied annoyed. How could someone, let alone my own father, ever assume I was a water person. 


When I was little, growing up on the Northshore of Lake Pontchartrain in South Louisiana, my dad bought a small fish camp on the Pearl River. The camp was accessible only via boat, and I came to dread the weekends we would spend there. My dad would launch the boat, which was always stressful, yelling at my mother to turn the wheel slightly right or left when backing the trailer onto the ramp. Once launched, the boat would slowly idle atop the murky brown waters while I swatted gnats encircling me. After passing through the no-wake zone, my dad would accelerate his craft. The motor roared as the wind tangled my hair. My eyes squinted at tall cypress trees blurring past me. 


Finally, we would arrive at the camp – a humble brown shack with a ripped screen door. The small, wooden dock bobbed up and down as my dad moored the boat to it. I would exit the boat and immediately feel trapped. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do except to sit on the dock and watch the water pass me by. 



 


I landed in Key West in the late afternoon. The energy on the flight was distinct. Everyone smiled at me as I found my way to my assigned seat. The boarding process was efficient.  Several taller individuals helped shorter ones place their carry-ons in the overhead compartment. Sun hats were donned. The flight attendants joked and exchanged pleasantries with various passengers. Did I have more legroom too?


As I exited the plane, I was surprised to find myself walking down a ramp placed directly on the tarmac. How fun! I thought. Anytime I’ve disembarked a plane in this manner, I imagine I’m a celebrity or a world traveler. I casually brought my sunglasses from atop my head to my eyes and let my hair down in a dramatic fashion. I gracefully placed my hand onto the rail and begin to descend… I’m late for my car pickup that’s bringing me to the embassy. I jolted back to reality when I stubbed my foot and caught my stumble, bumping into an elderly woman eating a bag of Doritos in front of me. 


The temperature surprised me. I expected suffocating humidity, but a cooler sea breeze greeted me. This feels pretty nice.I glanced upward at the Key West International Airport sign, which looked like it had kept its original 1960s lettering. The setting sun cast its golden glow on a palm tree in the distance. 


On the short Uber ride, I gazed out the window at the water, which looked like it was one melted glacier away from spilling over onto the road. Is Key West going to be okay with climate change? Regardless, I was intrigued by the smoothness of the water and the messy, tangle of mangroves just off the road. 


Over the next several days, I ate…a lot. Probably three to four key lime pie slices per day. Fresh grouper, ahi tuna, shrimp, and mahi mahi. Cuban sandwiches with Cuban coffee. Guava pastries. I swam in a pool tucked beneath tall, vibrant green palms. I head banged while a rock band called the Durtbags covered Creed’s “Higher” on Duval Street. I stared as an elderly man handed a sad-looking stripper a dollar in a free strip club in exchange for motorboating. I caught up with Danielle and my old friend, Zoë–two of the best people I know. I ran seven miles around the island with Nick, stopping to take pictures at every tourist spot. I drank the best mojito of my life. (The secret is the rock candy). 



slice of key lime pie in Key West
Key Lime Pie at Two Friends Patio




Our flight was supposed to leave Sunday at 2pm, which left just enough time to get one last mojito and enjoy the island poke cups at Seaside Cafe. I was two mojitos in, feeling tipsy and sentimental looking at my friends. I liked this feeling. I didn’t want it to end. I guess everyone thinks this on the last day of vacation, but my mind started analyzing. How do I get more of this? 


“You know we could stay here if we didn’t have the dog?” Nick said. 


“Yeah, I know,” I replied, immediately resentful of my dog, Nias, as if my decision to adopt him 5 years ago was single handedly responsible for ripping me away from my mojito. After the exchange, I told Danielle about my hesitancy to have children. 


“I just don’t want to ever resent my kid.” I told her. 


“Do you wish you didn’t have Nias?” she asked with a bewildered look. 


“Sometimes,” I responded, remembering all the days I couldn't spend the whole day skiing because we had to get home and let the dog out. All the money we spent boarding him because as a reactive dog, it was easier to leave him behind on our road trips. I felt ashamed and childish. 


Suddenly, our phones started buzzing with notifications that our flights were delayed. First fifteen minutes, then thirty, then Zack and Danielle’s flight was canceled all together. Nick and I made our way to the airport since ours was still scheduled to depart. I begrudgingly got into the Uber and waved goodbye, feeling unsettled. 


We eventually boarded the flight. My anxiety elevated as the effects of the three mojitos wore off. The energy on the plane was different than the arrival. The cabin lights were dimmed. Everyone was quiet. The cloud cover obscured the sun. Then, a woman opened the aircraft’s door and exchanged a few words with the pilot before turning her head toward us. 


“We’re looking for six volunteers to deboard the plane for $1,500 each,” she announced. 


Without thinking or looking at Nick for confirmation, I unbuckled my seat belt, grabbed my carry-on and exited. Nick followed behind. We looked at each other smiling with wide eyes in disbelief in our own boldness. 


The decision to disembark was not as crazy as it seemed. Both Nick and I work remotely, and with the money the airline offered, it made sense for us to keep Nias boarded one more night. The gate agent efficiently booked us a new flight for 6pm the next day, which I was happy about since it gave us another full day in paradise. Nick got on his phone and booked us a room at a hotel right on the water. 


We arrived at the hotel giddy, unable to believe our luck, and scurried to their dock. A cruise ship was just departing. We waved to the passengers standing on their balconies and watched the dock crew remove the ship's massive ropes moored to the anchor. I got another mojito and settled into the chair. The clouds had dispersed by that time to reveal the setting sun. I watched the water. Nowhere to go. Nothing to do except to sit on the dock and watch the water pass me by. 



Sunset in Key West from Opal Key Resort


Was my Dad right? I wondered. 


I’ve come to find safety in absolutes. I hate the water. I am a mountain person. I don’t want kids because they’ll limit my freedom. I don’t belong in Florida. Each statement definitively lets me know who I am and who I am not. I can call upon these absolutes to help make decisions. But now, staring at the water, I found contradictions. Over the next several weeks, I would begin to wonder what it’d be like if we ever moved back to Florida. What other aspects of myself could flourish in perhaps a different environment but had been too afraid to come to light? What pieces of me were still out there? 


I still desperately want to retreat to the comfort “all-or-nothing thinking” brings–the illusion of clarity. But for now, I'm learning to finally embrace the murky water.




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