So where do I begin? From the beginning, I suppose....
In August of 2016 I decided, after a 10 year absence, to attend the National Reptile Breeders Expo in Daytona Beach, Florida, just a short trip up I-95 from my home. The stimuli was a bit of nostalgia and the need to re-connect with some old friends for a documentary that my son Hunter and I will be working on. Simple as that....or so I thought.
On the way up I received a text from a friend from North Carolina (A brilliant, beautiful girl who's involved with big cats and other large carnivores and legislation protecting private ownership) asking if I was at "some reptile show?" "Umm yes, I'm heading out now, why?" "Well, one of my very best friends just moved to Florida and she doesn't know anybody, and she's going to the expo, would you mind meeting her?" This is exactly the kind of thing I hate. There are just some times that I have no desire to play the friendly game when I am already on a focused mission, and I certainly was not in the mood on this day. "Sure, I'd love to, send her my cell number." I am a weak man.
I'd been at the expo for a while when I received a text from Emily. "Yes, I'm here. Meet? I'll meet you at the crocodile statue by the entry doors in a few minutes." So there I am, tapping my foot like an asshole, highly underwhelmed at the time I'm now going to have to spend with a stranger. Then SHE walked out of the crowd....Suddenly I was engulfed in tunnel vision. The white noise of hundreds of people talking, laughing and bartering vanished into the ether. My heart felt as if I had been shot, and I'd taken a Tyson-like punch to the sternum. From out of the crowd emerged the most beautiful girl I have ever seen in my life. A demure half wave, and a big smile turned me into a puddle of mush. If an alien had ripped open the fabric of time and said hello I would have been less surprised than I was by my instantaneous reaction to this girl walking toward me. I was in love.
Rewind 30 minutes: I had just run into an old friend and had the kind of joyful, nostalgic conversation that only comes after a certain number of years have been spent on this earth. I've got a dumb smile on my face, and I'm absentmindedly looking at the animals and patting myself on the back for making the decision to attend the Expo after so many years absent. This self-congratulations led me to put some thought into the radical change in the demographics of people who now attend reptile shows - a big change from 20 years ago. "Why look Jesse, in front of you right now is an amazingly hot, tall, brunette in skin tight black from head to toe." Perfect body, and not the least bit trashy with a decided air of class and style. I was briefly enraptured as she bent over to look at some critter, using her right hand to brush her long hair out of her eyes and over her ear for a better view. My, how times have changed at reptile expo's. 15 minutes later, this very same girl walked out of the crowd as I impatiently waited at that concrete crocodile. Pole axed, I was. This is a true story, friends, and one I still cannot believe.
Emily and I spent the next several hours walking around the expo and sitting and talking, though neither of us can really remember what we talked about that day, for Emily, as it turns out, was just as unexpectedly and brutally stricken as I was. At the time, and in my wildest dreams, I could never have expected that she was feeling what I was, for I couldn't really explain what I myself was feeling. It was all I could do to carry on a reasonable adult conversation as I slowly melted inside, wondering how I was going to be able to live a life of normalcy after we said goodbye and she walked away. Luckily, I didn't have to find that out, for the whirlwind romance that followed was everything my pathetically romantic heart and mind had ever prayed for as a lonely teenager. I've been very fortunate in my life, and thought I knew what love was..............I didn't know shit.
At this point I'd like to make it perfectly clear that I am immune to beauty alone. I have been a Critical Care RN for a long time in a female-dominated field, and people joke that "on paper" I look cool and interesting (the reality may be somewhat different!). As a result, opportunities have presented on many an occasion that I have passed up that have made my male friends cringe and question my sexual preferences. I love love, and prize intellect above all else. My attraction to Emily was not simply due to her beauty, thought I have no idea what forces are at work when it comes to "love at first sight" as this clearly was.
I wrote the above nearly a year ago. If anything, my feelings and the depth of our relationship have only deepened. I purposely let this sit so I could feel like I was being objective, rather than creating the prose of a love-sick puppy.
Over the past year, I have been fortunate to have worked with Emily on a daily basis at Safari Wilderness in Lakeland, Florida. Good times, bad times, tears of joy, tears of pain, sorrow, and loss. Such is life working with animals when one loves the animals more than the talking apes. Throughout it all I learned that my medical career is now behind me, and that I was built for the zoo world......as long as we can remain a team. Our collective strengths and weaknesses compliment each other, and together we make a formidable single being.
As of March 2018, we are now Texans. I never dreamt that I would ever leave my home state of Florida, but the decision was actually quite easy. Onward and upward with an amazing opportunity to build something that will certainly outlive us. Exciting personal and professional projects are on the way. As always, I appreciate and thank the few that actually spend time reading my long-winded writings in this day and age of coveted brevity. We will continue to strive to produce the finest in captive bred animals for our customers and friends..............Jesse & Emily