H-Town Diary

Lust in the Gust

Surviving a date with Ike.

By Catherine Matusow Illustrations by Dan Page June 1, 2013 Published in the June 2013 issue of Houstonia Magazine

FEMA’s website offers the following tips for anyone choosing to ride out a tropical cyclone: keep a radio handy, buy dry goods, batteries and bottled water, fill up the tub, hunker down. Curiously, there is no mention on the site of whom one should hunker down with; whether, say, one should hunker down with a potential love interest with whom she’s had just one date. 

In a way, FEMA’s silence on this matter is understandable. The idea of using a deadly storm as an excuse for a romantic fling sounds preposterous, at least on the surface, the sort of thing that only a girl with a crush on a cute vegan and fantasies of taking shelter in his arms as the world outside goes nuts would think of. Still, it can be done, as long as you pay close attention and learn from my mistakes.   

Tip No. 1: Be careful what you wish for. 

Like everyone else on the morning of September 12, 2008, I was glued to my computer screen, watching Ike lumber toward us. A feeling came over me—let’s call it excitement—as I reflected fondly on the last hurricane I’d experienced, way back in 1983, when I was six and Alicia came to town. I had some vague memories of a dark house, candlelight, and a street that looked like a river, but I didn’t remember the experience as unpleasant. 

There was excitement too in the thought that unlike so many times in the past, this would be no near-miss, no non-event. This time it would happen. The world would stop for a minute, we would eat all the peanut butter we wanted. No one would die. It wouldn’t cost billions to rebuild a battered city. The worst that would happen is that I’d be stuck in my apartment with a great-looking vegan.  

What was I thinking? That the storm would be hitting on a Friday night, that’s what. Date night. I pulled out my first-generation iPhone, scrolled to the vegan’s number, and texted: “Want to ride out the hurricane with me?” Ten long minutes later, the phone beeped. “Of course I do,” he replied.  

Tip No. 2: Get food your date can eat. 

What to feed a vegan? I turned the thought over and over in my head as I drove to the Kroger on West Gray. The shelves had been ransacked by the time I arrived, but I did manage to get wine (priority number one), peanut butter (yes!), bottled water, rice, a couple of cans of black beans, a bag of tortilla chips, and the ingredients for some killer guacamole. 

Even as I pulled these items from their paper sack, there was a knock at the door. In he strolled. We had an awkward hug. I poured some wine. There were several uncomfortable pauses, between which we discussed the storm’s progress. 

Desperate to cut the tension, I announced I would prepare dinner. I mashed the avocadoes, boiled some water for rice, grabbed the can of beans off the counter and—uh oh. They were flavored with bacon. I looked at the vegan guiltily. “It’s okay,” he said. But was it, I wondered? I could swear I caught him grimacing. 

Tip No. 3: Be prepared to freak out.

Dinner over, it was time for the fun to begin. We settled onto the couch to watch the storm come in. Our thighs touched. TV reporters in Galveston were being jostled by the wind and rain, sometimes losing their balance as they staggered through surging waters, even as a message scrolled across the bottom of the screen: “Anyone ignoring evacuation warnings faces certain death.” We looked at each other, shaking our heads. It was hilarious, right? Or rather, hilarious and scary. The vegan put his arm around me. 

We heard the explosions first, jolting us out of comfy couch time. Transformers all over Midtown were going off; it sounded like cannon fire. The TV flickered and then went dead, taking with it all the little sounds a house makes when it has electricity. Our eyes fell on the window. The tree across the street started to dance wildly, then bent over in a low bow. Lightning flashed, and the sky glowed an eerie green. 

I’d always loved my little historic apartment at Isabella Court, but with history came poor insulation, and when I got up I could feel the wind blowing past me in the living room. Suddenly seized with yet another good idea, the cute vegan and I tiptoed out into the courtyard, finding it filled with swirling wind and the smell of smoke. 

At last I began to wonder what the folks at FEMA must have wondered: what the hell was anyone doing on a date in the middle of such danger? Soon, however, we were back inside and I got my answer: he kissed me. Silently, I congratulated myself for my courage and cunning.  

Tip No. 4: When filling the tub, for the love of God, make sure the stopper is secure. 

It was a long, restless night in my bed, and not the good kind. I was sleeping with two strangers, Ike and the vegan, each annoying and disappointing me in different ways. I felt like I’d gotten five minutes of sleep when morning finally arrived. I got up to go to the bathroom, noticing that Ike was gone and the vegan wasn’t; also that the power was still off, as was the water. Worst of all, the tub, which I’d dutifully filled the previous evening in case my utilities were turned off, had somehow drained. How could this happen? I almost screamed. I stared in disbelief as the horrifying realization set in: there was no way to flush the toilet. 

Tip No. 5: As soon as you can, hit the drugstore. 

I looked in the mirror. My hair hung in greasy chunks around my face, my skin was oily. There were bags under my eyes from lack of sleep. The apartment was already getting hot. My body, I was sure, stunk, but of course I couldn’t take a shower. I couldn’t even really wash off unless I used bottled water, but could I risk it, not knowing if we’d need that water to survive? 

How I longed for some astringent to lift the oil from my skin! What I wouldn’t have given for a dry shampoo! Baby wipes would have been a godsend. But I hadn’t thought to get any of those things. And so I did my best to make myself presentable, pulling my hair back into a ponytail and wiping off last night’s makeup. It was a vision no cute vegan should ever have to witness, I tell you. Take lessons from my cautionary tale. 

Tip No. 6: Be honest about when you’d like the date to end. 

Sadly, the sight of my harried, storm-tossed visage did not send the vegan fleeing into the street. In fact, it didn’t even occur to him. No, he just rolled out of bed and wandered into the kitchen. The gas was working, so he made toast with peanut butter and boiled water for coffee, which he prepared campfire-style. So busy was I scheming about bathrooms, I wasn’t even able to enjoy my guilt-free peanut butter, which is when I decided to broach the topic of ending the date. “You know, you can leave and go check on your family if you want,” I said. “Do you want me to leave?” he countered. Reader, I couldn’t do it. “Of course not,” I said. But as I watched him saunter around my kitchen like he owned the place, I started to feel a bit resentful. We weren’t on a date anymore; he was just hanging around.  

Tip No. 7: If your date won’t leave, find an activity (and a bathroom).

There was a knock: my next-door neighbors. They announced they wanted to go exploring. The vegan and I piled into their car and set off through Midtown, full of toppled trees and blinking stoplights, ostensibly to check on the building where I worked as an editor, which was pitch-black and, in places, ankle-deep in water. But all I really cared about was the bathroom. I found my way to it in the dark, discovering that—hallelujah!—it even flushed.

Tip No. 8: Ask yourself if you’d rather hunker down with friends. 

It would be one day before the water came back on, and five days before power returned to Isabella Court. But I know what you’re really wondering. How long before the vegan left? Not until 40 hours after he arrived, by which time it felt like he’d been in my apartment for months. We didn’t have much to say to one another at that point, not that we ever did. (Thank God he was cute.) I could have kicked him out, I know. But nobody had told me about Tip No. 6. 

The following evening, the vegan long gone, my neighbors cooked up a gigantic paella out of everything in their freezer, studding it with homemade deer sausage. By then, a cool front had blown into town, and the candlelit meal, enjoyed in the pleasant breeze, not a vegan in sight, was spectacular. Especially the sausage. I thought about the offending bacon beans in my cupboard as I poured wine for everyone. I should have known, then and there, that it wasn’t going to last with the vegan. 

While many people would call me crazy for spending Ike with a date, I like to think my absurd scheme paid off in the end—after all, it surely accelerated the course of a relationship doomed to failure from the start. We revealed ourselves right away, and we parted that much sooner because of it, off to separately navigate a world that is still plenty nuts, even when the wind isn’t blowing through that apartment where I used to live. 

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