When I think of it I think first of the heaviness of the air, the way it seems to tremble and shimmer in the distance, the way that distance arranges itself into freeway traffic, an island-skyline, and the infinite blue where the coils of petrochemical fumes disappear. A sense of invisible movement to the light. When you stop and disengage from the fast pace of life, you hear the rhythm of the cicadas that has been there all along, that was there before this sprawling expanse of concrete existed. The ancient heartbeat of the country. The city was founded at the confluence of two bayous, and when you stop and hear the cicada’s hypnotic lullaby- the long, somnolent hush- you realize that despite the endless strip malls and car dealerships, you’re still on swamp land.
Baghdad on the Bayou. Following the Gulf War, shortened to just Bayou City. The Magnolia City, for those of a historic bent. Space City, after 1967. Hustle Town. The Golden Buckle on the Sunbelt. The Big Heart, post-Katrina. H-Town if you’re in a rush (which sums up about 95% of the city).
I never chose Houston. I never imagined I would one day form an attachment to a place so far away from where I grew up, and so incredibly different. And in many ways that’s why I love this city so much- because I didn’t choose it, because it didn’t seem set up for me to love, because I went there by circumstance and necessity. It didn’t seem touristy and I wasn’t going there as a tourist. It seemed functional and industrious, a place where people lived rather than visited. A sense of permanence in the clean gray tones of office windows. A place of work. A bustling ant colony of handshakes, mergers, and quarterly income projections.
In 2015 my best friend moved there to begin her Master’s Degree, and I ended up visiting her and her husband there during the summers of 2016, 2017, and 2018. I didn’t plan that either. I never expected that I would be fortunate enough to visit them for three consecutive summers, and be allowed a small part of the city for myself. Most people back home probably think I have a job there, or am doing some kind of seasonal volunteer program, perhaps a summer camp. But the truth is that each of those Texan summers occurred for their own distinct reasons. It just kind of happened that way.
I didn’t know what to expect when I saw the city for the first time that weekend in August of 2015, cruising along I-45 under cover of night in a Chrysler Sebring packed to bursting with crates of books and kitchenware. Freshly-white clothes hangers. Picture frames. Layers of blouses, jeans, and sweaters. Little pieces of Anne-Marie. At the time I was consumed with the fear of losing her to the vastness of this new place, this sprawling jungle of parking lots and office buildings, of crisscrossing multi-lane freeways and alabaster billboards. Oil refineries and petrochemical plants bordered by chain-link fencing. Levees and palmettoes and gas stations. The seductive lights in skyscraper windows at night. The redness of tropical lightning. A place built of metal and glass and asphalt and sweat and neon and rainwater.
I felt very lucky to discover Houston properly the next summer, but my thoughts still remained on my two friends as opposed to the city itself. I was so focused on holding onto them, that I barely noticed the city. I had no feeling for it. Though I wanted to come back after my stay in 2016, I didn’t think a return the following year very likely, and I assumed my gallivanting days were over, that it was time for me to settle down and grow up. But then in 2017 I went back, booking my plane ticket only a week before I flew out. I wanted to see our puppy in case the treatment for her heartworm proved a failure. I was fueled by anxiety at the time. I could think only of the present. The future could wait. I even declared that 2017 would be the last of my summers in America, a kind of swansong for the post-graduation chapter of my life. I spent two months there in 2017 as opposed to the three months I had resided there in 2016, leaving a couple weeks before Hurricane Harvey. In 2018, Aaron and Anne-Marie got married, and I decided last minute to visit Houston before the wedding took place, this time staying one month. Each of the three Texan summers were conceived differently and happened differently, and they each mean different things to me when I look back at them.
But when taken together and treated as a singular journey, the lasting feeling I have is that of a home away from home. I feel a small sense of ownership, something between a resident and an outsider. And the city itself similarly occupies the middle ground between the familiar and the mysterious. I’ve experienced but a fraction of it; enough to operate with confidence, to know what to look out for and what to expect, but not enough to curb my sense of excitement and curiosity. There’s more I haven’t experienced than I have, but the city is so big that what I have experienced is enough to get a hold of its pulse.
My humble sliver of H-Town is enough to encompass its flash floods, its heat advisories, its reckless drivers, its corporate hustle, its exotic and decadent tastes, its terse (even curt) way of speaking, its wide sense of space- a philosophy that seems embedded in everything from its beer gardens and clinical waiting rooms to its capacious road network and sun-drenched city parks. Half the city seems to be composed of parking lots, smooth gray flatlands that make islands out of drive-thrus and strip malls. Everything- with the exception of the cluster of skyscrapers downtown- seems to have been built across instead of up, with neighborhood after neighborhood being annexed one after the other. In fact Houston is the largest city in the United States by total area. It’s also a city of cars. In London, for example, a pedestrian could theoretically walk from one side to the other; the condensed alleyways and streets forming a maze of bus stops and cobblestone stairways, shadowy alcoves of benches, crushed cigarette butts, and secrets. In Houston however, walking from one neighborhood to the next is impossible, let alone going from one side of the city to the other. You don’t feel connected to the city underfoot. I think of the roads as being akin to giant canals that connect otherwise completely unconnected locations. There are so many streets in residential areas that have no sidewalks whatsoever. Houston isn’t designed to be navigated by foot. You either get behind the wheel or fuck off back to Spyro Reignited.
I also love Houston because it’s one of only three places away from home (the other two being Eau Claire, WI and Winchester, England) where I’ve actually lived. The memories I have of myself in Houston are different to cities where I’ve been a sightseer. The memories aren’t tied to specific experiences (the way for instance, my memories of Budapest are tied to relaxing in thermal spas) but instead to habits, to ways of life. And these rhythms have created a deeper bond between myself and the city.
I discovered Houston in a thousand dreamlike moments.
The night of August 8th 2015: I had the greatest steak of my entire life at a place called Saltgrass Steakhouse, a 12-oz prime rib topped with lump crabmeat in a creamy sauce.
I held a reflector pad at an engagement photoshoot in Buffalo Bayou and I’ve watched Independence Day fireworks at Kemah Boardwalk.
I’ve seen anoles darting across blasted concrete and I’ve seen vultures picking at roadkill.
I’ve tagged along to a solar energy survey in Friendswood and I’ve worked a night shift in Montgomery doing wedding clean-up.
I’ve eaten breakfasts of smoked salmon and bottomless mimosas at Jackie’s Brickhouse in Kemah and Baby Barnaby’s in Montrose.
I’ve sprayed a cockroach with extreme prejudice.
I’ve toured the flea markets and pawn shops of Pasadena.
I’ve sat in a car and stared at a downpour so torrid that you can’t even see as far as the other side of the road.
I’ve attended pool parties; long afternoons of alcohol, hip hop, and interviewing my new friends about their respective lives. My fat ass in an inflatable pineapple. Half-drunkenly reading Liane Moriarty in a hammock with the Texas sun on my face.
I’ve been to a cinema where they serve you food and I’ve watched a Japanese cook juggling strips of beef at a teppanyaki restaurant.
I’ve discovered quirky hole-in-the-wall businesses like drive thrus dedicated entirely to juice drinks.
I’ve got my face trapped in a cobweb at Armand Bayou and ran around screaming.
I’ve had my hair cut and then professionally washed in the shade of the Texas Medical Center.
I’ve hit up so many dog parks, donut stores, and taquerias.
I’ve dipped my toes in the Gulf of Mexico at a beach on Galveston Island. That was an especially good day.
But why am I reminiscing about all this today? Why is Houston on my mind more than usual? Well, I’ve been revisiting the city in the form of its literature. Stay tuned because this week I will be spotlighting three novels set in and around the Houston area. Before I got to the book reviews however, I decided I may as well do a post where I try and articulate what the city of Houston means to me, and therefore give some context to my reading choices. I hope you enjoyed reading about my relationship to HTX and stick around for my upcoming book reviews!