On May 25, 2015, the night before my husband’s forty-second birthday, he was watching the Houston Rockets beat the Golden State Warriors at a local bar. It was raining. My daughter and I were already home, waiting for him to return after the game. She was eight and had school the next day, so after she went to bed, I texted my husband for an update on his whereabouts. The rain had turned into a flash flood, and reports of submerged cars and stranded motorists were beginning to hit social media. He was only a few blocks away; though I’ve learned in weather like that even a short distance can be impassible.
The ditches that line every street in our neighborhood were already full from weeks of rain. The bayous, designed to collect run off from the streets of our below sea level city were also full. I got no response from the text message I sent my husband, and his phone went straight to voicemail when I called. This, in and of itself, is not unusual — his unreachability, or the weather. There have been many floods in the thirteen years I’ve lived with Matt in Houston. A few that have been called “biblical,” or “a 100-year storm.” By now I’m numb to the terms. Matt can disappear in as little as a few inches of rain, and there was a time when I would have gone looking for him.
Southern aphorisms are one of the side effects of living here as long as I have, and my favorite one is this: “Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.” Bayous are not creeks, but the saying holds. If he comes home, he comes home. If he doesn’t, he doesn’t. What can I do about it? The odds are he’ll make it; we’ve survived many historic floods. And maybe even a few we created ourselves.
An hour after the flooding started I opened the blinds and watched him walk toward our house, his black t-shirt and jeans slick against his body. He walked down the middle of the road, water fanning against his shoes like a tiny tide, water rising against the rose bushes, the wheels of parked cars, fences. When he pulled off his new sneakers, an early birthday present, he poured cupfuls of water onto our welcome mat.
Even in a flood, Houston is a good place for ambitious New Yorkers. For upwardly, or downwardly mobile New Yorkers. For New Yorkers of any kind. I was one of them when I arrived, sweating in the swamp heat and dragging a giant suitcase and a giant cat through the newly hysterical security at Houston’s Intercontinental Airport. Having recently survived 9/11, I was irritated by Houston’s self-importance. Why the hell would anyone want to fly a plane into Houston?
During the uneasy ride from the airport to Matt’s apartment, I watched the bayou that would become a regular feature of my daily life. “Bayous high today,” my soon-to-be husband remarked in a Texan accent. He pronounced it like a native: “Bye-Oh.” I had never heard this accent during our courtship, spent drinking cheap booze and making out in taxicabs. In New York he hid his accent like a mole. I looked at him sideways for a trace of irony. None showed.
In Houston the bayous run high like a child’s fever, and that day, like they would again on May 25, 2015, the bayous were rising. I’d soon learn that during flood season, which is every season, they swell with rainwater, with sewage and street garbage. They lap at the sunbaked bridges and overpasses as we glance reflexively down. “Bayous high today,” I’d later hear someone say to the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop, or in the grocery checkout line. When the bayous are low nobody says much of anything about them. Recently, a friend described the bayou that buffets her neighborhood to a UPS driver who was having trouble finding her house. “What is that?” he asked.
Houston is known for its bayous; it is in fact known as “The Bayou City.” A strange point of pride but Houston will take what it can get. She has no other natural charms. Buffalo Bayou, an 18,000-year-old tributary, is called “the mother bayou” because it feeds the thousands of others that cut through Houston’s marshland.
Houston was founded by a pair of ambitious real estate prospectors from New York, fabled to have landed in the city after a slog up Buffalo Bayou from seaside Galveston. They landed at a spot where the bayous converge, what was called simply, “the old port.” Since it so often disappeared under a sheet of water, there seemed no sense in naming it. Not entirely unlike the old practice of delaying the naming of children who might not survive infancy.
As a child, I often daydreamed about being stuck in a car that had driven off a bridge and was trapped underwater. It was something I must have picked up from a television show I wasn’t supposed to be watching. A woman pounds against the driver’s side window of her station wagon, fists whitening, cheeks inflated with her last breath. My mother turned off the television before I could see how, or if, she escaped.
My move to Houston from Brooklyn was like driving off a bridge in a way. I drove off the bridge of my life, of the life planned for me, or the life I was planning. Before I fell in love with Matt I was an agnostic girl in New York; a singer, well educated; employed; a registered Democrat. Matt was a drummer from the Bible belt who was also, at times, a heavy drinker and born-again Christian. I was so wooed by his door-opening, Southern manner that I soon converted. I gave up my rent-controlled apartment in Park Slope and packed a U-Haul. His was the bayou I drove into, a swamp of religion and beer where it was 98 degrees in the shade from April to December.
On my first Christmas in Houston, my mother-in-law gave me a pocket-sized sledgehammer and glasscutter. Like a lady’s pistol, it fit easily into my purse. “In case of flood,” she said. It was a tool designed for just that moment when you find yourself the woman underwater, pounding against glass with whitening fists.
It’s been reported that in the early morning hours of May 26, 2015, at least three women did just that. One was on her way to an early morning shift at Kroger when she drove into twelve feet of water. Her white pickup truck was found with her body inside when the waters receded the following morning. Here is what you need to know about water in Houston: it is chameleonic. Twelve feet of water looks like the freeway onramp, the same one you’ve been driving on for years. And fearing nothing, as the rains come down, you drive straight into it.
Our first apartment was a tiny one-bedroom under a canopy of live oak, with crumbling brick work and Mexican drug dealers hanging out in the stairwells. Because it was low lying, it was cheap, despite being in a neighborhood ambitiously called “The Heights.” I was so thrilled that Matt had an apartment, that he wasn’t — and therefore we weren’t — living with his parents, that I numbed myself to its faults. My eyes filled in the necessary amenities (garbage disposal, central A.C.) without them actually being there. The first time my mother came to visit she bit her lip so hard she cried. I introduced her to our neighbor J.J., a talented gospel singer and initiate into a local drug gang. Maybe I didn’t know J.J. was in a gang at the time. I just knew he had a soul that needed saving.
The tears my mother did not try to hide were a ploy to get me to rethink my engagement. I was already rethinking it. But if I admitted it, I’d be admitting something about the resolve I now clung to as a shield. It was easy when Mom was in town and footing the bill for meals in swanky restaurants. But when she left and reality set in — of our dwindling bank account, of the palm-sized mosquitos, and peeling asbestos paint — I became allergic. To the soot in the air from the oil refineries a few miles south, to the neon pollen that covered cars and mailboxes with its dust, to the milk, soy, and wheat in everything I ate.
Once, during a summer storm, we moved Matt’s VW to a parking garage on higher ground. Remembering Tropical Storm Allison, the deluge that claimed fifty-five lives the year before, he didn’t want to risk his car flooding. We parked under an office building on the edge of the bayou crested with white caps, and stared dumbly at the rising water.
Since Matt and I drank heavily during our Brooklyn courtship, we also drank in Houston. We got hammered on rotgut Zeigenbock, played darts at a pub with other broke musicians, and argued about our upcoming wedding. I wanted a mariachi band; he wanted a country band. I wanted BBQ; he didn’t care what we served. I wanted to live apart during our engagement to maintain our chastity; he wasn’t into that idea at all. Though our drinking somehow escaped my examination, our sex life did not. Born-again virginity was not yet a thing among evangelicals, as it is now, but it was a practice I was championing. In my early twenties, a brief sojourn into promiscuity had resulted in a minor cocaine habit and an STD (one so common as to be considered “the scourge of my generation” by my gynecologist). Since my new religion offered absolution (so long as I remained virginal), I leapt at the chance. This meant that Matt and I did everything we could think of barring actual intercourse. The result was a mix of shame and dissatisfaction on both our parts. Things were tense.
Shortly after our wedding (country band, Italian food), Matt’s drinking increased and I couldn’t keep up. Many evenings I would angrily wash dishes or sulk in front of the T.V. while he went to the bar with his friends. I could tamp down my anxiety with distractions — changing the kitty litter, dusting the record collection—but as the hours ticked by (1, 2, 3 a.m.), I became desperate. When we were together, drunk driving was something I decided people in the South did, and did well, even in the heavy rain that fell so frequently. Still, when Matt and I were apart I was terrified he would get into an accident. I called his cell phone. It went to voicemail. I called his favorite bar, and then his other favorite bar. The bartenders were so used to me calling they’d answer on the first ring. “Here he is!” or “He didn’t come in tonight,” or “He left an hour ago.”
One rainy night about 2 a.m., after the usual round of calls, I drove around looking for him. When I got home an hour later, I thought about calling the police. But then I heard the faint high A, the sound of Matt’s car braking on the street below our apartment. A car door opens, shuts, echoes off the wet pavement. I hear his boots in the stairwell.
A few months later Matt quit drinking and went back to school to finish his undergraduate degree. He made it through almost an entire semester sober, but by finals week he was coming home later and later.
It was the beginning of hurricane season, and my mother was in town for a visit. I’d made reservations at a fancy restaurant, and since Matt had plans to attend a friend’s performance at a record store that afternoon, he would meet us at the restaurant. “It’s always raining in Houston,” my mother remarked, as we huddled under too-small umbrellas and waited for my mother-in-law to pick us up outside my apartment. When she arrived we climbed into the leather seats and shook off the rain. The radio softly played the local Christian station. We plowed through the flooding streets, past Buffalo Bayou, which was roiling like a cauldron. We watched drivers huddle between claps of thunder, beside their flooded hatchbacks and sedans, hazard lights blinking in the night.
During the most recent flash flooding, lightning knocked out the streetlights on our block. The emergency lights that clicked on cast an orange glow over everything — the rippling water, the nearly flooded cars, the fat tree frogs trilling in the ditches trying not to drown. When the lights go out, which they almost inevitably do during a storm, it’s hard to make out which bayous have overflowed their banks and which have not. Being able to spot the difference could determine one’s survival in a flood, because bayous are unpredictable.
Bayous are not rivers; this is important to remember. They are slow-moving swamps, prone to collecting abandoned vehicles and bodies, but offer no reassurance that they will carry these things away from their point of origin. Bayous are influenced by the tide and the moon, and known to occasionally flow backwards. In 1977, Houston police threw the battered body of Joe Campos Torres, a Vietnam vet whom they’d severely beaten in a botched arrest, into Buffalo Bayou’s toxic waters. He washed up three days later like a resurrected sacrifice, still wearing his fatigues and army combat boots. This is what everyone fears in a storm; that it will reveal what we are trying to hide. But when it is raining in Houston, which is often, and the water in the bayou is high and moving in the right direction, it covers a multitude of sins. The bayous perform the admirable and necessary job of carrying what is unmentionable from the sodden streets and parks and dumping it into the Gulf of Mexico, where everything unwanted in the southern United States eventually ends up.
I knew they’d be serving free local beer at the record store where Matt was watching his friends perform. I also knew that Matt was mildly afraid of my mother, so I was sure he would take it easy and show up to the restaurant on time. He didn’t. I made the first round of calls to his cell phone. No answer. I made the second round of calls to his friends. We ordered a bottle of wine. “I’m sure he’ll be here soon,” I said, and I believed it.
By the time we pulled into the parking lot of our apartment complex I’d already imagined the many potential outcomes: Matt’s car wrapped around a telephone pole; Matt’s car floating in the dirty bayou, his limp, drunk body trapped inside, or Matt’s car flipped in one of the run-off ditches. When I saw his white car parked under the streetlight it looked like the shining crown of some benevolent deity. “He’s alive,” I said.
A year earlier, just after we were engaged, I insisted Matt meet my father, though I’d seen him only a handful of times since my parents’ divorce. “You want a drink?” my father asked Matt, leaning back in his chair and motioning for the waiter. My father smoothed the limp cocktail napkin beside his drink with a manicured thumbnail. “No. Thanks,” Matt said, “I’m good,” and reached for my hand under the table. It hadn’t occurred to me then that I’d chosen a partner like my father because Matt was attentive and thoughtful. My father forgot my birthday every year. Matt was generous and sensitive; my father refused to pay child support and chided me about my creative ambitions. With Matt, I thought I’d really escaped the old Freudian cliché. But when the reality of his drinking became clear, as it did in the moments that followed spotting his car under the streetlight, I knew I’d been fooling myself.
I leapt out of my mother-in-law’s car and strode toward our front door. I was sure I’d find him at his computer, or watching T.V. He would be apologetic, sheepish. No big deal. But when I put the key in the lock, nothing. I pushed, and turned, and tried again. Still nothing. It was dead-bolted. My mother-in-law stood at my elbow, not sure who was in charge. I could see her wheels turning — it was her son we couldn’t find on this dark and rainy night; he’d only been my husband for a few months. She banged on the door, politely at first, then with both fists. I walked toward a patch of open sky and searched for a signal for my cell phone. I dialed 911. While the phone was ringing, or when my mother-in-law quit banging on the door, I pictured Matt passed out on the couch, choking to death on his own vomit.
Maybe it was the sound of his mother’s voice that reached him in the blackout, but while I was searching for a signal Matt opened the door. By the time I got there, he had thrown himself into a cold shower. The apartment smelled like death. My mother looked around, eyebrows raised. His mother asked rhetorical questions to no one in particular. I, the only one who could do so with impunity, stormed into the bathroom, pulled back the shower curtain, and laid eyes on my stone-drunk husband lathering shampoo into his armpits.
In the days that followed I looked around, weakly, for an apartment of my own. I began to imagine living in Houston apart from Matt. I couldn’t imagine going back to New York; I wouldn’t. I told myself that if he came home drunk, even once, I would leave. But he came home sober. I waited day after day for him to slip up. And I’m still waiting. It’s been twelve years.
I paid no attention to Houston for the first decade I lived here. I knew nothing of her history, understood little of how she was engineered — of the retrofitted bayous that collect the water that would otherwise make living here impossible. Slowly I began to see that a person could reinvent herself here. Could land with one dream, that could change into another. A person could write her own story here, and her own future, whatever that may be.
After a night of pounding rain, what the media called a “one-hundred-year flood,” I woke to images of White Oak, Buffalo, and Braes Bayous underwater. The bike trail near our house is invisible under eight feet of muddy water. The freeway is littered with abandoned cars like children’s toys stacked in the corner of a bathtub. So far, three bodies have been recovered, but when the waters recede there will be more. Last night and this morning could have been different for me. For now at least, we’re not sinking.
Cameron Dezen Hammon's essays and poems have appeared in NYLON Magazine, Role/Reboot, Columbia Poetry Review, Gigantic Sequins, LOCAL Houston, and elsewhere. She is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Seattle Pacific University. She lives in Houston. Follow her @camerondhammon