And then, another buddy, a Vietnamese dude, nods when I finish with my question. We’re drinking beer on the roof of this pizzeria. The waiter’s hovering with our check. My friend says he’s never really thought about living in Houston. What he actually wants to do is leave.
But everything’s right here, he says. Like, it fits? So it’d be hard. I don’t know. I don’t have to worry about my parents here. There are enough Vietnamese all over town. I can eat what I want, whenever I want. I think I’d miss it, you know?
I’d just end up wanting to come back, he says, tearing a slice of pizza. I think it’d be a waste of money.
At this clinic I go to, the lady drawing my blood tells me she’s from New Orleans. But she lives here now, she adds, cheesing. She’s been around since Katrina.
Before I can bug her about her life, she sticks me with another needle. I barely feel it go in, but I wince, because I am someone who winces. We’ve sat there for a while before I ask if she likes Houston, and she says she was tentative at first because she wasn’t sure if we had any good gumbo.
I had to bring my recipes, she says, wrapping my forearm. I just didn’t know. I brought my mama’s gumbo, and her mama’s, too. But I was surprised. Y’all surprised me. My mama moved down when I told her, and the babies, too. Y’all already had a lot going on here.
I can’t complain, she says. I’m still here.
At another book thing, a few weeks later, a white guy asks me about Houston’s influences, and I tell him they’re global. He tells me that doesn’t make sense.
I ask where he’s from, and he says, Manhattan.
But now I live in Brooklyn. I know a global city, he says. Trust me on that.
Another day, at one of the taquerías I pretend to write in, a black woman and her kid sit beside me, chewing at queso and nachos. Every now and again, the kid raises his hands, swaying. He sings Queen, and then Juan Gabriel, and then the Beatles. Eventually, some song about “amor” starts playing, and he screams the word alongside guitars: amor, amor, amor.
His mom doesn’t say anything, just watching him. When the taquería’s manager, a short guy, walks over, the pair fight over their last chip.
And then one night, up in Austin, I meet this guy at a gay bar, some ultra-gentrified dive steeped in bisexual lightning, and after the usual piddling around we end up inconceivably, inevitably, talking about Houston. The guy tells me he misses the city’s “chaos.” He’s a Mexican dude who cooks Thai food. In his hometown, this wouldn’t have been remarkable, but three hours upstate had turned him into an anomaly.
Eventually, we abandon the bar for an ice house, or what we’d have called an ice house back home. When you travel, you make concessions. I say as much to the guy, and he laughs. He says it’s close enough, and then he tells me his ice house story: he’d met the love of his life at one, a dude who ended up dumping him for one of his students.
I tell him my ice house story: I’d gotten kicked out of the same establishment twice—once after an argument with a boyfriend, and then again after laughing way too loud at a bartender. He was this white dude in a cowboy hat, and he’d been flirting with a customer, and he’d leapt from behind the counter, telling me to “get on.”
Me and this guy laugh about ice houses, at our faux-ice house in Austin. It’s shiny and overcrowded, with metal seats. The heat is entirely too dry. But our laughter feels a little sad, honestly. We’re laughing because we miss home.
One night, a friend and I bring a visiting white author to a spot out in Chinatown. My friend and I talk with the waiter, a Chinese dude, in Spanish, because his English isn’t fluent and neither of us speak any Mandarin, but we have Spanish, Houston’s lingua franca, in common.
Afterward, the white author looks at us skeptically. He asks if we knew what we looked like. We should’ve fucking seen ourselves, it was entirely bizarre.
The waiter brings our dishes: a whole fried fish, a spread of stir-fried pork, and mapo tofu. My friend laughs at the author, shaking his head, already chewing. He says he guy just isn’t from around here.
Eventually, my teacher friend messages me. She says that Houston is the American South, and the Dirty South, but it’s also the entire world.
One answer is, I think, gratitude. I think that’s what Houston means to me right now. And it’s entirely too sentimental a conclusion, too clean, too free of shards, but the thing is, you get to live here. It’s kind of a gift. It’s damaged and it’s fucked up in the way that every gift is. But it is a gift, nonetheless.
A few weekends back, I went out dancing in Montrose. I hit this club that I used to pass through back when I was figuring out that patch of the city. It’d been a while, but I’d just made a friend who wanted to check it out, and you couldn’t see shit by the barside, but the music was nice. So we danced.
Afterward, I watched him smoke outside, and it occurred to me that I wanted some tacos. Some women were walking behind us, going to or coming from work, chattering in Spanish. A Mediterranean restaurant sat a few blocks away, and we muttered vaguely about grabbing something to eat there, although we knew we wouldn’t—we’d just end up at Whataburger. A set of teens sprinted by the stop behind us, passing a guy sleeping on the bench, figuring out what the city meant to them on their own. The evening felt a lot like possibility. Like anything could’ve happened.
And maybe that’s what Houston feels like, in this moment, all the time. Which is, I think, my final answer. At least for the next little while.
Bryan Washington is the author of Lot, with fiction and essays appearing in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, BuzzFeed, Vulture, The Paris Review, Boston Review, Tin House, One Story, Bon Appétit, MUNCHIES, American Short Fiction, GQ, FADER, The Awl, Hazlitt, and Catapult. He’s the recipient of an O. Henry Award, and he lives in Houston.