March 5, 2021 | Feature
the austin winter storm and its aftermath
I spent Valentine’s Day weekend snuggled up on the couch in Austin, Texas with Jason, a guy I started dating a couple of months ago. That afternoon, the temperature outside had dropped from our usual 70 and sunny to a chilly 15 degrees. Jason and I sat huddled inside, occasionally looking out the window for the six inches of snow we were expecting, the most Austin had seen since 1985.
We waited out the cold by my fireplace, keeping each other warm and making s’mores. In recent weeks, we’d been spending almost every night together, and I usually enjoyed our comfortable silences. But today, we sat awkwardly in front of the fire, avoiding any mention of Valentine’s Day and what it meant for our exclusive, though still poorly defined, relationship. He roasted the marshmallows while I assembled the sandwiches, burning my fingers on melted chocolate and wondering why my not-boyfriend wanted to introduce me to his family but refused to acknowledge the holiday. Frustrated, I got wine drunk and fell asleep in front of the fire.
9:22 a.m. –
The next morning, I woke up to the sight of my breath condensing in front of my face, shivering. The thermostat read 40 degrees. While Jason snored from the bedroom, I looked around:
The snow outside? Everywhere.
Overnight, Texans had cranked up their heaters in response to the record-breaking cold, pushing the state’s power grid to the brink of collapse. As the only state in the U.S. with an independent grid, utility companies couldn’t transfer electricity in from other states to meet the surge in demand. In-state gas-powered plants went offline, too, and uninsulated pipes froze and burst because of the icy conditions. As a result, millions of Texans, including me, awoke shivering, in the dark, and without running water.
10:17 a.m. –
I could hear Jason’s teeth chattering before I saw him emerge from the bedroom. He checked his phone and saw that unlike many Austinites, he had gotten lucky. His roommate texted him that they had only briefly lost power, and their pipes were fine. We made the walk from my house to his.
After our hands and feet had thawed, we celebrated the biggest snowfall in over 30 years by snowboarding down the slope next to Jason’s house, dodging waterlogged cactuses on the way down. The occasional front-wheel-drive drove by, and more than one of them nearly spun out in front of us. Folks joined us on their makeshift sleds, using upside-down trash can lids and paddle boards usually reserved for 100+ degree days on Lady Bird Lake. It was the first time I had seen so many people from my neighborhood together since I moved there six months ago, in the middle of the pandemic.
Out of breath, I fell into the snow and made snow angels while I looked at the empty highway, realizing that, had I been back in New England, salt and sand would already be thawing the ice. Here, it would take five days for road conditions to return to normal.
Jason interrupted my train of thought when he ran up from the base of the hill and jumped on top of me, leading to a make-out session that quickly devolved into a snowball fight. One of my snowballs was intercepted by a manic husky jumping in circles, realizing he had spent his entire life in the wrong climate. His owner pulled him away, stopping briefly to let us know we looked like the couple from a Corona beer commercial. We both laughed but said nothing, and I remembered our tense silence in front of the fire. I brushed the snow off of my jacket and started walking back towards the house.
12:22 p.m. –
Back at home, we realized how serious the situation in Austin really was. As a community organizer, Jason was dialed into local mutual aid groups scrambling to make up for the government’s complete failure to respond to the energy crisis. Slack channels were blowing up, with nonprofits around the city brainstorming ideas about temporarily converting bars and nightclubs into makeshift warming centers. Others started organizing donation drives for shelters downtown, which didn’t have enough food and blankets for the massive wave of people displaced by the storm. Most concerns about social distancing fell to the wayside as complete strangers linked up on Facebook to share water, food, and transportation.
I scrolled through my feed on the couch in Jason’s living room, resting my head on his shoulder. We still had our parkas on and the lights off. Some neighbors messaged me on Nextdoor to offer free firewood, if we could safely reach them.
Despite seven years living in New England, I never learned how to drive in the snow, and I had no intention of starting now. Thankfully, Jason knew how and had an all-wheel drive SUV, so we took his car to pick up the firewood and then groceries.
“See?” he said, “It’s not so bad. Watch how I’m going over this spot here; It’s all about how you handle the corners.” I felt that familiar mix of attraction and irritation that came when he explained things to me. The attraction disappeared when he ran a red light; the irritation stayed.
1:11 p.m. –
While we were driving, Jason got a call from his dad and stepmom, followed by one from his mother, all checking up on him. He went back and forth with them for a while and then abruptly hung up and cleared his throat.
“They were never actually together,” he said. “My dad cheated on my stepmom when they were engaged, and my mom got pregnant with my sister. They got married, anyway, but the affair never ended, and a few years later, I was born. We never talk about it, really.”
I sat stunned for a minute, unsure of how to respond to this guy who had just unloaded his intergenerational family trauma on me during a grocery run in the “snovid-19” apocalypse. I wondered whether he would have opened up to me so soon under less apocalyptic circumstances, but I still couldn’t help liking the feeling that we were getting closer. Dread crept in, too, as I realized his hesitancy to call me his girlfriend might come from a fear of repeating his family’s past.
Inside the grocery store, the shelves were already empty. People had quickly hoarded nonperishables and bottled water in response to the storm, and delivery trucks couldn’t make it in to replenish stocks. As a result, stores around the city were running low on food. Local bars and restaurants that could safely open were giving out free meals to address the shortages, alongside sponsorships from Austin-based companies like Deep Eddy Vodka and Bumble. My friends and I joked that we’d never expected a dating app to become a humanitarian organization.
I grabbed whatever I could find: three six packs of sugar-free Gatorade for us, which we would drink almost exclusively over the next three days due to a citywide boil notice for all running water; four boxes of tampons, five boxes of maxi pads, and two tins of Folger’s for the donation center. Jason looked visibly flustered when he unloaded the pads from our cart, so I told the cashier clerk that I had an extra heavy flow that week. Jason turned bright red, and I burst out laughing.
3:06 p.m. –
Outside the store, he tried to twirl and dip me in the parking lot. I slipped on a patch of black ice.
3:15 p.m. –
We delivered the donations downtown. “I’m so proud of you,” Jason said as I got back into the car. He tossed a pack of Trident gum in my lap and kissed my cheek.
I was quickly realizing how unpredictably he reacted to whatever I did. He’d offer heavy praise and affection for little things like this, but if I asked one wrongly worded question about the obscure subjects he cared about, I would trigger an hour of sulking and lectures. Of course people don’t take breaks to sleep during a 100-mile ultramarathon; how could I even ask that? Had I really not read about why members of the far-right “boogaloo” movement wore Hawaiian shirts? He would pinch my cheek and say I clearly wasn’t an athlete, or that I really needed to watch the news. I genuinely wanted to learn about the things he was so passionate about, but our conversations became a rigged game where asking meant I had already failed.
In the car, I wordlessly responded by squeezing his hand and adjusting my jacket, not wanting to ruin a good moment by saying something wrong. He drove us back to the house, taking the long way because a massive tree had fallen onto the road, bringing electrical wires down with it.
We showered together and then had sex. Midway through, I looked over his shoulder at my jacket, draped over the chair by his closet, and saw the pack of gum poking out of its left pocket. I wondered if he was so quick to compliment me on little things because he thought they were all I was capable of.
We finished, and I got up to use the bathroom and bring him a glass of water. When I came back, he chastised me for allowing my wet hair to soak the pillow-case.
4:37 p.m. –
Jason got a text asking for help driving a few unhoused people to one of the warming centers downtown. His phone lit up next to me in bed when the message came through, revealing notifications from Tinder, Bumble, and Hinge. I pretended I didn’t see, but as soon as he left, I paced around his room, waiting for updates from the city about when my power would return. I tried to schedule an appointment with a plumber to fix my burst pipe; it would take two weeks.
4:58 p.m. –
I drank lots of Gatorade and watched my phone, anticipating a call from Jason that his car had gotten stuck on one of the hills he had to drive over to get back. Then I turned my phone off, angry that I still cared.
5:06 p.m. –
I boiled water for pasta, nearly cutting my finger off while I diced two tomatoes by candlelight. In the background, I played Some Like it Hot on my laptop, one of the first movies we had watched together when we started dating.
In the movie, Marilyn Monroe dazzles in a low cut sequin dress while she sings, “I wanna be loved by you, just you / And nobody else but you,” wooing a man she believes to be a successful billionaire. In the end, he turns out to be an actor.
Jason walked through the door as I finished setting the table. He came in humming a Frank Sinatra song, and we danced in the kitchen. I felt limp, the closeness that had been growing between us gone.
I poured two glasses, and we ate. Jason told me about all of the different types of people who’d come together to help at the warming center, from techies, to soccer moms, to ranchers. I stared at his phone, face-down on the table, and barely heard what he said.
Wanting a distraction from the conversation I knew we needed to have, I asked if he wanted to watch Clue after dinner. He said we shouldn’t waste our time on something so culturally irrelevant.
Sometimes, Jason loved the things I shared with him; we binge-watched both shows from my favorite comedian, Hannah Gadsby, on Netflix, and he always looked at the book on my bedside table and asked to read my essays. But I felt my more “irrelevant” interests shrinking under his scrutiny. How could I sit and watch Tim Curry portray a murderous butler in a movie based on a board game, while people in Austin were freezing to death? What value did my art, poetry, and stand-up sets have next to the autobiographies he read about serious political thinkers and government officials?
I tried to show Jason. I shared an article with him that I’d written about why we need humor culturally, socially, and psychologically. I said that sometimes, having fun or enjoying something beautiful is enough. For his upcoming birthday, I had bought him a coffee table book with all of Diego Rivera’s murals. I planned to inscribe it with something Rivera said: “the role of an artist is that of a soldier in a revolution.”
That night, we watched the news instead of Clue and finished the bottle of wine. I kept looking for a plumber.
The snow would melt four days later. More stories would come out in the days that followed about house fires and children freezing to death inside their homes. At the same time, local Instagram pages were flooded with stories of people thanking strangers for random acts of kindness and fundraisers for business building repairs. I messaged the man on Nextdoor who had given us the firewood, thanking him again.
Somehow, while the rest of Austin came together, Jason and I had fallen apart. We broke up one week after I returned to my house. I said I wanted to be with someone who I could celebrate Valentine’s Day and watch Tim Curry with, and who wouldn’t be swiping for other options on Tinder after we’d decided to only see each other. I asked him why he had felt the need, and he said he didn’t know. I remembered our conversation in the car and decided I had nothing left to say. I still felt an ache the next day when I returned his things in a bag from our trip to the grocery store, remembering how we’d danced in the parking lot.
The afternoon I went back to my house, it was 80 degrees out. I took an ice-cold bucket shower, brainstormed a stand-up set about surviving the apocalypse with someone I just started dating, and laid in bed, letting my wet hair soak the pillow. The next morning, I donated the Diego Rivera book to the free library down the street. I did my laundry and returned my winter jacket to the storage closet, with the pack of Trident gum still in its left pocket. Jason texted me asking if I wanted to watch a documentary later. I said I was busy and watched Clue instead.