Downtown Houston

As I near the completion of nursing school, I eagerly await responses from the various hospitals that I have applied to for a job; my career will start soon. It’ll herald a new chapter in my life — the workplace will soon become my social setting, along with the life all around me on my days off. This thought was prominent in my mind last semester as well when I had too much free time as a result of being enrolled in a singular 4-hour class. Due to this inadvertent separation from the school campus, I struggled to cope with the resulting social void and was encouraged by one of my friends, Morgan, to seek out opportunities to stay busy.

Though she initially suggested some sort of volunteer work, I kind of brushed it aside; the prospect of seeking out more work for myself when the rest of my time was already dedicated to classwork did not appeal to me. She wasn’t wrong — I probably would have done such a thing in the past. For some reason however, I felt differently this time around. I think I knew inside that I would be out of school soon so I should focus on identifying ways to fulfill my need for socialization across daily life. The more I thought about it, the more important I found it to consider this question. Eventually, as I was looking through photos of my friends and I on my phone, I came to a conclusion: all of my most treasured experiences came from our outings around Houston. Sure, school life was great, but there was a lot of fun to be had in the sprawling urban melting pot that we all called home too. With this thought reinforced by the knowledge that I would soon be serving Houston’s population as a nurse, I couldn’t help but feel a bit of a kinship towards my community;

Houston was my city.

It presents itself as a gigantic expanse of corporate buildings, suburbs, refineries, nightlife, shipping ports, and, of course, one of the most renowned medical centers on the planet. With its numerous settings, it is able to house a population that is just as diverse. Surrounded by all of this opportunity (and Morgan’s assurance to help), I decided to explore some of the more social settings around Houston. I didn’t have anything special in mind — there are numerous cafes and tea houses pocketed away that tend to be frequented by students. One day however, I was serendipitously directed towards a cafe with a different concept — Morgan texted me a link to a Kickstarter while I was taking the Metro home. It had only a little while longer to go, and it was still a little short of its target goal.

The El Gato Coffeehouse — a concept that, while commonplace in places like Japan, was still fairly new in the United States due to stricter health codes. It aimed to become Houston’s first cat cafe and seemed to have a pretty creative team behind it. As a supporter of both cats and cafes, I very much hoped to see the Kickstarter succeed. It wasn’t long before I found myself in the back of the Metro with my laptop awkwardly tethered to my mobile internet and my credit card precariously balanced on my knee in a race against time. I ended up backing high enough to earn the distinction of sponsoring one of the cafe’s cats (who I very much look forward to meeting!) and was relieved to see the fundraiser soon meet its goal as other last-minute backers chipped in. I breathed a sigh of relief and gave Morgan a hard time for introducing such an emotional roller coaster.

A few days later, I was emailed a short form to fill out from the Kickstarter campaign for the purposes of delivering backer rewards. As I filled it out, I noticed some errors in the fields and decided to contact Renee, the person heading the project, to point them out. She was grateful for my feedback and soon showed herself to be an incredibly friendly and professional person; I was happy to support her project. As we communicated back and forth, though it was not part of my backer reward, she offered me two free tickets to one of the cafe’s “cat yoga” classes. Metro RailGiven that the cafe itself didn’t have a building yet, the staff used yoga classes with cats present in order to socialize them for prolonged human contact. All of the cafe’s cats were coming from the Houston Humane Society and would be adoptable.

Morgan was tied up so I ended up bringing another friend (who actually had the same semester schedule as me) named Monica with me to the class. The class was held during the night time in downtown Houston. The venue was a small rentable building that was located next to a barren parking lot. Under the moonlight and the dim lightning outdoors, the only affirmation of us being in the right place was a picture of an ornate cat skull (the El Gato logo) stuck to a door. As we opened the door, we entered a similarly dim hallway with a doorman of sorts checking to see if our names were “on the list” … to call the situation shady would not be an understatement.

As it happened, our names weren’t in fact “on the list,” but Renee actually came out, recognized me, and let us in. Walking to the back of the hallway, the building opened up to a large floorspace with retro vibes. The floor was open for yoga mats, there were various atypical pieces of furniture strewn about (including sofa-swings hanging from the ceiling), and, of course, plenty of cats freely roaming the area. There was also aromatherapy and a DJ coordinating the [tranquil] music for the class. It was an impressive set up, and one that exuded relaxation.

Since we were a little late, the class had already begun, but it was easy for Monica and I to get into the flow of things. We both enjoyed the class very much and I made a mental note to partake in more yoga in the future. After the class, they opened up the floor for us to mingle with the cats and brought out a variety of toys to play with them. In addition, El Gato served previews of some of the coffees and teas that they will be offering at their cafe (I opted for this tasty pineapple hot tea). The whole experience painted the very definition of stress reduction — I was able to unwind while at the same time converse with others who shared similar interests. Monica and I stayed until the very end of the event and I was able to finally talk to Renee at length before bidding farewell.

My experience with El Gato gave me something to strive towards when looking to unwind in the future — Houston has tons of cafes, many of which are themed in quirky ways, and I can definitely see myself enjoying their atmosphere in settings where the inhabitants are sociable. Though I must say this experience fit pretty well in my comfort zone — it was definitely something I would do of my own accord. However, Morgan soon brought the idea of another outing that would be a completely new experience for me: country dancing.

Me. Country dancing.

I immediately noped out. She had talked about country dancing before, but I had only shown a flicker of interest. It wasn’t something that I could picture myself doing.

And yet, she had also reassured me in the past that I wouldn’t be too out of place as a novice and that the environment would not be as bad as I imagined it. Monica and another friend, Marianne, soon caught wind of this plan and offered to accompany me; I would be surrounded by people I know who could also teach me how to dance. Somewhat reluctantly, I agreed. There really wasn’t a reason left for me not to.

Morgan decided on a place called Wild West, a country dancing venue that she insisted would be “worth it” … whatever that meant. On the night of the outing however, she was running a little late on account of having to take care of something at home and I happened to be the first to arrive. I admit, I was pretty nervous because I had a grand total of zero experience in this type of situation; if this was a hole-in-the-wall venue in the middle of a college campus, I would be totally at home, but this place intimidated me because I felt like it was full of people who knew what they were doing. CowgirlInstead of heading in alone, I decided to wait in my car for Marianne and Monica to arrive.

Eventually, I saw Monica arrive — at least I thought it was her. I decided to wait some more juuuust to be sure. Soon after, I saw another girl who was dressed too nicely to be the demon-girl named Marianne enter the building. I decided to text this observation to our group-chat in order to antagonize Marianne, but the sudden reemergence of the girl, accompanied by the Monica-like figure, quickly confirmed that the girl was indeed Marianne. Though both looked nice, Marianne looked like a completely different person on account of not being in her usual thrown-together school clothes. Outnumbered by the two girls, I was dragged to the front doors of Wild West.

At 9pm, it was still pretty early in the night. We had decided to arrive early so that the dance floor would be relatively empty and the girls would have some time to teach me how to dance. As we stepped up to the entrance, I remember being a little surprised by the gentlemanly air carried by the doorman, who was of course dressed in full-blown cowboy regalia. No thuggish bouncer here. I nodded to myself as I thought about the typical “Texan” culture that I had been around all my life. Though it is true that some choose to display their culture as stereotypical, sometimes trashy farm folk, many people also show their “Texan” side by taking on the old-school obliging “cowboy” mannerisms that have gone on to characterize Southern hospitality.

The rest of the staff carried a similarly respectful air. The venue was definitely a step up from your typical club and was also welcoming towards patrons who wanted non-alcoholic beverages. It wasn’t an establishment that I’d term as “classy,” but it came off as a respectable one. There were all kinds of people present, of all different ages.

Marianne proved to be an excellent teacher and I was able to pick up some of the basic dance steps fairly quickly as I followed her example. As it turned out, the mix of people I had to practice with was perfect: Marianne was slightly tall for me, Monica was a little short for me, and Morgan would later prove to be the perfect height for me. When I was finally starting to feel sliiightly comfortable in the steps however, Marianne pulled me to the dance floor … and all of a sudden, I realized that dancing on the floor alongside other people involved having to intricately step around others and dodge obstacles. This was the moment when it finally clicked for me what “leading” a dance meant.

But it really wasn’t bad. In fact, it was quite exciting! After a few more dances, Marianne gave me her approval and we were heading back to where Monica was sitting when Morgan arrived. Morgan was looking wonderful as well — she had meticulously planned out her outfit the night before and had put on makeup for the occasion. As she rushed over to hug me while simultaneously gushing about my own dress for the occasion, I was mentally deciding who I would dance with next; someone else was about to witness my amateur skills. Despite her arrival, I still felt a little self-conscious about dancing with Morgan so I moved to ask Monica… just as someone else picked that moment to swoop in and ask her first.

Knowing me well and reading my apprehension, Morgan stood there with the most self-satisfied grin. I had no choice but to ask her for the next dance.

“Spin me around a lot, okay? I like being twirled!” she winks as we head onto the dance floor.

My right hand under my partner’s left shoulder blade, my left hand gently clasping their right hand at shoulder-height… it proved to be a rather comfortable position, and one where we could easily converse. As we talked about the night, it was then when I realized just how social of an activity dancing is; the actual dance steps became automatic as I stopped paying so much attention to counting and I was able to simply relax and talk with my partner. Dance!That is not to say an amateur such as myself had suddenly mastered multitasking on the dance floor however — I successfully crashed Morgan into no less than three people due to my inexperience in leading. Even so, as we left the floor, Morgan complimented my overall performance and told me that I could even be fine to dance with a random person at the venue.

Now that I had to decline since it was still my first night, but rest of the night was fun all the same. Marianne continued to teach me different steps, Morgan showed me how to twirl her using her favorite technique, and the entire gang worked together to help me feel more comfortable during line-dances. Since, as the name implies, we were literally dancing in a linear formation laid out in a series of rows, Marianne, Monica, and Morgan formed a “box” around me so that I wouldn’t inadvertently misstep and enter someone else’s space. Morgan opted to stand directly behind me and had way too much fun purposely kicking my feet with her boots to reinforce that I was following the dance steps properly.

I was also surprised at just how much of a workout it was; though the actual physical activity of dancing basically amounted to merely stepping around at a brisk pace, it wasn’t long that I could feel Morgan getting a little sweaty and I noticed how fatigued my arm was becoming from holding it at shoulder-height for so long. Before we knew it, it was 1:30 am so we decided to head out. We surely couldn’t leave such a historic occasion without a few parking lot selfies though; Morgan and Marianne flanked me in a group hug before we bid one another farewell.

“Send pics of tn,” Morgan sends out in our group-chat as we all head home.

All in all, it was fun night, and an experience that I would definitely repeat! I also distinctly recall feeling incredibly refreshed the next morning. Being out in a social environment while undertaking a new experience alongside my friends really re-energized me and encouraged me to continue seeking out such experiences around my community. As the semester passed by, I expanded my horizons here and there. Coffee at 2am with Marianne at a retro diner tucked away near an interstate. Watching the tail end of a football game with Monica and the rest of the patrons at Buffalo Wild Wings on the other side of Houston.

Little things. Little firsts.

I remember that’s how it was in college. I remember what a big deal it was when I first started going to Walmart on my own to plan and buy groceries; there was something a little intimidating about the experience, yet exciting too. Eventually however, it became second nature as I knew what to expect when shopping at any store by myself. The same can be said for social settings — people like Morgan haven’t spent as much of their lives in school as I have so they’ve had more time to become familiar with places like Wild West. If one makes the time however, especially if one has such wonderful friends, new experiences become a lot less intimidating … they are just waiting to be sought out!

Still quiet here.sas

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