Until her July departure date arrived, Srabstein was determined to have as much fun as possible. She gladly accepted an invitation to a monthly full moon hike organized by friends of friends. But when a friend offered her a ticket to see Elvis Costello at Wolf Trap. Srabstein couldn’t resist and e-mailed the hike’s organizer, Ari Houser, with her regrets. “If you want to join us, we have lawn tickets,” she added, mostly to be polite.
Houser accepted the offer. He’d met Srabstein on previous hikes, and it always seemed to him that they could be good friends. The two sat among a big group at the concert; as Srabstein was chatting about her birthday plans, she realized that Houser was within earshot and invited him to the party.
She was surprised when he showed up. It was a small gathering, a half-dozen friends, but Houser, a laid-back, 32-year-old policy analyst at AARP, fit in easily. He figured that hanging out twice in a week would cement a friendship with Srabstein. Later, a pal asked why she didn’t date Houser. “I was like, ‘No, he’s so boyish,’ ” she says, referring to their age difference. “Part of it was, ‘If I’m going to get involved, it’s going to be with someone who’s in the same place in life.’So I totally dismissed it.”
But when Houser wrote to say thank you and suggested a concert at Fort Reno Park, she happily agreed. And that was the start of a spate of get-togethers. “I would suggest things to do, and she would say, ‘That was fun! Plan another,’ ” recalls Houser. “And I would plan another.”
At the end of a day-long outing that included stops at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, an Imax movie, dinner and late-night gelato with various friends, Houser realized that he was interested in more than friendship. When one of Srabstein’s pals offered to set her up with another guy, his heart sank a little. “That is when it clicked for me, ‘This is what I want,’” he says. “What I really liked about Deborah is the way she treats people she cares about. She’s really there for people.”
By then, Srabstein had also developed a crush on Houser. They continued their streak of excursions, but Houser made no bolder move than touching the back of her head in a hug goodnight.
Confused, Srabstein turned to someone she calls “the most sage person I’ve ever met in my life” — her friend’s 10-year-old daughter. “She said, ‘Oh, Deborah, He’s just seeing — maybe he wants to be your friend, maybe he wants to be more than your friend. It doesn’t matter. Just go and have fun. It’s actually good, because you rush into things.’ It was very insightful. She’s 10 going on 40,” Srabstein says.
Houser was equally unsure of where they stood. “I was kind picking up a vibe that she liked me, but at the same time, this [earlier] vibe made me think that she didn't,” he says.“So I just kept asking her to do more stuff so I could be sure.”