One of the problems I ran into in writing my post-apocalypse romance was personal hygiene. Without indoor plumbing, how’s a girl to manage? Being from the rural south, I’ve used an outhouse more times than any modern woman should have. If you’ve never had the pleasure, I’ll just say that outhouses make Porta-Potties look like the bathroom from Pretty Woman. We had one on the land where we held our annual family reunion, and let me tell you, once you visit the outhouse after Uncle Billy’s had baked beans and fried chicken, you never look at the world in quite the same light. But even assuming you can stomach the outhouses, once the power is out, how does one manage to stay clean enough to avoid illness, much less clean enough to entice a romantic partner? It’s something to which plenty of us have given little thought. I’ve lived most of my life in south Louisiana, though, where hurricanes knock out power for days on end with some regularity, and I have to say there’s nothing like a few days and nights of basting in your own juices to make a girl appreciate running water and air conditioning.
On Monday, August 29, 2005, my husband (then boyfriend) weathered Hurricane Katrina at my house with me, my daughter, my cat, and my dog. We watched the pets snore. We watched my neighbors get drunk and sit half-naked in lawn chairs in the middle of the road. We watched my daughter draw three hundred and eighty four pictures of shit we couldn’t identify. (It’s not a hippo. It’s you, Mama. Gosh.) We watched trees and power lines fall in such great number it would take over a week to clear the roads leading out of the neighborhood. Jay, the husband-boyfriend, fretted about the integrity of the roof and the windows. I fretted about what the house would smell like by Thursday.
I’d been through plenty of hurricanes before, but I had always been one of the lucky ones. I’d never lost a house. I’d never endured flooding or the terror of tornadoes the storms often create. I’d never gone hungry or run out of water. But I knew plenty of people who had. There’s only so much you can do to prepare for one of these bastards. After the batteries and lamp oil and canned food and bottled water are bought, after the windows are boarded and the cars are gassed and the cash is withdrawn, all there is left to do is pray you’re still one of the lucky ones. Turns out we were.
In the interest of setting appropriate boundaries for my daughter, who was then just four years old, Jay walked back to his house once the storm had passed and night began to fall. By the time he returned to check in with us the next day, we were a mess. Louisiana Augusts are brutal, and the air conditioners run non-stop from June to mid-September. Take that air conditioning away, and things get ugly. Fast. I wore a thin tank top and the shortest shorts I could find and cursed them both for covering so much skin. Put on a bra? No freaking way. My daughter stripped to her underwear. I didn’t stop her. The temperature was well into the nineties with a heat-index into the hundreds and humidity nearing 100%. She could have run around naked, and I wouldn’t have cared. Hell, I was tempted to strip myself. I’d filled the bathtub with water before the storm in case the water went out (it did), and we sponged off the sweat every half hour or so. But even slathered with antiperspirant, things were getting a bit ripe by lunch time. Sometime between sunrise (when the sweat started running between my boobs) and noon (when I realized a pool of that sweat was collecting in my navel), I debated rubbing my entire body with a stick of Secret Invisible Solid. The only thing that stopped me was imagining myself having a heatstroke from not being able to perspire. I began to have a great appreciation for antebellum women who somehow managed not only to endure such heat, but to do it in freaking whalebone corsets and petticoats. Even when she was gnawing on that dirty carrot, Scarlet O’Hara looked like a magnolia blossom. I just looked like a dead one.
It took the city two weeks to get the water on in my neighborhood, and the power was out for three. We fled to Baton Rouge, to air conditioning and working showers, as soon as my parents could get their car past the fallen trees. And now, years later, I’m writing a series set at a survivor colony in a post-apocalypse south Louisiana. It’s not all that different. Well, except for the privies. Chamberpots. Strong lye soap. People barter for deodorant, toothpaste, shampoo. Perfume is worth its weight in gold. Seem silly to you? Well, trust me. I can tell you with some certainty that after a few days of stewing in your own sweat, that bar of Irish Spring is gonna look better than Ryan Gosling in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Okay, maybe not. But you could use the soap to clean your clothes on his washboard abs.