On Love: ‘I had a feeling that there was something right about it’

Last spring, Deborah Ayala Srabstein planned what friends referred to as her “Eat, Pray, Love” trip. The 37-year-old had just come off a breakup when she decided to spend a month touring Southeast Asia on her own, seeking equal parts solitude and adventure.

“I sort of just said, ‘I’m going to pick myself up,’ ” she recalls.

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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.”

As the departure date for her Asia trip loomed, he felt a growing urgency — if anything was to happen, it would have to be before she left.

After the next full moon hike, they sat outside talking until 3 a.m. Finally, he kissed her. Srabstein was giddy, but also unnerved. “I’ve always very care-freely just dashed into long-term relationships without a single worry or fear,” she says. “And with this one, I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ Just petrified. I think because I had a feeling that there was something right about it. There was a certain gravitas to it that I didn’t have before.”

A week later, she left for her trip. She spent her days alone, exploring Thailand, Laos and Singapore. But every morning and every night, she and Houser used Skype or other Internet phone services to speak for at least an hour. “It felt like this very preparatory thing where I knew that I was coming back to this, and that this was a significant relationship,” she says. “So it was a time for me to process, clear my head and be ready to come back.”

Near the end of the trip, she nervously asked what it would be like when they were together in person. Houser calmly painted a vision of shared life: They’d go on long walks, hang out with her dogs and just be together. “He is so centered and mellow, and I’m so not mellow,” says Srabstein, education director at Temple Micah. “He’s so thoughtful and intentional and very, very smart.”

When she returned, life was just as Houser had described it. “We were in lockstep the whole way,” Srabstein says. “It was just this gradual building.”

By October, they were discussing a future that involved marriage and children. Houser had imagined a longer courtship, but he could feel the relationship progressing as they met each other’s parents and began thinking seriously about a wedding.

In January, he procured Srabstein’s grandmother’s ring and enlisted her dogs to deliver a proposal. On April 1, they were married at Federal Hill Park, overlooking Baltimore Harbor, before celebrating with a reception at the American Visionary Art Museum. Srabstein’s veil blew gently as a crowd of guests and passersby watched the two exchange vows under a chuppah held up by four friends.

“I think I can grow into my best self with him,” Srabstein said before the wedding. “And I think that everything I want to experience in life I will be able to experience with him. He wants to be on the same adventure I do.”

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