I remember passing a Nalgene bottle—a popular outdoor accoutrement in the West—full of Red Bull and vodka around the car on the way to Salt Lake City International Airport. My 19-year-old girlfriend and I had a flight to Chicago departing shortly after 7 a.m. Our friend dropped us at the terminal and we entered stinking drunk.
The check-in counter had not yet opened. The sky outside was still dark. We tried to compose ourselves through the procedure once the airline clerk arrived, but I suspect that, after granting us our boarding passes, she put someone on alert.
We stood in different lines at security. I remember watching my girlfriend defrock herself of bangle earrings and bracelets. She was beautiful. She set the aesthetic bar for all of my girlfriends who have followed. But she was loping in her high heels, taking barely balanced strides even as she moved incrementally toward the metal detectors. Her huge purse entered the x-ray chamber and after it emerged we were rounded together by personnel who prodded us about the seven-inch butterfly knife my girlfriend had forgotten to leave at the house.
“Who gave her the drinks?” an official asked me. I detected Mormon condescendence on his breath.
“I did,” I shrugged. I had just turned 21.
They took us in a car or a cart to a small building near the cell phone lot. The sun was coming up, and we were handcuffed. They put us in separate cells that resembled something from a public library—beige walls and patterned carpet, with Plexiglas fronts looking out on cubicles and desks. I amused myself by maneuvering my hands and wrists, still bound at my back, around my ass, legs, and feet to rest them comfortably in my lap. Later that day, I was delighted to hear that my girlfriend had done the same thing.
My girlfriend was escorted into a room and taken back to her cell. An officer came and got me. The man across the table at which they sat me asked if I was a student. He was from the FBI. He held his hands behind his head as we talked and impulsively, it seemed, flexed and relaxed his large biceps. He told me we would shortly be released. At some point before we were driven back to the terminal, the police gave us citations. I got one for contributing alcohol to a minor, and my girlfriend got one for drinking it. She also got one for “bringing a weapon into a secured area,” or something like that.
There was a flight to Chicago at 10 a.m., but they wouldn’t let us on it. The check-in clerk said we had to sober up. She put us on the 4:35. We had been awake for more that 24 hours and were coming down from our giddy drunks. We fought the seriousness that encroached, threatening to spoil our trip. We sat on a bench in the shade near the passenger pickup. My girlfriend told me she had pulled an ace in her conversation with the Fed. Her step-mom worked for the FBI. My girlfriend brought her name up and found out she had given the agent his job. This expedited our release.
We went through security, dry and knife-less. We tried to sleep, tried to read, tried to make out on the uncomfortable seats. We scowled at the families around us. We had been told that the head attendant on our flight would have to approve us before we boarded. We resented the passengers passing through the corridors for being so well-behaved. The pinched face I’d expected finally confronted us as we presented our tickets at the gate. Though not taller than us, the attendant bent into a scolding posture to tell us our drunkenness posed a safety threat, that passengers had to be mobile and alert in the event of an emergency. As she said this, an octogenarian with a walker and an oxygen tank inched down the jetway toward our plane.
A few weeks after my girlfriend and I went to court, the Department of Homeland Security sent her a packet. It informed her that her actions had presented a serious security risk at the airport and ordered she pay $800 to compensate for them. She was distraught, already burdened by a significant fine from the local authorities and a barrage of scorn from her step-mom. I wondered what else the packet contained and leafed through a booklet that came in it. At some point past the tenth page, a section on appeals explained that exceptions could be made for students or those strapped for cash. So, I did what any good writerly boyfriend would do and drafted a letter from my girlfriend lamenting the incident, saying it was a mistake, that she was a student, she understood its seriousness, and that it would never, ever, ever happen again. The Department of Homeland Security deemed the appeal sufficient and waived the penalty.
Nathan C. Martin is the editor of Room 220: New Orleans Book and Literary News.