By Carlo Rotella


I was on a redeye back to Boston from California that stopped in Las Vegas. Most of the people who got on there were part of an excursion group that had evidently misbehaved right up until the last minute. They came aboard talking loud, laughing, thickening up their Massachusetts accents to let everybody know that they were tribespeople on the way home.

One of them, a woman, stood unsteadily in the aisle holding up an enormous pill between thumb and forefinger. She announced, “I take this, I’m out cold. It’ll knock me right on my ass. Nothing and nobody’s gonna wake me up.” She swallowed it dry, her friends cheered, and she settled into her seat.

A couple of minutes later a trio of airline employees came down the aisle to the woman’s row. The man sitting next to her was toasted, nodding and grinning at nothing. The airline employees hauled him to his feet and started to lead him off the plane. The woman got up to tell them she was his friend, she’d make sure he was all right on the flight, but an airline employee said, “He’s in no condition to fly. If you want to stay with him, you have to get off the plane, too. You need to decide right now, and you can’t change your mind.”

The woman wavered, looking around. It was suddenly quiet. If they were taking people off for being drunk, there were a lot of other candidates, and nobody wanted to call attention to himself. The faces under the Red Sox caps were stony. She was on her own.

And she was stuck. Her friend was in had shape; he needed someone to watch over him. She made a snap decision: “Okay, I’ll stay with him.” The airline employee took away her boarding pass and the procession started up the aisle.

The woman was just turning to follow when she remembered that she’d taken the pill. She was drunk, probably broke, far from home, without a boarding pass, and worse than alone, and a dose of sleep potent enough to drop her in her tracks was already coursing through her body. She looked around. Nobody said a word. She might have enough time before it kicked in to get off the plane onto the concourse, settle her friend in a corner where he could safely pass out, and then get her own head down on something soft before she keeled over and smashed it on something hard.

I had my two-year-old daughter with me. She wore footy pajamas and had watched the scene with intense wonder. She looked up at me, expecting an explanation. I said, “She tried to take care of her friend, and she forgot to take care of herself, and now she’s in trouble. But if she’d just thought about herself and not taken care of her friend, she’d feel worse later.” My daughter was still looking at me, uncomprehending. I said, “It’s a thing that happens to grown-ups.” When the plane took off, she fell asleep. So did the drunks.

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