In the week leading up to my departure from Nashville, a friend of mine insisted on taking me to an indoor shooting range.
At the time, he was a corrections officer at a local prison, and had previously also served on the police force. His logic was, “I’m not going to let you join any military if you’ve never even shot a gun.”
That’s how I found myself testing pistols and semi-automatic rifles on a gorgeous October day in Tennessee. It was an incredible feeling, to be honest. I was completely unfamiliar with controlling that amount of power. Being able to grip such a small piece of equipment and feel the impact it had on that flimsy piece of paper was terrifying and thrilling. I was grateful I knew the feeling before I would be bound to a similar weapon permanently. Before we left, I picked up a few of the empty shells and one dud bullet that had refused to discharge and threw them in my purse as a souvenir.
Between attending a surprise party, selling and packing my belongings, and receiving my immigration visa the day after a government shutdown, I was completely occupied, to say the least. I said goodbye to Nashville by getting a tattoo of the skyline as a heartbeat the day before my flight. Even if my whole plan fell apart, even if I had to come home in six months, I was ready to give it my best shot. I owed it to myself and to my family.
On October 6, 2013, I arrived at Nashville International airport with three duffle bags, two of which I had picked up at the military surplus store, a backpack with Israeli and American flags on each side, and my purse, all filled to capacity. With my favorite pillow tucked under my arm, I was ready.
A whole group of people was waiting for me to say goodbye, some I had met just months before, others had been chosen family for years. My dad wasn’t feeling well enough to come, but I had gotten my hugs from him that afternoon at his house. As I embraced my mom and siblings, I felt the desire for sadness. But all I could think about was what lay ahead of me, this great adventure, this leap into the unknown. To trust that the universe, with the help of its people, would catch me in my descent.
I went to the Southwest check-in counter. The lady saw my olive-green duffle bags with the addresses, names, and ranks of strangers painted on the side panel, and waived the fee for the extra bag without a word. I didn’t even realize until much later that she assumed I was in the military. I tried not to feel guilty that I hadn’t corrected her. I was trying not to feel guilty about a lot of things at that point.
Finally, I said my last good-byes and line up to go through security. The weather was not looking good for flying, and I was nervous there would be issues with my flight being delayed. As it was, I was late getting to security, and the line was horrendously long. Thunder crashed outside. I wondered what await me across the ocean.
I put my bags through the scanner and walked through.
“Excuse me, ma’am, is this your bag?”
The dreaded question, but also not the end of the world. I was concerned about time, and wondered what I would need to explain. I said yes.
“Ma’am, did you pack this bag yourself?”
“Ma’am, we’re going to need to open the bag.”
I reached over for the zipper, but the TSA officer stopped me with a gloved hand.
“Ma’am, is there any chance there is live ammunition in this bag?”
I quickly did an inventory in my brain of what went in my purse, but it was a jumble of paperwork, pens, and snacks.
“No, I can’t think of how that would have happened! There must be a mistake,” I said frantically.
The officer opened the bag and rifled through until she found several bullet casings and one dented, but intact, bullet.
She reached for her radio and called it in. I felt my senses drop away. I couldn’t hear or see anything that was going on.
I was distraught. “Oh my god, I know what those are! I’m so sorry, it was an accident! Throw them away, I don’t care, I didn’t mean to have those! Do whatever you need!”
“It’s alright. I’m just going to need your contact information, including your phone number and address.”
I burst into tears.
“I’m moving to another country, like, right now! My flight leaves in 20 minutes! I don’t have an address!”
“Okay, okay, do you have another address we could get? Maybe a family member?”
I gave them my mom’s address and phone number, an inconsolable mess of nerves, tears, and snot. They waved me through, now that the threat had been neutralized. She told me not to worry, that probably nothing would come of it since it was so obviously accidental.
I found my gate, and, with five minutes to spare before boarding, Southwest announced that the flight to JFK was delayed.
Without realizing it, that was the sign I needed that everything was going to work out. It wouldn’t be in the ways I expected, nor always in the ways that I wanted. For the first time that day, I felt the muscles in my forehead, jaw, and shoulders relax.
“Next time,” I mumbled to myself, “just check your damn purse.”