She tickled him.
That’s where it all ended.
It wasn’t the mixed drink or the beer at the bar.
He was alert. He was driving his friends home. He was 21. He thought he was being responsible.
But suddenly the blue and red lights screaming in his rearview mirror said otherwise.
She tickled him, he swerved, and the boys in blue did their job.
“Do you know why I pulled you over, sir?” the officer asked, shining a light into the car.
“Yeah!” He laughed. “She was tickling me; I ended up swerving.” His friends laughed along with him.
“Have you been drinking?” the officer probed.
“Oh, yeah!” he laughed. He wasn’t drunk – he had nothing to hide.
Three sobriety tests later, cold handcuffs linked around his wrists and he was led into the back of a cop car. “You’re under arrest for driving while intoxicated,” the police officer said.
Suddenly, in the span of 10 minutes, Cortney became the kid from Chicago whose mom was tripping terribly on drugs, and the kid with the story of being homeless and blaming everybody for the mistakes they’ve been through.
He was no longer the star of the high school football team, he was no longer the leader at his church and he was no longer the fun guy at a party. He was what he could have been ac- cording to his background – and it was exactly the opposite of what he wanted to be.
Cortney Houston was going to jail.
The orange jumpsuit was awkward and just as embarrassing as television makes it seem. He made two phone calls – one to his mom, and the other to his best friend. After officers led him to a room with other criminals of petty crimes–people awaiting bail or awaiting something in life to change. Cortney was so out of place. He was young. Fresh. Everyone else was old. They looked sad. Depressed. Terrible. He was a vivid heartbeat pulsing through a room of corpses, a new car in a junkyard. He didn’t belong.
A man asked him for his breakfast and he quickly offered it up. He didn’t need it, he wasn’t meant to stay there.
A thought tickled his brain: “this is who you could be if you keep messing up.” It was terrifying.
“It felt like 40 hours,” he recalls.
He hadn’t slept in over 24 hours and he was scared. He was scared of what life could look like.
But an officer arrived saying his bail had been posted. He was free to go home. His mom was waiting for him in the lobby. He changed into his plain clothes and walked out. Outside, 10 people were waiting for him.
Ten people dropped everything to come to the county jail at 5 a.m. to be there for him when he was released. Nobody was coming for the old men in the building. No one was going to bail them out. And he had 10.
“How’d you know I’d be getting out right now?” Cortney asked his best friend, tears brimming in his eyes.
“Man, I’ve been waiting here since you called,” he responded.
Cortney was reprimanded by the school, he completed the program required by the state, but his decision was made before then: he would make a change.
“[I realized then] that life has rules and life has guidelines, but life has love,” Cortney said leaning back. “I’d never cried so many times in a day. I’d never felt so much guilt and so much pain and so much weariness. I was lost. I need[ed] to figure it out. I can’t take back the things that I’ve done and I don’t want to… the reward for making a mistake is you learn from it.”
She tickled him.
That’s where Cortney Houston’s life began.
Story by Sydney Ilg, Photo by Abby Friedman
Correction: an earlier publication of this story misprinted Cortney Houston’s name. His name is spelled “Cortney” not “Courtney.”