Chapter One: Are You Gonna Go My Way?

International baggage claim in the Brussels airport was large and airy, with multiple carousels circling endlessly. I scurried from one to another, desperately trying to find my black suitcase. Because it was stuffed with drug money, I was more concerned than one might normally be about lost luggage.

I was twenty-three in 1993 and probably looked like just another anxious young professional woman. My Doc Martens had been jettisoned in favor of beautiful handmade black suede heels. I wore black silk pants and a beige jacket, a typical jeune fille, not a bit counterculture, unless you spotted the tattoo on my neck. I had done exactly as I had been instructed, checking my bag in Chicago through Paris, where I had to switch planes to take a short flight to Brussels.

When I arrived in Belgium, I looked for my black rollie at the baggage claim. It was nowhere to be seen. Fighting a rushing tide of panic, I asked in my mangled high school French what had become of my suitcase. “Bags don’t make it onto the right flight sometimes,” said the big lug working in baggage handling. “Wait for the next shuttle from Paris—it’s probably on that plane.”

Had my bag been detected? I knew that carrying more than $10,000 undeclared was illegal, let alone carrying it for a West African drug lord. Were the authorities closing in on me? Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was just delayed, and I would be abandoning a large sum of money that belonged to someone who could probably have me killed with a simple phone call. I decided that the latter choice was slightly more terrifying. So I waited.

The next flight from Paris finally arrived. I sidled over to my new “friend” in baggage handling, who was sorting things out. It is hard to flirt when you’re frightened. I spotted the suitcase. “Mon bag!” I exclaimed in ecstasy, seizing the Tumi. I thanked him effusively, waving with giddy affection as I sailed through one of the unmanned doors into the terminal, where I spotted my friend Billy waiting for me. I had inadvertently skipped customs.

“I was worried. What happened?” Billy asked.

“Get me into a cab!” I hissed.

I didn’t breathe until we had pulled away from the airport and were halfway across Brussels.

My graduation processional at Smith College the year before was on a perfect New England spring day. In the sun-dappled quad, bagpipes whined and Texas governor Ann Richards exhorted my classmates and me to get out there and show the world what kind of women we were. My family was proud and beaming as I took my degree. My freshly separated parents were on their best behavior, my stately southern grandparents pleased to see their oldest grandchild wearing a mortarboard and surrounded by WASPs and ivy, my little brother bored out of his mind. My more organized and goal-oriented classmates set off for their graduate school programs or entry-level jobs at nonprofits, or they moved back home—not uncommon during the depths of the first Bush recession.

I, on the other hand, stayed on in Northampton, Massachusetts. I had majored in theater, much to the skepticism of my father and grandfather. I came from a family that prized education. We were a clan of doctors and lawyers and teachers, with the odd nurse, poet, or judge thrown into the mix. After four years of study I still felt like a dilettante, underqualified and unmotivated for a life in the theater, but neither did I have an alternate plan, for academic studies, a meaningful career, or the great default—law school.

I wasn’t lazy. I had always worked hard through my college jobs in restaurants, bars, and nightclubs, winning the affection of my bosses and coworkers via sweat, humor, and a willingness to work doubles. Those jobs and those people were more my speed than many of the people I had met at college. I was glad that I had chosen Smith, a college full of smart and dynamic women. But I was finished with what was required of me by birth and background. I had chafed within the safe confines of Smith, graduating by a narrow margin, and I longed to experience, experiment, investigate. It was time for me to live my own life.

I was a well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemian counterculture and no clear plan. But I had no idea what to do with all my pent-up longing for adventure, or how to make my eagerness to take risks productive. No scientific or analytical bent was evident in my thinking—what I valued was artistry and effort and emotion. I got an apartment with a fellow theater grad and her nutty artist girlfriend, and a job waiting tables at a microbrewery. I bonded with fellow waitrons, bartenders, and musicians, all equally nubile and constantly clad in black. We worked, we threw parties, we went skinny-dipping or sledding, we fucked, sometimes we fell in love. We got tattoos.

I enjoyed everything Northampton and the surrounding Pioneer Valley had to offer. I ran for miles and miles on country lanes, learned how to carry a dozen pints of beer up steep stairs, indulged in numerous romantic peccadilloes with appetizing girls and boys, and journeyed to Provincetown for midweek beach excursions on my days off throughout the summer and fall.

When winter set in, I began to grow uneasy. My friends from school told me about their jobs and their lives in New York, Washington, and San Francisco, and I wondered what the hell I was doing. I knew I wasn’t going back to Boston. I loved my family, but the fallout of my parents’ divorce was something I wanted to avoid completely. In retrospect a EuroRail ticket or volunteering in Bangladesh would have been brilliant choices, but I stayed stuck in the Valley.

Among our loose social circle was a clique of impossibly stylish and cool lesbians in their mid-thirties. These worldly and sophisticated older women made me feel uncharacteristically shy, but when several of them moved in next door to my apartment, we became friends. Among them was a raspy-voiced midwesterner named Nora Jansen who had a mop of curly sandy-brown hair. Nora was short and looked a bit like a French bulldog, or maybe a white Eartha Kitt. Everything about her was droll—her drawling, wisecracking husky voice, the way she cocked her head to look at you with bright brown eyes from under her mop, even the way she held her ever-present cigarette, wrist flexed and ready for gesture. She had a playful, watchful way of drawing a person out, and when she paid you attention, it felt as if she were about to let you in on a private joke. Nora was the only one of that group of older women who paid any attention to me. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, but in Northampton, to a twenty-two-year-old looking for adventure, she was a figure of intrigue.

And then, in the fall of 1992, she was gone.