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March 9, 2010

The Mistake That Nearly Cost Me Everything

After graduating from Smith College, Piper Kerman fell in with a hard-partying, drug-dealing crowd. Ten years after she left it all behind, her past came back to haunt her. In a Marie Claire exclusive, she reveals the true story that landed her 15 months in a federal prison.
Plus, read our exclusive Q&A with Piper Kerman.

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Photo Credit: Rebecca Greenfield

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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.

Dressed in suede heels, black silk pants, and a beige jacket, I probably looked like any other anxious 24-year-old professional, 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 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. Maybe I should try to get through customs and run? Or perhaps the bag really was 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 spotted the suitcase. "Mon bag!" I exclaimed in ecstasy, seizing the Tumi before sailing through one of the unmanned doors into the terminal, inadvertently skipping customs. There I spotted my friend Billy waiting for me. I didn't breathe until we had pulled away from the airport and were halfway across Brussels.

I graduated from Smith College, class of '92, on a perfect, sun-dappled New England day. While my more organized and goal-oriented classmates set off for graduate school programs or entry-level jobs, I decided to stay on in Northampton, Massachusetts. A well-educated young lady from Boston with a thirst for bohemia, I had no idea what to do with all my longing for adventure. So I got an apartment with a fellow Smithie and a job waiting tables at a microbrewery. I bonded with fellow waitresses, bartenders, and musicians, all equally nubile and constantly clad in black. I ran for miles on country lanes, learned how to carry a dozen pints of beer up steep stairs, and indulged in numerous romantic peccadilloes with appetizing girls and boys.

My loose social circle included a clique of impossibly cool lesbians in their mid-30s. Among them was Nora Jansen, a short, raspy-voiced Midwesterner who looked a bit like a white Eartha Kitt. Nora was the only one of that group of older women who paid any attention to me. One night over drinks, she calmly explained to me that she had been brought into a drug-smuggling enterprise by a friend of her sister, who was the lover of a major West African drug kingpin named Alaji. Nora was trafficking heroin into the U.S. and was being paid handsomely for her work. I was completely floored. Why was she telling me this? What if I went to the police? It all sounded dark, awful, scary, wild — and exciting beyond belief, a world about which I knew nothing. And while it wasn't exactly love at first sight, for a 22-year-old in Northampton looking for adventure, Nora was a figure of intrigue. As if by revealing her secrets to me, Nora had bound me to her, and a secretive courtship began.

Over the months that followed, we grew much closer. When she was in Europe or Southeast Asia for a long period of time, I all but moved into her house, caring for her beloved black cats, Edith and Dum-Dum. One day Nora returned home with a new white Miata convertible and a suitcase full of money. She dumped the cash on the bed and rolled around in it, naked and giggling. Soon I was zipping around in that Miata, with Lenny Kravitz demanding to know, "Are You Gonna Go My Way?"

At the end of the summer, Nora learned that she had to return to Indonesia. "Why don't you come with me, keep me company?" she suggested. Although I had been yearning to make a move to California, I had never been out of the United States, and the prospect was irresistible. I wanted an adventure, and Nora had one on offer. It was that simple. What would I need for my journey to Indonesia? I had no idea. I packed a small L.L. Bean duffel bag with a tank dress, blue jean cutoffs, some T-shirts, and a pair of black cowboy boots. I was so excited, I forgot a bathing suit. Adopting an air of mystery, I told my parents that I was traveling for an art magazine, then rebuffed any of their questions.

Bali was a bacchanalia: days and nights of sunbathing, drinking, and dancing until all hours. Expeditions to temples, parasailing, and scuba diving offered other diversions — the Balinese scuba instructors loved the long-finned, elegant blue fish that had been tattooed on my neck while I was in New England.

But the festivities were always punctuated by tense phone calls between Nora and her drug contacts. As a go-between for Alaji, she arranged to smuggle suitcases with heroin sewn into the lining into the States. It was up to her to figure out how to coordinate the logistics — recruiting couriers, training them on how to get through customs undetected, paying for their "vacations" and fees. The job required lots of flexibility and lots of cash. When funds ran low, I was sent off to retrieve money wires from Alaji at various banks — a crime itself, although I did not realize it.

NEXT PAGE: WHAT HER LOVER ASKED HER TO DO


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