Michele Leavitt of Gainesville, FL has won the 43rd New Millennium Nonfiction Prize for “Hidden in a Suitcase.”
She will receive $1,000 and publication both online and in print.
On reunion and loss, on being back in the fold and being caught in the web, on free will and the things we cannot change. One woman’s story about finding the family she never had and the heartbreak that can come from having so many people to love. —NMW
⋅ Names and any identifying locations have been changed. ⋅
Hidden in a Suitcase
By Michele Leavitt
The trail winds around the back of Quaker Hill in rural Maine. It takes less than an hour to get to the summit, but I pack a bottle of water and some grapes and my notebook. This time I also pack my nephew’s letter.
The tradition of letter-writing survives in families like mine, whose loved ones are spread out over the country in county jails, state prisons, and federal penitentiaries. In prisons, smartphones are contraband, so stamps are still currency. My nephew, Jesse Ray, is in a county jail awaiting trial. He can be held indefinitely without bail because he was on parole from a state prison sentence at the time of his latest arrest. He’s 25 years old, and he’s written me dozens of letters over the last seven years. I always write back, eventually.
The forest is still damp from last week’s monumental thunderstorms, and a new generation of mosquitos has hatched. Far off the coast, Hurricane Cristobal pinwheels north and then east. It never makes landfall, but its outlier winds cascade through the forest’s branches and down into the hollows, keeping the mosquitos mostly at bay. When I get to the top of the hill, the forest gives way to open fields marked off by lines of hardwood trees. Here, the wind is loud enough to silence everything.
From the summit, I can see hay fields and forests, a church spire poking out of trees, and more green hills. I pull my nephew’s handwritten letter out of my backpack. Blue ink on narrow-ruled white paper. His penmanship is neat and legible.
Dear Aunt Michele, well here I am yet again. I suppose that adds me to Georgia’s 87% recidivism rate. Not blaming anyone but myself for why I am back here.
At the end, he has signed himself “Jesse Ray,” although I know he dropped the Jesse part when he was in high school. The compound name was too Southern, like Billy Bob, and his mother had moved him to rural Idaho when he was 8 to get him away from our family in Savannah.
It’s been more than 20 years since the day I met him at the Savannah train station.
To take my mind off the anxiety I felt at the prospect of meeting my family for the first time, I’d spent the 22-hour train ride from Boston to Savannah reviewing case files from my law practice. Born in the South, but adopted into a family from the North as an infant, I spent my childhood feeling as if I were wearing a flour sack when everyone around me was wearing silk, except when it came to reading. My adoptive father was fond of calling me an “enigma,” a word I had to look up the first time he said it, when I was a 12-year-old drug user toting around a worn copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The 19th century novels a librarian had recommended to me did as much for my sense of well-being as the Librium my pediatrician prescribed when I rebelled against my parents, or the codeine-heavy cough syrup I started drinking directly from the bottle at age 9.
By the time I was 34, I had owned a successful law practice for 10 years, which gave me the freedom to take time off when I felt like it, but that success came only after I had dropped out of high school as a teenager and run away from home, in favor of a life on the streets. After 10 months of living rough, I returned to my adoptive parents’ home, took up where I’d left off in high school, and then moved on to college and law school. I kept on reading and getting high on everything from weed to heroin because I enjoyed it—but I was able to abstain when I needed to complete an assignment or attend a job interview. Instead of being ruled by the brain disease of true addiction, I was born lucky, resistant. Importantly, I had become what is known as a chippy: an occasional user. By the time I passed the bar exam and opened my practice, I had a wide circle of acquaintances from almost every walk of life. My drug use tapered off during my twenties, but I never lost my easy rapport with people living on the fringes of society, and that helped me build a criminal defense practice.
• • •
I was exhausted by the time the train pulled into the Savannah station. From my seat in the last car, the platform looked deserted. Terrified that my family had decided I wasn’t worth meeting, I slung my pack onto my shoulders as the train conductor lowered the stairs into place with a clang. I had deliberately dressed down in a hooded sweatshirt, sweat pants, and sneakers, in part to avoid appearing like a snob.
A group of slim, edgy-looking people, clad in denim and leather, stood close together at the end of the platform. I recognized the members of my family from the photos they sent. A cigarette spiked up between the petite fingers of my sister Grace’s hand, shoulders weighed down by the fringe on her suede jacket. My brother Tom was taller than the rest. Dark-haired and dark-skinned like me and our mother, he gripped the hand of a squirming towhead boy who looked like he was trying to jump off the platform. His wife Ida tried to grab the little boy’s other hand. My brother Christopher’s leather jacket flared out as he turned and saw me, as I ran toward them, as they spread their arms wide, and just like that, I was enveloped:
“Just like Momma.”
“Look at her hands.”
Talking all at once, hands grabbing my hands.
I wept like I’d been cut open. I pressed my palms against their cheekbones, and my cheekbones into their shoulders. If only I could have climbed inside their skin. My mother had only been dead for a year; she had suffocated from an asthma attack on the way to a hospital. So my brothers and sisters were as close as I’d ever get to my mother, who was 15 when she gave birth to me and then, almost immediately, gave me up for adoption.
“I’m too late,” I wailed, clasping my sister’s hand.
“None of us are too late. With five brothers, I always wanted a sister,” she said tenderly. “You’re still crying.” Her own eyes were wet but clear, welling up but under control as we climbed into the front seat of a hulking Chrysler sedan. “Momma would be so happy,” she emphasized.
I’d only known about these precious people for two weeks, since Sarah Muller, the private investigator I’d hired, called and gave me the bad news about my mother, and then the good news that I had siblings, along with Tom’s address. An adoptee rights activist, she wouldn’t tell me how she gained access to my original birth certificate and learned my mother’s name. I’m certain that she bribed someone who worked in the hospital where I was born or in the Florida Vital Statistics office. Once she connected me with a blood relative, her work was done. I never heard from her again. She was a discreet person because she had to be; she operated outside of the law all over the United States, and was ultimately prosecuted on conspiracy charges for doing exactly what she had done for me: digging up sealed records. She served four months in a federal prison.
Tom called me as soon as he received my letter. A few months after I was born, our mother Tammy turned 16 and married a family friend, Ray. She and Ray proceeded to have six more children, and they stayed married until the day she died. When I met Ray some time later, he told me he knew she had given up a baby, but she had never told him who my father was, and the two of them had never mentioned me to the other children. Tom was surprised but delighted to find he had a long-lost sister. In the photos I sent with my letter, I looked so much like our mother that he felt like he was getting her back. The news about me spread through our family, and for the next two weeks I spent every spare moment either on the phone with a new relative or writing letters, feeling pulled toward Savannah, where most of them lived.
After we left the train station, Tom drove with meticulous precision through some of Savannah’s squares, which are built around parks where old oaks drip Spanish moss and azaleas bloom in the shade. I wanted to stop crying, so they could see how happy I was. Instead, I started coughing. The car went quiet. My brothers and my sister knew from our conversations that I had inherited Momma’s asthma.
“You gonna make it?” Tom asked when my coughing fit subsided.
“Sure.” I flashed him a big, teary grin. I turned to Grace. “I’m fine.” I didn’t want them to worry about me, so I looked for something else to talk about.
I had noticed that the ignition had been popped, and a screwdriver, sticking out of the steering column, served as the car key.
“What happened there?” For 10 years, I’d contracted with the state as a public defender just north of Boston, near where I was raised. Between that, and my own experience of living on the street, I knew full well why people pop ignitions.
Tom chuckled. “Lost the key,” he said with a wink as we left the downtown area, taking the curve at the entrance to the Broadhurst Cemetery and entering a neighborhood of tiny, single-family homes. Grace, her husband, and their three kids lived in a three-room bungalow on Temple Avenue—a bad neighborhood, she said, ruined by drugs and gang violence. Tom pulled the Chrysler halfway up her steep driveway, and parked it under a massive live oak.
To my astonishment, children poured out of the front door and mobbed me like butterflies on a New England milkweed field in summer. I wanted to wring out every drop of sweetness I possessed for them. The small ones threw their arms around my hips; the older ones patted my hair and pulled on my hands, and I heard the tune again, in a slightly different key, “Just like Grandma! Just like Grandma!”
I pulled my camera out of my backpack and started snapping photos. Grace’s husband posed me with my brothers and sister and the children in front of a mass of azaleas blooming fuchsia, pink, and white. We swarmed into the house, and I began bawling again. Christopher hugged me. “You smell like weed,” I said. He seemed surprised that I, a lawyer, would know what weed smelled like, but he didn’t know much about me yet.
There was a loud bang outside. Everyone swarmed back into the yard. Tom’s Chrysler sat in the middle of the road. The back end of it had knocked out a corner of the cinder block wall surrounding the across-the-street neighbor’s yard. In the driver’s seat, two three-year-olds pushed each other back and forth. It was Jesse Ray and one of the little girls, Bee-Bee. They were struggling over the screwdriver in the ignition. The Chrysler’s engine revved and stalled and spluttered out.
“Bee-Bee!” someone yelled. The two drivers stopped pushing each other. Bee-Bee launched herself out of the passenger’s side window, flipped onto the asphalt, and ran up the driveway.
“It was Jesse Ray’s idea!” she yelled.
“Was not!” He was right behind her.
“Boy,” said Tom, “what were you thinking?”
“We was just goin’ for a ride.”
Spankings ensued. The men pushed the car away from the wall. Someone picked up the cinderblocks and wedged them back into their places, but it was easy to see that the wall had been broken. After a few false starts, the engine revved up. This time, Tom parked at the curb.
Later that afternoon, I drove with Tom and Ida to their home in Sardis, twenty-five miles west of Savannah. Their trailer sat on a wooded lot, shaded by sweet gum trees and jacked up on towers of cinderblocks at the corners. Once inside, my feet kept curling up and away from a nagging feeling that the suspended floor was about to collapse.
Framed, professional photographs lined the paneling in the living room. Tom and Ida’s wedding picture—him in a shirt and tie, her in a flowery blue print dress. Jesse Ray as an infant, then as a baby able to sit up, then as a toddler. Jesse Ray with Tom and Ida. Everything in the trailer looked used to within an inch of its life, except for those photos, which gleamed from the walls. I turned around to see another picture, Jesse Ray with two older people: my mother and her husband.
It remains the largest, clearest image I have seen of her. She is smiling at the camera, but her eyes, my eyes, seem out of focus. Her hair is dark and flyaway, and her tanned skin is almost as dark as the circles underneath her eyes. Her cheeks are puffy in the way people’s cheeks get when they are on steroids for a long time. There’s an intubation scar on her throat. Her slender, tapered fingers, my fingers, rest on Jesse Ray’s little arm. Her husband stands behind them with his hand on her shoulder in a protective gesture. He is 15 years older than her, but he looks vigorous and proud.
Tom cupped his hands on my shoulders in a similar gesture. “Momma loved babies,” he said. “She loved Jesse Ray.”
“And she was always pretty good around him,” Ida said. “But you did have to watch her.”
“Yep,” said Tom. “Grace stopped letting Momma around her kids years ago.”
“I don’t think that was right, even if she did drink,” Ida said. “She was their grandmother, after all.”
“She could be mean as a snake when she was drunk,” Tom said. “Most of the time she was real meek. But then sometimes you’d walk by her and she’d wrap her fingers in your hair and yank so hard your hair came out.”
“She must’ve done something like that to one of Grace’s kids,” Ida said. “We never did find out what straw it was that broke that camel’s back.”
I lay awake that night in Tom and Ida’s bed, putting the pieces together. Some of what I learned about my family came from questions they’ve asked me, like “You have nerve spells?” or “You like wine?” No, I’d tell them, I’m very calm. Wine’s okay, but I don’t drink much anymore because it makes me wheezy. I’d ask them about my mother’s drinking. They told me she was a binge-drinker; she’d get some money and then she’d get drunk. Her husband didn’t like it, and if he found the wine she’d hidden from him, he would pour it down the sink. He moved the family around often: from Savannah to North Florida, back to Savannah, then back to North Florida. He’d been in the Marines in World War II. He was strict. He was handsome. He was a very good dancer. My mother loved to dance. Sometimes they took my sister and my brothers out with them at night, and the children watched them dance together like movie stars.
It was exciting to see the similarities between my siblings and me pile up. My sister, one of my brothers, and I all write poetry. Our mother loved to read. Some of us have “good skin,” meaning we tan very easily and deeply. The Native American came out in us, and the story was that we had a female ancestor from the Cherokee tribe. Others are fair-skinned and platinum blonde, what’s called “white-headed” in the South.
But I especially loved spending time with Jesse Ray, in part because his personality reminded me of the stories I heard about myself at his age. At four, he could already read, even though he hadn’t been to school yet. He liked to draw. Everyone called him “artistic” in an admiring way.
That night, laying in a strange bed with strange pillows and unfamiliar dust made me wheezy. I got up and tried some yoga postures to relax my lungs. Triangle pose. Eagle pose. I used my inhaler. I got back into bed, but instead of laying down, I sat cross-legged, pulled the pillow perpendicular to my legs, and then folded over on it.
I’ve been doing this since I was Jesse Ray’s age. It opens up the back of my ribcage and makes it easier to breathe. I call it my frog pose.
“Go give your Aunt Michele some sugar!” Ida said to Jesse Ray the next morning. I was standing next to the sink, drinking the cup of instant coffee Ida made for me. I put the cup on the counter and squatted onto my heels so that Jesse Ray and I were the same height. He had gotten a cabinet open and was reaching inside it.
“Don’t you do it, Jesse Ray!” Ida yelled, then turned to me. “Lord, he loves to take those pots and pans out while we’re sleeping and start banging on them. Anything for attention.” She turned back to her boy. “Go give your Aunt Michele some sugar, now.”
He swaggered the few steps toward me like a sheriff making an entrance into a saloon.
“Who loves you, little man?” I asked.
He tucked his chin into his chest. “I dunno.”
“I do!” I swooped him into my arms and kissed his chubby little cheeks a dozen times. Back then, I was 34 years old and childless. I’d never wanted the responsibilities that came with motherhood, but I did feel the occasional maternal urge. Now, I thought, I can have it both ways.
For the rest of my first week in Georgia, we played this game over and over again. Who loves you, little man? I had plenty of sugar to give him.
• • •
Over the next 20 years, I traveled to Savannah every summer. Some years, I rented a beach house on Tybee Island, and my whole family came to stay. By whole family, I mean those who were not incarcerated at the time, or so strung out that they were hiding even from their loved ones. Two of my five brothers spent most of their adult lives in state prisons for crimes committed in the service of their addictions. Crack cocaine twisted the minds of two other brothers, and their wives, so that they lost everything: their jobs, their homes, their health, their reason, and their children. And the children: Five of my nieces spend some part of their childhoods in in foster care or group homes.
I had been happy to be a part of such a large family because there were so many people to love—and so many people to love me. But anger and disappointment and helplessness were part of the package. I realized early on that there would be many people to mourn. In the past 10 years, 4 of my five brothers, and one of my nieces, have died from the effects of their addictions.
All of my life, I have been drawn to addicts. Maybe I admire their perpetual dissatisfaction, or maybe my affinity toward them is genetically hard-wired. Today, I am married to a man who is a college president, and who has been sober for 15 years. When I was a criminal defense attorney, I didn’t just care about my clients—most of whom, as statistics would predict, were substance abusers—I loved many of them. It was often difficult for me to understand their self-destructive behavior. So I read the research and learned what I could. When I met my family, I had an added incentive to educate myself.
It didn’t take long for my brother Tom’s crack habit to become a full-fledged addiction. Ida divorced him and moved to Idaho with eight-year-old Jesse Ray, to get him as far away from my crazy family as possible.
Since then, my relationship with Jesse Ray has been sustained by telephone calls and letters, with the exception of two visits he made to Savannah when I happened to also be there. He was pre-adolescent at the time of both of those visits, still curious and active, but a little edgier. Once, he begged to have his almost-white hair dyed blue by a relative who ran a hair salon, and, after getting the okay from Ida, emerged from the salon with hair the color of a blue Popsicle. On another occasion, we made a life-sized alligator out of sand on the beach at Tybee Island. But most of his life from the ages of 8 to 18 was spent in rural Idaho, where he excelled in academics and on his high school football team. Like some of my brothers, he played guitar and sang. Every year, I received one of his school photos and a letter. I talked with him on the telephone occasionally, and when he got to high school, we talked about how he wanted to attend one of the state universities in Idaho. He called me for advice about going to college because I was his only relative who’d gotten a four-year degree. I gave him a few tips for taking the SAT. I was optimistic.
Over the telephone, I couldn’t tell that he had already started drinking, but he had, and it wasn’t of the social variety. He drank to get drunk. Just as he graduated from high school, Jesse Ray was arrested for breaking into a liquor store. Ida called to tell me. She didn’t understand. She thought she had taken him away from the negative influences, but he was ending up just like my brothers all the same. She worked hard. He had a good life. He had so much potential.
The myth that addiction is a direct result of trauma is persistent in our culture, in spite of overwhelming medical evidence to the contrary. It would be reassuring to blame Jesse Ray’s downfall on some external event. It would be reassuring if his fate were the result of bad judgment, or a bizarre childhood trauma, or the influence of bad company. Then we could more easily tell ourselves that it couldn’t possibly happen to us, that our own futures and those of our children are predictable, and safe. But just as I will never know if I’m allergic to tigers unless I snuggle up to one, there’s no way, yet, to tell if any of us are addicts until we start using. By then, it may be too late.
• • •
Ida moved back to Georgia while Jesse Ray was finishing up his sentence in Idaho for the liquor store break-in, and he joined her there when he was released. She hoped he’d learned his lesson. But in less than a year, he was arrested again; this time it involved a stolen property ring scheme and an impulsive, alcohol-fueled car theft. His cousins told me that Jesse Ray was off the chain as soon as he got back to Georgia, that this arrest was just a snapshot of months of drinking and drugging and doing whatever he had to do to get the money he needed to stay high. He ended up serving more than five years in the state prison system, where he read a lot of Nietzsche and Ayn Rand.
In the years of our prison correspondence, I never criticized his reading choices, even when I suspected they might encourage his tendency toward grandiose thinking, or his belief in the possibility of a super-man. I had enough faith in reading as exercise for the brain that I didn’t question the content. Sometimes, I couldn’t resist sending him books I believed were good for him, but mostly we just carried on a philosophical discussion about his changing views of the meaning of life. Sometimes, months went by without a word from him. I understood that these were the times when he was embroiled in the politics and economy of prison culture, or when the things he was forced to do to survive in a brutal community took up all of his energy. Eventually, he would write again and tell me he’d been out of touch because he’d been involved with the institutional drug trade, or with the Aryan Nation, or that there’d been some sort of lock-down. And soon I’d get a letter full of his thoughts about books.
Just curious, have you read ‘Guns, Germs, and Steel?’ I had the opportunity to spend some time with it. Very good theories of cultural development. I enjoy that kind of literature because all of it helps me expand my universal viewpoint. I just finished Robert Greene’s ‘Mastery,’ and he says it’s good to study various unrelated subjects as that improves your ability to create and innovate. I was really looking forward to reading ‘The New Jim Crow.’ Unfortunately, right now my cellmates and I are in sort of a conundrum. The shakedown squad came and took our books. I didn’t let them get to me. I am the embodiment of change.
• • •
An early frost fell this week in Maine, deep enough to kill off the more tender members of my garden: the edges of dahlias, the basil, and the hibiscus. The squash vines’ leaves are shriveled to nothing, and all of their fruits are exposed. Some are still only the size of oranges; they needed more time to ripen. I wonder whether they will be any good to eat, since they didn’t get a chance to mature.
I go back to the top of Quaker Hill with my backpack and another letter from Jesse Ray. It’s the second letter he’s written to me this month. I still need to write back to him, but what can I say that will make a difference? I feel as useless as I imagine Ida did the first time Jesse Ray was arrested.
From the top of this hill, the landscape is emerald except a few sugar maples with orange tinges around the edges of their leaves. I didn’t see Jesse Ray this year on my trip down South in June, even though he was out of prison. Instead, I visited Grace and other family members who live relatively normal lives. I could tell from the extravagant tone of Jesse Ray’s Facebook posts that he was getting high and living on the edge of another arrest, or worse. In my mid-fifties now, I’m too old to risk spending time near that edge, even for the chance to be loved. I’m too conscious of my own mortality and my own powerlessness to do anything but send my love out to him from a distance.
Regardless of the situation, there is always a small pleasure in being right—it turned out I was right about where Jesse Ray was headed in June. A week after my visit down South, he was arrested for selling methamphetamine and painkillers to an undercover agent. The headline in the local newspaper read, “Wanted Parolee Found Hiding in Suitcase.” He must have been in some variation of frog pose. Like many people in our family, like me, his joints and limbs are very flexible. It’s a genetic thing, like the asthma that killed my mother and that sometimes threatens to kill me, like the susceptibility to addiction that continues to torture so many of my family members.
From the boredom of a county jail where he is now awaiting trial, Jesse Ray writes about what happened when he got released from his last sentence, only a few months before this current arrest:
For so long, 5 years and 9 months, I had been deprived of life’s amenities, and I wanted them immediately. I began to sell drugs at first, then I used and sold drugs. Fast money spends fast. I managed not only to return to incarceration but also hurt everyone around me.
Twenty years ago, when I was a public defender, I heard that part of the story over and over again, and the beginning of it, too, which goes “I thought it would be different this time.” But it was never different. The man or woman who got out of prison wanted to celebrate, and that first glass they lifted in celebration, that first line they snorted, that first pipe to the lips set the story in motion again. There is no contentment, no such thing as enough.
“I know now that moderation is key,” Jesse Ray writes, but there is no moderation for him, or for most of my family. There never will be.
I’m the only one of my mother’s seven children who inherited her asthma. Like my sister Grace, and precious few other people in our family, I have a home, a job, and a life. Our one surviving brother lives most of the year on the outskirts of Savannah, in an outdoor collection of tents and tarps erected by homeless people, where drugs and alcohol are the center of life. Four of our nephews are in prison. Three of our nieces have had their children removed from their homes. Two others are in rehab.
So why them and not us? Grace and I both had our wild times, and we both made mistakes, such as running away from home, dropping out of high school, and using hard drugs. It’s not that we grew up in more stable environments than other people in our family. For Grace, the drug use of her teenage years ended when she became pregnant with her first child, and she never looked back. Mine tapered off as I grew older and became more invested in my health and my career. There was no wrenching process of sobering up for either of us. Getting high was fun while it lasted, but Grace and I walked away from it without a second glance. Why? We simply didn’t draw that genetic card. Either you’re born an addict or you’re not. For so many of the others in our family, it was never going to be that simple.
The hayfield at the top of this hill in Maine has been mowed, but the stubble left behind is still green, thanks to the summer’s abundant rains. Sometimes, a mowed field stays green even under deep snow. I’ve seen it in a thaw: a memory of color seeping through a winter’s dreary monochrome. I’m sitting on a granite boulder. Jesse Ray’s letter is open on my lap, still creased from its time in the envelope, and I hold its edges tight against the wind. “I broke the law and I deserve to be punished,” he says. I finally know what to say to him.
I take out my pen and write: “No, little man, you’re wrong. You don’t deserve that at all.”
■ ■ ■
Michele Leavitt, a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, and former trial attorney, writes poetry and nonfiction. Her essays appear most recently in Guernica, Sycamore Review, Grist, Hippocampus and Catapult. She’s the author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away.
Michele shares her advice on writing here.
Hidden in a Suitcase © 2017 Michele Leavitt