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‘Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted,’ by Suleika Jaouad: An Excerpt

[ Return to the review of “Between Two Kingdoms.” ]

By the last days of summer, I struggled to recognize myself. The muffled sound of my alarm clock dragged like a dull knife through dreamless sleep. Each morning, I’d stumble out of bed and stand in front of the floor-length mirror, taking inventory of the damage. Scratches and streaks of drying blood covered my legs in new places. My hair hung to my waist in dull, chaotic waves that I was too tired to brush. Shadowy crescents deepened into dark moons under big bloodshot eyes. Too burned-out to face sunlight, I started showing up later and later to my internship; then, one day, I stopped showing up altogether.

I disliked the person I was becoming—a person who tumbled headfirst into each day, in constant motion but without any sense of direction; a person who reconstructed blackouts, night after night, like some private investigator; a person who constantly reneged on commitments; a person who was too embarrassed to pick up her parents’ phone calls. This isn’t me, I thought, staring at my reflection with disgust. I needed to clean up my act. I needed to find a real job, one that paid. I needed some distance from my college crew and my Canal Street roommates. I needed to get the hell out of New York City, and soon.

On an August morning, a few days after I quit the internship, I rose early and took my laptop out to the fire escape and started searching for jobs. It had been a rainless summer, and the sun blazed, baking my skin to a tan, leaving little white dots like braille all over my legs where the scratching had scarred. A position for a paralegal at an American law firm in Paris caught my eye, and on a whim I decided to apply. I spent all day working on my cover letter. I made sure to mention that French was my first language and that I spoke some Arabic, too, hoping for a competitive edge. Being a paralegal wasn’t my ideal job—I didn’t even really know what it entailed—but it seemed like the kind of thing a sensible person might do. Mostly, I thought that a change of scenery could save me from my increasingly reckless behavior. Moving to Paris wasn’t a bucket list item: it was my escape plan.

. . .

A few nights before I left the city for good, I found myself at my third party of the evening, where investment bankers in upturned collars sat hunched over caterpillar-thick lines of cocaine, sweating as they talked animatedly about their stock portfolios, summer rentals in Montauk, and on and on. It was 5:00 a.m., and this wasn’t my scene. I wanted to go home.

Standing alone on the sidewalk, bathed in the blue smoke of my cigarette, I watched the night sky begin to lighten around me. Manhattan was asleep in that fleeting hour of quiet after the garbage trucks finished their rounds and before the coffee shops opened. I’d been waiting for a taxi for ten minutes when a young man I recognized from the party strolled over, asking to bum a smoke. It was my last one but I handed it over. He lit the cigarette, cupping his hand, big as a baseball mitt, around the end. He smiled as he exhaled, the two of us shifting feet as we glanced shyly at each other, then stared down the empty street.

“Want to share?” he asked. A lone taxi was coming our way and the question seemed innocuous enough, so I said sure, and we climbed in. It was only after I’d given the driver my address that it occurred to me that the young man had asked me to split a ride without knowing where I was going.

I knew better than to get in cars with strange men. My father, who lived in the East Village in the eighties when the city was infested with crime, would have strongly disapproved. But there was something about the young man that felt safe and intriguing. His hair, shaggy and sun-streaked, flopped over intelligent blue eyes. Lean of build, square of jaw, and dimpled of cheek, he was strikingly handsome, but had terrible posture, carrying himself with a humility that suggested he was unaware of his looks.

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