Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted (2021)
by Suleika Jaouad
“At the tail end of trauma, most people would prefer to hand the sufferer a bucket of silver paint and a brush, and say go ahead, paint the lining. Jaouad tosses the supplies and hops into a Subaru. On the road, she opts for slowness, finding the courage to marinate in unanswered questions and be alone with her thoughts. She drives a jagged constellation, 15,000 miles across the nation, visiting strangers who wrote to her. In each interaction, we meet someone who has encountered a lightless place — losing a child to suicide, living with chronic illness, a death sentence. There is a deeply comforting element to these conversations. Grief is allowed to come out and sniff around; it’s treated like a gentle companion, never shooed away.
There are times the pacing plateaus, where length dilutes urgency, but I was immersed for the whole ride and would follow Jaouad anywhere. Her sensory snapshots remain in my mind long after reading: “caterpillar-thick lines of cocaine,” mouth sores like “milky full moons.” Losing hair is like “pulling weeds from damp soil”; illness is “some wet, starless savagery unfolding beneath my skin.” Not only can Jaouad tolerate the unbearable feelings, she can reshape them into poetry.”
Miller, Chanel. “When Silver Linings Don’t Cut It, Honesty Helps.” The New York Times. February 9, 2021.
“It began with an itch. Not a metaphorical itch to travel the world or some quarter-life crisis, but a literal, physical itch. A maddening, claw-at-your-skin, keep-you-up-at-night itch that surfaced during my senior year of college, first on the tops of my feet and then moving up my calves and thighs. I tried to resist scratching, but the itch was relentless, spreading across the surface of my skin like a thousand invisible mosquito bites. Without realizing what I was doing, my hand began meandering down my legs, my nails raking my jeans in search of relief, before burrowing under the hem to sink directly into flesh. I itched during my part-time job at the campus film lab. I itched under the big wooden desk of my library carrel. I itched while dancing with friends on the beer-slicked floors of basement taprooms. I itched while I slept. A scree of oozing nicks, thick scabs, and fresh scars soon marred my legs as if they had been beaten with rose thistles. Bloody harbingers of a mounting struggle taking place inside of me.
“It might be a parasite you picked up while studying abroad,” a Chinese herbalist told me before sending me off with foul-smelling supplements and bitter teas. A nurse at the college health center thought it might be eczema and recommended a cream. A general practitioner surmised that it was stress-related and gave me samples of an anti-anxiety medication. But no one seemed to know for sure, so I tried not to make a big deal out of it. I hoped it would clear up on its own.
“Every morning, I would crack the door of my dorm room, scan the hall, and sprint in my towel to the communal bathroom before anyone could see my limbs. I washed my skin with a wet cloth, watching the crimson streaks swirl down the shower drain. I slathered myself in drugstore potions made of witch hazel tonic and I plugged my nose as I drank the bitter tea concoctions. Once the weather turned too warm to wear jeans every day, I invested in a collection of opaque black tights. I purchased dark-colored sheets to mask the rusty stains. And when I had sex, I had sex with the lights off.
“Along with the itch came the naps. The naps that lasted two, then four, then six hours. No amount of sleep seemed to appease my body. I began dozing through orchestra rehearsals and job interviews, deadlines and dinner, only to wake up feeling even more depleted. “I’ve never felt so tired in my life,” I confessed to my friends one day, as we were walking to class. “Me too, me too,” they commiserated. Everyone was tired. We’d witnessed more sunrises in the last semester than we had in our entire lives, a combination of logging long hours at the library to finish our senior theses followed by boozy parties that raged until dawn. I lived at the heart of the Princeton campus, on the top floor of a Gothic-style dorm, crested with turrets and grimacing gargoyles. At the end of yet another late night, my friends would congregate in my room for one last nightcap. My room had big cathedral windows and we liked to sit on the sills with our legs dangling over the edge, watching as drunken revelers stumbled home and the first amber rays streaked the stone-paved courtyard. Graduation was on the horizon, and we were determined to savor these final weeks together before we all scattered, even if that meant pushing our bodies to their limits.”
“I want so badly to be a normal twenty-six-year-old. I have no idea of what that entails, so I look to healthy peers for cues. A little less than a month after Will moves out, my friend Stacie, a singer, invites me to hear her perform at the swanky NoMad Hotel. No part of me feels up to socializing, but I force myself to go anyway. I change out of my sweatpants and T-shirt and into a dress — a hip black dress with a high neckline that conceals my port. I fuss with my hair, trying to make it look a bit less post- chemo, more punk-pixie. At the last minute, I invite an old friend to join me, one who knew me long before my sickness. He’s a jazz musician named Jon.
“When I arrive at the hotel, Jon is waiting in the lobby. The two of us go way back to band camp where we met as teenagers. Jon was gangly and awkward then, with a mouth full of braces and baggy, ill-fitting clothes, so shy he bordered on mute. He’s since undergone a transformation. Now, with his thick New Orleanian drawl, virtuosic piano chops, and dapper style, he has the kind of magnetic presence that turns heads and draws everyone in a room. Tall and slim, dressed impeccably in a tailored suit and leather boots, he’s handsome enough to startle me. His skin, a dark honey-brown, looks luminous, and his features — those lips, aquiline nose, and broad shoulders — give him the majestic air of a prince. Jon catches my eye from across the lobby, and as I walk across the room to greet him, I wobble a little under his gaze.”