Dirty deeds

Ben really should get up and have something to eat, but... he’s a soldier now. He’s earned the sleep.

OREN SAYS, ‘Ben, can you make the mud cake?’ It’s really mug cake. (photo credit: FLICKR)
OREN SAYS, ‘Ben, can you make the mud cake?’ It’s really mug cake.
(photo credit: FLICKR)
‘Are you sure...?” asks Oren, sitting cross-legged in his favorite chair, a pile of photo albums in his lap, a huge smile on his face, his eyes bright. It’s his first weekend at home since the coronavirus lockdown ended and he has everything he wants: the chair; the albums; me; the cat at his feet; his brother, Ben, asleep in the next room.
“Are you sure that baby is asleep?” I say.
Oren stands up, heading over to Ben’s room. Ben chose this room, which has no windows to the outside, only one into the living room. He keeps the window shuttered whenever Oren, who at 24 is four years older than Ben, is at home. Oren, who is autistic but didn’t get the memo that this is supposed to mean he lacks interest in people, strides across the carpet on his long, long legs and hooks his fingers in the bottom of the shutter, which, if I don’t stop him, he will hike upwards so it makes a loud noise that will wake up the person he still calls “baby.”
“Oren, no!”
Oren laughs. It’s two in the afternoon, Ben really should get up and have something to eat, but... he’s a soldier now. He’s earned the sleep.
I say, “Come on, Oren.” But that’s not what he wants to hear, so I feed him the next line in the comforting dialogues he enjoys, the line that stops him: “Let him...”
We say the next word together, in a high-pitched tone: “SLEEP!” Oren collapses in a pile of hysterical giggles.
I wondered what it would be like when Oren came back after the six-week lockdown and now I know: It’s like he never left. He ran out of the gate of his group home into my car, as I filled out a form promising I would observe all the Ministry of Health virus restrictions when Oren was with me, sprinting as if he were worried that someone would stop him at the last minute.
But now that the jailbreak is complete, he is focused on his brother. When Ben was six and Oren was about nine, Oren learned how to tease Ben. Oren would call Ben “baby” and watch with glee as Ben turned red and screamed, “You’re a baby, Oren!”
Of course, this stopped bothering Ben nearly a decade ago, but it still delights Oren to try it. He likes me to join in as he says, “He doesn’t like it when we call him... bay-beeeeeee! Makes him so... ANGRY!”
He fishes out the photo album with the picture where I held up baby Ben, with his round, bald head, next to a rubber doll I gave Oren to get him used to the idea of having a brother. That whole time is such a blur, because Oren was diagnosed with autism officially when Ben was six weeks old, and I spent my maternity leave schlepping Ben in a snugli and Oren strapped into a stroller (Oren loved to walk, but he also liked to run away without looking back) to all kinds of offices in New York City’s educational and health bureaucracy, getting approval for Oren to enroll in a special-ed preschool. Watching Oren treat Ben like a big doll, dressing him in hats, was one of my joys back then. I had heard horror stories of older siblings being insanely jealous of babies, but in Oren’s case, it just didn’t happen. It was part of the autism, I was told. It wasn’t normal, or – the new word I learned from talking to so many therapists – “normative.” However, it was nice.
These days, it’s politically correct to “celebrate” autism, even the really bad stuff like the fact that Oren still rushes headlong into traffic if he is not stopped and will likely need 24/7 care for the rest of his life. But back when he was first diagnosed, the pendulum was way on the opposite side and everything about autism was supposed to be negative, even the fact that he loved putting little woolen caps on his bald baby brother instead of hitting him and resenting him.
“Tonight, the baby will make you a mud cake,” Oren says, using “you” when he means “me” as he often does.
“Yes,” I say. “If you —“
“Let him SLEEEEEEP!”
AS WE’RE clearing the table – after Oren’s nap, after our ritual Friday-afternoon viewing of Toy Story 2 and a spaghetti dinner — Oren says, “Ben, can you make the mud cake?”
It’s really mug cake, you make it in a mug in the microwave. Sometime during the last year, Ben discovered it. You mix Nutella, milk, cocoa powder, baking powder and flour in a mug, then microwave it for one minute. Sounds easy, right? But Ben’s mug cakes come out much better than mine, and Oren, who is honest to a fault, another autistic trait that can either be celebrated or criticized, prefers his.
“Later,” Ben says.
Oren knows well what later means. Ben will go to the room he calls his “lair” and I’ll end up making the inferior cake. So Oren wants to keep Ben in the kitchen and he figures out a way.
“Ben, can you make Patches dance?” Oren says.
Ben and I look at each other, impressed. Although Ben has made it a habit not to discuss the ins and outs of his brother’s autism, he knows well that an original sentence like this – not something Oren has heard and is simply repeating – is a rarity.
So Ben plops down on the couch next to our hugely fat tabby that he named 16 years ago after a cat on Sesame Street. Picking her up and holding her so that her back paws are on the couch and her front paws are extended, he starts scat-singing a “techno-jazz” song he learned to play on the piano when this kind of music was his main obsession, called “Under the Hat.” Oren, who is extremely musical, too, sings along. This cat only cares for Ben. If the rest of us tried to “make her dance” we would be shopping for prosthetic hands online after she chewed off most of our fingers. But Ben, who spent too much time on his own as a kid while I cared for Oren, has this incredible connection with her. During those long days when she was his only companion, he tamed her. Now she stares at him as he puts her down and heads for his room.
“Dirty deeds!” Oren sings out as Ben passes by.
Ben stops. When the techno-jazz obsession faded, he became fascinated with Metal and Grunge and taught Oren a bunch of songs. The first one was “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” by AC/DC.
“Dirty deeds/Done dirt cheap!” Oren sings. Ben comes back and sprawls on the arm of the sofa. He’s not quite as tall as Oren but he has that long, thin build, too.
“Not bad,” he says.
The next one is a Nirvana song, called, of all things, “Grandma Take Me Home.”
For many years, Ben was so angry with Oren and his tantrums and all the attention he got he couldn’t bear to be in the same room with his brother for more than a minute.
“What’s next?” Ben asks Oren.
When Oren came to the hospital to see Ben for the first time, I said something that he has repeated hundreds of times since: “Here’s the baby. He’s your brother.”
Oren put his face next to Ben’s smooth cheek for the first time, looked at this tiny bald boy and said, “Hi, moon.”
Just as I do, he still sees the ghost of that baby whenever he looks at Ben, who is now a hipster and a soldier (in Israel, somehow, you can be both). But to Oren and me, he will always be “Moon.”
“Ben, can you make the mud cake?”
“Come on,” Ben says. “What’s next?”
It’s the crown jewel: “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” by Aerosmith, which we decided is about our cat.
“Oooooooh, Funky Lady!” Oren sings, as Ben makes the cat dance again.
When Oren finishes, Ben puts the cat down, stands up and starts making the cake.