The lion tunnel: A short story

This story is an excerpt from the upcoming novel A Hard Day’s Life. 

 ‘SINCE WE can’t, he likes to  drive through this tunnel.’ (photo credit: Illustrative; Aaron Burden/Unsplash)
‘SINCE WE can’t, he likes to drive through this tunnel.’
(photo credit: Illustrative; Aaron Burden/Unsplash)

‘Where do you live?” the female soldier asked. She was pale, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail and an intelligent expression. She and the male soldier she was with were wearing big, bunchy green parkas to protect them from the cold winter air. It was an overcast Saturday afternoon during a lockdown in the winter of 2021. 

Oren, my son who is 24 and has autism, likes to sit in the backseat of the car when we go out. He pushed his head in between the front seats and met her gaze, saying, “You are a soldier.”

She was disconcerted, as anyone would have been. I told her our address and told him to put on his mask. 

“You are more than one kilometer from home,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“Soldier, you are a soldier,” Oren said. 

I took comfort in the fact that she had not requested any ID documents from me. This was going to go better than I had feared. 

“It’s just, he...” One of Oren’s therapists had taught me a rule: Don’t talk about your child in front of him, don’t make him feel like a problem. I especially tried not to use the words “autistic” and “autism” around Oren. However, when there is a soldier involved...

“What?” the soldier said. 

“He has autism and I know if you have special needs, you are allowed to go more than a kilometer from home,” I said. “I can show you his disability card.”

She said, “But what are you doing here?”

 I ESPECIALLY tried not to use the word ‘autism’ around  Oren. However...  (credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash) I ESPECIALLY tried not to use the word ‘autism’ around Oren. However... (credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

They say the truth will set you free. That has rarely been my experience. But sometimes, it turns out, it can get you out of trouble. 

“Normally, we go to the zoo on Saturday afternoon, but since we can’t, he likes to drive through this tunnel,” I said, gesturing to the tunnel the soldiers were standing in front of, as if they were guarding it. It goes along a boulevard that connects many neighborhoods and runs past the Supreme Court building. 

“This tunnel?”

“It’s... there are statues of lions and he likes them,” I said.

“The lion tunnel,” Oren said. 

It amazes me that most Jerusalemites have not noticed this, but this short tunnel features cupolas on both sides filled with small faux-ancient statues of lions, built so they are turning to look at the oncoming traffic. At Purim, they wore red and black masks – someone climbs up there and puts them on the statues – the kind you would see at the carnival in Venice. Now, of course, they were wearing surgical masks. A few had on rainbow-colored leis as well. I often wondered who would climb up there with a ladder to accessorize the lions. Hipster artists? Bored yeshiva students? Teen girls? In this neighborhood, in this city, it could be anyone. 

The soldier turned toward the tunnel and I hoped she could see at least the first lion from her post, although I wasn’t at all sure. But there was something in my favor in this situation. Virtually everyone the soldiers stopped was not supposed to be here during this third lockdown, and virtually everyone would lie to her about what they were doing. They would talk about sick relatives. They would talk about needing to get to work. I wasn’t sure what else they said, but I imagined she heard the same three or four lies over and over again. No one else but me would tell her that their special-needs son liked to look at the lions. 

“Soldier, what is your name?” Oren said. 

She smiled at him. “Miriam,” she said, in a tone of relief that I have often heard in the voices of good-natured cogs in an inhumane bureaucracy, when they realize they don’t have to do or say anything unpleasant to you. 

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Bye, Miriam,” Oren said.

She did not stop us the next two times as we drove back and forth through the tunnel. 

WE MOVED to Jerusalem when Oren was four, and as we drove around the city, it became clear that he was obsessed with tunnels. They soothed some inner need and made this dislocating transition from New York to Israel easier for him. 

He quickly learned the Hebrew word for tunnel, minharah, which he seemed to prefer to the English. He made up a chant, “Ooh-fa-ya, ooh-fa-ya, ooh fa-ya beh’minharah,” that he would sing as we drove through the tunnels. Only the words for tunnel and the word for “in” (beh in Hebrew) were actual words. 

He loved them all, but the lion tunnel was his favorite. The first time we drove through it, he noticed the lions. He didn’t say anything but he started to roar. 

I also appreciated the tunnels around Jerusalem when we first moved because it was easier to drive through them than it was to navigate the narrow, curving streets of the city, where pedestrians darted out from between cars every few moments. I had grown up in Manhattan and my family didn’t have a car for most of my childhood. I hadn’t gotten my driver’s license until I was 24 and had never driven on a daily basis. But now, I had to drive Oren to speech and occupational therapy appointments in the afternoons all over Jerusalem and there was no way to manage it by public transportation: There was no subway and the buses were too slow. I basically had to relearn to drive. Only my determination that Oren would not suffer because of the move could have pushed me to drive as much as I did, just weeks after we moved, even though it made me nervous.

Oren was taking occupational therapy twice a week, and speech therapy with three different therapists. There was a shortage of speech therapists in Israel and no therapist would see him more than once a week, so I found three who could see him one time. In America, it was considered “best practices” to see a single speech therapist several times a week and I was frantic over this. He was in a therapeutic preschool, but they only had one or two speech therapy sessions a week for just 15 or 20 minutes there. It didn’t seem terribly therapeutic, although the staff was nice. Everyone in Israel told me I was crazy for taking him to so many speech therapy sessions, but the truth is I didn’t know what else to do with him. It was so hard then to get and hold his attention. I didn’t want him watching endless videos. So we spent afternoons and early evenings driving all over the city.

I remember very little about these speech therapists now, except for two things. I remember that none of them helped him much, because they could not seem to get his attention, just as I couldn’t. And I remember what it was like to park by their offices, because I was – and still am – so bad at parking and it is very hard to find parking spaces in most neighborhoods in Jerusalem. 

There was one woman who worked with all kinds of VIPs’ children and her office was in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, the Israeli equivalent of the Upper East Side, filled with upscale doctors’ offices, and it was hell to find parking there. She would have Oren choose dolls and would try to get him to act out scenes of family life with them, perfectly reasonable for a speech therapist. But when he chose a doll with blond or brown hair for the grandma, she would insist that he take a gray-haired doll. Finally, I told her: “Both his grandmothers dye their hair. He’s never seen a grandmother with gray hair.” So she allowed him to make his own choice. It was one of a handful of times that a professional in Israel listened to me. 

A friendly American woman near the university campus seemed like she would be a great person to have a beer with, but was especially bad at engaging Oren. I could usually get a spot in a lot near her office, but not always.

The easiest place to park was near his speech therapist in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood. Pisgat Ze’ev means “Wolf’s Peak” but there were no wolves there. It was an ugly patch of concrete, miles and miles from the center of the city. This therapist was a very warm Mizrahi woman who practiced out of her apartment and she had many children who were equally warm and friendly, as well as a husband who seemed to be much more religious than the rest of the family. They all used to join Oren’s sessions, which were held in the living room, and Oren loved them. I realized as I sat with them how much I craved a warm family and how little time I spent recently with people who loved me or even seemed to like me. That’s one of the worst aspects of being in a bad marriage, you spend so much time around someone who flat-out dislikes you, or worse. I missed my friends and work colleagues in New York, fiercely. 

When this therapist’s son said Oren could keep a book of his that Oren loved, I was so grateful, I burst into tears. We still have it and Oren still looks at it. It’s about two kids who adopt a puppy.

The only way to get to Pisgat Ze’ev was on a highway where I had to cut across four lanes of traffic very quickly after I got onto it, or I would miss the turnoff to this therapist’s street. The roads in and around Pisgat Ze’ev were not good and on one stretch of this highway, there were no lane lines. 

I WOULD have been totally helpless, but I had had a very good driving instructor all those years ago in New York when I first learned. I had studied through a driving school with an intimidatingly elegant young African-American woman named Shanaya. The driving school she worked for used cars with two steering wheels. When the driving got tough, she would say, “I’ve got the car, darling,” and start driving from the passenger seat. 

We had our lessons in Harlem, which was good training for Israel for several reasons. In Harlem, as in Jerusalem, many streets have multiple lanes but no lane markers and she taught me to drive straight on them. She also showed me what to do when there is a shooting on the street. This was the mid-1980s, during the crack epidemic, and there were often shots fired in Harlem. 

“What should you do if you hear shots?” Shanaya asked. 

“Uh . .. speed up?”

“No, darling, you slow down.”

“Why?”

“You’ll see.”

During a lesson a few days later, three shots rang out. 

“I’ve got the car, darling,” she said. I hadn’t been driving fast, so she didn’t need to slow down much. We were on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard and after a moment, people ran into the street from every direction, adults, kids, old people. One man was holding a little dog and hobbling on a cane. A woman laughed as her wig fell off and she stopped to scoop it up. 

Driving around Jerusalem any time was like driving in New York after a shooting; people simply ran into the street from all directions. And sometimes as Oren and I crisscrossed the city, we heard low booms that later turned out to be suicide bombings.

But much as the violence around us was disturbing, what worried me most was Oren’s lack of progress. Now I see that I should have had more perspective, that I should have taken into account all the effort it was taking for him to adjust to this new city, this new country, to speaking Hebrew more than he had in New York. But I was under so much pressure, both internally and externally, to “fix” him. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t figure out how to help him and I couldn’t stop driving to all these useless, or mostly useless, appointments. On top of all this, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it would all be better if we were back in New York, which I understand now was an illusion. 

One evening as we were leaving the nice American woman who had been really smiley even though she couldn’t get Oren to play any board games – speech therapists seemed big on board games, which have never interested Oren in the slightest – I was buckling him into his car seat when he said, “The Lion Tunnel.”

“What?”

“The Lion Tunnel.”

I knew what he meant instantly. The tunnel lined with the statues, which I had noticed because he always roared there. During those days, he almost never put together an original phrase. He could repeat lines from Dr. Seuss books – “I do not wish to go,” from The Cat in the Hat, or other lines, which he used when he meant it but couldn’t find his own words – or ask for food or a video with one word. And here he was, coming up with this clever wording, all on his own! For a second I had an impulse to run back to the therapist’s office and tell her what he had just said – I wanted to share the triumph with someone – but I realized that would be silly, and anyway, she was already busy with another patient. 

 “The Lion Tunnel,” he repeated. 

I drove straight there, even though it was a little out of our way. We drove back and forth through it at least 10 times as it grew dark, that heavy darkness that falls so quickly in the Middle East, without much of a sunset. The tunnels were lit by orange lamps that made the lions look truly golden. Every time we passed them, Oren roared. 

MIRIAM WAS usually the soldier who stopped us during the winter lockdown in 2020-2021. She didn’t question us after that first time, we just chatted. It turned out that her mother was British and she spoke to us in English. Oren always told her she was a soldier before we drove past the masked lions.  

This story is an excerpt from the upcoming novel A Hard Day’s Life.