The Hanukkah party was crowded, so Oren and I left early and headed for the bus stop. Oren is autistic and doesn’t like crowds. It was a clear Jerusalem night, one of those rare times when the city felt festive and not at all mournful. A group of teenage girls rushed into the entrance to the renovated train station where the party was in full swing. They were wearing cardboard headdresses shaped like Hanukah candles, something that all Israeli kids make in preschool, so it was kind of a joke for teens to put them on. Meeting another group similarly attired, they squealed as only teen girls can.
Oren, watching them with a dazed look, laughed and imitated the squeal. These girls were a year or two younger than Oren and I wondered if he would ever be able to spend time with girls his age, if he would ever have a girlfriend. He was so achingly handsome and, like most guys his age, he followed girls with his eyes and was drawn to the very bubbly ones. Would he ever have what most of us wanted so much all our lives? What I wanted so much for my life?
My thoughts were interrupted by confusion over which bus stop – there were two – was the right one.
“Where does it say 78?” I asked Oren. The 78 bus, which made many sharp turns and let us off right by our street, was Oren’s favorite.
He looked and pointed. The bus shelter was empty and I sat down on the bench, with Oren squatting on the ground in front of me, his sweater drawn over his knees, his most comfortable position.
An Orthodox family walked up, a mother and two 20-something kids, a boy and a girl, and sat down on the bench next to me. Even before they opened their mouths, I knew they weren’t Israeli. Their clothes were just too neat and too new. The mother had on a sparkly blue turban, probably chosen especially for the holiday. The boy wore a black kippah and a white shirt and the girl’s skirt was black and pleated.
They spoke British English and chatted about where they would be going during the Hanukkah vacation.
“What is your name?” Oren asked the mother. She was taken aback at this question from the squatting young man. I crossed my fingers that she would respond in a friendly tone. Sometimes he would sing prayers in public – they were songs, after all – and the ultra-Orthodox were charmed. Old Mizrahi men would sometimes tell me that Oren was very holy, a compliment I had learned to accept. But these people were Modern Orthodox, and they could go either way with Oren. Many people found his questions intrusive and not charming, I knew, while I was so happy that he enjoyed communicating with people. Still, I knew that this behavior was inappropriate. I was about to remind him that we don’t speak to people we don’t know when the woman smiled and said, “Haya.”
“And your name?” Oren asked the young man.
“Ruchi,” the girl said.
A bus approached and we all craned our necks. But it wasn’t our bus and apparently it wasn’t theirs, either.
Oren wasn’t one for long silences.
“That’s not our bus,” he said.
“No,” Haya agreed.
“What is your name?” he asked her.
“I told you,” she said.
“Haya,” he said.
“That’s right. What’s your name?”
“Oren,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, Oren.”
He smiled. A moment of silence. And then: “Monica Lewinsky. She was a friend of Bill Clinton.”
If you knew Oren, this wasn’t as insane a segue as it might seem. Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton had long held a place in Oren’s imagination. When he was a toddler, we lived in New York and the Clinton scandal was in the air. Oren would walk around the living room saying, “Impeachment!” since that word was used so much on the news. It seemed adorable and it would be a year before he was diagnosed with autism and I would first hear the term, “echolalia,” repeating what you’ve just heard, characteristic of autistic speech.
Once, Clinton was addressing Congress, I had said, “That’s Bill Clinton, he’s the president.” The president finished and a senator stood up.
Oren had said, “He’s the president!” He must have thought: older man in a suit equals a president, like furry creature with whiskers, triangular ears and a tail is a cat.
I said, “No, that’s a different man.”
Squinting, he said, “Looks like a president, could be a president.”
I knew where that came from. When he had seen a woman on the street in an evening gown – we lived in Manhattan then – he had said, “A princess.”
I had said, “Looks like a princess, could be a princess.”
Then there was the book. The first book I ever ordered on Amazon was Monica’s Story, Monica Lewinsky’s memoir of the scandal. I was reading it in bed with our cat, our late, beloved tuxedo cat Martin, parked on my hip. Oren’s father had taken a picture of me (it was long before we got divorced). It was Oren’s favorite picture of Martin and he would look at it so often that I got it framed and put it in his room. He liked to ask about the woman in the photo on the book cover. I had to say something, so I told Oren that Monica was a friend of Bill Clinton. I had been pregnant with Oren’s brother, Ben, then, but you couldn’t tell in the photo. It seemed prehistoric, those days of the Clinton scandal, when Martin the cat was still alive, before Ben was born, before Oren was diagnosed, when their father still took photos of me. It was back in the days when you had to buy film, wind it, load it in a camera and take it to be developed. Prehistoric.
Oren’s father and I were glued to the news every night and then to Keith Olberman’s snarky show following the news. We digested and discussed every detail of the scandal. Since Oren was so little and not sleeping through the night and I was pregnant and throwing up a few times a day, I wasn’t feeling very sexy. But at least we could discuss the titillating details of the scandal every night and whether Bill really sort of liked Monica, at least a little. It wasn’t all stained dresses and betrayals, we used to say. Everyone forgets this, but Bill gave Monica a book of Walt Whitman poems he bought when he was in Martha’s Vineyard with Hillary. Do you give poems to someone you don’t care about?
Now Hillary had run and lost and given her concession speech in her sad purple blouse and pantsuit that reminded me of the lunch ladies with beehive hairdos in my elementary school.
Hillary was still with Bill and Monica was keeping a low profile, it turned out she had the brains not to turn into a reality TV parody of herself. I always liked her. I understood that I wasn’t so different from her, that all women – Monica, Hillary and I – could be fools for love.
Oren, never one to lose an audience, repeated: “Monica Lewinsky, she was a friend of Bill Clinton.”
Ruchi and Michael, who must have been little kids in 1998, looked utterly uncomprehending.
But Haya laughed. Even though she wore a silly little sequined turban, she had a graceful laugh.
“So she was!” Haya said, winking at me.
A bus rumbled up and the three of them stood up.
“Your name is Haya,” Oren said. “And his is Michael and she is Ruchi,” he said.
“Yes,” Haya called as they climbed aboard, waving at Oren. “Happy Hanukkah.”
Their bus disappeared into the traffic on Hebron Road and Oren hugged his knees, rocking back on his ankles.
“That’s not our bus,” he said.
“No,” I said.
“We don’t have batteries,” he said. It was a phrase from a Sesame Street song.
“We’re alive,” he said.
“Yes,” I said.