Like many, I devoted to the recent Petraeus affair only the attention required to make a quip or two. Paula Broadwell and Jill Kelley (already it’s a struggle to remember their names) didn’t linger long in my consciousness as actual people; quickly they became the naughty biographer and Tampa’s answer to Kim Kardashian, respectively. When processing a scandal, the mind makes remarkably fluid conversions from human being to character, and character to joke. Much more difficult is reversing this thinking, as I discovered the day I took a standardized test while seated next to Monica Lewinsky.
This was the fall of 2002—I was twenty-one, living in Brooklyn, and looking to escape the confusion of postcollege life. When I registered to take the law school admissions test at NYU that December, it felt less like choosing a career than like tossing a grappling hook out into the dark, hoping to catch hold of a stable future. Though public interest law seemed a perfectly appropriate path for someone raised on Pacifica Radio and political demonstrations, and though as a kid I’d logged countless hours watching the William Kennedy Smith and O. J. Simpson trials, I had neither an intellectual interest in the law nor any practical understanding of what lawyers did. Something about “briefs,” it seemed.
Here’s what I did know: I missed studying, that comforting, seclusive activity of which my recent graduation had deprived me. And my LSAT prep would provide the perfect excuse to stay in my bedroom—away from my roommates, who, in their own postcollege explorations, were flirting with a drug that scared me. Away from the bars, where I’d lately been lifting the lid off of troubles long contained; away from social life in general, where a jokey glibness had become a crutch that I didn’t know how to let go of.
When the Saturday of the test came, I woke up before sunrise and hopped on the train. Emerging from the subway station into the Village at that quiet hour, the morning cold and new and bright blue, I already felt a sense of virtuous accomplishment, of progress. I was early. I was nervous, but prepared. I was on track.
At NYU, I was directed into a crowded auditorium abuzz with the static of anxious ambition. The scene reminded me of high school, maybe because everyone was wearing track suits, having traded in the starched collars of their day jobs for the comfily juvenile fashions endemic to marathon exams. Eventually we were divided up by last name and I headed with the other J-K-L-Ms to our designated classroom, where there was more waiting, more fidgeting. Nervous chatter filled the air, but I kept to myself.
Which is perhaps why I was in a position to notice Monica Lewinsky when she walked into the room. Again, this was 2002, four years after President Clinton wagged his finger and denied having sexual relations with “that woman”—four years, so it was not so ludicrous that she would be out and about, living her life, making some plans, taking a standardized test or two. And yet it was totally ludicrous. In the intervening years, Monica had kept a fairly high profile: she’d put out a much-mocked line of handbags, guest-starred on The Tom Green Show and elsewhere, and appeared in commercials for Jenny Craig. But here she was, dressed in what appeared to be a velvety black track suit.
At the front of the room, an avuncular proctor kicked off the proceedings. He began summoning people one by one in alphabetical order, checking IDs and assigning seats. Because I had no doubt about the identity of the raven-haired woman by the door, I knew that this nice, bespectacled man behind the podium would soon call out a name that was famously evocative of blow jobs and erotic manipulations of cigars. And so I could feel myself losing my grip, giving in to that part of me that cherishes absurdity above all else, that looks to the joke for freedom from the demands and disasters of life.
I stepped forward. The proctor inspected my driver’s license and directed me to an empty two-person table in the first row. I sat down and thought not of logic games or time management strategies or anything relevant to the exam itself, but of that unoccupied seat next to me.
“Monica … Lewinsky?” the proctor said, tipping her name into a question.
She approached coolly, ignoring his obvious fluster and the gathering cloud of whispers. I wondered why the testing authorities hadn’t prepared the proctor for her. I wondered why someone of her— let’s call it “stature”—couldn’t finagle a private room. But I didn’t wonder much else, because now she was beside me. As she flumped into her seat, juggling an armful of items that included a blanket and a Jewish prayer book, her driver’s license landed near my foot. I handed it back to her with a warm, casual smile meant to reassure her that I was not like all the other uncouth gawkers in the room.
But of course, I was like them. And I was also like her, wasn’t I? She’d been my age, fresh out of college, when she’d moved to that city where she found so much trouble. We even cut a similar shape, a little too round, curvy in a way that could attract attention but keep confidence just out of reach. I didn’t know that, the very next year, I would find my own dream internship and develop a raging crush on one of the higher-ups there. Or that, at later jobs, I would have to reckon with older men looking to break boundaries, including one popular colleague who would ask me to fetch his wallet from the pants he was wearing. I didn’t consider that Monica was probably just one of many who had shown up to the test that day looking to flee the wobbly present for a steadier future. I didn’t think about any of this, because I was still a kid, and she was a just a joke.
I reined in my distraction long enough to start the test, but at the first sign of trouble—logic games, my nemesis—I checked out. I filled in a long string of “B” bubbles on my answer sheet and decided that this wouldn’t be the day I aced an exam but the day I acquired another amusing anecdote, the details of which I set my mind to recording as the clock ticked away. I don’t think Monica did very well, either. Neither of us became lawyers, though after some meandering, we each found our way back to school: she in social psychology, and I in creative writing.
When the exam was over, Monica cloaked herself in a big coat and sunglasses and rushed out to the street. Not wanting the story to end, I followed her for a block or so, but she disappeared into the West Village. There was nothing left for me to do but figure out whom to tell first.
Kate Levin is a writer and teacher in Los Angeles.