A Life Not With Standing
A Memoir by Chava Willig Levy
“I’m so vain, I think every song is about me.” So I’d quip to the single men I met in the decade that followed the 1972 release of Carly Simon’s hit song, You’re So Vain. I was so eager to break the ice, so eager to impress, so eager to disarm. It never occurred to me how serious a disclosure I was making.
Years later, St. Elsewhere, the popular television series about hospital life, featured an episode about someone who called himself Mr. Entertainment. After hijacking a hospital elevator, he transformed it into a cozy night club, serenading every patient who entered his lair. His career came to an abrupt halt when the Chief of Medicine heard him bellow Paul Anka’s Having My Baby to a stretcher-bound patient on her way to the delivery room. Mr. Entertainment was immediately brought to the staff psychiatrist who broke the ice with, “I understand you’re, um, nuts about music.” “I am music,” Mr. Entertainment shot back, “and I write the songs.”
Compared to his melody malady, my condition is fairly benign. Still, I have known those schizophrenic moments when I and a particular song become one. In fact, every trauma and triumph life has handed me has had its own theme song. Take Janis Ian’s haunting piece, At Seventeen. It didn’t matter that I discovered the song at twenty-three; At Seventeen was about me. It didn’t matter that adolescence mercifully had left my face intact; I had a ravaged, misshapen body. If there was one thing I didn’t lack, it was social graces. I even had prospective lovers on the phone; I didn’t have to invent them.
But at seventeen, I virtually remained at home. A need for personal care—ranging from cutting steak to taking a shower and pulling on pantyhose—made me a rare bird on the campus of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women: a commuter. I experienced the camaraderie of dorm life only when a long gap between classes compelled me to get horizontal, as I flippantly put it (anything to downplay my disability’s severity), on the nearest available bed. Exhausted, I’d spring into action when the house phone, inches from my pillow, rang.
“Hi. Sarah there?”
“No, but she should be back in about two hours. Can I take a message?”
“Tell her David called. Um, who’s this? You don’t sound like her roommate.”
“I’m Judy, just visiting till my 2:30 class begins.”
“What are you taking?”
“Nineteenth century French lit.”
“You’re kidding! French lit? Why would anyone subject themselves to that?”
“Don’t faint, but that’s my major.”
“Talk about ivory tower!”
“Yeah, I know. That and 50 cents will get me on the subway.” (Little did he know that all the money in the world couldn’t get me on the subway.)
“Why’d you pick French, of all things?”
“Well, if you must know, it’s because I fell in love with a French singer two years ago.”
“His name is Enrico Macias.”
“Never heard of the guy. So what made you fall for him?”
“Well, it didn’t hurt that he’s stunning to behold. But more important, he sings the most beautiful songs.”
“Gimme an example.”
“Well, okay.” I launched into one of Enrico’s most lilting French ballads, my accent impeccable.
“Wow! You sound like Judy Collins!”
“No, I mean it! Hey, wanna have dinner tomorrow night, maybe go to a concert?”
“Wait a second. What about Sarah?”
“Oh, she’s my cousin, didn’t you know? My mother told me to keep an eye on her.”
“That’s nice of you.”
“So, are you avoiding me? How ’bout dinner and a concert tomorrow night?”
“Where would you want to eat?”
“How’s Lou G. Siegel’s?”
“What’s the matter? You’re vegetarian?”
“No, it’s just that they have stairs there, don’t they?”
“I do. That’s what happens when you get around in a wheelchair.”
Within two minutes, the invitation was withdrawn. “Don’t worry about it,” I assured him after he apologized for the third time, my voice sunny, my face tear-stained.
. . .
“What’s that you’re hummin’?”
“The song you’re hummin’ for the last five minutes! Is that Peggy Lee?”
The cabbie swerved into the right lane of the Grand Central Parkway. With virtually no arm muscles at my disposal, I plunged leftward like the needle of an old-fashioned elevator’s floor indicator. My ear landed on his beer belly.
“Hey, don’t tell my wife!” he chuckled, pushing me upright. Ten minutes later, he said, “There you go again. What is that, Fever? You know, ‘When you kiss me, fever all through the night.’”
Silently, I replayed my inner soundtrack. “You’re right. It sounds a bit like Fever, but it’s called One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man.”
So there I was, heading home from French, detailing my telephone débacle to this total stranger. Whenever a passing headlight illuminated the cab’s interior, the driver glanced my way.
He pulled into my parents’ driveway. “Look, I’m gonna level with you,” he said, handing me my change. “I don’t think a man could find you, you know, attractive.”
I stretched as high as my curved back allowed. With the most dignified smile I could muster, I murmured, “That’s one man’s opinion.”
The driver lifted my wheelchair out of the trunk, helped me swivel my legs ninety degrees to the right and, following instructions I had perfected over a fourteen-year period, pulled me into a standing position. I sauntered (an observer would have said waddled) over to the wheelchair and sat down.
“Thanks for an interesting ride,” I chirped, hating the ingratiating, good-little-patient persona that inevitably surfaced when I detected the slightest hint of rejection. “Could you please ring the bell? My brother will help me in.” As my arbiter of sex appeal trudged toward the screen door, paunch jiggling, pants sagging dangerously below his hips, I thanked God for the moonless night that hid both my smirk and my tears.
Poring over a huge volume of Gemara, my father looked up from our round dinette table when I made my entrance. I parked alongside him and sighed. “What is it, Chavela?” he murmured, leaning over to hand me his wrinkled handkerchief. Out came my telephone and taxi misadventures, ending with “Just tell me, Abba, why are guys so prejudiced?”
“Chavela,” Abba chided softly in his resonant, sing-song voice, “you have to learn to be tolerant.”
My retort was instantaneous: “I will NOT be tolerant of intolerance! It’s just not fair!”