"You're going to the AMS convention? How thrilling!"
When Lise called her mother to tell her about the convention, she seemed almost as excited about it as Lise felt herself. Angela Johnston had been teaching mathematics in high school and community college for nearly thirty years, but had never been invited to any AMS events.
"You'll have to tell me all about it when you get back," Angela gushed.
"I will," Lise promised.
"I had no idea they invited graduate students to those things now," Angela mused. She had attended graduate school in math for a brief time to receive her masters, but family and financial obligations kept her from going any farther in her education. Lise knew her mother always dreamed that her only daughter would get a doctorate in mathematics.
"They don't," Lise said. "I was invited by one of the speakers."
"Really?" Angela sounded intrigued. "May I ask who?"
"His name is Elliot Meyers."
"Elliot Meyers..." Angela said thoughtfully. "That isn't the one who did all that brilliant work in algebraic geometry, is it?"
Lise knew her mother kept up with the journals, but she was surprised she knew the name. "Yes, it is."
"Oh my!" Angela breathed. "That man has done some incredible research in his field. How do you know him anyway? Does he teach at the university?"
"No, he's still a student."
"Really? So young to come up with such great work!" Angela said. "Are you and he...?"
"No," Lise said quickly. "We're just... good friends..." For now, at least.
"What's he like, anyway?" Angela asked.
"He's, um..." He's in a wheelchair. It was the first thing that popped into Lise's head. Elliot was right--once people knew he was disabled, it was the first thing that came to mind. He didn't want to be known that way and she didn't blame him.
"Typical mathematician?" Angela laughed.
"Very bad tempered," Lise said, smiling to herself. "Everyone in the department hates him. But he gets his way, of course, because they don't want to lose him."
"Oh, I know the type," Angela said. "Tell me, is he attractive?"
"Well, I'm still your mother," Angela reminded her. "I like to know which men my daughter might be interested in..."
"Elliot is..." Lise hesitated. "He's pretty cute. For a mathematician."
"You like him," Angela decided smugly.
"Oh please," she sighed. "A boy like that is probably very shy with girls. You'll have to make the first move if you want him."
Making the first move had already gotten Lise in trouble. Lise was embarrassed to tell her mother how she had shamelessly thrown herself at Elliot. And then when he responded, she had shut him out. She worried that by the time she felt ready, it might be too late.
Lise had been excited about traveling with Elliot, but she would have been a lot less excited if she had realized how much trouble the plane ride would be. Every step of the way turned into a hassle. Still, she had to admit that the expression on Elliot's face when he went through security was priceless. "We're going to have to frisk you, sir," the guard told him, after they had confirmed that Elliot couldn't walk through the metal detector.
"Do I look like a terrorist?" Elliot challenged him. "I'm a mathematician. Come on."
"Airport policy," the guard said simply.
Lise watched them frisk Elliot as he swore silently in his wheelchair. A few times, he flashed Lise a pained expression.
"Please remove your shoes, sir," the guard said to him.
"Are you fucking kidding me?"
Elliot grunted, "You sure like to say that."
He grudgingly allowed the guard to remove his shoes and run them through the metal detector. Lise thought it was a bit much, but she knew security was tighter in the last few years.
After they successfully passed through security, they headed in the direction of their gate. Elliot had told her that he'd be boarding first, so they had to arrive early. "Now's the real fun part," he muttered. "Getting on the plane."
"How do you do that, anyway?" Lise asked. "The aisles are so narrow."
Elliot sighed. "They'll store my wheelchair and then use a special narrow chair to wheel me onto the plane." He glared at her, his face red. "Satisfied?"
Lise decided not to press the issue further. Twenty minutes later, she was face to face with the "aisle chair." It was a very small, narrow version of a wheelchair, which Elliot couldn't control by himself. One of the flight attendants helped him into the chair. When she began strapping his legs in, he stopped her, "My legs are fine. I can keep them in the chair."
"I'm required to strap in your legs for your own safety," the flight attendant told him.
They argued the matter back and forth for a few minutes. Lise was ready to cry out, For god's sake, Elliot, let her strap your legs in. She didn't understand what the big deal was. Finally, he gave in and allowed the flight attendant to strap him in. She wheeled him into the plane and to his seat. Lise dreaded having to repeat this process on the way out of the plane.
"I know it's not fun to go through this bullshit with me," Elliot said, once they were settled.
"It would help if you were a little more cooperative," Lise pointed out.
"I can't help it," Elliot said, "I don't like being treated like a piece of baggage."
"There aren't many pieces of baggage with such nice brown eyes," Lise said, poking him in the shoulder.
"Don't, Lise," Elliot said as he averted his eyes.
"Please don't say things like that," he said. "If you don't want to be together, fine, but don't talk to me like..."
Lise instantly felt guilty. It was bad enough to ask Elliot to wait for her to feel "ready" for a new relationship... it was worse to throw it in his face. She could see in his eyes that he didn't believe she'd ever be ready. But he was wrong. She just had to wait for the right moment.
"Elliot, I'm sorry--"
"I don't want to talk about it," he interrupted her. "Let's just... focus on the presentation, okay?"
The other passengers began boarding the plane. Elliot had his legs stretched out in front of him, so that when a woman had to go past him to take the seat next to his, he had to move his legs using his hands. Lise was never quite clear on how well his legs could move on their own volition, but it certainly wasn't quick enough for the woman who wanted to take her seat.
"I'm sorry to trouble you," the woman said politely as she settled into her seat.
Elliot nodded, never one to start a conversation with a stranger on the plane.
"My name is Helen," the woman said, holding out her hand to him. She was middle-aged, as far as Lise could tell, and seemed nice enough.
Elliot rolled his eyes in Lise's direction, but shook the woman's hand. She insisted on shaking Lise's hand as well.
"I know how hard it is traveling with a disability," Helen remarked. "I have a disability myself. I haven't been able to work for two years... been on disability payments."
"Oh yeah?" Elliot couldn't have sounded less interested.
"Look at my left hand," she said, holding it out to the two of them. Lise looked at Helen's hand--it looked perfectly normal to her. "I hurt it in a car accident two years ago. I can't even make a fist anymore."
"That's too bad," Lise said politely, knowing that Elliot wasn't going to humor her.
"You have no idea," Helen went on. "If I try to do any vigorous activity with my hand, it starts hurting. Tell me, what job can a person do without using their hands? I'm only 55 and I can't work anymore. It's destroyed my life."
Elliot apparently had enough of this woman. He was staring at her, dumbfounded. "I'm 26 years old and I can't fucking walk," he said. "I go to school full time and I teach. And you're telling me your fucking hand hurts and because of that, your life is ruined?" He shook his head and muttered to himself, "Fucking idiot."
The woman's face was very red. "I'm sure you've been through a lot, young man, but you don't know what it's been like for me."
"You're right," Elliot said. "Next time I'm on the bus, I'll be sure to give up my seat for you, okay?"
"Smart Alec," Helen murmured, turning away in a huff.
Lise could understand why Elliot had gotten so angry, but she knew he was under a lot of tension too. He seemed like he was ready to jump out of his seat. "Calm down," she whispered in his ear. She placed her hand on top of his and gave it what she hoped was a comforting squeeze.
"I'm calm," he said, pulling his hand away from hers.
To be continued...