When Jeanne Meyers heard the pathology report from her son’s surgery, she felt like she had been slapped in the face. After all that worry and Leo’s heart wrenching decision to perform the more drastic surgery, the damn tumor was still there. There’s a good chance it will come back in the next few years, Dr. Black told them.
Jeanne wished she could have protected Elliot from finding out. She supposed it was his right to know, but she also sensed that this was more than he was able to deal with right now. She had been furious when Dr. Black said that Elliot already had been informed of the pathology results.
When Jeanne and Leo came in to see Elliot the morning after his surgery, she thought that he looked worse than she had ever seen him. His very dark hair had always made his skin appear paler than it really was, but now he seemed painfully white. He wasn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes were rimmed with red. She wondered if he had been crying. He was wearing a hospital gown and his bare arms were at either side of his chest. Maybe it was her imagination, but Jeanne thought his arms looked thinner already.
“You look good, son,” Leo spoke up.
Jeanne tried to say something equally supportive, but instead she burst into tears. It was so hard for her to see him like this. She held onto his hand as she sobbed, squeezing it gently even though she knew he couldn’t squeeze back.
“You’re always a pillar of strength, Mom,” Elliot said, heaving a sigh.
“I’m sorry,” Jeanne released his hand and did her best to wipe her eyes. “I’m sorry, honey. I’m just... so happy to see you.”
“Dr. Black told you... right?” Elliot asked.
“He did,” Jeanne winced at the look on his face. “It’ll be okay though. I mean, we’re talking years in the future anyway. Who knows what kind of technology they’ll have then.”
“Cut the crap,” Elliot said. “We all know how I’m going to end up.”
“Don’t speak to your mother that way,” Leo admonished him. “Now whatever happens, we’ll deal with it.”
Leo never knew exactly how to deal with his son. He tried his best, but Jeanne sometimes got the feeling that he got all his fathering skills by reading some kind of handbook. Elliot always managed to do the opposite of what Leo expected of him.
“I’m quitting grad school,” Elliot announced.
“What?” Jeanne couldn’t believe her ears. Elliot had been wanting to become a mathematician since he was in grade school. He had been talking about it before Jeanne even knew that sort of a career existed.
“There’s no point,” he explained. “I’m not good enough to make a living through math without my body.”
Jeanne didn’t believe that. She knew mother’s tend to see children through biased eyes, but Elliot’s accomplishments spoke for themselves. She strongly suspected there were few people alive today who was as smart as her son. When he was doing math, he had no paucity of confidence. But when he got away from the university, where he knew people saw him as just another cripple, he began to doubt himself.
“I’m through with math,” Elliot said.
Leo, always trying to be logical, barked, “What will you do for a living then? Beg for change?”
“I’m better off just living off disability,” Elliot told him.
“So you want to be a bum, living with your parents,” Leo concluded. Jeanne stared at her husband in surprise—it wasn’t like Leo to talk like that and she knew he didn’t mean it. Leo just wanted the best for his son.
Elliot frowned at his father. “A bum? I’m a fucking quadriplegic, Dad. What the hell am I supposed to do?”
“You can do what you were doing before,” Leo suggested.
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Elliot took a deep breath. “Also... I’ve been thinking that... maybe after my next surgery, I’d like to live in some kind of nursing facility... with people like me.”
“Nonsense, you’ll live with us,” Leo insisted.
“Yeah, but then I’ll just be a bum, living with my parents,” Elliot pointed out.
“Elliot, I’m sorry... I didn’t mean...”
“I may not be able to move my arms,” Elliot said, looking his father in the eyes, “but I believe it’s still my decision.”
Jeanne tried to comprehend her son’s words. The only thing she could imagine was that perhaps he was just extremely depressed and hiding it well. Elliot always said that he wanted to be more than just a crippled mathematician, but she had believed he would settle for it if it was the only way he could do math. Elliot always loved doing math, even since he was old enough to count (which was very very young, in his case).
Jeanne didn’t know what to say, how to convince him he was wrong. She wondered if perhaps his girlfriend Lise might be able to do better. “Lise said she’d be here to see you later today,” Jeanne said.
“I don’t want to see her,” Elliot said.
“I don’t want her in here,” he snapped. His mind seemed to be firmly made up. “I gave strict order to the nurses that you two are the only visitors allowed in here.”
“Elliot, don’t do this to yourself,” Jeanne begged him.
Elliot shook his head. “Believe me, this is the best thing. We both need to move on with her lives.”
Jeanne realized the truth: Elliot didn’t want his girlfriend to see him this way. He was protecting himself the same way he always did: by isolating himself.
Brent found that he liked to do his work in the math grad student lounge, rather than his office or the library. In contrast to the rest of the math grad student, Brent had always been a social guy and he hated the idea of shutting himself in his office for extended amounts of time. The lounge was usually pretty quiet and when another student came in, he could take a break to hit the ping pong table.
Today when Brent arrived in the lounge carrying his differential topology book under his arm, he stumbled on two of his fellow second year students, deep in conversation about something. When they saw Brent walk in, they grinned at him. “What’s going on here?” Brent asked.
The two students were Mark Vitkun and Ted Morgan, both good guys. They exchanged looks. “I’ll let you have the honor,” Ted said to Mark as he gathered his books. “I’ve got class in five minutes.”
“Tell me what?” Brent asked as Ted brushed past him, clapping him on the shoulder.
“You’re going to love this one,” Mark said, smiling with satisfaction. “Elliot Meyers has left the department.”
“What?” Brent couldn’t believe what he was hearing. This had to be some kind of mistake. If Elliot had left the apartment, he had to be dead or something. “Why?”
“Medical reasons,” Mark said with a shrug. “Apparently, he had to have some surgery and they botched it. He’s in pretty bad shape, or so I’ve heard.”
“Jesus, that’s awful,” Brent muttered.
“Yeah, I’m sure you’re crying inside,” Mark laughed. “Lay off the act, Armstrong. We all know how you feel about Elliot.”
The story about Brent and Elliot was big gossip for a while. Brent was embarrassed that Elliot had made a fool of him last year and he still cursed himself for complaining about it until everyone knew. He had wanted so badly to get his revenge on Elliot back then.
“Elliot is a great mathematician,” Brent said quietly. “Plus he’s a fucking human being. I hate him, but I didn’t want to see him end up like this. He doesn’t deserve to have his life ruined.”
“Are you kidding me?” Mark shook his head. “If anyone deserves this, it’s Elliot. He’s the biggest asshole I’ve ever met... and I’ve worked with string theorists. He tortures his students and he tortured you.”
“He didn’t torture me,” Brent protested weakly.
“Oh yeah, he just made you his slave for a little while,” Mark said. “And then to top it off, he had the nerve to steal Lise from you...”
Lise. The girl he had thought was It. When she first broke up with him, he had snapped. She had done her best to be kind to him and insisted she wasn’t seeing anyone else, but he hadn’t believed her. He insisted that Elliot must be behind all this. Lise had said calmly, “It doesn’t matter. It just isn’t there between us.”
Brent couldn’t admit it to himself right away, but he eventually realized that Lise was right. He knew she cared about him, but he supposed he had always known on some level that she didn’t love him. And it wasn’t her fault. Brent himself had rejected his fair share of women and he knew you couldn’t choose who you fell for.
The whole math department heard about how Lise and Elliot hooked up at the AMS convention—it was the biggest gossip in years. As much as it pained him, Brent had to admit that Lise really liked Elliot. Elliot was the one who could make her happy.
Brent wondered how Lise was holding up. Mark’s comment about Elliot being in “pretty bad shape” sounded ominous. Was he near death? “I think I should check on Lise,” Brent decided.
Mark snickered. “I see where you’re going with this, Armstrong.”
“No,” Brent said. “You have no fucking clue.”
To be continued...