Lise worked with Elliot both on his presentation and on walking with the braces. She came over to his apartment nearly every evening to work on developing his powerpoint presentation, then to help him with walking. The subject of their prospective romantic relationship was carefully avoided since that first day, although Elliot realized he was rapidly falling in love with her. Lise wasn't just smart and pretty... she was a kind and wonderful person. But he couldn't force her to like him back.
Elliot was pleased with the progress he made with the braces. He put them on as soon as he got home every day and walked with them for the rest of the evening. He didn't feel quite comfortable enough to go out in public without the back-up of his wheelchair, but he could manage in his own home. It made him regretful that he hadn't used the braces more in the last few years. They had seemed so intimidating when he first started trying to use them.
Of course, they were still very clunky and required a lot of arm strength. Using them within his apartment was one thing, but he didn't think he could walk much further than the length of a city block. Still, he didn't need to do much better than that to give his presentation. All he needed to do was walk onto the stage, then hold himself up for the length of the talk.
It was Lise who came up with the suggestion that he try using the braces during the section he taught. The AMS convention was less than a week away and she reasoned that it would be good practice.
"I don't know," Elliot said. "The section is a whole hour. That's a long time. And what will I do with my chair in the meantime?"
"I'll hang onto it for you," Lise promised. "I'll have it waiting for you when you finish."
She managed to talk him into it, but he still had a lot of misgivings. He practiced in his apartment the night before, pretending to be teaching. The AMS presentation was going to be an hour, so he knew he had to get used to it... and if he ran into problems, he could always sit down. Still, he just felt like he wasn't quite ready.
Lise walked Elliot to his section the next day, and took his wheelchair from him at the door. Elliot stood up unsteadily, leaning heavily on his crutches. "What if I can't make it?" he said.
"You'll make it," Lise said firmly. She touched his shoulder gently, causing his whole body to tingle. He had to get over this girl... it was ridiculous that she affected him this way.
Elliot crutched slowly into the classroom. About half the students were there already and none of them commented on the fact that their teacher was on his feet, but he suspected they were surprised. He leaned against the desk, but didn't sit. He had to make it through the hour standing.
"Any questions on the homework?" Elliot asked the students.
He saw the kids exchanging looks. They were all afraid to ask questions, with good reason. Elliot had a tendency to ridicule any questions that he didn't deem worthy of his explanation. But today he decided he was going to try to be nice for a change.
A girl in the second row raised her hand, "Do you have any hints for question three?"
"Question three?" Elliot stared at her incredulously. He had said he was going to be nice, but this girl was asking too much of him. "That's the most basic application of integration by parts. Do you understand integration by parts?"
"Professor Aronov has been going over integrating by parts all week, right? I mean, were you asleep through all that?"
"Then what's not to understand?"
Elliot shook her head. "Okay, okay, I'll give you a 'hint'. But in the future, read the textbook before you ask me any questions."
He tried not to ridicule the next three students who asked questions, difficult as it was. By this point, he was still doing okay with his braces, considering his section was more than half over. He was pleased with himself. In fact, he was certain he would have made it through the entire hour if Brent hadn't stormed into the classroom, his usually mild blue eyes filled with murder.
"Motherfucker," Brent growled, oblivious to the fact that Elliot was teaching a section.
"Excuse me?" Elliot said.
Brent walked right up to Elliot and shoved him hard in his left shoulder. Elliot stumbled slightly and had to grip his crutches to keep from falling. "I can't believe you stole Lise right from under my nose. As if what you did to me last year wasn't enough..."
"Excuse me?" Elliot said again. He glanced over at his room full of students, who were watching in awkward surprise, but none of them looked like they had any intention of helping him. Elliot would have bet that there were several students who would have really enjoyed seeing the crap beaten out of him.
"You know what I'm talking about, you arrogant piece of shit," Brent snarled. He shoved Elliot once again, pushing him back against the desk. The right crutch slipped out of his hand and went tumbling to the ground. Fuck, Elliot thought.
Elliot turned to the students, "Um, you guys can go." As much as he was afraid to be alone with Brent, it was painfully obvious nobody was making a move to help him and he didn't want there to be an audience watching this. It seemed like there was a chance Brent might back off once he finished humiliating him.
As the students were leaving, one guy gave Brent a thumbs up and said, "Kick his ass, Armstrong." Elliot cursed himself for not knowing that student's name (or anyone else's name).
The more anxious Elliot became, the more difficult it was for him to stay standing. This was exacerbated by the fact that his left forearm had started tingling and his wrist was feeling very weak all of a sudden. He realized that if he didn't sit down in the next minute, he was going to end up on the floor. "Brent, will you let me sit down, please?"
"Why should I?" Brent shoved him again and this time Elliot dropped his left crutch and had to cling on to the desk. Elliot felt his legs beginning to go into spasm. He tried to lean back, using the desk to support him as much as possible.
"I didn't steal Lise," Elliot insisted. "I swear, Brent." He felt the beads of sweat forming at his brow. "I swear."
Brent frowned. "Look, I know she's got some dumb little crush on you. I'm not stupid. She dumped me yesterday and--"
"She dumped you?" Elliot stared at Brent in earnest surprise. He hadn't believed Lise would really go through with it.
"Yeah, she did," Brent's shoulders sagged and he backed away. Elliot quickly moved toward the chair, unlocked his braces, and collapsed into it, breathing hard. Thank god. "Sorry, Elliot... I just assumed..."
"Only assume if you're working on a proof by contradiction," Elliot said. It was a geeky joke, but Brent snickered slightly. Elliot's heart was still pounding in his chest, but it seemed like he was safe for now. Of course, once Lise came in with his wheelchair, Brent was probably going to get worked up again.
"I really loved her," Brent said. "This is the first time I've been in love and it's the first time I've been dumped. Kind of ironic, isn't it?" He shook his head. "I don't know why the fuck I'm telling this to you."
Elliot wished he didn't. There was no way he was going to tell Brent how he felt about Lise. "Jesus, she's just a girl," Elliot said with a shrug.
Brent smiled wryly, "Yeah, like anyone believes you really think that."
With those words, Brent turned and left the classroom as abruptly as he had entered. Elliot stayed in his seat, rubbing his tingling wrist. It seemed like everyone knew he had a thing for Lise. Even Lise knew it.
Elliot looked up and saw Lise standing at the doorway with his wheelchair. He looked at his watch and saw that the hour was up. He was supposed to stand the whole time, but he hadn't made it. Of course, there were extenuating circumstances. But there was no way he was going to tell Lise that her ex-boyfriend had bust in on his section and threatened him.
"I got a little tired, that's all," Elliot lied. He rubbed his wrists, which had stopped tingling, and he picked his crutches up from the floor. He knew it looked odd that his crutches weren't leaning against the desk, but Lise didn't say anything.
"So are you getting excited about the convention?" Lise asked. She parked his wheelchair by the blackboard and sat down in it casually, like it was just another seat in the room. Elliot was shocked by the gesture. People usually jumped away like they had touched fire if they even so much as brushed against his chair.
"You're sitting in my chair," he stated.
Lise shrugged, "Well, you're not using it... you've got the braces. I'm tired too, you know."
"Yeah, but..." Elliot shook his head. "Doesn't it feel weird to you?"
"I don't know, does it feel weird to you?"
"It did at first," he admitted. He remembered a time when he hated that chair with every fiber of his being. "I'm used to it now."
"How long as it been?" she asked, her brow crinkling with curiosity.
"About six years now that I've been using it all the time," he told her. "But before that, I just used it sometimes."
He purposely didn't tell her the reason. Maybe it was sadistic, but he wanted her to have to ask. He didn't want to volunteer his life story to anyone, not even Lise. Nobody in the math department knew why he couldn't walk.
"What happened?" Lise said finally.
He searched her face for signs of sympathy. That was one of the reasons he hated telling people what happened to him—he hated the look they gave him. You poor boy, I'm so sorry. Elliot hated pity more than anything. Pity was for wounded animals in the pound. Life was hard, that's the way it was, and he didn't want or need anyone's sympathy.
"I had a tumor in my spinal cord," he told her.
He waited to hear the words: I'm so sorry.
"Well," Lise said, "if you think about it, there's nothing really you can do about something like that, is there? It's not like you did something insane like bungee jumping and you hurt yourself."
"I guess not." Elliot wasn't sure he agreed with her logic, but he was pleased she didn't look like she felt sorry for him. Of course, she might think a little differently if she knew the tumor was back and he needed to have surgery right after the convention was over.
"I don't know about you, but I'm really psyched about the convention," Lise said, deftly changing the subject.
Elliot almost let the comment slide, but then his ears perked up, "Wait, you're excited?"
"Sure, it'll be a lot of fun."
He blinked. "You were invited?"
Lise frowned. "Uh huh. I was invited by you."
"Uh, no you weren't."
"Didn't you ask for my help?"
"And aren't you allowed to bring a guest?"
"Holy shit," Elliot said. He was cornered. It hadn't even occurred to him that Lise would want to go. "You really want to go to this?"
"Are you kidding?" Lise's pretty eyes were wide. "Some of the greatest mathematicians of our time are going to be there. To be in a room with those people... my god. It would be such an honor. Also, I heard Richard Grunseich is speaking about Heegaard splitting of three-manifolds."
"Sure, that's fine... if you're interested in geometry topology," Elliot said, rolling his eyes. "Kind of pedestrian, don't you think? You may as well study the multiplication tables." In truth, he was impressed by Lise's interest in the AMS convention. She was just as excited about math as he was.
"Well, I'm mostly excited about hearing your presentation," she said.
"You heard it," he pointed out. "You've seen all my slides already."
"But I want to see the reaction," Lise said. "I bet you'll get a standing ovation."
Elliot smirked. "Standing ovations are pretty rare at American Mathematical Society conferences. It's only happened once in history."
Lise put her hand on his shoulder, "If Frank Cole could do it, then so could you."
In 1903, the 32 year old mathematician Frank Cole gave a talk at an AMS conference entitled "On the Factorization of Large Numbers." It was a presentation of his life's work. Cole walked up to the blackboard and multiplied the numbers 193707721 and 761838257287. The result he came up with was equal to 2 to the 67th power minus one, the 67th Mersenne "prime", now proven to be composite. Cole never said one word during the presentation and received the only standing ovation in the history of AMS.
Elliot knew this obscure story, but he couldn't believe Lise caught his reference. He was rendered almost speechless. There was no one else like this girl.
"What?" Lise was smiling.
"You're really wonderful," Elliot said. He blushed as soon as the words left his mouth.
"Thank you," Lise replied. "So are you."
Dr. Kyung Kim was glad when Elliot Meyers made an appointment to meet with him, because there were matters he wanted to discuss with the young mathematician. Ever since Elliot had agreed to speak at the AMS convention, Kim knew that the university was going to have to make a great offer in order to hold onto him. Every university in the country would soon be clambering to put Elliot on their staff.
Five years ago, Kim had read one of Elliot's published journal articles and been blown away. Kim had recently been appointed chairman of the math department and he knew they had to get Elliot at any cost. Kim had dealt with many young math geniuses and had been expecting the worst with Elliot. Elliot hadn't disappointed him.
Kim remembered when they had first met. He spoke to Elliot briefly on the phone and explained how eager he was to get together, then turned the arrangements over to his secretary. When Fran had asked for his approval to make special transportation arrangements for a wheelchair-user, Kim had been very surprised. Elliot hadn't mentioned anything on the phone about being disabled. And when they met in Kim's office, he didn't even inquire about special accommodations. Elliot didn't seem to want to call any attention to the fact that he needed a wheelchair to get around.
Even though Elliot refused to go along with it, Kim used the disability card as much as possible to help him. When the department balked at the substantial stipend Kim wanted to give him, Kim pointed out that the department could apply for extra government subsidies due to having a disabled student. And how did it look, anyway, if the department didn't have any disabled students?
Thanks to the speeches Kim was forced to give on Elliot's behalf, he was well versed in the history of great scientists with disabilities. Thomas Edison, inventor of the light bulb, was partially deaf and a diabetic. Einstein had Asperger's syndrome as well as dyslexia. Sir Isaac Newton, who Kim considered one of the greatest physicists in history, suffered from a stutter and epilepsy. James Joule, a great English physicist, was denied a professorial appointment due to a congenital spinal defect that plagued him through his life.
The list went on and on. The famous Johannes Kepler, who studied the motion of the planets, was unable to use his hands due to a small pox attack when he was three years old... then later in life, went nearly blind. Galileo also experienced blindness. Biochemist James Summer, winner of the Nobel Prize, was discouraged from going into science due to the arm he had amputated when he was 17. Leonhard Euler, a brilliant Swiss mathematician, went blind in one eye at age 28, after a fever brought on by solving a particularly difficult problem, then lost his entire vision to cataracts at age 60, yet he continued to work for many years after. And then of course, there was the modern example of Stephen Hawkings, who was severely disabled from Lou Gehrig's disease, yet was one of the brightest minds of their time.
When the other members of the math department argued against offering Elliot a position at the university, due to the fact that he couldn't carry out his teaching responsibilities effectively, Kim said, "What if we had shunned Tartaglia in the 16th century because his severe stutter kept him from teaching? We might never have found a general solution for equations of the third degree!" Nobody could argue with that logic.
Now Elliot was nearly finished with his dissertation and they had to act fast. Kim was prepared to do whatever it took to keep Elliot at the university.
When Elliot wheeled into Kim's office for his appointment, Kim was ready to make an offer. He wasn't about to let a great mathematician slip through his fingers. "I heard that you were speaking at the AMS convention," Kim said. "It's quite an honor."
"Yes..." Elliot said. "I hope it's not a problem that I'll have to miss my section next week. Bill isn't going to be happy about it."
Kim waved his hand, "Bill can go bang his head against a wall for all I care." Bill Aronov had marched into his office weeks earlier and demanded that Elliot's stipend be cut off due to neglect of his teaching duties. Kim calmly replied that he'd suspend Bill's salary in a heartbeat before he did anything to Elliot. Bill had been furious, but there was nothing he could do.
Elliot smiled. "I'm glad you're on my side now."
"Of course I'm on your side," Kim assured him. "And I know why you wanted to talk to me."
"You do?" Elliot seemed surprised. Kim looked him over, trying to assess how the negotiations might go. Elliot, with his pale, innocuous face, sitting in that wheelchair, didn't look like the brilliant man he was. He didn't look like he was difficult to deal with either. It always came as a surprise to people that he was such a bastard.
"I know someone like yourself will probably get dozens of fantastic offers for next year," Kim said. "But I hope you'll consider our university above all the others. I'd like to offer you an associate professorship for next year. Your teaching responsibilities will be minimal and you'll be able to concentrate mainly on research."
Elliot's brown eyes widened. "Really?"
Kim nodded. "Yes. Absolutely."
"Wow," Elliot breathed. "Thank you, Dr. Kim. But... um, that's not why I wanted to talk to you..."
"It's not?" Kim raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, I... uh...." Elliot shifted in his wheelchair. "I need some time off. Maybe six months."
This was the last thing he had expected to hear. "Why?"
"Medical reasons," Elliot mumbled, looking away. "I... have to have surgery and the recovery time..."
"Are you all right?" Kim asked, concerned.
Elliot didn't reply. He just flashed Kim a small apologetic smile.
Oh shit. "It's okay, Elliot," Kim said quickly. "It's fine. Take as much time as you need."
This didn't sound good at all. Another great mathematician down the tubes. Kim hoped that Elliot would come back, but he could look at the boy's face and see that something was seriously wrong. Kim realized this could be the last time he saw Elliot Meyers for a long while.
To be continued...