The Mathematician

Lise Johnston couldn't help but feel slightly intimidated by the university math department as she received her introductory tour from fourth year student Peter Sitnisky. Peter was doing his best to make her feel at home, thrilled as he was to have a female in the program, but Lise found herself getting more and more anxious by the second. She was at one of the best universities in the country and she was beginning to wonder if she could possibly live up to these expectations.

"As you surely know, we have three Fields Medalists on staff in our department," Peter told her. "We've also had several of our graduates go on to win this medal. There have been less than fifty Fields Medalists in history, you know.

"Very impressive," Lise said. The Fields Medal was the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in mathematics. (There didn't exist a Nobel Prize in math and the urban legend about this was that a mathematician had slept with the wife of Alfred Nobel.) Lise knew that there had never been a female Fields Medalist in history.

Peter placed an uninvited hand on her back to lead her into the math grad student lounge. "I wouldn't be surprised if there's a Fields Medalist or two in our current bunch of students. We have some really impressive grad students right now."

The university did have an impressive group of grad students, but there was one name that stood out above all of the others. "Elliot Meyers goes here, doesn't he?" Lise said.

Peter raised an eyebrow. "You know Elliot?"

"By reputation," Lise explained. Elliot Meyers had by far the most impressive reputation of any graduate student in the country. In college, he had won the prestigious Putnam math competition three years in a row and versions of his senior thesis were widely published and quoted. The work he had published thus far for his graduate thesis on the use of new tools in symplectic topology and their applications to algebraic geometry was groundbreaking. Lise was good in math, but Elliot Meyers was on a completely different level.

"Elliot was voted by the students as the person most likely to trisect an angle," Peter told her.

"Oh, really?" Lise laughed. "Is he still here? Hasn't he finished his thesis yet?"

Peter shook his head. "Elliot's a perfectionist. He could have had his degree a year ago if he wanted. He thinks his thesis is going to completely revolutionize the field so he keeps obsessing over it. Don't get me wrong, he's a brilliant guy, but I think he's nuts for sticking around and getting paid our shit grad school salary." Peter smiled apologetically. "Sorry for the rant. Elliot shares my office and I've been hearing him bitch about his thesis for the last three years."

"Actually, I'd love to hear him talk about his thesis," Lise said. After everything she had heard about Elliot Meyers, it would be like hearing God himself speaking. She was thrilled that he was still at the university. "I've read all his articles on enumerative algebraic geometry. Will he be giving any presentations any time soon?"

"Elliot?" Peter laughed. "Yeah, right."

Lise frowned. "What do you mean?"

"Nothing," Peter said, "just that Elliot isn't too fond of... people."

Lise wasn't overly surprised. Aside from the computer scientists, there were few people less social than the mathematicians. Few of them knew how to talk to women and fewer of them bathed and groomed themselves regularly. Social awkwardness generally spawned a dislike of people. She wondered if Elliot Meyers was one of those guys with the long scruffy beards going down his chest that hadn't been washed since last spring.

Still, the mathematicians she had met were nothing if not arrogant as hell. If Elliot was as brilliant as people said he was, why didn't he want to show off his ideas to his adoring public?

"And there is the women's bathroom," Peter went on, pointing down the hallway. He winked at her, "I think you'll have it pretty much all to yourself."


"Fucking cocksucking shit!"

Peter Sitnisky heard the string of profanity echoing in the halls before he even reached the door to his office. He almost did an about-face; Peter didn't think he could deal with Elliot's moodiness right now. But the metric topology book he needed was in the office, so he didn't have much of a choice.

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!" Elliot was yelling at his computer screen as Peter walked in. "Fuck!"

"What is it?" Peter asked. He wasn't sure why he even bothered anymore. He didn't really care what was bothering Elliot. Something was always pissing him off.

"They assigned me fucking intro to calculus," Elliot said, his face pink with anger. "I told them I wasn't TA'ing any more freshman classes. What the fuck is this?"

"I don't know. What's the difference?" Peter had TA'd intro calculus before and it hadn't been that bad.

"You know how much time this is going to waste?" Elliot retorted. Peter knew Elliot thought every second of his time was precious. "I have two fucking sections to teach, four hours of office hours a week, and then I have to grade all these little problem sets and exams... I mean, do they think I have nothing better to do?" Elliot slammed his fist against the armrest of his wheelchair to punctuate his point.

Elliot Meyers was by far the worst tempered person in the math department. Peter had the bad fortune to share an office with him for the last two years, a situation he had been unable to remedy despite his best efforts to be relocated. Elliot also happened to be the only disabled member of the math department, which granted him certain exceptions that Elliot seemed to take for granted. He usually had less teaching responsibilities than anyone else, a fact he wouldn't admit was due to the chairman's observation that he had trouble using his hands to write on the blackboards.

Elliot's temper was a frequent topic of discussion among the grad students. Some people thought that Elliot was just born an asshole. Other people thought that he was bitter about being in the wheelchair. Peter's personal theory was that Elliot needed to get laid. Badly. Peter had never seen his officemate with a woman and he would have bet the farm that Elliot was still a virgin. Anyone would be in a bad mood if they were a 26 year old virgin.

"Why can't they get a first year student to teach calculus?" Elliot was saying. "I think that's a little more appropriate."

Elliot was so fucking arrogant. "The first years aren't given teaching responsibilities first semester," Peter reminded him.

"What? That's bullshit!" Elliot cried. "You mean I have to babysit a bunch of freshman and the first year grads get to do nothing all semester? Fuck that. Who are the first years?"

"There's Todd Rosengauz, Jed Weiss, Lise Johnston..."

"Whoa!" Elliot raised his eyebrows. "Lise Johnston? That's a woman?"

"Uh, yes."

Elliot smiled. "You get a chance to hit on her yet, Pete?"

Peter clenched his fists. Sure, Peter had taken out every female grad student in the classes below his, but he had never done anything inappropriate. No, Elliot was just trying to piss him off. He watched Elliot shifting slightly in his wheelchair, anticipating Peter's reaction.

They had never talked about how Elliot got his disability, but Peter had observed that he could still move his legs. Clearly not enough to walk though. There was something with his hands too, but Peter wasn't sure what. His fingers seemed a little funny somehow. Elliot could write, but he held the pen strangely and had a tendency to drop things, although he usually acted like it was no big deal.

Elliot liked to give Peter a hard time about the girls he went out with... the so-called "math sluts", but Peter always got the feeling he only did it because he was jealous. Maybe Elliot was an extremely well-respected genius, but Peter wouldn't have traded lives with him. Elliot was not a happy guy.

"I didn't hit on her," Peter said simply.

"Why not? Is she a dog?"

"No, she's... cute." Lise Johnston was a little more that cute. She was pretty damn hot for a girl who was good in math.

"Maybe she'd be willing to teach the class for me..." Elliot said thoughtfully.

"What are you talking about?"

"Why don't you ask Lise if she'd be willing to teach my sections and do the grading for me?" Elliot said. "Come on, it'll give you an excuse to talk to her."

"I don't think that's allowed," Peter protested. "Besides, you can fucking tell her yourself, can't you?"

"I don't talk to first years," Elliot explained.

If not for that wheelchair, Peter felt certain he would have punched Elliot in the face by now. Even with the chair, he was sorely tempted.


Elliot Meyers never for a minute expected any privileges to be granted to him on the basis of his disability. He did expect, however, for privileges to be granted based on the fact that he was the best grad student the university ever had. And yes, he knew the university had put out a shocking five Fields Medalists. But that was nothing compared to what Elliot believed he would do someday.

Elliot didn't think of himself as arrogant�rather, as realistic. As a small child, an IQ test had discovered his genius, but it was Elliot who cultivated his love of mathematics. By the time he was in high school, he began taking math competitions and found that he easily beat out all the other students. He wrote math papers that won nationwide competitions. He knew he was destined to go on to great things.

It was early during Elliot's junior year of high school that he realized something was wrong with him. He had a strange tingling sensation in his legs that never went away and twice he fell flat on his face for no good reason. Elliot was terrified for the first time in his life. Elliot had read about the great physicist Stephen Hawkings with Lou Gehrig's disease--he had started out with similar symptoms. Hawkings wound up in a wheelchair, trapped in a paralyzed body, but the overwhelming likelihood was that a person with Lou Gehrig's disease would simply die, quickly and painfully. There was no treatment. It took several weeks of worsening symptoms before Elliot finally worked up the nerve to tell his parents.

Several imaging studies later, the doctors diagnosed a large tumor impinging on his spinal cord. The tumor was benign, but it was growing rapidly and compressing normal cord. The doctors recommended he have the tumor removed immediately in order to avoid permanent damage. Elliot wasn't happy that he had a tumor, but it was a relief that after one surgery, this would all be over.

The doctors had warned Elliot before the surgery that there was a chance he might have some residual weakness in his legs after the tumor was removed. Elliot accepted this risk. But when the anesthesia wore off, Elliot discovered that his lower legs were all but useless. The doctors explained that the cord was more damaged than they had thought and they had to sever parts of it to get all the tumor out. The good news was that his sensation was largely preserved. The bad news was that he probably wouldn't get much motor function back.

The doctors told Elliot that he wouldn't be dependent on a wheelchair, that he'd be able to walk again with legbraces. This was good news, but the first time Elliot saw himself in a mirror wearing the heavy braces, he felt sick. He had never been vain about his appearance, but the braces made him look very crippled. They were clunky metal braces that stabilized his ankles and knees. His hips still functioned pretty well. With time, Elliot learned to walk again with his braces and forearm crutches.

Elliot had always been somewhat socially isolated, but he became much worse once he started using the braces. He hated being the disabled kid and he hated the fact that everyone was so awkward around him now. He hated the noise his braces made when he walked and having to wait for the elevators at the far end of the school. He quickly lost his few friends and threw himself completely into his studies.

It was around that time that people around him began to recognize that Elliot was a true genius. As the math grew harder and people around him struggled, Elliot excelled. He devoured math texts in his free time and consulted a professor at a local university to assist him in his research. Even at seventeen, Elliot was beginning to make a name for himself. Colleges were clamoring for him to attend.

In college, Elliot was so caught up in the world of math, it took him a while to realize that he had started dropping cups and plates for no reason. He eventually made his way back to his doctor, who informed him that the tumor had returned. They had to operate immediately because it was growing rapidly.

Elliot went into the surgery believing that it couldn't wind up any worse than the last time. He was wrong. When he woke up, Elliot found that his fingers were still weak and the doctors informed him that this was probably permanent. Additionally, his hip and abdominal muscles were significantly weakened. As a result, he couldn't walk anymore with his old braces; when he tried them on, he was horrified to find that he couldn't even stand up.

The doctors gave him new braces that went nearly up to his nipples. He felt ridiculous in the braces and walking in them was a laborious task. Elliot kept the braces and used them occasionally, but usually stuck to his wheelchair.

Technically, Elliot was a quadriplegic because all four of his limbs were affected. He hated to think of himself that way though. He could still move his hands well enough to hold a pen and write with it, and he could move his legs, even though his legs were no longer strong enough to support his weight. Sometimes he felt like he could still get up out of his chair and walk across the room. But experience taught him if he tried it, he'd wind up flat on his face.

When the graduate school was courting him, they told him about all the ways they would accommodate his disability. Elliot didn't want to hear it. All he wanted to know was whether he'd be left in peace to do his research. He had chosen this university because they had made certain promises, none of which involved teaching freshman calculus.

Ever since Elliot received his assignment, he became obsessed with finding a way out of it. Teaching intro calc was just too time consuming and it was an insult to someone with his knowledge. He had only been half serious when he asked his office-mate Peter to get that first year Lise Johnston to do his work for him, but the idea took shape in his head when he received an unsolicited email directly from Lise:

Dear Mr. Meyers,
I've been studying your work in enumerative algebraic geometry for some time now. Although I realize you are still a student graduate department and would not be able to work with me as a mentor, I am very interested in discussing your research further if you are able to make the time.
Thank you,
Lise Johnston

Elliot was very amused by her use of the title "Mr. Meyers" in referring to him. Lise Johnston obviously thought a lot of him, which could work to his advantage. Elliot wondered how she had built him up in her mind. She probably had been idolizing him for years, through her undergraduate education. No fucking way she knew he used a wheelchair. He wondered what her reaction would be when she found out. He always dreaded that first response to his disability, even though he should have been used to it by now.

He began to compose his response to Lise.

To be continued...