Lise didn’t truly understand the depth of her feelings for Elliot until the moment Dr. Black came into the waiting room to ask his parents’ permission to butcher him. When she heard the doctor’s prognosis, she felt like a knife was being twisted into her chest. As she held back tears, she did something she had never done before: she prayed. She had always thought that sort of thing was dumb, but now she felt so helpless, it was her own option.
Please, God... please let Elliot be okay. Take whatever you want from me... take my arms, my legs, I don’t care. But please, God, spare Elliot...
Two weeks later, Lise was still intact. Elliot was alive, although quite badly disabled. She wished she could see him herself, to verify that he had survived, but he was refusing visitors. When Lise was turned away by the nursing staff, Elliot’s mother told Lise about how the tumor had not been completely removed.
What does that mean? Lise had asked.
It means that at some point, he may have to have another operation and possibly his paralysis will get worse, Mrs. Meyers explained.
I still want to see him, Lise pleaded.
I know you mean well, Mrs. Meyers said, her brow creased with sympathy, but I think Elliot really wants to be alone right now. Maybe... it’s for the best.
Elliot had sent his mother to break up with her—it was the lowest of the low. Lise hated him a little bit, but she also missed him more than she would have thought possible.
It was beginning to become more and more clear, however, that it was over between Lise and Elliot. It was hard for Lise to accept, but she knew that with time, she would. Maybe she’d even get over it someday. But it was much harder for her to accept that Elliot was giving up math. That ate at her very soul. There was no one alive like Elliot when it came to algebraic geometry. She had to find a way to convince him that he was making a huge mistake.
Lise knew that her own math career was at stake too. She was having a lot of trouble focusing and when she received her complex analysis final take-home exam, she wasn’t surprised to see there was a lot of questions she couldn’t solve. It was her own damn fault for letting herself get distracted. It wasn’t going to help Elliot any if she flunked out of grad school.
Lise was struggling with a particularly difficult problem on her exam when she looked up to see Brent’s handsome face at her office door. Considering how poorly he had taken the break-up, Lise was none too happy to see him there. But Brent didn’t seem angry with her. Just the opposite—there was concern in his eyes.
“Are you okay, Lise?” he asked her.
She looked up at him and tried to smile. “Of course.”
Brent pulled up a chair next to her desk. “I heard what happened to Elliot,” he said, “and I’m really sorry.”
He sounded like he meant it. Lise was touched by his sympathy. “That’s really nice of you to say. I know you and Elliot weren’t... the best of friends.”
“Deep down, I don’t think Elliot’s a bad guy,” Brent said. “But really, I’m worried about you, Lise.”
Lise stared into Brent’s blue eyes. Elliot was cute and his intelligence was undeniably sexy, but Brent had the movie star good looks. Sometimes it amazed her that she had given him up. It would have been so much easier to have fallen for Brent. “It’s... nice of you to ask...”
Brent shrugged and smiled, “Hey, I’m a nice guy, right?”
“You are,” she acknowledged.
“So,” he said, “is there anything I can do?”
“I’m okay,” she insisted. “Really.”
“You sure?” Brent’s eyes were soft and concerned. He put his hand on top of hers. It was a friendly gesture, but suddenly Lise felt compelled to press her lips against his. As she tried to resist the urge, she wondered: why bother? It would be so much easier if she could love Brent. She remembered the feel of his comforting warmth against her. She knew it would make her forget her problems, if only for a second. “Brent,” she breathed.
“Don’t,” he said, so softly that she wasn’t sure he had even spoken the word at all or it had just been in her head.
She knew she didn’t love Brent—she just so badly wanted to feel close to someone, after two weeks of Elliot shutting her out. Lise felt the tears rising in her eyes. “Fuck,” she whispered. “I really miss him.”
“I know,” Brent said.
“It’s over,” Lise said, as if realizing it for the first time. A few tears escaped from her eyes and she quickly brushed them away.
“Are you sure?” Brent asked.
Lise nodded. “He... he doesn’t even want to see me.”
“He’s just depressed. I’m sure—”
“It’s over,” Lise repeated. “He made it very clear. And I can accept that. But I can’t accept him quitting math.”
Brent bit his lip thoughtfully. “Do you want me to talk to him?” he asked.
“You? But... you guys hate each other...”
“I don’t hate him,” Brent said. He grinned. “Well okay, I hate him a little. But I also respect him.”
Lise looked at Brent with a newfound appreciation. He really was a good guy. She suddenly began to cry, despite herself. All the frustration and grief poured out of her as Brent held her and told her that it would be all right.
Despite the fact that his mood hadn’t improved, Elliot was grateful when the occupational therapist Selena came to help him learn to feed himself. It had been several days already and he was sick of having to be fed by his parents.
The nurses helped him transfer into his wheelchair. He remembered how hard it had been to learn how to get into the chair successfully and now he had to learn all over again. They set up his food on a tray in front of him.
This is how it’s going to be from now on, Elliot realized. I’m going to need help with every fucking thing.
Selena helped fit a splint onto his limp hand. “Your hands will probably atrophy a lot more,” she told him.
“I know,” he said. The same thing had happened to his legs after the last surgery.
The splint stabilized his hand and his wrist. It had a slit that a fork could go through, so it was almost like he was holding the fork. They had given him soft foods that were easy to eat for his first try.
“This is impossible,” Elliot said, looking at his splinted hand.
“Every C6 quad I’ve ever met has mastered this,” Selena told him. “I think you’ll get it.
“What’s the point?” he retorted. “In a few years, I won’t even be able to move my arms anymore.”
“So you’ll use a sling to support your arm,” Selena replied calmly.
Selena had an answer for everything. The whole thing was ridiculous. It took more and more effort just for him to do the most basic tasks. It was infuriating.
Elliot looked up to see Brent Armstrong standing at the doorway to his room. Fucking Brent Armstrong, tall and blond, who never had a problem in his whole fucking life. How long before Lise would go back to Brent? A month? Two months?
“I didn’t know you were expecting a guest,” Selena said cheerfully.
“I’m sort of... a surprise,” Brent said with an uncomfortable smile.
Elliot didn’t say anything. He didn’t trust himself not to blow up at Brent.
“Why don’t I come back later?” Selena suggested. She winked at Brent, “We weren’t making great progress anyway.”
With Selena out of the room, Brent sat down on the edge of Elliot’s bed, facing his wheelchair. Elliot followed Brent’s progress with his eyes. “So... she’s pretty cute,” Brent commented.
“Why the fuck are you here, Armstrong?” Elliot said.
Brent folded his arms across his chest. “Because when I started out at the university, I thought you were brilliant,” he said, looking Elliot straight in the eyes. “All I wanted was to work with you.” He laughed, “Maybe I thought it would rub off.”
“Yeah, I remember,” Elliot mumbled. Brent had first come into his office a year and a half ago as a bright-eyed first year student, much the same way Lise did. And same as Lise, Elliot had Brent grading papers for him by the end of the week. Elliot recalled the day Brent stormed into his office and hurled the loose stack of ungraded problem sets at him: Here’s what I think of your bullshit, you cocksucker!
“You can’t quit the department,” Brent said.
“Why not? What’s the point?”
“Look, if Stephen Hawking—”
“If one more person brings up Stephen Hawking to me, I’m going to vomit,” Elliot said. “Yeah, Hawkings accomplished a lot with his disability. Big fucking deal. Do you think that’s what I want? For twenty years from now, people to inspire others by saying, Oh, look at what Elliot Meyers accomplished even though he’s a quad! I don’t want to ‘be the best that I can be’... I want to have a fucking life!”
“Why can’t you have a life?” Brent challenged him.
“In another few years, I may not be able to move my arms at all,” Elliot said, watching the expression on Brent’s face. He didn’t look surprised. “Did you know about that?”
“Yeah, Lise told me.”
“She told you?”
“She’s sitting in her office, fucking crying her eyes out over you!” Brent yelled. He shook his head in disgust. “Why do you think I’m here? I can’t stand to see her like that. She doesn’t deserve to get treated like crap by you... she never did.”
Elliot didn’t want to hear that. He missed Lise and he didn’t want to think he was hurting her yet again. But he had to be honest with himself... they couldn’t carry on a relationship like this. And when his condition got worse, he didn’t want her to be stuck with him. “Look Brent, you have no idea what you’re talking about,” he sighed.
“How do you know?”
Elliot frowned and lifted his paralyzed hands, that hung limply from his wrists. “Fine, you know exactly what I’m going through.”
Brent shook his head. “You don’t know shit about me, Meyers. You never bothered to learn anything about me.”
“You know, when I was eight years old, my father started forgetting things,” Brent recalled. “It had probably been going on a while before that, but he managed to hide it until then. And he had always been temperamental, but his mood swings got out of hand. My mother forced him to see a doctor and a few months later, they diagnosed him with Huntington’s disease.” Brent looked away from Elliot, out the window. “We watched him go downhill... get to the point where he was demented and couldn’t control his body at all. He died a few weeks before I started high school.”
Elliot didn’t know what to say. He was silent and Brent continued: “As hard as it was to watch it happen to my father, it’s even harder to know... it’s going to happen to me too.” He swallowed, “But it doesn’t matter... I’m still going to grad school and doing everything I want with my life.”
“It won’t necessarily happen to you,” Elliot pointed out. He didn’t know much about Huntington’s disease, but he remembered the inheritance pattern from biology class. “There’s only a fifty percent chance. You don’t know for sure that you’ll get it.”
“No, you don’t know for sure that the tumor will come back,” Brent corrected him. “When I turned eighteen, I was sick of wondering so I went for genetic testing. I have the gene.” Brent shook his head. “Every time I... forget my keys or... get angry for no reason... I think to myself, that’s it, it’s starting. I might just be paranoid, but either way, I’ve probably got ten good years left.”
Elliot stared at him. “Jesus Christ, Brent...”
“And the thing is,” he said, “compared to you, I barely even qualify as a mathematician. I wish I had your kind of genius. But I don’t care... I love math and I’m going to do it until I’m too fucking demented to think.”
He’s right, Elliot realized. Somehow it had become all about the glory of publication and being praised for his work, but that wasn’t why he had gone into math. Elliot loved doing math. And no matter how much of his body was paralyzed, he’d still be able to think about math. He was actually very lucky, that the one thing he enjoyed most could never be taken away from him.
“Okay,” Elliot said. “You can tell Dr. Kim I’ll be back to the department after I finish rehab.”
“Seriously?” Brent’s eyes actually lit up. Elliot couldn’t help but feel a little bit flattered.
“And what should I tell Lise?”
“Tell her I’ll be back to the department after I finish rehab.”
Brent frowned. “You know that’s not what I mean, Elliot. For some reason nobody can comprehend, she seems to really like you.”
Elliot hadn’t changed his mind about Lise. He knew breaking it off with her was the right thing to do. He couldn’t drag her down with him as he became a completely dependent cripple. “No, I... I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“You know, if you’re not there for her, someone else will be...”
Elliot stared at Brent’s perfectly chiseled features and a truth dawned on him: “You fucker!”
Brent’s eyes widened. “What?”
It was so fucking obvious, Elliot couldn’t believe he hadn’t realized it sooner. “What happened between you and Lise?” he demanded to know. “I shouldn’t have known, shouldn’t I? What happened between you two while I’ve been in the fucking hospital, learning to feed myself again?”
“Nothing happened,” Brent insisted. “And even if it had, what’s the difference? You said yourself that you don’t want to be with her.”
The anger drained out of Elliot’s body. Brent was right. He didn’t own Lise and she was free to do whatever she pleased. He had to get used to the idea of her dating other people. “Can you tell Lise that I’d like to try to be friends?”
“I’ll tell her,” Brent agreed.
Elliot felt a deep sadness come over him. He loved Lise so much. He knew with complete certainty that he would never care about another woman the way he cared about her. But it wasn’t meant to be.
To be continued...