Two months later
Peter Sitnisky heard the cursing before he even walked into the room. His old instincts kicked in and he contemplated turning around to go home. But no, he had come to the hospital to visit Elliot, so that’s what he would do. He had already made it this far.
When he walked into Elliot’s room, the sight before him looked comfortingly familiar. With all the rumors flying around, Peter didn’t have any idea what to expect when he came to the hospital, but as it turned out, Elliot didn’t look so bad at all. He was sitting in his wheelchair, as usual, peering through his glasses at the screen of a laptop computer that had been set up on a table in his room. Just like every single day for the last three years. The only difference was that now Elliot’s hands were on his lap instead of on the keyboard.
There were all sorts of rumors flying around the department about what had happened to Elliot Meyers. When Peter finally worked up the nerve to call Elliot, he had gotten the straight story—that the surgery had affected Elliot’s hands and his wrists somewhat, but he’d had some recovery, and more importantly, he’d still be returning to the department soon to complete his research. Peter was relieved to hear it. At first it was a nice break not having Elliot around, but after a few weeks, Peter found that he missed him.
Now Peter could see for himself that his former officemate was relatively okay. Yeah, he had lost about twenty pounds so that his gray sweatsuit hung loosely on his frame. But there was still that same determination on his face, despite his pale skin and the purple circles under his eyes. Elliot was still the same guy he had always been.
“Elliot, how are ya doing?” Peter said, trying to sound cheerful.
Elliot looked up at his colleague and shook his head irritably. “Pete, I’m right in the middle of...” he glanced back at the screen, “Fuck! Stop writing! Goddamn fucking dictation program!”
Nope, Elliot hadn’t changed a bit. “Yeah, it’s good to see you too, Meyers.”
Elliot sighed. “Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Thanks for coming by, Peter.”
“Mind if I sit?” Peter asked, half-hoping Elliot would refuse.
“Sure, go ahead.”
As Peter pulled up a chair, Elliot put his hands on the wheels of his chair and moved away from the computer. He still seemed to be able to wheel his own chair, just like before. Except now Peter noticed he was wheeling his chair with the balls of his hands, and that his hands were covered by gloves that looked similar to the wrist guards that Peter used when he roller bladed.
“If I knew you were coming, I would have told you to sneak in some food,” Elliot said. “I’ve been eating this hospital crap for too long.”
“How much longer do you have here?”
“Two weeks of rehab,” Elliot said. “But I probably won’t be back in the department for at least a month. I’ve been working on my dissertation though and I should be ready to defend in a few months.”
“It really does go faster without having to teach, I guess,” Peter joked.
Elliot looked sad all of a sudden and Peter realized his remark was in bad taste. “Shit, I’m sorry, Elliot...”
Elliot shrugged. “No, you’re right... I finally got my wish, didn’t I?” He cleared his throat. “By the way, Sitnisky, I was that office spotless when I get back. I can’t wheel all over your crap anymore like I’m in a fucking Hum-V.”
“The office was always cluttered with your shit, Elliot,” Peter pointed out, glad to be sparring again.”
“Yeah, and I guess that was my poster of Halle Berry half-naked on the wall...”
“Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy looking at her, Meyers.”
Elliot grinned. “I guess it wasn’t too unpleasant.”
At that moment, a guy in his late twenties came wheeling into the room, interrupting Peter and Elliot’s banter. The guy was dark with olive skin and rode a much bulkier chair than Elliot’s that was tilted backwards. His arms were strapped to his armrests and he seemed to be controlling the chair with his chin. Peter wouldn’t have given the guy a second glance if not for the very attractive girl riding on his lap.
“Last stop on the powerchair express,” the guy announced as the girl dismounted, giggling all the while. He noticed Peter was staring and turned his chair in his direction. “Hey, I’m Arnie Moretti, Elliot’s roommate.”
“I’m Peter,” he said. “Elliot and I share an office.”
“Good to meet you, Peter,” Arnie said. “Excuse me for not shaking hands,” he joked.
“I’m Karen,” the girl said, flashing a shy smile.
“Karen’s my woman,” Arnie said with a grin. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we’d like to be alone...”
Arnie wheeled to his side of the room and Karen shut the drapes to give them privacy. Peter couldn’t help but stare in the direction of the closed drapes, wondering what the couple was doing behind there. “Jesus...” he said.
“I know,” Elliot said. “How the fuck does a quadriplegic end up with an attractive girl, right?”
“That’s not what I meant...”
“Bullshit.” Elliot shrugged. “Look Pete, it doesn’t really matter...”
Peter realized that Elliot was exactly right. The only reason he had been staring was because he couldn’t figure out how a man like that had a girl like Karen.
“So... uh, how is Lise?” Elliot asked.
“All right, I guess.” Peter had been dreading this question ever since he agreed to visit Elliot and he hoped his answer didn’t spark further questions. To be safe, he added: “I don’t have much contact with her.”
“Is she seeing anyone?” Elliot was clearly trying to sound disinterested and not succeeding.
Peter wondered whether or not to lie. By the time he decided it was probably better to conceal the truth, his hesitation had given him away and he decided to ‘fess up. “Yeah, she is.”
“Oh,” Elliot lowered his brown eyes. He placed his gloved hands on his wheels as he took a slow breath. “Is it anyone I know?”
“Holy shit!” Elliot’s eyes widened. “Barry Crowler? She’s dating Barry? Fuck, how does she even know Barry?”
Barry Crowler was another department hot shot, although he had been around a lot longer than Elliot. He received his doctorate in differential geometry a few years back and had already made a name for himself on staff at the university. Barry was, without a doubt, a very smart guy. And he wasn’t half as difficult to work with as Elliot was.
“I don’t know much about it, man,” Peter admitted.
“But Barry’s too old for her... he’s like, forty...”
Elliot looked like he was having trouble processing this information. “Is... is it serious?”
Peter could see that Elliot looked worried. Peter didn’t get it. Elliot had dumped Lise. He had to expect that a fine chica like Lise wouldn’t be single long. “I don’t think Barry dates much,” Peter said. “So I’d imagine it’s kind of serious.”
“Yeah, I guess... fuck...” Elliot took a deep breath. “You know what? I’m happy for her. That’s great, really. Tell her I said that.”
“Okay, I will...”
Elliot was looking down at his hands, which were completely immobilized up to his forearm by the splints covering them. It must be really hard for him, Peter acknowledged. Peter had never really understood Elliot, but at this moment, he felt a deep sympathy for him.
It didn’t 100% sink in that it was really over with Lise until Peter told Elliot that she was seeing someone else. And not just someone else: Barry Crowler. Barry was really fucking smart. He was no rebound guy either.
Elliot didn’t regret his decision to end his relationship with Lise. He couldn’t. He knew it was the right thing to do. He couldn’t allow her to get more and more wrapped up in his care until she was just a fucking nursemaid for him. And when it came to a sexual relationship, he didn’t have much feeling left in his penis and he wasn’t sure how well he could even perform anymore. He also recognized that the longer they stayed together, the more it would hurt when it ended. And let’s face it, it had to end. True, he had regained a lot of movement in his elbows and even in his wrists, but he was still very limited. He couldn’t even take care of his own toileting anymore, so how could he stay in a relationship? It was ridiculous. The best plan was to go back to focusing entirely on math, like he did before he met Lise.
Lise wanted to stay friends, but she didn’t realize how hard it was for him just to hear her voice on the phone. He finally agreed to take her phone calls and she had said to him that he was “too important not to be in my life” or something girly like that. She knew him well enough to know he couldn’t refuse her.
Lise began calling him every other night. For the most part, they just talked about math. Occasionally she got stuck on questions from the weekly problem sets she had to do for complex analysis and he was happy to help her out, although he could tell that she hated having to ask for hints. He guessed she was a little worried he might blow up at her like he always did at his calculus students—he almost did one time when she made what he believed was an obvious mistake, but he quickly checked himself. Lise was smart and everyone made mistakes.
Mostly, they discussed algebraic geometry, which was a favorite topic for both of them. Lise was most interested in the arithmetic and geometry of elliptic surfaces, which wasn’t Elliot’s strongest subject, but he still knew a lot more than she did. He introduced her to the results that could be proven on torsion sections of elliptic surfaces, a topic that had always piqued his interest. He was thrilled that it seemed to interest her as well.
She also asked him questions to help guide her in starting her research and picking an adviser. Of course, now he felt dumb for discussing these things with her, considering Barry was much better equipped to answer her questions. She was obviously just humoring him. Or maybe she just liked hearing his voice as much as he liked hearing hers. That seemed like wishful thinking though.
They never talked about people they knew or the possibility of either of them having a romantic relationship. Elliot knew it would have to happen for her eventually, but he had hoped it wouldn’t be quite this soon. Maybe after he got his doctorate, he’d feel more sure of himself again, so he’d be able to deal with the idea of Lise moving on... but it was definitely too soon now. He hated the thought of Barry touching her the way he did.
Lise called him in the hospital the same night as Peter’s visit. He wanted to ask her about Barry, but he was too afraid to hear the answer. Despite what he said to Peter, he knew the only thing that would make him happy was to hear that her relationship wasn’t serious or better yet, it was just a dumb rumor.
Before he could even contemplate asking, however, he discovered that Lise had an agenda of her own. “I was wondering,” she said, “if I could come visit you sometime?”
No! Elliot didn’t want to see Lise... not now, at least. He didn’t want her to see the way he was still struggling to do the most basic tasks. Maybe when he got better at it... maybe when he felt certain he could transfer without any fear of falling. But how long would that be? He had to face her eventually. It was better to see her now than to run into her and Barry when he came back to the university next month. “Okay... I guess so...”
“Really?” Lise sounded thrilled. “That would be great! When would be a good time? How about day after tomorrow?”
How about never? “Um... I guess...”
Lise was excitedly making plans for the visit. As she spoke, he realized how badly he missed her. There would never be anyone else like her. He’d be damn lucky if they could stay friends.
“The department just isn’t the same without you,” Lise was saying.
“Everyone’s happier, I’ll bet,” he said.
“A little,” she admitted.
Elliot smiled. He had no delusions about how the rest of the math department felt about him. In a way, he sort of liked his reputation for being a pain in the ass.
“So,” Elliot said, trying to sound casual. “I hear you’re dating Barry Crowler.”
When she hesitated on the other line, Elliot cursed himself for asking the question. He knew he shouldn’t have said that. He figured that friends talked about relationships, so he was obligated to say something. Also, he was very curious to hear her answer. He was hoping she’d deny it.
“Yes, I am,” Lise finally said.
He wondered if that was guilt in her voice. “I think that’s great,” he said.
“Sure, Barry’s a brilliant guy.”
“And that’s all that matters, huh?”
Elliot sighed. “Lise, I just want you to be happy.”
He meant what he said, but for a moment, he was hoping for the Hollywood ending. He hoped Lise would say to him: If you want me to be happy, then let me be with you. But she didn’t say that. Instead she said, “Barry makes me happy.” Elliot felt like he had been punched in the gut.
“Good,” he said.
“So I’ll see you day after tomorrow?” Lise asked.
“Sure, whatever,” Elliot said. Fuck fuck fuck...
He felt awful when he hung up the phone. It was true—he had really blown it for good. The algebraic geometry problem he had been thinking about before she had called seemed unimportant now—all he could think about was her. And what could have been if not for this fucking tumor.
To be continued...