After three dates with Lise Johnston, Brent Armstrong thought he might be in love with her. Lise was, in many ways, everything Brent had been looking for in a woman. She was a really smart girl, she was fun, she was beautiful... and she seemed to like him back too (of course, that last thing had never been much of a problem for Brent).
Brent usually didn't fall for girls so quickly, but he had never met anyone quite like Lise. He found himself thinking about her all the time. When he passed her in the hallways, it brightened his whole day. They had kissed a few times and each time he touched her, he felt little bolts of electricity go through him. Maybe it was a little cheesy, but Brent didn't care. Lise was wonderful.
Everything would have been perfect except for one thing: Elliot Meyers. That goddamn asshole. Brent had revered Elliot for a long time and now had come to despise him. Lise was still in the reverence phase, unfortunately. Elliot was piling work on her and she was doing it all with a cheerful smile. And Brent had a feeling that Lise had a bit of a crush on Elliot, despite the way he treated her.
Elliot was a genius, Brent had to give him that. But he had absolutely no social skills to speak of. And Brent didn't like Elliot dumping work on his would-be girlfriend.
If Elliot believed that he got special treatment because of his brains rather than his disability, he was kidding himself. Brent was certain that if Elliot wasn't in a wheelchair, he would have been kicked out of the program years ago for the shit he pulled. Brent had no idea what was physically wrong with Elliot--and yes, he felt a little bit sorry for him. It was obvious that Elliot was a little self-conscious about the wheelchair. But goddamn it, that was no excuse.
Brent found Elliot by mailboxes in the grad student lounge, sliding a pile of papers in Lise's mailbox. Lise had one of the higher mailboxes, so Elliot had to stretch to get the papers in. Brent felt his blood pressure rising as he watched.
"Hey, Elliot," Brent said.
Elliot started and looked up at Brent. A phony smile touched his lips. "Hey, Brent. How's it going?"
"Fine. And you?"
"I'm stuck TA'ing bullshit intro calculus."
"Well, what's the difference when Lise is doing all the work?"
"How...?" Elliot narrowed his eyes. "Okay, I get it. You like her or something."
Brent balled his hand into a fist. "Yeah, I do like her. But it doesn't fucking matter. You can't keep doing this to the first years."
"You mean what I did to you," Elliot clarified.
"That's right," Brent said coolly. He crossed his arms. "She's got her own work to do, you know. It's not right for you to fuck with her like this."
Elliot just smiled and shrugged. It was infuriating for Brent to see that Elliot wasn't feeling guilty in the slightest about what he was doing to Lise. Elliot deserved to be kicked out of the program. Better yet, he deserved to get his ass kicked. And nobody else had the nerve to do it.
Yeah? You gonna beat up a cripple, tough guy? Brent bit his lip. The truth of the matter was that he had no choice but to keep accepting Elliot's shit with a smile.
Lise had been grading Elliot's problem sets for him for several weeks, so she was surprised when she checked her mailbox and failed to see a new set. It was already later than Elliot usually got them to her, and she began to wonder what had happened. She decided to go to Elliot's office and pick up the problem sets personally.
When she reached Elliot's office, she found him sitting at his desk, looking over some papers. She was surprised to realize that the papers were actually calculus problem sets. Elliot was grading them himself.
"What are you doing?" Lise asked him.
Elliot hadn't noticed her come in and his brown eyes widened with surprise. "Oh... Lise..." He cleared his throat. "Listen, I wanted to talk to you..."
Lise frowned and lowered herself into one of the extra chairs in the room. She wanted to be eye level with Elliot. "What is it?"
"You don't need to grade my problem sets anymore," Elliot said quietly. "It's my responsibility. I'll grade them."
"I don't mind," Lise said, reaching for the stack.
Elliot grabbed her hand before she could take it. She looked down at his hand--his fingers looked strange, a little bit atrophied. She felt a tingle go through her. "You've got other work to do, Lise," he said. "First year is important. I don't want to fuck things up for you."
Lise had been asking around and had been told by the other grad students that Elliot had no social life whatsoever. He stayed late in his office every night and lived alone in an apartment off campus. Nobody had ever seen him with a woman. Lise found herself wondering if he felt lonely. She wanted to try to be his friend, but he didn't seem to want to talk to her. And now if he broke this connection they had, she would have no reason to ever come see him anymore.
"I said that I wanted to help you," Lise insisted. Before he could stop her, she snatched the problem set he had been grading from the top of the pile. "See? This is awful, Elliot. I can't even read your comments. You've got the worst handwriting I've ever seen."
Elliot smiled a little crookedly. "I'm lucky I can write at all."
Lise studied his face. "Is everything okay?" she asked him.
"Yeah," he replied vaguely. "Everything's fine."
"I want to keep helping you," Lise repeated.
Elliot's eyes narrowed. "I don't need any fucking charity, Lise."
"It's not charity," Lise said. "What you're working on is so much more important than anything I have to do. If I can give you more time to work on it, then at least I know I'm contributing something."
Lise watched Elliot's face, waiting to see if he'd buy her story. Elliot was just arrogant enough to believe it.
Elliot stared at her for a minute, his brown eyes gazing into hers. Slowly, a smile touched his face. "Sure, you want to do it? Go ahead." He slid the problem sets across the table toward her. "Knock yourself out."
Lise smiled back and picked up the pages from the table. "I'll get them back to you ASAP."
Elliot was impressed by the enthusiasm Lise was showing. By this point last year, Brent had already given Elliot the finger and stormed out on him. But Lise was still cheerfully grading the problem sets and had even come up with a lesson plan for his section. Elliot had accepted her lesson plan when she handed it to him, but later tossed it in the garbage. He would show up for section, but he had no intention of putting any effort into it.
Bill Aronov, the calculus professor, complained to the chairman of the department, Dr. Kyung Kim, about his behavior. Dr. Kim sent Elliot an email, asking to see him in his office. When Elliot arrived, Dr. Kim gave him the usual exasperated expression. "Bill says you're not teaching your section," he said.
"Yes, I am," Elliot protested.
Kim rolled his eyes. "I look stupid to you, Elliot? Come on."
Elliot sighed. "Freshman calculus... I just can't do this bullshit."
Nobody else would have had the nerve to speak to Kyung Kim that way. Kim had a doctorate in both mathematics and physics, and was extremely well respected in both fields. But Kim had been the one to personally make the necessary arrangements to persuade Elliot to attend the university for his degree. Kim had told Elliot in the past that his work was unparalleled by anyone else in the field of algebraic geometry. If anyone should understand that Elliot had better things to do than babysit a bunch of freshman, it was Kyung Kim.
"I'm sorry, Elliot," Kim said. "It couldn't be helped. I knew you were going to throw a fit, but there was no one else to take the class. I know you have trouble writing on the blackboard--"
Elliot's face turned red. That wasn't how he wanted them to think of him--as too crippled to teach a section. "It's not about the blackboard. It's about the time commitment."
"I don't know what to tell you," Kim said, the creases deepening on his face. "We're paying you and we expect you to teach your section and do all your work." Kim stared at Elliot over the rim of his glasses. "You going to behave yourself?"
Elliot gripped the armrests of his chair, "Yeah, sure."
He was pissed off about getting yelled at by Dr. Kim, but apparently it wasn't enough for Bill Aronov. When Bill came by to drop off the midterm exams for Elliot to grade, he was scowling. "I guess nobody in the department cares about teaching anymore," he remarked bitterly.
Elliot sincerely doubted that Bill gave a shit about the quality of teaching. The stick up his ass was due to the complaints he had to field about Elliot, as well as his frustration at not getting his way.
Each teaching assistant was given one exam question to grade. The question Elliot had been assigned was a proof with several sticky details. The TA's were told to allot the points "at your own discretion", so Elliot graded it as harshly as possible, taking off points for improper wording and even bad handwriting (ironically). He figured there would be complaints, but the complaints would all go to Bill.
Lise walked into his office just as he was finishing up the grading. She had come to help him grade the exam, but he figured this was the sort of thing he ought to do himself. Problem sets were trivial, but it the midterm was actually worth something.
"You're done already?" Lise asked in surprise, looking at the stack of graded exams.
Elliot shrugged, "I've graded a lot of exams in the last three years."
"What question did you grade?"
Lise plucked the exam off the top of the pile and flipped to the eighth question. She let out a low whistle, "My, you are harsh."
"You took off a point because they didn't make a line through the z," Lise observed.
"It looks like a two."
She shook her head, "I'd hate to have you grading my exam if you're going to be this harsh."
"I'd be even harsher with you," Elliot said, "because I know you know your shit."
Lise looked up at him in surprise and Elliot was immediately sorry he said anything. "How do you know I know my shit?" she challenged him.
"I looked up your senior thesis from college," he confessed. He felt himself blushing. He didn't want her to know he had been thinking about her in his free time. She already probably felt bad for him that he couldn't walk and now she probably thought he was a pathetic stalker or something.
Her reaction surprised him, however. Her eyes lit up. "You looked up my thesis? Wow, that's... I'm really flattered."
"Well, I was curious," he mumbled.
"And... and you liked it?"
"I did," he admitted. "You really have good insights into algebraic geometry. I happen to know a little about the field..."
"A little!" Lise laughed. "Are you kidding? You're like... a god in algebraic geometry. You don't know how much it means to me that you liked my thesis. The only reason I started my research in the first place was because your papers got me so excited."
Elliot had received plenty of gushing reviews of his work. He knew that what he came up with was revolutionary, which was why he was the first grad student to be asked to speak at the AMS convention. But most of the people who praised him had never even met him. He had never been told to his face that he was "a god", much less by a beautiful woman. How could she think that about him? How could she look at him, fucking paralyzed in a wheelchair, and still worship him?
"Thanks," Elliot muttered, looking away.
Lise reached across the table and put her hand on top of his. Her fingers felt very soft. "Elliot, I think you're the smartest man alive. I really do."
Elliot felt himself getting hard. Fuck, he thought. He hated that she could affect him this way. A cute girl complimented him and he was practically slobbering all over himself. He had to remember that Lise was Brent's girlfriend now. Brent, that fucking prettyboy, who would never appreciate her. Brent could have any girl he wanted, but he had to have Lise. Elliot tried to make a joke, "You're just saying that because Einstein is dead."
Lise smiled, "I think you should speak at that AMS convention. I think it's a crime not to present your work at that forum."
Almost immediately, Elliot's erection deflated. "I told you, Lise..."
You fucking know why not. There was no way in hell Elliot was going to wheel himself onto the stage at the convention and let everyone see him like this. There was no better way to lose respect. People read Elliot's papers and they thought he was brilliant. He wanted to be judged on the basis of his work. He didn't want the first thing that people thought of when they heard his name to be "that quad who's good in math." Fuck that.
"Forget it," Elliot said. His voice left no room for discussion.
Lise began to pout. "But, Elliot..."
"Stop pouting," he said, smiling despite himself. She was cute when she pouted, that was undeniable. Lise was really cute. Really, really cute. And she thought the world of him. How often did a girl like that come along? Pretty much never.
"You're stubborn," she declared.
"It's one of the many, many things everyone hates about me."
"That's for sure," Lise laughed. "Everyone is impressed I've tolerated you this long."
"You ready to give up yet?" Elliot looked into her eyes and his heart jumped. He couldn't remember anyone ever looking at him that way before.
"No fucking way," Lise said.
To be continued...