Chapter no 10

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

e next morning, I returned with some relief to the routine that had been so severely disrupted over the preceding two days. My Tuesday, ursday, and Saturday runs to the market are a feature of my schedule, combining exercise, meal-ingredients purchase, and an opportunity for reflection. I was in great need of the last of these.

A woman had given me her phone number and told me to call her. More than the Jacket Incident, the Balcony Meal, and even the excitement of the potential Father Project, this had disrupted my world. I knew that it happened regularly: people in books, films, and TV shows do exactly what Rosie had done. But it had never happened to me. No woman had ever casually, unthinkingly, automatically, written down her phone number, given it to me, and said, “Call me.” I had temporarily been included in a culture that I considered closed to me. Although it was entirely logical that Rosie should provide me with a means of contacting her, I had an irrational feeling that, when I called, Rosie would realize that she had made some kind of error.

I arrived at the market and commenced purchasing. Because each day’s ingredients are standard, I know which stalls to visit, and the vendors generally have my items prepackaged in advance. I need only pay. e vendors know me well and are consistently friendly.

However, it is not possible to time-share major intellectual activity with the purchasing process, owing to the quantity of human and inanimate obstacles: vegetable pieces on the ground, old ladies with shopping carts, vendors still setting up stalls, Asian women comparing prices, goods being delivered, and tourists taking photos of each other in front of the produce. Fortunately I am usually the only jogger.

On the way home, I resumed my analysis of the Rosie situation. I realized that my actions had been driven more by instinct than logic. ere were plenty of people in need of help, many in more distress than Rosie, and numerous worthy scientific projects that would represent better use of my time than a quest to find one individual’s father. And of course, I should be giving priority to the Wife Project. Better to push Gene to select more suitable women from the list, or to relax some of the less important selection criteria, as I had already done with the no-drinking rule.

e logical decision was to contact Rosie and explain that the Father Project was not a good idea. I phoned at 6:43 a.m. on returning from the run and left a message for her to call back. When I hung up, I was sweating despite the fact that the morning was still cool. I hoped I wasn’t developing a fever.

Rosie called back while I was delivering a lecture. Normally, I turn my phone off at such times, but I was anxious to put this problem to bed. I was feeling stressed at the prospect of an interaction in which it was necessary for me to retract an oer. Speaking on the phone in front of a lecture theater full of students was awkward, especially as I was wearing a lapel microphone.

ey could hear my side of the conversation. “Hi, Rosie.”

“Don, I just want to say thanks for doing this thing for me. I didn’t realize how much it had been eating me up. Do you know that little coee shop across from the Commerce Building—Barista’s? How about two o’clock tomorrow?”

Now that Rosie had accepted my oer of help, it would have been immoral, and technically a breach of contract, to withdraw it.

“Barista’s, two p.m. tomorrow,” I confirmed, though I was temporarily unable to access the schedule in my brain because of overload.

“You’re a star,” she said.

Her tone indicated that this was the end of her contribution to the conversation. It was my turn to use a standard platitude to reciprocate, and the obvious one was the simple reflection of “You’re a star.” But even I realized that made no sense. She was the beneficiary of my starness in the form of my genetics expertise. On reflection, I could have just said “Good-bye” or “See you,” but I had no time for reflection. ere was considerable pressure to make a timely response.

“I like you too.”

e entire lecture theater exploded in applause.

A female student in the front row said, “Smooth.” She was smiling. Fortunately I am accustomed to creating amusement inadvertently.

I did not feel too unhappy at failing to terminate the Father Project. e amount of work involved in one DNA test was trivial.

We met at Barista’s the next day at 2:07 p.m. Needless to say, the delay was Rosie’s fault. My students would be sitting in their 2:15 p.m. lecture waiting for my arrival. My intention had been only to advise her on the collection of a DNA sample, but she seemed unable to process the instructions. In retrospect, I was probably oering too many options and too much technical detail too rapidly. With only seven minutes to discuss the problem (allowing one minute for running to the lecture), we agreed that the simplest solution was to collect the sample together.

• • •

We arrived at the residence of Dr. Eamonn Hughes, the suspected father, on the Saturday afternoon. Rosie had telephoned in advance.

Eamonn looked older than I had expected. I guessed sixty, BMI twenty-three. Eamonn’s wife, whose name was Belinda (approximately fifty-five, BMI twenty-eight), made us coee, as predicted by Rosie. is was critical, as we had decided that the coee-cup rim would be an ideal source of saliva. I sat beside Rosie, pretending to be her friend. Eamonn and Belinda were opposite, and I was finding it hard to keep my eyes away from Eamonn’s cup.

Fortunately, I was not required to make small talk. Eamonn was a cardiologist and we had a fascinating discussion about genetic markers for cardiac disease. Eamonn finally finished his coee and Rosie stood up to take the cups to the kitchen. ere, she would be able to swab the lip of the cup and we would have an excellent sample. When we discussed the plan, I suggested that this would be a breach of social convention, but Rosie assured me that she knew Eamonn and Belinda well as family friends, and as a younger person, she would be allowed to perform this chore. For once, my understanding of social convention proved more accurate. Unfortunately.

As Rosie picked up Belinda’s cup, Belinda said, “Leave it, I’ll do it later.” Rosie responded, “No, please,” and took Eamonn’s cup.

Belinda picked up my cup and Rosie’s and said, “Okay, give me a hand.”

ey walked out to the kitchen together. It was obviously going to be dicult for Rosie to swab Eamonn’s cup with Belinda present, but I could not think of a way of getting Belinda out of the kitchen.

“Did Rosie tell you I studied medicine with her mother?” asked Eamonn.

I nodded. Had I been a psychologist, I might have been able to infer from Eamonn’s conversation and body language whether he was hiding the fact that he was Rosie’s father. I might even have been able to lead the conversation in a direction to trap him. Fortunately we were not relying on my skills in this arena. If Rosie succeeded in collecting the sample, I would be able to provide a far more reliable answer than one derived from observations of behavior.

“If I can oer you a little encouragement,” Eamonn said, “Rosie’s mother was a bit wild in her younger days. Very smart, good-looking, she could have had anyone. All the other women in medicine were going to marry doctors.” He smiled. “But she surprised us all and picked the guy from left field who persisted and stuck around.”

It was lucky I wasn’t looking for clues. My expression must have conveyed my total lack of comprehension.

“I suspect Rosie may follow in her mother’s footsteps,” he said.

“In what component of her life?” It seemed safer to seek clarification than assume that he meant getting pregnant by an unknown fellow student or dying. ese were the only facts I knew about Rosie’s mother.

“I’m just saying I think you’re probably good for her. And she’s had a rough time. Tell me to mind my own business if you like. But she’s a great kid.”

Now the intent of the conversation was clear, although Rosie was surely too old to be referred to as a kid. Eamonn thought I was Rosie’s boyfriend. It was an understandable error. Correcting it would necessarily involve telling a lie, so I decided to remain silent. en we heard the sound of breaking crockery.

Eamonn called out, “Everything okay?” “Just broke a cup,” said Belinda.

Breaking the cup was not part of the plan. Presumably, Rosie had dropped it in her nervousness or in trying to keep it from Belinda. I was annoyed at myself for not having a backup plan. I had not treated this

project as serious fieldwork. It was embarrassingly unprofessional, and it was now my responsibility to find a solution. It would surely involve deception, and I am not skilled at deception.

My best approach was to source the DNA for a legitimate reason. “Have you heard about the Genographic Project?”

“No,” said Eamonn.

I explained that with a sample of his DNA we could trace his distant ancestry. He was fascinated. I oered to have his DNA processed if he organized a cheek scraping and sent it to me.

“Let’s do it now, before I forget,” he said. “Will blood do?” “Blood is ideal for DNA testing, but—”

“I’m a doctor,” he said. “Give me a minute.”

Eamonn left the room, and I could hear Belinda and Rosie speaking in the kitchen.

Belinda said, “Seen your father at all?” “Next question,” said Rosie.

Belinda instead responded with a statement. “Don seems nice.” Excellent. I was doing well.

“Just a friend,” said Rosie.

If she knew how many friends I had, she might have realized what a great compliment she had paid me.

“Oh well,” said Belinda.

Rosie and Belinda returned to the living room at the same time as Eamonn with his doctor’s bag. Belinda reasonably deduced that there was some medical problem, but Eamonn explained about the Genographic Project. Belinda, who was a nurse, took the blood with professional expertise.

As I handed the filled tube to Rosie to put in her handbag, I noticed her hands were shaking. I diagnosed anxiety, presumably related to the imminent confirmation of her paternity. I was not surprised when she asked, only seconds after leaving the Hughes’s residence, if we could process the DNA sample immediately. It would require opening the lab on a Saturday evening but at least the project would be completed.

• • •

e laboratory was empty: throughout the university, the archaic idea of working Monday to Friday results in an incredible underutilization of

expensive facilities. e university was trialing analysis equipment that could test for parent-child relationships very quickly. And we had an ideal DNA sample. It is possible to extract DNA from a wide variety of sources and only a few cells are needed for an analysis, but the preparatory work can be time-consuming and complex. Blood was easy.

e new machine was located in a small room that had once been a tearoom with sink and refrigerator. For a moment I wished it had been more impressive—an unusual intrusion of ego into my thoughts. I unlocked the refrigerator and opened a beer. Rosie coughed loudly. I recognized the code and opened one for her also.

I tried to explain the process to Rosie as I set up, but she seemed unable to stop talking, even as she used the scraper on her inner cheek to provide me with her DNA sample.

“I can’t believe it’s this easy. is quick. I think I’ve always known at some level. He used to bring me stuff when I was a kid.”

“It’s a vastly overspecified machine for such a trivial task.”

“One time he brought me a chess set. Phil gave me girly stu—jewelry boxes and shit. Pretty weird for a personal trainer when you think about it.”

“You play chess?” I asked.

“Not really. at’s not the point. He respected that I have a brain. He and Belinda never had any kids of their own. I have a sense that he was always around. He might even have been my mum’s best friend. But I’ve never consciously thought of him as my father.”

“He’s not,” I said.

e result had come up on the computer screen. Job complete. I began packing up.

“Wow,” said Rosie. “Ever thought of being a grief counselor?”

“No. I considered a number of careers, but all in the sciences. My interpersonal skills are not strong.”

Rosie burst out laughing. “You’re about to get a crash course in advanced grief counseling.”

It turned out that Rosie was making a sort of joke, as her approach to grief counseling was based entirely on the administration of alcohol. We went to Jimmy Watson’s on Lygon Street, a short walk away, and as usual, even on a weekend, it was full of academics. We sat at the bar, and I was surprised to find that Rosie, a professional server of drinks, had a very poor knowledge of wine. A few years ago Gene had suggested that wine was the

perfect topic for safe conversation and I did some research. I was familiar with the backgrounds of the wines oered regularly at this bar. We drank quite a lot.

Rosie had to go outside for a few minutes because of her nicotine addiction. e timing was fortunate, as a couple emerged from the courtyard and passed the bar. e man was Gene! e woman was not Claudia, but I recognized her. It was Olivia, the Indian vegetarian from Table for Eight. Neither saw me, and they went past too quickly for me to say anything.

My confusion at seeing them together must have contributed to my next decision. A waiter came up to me and said, “ere’s a table for two that’s just come free in the courtyard. Are you eating with us?”

I nodded. I would have to freeze the day’s market purchases for the following Saturday, with the resulting loss of nutrients. Instinct had again displaced logic.

Rosie’s reaction to finding a table being set for us on her return appeared to be positive. Doubtless she was hungry, but it was reassuring to know that I had not committed a faux pas, always more likely when dierent genders are involved.

e food was excellent. We had freshly shucked oysters (sustainable), tuna sashimi (selected by Rosie and probably not sustainable), eggplant and mozzarella stack (Rosie), veal sweetbreads (me), cheese (shared), and a single serving of passion fruit mousse (divided and shared). I ordered a bottle of Marsanne and it was an excellent accompaniment.

Rosie spent much of the meal trying to explain why she wanted to locate her biological father. I could see little reason for it. In the past, the knowledge might have been useful to determine the risk of genetically influenced diseases, but today Rosie could have her own DNA analyzed directly. Practically, her stepfather Phil seemed to have executed the father role, although Rosie had numerous complaints about his performance. He was an egotist; he was inconsistent in his attitude toward her; he was subject to mood swings. He was also strongly opposed to alcohol. I considered this to be a thoroughly defensible position, but it was a cause of friction between them.

Rosie’s motivation seemed to be emotional, and while I could not understand the psychology, it was clearly very important to her happiness.

After Rosie had finished her mousse, she left the table to “go to the bathroom.” It gave me time to reflect and I realized that I was in the process of completing a noneventful and in fact highly enjoyable dinner with a woman, a significant achievement that I was looking forward to sharing with Gene and Claudia.

I concluded that the lack of problems was due to three factors.

  1. I was in a familiar restaurant. It had never occurred to me to take a woman—or indeed anyone—to Jimmy Watson’s, which I had only previously used as a source of wine.

  2. Rosie was not a date. I had rejected her, comprehensively, as a potential partner, and we were together because of a joint project. It was like a meeting.

  3. I was somewhat intoxicated—hence relaxed. As a result, I may also have been unaware of any social errors.

At the end of the meal, I ordered two glasses of sambuca and said, “Who do we test next?”

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