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Chapter no 17

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

e ball was on a Friday evening at a reception center on the river. For eciency, I had brought my costume to work and practiced the cha-cha and rumba with my skeleton while I waited to leave. When I went to the lab to get a beer, I felt a strong twinge of emotion. I was missing the stimulation of the Father Project.

e morning suit, with its tails and tall hat, was totally impractical for cycling, so I took a taxi and arrived at exactly 7:55 p.m., as planned. Behind me, another taxi pulled up and a tall, dark-haired woman stepped out. She was wearing the world’s most amazing dress: multiple bright colors—red, blue, yellow, green—with a complex structure including a split up one side. I had never seen anyone so spectacular. Estimated age thirty-five, BMI twenty-two, consistent with the questionnaire responses. Neither a little early nor a little late. Was I looking at my future wife? It was almost unbelievable.

As I stepped out of the taxi, she looked at me for a moment, then turned and walked toward the door. I took a deep breath and followed. She stepped inside and looked around. She saw me again and looked more carefully this time. I approached her, close enough to speak, being careful not to invade her personal space. I looked into her eyes. I counted one, two. en I lowered my eyes a little, downward, but only a tiny distance.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Don.”

She looked at me for a while before extending her hand to shake with low pressure.

“I’m Bianca. You’ve . . . really dressed up.” “Of course, the invitation specified formal.”

After approximately two seconds she burst into laughter. “You had me for a minute there. So deadpan. You know, you write ‘good sense of humor’ on the list of things you’re looking for, but you never expect to get a real comedian. I think you and I are going to have fun.”

ings were going extremely well.

e ballroom was huge—dozens of tables with formally dressed academics. Everyone turned to look at us, and it was obvious that we had made an impression. At first I thought it must be Bianca’s spectacular dress, but there were numerous other interestingly dressed women. en I noticed that the men were almost without exception dressed in black suits with white shirts and bow ties. None wore tails or a hat. It accounted for Bianca’s initial reaction. It was annoying, but not a situation I was unfamiliar with. I doed my hat to the crowd and they shouted greetings. Bianca seemed to enjoy the attention.

We were at table twelve, according to the seating index, right on the edge of the dance floor. A band was tuning up. Observing their instruments, I concluded that my skills at cha-cha, samba, rumba, foxtrot, waltz, tango, and lambada would not be required. I would need to draw on the work of the second day of the dancing project—rock ’n’ roll.

Gene’s recommendation to arrive thirty minutes after the ocial start time meant that all but three of the seats at the table were already occupied. One of these belonged to Gene, who was walking around, pouring champagne. Claudia was not present.

I identified Laszlo Hevesi from Physics, who was dressed totally inappropriately in combat pants and a hiking shirt, sitting next to a woman whom I recognized with surprise as Frances from the speed-dating night. On Laszlo’s other side was the Beautiful Helena. ere was also a dark-haired man of about thirty (BMI approximately twenty) who appeared not to have shaved for several days, and beside him, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. In contrast to the complexity of Bianca’s costume, she was wearing a green dress with zero decoration, so minimal that it did not even have straps to hold it in place. It took me a moment to realize that its wearer was Rosie.

Bianca and I took the two vacant seats between Stubble Man and Frances, following the alternating male-female pattern that had been established. Rosie began the introductions, and I recognized the protocol that I had learned for conferences and never actually used.

“Don, this is Stefan.” She was referring to Stubble Man. I extended my hand and shook, matching his pressure, which I judged as excessive. I had an immediate negative reaction to him. I am generally not competent at assessing other humans, except through the content of their conversation or written communication. But I am reasonably astute at identifying students who are likely to be disruptive.

“Your reputation precedes you,” Stefan said. Perhaps my assessment was too hasty. “You’re familiar with my work?”

“You might say that.” He laughed.

I realized that I could not pursue the conversation until I introduced Bianca.

“Rosie, Stefan, allow me to present Bianca Rivera.”

Rosie extended her hand and said, “Delighted to meet you.”

ey smiled hard at each other and Stefan shook Bianca’s hand also.

My duty done, I turned to Laszlo, whom I had not spoken to for some time. Laszlo is the only person I know with poorer social skills than mine, and it was reassuring to have him nearby for contrast.

“Greetings, Laszlo,” I said, assessing that formality would not be appropriate in his case. “Greetings, Frances. You found a partner. How many encounters were required?”

“Gene introduced us,” said Laszlo. He was staring inappropriately at Rosie. Gene gave a thumbs-up signal to Laszlo, then moved between Bianca and me with the champagne bottle. Bianca immediately upended her glass. “Don and I don’t drink,” she said, turning mine down as well. Gene gave me a huge smile. It was an odd response to an annoying version-control oversight on my part: Bianca had apparently responded to the original questionnaire.

Rosie asked Bianca, “How do you and Don know each other?” “We share an interest in dancing,” Bianca said.

I thought this was an excellent reply, not referring to the Wife Project, but Rosie gave me a strange look.

“How nice,” she said. “I’m a bit too busy with my PhD to have time for dancing.”

“You have to be organized,” said Bianca. “I believe in being very organized.”

“Yes,” said Rosie, “I—”

e first time I made the final of the nationals was in the middle of my PhD. I thought about dropping the triathlon or the Japanese cookery course, but . . .”

Rosie smiled, but not in the way she usually did. “No, that would have been silly. Men love a woman who can cook.”

“I like to think we’ve moved beyond that sort of stereotyping,” said Bianca. “Don’s quite a cook himself.”

Claudia’s suggestion that I mention my competence in cooking on the questionnaire had obviously been eective. Rosie provided some evidence.

“He’s fabulous. We had the most amazing lobster on his balcony.” “Oh, really?”

It was helpful that Rosie was recommending me to Bianca, but Stefan was displaying the disruptive-student expression again. I applied my lecture technique of asking him a question first.

“Are you Rosie’s boyfriend?”

Stefan did not have a ready answer, and in a lecture that would have been my cue to continue, with the student now healthily wary of me. But Rosie answered for him.

“Stefan is doing his PhD with me.”

“I believe the term is partner,” said Stefan. “For this evening,” said Rosie.

Stefan smiled. “First date.”

It was odd that they did not seem to have agreed on the nature of their relationship. Rosie turned back to Bianca.

“And yours and Don’s first date too?” “at’s right, Rosie.”

“How did you find the questionnaire?”

Bianca looked quickly at me, then turned back to Rosie. “Wonderful. Most men only want to talk about themselves. It was so nice to have someone focusing on me.”

“I can see how that would work for you,” said Rosie.

“And a dancer,” Bianca said. “I couldn’t believe my luck. But you know what they say: the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Rosie picked up her champagne glass, and Stefan said, “How long have you been dancing, Don? Won any prizes?”

I was saved from answering by the arrival of the Dean.

She was wearing a complex pink dress, the lower part of which spread out widely, and was accompanied by a woman of approximately the same age dressed in the standard male ball costume of black suit and bow tie. e reaction of the ball goers was similar to that at my entrance, without the friendly greetings at the end.

“Oh dear,” said Bianca. I had a low opinion of the Dean, but the comment made me uncomfortable.

“You have a problem with gay women?” said Rosie, slightly aggressively. “Not at all,” said Bianca. “My problem’s with her dress sense.”

“You’ll have fun with Don, then,” said Rosie.

“I think Don looks fabulous,” said Bianca. “It takes flair to pull off something a little dierent. Anyone can wear a dinner suit or a plain frock. Don’t you think so, Don?”

I nodded in polite agreement. Bianca was exhibiting exactly the characteristics I was looking for. ere was every chance she would be perfect. But for some reason, my instincts were rebelling. Perhaps it was the no-drinking rule. My underlying addiction to alcohol was causing my unconscious to send a signal to reject someone who stopped me from drinking. I needed to overcome it.

We finished our entrées and the band played a few loud chords. Stefan walked over to them and took the microphone from the singer.

“Good evening, everyone,” he said. “I thought you should know that we have a former finalist in the national dancing championships with us this evening. You may have seen her on television. Bianca Rivera. Let’s give Bianca and her partner Don a few minutes to entertain us.”

I had not expected my first performance to be so public, but there was the advantage of an unobstructed dance floor. I have given lectures to larger audiences and participated in martial arts bouts in front of crowds. ere was no reason to be nervous. Bianca and I stepped onto the dance floor.

I took her in the standard jive hold that I had practiced on the skeleton, and immediately felt the awkwardness, approaching revulsion, that I feel when forced into intimate contact with another human. I had mentally prepared for this, but not for a more serious problem. I had not practiced with music. I am sure I executed the steps accurately, but not at precisely the correct speed, and not at the same time as the beat. We were immediately tripping over each other and the net eect was a disaster.

Bianca tried to lead, but I had no experience with a living partner, let alone one who was trying to be in control.

People began laughing. I am an expert at being laughed at and, as Bianca pulled away from me, I scanned the audience to see who was not laughing, an excellent means of identifying friends. Gene and Rosie and, surprisingly, the Dean and her partner were my friends tonight. Stefan was definitely not.

Something major was required to save the situation. In my dancing research, I had noted some specialized moves that I had not intended to use but remembered because they were so interesting. ey had the advantage of not being highly dependent on synchronized timing or body contact. Now was the time to deploy them.

I performed the running man, milking the cow, and the fishing imitation, reeling Bianca in, though she did not actually move as required. In fact she was standing totally still. Finally, I attempted a body-contact maneuver, traditionally used for a spectacular finish, in which the male swings the female on either side, over his back, and between his legs. Unfortunately this requires cooperation on the part of the partner, particularly if she is heavier than a skeleton. Bianca oered no such cooperation and the eect was as if I had attacked her. Unlike aikido, dancing training apparently does not include practice in falling safely.

I oered to help her up, but she ignored my hand and walked toward the bathroom, apparently uninjured.

I went back to the table and sat down. Stefan was still laughing. “You bastard,” Rosie said to him.

Gene said something to Rosie, presumably to prevent inappropriate public anger, and she seemed to calm down.

Bianca returned to her seat, but only to collect her bag.

e problem was synchronization,” I tried to tell her. “e metronome in my head is not set to the same frequency as the band.”

Bianca turned away, but Rosie seemed prepared to listen to my explanation. “I turned off the sound during practice so I could focus on learning the steps.”

Rosie did not reply, and I heard Bianca speaking to Stefan. “It happens.

is isn’t the first time, just the worst. Men say they can dance . . .” She walked toward the exit without saying good night to me, but Gene followed and intercepted her.

is gave me an opportunity. I righted my glass and filled it with wine. It was a poorly made gordo blanco with excessive residual sugar. I drank it and poured another. Rosie got up from her seat and walked over to the band. She spoke to the singer, then the drummer.

She returned and pointed at me in a stylized manner. I recognized the action: I had seen it twelve times. It was the signal that Olivia Newton-John gave to John Travolta in Grease to commence the dance sequence that I had been practicing when Gene interrupted me nine days earlier. Rosie pulled me toward the dance floor.

“Dance,” she said. “Just fucking dance.”

I started dancing without music. is was what I had practiced. Rosie followed according to my tempo. en she raised her arm and started waving it in time with our movements. I heard the drummer start playing and could tell in my body that he was in time with us. I barely noticed the rest of the band start up.

Rosie was a good dancer and considerably easier to manipulate than the skeleton. I led her through the more dicult moves, totally focused on the mechanics and on not making errors. Grease song finished and everyone clapped. But before we could return to the table, the band started again and the audience clapped in time: Satisfaction. It may have been due to the eect of the gordo blanco on my cognitive functions, but I was suddenly overwhelmed by an extraordinary feeling—not of satisfaction but of absolute joy. It was the feeling I had in the Museum of Natural History and when I was making cocktails. We started dancing again, and this time I allowed myself to focus on the sensations of my body moving to the beat of the song from my childhood and of Rosie moving to the same rhythm.

e music finished and everyone clapped again.

I looked for Bianca, my date, and located her near the exit with Gene. I had presumed she would be impressed that the problem was solved, but even from a distance and with my limited ability to interpret expressions, I could see that she was furious. She turned and left.

e rest of the evening was incredible, changed totally by one dance. Everyone came up to Rosie and me to oer compliments. e photographer gave us each a photo without charging us. Stefan left early. Gene obtained some high-quality champagne from the bar, and we drank several glasses with him and a Hungarian postdoc named Klara from Physics. Rosie and I danced again, and then I danced with almost every woman at the ball. I

asked Gene if I should invite the Dean or her partner, but he considered this to be a question beyond even his social expertise. In the end I did not, as the Dean was visibly in a bad mood. e crowd had made it clear that they would rather dance than listen to her scheduled speech.

At the end of the night, the band played a waltz, and when it was finished, I looked around and it was just Rosie and me on the dance floor. And everyone applauded again. It was only later that I realized that I had experienced extended close contact with another human without feeling uncomfortable. I attributed it to my concentration on correctly executing the dance steps.

“You want to share a taxi?” asked Rosie. It seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel.

In the taxi, Rosie said to me, “You should have practiced with dierent beats. You’re not as smart as I thought you were.”

I just looked out the window of the taxi.

en she said, “No way. No fucking way. You did, didn’t you? at’s worse. You’d rather make a fool of yourself in front of everyone than tell her she didn’t float your boat.”

“It would have been extremely awkward. I had no reason to reject her.” “Besides not wanting to marry a parakeet,” said Rosie.

I found this incredibly funny, no doubt as a result of alcohol and decompensation after the stress. We both laughed for several minutes, and Rosie even touched me a few times on the shoulder. I didn’t mind, but when we stopped laughing, I felt awkward again and averted my gaze.

“You’re unbelievable,” said Rosie. “Look at me when I’m talking.”

I kept looking out the window. I was already overstimulated. “I know what you look like.”

“What color eyes do I have?” “Brown.”

“When I was born, I had blue eyes,” she said. “Baby blues. Like my mother. She was Irish but she had blue eyes. en they turned brown.”

I looked at Rosie. is was incredible. “Your mother’s eyes changed color?”

My eyes. It happens with babies. at was when my mother realized that Phil wasn’t my father. She had blue eyes and so does Phil. And she decided to tell him. I suppose I should be grateful he wasn’t a lion.”

I was having trouble making sense of all that Rosie was saying, doubtless owing to the eects of the alcohol and her perfume. However, she had given me an opportunity to keep the conversation on safe ground. e inheritance of common genetically influenced traits such as eye color is more complex than is generally understood, and I was confident that I could speak on the topic for long enough to occupy the remainder of our journey. But I realized that this was a defensive action and impolite to Rosie, who had risked considerable embarrassment and damage to her relationship with Stefan for my benefit.

I rolled back my thoughts and reparsed her statement: “I suppose I should be grateful he wasn’t a lion.” I assumed she was referring to our conversation on the night of the Balcony Meal when I informed her that lions kill the ospring of previous matings. Perhaps she wanted to talk about Phil. is was interesting to me too. e entire motivation for the Father Project was Phil’s failure in that role. But Rosie had oered no real evidence beyond his opposition to alcohol, ownership of an impractical vehicle, and selection of a jewelry box as a gift.

“Was he violent?” I asked.

“No.” She paused for a while. “He was just—all over the place. One day I’d be the most special kid in the world, next day he didn’t want me there.”

is seemed very general, and hardly a justification for a major DNA investigation project. “Can you provide an example?”

“Where do I start? Okay, the first time was when I was ten. He promised to take me to Disneyland. I told everyone at school. And I waited and waited and waited and it never happened.”

e taxi stopped outside a block of flats. Rosie kept talking, looking at the back of the driver’s seat. “So I have this whole thing about rejection.” She turned to me. “How do you deal with it?”

e problem has never occurred,” I told her. It was not the time to

begin a new conversation.

“Bullshit,” said Rosie. It appeared that I would need to answer honestly. I was in the presence of a psychology graduate.

ere were some problems at school,” I said. “Hence the martial arts. But I developed some nonviolent techniques for dealing with dicult social situations.”

“Like tonight.”

“I emphasized the things that people found amusing.”

Rosie didn’t respond. I recognized the therapy technique but could not think of anything to do but elaborate.

“I didn’t have many friends. Basically zero, except my sister.

Unfortunately she died two years ago because of medical incompetence.” “What happened?” said Rosie, quietly.

“An undiagnosed ectopic pregnancy.”

“Oh, Don,” said Rosie, very sympathetically. I sensed that I had chosen an appropriate person to confide in.

“Was she . . . in a relationship?”

“No.” I anticipated her next question. “We never found out the source.” “What was her name?”

is was, on the surface, an innocuous question, though I could see no purpose in Rosie’s knowing my sister’s name. e indirect reference was unambiguous, as I had only one sister. But I felt very uncomfortable. It took me a few moments to realize why. Although there had been no deliberate decision on my part, I had not said her name since her death.

“Michelle,” I said to Rosie. After that, neither of us spoke for a while.

e taxi driver coughed artificially. I presumed he wasn’t asking for a beer.

“You want to come up?” said Rosie.

I was feeling overwhelmed. Meeting Bianca, dancing, rejection by Bianca, social overload, discussion of personal matters—now, just when I thought the ordeal was over, Rosie seemed to be proposing more conversation. I was not sure I could cope.

“It’s extremely late,” I said. I was sure this was a socially acceptable way of saying that I wanted to go home.

e taxi fares go down again in the morning.”

If I understood correctly, I was now definitely far out of my depth. I needed to be sure that I wasn’t misinterpreting her.

“Are you suggesting I stay the night?”

“Maybe. First you have to listen to the story of my life.”

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson. Unidentified alien approaching! I could feel myself slipping into the emotional abyss. I managed to stay calm enough to respond.

“Unfortunately I have a number of activities scheduled for the morning.” Routine, normality.

Rosie opened the taxi door. I willed her to go. But she had more to say.

“Don, can I ask you something?” “One question.”

“Do you find me attractive?”

Gene told me the next day that I got it wrong. But he was not in a taxi, after an evening of total sensory overload, with the most beautiful woman in the world. I believed I did well. I detected the trick question. I wanted Rosie to like me, and I remembered her passionate statement about men treating women as objects. She was testing to see if I saw her as an object or as a person. Obviously the correct answer was the latter.

“I haven’t really noticed,” I told the most beautiful woman in the world.

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