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Chapter no 30

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

I booked a meeting with Claudia at the usual café to discuss social behavior. I realized that improving my ability to interact with other humans would require some eort and that my best attempts might not convince Rosie. But the skills would be useful in their own right.

I had, to some extent, become comfortable with being socially odd. At school, I had been the unintentional class clown and eventually the intentional one. It was time to grow up.

e server approached our table. “You order,” said Claudia. “What would you like?”

“A skinny decaf latte.”

is is a ridiculous form of coee, but I did not point it out. Claudia would surely have received the message from previous occasions and would not want it repeated. It would be annoying to her.

“I’d like a double espresso,” I said to the server, “and my friend will have a skinny decaf latte, no sugar, please.”

“Well,” said Claudia. “Something’s changed.”

I pointed out that I had been successfully and politely ordering coee all my life, but Claudia insisted that my mode of interaction had changed in subtle ways.

“I wouldn’t have picked New York City as the place to learn to be genteel,” she said, “but there you go.”

I told her that, on the contrary, people had been extremely friendly, citing my experience with Dave the Baseball Fan, Mary the bipolar-disorder researcher, David Borenstein the dean of medicine at Columbia, and the chef and weird guy at Momofuku Ko. I mentioned that we had dined with the Eslers, describing them as friends of Rosie’s family. Claudia’s conclusion

was simple. All this unaccustomed social interaction, plus that with Rosie, had dramatically improved my skills.

“You don’t need to try with Gene and me, because you’re not out to impress us or make friends with us.”

While Claudia was right about the value of practice, I learn better from reading and observation. My next task was to download some educational material.

I decided to begin with romantic films specifically mentioned by Rosie.

ere were four: Casablancae Bridges of Madison CountyWhen Harry Met Sally, and An Aair to Remember. I added To Kill a Mockingbird and

e Big Country for Gregory Peck, whom Rosie had cited as the sexiest man ever.

It took a full week to watch all six, including time for pausing the DVD player and taking notes. e films were incredibly useful but also highly challenging. e emotional dynamics were so complex! I persevered, drawing on movies recommended by Claudia about male-female relationships with both happy and unhappy outcomes. I watched HitchGone with the WindBridget Jones’s DiaryAnnie HallNotting HillLove Actually, and Fatal Attraction.

Claudia also suggested I watch As Good as It Gets, “just for fun.” Although her advice was to use it as an example of what not to do, I was impressed that the Jack Nicholson character handled a jacket problem with more finesse than I had. It was also encouraging that, despite serious social incompetence, a significant dierence in age between him and the Helen Hunt character, probable multiple psychiatric disorders, and a level of intolerance far more severe than mine, he succeeded in winning the love of the woman in the end. An excellent choice by Claudia.

Slowly I began to make sense of it all. ere were certain consistent principles of behavior in male-female romantic relationships, including the prohibition of infidelity. at rule was in my mind when I met with Claudia again for social practice.

We worked through some scenarios.

is meal has a fault,” I said. e situation was hypothetical. We were only drinking coee. “at would be too confrontational, correct?”

Claudia agreed. “And don’t say ‘fault’ or ‘error.’ at’s computer talk.” “But I can say, ‘I’m sorry, it was an error of judgment, entirely my fault,’

correct? at use of ‘fault’ is acceptable?”

“Correct,” said Claudia, and then laughed. “I mean yes. Don, this takes years to learn.”

I didn’t have years. But I am a quick learner and was in human-sponge mode. I demonstrated.

“I’m going to construct an objective statement followed by a request for clarification, and preface it with a platitude: ‘Excuse me. I ordered a rare steak. Do you have a dierent definition of rare?”‘

“Good start, but the question’s a bit aggressive.” “Not acceptable?”

“In New York maybe. Don’t blame the waiter.”

I modified the question. “Excuse me. I ordered a rare steak. Could you check that my order was processed correctly?”

Claudia nodded. But she did not look entirely happy. I was paying great attention to expressions of emotion, and I had diagnosed hers correctly.

“Don. I’m impressed, but . . . changing to meet someone else’s expectations may not be a good idea. You may end up resenting it.”

I didn’t think this was likely. I was learning some new protocols, that was

all.

“If you really love someone,” Claudia continued, “you have to be

prepared to accept them as they are. Maybe you hope that one day they get a wake-up call and make the changes for their own reasons.”

is last statement connected with the fidelity rule that I had in my mind at the beginning of the discussion. I did not need to raise the subject now. I had the answer to my question. Claudia was surely talking about Gene.

• • •

I organized a run with Gene for the following morning. I needed to speak to him in private, somewhere he could not escape. I started my personal lecture as soon as we were moving. My key point was that infidelity was totally unacceptable. Any benefits were outweighed by the risk of total disaster. Gene had been divorced once already. Eugenie and Carl—

Gene interrupted, breathing heavily. In my eort to get the message across unambiguously and forcefully, I had been running faster than normal. Gene is significantly less fit than I am and my fat-burning, low-heart-rate jogs are major cardiovascular workouts for him.

“I hear you,” said Gene. “What’ve you been reading?”

I told him about the movies I had been watching and their idealized representation of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. If Gene and Claudia had owned a rabbit, it would have been in serious danger from a disgruntled lover. Gene disagreed, not about the rabbit but about the impact of his behavior on his marriage.

“We’re psychologists,” he said. “We can handle an open marriage.”

I ignored his incorrect categorization of himself as a real psychologist and focused on the central issue: all authorities and moral codes consider fidelity critical. Even theories of evolutionary psychology concede that if a person discovers that their partner is unfaithful, they will have strong reasons for rejecting them.

“You’re talking about men there,” said Gene. “Because they can’t aord the risk of raising a child who doesn’t have their genes. Anyway, I thought you were all about overcoming instinct.”

“Correct. e male instinct is to cheat. You need to overcome it.” “Women accept it as long as you don’t embarrass them with it. Look at

France.”

I cited a counterexample from a popular book and film.

Bridget Jones’s Diary?” said Gene. “Since when are we expected to behave like characters in chick flicks?” He stopped and doubled over, gasping for breath. It gave me the opportunity to present him with the evidence without interruption. I finished by pointing out that he loved Claudia and that he should therefore be prepared to make all necessary sacrifices.

“I’ll think about it when I see you changing the habits of a lifetime,” he said.

• • •

I had thought that eliminating my schedule would be relatively straightforward. I had just spent eight days without it, and while I had faced numerous problems, they were not related to ineciency or unstructured time. But I had not factored in the impact of the enormous amount of turmoil in my life. As well as the uncertainty around Rosie, the social skills project, and the fear that my best friends were on the path to domestic disintegration, I was about to lose my job. e schedule of activities felt like the only stable thing in my life.

In the end, I made a compromise that would surely be acceptable to Rosie. Everyone keeps a timetable of their regular commitments, in my case lectures, meetings, and martial arts classes. I would allow myself these. I would put appointments in my diary, as other people did, but reduce standardization. ings could change week by week. Reviewing my decision, I could see that the abandonment of the Standardized Meal System, the aspect of my schedule that provoked the most comment, was the only item requiring immediate attention.

My next market visit was predictably strange. I arrived at the seafood stall and the proprietor turned to pull a lobster from the tank.

“Change of plan,” I said. “What’s good today?”

“Lobster,” he said, in his heavily accented English. “Lobster good every Tuesday for you.” He laughed, and waved his hand at his other customers. He was making a joke about me. Rosie had a facial expression that she used when she said, “Don’t fuck with me.” I tried the expression. It seemed to work by itself.

“I’m joking,” he said. “Swordfish is beautiful. Oysters. You eat oysters?”

I ate oysters, though I had never prepared them at home. I ordered them unshucked, as quality restaurants promoted their oysters as being freshly shucked.

I arrived home with a selection of food not associated with any particular recipe. e oysters proved challenging. I could not get a knife in to open them without risking injury to my hand through slippage. I could have looked up the technique on the Internet, but it would have taken time. is was why I had a schedule based around familiar items. I could remove the meat from a lobster with my eyes closed while my brain worked on a genetics problem. What was wrong with standardization? Another oyster failed to provide an opening for my knife. I was getting annoyed and about to throw the full dozen in the trash when I had an idea.

I put one in the microwave and heated it for a few seconds. It opened easily. It was warm but delicious. I tried a second, this time adding a squeeze of lemon juice and a grind of pepper. Sensational! I could feel a whole world opening up to me. I hoped the oysters were sustainable, because I wanted to share my new skills with Rosie.

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