Chapter no 31

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

My focus on self-improvement meant that I had little time to consider and respond to the Dean’s threat of dismissal. I had decided not to take up Gene’s oer to construct an alibi; now that the breach of rules was in my conscious mind, it would be a violation of my personal integrity to compound the error.

I succeeded in suppressing thoughts of my professional future but could not stop the Dean’s parting comment about Kevin Yu and my plagiarism complaint from intruding into my conscious mind. After much thought, I concluded that the Dean was not oering me an unethical deal: “Withdraw the complaint and you can keep your job.” What she said was bothering me because I had myself broken the rules in pursuing the Father Project. Gene had once told me a religious joke when I questioned the morality of his behavior.

Jesus addresses the angry mob who are stoning a prostitute: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” A stone flies through the air and hits the woman. Jesus turns around and says, “Sometimes you really piss me o, Mother.”

I could no longer be equated with the Virgin Mary. I had been corrupted. I was like everyone else. My stone-casting credibility had been significantly compromised.

I summoned Kevin to a meeting in my oce. He was from mainland China and aged approximately twenty-eight (estimated BMI nineteen). I interpreted his expression and demeanor as nervous.

I had his essay, partly or entirely written by his tutor, in my hand and showed it to him. I asked the obvious question: Why had he not written it himself?

He averted his gaze—which I interpreted as a cultural signal of respect rather than of shiftiness—but instead of answering my question, he started to explain the consequences of his probable expulsion. He had a wife and child in China and had not yet told them of the problem. He hoped someday to emigrate or, if not, at least to work in genetics. His unwise behavior would mean the end of his dreams and those of his wife, who had managed for almost four years without him. He was crying.

In the past, I would have regarded this as sad but irrelevant. A rule had been broken. But now I was also a rule breaker. I had not broken the rules deliberately, or at least not with any conscious thought. Perhaps Kevin’s behavior had been similarly unconsidered.

I asked Kevin, “What are the principal arguments advanced against the use of genetically modified crops?” e essay had been on the ethical and legal issues raised by advances in genetics. Kevin gave a comprehensive summary. I followed with further questions, which Kevin also answered well. He seemed to have a good knowledge of the topic.

“Why didn’t you write this yourself?” I asked.

“I am a scientist. I am not confident writing in English about moral and cultural questions. I wanted to be sure not to fail. I did not think.”

I did not know how to respond to Kevin. Acting without thinking was anathema to me, and I did not want to encourage it in future scientists. Nor did I want my own weakness to aect a correct decision regarding Kevin. I would pay for my own error in this regard, as I deserved to. But losing my job would not have the same consequences for me as expulsion would for Kevin. I doubted he would be oered a potentially lucrative partnership in a cocktail bar as an alternative.

I thought for quite a long time. Kevin just sat. He must have realized that I was considering some form of reprieve. But I was incredibly uncomfortable in this position of judgment as I weighed the impact of various decisions. Was this what the Dean had to do every day? For the first time, I felt some respect for her.

I was not confident I could solve the problem in a short time. But I realized that it would be cruel to leave Kevin wondering if his life had been destroyed.

“I understand . . ” I started, and realized that this was not a phrase I was accustomed to using when talking about people. I stopped the sentence and

thought for a while longer. “I will create a supplementary task—probably an essay on personal ethics. As an alternative to expulsion.”

I interpreted Kevin’s expression as ecstatic.

• • •

I was conscious that there was more to social skills than knowing how to order coee and being faithful to your partner. Since my school days, I had selected my clothes without regard to fashion. I started out not caring how I looked, then discovered that people found what I wore amusing. I enjoyed being seen as someone not tied to the norms of society. But now I had no idea how to dress.

I asked Claudia to buy me some suitable clothes. She had proved her expertise with the jeans and shirt, but she insisted on my accompanying her. “I may not be around forever,” she said. After some reflection, I deduced that she was talking not about death but about something more immediate:

marriage failure! I had to find a way to convince Gene of the danger.

e actual shopping took a full morning. We went to several shops, acquiring shoes, pants, a jacket, a second pair of jeans, more shirts, a belt, and even a tie.

I had more shopping to do, but I did not require Claudia’s help. A photo was sucient to specify my requirements. I visited the optometrist, the hairdresser (not my regular barber), and the menswear shop. Everyone was extremely helpful.

My schedule and social skills had now been brought into line with conventional practice, to the best of my ability within the time I had allocated. e Don Project was complete. It was time to commence the Rosie Project.

• • •

On the inside of the closet in my oce there was a mirror which I had never needed before. Now I used it to review my appearance. I expected I would have only one chance to cut through Rosie’s negative view of me and produce an emotional reaction. I wanted her to fall in love with me.

Protocol dictated that I should not wear a hat indoors, but I decided that the PhD students’ area could be considered public. On that basis, it would be acceptable. I checked the mirror again. Rosie had been right. In my gray

three-piece suit, I could be mistaken for Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus Tillman. World’s sexiest man.

Rosie was at her desk. So was Stefan, looking unshaven as always. I had my speech prepared.

“Good afternoon, Stefan. Hi, Rosie. Rosie, I’m afraid it’s short notice but I was wondering if you’d join me for dinner this evening. ere’s something I’d like to share with you.”

Neither spoke. Rosie looked a little stunned. I looked at her directly. “at’s a charming pendant,” I said. “I’ll pick you up at seven forty-five.” I was shaking as I walked away, but I had given it my best eort. Hitch from Hitch would have been pleased with me.

I had two more visits to make before my evening date with Rosie.

I walked straight past Helena. Gene was in his oce looking at his computer. On the screen was a photo of an Asian woman who was not conventionally attractive. I recognized the format: she was a Wife Project applicant. Place of birth—North Korea.

Gene looked at me strangely. My Gregory Peck costume was doubtless unexpected but appropriate for my mission.

“Hi, Gene.”

“What’s with the ‘Hi’? What happened to ‘Greetings’?”

I explained that I had eliminated a number of unconventional mannerisms from my vocabulary.

“So Claudia tells me. You didn’t think your regular mentor was up to the job?”

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He explained. “Me. You didn’t ask me.”

is was correct. Feedback from Rosie had prompted me to reassess Gene’s social competence, and my recent work with Claudia and the movie exemplars had confirmed my suspicion that his skills applied to a limited domain and that he was not employing them in the best interests of himself and his family.

“No,” I told him. “I wanted advice on socially appropriate behavior.” “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Obviously, you’re similar to me. at’s why you’re my best friend. Hence this invitation.” ere had been a great deal of preparation for this day. I gave Gene an envelope. He did not open it but continued the conversation.

“I’m like you? No oense, Don, but your behavior—your old behavior

—was in a class of its own. If you want my opinion, you hid behind a persona that you thought people found amusing. It’s hardly surprising people saw you as a . . . buoon.”

is was exactly my point. But Gene was not making the connection. As his buddy, it was my duty to behave as an adult male and give it to him straight.

I walked over to his map of the world, with a pin for every conquest. I checked it for what I hoped would be the last time. en I stabbed it with my finger, to create an atmosphere of threat.

“Exactly,” I said. “You think people see you as a Casanova. You know what? I don’t care what other people think of you, but if you want to know, they think you’re a jerk. And they’re right, Gene. You’re fifty-six years old with a wife and two kids, though for how much longer I don’t know. Time you grew up. I’m telling you that as a friend.”

I watched Gene’s face. I was getting better at reading emotions, but this was a complex one. Shattered, I think.

I was relieved. e basic male-male tough advice protocol had been eective. It had not been necessary to slug him.

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