Chapter no 8

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman, #1)

As I completed dinner preparation, Rosie set the table—not the conventional dining table in the living room, but a makeshift table on the balcony, created by taking a whiteboard from the kitchen wall and placing it on top of the two big plant pots, from which the dead plants had been removed. A white sheet from the linen cupboard had been added in the role of tablecloth. Silver cutlery—a housewarming gift from my parents that had never been used—and the decorative wineglasses were on the table. She was destroying my apartment!

It had never occurred to me to eat on the balcony. e rain from early in the evening had cleared when I came outside with the food, and I estimated the temperature at twenty-two degrees Celsius.

“Do we have to eat right away?” asked Rosie, an odd question, since she had claimed that she was starving some hours ago.

“No, it won’t get cold. It’s already cold.” I was conscious of sounding awkward. “Is there some reason to delay?”

e city lights. e view’s amazing.”

“Unfortunately it’s static. Once you’ve examined it, there’s no reason to look again. Like paintings.”

“But it changes all the time. What about in the early morning? Or when it rains? What about coming up here just to sit?”

I had no answer that was likely to satisfy her. I had seen the view when I bought the apartment. It did not change much in dierent conditions. And the only times I just sat were when I was waiting for an appointment or if I was reflecting on a problem, in which case interesting surroundings would be a distraction.

I moved into the space beside Rosie and refilled her glass. She smiled.

She was almost certainly wearing lipstick.

I attempt to produce a standard, repeatable meal, but obviously ingredients vary in their quality from week to week. Today’s seemed to be of an unusually high standard. e lobster salad had never tasted so good.

I remembered the basic rule of asking a woman to talk about herself. Rosie had already raised the topic of dealing with dicult customers in a bar, so I asked her to elaborate. is was an excellent move. She had a number of hilarious stories, and I noted some interpersonal techniques for possible future use.

We finished the lobster. en Rosie opened her bag and pulled out a pack of cigarettes! How can I convey my horror? Smoking is not only unhealthy in itself and dangerous to others in the vicinity, it is a clear indication of an irrational approach to life. ere was a good reason for its being the first item on my questionnaire.

Rosie must have noticed my shock. “Relax. We’re outside.”

ere was no point in arguing. I would not be seeing her again after tonight. e lighter flamed and she held it to the cigarette between her artificially red lips.

“Anyhow, I’ve got a genetics question,” she said. “Proceed.” I was back in the world I knew.

“Someone told me you can tell if a person’s monogamous by the size of their testicles.”

e sexual aspects of biology regularly feature in the popular press, so this was not as stupid a statement as it might appear, although it embodied a typical misconception. It occurred to me that it could be some sort of code for a sexual advance, but I decided to play safe and respond to the question literally.

“Ridiculous,” I said.

Rosie seemed very pleased with my answer. “You’re a star,” she said. “I’ve just won a bet.”

I proceeded to elaborate and noted that Rosie’s expression of satisfaction faded. I guessed that she had oversimplified her question and that my more detailed explanation was in fact what she had been told.

ere may be some correlation at the individual level, but the rule applies to species. Homo sapiens are basically monogamous but tactically unfaithful. Males benefit from impregnating as many females as possible

but are able to support only one set of ospring. Females seek maximum-quality genes for their children plus a male to support them.”

I was just settling into the familiar role of lecturer when Rosie interrupted.

“What about the testicles?”

“Bigger testicles produce more semen. Monogamous species require only the amount sucient for their mate. Humans need extra to take advantage of random opportunities and to attack the sperm of recent intruders.”

“Nice,” said Rosie.

“Not really. e behavior evolved in the ancestral environment. e modern world requires additional rules.”

“Yeah,” said Rosie. “Like being there for your kids.” “Correct. But instincts are incredibly powerful.” “Tell me about it,” said Rosie.

I began to explain. “Instinct is an expression of—”

“Rhetorical question,” said Rosie. “I’ve lived it. My mother went gene shopping at her medical graduation party.”

ese behaviors are unconscious. People don’t deliberately—” “I get that.”

I doubted it. Nonprofessionals frequently misinterpret the findings of evolutionary psychology. But the story was interesting.

“You’re saying your mother engaged in unprotected sex outside her primary relationship?”

“With some other student,” replied Rosie. “While she was dating my”— at this point Rosie raised her hands and made a downward movement, twice, with the index and middle fingers of both hands—“father. My real dad’s a doctor. I just don’t know which one. Really, really pisses me o.”

I was fascinated by the hand movements and silent for a while as I tried to work them out. Were they a sign of distress at not knowing who her father was? If so, it was not one I was familiar with. And why had she chosen to punctuate her speech at that point . . . of course! Punctuation!

“Quotation marks,” I said aloud as the idea hit me. “What?”

“You made quotation marks around ‘father’ to draw attention to the fact that the word should not be interpreted in the usual way. Very clever.”

“Well, there you go,” she said. “And there I was thinking you were reflecting on my minor problem with my whole fucking life. And might

have something intelligent to say.”

I corrected her. “It’s not a minor problem at all!” I pointed my finger in the air to indicate an exclamation mark. “You should insist on being informed.” I stabbed the same finger to indicate a full stop. is was quite fun.

“My mother’s dead. She died in a car accident when I was ten. She never told anyone who my father was—not even Phil.”

“Phil?” I couldn’t think of how to indicate a question mark and decided to drop the game temporarily. is was no time for experimentation.

“My”—hands up, fingers wiggled—“father. Who’d go apeshit if I told him I wanted to know.”

Rosie drank the remaining wine in her glass and refilled it. e second half bottle was now empty. Her story was sad but not uncommon. Although my parents continued to make routine, ritual contact, it was my assessment that they had lost interest in me some years ago. eir duty had been completed when I was able to support myself. Her situation was somewhat dierent, however, as it involved a stepfather. I oered a genetic interpretation.

“His behavior is completely predictable. You don’t have his genes. Male lions kill the cubs from previous matings when they take over a pride.”

anks for that information.”

“I can recommend some further reading if you are interested. You seem quite intelligent for a barmaid.”

e compliments just keep on coming.”

It seemed I was doing well, and I allowed myself a moment of satisfaction, which I shared with Rosie.

“Excellent. I’m not proficient at dating. ere are so many rules to remember.”

“You’re doing okay,” she said. “Except for staring at my boobs.”

is was disappointing feedback. Rosie’s dress was quite revealing, but I had been working hard to maintain eye contact.

“I was just examining your pendant,” I said. “It’s extremely interesting.” Rosie immediately covered it with her hand. “What’s on it?”

“An image of Isis with an inscription: Sum omnia quae fuerunt suntque eruntque ego. ‘I am all that has been, is, and will be.’” I hoped I had read the Latin correctly; the writing was very small.

Rosie seemed impressed. “What about the pendant I had on this morning?”

“Dagger with three small red stones and four white ones.”

Rosie finished her wine. She seemed to be thinking about something. It turned out not to be anything profound.

“Want to get another bottle?”

I was a little stunned. We had already drunk the recommended maximum amount. On the other hand, she smoked, so obviously she had a careless attitude to health.

“You want more alcohol?”

“Correct,” she said, in an odd voice. She may have been mimicking me.

I went to the kitchen to select another bottle, deciding to reduce the next day’s alcohol intake to compensate. en I saw the clock: 11:40 p.m. I picked up the phone and ordered a taxi. With any luck it would arrive before the after-midnight tariff commenced. I opened a half bottle of Shiraz to drink while we waited.

Rosie wanted to continue the conversation about her biological father. “Do you think there might be some sort of genetic motivation? at it’s

built into us to want to know who our parents are?”

“It’s critical for parents to be able to recognize their own children. So they can protect the carriers of their genes. Small children need to be able to locate their parents to get that protection.”

“Maybe it’s some sort of carryover from that.”

“It seems unlikely. But possible. Our behavior is strongly aected by instinct.”

“So you said. Whatever it is, it eats me up. Messes with my head.” “Why don’t you ask the candidates?”

“‘Dear Doctor. Are you my father?’ I don’t think so.”

An obvious thought occurred to me, obvious because I am a geneticist. “Your hair is a very unusual color. Possibly—”

She laughed. “ere aren’t any genes for this shade of red.” She must have seen that I was confused.

is color only comes out of a bottle.”

I realized what she was saying. She had deliberately dyed her hair an unnaturally bright color. Incredible. It hadn’t even occurred to me to include hair dyeing on the questionnaire. I made a mental note to do so.

e doorbell buzzed. I had not mentioned the taxi to her, so brought her up-to-date with my plan. She quickly finished her wine, then stuck her hand out, and it seemed to me that I was not the only one feeling awkward.

“Well,” she said, “it’s been an evening. Have a good life.”

It was a nonstandard way of saying good night. I thought it safer to stick with convention.

“Good night. I’ve really enjoyed this evening.” I added “Good luck finding your father” to the formula.


en she left.

I was agitated, but not in a bad way. It was more a case of sensory overload. I was pleased to find some wine left in the bottle. I poured it into my glass and phoned Gene. Claudia answered and I dispensed with pleasantries.

“I need to speak with Gene.”

“He’s not home,” said Claudia. She sounded disoriented. Perhaps she had been drinking. “I thought he was having lobster with you.”

“Gene sent me the world’s most incompatible woman. A barmaid. Late, vegetarian, disorganized, irrational, unhealthy, smoker—smoker!— psychological problems, can’t cook, mathematically incompetent, unnatural hair color. I presume he was making a joke.”

Claudia must have interpreted this as a statement of distress because she said, “Are you all right, Don?”

“Of course,” I said. “She was highly entertaining. But totally unsuitable for the Wife Project.” As I said these words, indisputably factual, I felt a twinge of regret at odds with my intellectual assessment. Claudia interrupted my attempt to reconcile the conflicting brain states.

“Don, do you know what time it is?”

I wasn’t wearing a watch. And then I realized my error. I had used the kitchen clock as my reference when phoning the taxi. e clock that Rosie had reset. It must have been almost 2:30 a.m. How could I have lost track of time like that? It was a severe lesson in the dangers of messing with the schedule. Rosie would be paying the after-midnight tariff on the taxi.

I let Claudia return to sleep. As I picked up the two plates and two glasses to bring them inside, I looked again at the nighttime view of the city

—the view I had never seen before even though it had been there all the time.

I decided to skip my pre-bed aikido routine. And to leave the makeshift table in place.

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