27 January 2017
The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion
Beyond the obvious observation that I was depressed, no definitive diagnosis was ever made, despite attempts by the psychiatric profession to fit me into a simplistic category. I now believe that virtually all my problems could be attributed to my brain being configured differently from those of the majority of humans. All the psychiatric symptoms were a result of this, not of any underlying disease. Of course I was depressed: I lacked friends, sex and a social life, due to being incompatible with other people. My intensity and focus were misinterpreted as mania. And my concern with organisation was labelled as obsessive-compulsive disorder.
'Tell me more about your father.’
‘Why?’ I wasn’t actually interested in why. I was doing the social equivalent of saying ‘over’ to put the responsibility back on Rosie. It was a trick suggested by Claudia for dealing with difficult personal questions. I recalled her advice not to overuse it. But this was the first occasion.
‘I guess because I want to see if your dad is the reason you’re fucked-up.’
‘I’m not fucked-up.’
‘Okay, not fucked-up. Sorry, I didn’t mean to be judgmental. But you’re not exactly average,’ said Rosie, psychology PhD candidate.
‘Agreed. Does “fucked-up” mean “not exactly average”?’
‘Bad choice of words. Start again. I guess I’m asking because my father is the reason that I’m fucked-up.’
An extraordinary statement. With the exception of her careless attitude to health, Rosie had never exhibited any sign of brain malfunction.
‘What are the symptoms of being fucked-up?’
‘I’ve got crap in my life that I wish I hadn’t. And I’m not good at dealing with it. Am I making sense?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Unwanted events occur and you lack certain skills for minimising the personal impact. I thought when you said “fucked-up” that there was some problem with your personality that you wanted to rectify.’
‘No, I’m okay with being me.”
‘Aren’t you forgetting something? Today is my day. And tomorrow. I own you until midnight Monday. Now get your butt down here. I’m hanging out for breakfast.’
‘In my gym clothes?’
‘No, Don, not in your gym clothes. Shower, dress. You have ten minutes.’
‘I always have my breakfast before I shower.’
‘How old are you?’ said Rosie, aggressively. She didn’t wait for the answer. ‘You’re like an old man – I always have my breakfast before I shower, don’t sit in my chair, that’s where I sit … Do not fuck with me, Don Tillman.’ She said the last words quite slowly. I decided it was best not to fuck with her. By midnight tomorrow it would be over. In the interim, I would adopt the dentist mindset.
It seemed I was in for a root-canal filling. I arrived downstairs and Rosie was immediately critical.
‘How long have you had that shirt?’
‘Fourteen years,’ I said. ‘It dries very quickly. Perfect for travelling.’ In fact it was a specialised walking shirt, though fabric technology had progressed significantly since it was made.
‘Good,’ said Rosie. ‘It doesn’t owe you anything. Upstairs. Other shirt.’
‘I mean Claudia’s shirt. And the jeans while you’re at it. I’m not walking around New York with a bum.'
'Do you want to buy anything?’ said Rosie.
A few minutes later, a thought occurred to me. ‘Is there somewhere that sells men’s shirts?’
Rosie laughed. ‘On Fifth Avenue, New York City. Maybe we’ll get lucky.’ I detected sarcasm, but in a friendly way. We found a new shirt of the same genre as the Claudia shirt at a huge store called Bloomingdale’s, which was not, in fact, on Fifth Avenue. We could not choose between two candidate shirts and bought both. My wardrobe would be overflowing!'
'This meal has a fault,’ I said. The situation was hypothetical. We were only drinking coffee. ‘That would be too confrontational, correct?’
Claudia agreed. ‘And don’t say fault, or error. That’s computer talk.’
‘But I can say “I’m sorry, it was an error of judgement, entirely my fault”, correct? That 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 different definition of rare?” ’
‘Good start, but the question’s a bit aggressive.’
‘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.'
I had grave doubts about the likely efficacy of my next move, but there was no contingency plan. I had sourced my speech from When Harry Met Sally. It resonated best with me and with the situation, and had the additional advantage of the link to our happy time in New York. I hoped Rosie’s brain would make that connection, ideally subconsciously. I drank the remainder of my wine. Rosie’s eyes followed my glass, then she looked up at me.
‘Are you okay, Don?’
‘I asked you here tonight because when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.’
I studied Rosie’s expression carefully. I diagnosed stunned.
'Oh my God,’ said Rosie, confirming the diagnosis. I followed up while she was still receptive.
‘It seems right now that all I’ve ever done in my life is making my way here to you.’
I could see that Rosie could not place the line from The Bridges of Madison County that had produced such a powerful emotional reaction on the plane. She looked confused.
‘Don, what are you … what have you done to yourself?’
‘I’ve made some changes.’
‘Whatever behavioural modifications you require from me are a trivial price to pay for having you as my partner.'
'I’ve abandoned the Standardised Meal System. I’ve deleted thirty-eight per cent of my weekly schedule, excluding sleep. I’ve thrown out my old t-shirts. I’ve eliminated all of the things you didn’t like. Further changes are possible.’
‘You changed yourself for me?’
‘Only my behaviour.'
Now it was over, what had I learned?
I need not be visibly odd. I could engage in the protocols that others followed and move undetected among them. And how could I be sure that other people were not doing the same – playing the game to be accepted but suspecting all the time that they were different?
I had skills that others didn’t. My memory and ability to focus had given me an advantage in baseball statistics, cocktail-making and genetics. People had valued these skills, not mocked them.
I could enjoy friendship and good times. It was my lack of skills, not lack of motivation that had held me back. Now I was competent enough socially to open my life to a wider range of people. I could have more friends. Dave the Baseball Fan could be the first of many.
I had told Gene and Claudia that I was incompatible with women. This was an exaggeration. I could enjoy their company, as proven by my joint activities with Rosie and Daphne. Realistically, it was possible that I could have a partnership with a woman.
The idea behind the Wife Project was still sound. In many cultures a matchmaker would have routinely done what I did, with less technology, reach and rigour, but the same assumption – that compatibility was as viable a foundation for marriage as love.
I was not wired to feel love. And faking it was not acceptable. Not to me. I had feared that Rosie would not love me. Instead, it was I who could not love Rosie.
I had a great deal of valuable knowledge – about genetics, computers, aikido, karate, hardware, chess, wine, cocktails, dancing, sexual positions, social protocols and the probability of a fifty-six-game hitting streak occurring in the history of baseball. I knew so much shit and I still couldn’t fix myself.
'I’ve made an incredible mistake. I can’t believe I’ve been so stupid. Irrational!’ Claudia made signals for me to stop, but I ignored them. ‘You failed almost every criterion of the Wife Project. Disorganised, mathematically illiterate, ridiculous food requirements. Incredible. I considered sharing my life with a smoker. Permanently!’
Rosie’s expression was complex, but appeared to include sadness, anger and surprise. ‘It didn’t take you long to change your mind,’ she said.
Claudia was frantically waving at me to stop, but I was determined to proceed according to my own plan.
‘I haven’t changed my mind. That’s the point! I want to spend my life with you even though it’s totally irrational. And you have short earlobes. Socially and genetically there’s no reason for me to be attracted to you. The only logical conclusion is that I must be in love with you.’
Claudia got up and pushed me into her chair.
‘You don’t give up, do you?’ said Rosie.
‘I’m being annoying?’
‘No,’ said Rosie. ‘You’re being incredibly brave. I have the best fun with you, you’re the smartest, funniest person I know, you’ve done all these things for me. It’s everything I want and I’ve been too scared to grab it because –’
She stopped but I knew what she was thinking. I finished her sentence for her.
‘Because I’m weird. Perfectly understandable. I’m familiar with the problem because everyone else seems weird to me.’
I tried to explain.
‘Crying over fictitious characters, for example.’
‘Could you live with me crying in movies?’ said Rosie.
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘It’s conventional behaviour.’ I stopped as I realised what she had said.
‘You’re offering to live with me?’