Home > The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)

The Rosie Project (Don Tillman #1)
Graeme Simsion

1

I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem. As with so many scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect. But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it.

The sequence was initiated by Gene insisting I give a lecture on Asperger’s syndrome that he had previously agreed to deliver himself. The timing was extremely annoying. The preparation could be time-shared with lunch consumption, but on the designated evening I had scheduled ninety-four minutes to clean my bathroom. I was faced with a choice of three options, none of them satisfactory.

Cleaning the bathroom after the lecture, resulting in loss of sleep with a consequent reduction in mental and physical performance.

Rescheduling the cleaning until the following Tuesday, resulting in an eight-day period of compromised bathroom hygiene and consequent risk of disease.

Refusing to deliver the lecture, resulting in damage to my friendship with Gene.

I presented the dilemma to Gene, who, as usual, had an alternative solution.

‘Don, I’ll pay for someone to clean your bathroom.’

I explained to Gene – again – that all cleaners, with the possible exception of the Hungarian woman with the short skirt, made errors. Short-skirt Woman, who had been Gene’s cleaner, had disappeared following some problem with Gene and Claudia.

‘I’ll give you Eva’s mobile number. Just don’t mention me.’

‘What if she asks? How can I answer without mentioning you?’

‘Just say you’re contacting her because she’s the only cleaner who does it properly. And if she mentions me, say nothing.’

This was an excellent outcome, and an illustration of Gene’s ability to find solutions to social problems. Eva would enjoy having her competence recognised and might even be suitable for a permanent role, which would free up an average of three hundred and sixteen minutes per week in my schedule.

Gene’s lecture problem had arisen because he had an opportunity to have sex with a Chilean academic who was visiting Melbourne for a conference. Gene has a project to have sex with women of as many different nationalities as possible. As a professor of psychology, he is extremely interested in human sexual attraction, which he believes is largely genetically determined.

This belief is consistent with Gene’s background as a geneticist. Sixty-eight days after Gene hired me as a post-doctoral researcher, he was promoted to head of the Psychology Department, a highly controversial appointment that was intended to establish the university as the Australian leader in evolutionary psychology and increase its public profile.

During the time we worked concurrently in the Genetics Department, we had numerous interesting discussions which continued after his change of position. I would have been satisfied with our relationship for this reason alone, but Gene also invited me to dinner at his house and performed other friendship rituals, resulting in a social relationship. His wife Claudia, who is a clinical psychologist, is now also a friend. Making a total of two.

Gene and Claudia tried for a while to assist me with the Wife Problem. Unfortunately, their approach was based on the traditional dating paradigm, which I had previously abandoned on the basis that the probability of success did not justify the effort and negative experiences. I am thirty-nine years old, tall, fit and intelligent, with a relatively high status and above-average income as an associate professor. Logically, I should be attractive to a wide range of women. In the animal kingdom, I would succeed in reproducing.

However, there is something about me that women find unappealing. I have never found it easy to make friends, and it seems that the deficiencies that caused this problem have also affected my attempts at romantic relationships. The Apricot Ice-cream Disaster is a good example.

Claudia had introduced me to one of her many friends. Elizabeth was a highly intelligent computer scientist, with a vision problem that had been corrected with glasses. I mention the glasses because Claudia showed me a photograph, and asked me if I was okay with them. An incredible question! From a psychologist! In evaluating Elizabeth’s suitability as a potential partner – someone to provide intellectual stimulation, to share activities with, perhaps even to breed with – Claudia’s first concern was my reaction to her choice of glasses frames, which was probably not even her own but the result of advice from an optometrist. This is the world I have to live in. Then Claudia told me, as though it was a problem: ‘She has very firm ideas.’

‘Are they evidence-based?’

‘I guess so,’ Claudia said.

Perfect. She could have been describing me.

We met at a Thai restaurant. Restaurants are minefields for the socially inept, and I was nervous as always in these situations. But we got off to an excellent start when we both arrived at exactly 7.00 p.m. as arranged. Poor synchronisation is a huge waste of time.

We survived the meal without her criticising me for any social errors. It is difficult to conduct a conversation while wondering whether you are looking at the correct body part but I locked on to her bespectacled eyes, as recommended by Gene. This resulted in some inaccuracy in the eating process, which she did not seem to notice. On the contrary, we had a highly productive discussion about simulation algorithms. She was so interesting! I could already see the possibility of a permanent relationship.

The waiter brought the dessert menus and Elizabeth said, ‘I don’t like Asian desserts.’

This was almost certainly an unsound generalisation, based on limited experience, and perhaps I should have recognised it as a warning sign. But it provided me with an opportunity for a creative suggestion.

‘We could get an ice-cream across the road.’

‘Great idea. As long as they’ve got apricot.’

I assessed that I was progressing well at this point, and did not think the apricot preference would be a problem. I was wrong. The ice-cream parlour had a vast selection of flavours, but they had exhausted their supply of apricot. I ordered a chocolate chilli and liquorice double cone for myself and asked Elizabeth to nominate her second preference.

‘If they haven’t got apricot, I’ll pass.’

I couldn’t believe it. All ice-cream tastes essentially the same, due to chilling of the tastebuds. This is especially true of fruit flavours. I suggested mango.

‘No thanks, I’m fine.’

I explained the physiology of tastebud chilling in some detail. I predicted that if I purchased a mango and a peach ice-cream she would be incapable of differentiating. And, by extension, either would be equivalent to apricot.

‘They’re completely different,’ she said. ‘If you can’t tell mango from peach, that’s your problem.’

Now we had a simple objective disagreement that could readily be resolved experimentally. I ordered a minimum-size ice-cream in each of the two flavours. But by the time the serving person had prepared them, and I turned to ask Elizabeth to close her eyes for the experiment, she had gone. So much for ‘evidence-based’. And for computer ‘scientist’.

Afterwards, Claudia advised me that I should have abandoned the experiment prior to Elizabeth leaving. Obviously. But at what point? Where was the signal? These are the subtleties I fail to see. But I also fail to see why heightened sensitivity to obscure cues about ice-cream flavours should be a prerequisite for being someone’s partner. It seems reasonable to assume that some women do not require this. Unfortunately, the process of finding them is impossibly inefficient. The Apricot Ice-cream Disaster had cost a whole evening of my life, compensated for only by the information about simulation algorithms.

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