Sunday, October 23, 2005
By Any Other Name (Children's Lit Mid-term paper)
Mr. Gau was late. He fidgeted anxiously as he waited for the headwaiter to find him on the reservation list. He glanced around at the glass cases lining the reception area, filled with large, branching specimens of ginseng and decided that he should purchase one for Mr. Wang if all went well at dinner.
Mr. Wang was waiting impatiently at an ornate rosewood table in a private dining room. Mr. Gau entered, stooping slightly and apologizing profusely for his tardiness. He introduced himself, noting that Mr. Wang did not stand up to greet him. Quickly he took his place at the table.
“Sorry Mr. Wang. Car accident on the expressway. Tied everything up. I even left early because I thought something like that might happen what with the monsoon raging and all. Anyways, I’m starving. I already told the restaurant what to prepare when I made the reservation, so the first course should be here anytime now. I’m going to order some XO, they have some of that premium stuff here, want to join me?” Mr. Gau’s words tumbled out, and he flushed slightly as he realised that he was coming across too eager. Mr. Wang, slightly bemused, took him up on his offer of cognac.
Instantly, Mr. Gau summoned a waiter and ordered the largest bottle of Hennessy they had on hand. It would cost him more than the seven-course meal, but he was not about to spare any expense at this dinner. When the bottle arrived, he could tell that Mr. Wang was impressed. By the third course, both men were ruddy faced. Ties were loosened and conversation started flowing more freely.
“So, Mr. Gau, do you have kids?”
“Just one daughter. Just got her PhD from the University of Chicago in Classical studies. She can read and write Greek! She is planning on spending a year in Corfu before finding a position at a university. For her thesis she…”
“Wait, wait, wait. You mean like Hercules and Xena?”
“I beg your pardon? Oh you mean, well, yes, she dealt with Greek and Roman literature, if that’s what you’re asking. I’m not sure she studied about Xena though.”
“What on earth is the use of that? Mr. Gau, I have three sons and they all went to school for useful things - one in Commerce, another in Accounting. I have a third who’s still in medical school, but things like that take time. But, I mean. What is the use of going to school to learn about stories?”
Mr. Gau was starting to feel uncomfortable. He had received this same lecture from countless friends and family when they had heard that he was financing Jeanette’s PhD.
“Well, it’s not just stories you see,” stammered Mr. Gau, “She’s a really bright kid. Jinny can do anything she puts her mind to. Her degree requires a lot of critical thinking.” Mr. Gau was starting to wish that he had not had quite so much cognac, as he struggled to come up with another reason why a degree in Classical Studies was not a soft option, “I’ll bet she could do anything as well as the top guys in your company with that mind of hers.”
An unreadable expression flickered across Mr. Wang’s face. “Well, Mr. Gau,” he said, gesturing expansively, sloshing cognac as he did so, “It just so happens, as you probably know, that one of my company’s main projects right now is programming a sentient computer. Lots of trouble, even top guys can’t quite get it right. Send your daughter over for a week, and if she gets this stuff going, I’ll sign a contract with you.”
At this, Mr. Gau’s chopsticks paused in mid-air holding a piece of candied yam, causing its sugary threads to drift dramatically downward. He was an intelligent man and something deep inside told him that agreeing to this would be a bad idea. By this point, however, he was also a rather tipsy man and seeing no way out of the situation, accepted Mr. Wang’s proposal. Mr. Gau decided that he would not buy the ginseng after all.
Later that night, his face red from more than just the alcohol, he called Jeanette to tell her that she would start work at 9am on Monday. Jeanette, unable to react to this piece of news, mumbled inaudibly and hung up. On the one hand, she wanted to help her father. She knew that part of the reason his software company needed to merge was that financing her 10-year post secondary degree depleted much of his resources. On the other, she was quite sure that she would be no help at all seeing as how she viewed computers more as word processors than anything else. She quickly sent out a mass email begging for help. Before signing off, she promised potential benefactors “anything and everything” they wanted from her.
She woke late Sunday morning, struggling to remember why she felt such a strong urge to check her inbox. After sifting through a slew of mail beseeching her to enlarge various body parts she found Rafe’s email. It read: “Jean, love to help. On my two week’s vacation anyway. Let’s talk over dinner, tonight, 6pm at Punggol. Love, Rafe.” Jeanette cringed and scanned her inbox desperately for other emails proffering help. No one else had sent her a reply. She briefly considered turning down his help, pretending instead to accept another offer but decided against it.
Rafe, whose real name was Lee Kok Seng, arrived at 5:30 in a bright, striped shirt and orange corduroy pants. A short, oily haired man, his faced pitted and scarred from acne, he was barely able to conceal his obvious delight at his current situation. He had not seen or indeed heard from Jeanette since they both graduated from junior college, although he had seen her in his head countless times over the last ten years. When Jeanette arrived at 6:15 he leapt out of his seat to greet her. At this point, Jeanette was sorely regretting her “anything and everything” promise.
Over an obscenely messy meal of chilli crab and black pepper clams Rafe enumerated his many accomplishments since his graduation with a degree in Cognitive Systems. Jeanette, meanwhile, reflected on how fluorescent lighting was very unflattering, especially on Rafe who had both chilli and black pepper sauce smeared over the lower half of his face. Her appetite understandingly suppressed, she was not partaking in the meal. Jeanette’s mind suddenly snapped back to the conversation once he started talking about his work at both MIT and IBM.
“You helped to debug Deep Blue? For real?” Jeanette was visibly impressed. Rafe nodded proudly, a clamshell still dangling from his lips. Rafe, never one to miss an opportunity, seized this opening to talk about his compensation, “So Jean, are you still a virgin?” Jeanette blanched. Rafe grinned, pepper specking his teeth, “‘Anything and everything’ Jean baby. I’ve had the chance with many girls, but I’m still a virgin. I’d help you out if I could pop your cherry while you popped mine.” Jeanette was speechless. First off, she was a Catholic, so sex before marriage was out. Secondly, she could not believe that Rafe had used the phrase “pop your cherry”.
Jeanette hummed and hawed before finally blurting, “Well, Rafe, you know I really need your help. But you probably also know that I’m strictly against pre-marital sex. So, let’s start with a dinner and a movie and we’ll see how it goes.” Rafe grinned even broader and said, “We’ll see, Jean, we’ll see.”
At 9am the next morning, without so much as an office tour, Jeanette was hustled into a programming meeting. Unable to understand anything, but writing down everything she could catch, she prayed silently that she was recording all the information Rafe needed. At the end of the meeting, Mr. Wang delivered a bombshell.
“So Jeanette, now that you’re up to speed, you’re the only one who’s going to be working on this project. I thought I’d give my guys a break you know. You’ve got till Sunday to get this thing working. I’m looking forward to seeing what you get done.” Jeanette suppressed a sob. Back in her work area, she placed a whispered call to Rafe, notifying him about the new development.
Nightly, after the last programmer left, Jeanette would usher Rafe in into her cramped office. As she slept in the corner, Rafe plugged at the terminal, leaving shortly before the first programmer arrived. At 2am on Saturday, Rafe was poking Jeanette in the side. “Jean, Jean, wake up, talk to it. About anything. Seriously.” Bleary eyed, Jeanette pulled herself level with the terminal and typed: “What is Rafe talking about?” After a brief pause, the computer replied, “I’m not sure who Rafe is, but it looks like you do. Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Jeanette blinked. Rafe looked incredibly smug.
“It’s working Jean. Go home, take a shower. I’ll see you for that dinner and a movie tomorrow night. Look, I’ll even give you a ride home.” In her sleep-induced haze, Jeanette could not tell if Rafe was smiling or leering at her. Still groggy, she stumbled several times on her way to Rafe’s car and promptly feel asleep again as she collapsed into the passenger seat.
Jeanette was starting to feel uncomfortable. Something was pressing against her, waking her up. She opened her eyes slowly and shut them again, once the image before her registered in her sleep-addled brain. Rafe had his pants off. Rafe was in the process of undressing her. She could taste bile in the back of her throat. Instinctively she pushed hard against Rafe’s face and screamed, “Rafe Lee Kok Seng! Just what on earth do you think you’re doing? Stop it!” Almost magically, Rafe froze.
“Don’t call me that. My name is Rafe. Don’t call me Kok Seng. Rafe! Rafe! Rafe!” Rafe seemed to deflate before her eyes. Jeanette saw what she needed to do. “Lee Kok Seng, listen to me. Stop now. Kok Seng, I will call the police. Lee Kok Seng, put your pants back on.” Rafe stayed motionless, seemingly unable to decide what to do next. Jeanette took this opportunity to push herself free and tumbled out the door. As she ran from the car, she dialled the police on her cellphone, constantly looking back to see if Rafe was pursuing her. She need not have worried. When the police arrived, they found Rafe still in his car, insisting that he be called Rafe, and not that shameful, common moniker his uneducated parents had bestowed on him so long ago.
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