Michael looked around; five-sixths of the room was occupied by a large pool. He knew it was a 25-foot-deep water tank. According to the good Doc, it "permitted extended training periods for practicing EVA." It also was apparently capable of simulating complete weightlessness -- almost.
"Wow! Hey, you know, why should I have all the fun? Maybe one of these lovely, pasty-faced scientists would like to give it a shot. What do you guys say?" Michael asked the group gathered around him.
But Dr. Theo only said dryly, "Mr. Wiseman?"
"Right. I guess it's just me. I know how disappointed the rest of you must be. Maybe next time, guys."
A group of scientists were standing by a large, sterile machine, with what can only be termed gleeful faces. Waiting to plunge him into unknown depths, to do god-knows-what to him. And then he began to remember a similar moment, how long ago...?
An excited six-year-old Heather had finished opening all of her birthday presents. But she was sure there was one more.
She turned expectantly toward her father. "Daddy, "she said, trying to get his attention. "Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!"
"Yes?" Michael looked at his little girl. And a grin started to spread. "You ready for one more present, pun'kin?" he asked.
"Yes!" she shouted. She knew what it was. She'd only left every hint imaginable for the past three months. Michael went into the garage and came back with a bicycle.
She just stared at it, not believing her eyes. "What is that?!"
Lisa walked up to her and put her hand on Heather's shoulder. "It's a brand-new bicycle, sweetie. Your Daddy spent all last week putting it together. It has a horn and training wheel. And it's your favorite color, see?"
"Why don't you come over here and check it out?" Michael asked, with a big smile.
But Heather continued to stand there, staring at the ugly contraption.
Heather could feel the glances of all her friends behind her. They were laughing, she knew. She'd spent that last month proclaiming that she was going to get the biggest and bestest toy in the world for her birthday. And what did her parents get her? A bike!
"Mr. Wiseman, every moment we just stand here costs the taxpayers thousands of dollars. Let's get started, shall we?" Dr. Theo asked.
Michael looked at the guys in white coats and Dr. Theo. Sure, he thought, it was easy for them to say, they weren't going to be plunge into the depths of the unknown, wearing only the flimsiest of protection.
"Sure, that's easy for you to say! You aren't going to be plunged into the depths of the unknown, wearing only the flimsiest of protection."
"Mr. Wiseman " Dr. Theo began with a vast well of patience.
"Just tell it all to me again, will you?"
"The EVA suit you'll be wearing -"
"And EVA stands for ?"
"Extra Vehicular Activity. We've been over this."
"'Extra Vehicular Activity', so, there's going to be a truck down there?" Michael pointed into the purest pool of aqua he'd ever seen.
"It's the term wherein astronauts move around outside a spaceship, attached only by a tether. If an astronaut were to become untethered, they could simply drift away, powerless to return to safety. In that tank, astronauts have learned and tested EVA procedures."
"So, am I going to be launched into outer space in the near future, Doc?" Michael asked, mockingly. Dr. Theo's boundless patience was beginning to wear on him. ""Cause I gotta tell you, in my opinion, nobody does space as well as Bugs Bunny. Maybe you could get him to -"
"Mr. Wiseman " Dr. Theo said, only mildly threateningly.
"Okay, okay. No need to get all drill-sergeant on me." And Michael would have almost sworn he could hear Dr. Theo sigh. The Doc doesn't know how easy he had it, Michael thought .
"Heather, your father wants you to take a look at your new bike," Lisa said, trying to gently nudge Heather toward Michael. But, Heather could hear the giggling begin behind her and she wasn't going to stand for it!
"How could you?" she yelled. She pushed away from Lisa's protective embrace and ran toward the stairs. She turned and confronted both Michael and Lisa. "How could you do this to me? I asked for a Barbie Dream Car! A pink Barbie car I could drive down the block and everything! And instead I get this! The whole school will be laughing at me!" With that, she fled up the stairs, crying.
After changing into what Dr. Theo called a "pressurized EVA suit," he walked slowly back into the room with the pool. And just stood looking at it. How did all this happen, he thought. One day, he was worrying about taxes and preparing for Heather's college years and planning for that romantic vacation with Lisa to Venice. So, how did he get to be standing in a computerized wet suit, by a 25-foot-deep pool of water? About to be subjected to all manner of tests and probing? When did all this happen?
Some moments, and mostly especially this moment, he wondered where it had all went wrong. Maybe, if he had driven into work that September day
But, it did no good dwelling on that. Not when he could dwell on this. And contemplate where those scientists were planning to stick those things they had clutched in their pale, trembling hands
As the days passed, nothing could console Heather. She was not fit to be around. So, they let her be. Lisa thought maybe they should buy her a Barbie Dream Car; Michael insisted that they not give in. But Lisa could see that even Michael had doubts about this. He hated letting Heather down. Heather was Daddy's Little Girl and right now, right this minute, she hated him. And he couldn't stand to see that. Maybe, he thought, he should give in
Until about a week later, when Michael came unexpectedly into the garage to see Heather staring at the bicycle. He could tell, from his little girl's face, that a large part of her was still angry and disappointed in this gift. It wasn't what she had wanted. All her other friends had gotten dolls and Easy-Bake ovens. So, Heather felt a strong, inner need to hate the bicycle.
While a small part of her longed to try it. Actually touch it. Maybe even get on it. She wanted to learn how to ride it. And Michael realized that she'd never confess that part to him. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.
"Mr. Wiseman, nothing happens until you get wet." Michael heard the Doctor's disembodied voice over the intercom.
"You know, thinkin' this over, I'm not too sure about this " Michael called out to the ceiling. He'd gotten good at that, at least. Talking to ceilings, to people who weren't in a room with him, but were there nonetheless.
"You don't have a choice, Mr. Wiseman."
"Well, maybe we should break for lunch first -"
"Now." And with that one word, tinged with annoyance and exasperation, Michael knew he had pushed Dr. Theo has far as he could. So, with a slight shrug, he approached the awaiting scientists
"What?" Heather turned to look at her father.
"Get on the bicycle, Heather. We're going on our first lesson today."
"I don't want to."
"I hate it!"
"How can you hate something you haven't even tried?"
"I don't need to try it to hate it!"
"It's okay," Michael said, abruptly soothing. "I should have known better. I was popping wheelies by the time I was your age, but I was a boy. Since you're a girl, maybe you're too scared to ride a big kid's toy, like a bicycle. I understand if you're too scared.."
"I'm not scared, Daddy!" Heather was getting indignant now, which was preferable to her being scared, as far as Michael was concerned.
And slowly, he maneuvered her onto the bicycle and got her out on the street. And when she took off, she looked like she was flying. He'd never seen anything so incredible as watching his baby moving smoothly, faster than the wind, down the street.
They were finally done, in the limo and on their way back. "Well ?"
"Not bad, Mr. Wiseman."
"That's it? That's all I get? 'Not bad, Mr. Wiseman'?" Michael was starting to get peeved again.
"Would you like a pat on the head?"
"What I'd like is a little for praise for a day's work."
Dr. Theo finally turned to Michael and with a little smile, destined to drive Michael crazy, said, "Oh, but we're not done yet."
"What? What do you mean? It's almost 7:15, Doc. I don't know about you, but I've had a full day. I'm ready to go home, ingest some edible things you call food and get to bed --"
Before he could even finish his thought, they had pulled up.
At a movie theater.
As Michael wordlessly got out of the car, he wondered how long it'd been since he'd seen a movie in a movie theater. Over 8 months, that's for sure. Has it been over a year now? He and Lisie had always preferred renting movies.
He waited next to Dr. Theo, who was purchased the tickets, realizing, he didn't even have a cent to his name.
"Wait, Doc. One ticket? That's like asking Regis Philbin to not be so annoying."
"I don't understand your pop-culture reference."
"No one goes to the movies alone, Doc."
Dr. Theo gave him a long, annoyed look, and then purchased two tickets. While walking to the theater, Michael started to wonder about this unexpected excursion. But once he was inside, all thoughts fled his mind. He just savored the smells, the sights, the long-past remembrances.
The smell of freshly-popped popcorn, the sight of the multi-hued carpets (covering decades of spills and stains) and finally, the plush chairs, complete with cup holders.
They sat in silence for a few minutes. Finally, at Michael's unspoken question, Dr. Theo said, "Happy Birthday, Mr. Wiseman."
Stunned, Michael realized why he had been in such a state all day. Today was his birthday.
And the Doc had remembered.
His "What, you're not going to sing "Happy Birthday'?" was met with silence.
As the lights dimmed and the sound started, Michael settled deep into the seat and murmured, "Almost as good as a Barbie Dream Car."
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