“It was very kind of your mother to watch the kids,” Terry commented, munching on a breadstick. “This is a wonderful restaurant; and to think of all these years, we never even knew it was here! It really is a surprise.”
“I would be surprised, too,” her husband agreed in a mildly sardonic tone, “Except that we don’t come to Chicago all that often.” He selected another breadstick, “It’s a convenient coincidence that my employer sent me here on a business trip!”
“Since the trip was to Chicago,” Terry chatted on, “We couldn’t resist bringing the whole family along to meet you guys!”
“YOU couldn’t resist,” Bob corrected her calmly. Terry blushed lightly until her face matched her hair.
It was a heady experience for Harshan and me. Imagine, getting to meet the people who set us on the path to adopting Darryl!
Just then the waiter came to take our orders. We quickly buried ourselves in our menus, since we had completely forgotten about them earlier. We took turns placing our orders, and then the waiter hurried off to wherever waiters hurry off.
“So tell me, Harshan,” began Bob, “What is space travel like? I assume,” he said with a glance at everyone at the table, “that of all of us here assembled, you have the most experience in that!” Terry giggled.
“It isn’t very spectacular,” Harshan offered modestly, “Melissa said it was a lot like riding on a windowless ocean liner, didn’t you?” I nodded affirmatively.
“Windowless!” Bob exclaimed. “Don’t you need to see out, if only to steer?”
“You’ll have to excuse Bob,” Terry said, patting him with playful condescension on the thigh, “I’ve never gotten him to read the Bobo stories!”
“I thought they were science fiction until tonight!” Bob clarified.
“Windows are impossible in interstellar craft, because they compromise the structure of the hull during maneuvers,” Harshan explained, “Piloting a spacecraft by sight would really be courting disaster. You can’t possibly see far enough or react fast enough! No, that is all handled by instrumentation these days.”
The waiter arrived with a very large tray and a folding stand. He erected the stand, placed the tray on it, and distributed our plates. We began eating.
“Getting back to this window business,” Bob continued, chasing some peas with his fork, “Wouldn’t that at least be claustrophobic?”
“Not in the least,” Harshan said, “There are television cameras and viewscreens; and lots of entertainment besides.” Then, as if it just occurred to him, he asked, “When you were on the airplane to Chicago, did it bother you much that the view was boring, or that you couldn’t step outside for a walk?”
Bob conceded the point.
We ate in silence for a while.
Terry broke the silence. “How is Darryl working out?” she asked me.
“I’m sorry! I meant to thank you for all the help you gave us,” I apologized, putting my fork down. “If it weren’t for you, we’d still be trying to figure it all out!”
Terry glowed. “It’s the least I could do.”
“Darryl really seems to like us,” I prattled on exuberantly. “It only took a few days for him to start calling us ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’! He is especially taken with Harshan.” Harshan blushed briefly. “When Harshan speaks,” I added, “Darryl obeys. Even the social worker is impressed!”
“That’s very heartening,” Terry remarked. “Why do you think he has taken to you so quickly?”
“Probably because of all the attention Harshan gives him,” I revealed. “He’s always helping Darryl with his homework, or showing him all about the stars, or playing games with him in the backyard.”
“How does he do it?” Terry asked. “I thought the child was deaf!”
“Oh he is,” I agreed. “But he has partial hearing in one ear. He can hear lower tones… which means that Harshan can talk to him, but I have to use sign language. It also means that his speech is normal; but legally, he’s quite deaf.”
“I see,” said Terry. “Then Harshan is really making the most of this situation!”
I paused for a bite. “I’m beginning to think that Harshan is the perfect father!”
“Oh, come on!” Harshan protested, his modesty wounded, “I’m only doing what’s Homelanderly possible!”
There was a hush. Finally, Bob spoke up, “Then you really aren’t… I mean, you’re a..”
“I am most definitely notHuman, if that’s what you mean,” Harshan said, overly loud. Some people from neighboring tables turned to look. “I am a Homelander,” Harshan whispered. “A whole different species altogether!”
“But you look so much like us!” Bob marvelled, “Why is that?”
“I am not a scientist,” Harshan confessed, “However, I think it has something to do with parallel evolution.”
“Convergent evolution,” I corrected, wiping my lips with my napkin. “The word ‘parallel’ would make it a coincidence. We say ‘convergent’ because it is inevitable that higher life forms on different planets resemble each other.” Harshan nodded agreement.
“About this ‘convergent evolution’ stuff…” Bob began.
“Oh, it’s only a theory, mind you,” Harshan said. “It’s the best theory that can be constructed through empirical means to explain the convergence we observe. Theologians and philosophers have quite different ideas.”
“Like direct creation by a deity?” Bob submitted cautiously.
“That’s one of them,” Harshan agreed. Bob was a little unsettled by that, but I don’t know why.
“You can find an example of convergence right here on Earth!” I chimed in.
“Where would that be?” Terry wondered.
“In Australia, of course!” I responded. “Australia has been isolated from the other landmasses of the Earth for a very long time, and yet you can find marsupials that are identical in appearance and ecological function to the placental mammals of other continents.”
“I see,” Bob stroked his chin in thought. “Like dingos and dogs!”
That was a bad example, since dingos aren’t marsupials. I overlooked that and added a few more examples.
“Tell me this,” Bob asked Harshan, changing the subject, “What star does your home planet orbit?”
“I think you call it Tau Ceti,” Harshan replied. “We just call it the sun.”
“Oh! I know that star!” Bob announced, as if it were a personal acquaintance.
“You do?” I asked trying not to let my skepticism show.
“I mean I know about it!” he explained. “Radio astronomers have been listening in that direction for signs of intelligent life since 1959!”
“I’m quite flattered to hear that,” Harshan said, “Did they discover us?”
“No, they never did,” Bob admitted in disappointment. “I wonder why that is.”
“Don’t look at me!” Harshan raised his hand as if to fend off questions. “I don’t know why it is, but we can’t receive your radio signals either. All I know is that our sun is about the size of yours, but dimmer, older, and more stable; but don’t hold me to it, because I’m not an astronomer; just a spaceship purser.” Harshan took a sip from his water glass. “Or at least, I used to be one.”
Bob started to ask Harshan another question, but the waiter came back to clear our plates and take our dessert order.
Terry decided on the strawberry cheesecake. After some hesitation, Bob decided to go along with it, and surrendered his menu to the waiter.
“Make that three,” I said out of turn. Harshan was still brooding over the menu.
“Why don’t you make it four strawberry cheesecakes?” Terry suggested.
“No, that won’t do,” Harshan said, a bit preoccupied. “Most Homelanders get a rash from strawberries, and I don’t care to see if I’m an exception.” Momentary puzzlement passed over the waiter’s professionally bland face. “I’ll take the orange sherbert!” Harshan announced abruptly and handed the menu to the waiter.
We chatted about food allergies while we waited. Pretty soon the waiter returned with three orders of strawberry cheesecake and one order of orange sherbet, and placed them in front of us.
Finally, Bob remembered his question. “What’s living on Earth like; that is, compared to Homeland?” he asked.
“Oh, it’s very nice,” Harshan stated blandly.
“There’s no need to be unnecessarily polite!” Bob protested, “I can take the honest truth.”
“Is there a ‘dishonest truth’?” Harshan muttered to himself, then continued, “To be perfectly honest, it’s no cuddle with a hugmup!” He toyed with a salt shaker. “It’s like going to your child’s school on parents’ day. Some of the kids are very well behaved, but all the chairs are too small. Petty fights break out among the inmates,” he smiled, “so it can be wearisome.” Then Harshan looked at me affectionately and added, “Melissa makes it all worthwhile.”
Those blue eyes again! For a moment, the universe vanished, and only Harshan existed for me; but I quickly returned to reality.
The waiter came to take the dessert dishes, and left the check. Harshan grabbed the check first, but Bob insisted that he pay, and managed to convince Harshan. The waiter took Bob’s credit card and returned shortly with the check and a credit card slip. Bob steadied the slip with his left arm, and signed with his right hand. He gave Bob his receipt, thanked him for the tip, and wished us all a pleasant evening.
As we left the restaurant, and on the drive home, it was apparent that Bob and Harshan were beginning to become friends.
We arrived at home to find mother alone in the living room, watching television.
“Where are the kids?” Terry asked.
“Shh!” mother cautioned. “They’re asleep! Darryl’s in bed, and Niki is asleep on the bed in my room.”
“Did they get along?” I asked, setting my purse down on the counter.
“Not at first,” Mother reported. “Darryl didn’t want to play with a ‘little kid’ and it took Niki a while to figure out that Darryl couldn’t hear her; but they eventually they called a truce and made friends.”
“But how?” asked Bob, baffled.
“Darryl decided to teach her some sign language. I must say she did learn a lot for a little tyke!” she added admiringly. “Mind you, she only learned a few words and phrases, but it was enough to occupy them until bedtime.” She paused, then asked, “Did you have a good evening?”
“Yes, we did,” I answered.
Mother carried their sleeping daughter from her bedroom, while Harshan and I gave Bob and Terry Homelander-style good-bye hugs. (You should have seen Bob blush when Harshan hugged him, but he hugged us both back just as hard!)
I held both of Terry’s hands in mine and looked her straight in the eye (which I can do because we’re both about five feet eight). “Tell me, Terry, how does it feel to be a ‘fictional character’ in a story?” Bob stifled a sudden laugh as he took Niki from Mother.
“It feels just great!” she laughed. “I think I’m going to have to rethink how I use the word ‘fiction’ from now on!” Niki wasn’t disturbed at all, she was dead weight in her father’s arms, oblivious to us adults.
“If you’re a fictional character,” Bob suggested to Terry in fun, “maybe you should try walking on the ceiling before we go back to the hotel! This may be your last chance!”
“I think that would ruin my hair-do!” Terry laughed again.
“It’s only your head,” Bob joked, “nothing important would be hurt!”
Terry gave Bob a playful slap, and Harshan gave me a look of delighted amazement. Niki stirred, and they decided they needed to head back to the hotel. They said good-bye to Mother, and again to us.
They continued their banter all the way to the rental car..