The Overview Effect
by Robert Balentine, Jr.
“What will happen when I get in?” I asked.
“You will travel,” the attendant answered.
“Wherever it is you need to be.”
The float tank wasn’t exactly what I expected. I had visions of sci-fi movie characters drifting in giant, open saltwater pools, illuminated by underwater lights. This tub had a narrow opening at the top like a vertical bathtub, one of those infomercial ones my father-in-law had installed.
Light sparkled through pinpoint holes in the walls, the only illumination in the darkened room. I was reminded of the phosphorescent green stars everyone stuck to their bedroom ceiling and walls when I was a kid. Below me, the dark waters lapped against the porcelain tank walls.
Sliding into the water was like slipping into another skin. A spot on my calf still throbbed with the memory of my first tentative testing of the pool; I had missed covering a cut on my leg with the vaseline provided. The salt water had been unforgiving. I wrapped an inflatable pillow around my neck and pulled the goggles down over my eyes, blocking out the twinkling LED stars. My legs drifted upward. It felt like floating in space, held in place by nothing at all.
For a time, I was left with my own racing thoughts. Was this normal? Did I pay the light bill this month? Put money in our daughter’s education fund? Did I turn off the electric towel warmer? Why did the marriage counselor want me to do this again?
The thoughts faded, and my limbs began to tingle, as if they were asleep. This feeling traveled up and back, left and right, down and back, all through my body. At first this was a novel sensation, but it soon began to overwhelm me. My breathing became more rapid.
I remembered the time I’d eaten magic mushrooms before Thanksgiving dinner during sophomore year and had to keep in check as Aunt Trudy’s face melted during pumpkin pie and ice cream. I maintained then, I would maintain now. My breathing slowed, and I settled into the nothingness.
I floated in the twilight. It was dimly lit from all directions, like summer dusk, when the fireflies emerge to start their evening shift. There were fireflies here, too. They didn’t blink on and off like their real-world counterparts but moved around the space. I followed them with my eyes. No, not eyes; they were closed. Where did the fireflies come from?
The fireflies were gathering into a mass, stretching into a long queue leading off into the dark. One end of the line reached out and lashed around me, pulling me along through the tenebrous ether. Light grew up and around, and I traveled out of the float tub and the room, following the cord through the door and along the halls until I reached the waiting room.
Lucy sat in a plaid, fabric-covered chair, phone in lap, reading something. Her diamond wedding band sparkled in the light of the afternoon sun trickling in through the window. The firefly rope tethered me to her, and I tugged gently at it, gliding weightlessly over to where she sat. The rope did not curl around her, but opened up at its end like a cornucopia, extending a thin, transparent film up and over her form.
There is a sensation, one that astronauts talk about. I tried to remember what it was called. The Outlook Effect? Lookout Effect? Overview Effect! That was it. The feeling of looking at Earth from the outside and seeing just how fragile and precious it is.
The gossamer thread between me and Lucy enveloped us both, creating a thin line of atmosphere. It seemed so delicate, so breakable. As if responding to this thought, the light of the thread flickered, creating shimmering breaks in our respective atmospheres.
I floated closer so I could read over her shoulder. She was looking at an article on her phone. I couldn’t tell what the title was at first, but her thumb slipped and caused the screen’s words to rebound upwards to the top of the page. She cursed softly and started scrolling back down, but not before I read the title: “How to Tell If Your Husband is Cheating on You. Seven Proven Signs ALL Cheaters Have in Common!”
If I had cheeks to flush in this place, they would be bright red. Lucy visited last week at the firm to surprise me with lunch and caught me in conversation with my junior partner, Danielle, a young, energetic, and aggressive woman I found irresistibly attractive. She was a close talker and wore a tailored, form-fitting suit around the office, keeping one extra button undone at the top of her dress shirts, showing enough cleavage to disarm anyone with a pulse and a wandering eye. I had come close on several occasions to seeing if there wasn’t something more between us than just work conversation.
Lucy rounded the corner just as Danielle laughed at my weak joke and laid a hand on my forearm. The full soda Lucy was carrying crashed to the floor, but she managed to hold onto the sandwich bag; the stern Italian chef of the Bertolli’s Deli logo glowered at me.
Lucy’s lips pressed into a thin line, and she shot a glance between me and this interloper. Danielle stepped back to a normal conversational distance, and I rushed over to help Lucy clean up the spilled drink. Lucy had taken her sandwich with her rather than eating lunch at my office, explaining that she had errands to run.
If that was the only instance, it might have been forgotten. But then she found the text messages from an ex-girlfriend on my unlocked phone. We weren’t planning to meet or anything, but I couldn’t hide the flirting subtext, neatly outlined in blue and grey bubbles on the screen. I had to sleep on the couch that night. The sensory deprivation tank suggestion came from our newly-acquired marriage counselor two fitful, couch-bound weeks later. Introspection, he called it. I was dubious.
Lucy closed the article she was reading and opened up another browser window. In this one, she typed, “How do children react to divorce” then added a comma and typed, “four-year old.”
I felt like vomiting. I floated forwards and turned to hover in front of Lucy, wrapping that delicate strand between us around myself, trying to strengthen the connection, to thicken the wafer-thin line holding us together. I wanted to reach my fingers inside that narrow atmosphere around her and expand it, to become one with it, to merge it with my own.
Music began to play softly in my ears, and I drifted away, back toward the place where my body floated. I scrabbled for purchase, but there were no hand or footholds in the astral plane. I was dragged back to the tank, screaming a voiceless shriek as I returned to the world.
The fireflies were gone when I pulled off the goggles. The lights slowly returned to the room. My body felt strangely light and sluggish all at once. I dressed and joined Lucy in the waiting room. She put her phone in her purse and wiped her cheeks with a free hand.
“How was it?”
“Good,” I said. “Eye-opening.” I smiled in what I hoped was a reassuring manner and took a step closer to her, trying to see those gossamer strands, that impossibly thin atmosphere.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking about changing positions in the firm,” I said. “I want to move away from work with the junior partners and focus on select cases. I’d be home a lot more.”
“Really?” Lucy asked. The corner of her mouth upturned briefly, the hint of a smile. Her eyes glistened.
The late afternoon sun from the window behind her shone through the auburn curls of her hair. For a moment, I felt that same sense of wonder that must have greeted the astronauts, staring down at something so beautiful, so fragile and so worth saving.
Copyright © 2020 by Robert Balentine, Jr.