Monk grins and shakes his head, like he somehow has it all figured out. “No way, man. I’ve got it all figured out.”
“Do you now?” Papa Chub replies. There’s a note of skepticism in his voice, irritation and amusement in equal measure. Maybe he sees the child his friend once was and he’s thinking of all the misadventures they’ve shared over the years, all the dumb mistakes they stumbled into and subsequently rescued each other from. Maybe he’s thinking of the things that have changed since those days, the things that haven’t. The things they still have in common and the ways that they’ve grown apart. When they were children, they would have seen each other on a daily basis. Now, I don’t think they’d seen each other for months before I’d pitched the idea of going to the Meadows. Maybe he’s wondering if, in the face of temporal and physical gulfs that have separated them, their friendship is still the same. Maybe he’s wondering if Monk is still the same person.
Maybe Papa Chub’s wondering if he is.
“Man,” I say, “I can see you spontaneously combusting under Sooyoun’s gaze. She’s going to take one fucking look at you and there’s not going to be anything left but a pile of ashes.”
Monk rolls his eyes and smiles at us, suddenly a patient father talking to his idiot children. “Guys, come on. I’m not dumb. Soo and I talked about this. I told her I was thinking about getting a tattoo to commemorate the trip, and she rolled her eyes and said, ‘Yeah. Uh-huh. Sure.’”
“Wait, you asked her permission?” Googe says, his voice heavy with unrestrained sarcasm. I can just imagine the smug satisfaction on his face. “Wow.”
It’s my turn to roll my eyes. Of course he asked permission. They’re married. His body’s not his own, his life isn’t his own. He’s agreed to share it with someone else. The same is true of her, too. It’s not a defeat or a concession or a betrayal. It’s an expression of mutual love and trust. It’s–
There’s a sharp flash of pain between my eyes, and the room goes white for a moment, the marble and wood and metal and the people all replaced by a void like a blank page. I can’t see anything but white, and the pain is sharp enough that I can feel my face twisting up. I know that everyone’s behind me, that the couches we’d been drinking on the night before are behind me and to the left.
With my eyes screwed shut, I turn and walk in a wide arc with my hand held out low before me, fingers splayed wide. I’ll find the couch and just sit down for a bit. No one will notice. I can hear Googe and Monk arguing, anger slowly creeping into Monk’s voice, Papa Chub and Erb occasionally chiming in with unsolicited opinions. The girls are silent, but they’re probably just nervous, uncertain about what in the Hell they’ve walked into. Probably they were expecting something glamorous, the celebrity lifestyle that they’d seen in vids. Instead, they got a bunch of neurotics arguing over inane things. But then, it seems like that’s all most vids feature, so maybe the glamor is just a matter of distance and cosmetic surgery.
My knee bumps into one of the seats. I put my hand on its back, pick a direction, walk around it, and sink into it. It’s a loveseat, big enough for two people, but I’m alone.
But only for a moment.
A gentle hand settles upon my shoulder and there’s a voice, soft, feminine. “Hey. Are you okay?”
The pain is subsiding some and my vision is beginning to return, although the world is still mostly white nothingness. “Yeah,” I say. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just got a little light-headed all of a sudden. I don’t know why.”
“You look a little pale.”
I take a deep breath and let it out. Definition is starting to return to my vision, simple shapes and basic colors, like some antique game struggling to load the polygons and textures from which the world is constructed. “I’ll be fine. There’s an auto-doc in here somewhere. I’m sure it’ll just tell me, ‘You’re low on electrolytes. Drink this tincture and lie down for thirty minutes.’”
The girl laughs, a sound infinitely warmer and more sincere than the woman in the bikini from earlier. I smile at the sound. The earnest laughter of a woman is one of the few things in life that lets you know you’re doing something right.
“’Tincture?’ Wow, what are you, a college professor or something?”
She’s teasing me. I turn to face her, to tease her back, but when I look, she has no face. There is just endless, pitiless white. The world around her has color, has objects familiar, friends beloved, but she is just the white.