He was next to Emma in their favorite spot looking down at his phone, “Hm?”
“Do you ever wonder if we’re really just dreaming, and none of what we see is real? I mean, what if this,” she waved both hands through the air gesturing to everything around them, “was all a dream, and life as we know it was all an illusion?”
“Oh, like the Matrix?” Emmit stuck out his bottom lip in thought and nodded his head with his eyes still glued to his phone, “Ya, that would be interesting.”
“Matrix?? Interesting!?” Emma grabbed his arm, and his thumb slipped on his phone, making him scroll far away from the picture he’d been looking at.
“Seriously though,” Emma tugged at his shirt to keep him from looking back down at his phone, “haven’t you ever heard of Hutton’s Paradox?” She didn’t wait to see if he said yes, “It would be an ontological nightmare and an existentialist’s playground if it were true. I mean think about it, if we were really all just dreaming and all of this,” she slapped her hands against the table and some of her coffee sloshed out, “was not objective reality, then objective science and reasoning as we know it could never fully explain the human condition, because, well it wouldn’t really be objective, would it? Everything would be part of the dream reality.” She tugged Emmit’s shirt again and made him once again lose the photo he wanted to look at. “Oooo, and if there was an individual controlling the dream, that would be the ultimate self-making, right? I may be the ultimate, perfect self of whoever is dreaming me up and you, of whatever is dreaming you up.”
“Cause that’s not prideful at all,” Emmit said under his breath while trying to re-find the picture again, “Besides I would definitely have superpowers if that were true.” Emmit was sure that Emma had no idea he’d even spoken.
“But then,” Emma continued; she hadn’t missed a beat, “are we all a part of the same dream? I guess we could all be part of one big dream…”
“Yep, exactly like the Matrix,” he put down his phone in frustration. The picture was nowhere to be found.
“…from one being and have no actual individuality at all. We’re all just parts of a greater essence,” she paused, and her eyes fell on Emmit. She frowned, and by the time Emmit finally looked up at her staring eyes, she even looked a bit disgusted.
“Hmm…” She was studying him, “I think I’d prefer not to share your essence.”
“Hey! What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing, just that I prefer reality as it is: objective truth, individual essence and all that. It is funny to think of us all being butterflies though?”
Emmitt turned toward his eccentric friend, “I’m sorry, but what?” Maybe she’d finally lost it. “What do butterflies have to do with anything?”
Emma giggled and swiped her hand through the air as though Emmit had just said something funny, “Oh, come on. You know…Zhuangzi!”
“Zoos on what? What are you talking about?”
“Zhuangzi, the Chinese philosopher from 360 something BC who wrote the story about the butterfly?”
“Uhhh….,” Emmit pretended to think for a moment, “I got nothin.”
“The butterfly? That’s dreaming?” she said the words like they should mean something. Emmit shut his eyes for a moment and rested his hand on his head.
“Um…what are you doing?”
“I’m seeing if I can dream my way out of this conversation.”
Emma sighed in disappointment, “Fine, I’ll tell you what it is.” She looked thoughtfully up at the ceiling to help her remember the words and then began, “Once upon a time, I…”
Emmit’s eyes popped open, “Whoa, wait, what? What are you doing?”
“I’m telling you the story. Now…” She looked up again, “Once upon a time, I…”
Emmit decided to chance the wrath of Emma and stopped her again. “Wait, I’m sorry, but, two questions first.”
She crossed her arms over her chest; her annoyance palpable. “Yes?”
“One, is this gonna be a long story? Like do I need to get some popcorn or another drink or something?”
She rolled her eyes, “I’ll give you the short version. Two?”
“Really?” he raised an eyebrow in disbelief, “Once upon a time? Isn’t that a little white-guy-fairytale-ish? I thought the guy was Chinese?”
Emma squinted her eyes in anger, “It’s a translation. Would you prefer it in Ancient Mandarin? I’m a bit rusty, but I could try.”
Emmit smiled in recognition of her sarcasm, “Okay, okay. Continue.”
She straightened her posture, fixed her eyes on the ceiling again and began, “Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou dreamt I was…”
Emmit didn’t outright interrupt, but Emma saw the confused contorting of his face out of the corner of her eye, and heard the familiar grunt of perplexion.
“Ugh, Emmit! Now what?”
Emmit cringed a bit.
“What can you already be confused about?”
“Umm..” Emmit wasn’t sure he should dare ask his question. Emma looked ready to pull her hair out as it was. But then again, where would the fun in life be if he didn’t tease her from time to time? He smirked. “Well, I thought you said his name was Zooang Seas or something, so who is Chewing Cho?”
Emmit wasn’t sure, but for a moment he thought he broke her. She stared forward without expression at him, then opened her mouth, then closed it again.
“Okay, nevermind…keep going,” he picked up his coffee and took a sip, “please?” He gestured forward with his hand.
Emma sighed and crossed her arms again, “Once upon a time,” she said through grit teeth, “I, Chuang Chou, also known as Zhuangzi, also known as Zhuang Zhou, Chuang Tzu, and Chuang Tse…”
“Wow, he’s got a lot of names,”
“…dreamt I was a butterfly…”
“Interesting choice, but I would’ve gone with a panther.”
“…fluttering hither and…”
Emmit snorted with laughter, “Whatter?”
“…flu-tter-ing hi-ther…” she over enunciated each word
“…and th-ither…” still enunciating.
“What?!” He was contorting now with suppressed laughter.
“…fluttering hither and thither…” she raced through the words.
He burst into laughter and had to set his coffee down, “Stop, stop saying it, I can’t take it…It sounds ridiculous!”
“Urrgggg….fine!… fluttering here and there, to all intents and purposes a butterfly…”
Emmit was still laughing.
“…I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly…” He groaned again trying to contain all the ridiculous images of a butterfly with an old, smiling, Chinese philosopher’s face on it. The long flowing white beard swaying while it fluttered hither and thither. Emma’s eyes stared like daggers and Emmit tried harder, but to little avail.
“…unaware that I was Chou.”
“Who?” He tried to look genuinely confused.
“Chou,” she took a breath to continue.
“What?” Now she was confused.
There was a brief stare off in which Emmit strove to contain himself.
“Cho Momma!” he finally cried out and burst into a new fit of laughter. He held his stomach and rolled back and forth on the couch.
“Oh my gosh!” Emma punched him on the arm successively, “You..” punch, “…are…” punch, “intolerable” punch, “You’ve just insulted an entire civilization, and I haven’t even finished the story yet!”
Emmit sat up, “There’s more!?”
Emmit looked a bit too happy about the prospect.
“No, you’re just going to make fun of it.” She sat back in her chair and turned her face away like an angry child might do.
“Aw come on Em, pleeeaaasssee?” He put his face close to her and frowned overdramatically.
“Fine,” She finally said, “but only because I hate leaving things unfinished.”
He nodded with a smile.
“Not because it will make you happy.”
He shook his head with a frown.
“Soon I awaked,” she paused and looked to Emmit to make sure he was going to stay silent, “…and there I was, veritably myself again…”
“Whatably?” he smiled.
“Ve-ri-ta…,” she sighed; it was the deep sigh of defeat, “…truthfully myself again,” she said blandly. All of Emma’s excitement in telling the story had withered and she spoke the final words without any enthusiasm whatsoever, “Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man.”
There was a brief moment of silence in which Emmitt looked almost serious. He stared at her still placid face and then suddenly burst out laughing all over again.
Emma looked aghast, “What is so funny?!” She punched him in the arm again.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry…I can’t help it!” he clutched his stomach and looked ready to burst again, “the image just popped into my head….you with butterfly wings, flying around and saying, ‘I’m a happy butterfly, fluttering hither and thither!’” He was convulsing with laughter again, “I can’t get it out of my head.”
Emma placed her forehead on the table with both hands clutching the back of her head. “Why do I even try?” she groaned into the stained wood.