Take My Soul Away: A Short Story
Ralph Larson was suffering from a disorder that psychiatrists, for now, are calling Image Affirmation Compulsion. If he did not look at himself in a mirror at frequent, comforting intervals, he had a panic attack. His nervous system went to red alert. He became seriously fearful that he would fade from existence.
And yet he did exist. He had height, weight, mass, all the dimensions of a real object in this world. People acted upon him and reacted to what he did and said. People saw him when he was there, and did not see him when he was not there. When he was not there, they said, "Where's Ralph Larson?," proving that people thought about him when he wasn't around, that he existed for people in their minds when they could not see his person.
When people spoke to him, and he said nothing as though he didn't exist, people would say, "Say something, Ralph Larson, you fool!"
If pain was proof of life then Ralph was certainly alive. Once, he had gotten into a fender bender on the road. He and the other guy who had bended his fender, had gotten into a heated argument, which had ended with the guy --- a big bruiser of a fellow --- punching Ralph Larson right in the face, gave him quite a "shiner" over his left eye, hurt like Hell. This had to be proof of his existence, since it is written that the first rule of the Buddha is that life is suffering.
These things should have been persuadable, but, alas, Ralph's condition is such that he was not quite convinced by this and other such accumulated evidence. Ralph Larson was Descartes on steroids.
What made it worse, coincidentally, was the fact that he was good looking. Judging from the way others reacted to him, he was pleasing to the eye; he was The Face. He was also The Body, exquisitely sculpted like an Adonis, more from good genes than intensive effort. He seemed like a handsome young man, who knew it, and who, himself, could not get enough of the eye candy.
And what made it worse again, and again coincidentally, was the fact that Ralph Larson seemed to show a benign indifference to women. He was not gay, he just didn't feel the need to prove it. Their overtures to him ranged from the furtive and sweet to the direct and shameless to the blatant and lewd. Some were even a little earnest in their approach.
It was these last, the earnest ones, whom Ralph Larson felt bad for. He hurt for them. Its just that he could not accomodate them. Well... he could... ACCOMODATE them, but...
Yeah, but what?
But when he had free time, torturous free time, agonizing leisure, he would stare at his reflection for hours, waiting for it... to... make... one... false... move.
Ralph Larson blinked at his reflection: first the right eye then the left, the left then the right. He blinked at different speeds, different rhythms, he blinked in morse code. He alternated between blinking both eyes at the same time, and one eye at a time.
He krinkled his nose and wiggled his ears. Ralph was quite good at that, wiggling his ears. He stuck his tongue out of his mouth and put it back in again. He did this at different speeds, different rhythms, in morse code. He swivelled his head from side to side, and bobbled it laterally.
He smiled and frowned at himself, frowned and smiled. He did this in different set combinations, with different variations on the smiling and frowning. He went so far as to put all of this on tape.
Relying on his recollection and a careful scrutiny of the footage, Ralph Larson had thought (he always "thought") he had caught his doppelganger off guard a couple of times. He wasn't quite sure, but he thought so. He thought so, but he wasn't quite sure. But the possibility existed, and the hope of achieving certainty was worth an extra exertion.
He repeated the entire procedure.
Long ago, before his condition had deepened significantly in severity, Ralph Larson's mirror-checking had been slightly irritating and off-putting, and occasionally amusing. It posed no significant barrier to his prospects for social success, however, because in no other way was he self-centered.
He was thoughtful, considerate, engaging, unpretensious. He talked about others more than himself; and when he wasn't talking, he was listening, not waiting for his turn to speak.
And, truth be told, his then relatively mild mirror-checking did comport with the fact that Ralph Larson took very good care of himself. He ate right and exercised. As a matter of fact, he was a vegetarian, not quite a "vegan;" he did not swear off all animal-derived products. He enjoyed his eggs, milk, and cheese. He did not drink alcohol, smoke, or do drugs. Above all, he took care to make sure his skin was smooth, baby soft always, and blemish-free. His friends called him a metrosexual, a heterosexual man, who, nevertheless, fusses over his appearance as gay men and women supposedly do.
You would think a guy like that would worry about putting lines in his face, contorting it like that before a mirror. But vanity was not one of Ralph Larson's weaknesses. Anyway, when it came to a cosmic struggle for existence, he could sacrifice the crow's feet.
Ralph Larson's habit of stiff-arming the ladies was a bit concerning to his friends, back then, who cared about him and wanted him to be happy. As I, the omniscient narrator of this story, already told you, he was not gay; he just didn't feel compelled to prove it. When asked directly if he was gay, just out of curiosity, Ralph Larson said no, in the matter-of-fact way he would use if someone asked him whether he was either a New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers fan.
"What about Jeanie?" asked one of Ralph Larson's male friends. "She's cute, funny, and she's got a nice body. A bit short for my taste, though, but anyone can see she thinks the world of you, Ralph, and she'd do anything for you. Why not give her a go?"
Ralph shrugged. "I don't know... We don't have anything in common."
"How do you know?"
"I can sense these things."
"I never thought I'd say this to a guy, Ralph, but if you're waiting for the perfect girl to come along, she's not coming. She doesn't exist. You do know that, don't you?"
"I know," Ralph sighed.
Ralph Larson was not looking for perfection. He knew, first of all, that perfection did not exist. He thought that even if perfection did exist, that perhaps it would not be desirable: one of the many lessons he had taken away as a lifelong fan of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. But even if perfection did exist and was desirable, he did not feel worthy to ask for it, because despite his gifts --- and they were many --- he did not see himself as so great a prize. He was a humble person, Ralph Larson was, to the point of self-deprecation.
Ralph Larson was looking for... not his 'soulmate,' or 'better half,' that kind of business. He was looking for substance, surely, compatibility, certainly, but something much stronger than compatibility. He was looking to feel something, to become something, to discover something about himself, or rediscover something about himself maybe...
Even if a doppelganger lived in Ralph Larson's mirror, and followed him around everywhere he went, inhabiting each and every mirror or otherwise reflective surface he might look at, this would be a being who is clearly not of this world. Such a being would have to be from another time, another planet far, far away, another dimension, another universe. Such contact should provide one with almost ultimate proof of one's existence, since it is the closest that any Earth-bound human will ever come to a face-to-face meeting with God, and as such, should prove to be an extraordinary honor.
Yes but put that to Ralph Larson and he would probably come back with something like, "Sure, first they take my soul, then they take my body!"
A rational retort might be to ask what good a body is without its soul; and how the replacement of one's reflection is indicative of the theft of one's soul. We might also ask Ralph Larson how his mirror-checking would prevent, presumably extraordinarily powerful beings from kidnapping him, if that's what they were intent on doing, especially given the fact that they had already, presumably, absconded with his soul. But logic did not have a home where Ralph Larson lived on this issue.
Several years later found Ralph Larson happily married, --- deliriously so, actually --- and the father of four, and a mildly successful film producer. Providence, more than anything he had done, or any strength of will he had exhibited had freed him from the grip of Image Affirmation Compulsion --- psychiatrists are still calling it that, the IAC.
When Ralph Larson had been a little boy of around eight or nine, maybe ten, there was a little girl whom he played with everyday, or most days, or often as he could. She was the sheltered only child of a couple who had had her quite late in their lives.
One got the feeling that her parents tried to be careful about whom they let their daughter associate with. Ralph Larson, for some reason, had been one of those so honored. He always went to her house. She never came to his house, or went anywhere else by herself, come to think of it. If she had been an adult at the time, one might have, perhaps, cited agoraphobia.
But, again, one got the feeling she was confined to grounds by parental decree, either implicit or explicit. Sapphire was her name. Sapphire the fire crystal. The Sapphire princess. His Sapphire princess.
That is how Ralph Larson had thought of her, as his Sapphire princess. The one whom only he, Sir Ralph Larson, could rescue.The one who only emerged from her cocoon for him, almost at his command. They played together, always at her house, of course. No matter how long he had visited for, when he left, she would always cry.
He would plead with her to stop crying, promise her that he would return on the morrow, as he always did, and then, finally, pry himself away.
Ralph's family would move away to another neighborhood, out of their apartment into a house of their own finally.For some reason, on the last day Ralph was in town, he and his Sapphire princess had gotten into an argument about... something. Ralph had decided to hurt her by leaving her presence abruptly.
Sapphire did not cry this time, as he had expected her to, as he had hoped she would. At that moment, Ralph Larson realized that the thrill was gone, as B.B. King used to say, the magic had left, and the spell was broken. The thought crossed his mind that he would never have "it" as good as he had had it with Sapphire; that is, he, Ralph Larson, would never be the awesome, rescuing Sir Ralph, universal all to another female again.
Whether or not this childhood rupture had had anything to do with the onset of Ralph's IAC is not known. What is known is that this dysfunction was destroyed as he developed his relationship with the woman who would become his wife. Dorothy is her name.
Dorothy, just by being Dorothy, elicited responses from Ralph, which came together, sometimes in surprising ways, forming what he thought of as Him at his best, his maximal Self, his best Self. This was the Self that he thought of as Ralph Larson at his best. This was the elite version of himself that Dororthy brought out.
Dorothy literally brought out the best in him. But it was more than that. Ralph Larson loved that guy he became when he was with her. Therefore, he loved Dorothy for setting that guy free. This is the guy, his maximal Self that had, perhaps, been lost since the day his Sapphire princess had spurned him. This was the Self that Ralph Larson had been looking for all along.
He was back! Sir Ralph Larson was back. Dorothy, just by being Dorothy, had brought Him back.
Ralph Larson had not been a virgin when he met Dorothy, of course. When he had sex with these women, they always did it at his place; he insisted on having the lights on and taking the position on his back, so that he could look up at his mirrored ceiling. The women just thought he was kinky that way, but no. Ralph Larson had been waging his existential war even on those occasions. He could never relax.
The happiest day of his life, before the birth of his first child, had been when he and Dorothy had made love for the first time. They had done it at her place, in the dark. He took the position on top of her, his eyes closed the whole time.
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