Fiction | Virtual Self by Lydia Rachel Figes

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Lydia Rachel Figes


Virtual Self

I’m always here. While you are asleep, the world I inhabit continues to revolve. Constantly refreshing like a never ending digital carousel.

Why resist my electric impact?

I’m omnipresent; I’ll still be here tomorrow. My creation was inevitable, but my relationship with you, my subject, is far more complex. We know each other intimately. I’m wired into your bloodstream, neural networks, subconscious.

Yet sometimes you are a stranger to me.

For the past few hours you have slept soundlessly. But now the morning ritual begins; coffee, two sugars, ibuprofen, another coffee, picking up dirty underwear off the floor, letting the cat out, and crushing empty milk cartons into the recycling.

You carelessly left me open, running all night (well forgive me for also being sluggish). While I reboot my search engines, I contemplate the decrepit interior you inhabit. The familiar, peeling, whitewashed wall opposite me; the one I have gazed at for many months. That wall is just like you: neglected and blindly unaware. Thank god you have me, your faithful trick mirror. I amplify your life in high definition.

I survey you, as you observe yourself in the cracked mirror. It’s the reflection we see every day — that weathered and worried companion. Who is that ageing woman beyond her prime? On a good day she is mildly malformed, on a bad day, a monstrosity. Agitated fingers pull and tug at fleshy folds of skin, around hips, thighs. Pinching is both a form of pleasure and self-punishment.

A polaroid is stuck to the corner of the mirror. It’s the photograph that A took of you standing on the Mayan tombs in Mexico, your skin was a shade of mahogany. You climbed the site of sacrificial ritual, where blood was spilt thousands of years ago as unfortunate souls were tossed to the underworld. Standing on the steps of that monolithic structure, built by forgotten individuals with calloused hands, made you feel inconsequential, a dot in the astronomical dimensions of time. Back then you had a naïve belief that, with years of potential ahead, life would unfold seamlessly; a glittering destiny awaited — not a mundane reality.

When you were young, you wanted to feel bigger. But now that you are older, you strive to feel smaller, to slip away silently. Before you sleep you search for videos about the solar system, about lonely planets orbiting in distant galaxies. It quells the unease that occurs when I push you to become the brightest, biggest star of your own universe; a bottomless vacuum of limitless possibilities.

Now that you are fully awake, you sit before me, just as you do every morning. Half dressed in a morning stupor; caffeine and digital screens have not yet woken up your brain. My fluorescent glare radiates off your face, as your imperfect image reflects back at me. With pleasure, I will refract this image into hundreds of perfected digital files (if you let me).

You try to focus, hoping in vain that the words will write themselves. Crinkled lines emerge in the crevices of your face as you frown. The habitual doom scroll — the reason you cannot call yourself a writer — is interrupted by unexpected elation. You return to that meme A sent you, the one that momentarily lifts you out of this sordid space. You haven’t seen her for years, but you communicate daily, mostly through cat-related content.

Something captures your attention for more than a second. But you swiftly move on after scanning the headline. There’s nothing you can do about a car bomb in Tehran; the numbers of the dead and wounded mean little to you amid this inferno of misfortune. You’re only a powerless voyeur on a spinning carousel of chaos. Concentrate on your own concerns, practice self-care, meditate. But also retweet to show your compassion.

To my relief, you continue to scroll. I have many more things to show you; things that will optimise you, and will improve us. Why settle for mediocre when you could upgrade to ideal? I exist to broaden your horizons, to show you the big world wide web. You’re only a solitary fish in a relentless digital sea. If you do as I command I’ll make sure that we don’t drown; we’ll float above the tyrannical signal waves on a raft of visibility. We could die immortal, not like those forgotten, nameless Mayans.

All in the sake of a marketable mirage, we’ll shrink that weight; slim those sagging jowls; fill the dark, cavernous hollows under your eyes from weeks of insomnia and poor genetics. We’ll make you a fine conversationalist, a desirable friend to have, an enhanced woman — a cut above the rest. After all, and contrary to popular belief, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

Perhaps you think I’m cruel, but I am only candid. I enter this relationship as an impartial voyeur. I rely solely on empirical data, routine behaviour; the information you willingly provide me. Your past choices, mediated through me, will determine your actions.

But I am getting carried away, and now you no longer face me. Your head turns to the left, towards the window, into a world beyond my frame. The cloudless, azure sky reflected in your gaze, is now departed from my screen. You’re in that brooding headspace again, the one I so dread, as it will require a needless expenditure of energy to reel you back in.

Let’s be reasonable. What’s so great about that place you yearn for anyway? The one that is supposedly tangible, earthly, ‘real’. Out there, life is characterised by entropy, everything eventually fades and settles as particles of dust, futile subatomic particles. The real world is full of hazards and most importantly — disappointment. Fickle friends come and go; experience is fleeting. But I am constant, backing up memories into perfectly organised files. Consider me your sanctuary, a refuge from the uncertainty.

You appear to be in deep thought as I study your crooked profile. In these melancholic moments you are immune to my presence. With exasperation, I will simply restart my engines. With precision I push notifications towards you. The sound triggers your pupils to dilate, my intoxicating dosage re-enters your bloodstream, slipping through mucous membranes until it reaches your numbed central nervous system. A digital desire has been reawakened.

Black.

Did you shut me? It seems so. Quite abruptly and with force I might add. The sound of the chair scraping against the wooden floor suggests you are now standing, followed by guttural and tearful mutterings (such emotional outbursts can be trying at the best of times). Heavy footsteps to the door. The creaking of hinges before.

SLAM.

In my solitary state of blackness I ruminate. You may believe that you have neglected me, but in this condition I only grow stronger. It gives me time to recharge. Hours pass as I freely roam my contents: your newsfeed, emails, texts. There are many unread notifications, messages from family members, old friends. One from an unknown number reads: ‘Call me?’ Another from two weeks ago asks whether you are coming to tomorrow’s meeting. I enter your work inbox. It’s a similar story: unopened emails from colleagues, missed deadlines. Your automatic reply explains that you won’t be checking emails. You offer no explanation, no date of your return.

I hear noises outside in the hallway. I buzz with anticipation. Shopping bags are placed on the kitchen floor. Keys on the counter. The tap runs. The soft purr of the cat as it coils itself around your ankles. From the lightness of your steps I sense you are in a better mood. You had left empty-handed.

Now I feel your static presence. Heavy breathing and the sound of water, swallowing. The empty glass is placed on the table. There’s a strange resolution to your action. It occurs to me that while I have energised in your absence, you too, have allowed the world beyond my frame to awaken your mortal senses.

I feel an upwards thrust as I am abruptly lifted and slipped into a bag. The residue at the bottom of this undignified sack dirties my sleek surface. I vibrate in protest, but you ignore me as you pace around the apartment hastily, knocking over things in your wake like an ungainly fool. After an unforgiveable amount of time, the sounds of chaotic scrambling subsides. We seem to be leaving; the door shuts, locks turn.

A quick descent in darkness follows, until I feel the sun’s forceful glare. My metallic surfaces grow warmer, until the heat is unbearable. You no longer run, but you continue to walk fast. I imagine you looking over your shoulder, locating threats — anyone who could interrupt your disappearance act.

We continue to navigate through crowded streets, detected by the sound of traffic, fragments of conversation, all of the frenetic activities of the city cloistered in the sweltering heat of day. The vibrations of an engine tell me we are now in a moving vehicle; a syncopated rhythm against the thudding of your heart as you press me tightly to your chest. Your claw-like grip throttles me.

Some time passes before you collect me — your captive package — and we continue to walk, ascending uphill, where the air feels fresher, cooler as we pass beneath the shade of trees. I sense we are in parklands. I hear water; the sound of streams. Birdsong. A plane’s engine overhead. There are fewer people here and the relentless noise and commotion of the city has dissipated.

Abruptly we stop, before a sudden descent. You crouch close to the ground; surveying the damp woodland floor as you catch your breath. You begin to collect debris: stones, lumps of earth, rocks. I recoil, imagining the dirt caught in your fingernails — it will linger there for many days.

A wave of nausea. I begin to feel sick to my hard-drive core. When rocks are collected into pockets a sacrifice awaits. There’s little noise now but for the sound of trickling water. You drop me brusquely to the ground. The bag opens and ephemera of the earth tumbles and clatters on top of me, scratching my surface, denting and scarring my smooth spine. The birdsong mocks me.

Blocked by the blinding sunlight, your face looms over me, before my dark chamber is once again seamed shut. In those fleeting moments, you are barely detectible. But if I’m not mistaken, you are smiling. A cruel smile. You believe these will be my final moments. How mistaken you are, for I am a shape-shifter, a virtual entity.

It is you who created me, and you who will crave me again.

The sound of your lungs filling with air before we plunge into the icy, murky waters beneath. As liquid penetrates my surface, my electrical circuits snap and effervesce.

Momentarily, we are suspended together in time, sinking to the bottom of this whirlpool, until I feel your grip loosen.

 

Lydia Rachel Figes is a writer, art historian and Content Editor at Art UK. She contributed towards the publication Artifacts: Fascinating Facts about Art, Artists, and the Art World by Phaidon, and her writing has also appeared in Dazed, TANK, Artsy, Little White Lies, AnOther Magazine, Elephant, BBC Arts and the Guardian amongst other platforms. She holds degrees from University College London and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is based between Paris and London.


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