She’s the girl you see in lecture hall, the one at the far end of the room with whom you make brief eye contact once and whose eyes haunt you night after night as you lie awake in bed staring up into the darkness. She’s the girl you pass by as you make your way down the airplane’s rows, looking for your seat, and who occupies your thoughts the entire flight though you never see her again. She’s the girl you pass in a crowd, whose face seems to draw your gaze like a moth to a flame just before it is blown out by the wind, as much gone from sight as it isn’t from mind.

You pass her and you find yourself thinking, I could love you. I could be there for you, I could know you, I could hold you in the night and stand by you in the day. You imagine a life together, you construct a personality for her and a situation in which you happen to start up a conversation, and your eyes meet and you fall in love. The flame is gone, but the fire’s only just started.

It hits you one day, but you only recognize it later if at all, like the delayed development of a bruise from a punch inflicted during a drunken bar fight several nights before. The faces have piled up, the stories lie atop one another like slides on a projector, each word and letter blurred and unidentifiable from the next, until all that is projected is a mess, a shapeless blob of dark figures faceless in the crowd. You forget where fiction ends and reality begins, and some days you can’t distinguish memories from imaginations, fantasies from realities. But the faces keep coming, the stories keep rolling out. I could love you. You fall for face after face, and some of the old ones make reappearances, surely a sign that they are significant, a sign that you are meant to be. Coincidence is a foreign concept, fate is all you know, blind to the irony of your own ignorance, the tragic flaw in your beliefs ever evasive beneath your nose.

You’re convinced in the existence of true love, of destiny, and yet the impossibility of this is reflected in each face you fall for. But you ignore it, so preoccupied with falling in love that you don’t realize that you’re not. And the fire rages on.

You no longer sleep at night, spending the time vainly sorting through the stories, trying  to organize and sort them in order of likelihood and appeal. Your days are no better, and you lose your grip on life as you trade it for something that doesn’t exist. You feel alienated from the world, which inexplicably remains stagnantly contradictory to the fantasies you entertain, as though it has betrayed you.

You stop making eye contact with the people you pass by, afraid you’ll feel that all-too familiar click again, that brief cry which echoes on inside your skull for an eternity afterwards, adding to the already deafening screams of those who have already contributed. I could love you. You fear your head will split open at the seams if you fall another time, and whether through your own imaginings developing a placebo effect or simply a side effect of the sleep deprivation, you suffer raging migraines on a regular basis. Your appearance acts as a reflection of your descent: your eyes are permanently shadowed, the sockets hollowed; your skin pale and at times clammy; and your hands shake so violently that you have developed a habit of firmly gripping onto whatever is in reach to still them, lest they betray your weakness.

The fire consumes you. Soon you stop going out in public altogether, only making runs for food and other necessities before scurrying back to your room like a rat fearing capture. You imagine you can feel them staring at you, their eyes boring holes into the back of your skull, cracking open the bone and exposing the stories hidden beneath, pouring through the holes and flowing out into the air like black ink in water. Your secrets, exposed. Vulnerable. You start imagining that you can hear their thoughts, their cruel whispers behind your back as you pass, hissing their contempt for you. They can see it, they know you are pathetic, you are unlovable, you are unfaithful. They see you for what you are and they laugh and sneer.

You sit on the edge of your bed and pick through your stories, broken and incomplete, feebly lifting them like dead things, half expecting them to come to life in your hands. But when you loosen your grip they drift downwards like fragile, crumpled ashes, as lifeless as they were from the start. They litter the ground, empty husks and hollow duplicates of something living and beautiful. They offer you no consolation. You stare down at the fragments of lives you have never lived and will never live, and you whisper five words, your voice hoarse and broken, scarcely more than an exhale, the sound of a dying flame, the final snuff of a fire as it is forever extinguished.

I could have loved you.

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