I had been pursuing her for a year.
"Just friends" they say, but that didn't do us justice: we traded jokes and books and mock-outraged punches on the arm and milkshakes and looks from across the room, and read each other's minds and fell into each other's presence every time we met. But the thing was: from the moment she walked through the door at the bookstore where I worked I knew she was the one I had been made for. I just couldn't tell if she knew this too.
She was an artist and worked retail for the small but steady income it provided while she built her portfolio. When the gang from the store went out together I'd always pick her up at her tiny apartment, and I learned the closed door to the left in the hallway led to her studio, which I never saw. "It's my shrine," she said, "it's my sanctuary."
She had just gotten out of a long and bad relationship when we met. I knew because that was what she'd told me when, the first week she was working at the store, I asked her if she wanted to go out for coffee. We did indeed go out for coffee, and as I watched her over the rim of my cup while she spoke of brushes and textures and the uses of Japanese gift wrapping from the corner market, I considered how I would manage the hunt. Her heart, she had made clear, was not a tame thing that would come at my call. It was a wild and maybe wounded creature that only appeared in flashes between the trees. Capturing it would require care and caution. And patience. God, the terrible patience.
We became friends. Every now and then as we grew closer and the timing seemed auspicious I would ask her if she wanted to have dinner with me, or go to a movie. She would look at me sidewise and then her laughter would ring out like bells and she'd squeeze my arm in a way that was not quite a refusal and not quite acceptance, and which I chose to take as a promise of "Not now, not just yet, but later."
Then came a night when she answered the door by reaching out and grabbing my hand and pulling me inside, flinging the door shut behind us as she dragged me toward the hallway. "Don't ask, follow," she said over my protests. For a wild moment that made my heart hammer against my ribcage I thought we were going to her bedroom. But she turned left instead and led me for the first time into her studio.
The paint-spattered dropcloth slid off the easel. "Tell me," she said, and waited.
I walked slowly forward, my eyes moving over the canvas that stood before me, taking it all in. It wasn't what I expected at all. Which is not to say that I knew what to expect, or thought I had, but the strange and sudden beauty of it took my breath away. It was an abstract -- color breaking in upon color, bold and vivid. And here, yes, that Japanese paper she'd talked about, carefully torn by her strong, sure fingers, its calligraphy emerging still and serene from the chaos.
In my middlebrowed ignorance I'd always imagined that art of this type was random, paint and paper and whatever else thrown haphazardly onto a surface by self-conscious artistes who lacked the discipline to master the straight line. Yet this was not randomness I saw. It was her. She spoke in every carefully-chosen color, deliberately revealed herself in broad strokes here and a subtle half-hidden pattern there. I stepped closer and saw layers amid the layers, wonders within wonders. I felt like I could look at it forever and never grow tired of it.
"So? Tell me," she said again. I turned to see her suppressing a smile.
"It's beautiful," I said.
"Are you sure?" she said in a teasing voice. "Do you like it? Do you love it?"
"Yes, I love it."
She grinned. "Hold out your hands. Like this, dummy." Laughing at my confusion, she skipped across the cement floor and grabbed my wrists, lifting my arms. Then she picked up the painting and she placed it in my hands. My fingers closed over the wood of the frame; I held it tightly, afraid it would fall, gingerly, afraid my clumsy strength would tear it. Bewildered, I looked at her for an explanation. Was I taking this somewhere for her? Did she want me to do something with it? She looked back at me with her sparkling eyes and mischievous, shy, proud smile.
"It's for you", she said.