The last number. The one I can’t hit. It’s waiting to give me away. To leave a permanent mark on her phone. That I’ve taken myself seriously enough to call her. I have to hit it because I can’t call her with only six numbers. The seventh number. That’s the one that makes the connection. That turns the hard won phone number into a real date. Or opens the door to a long lost love.
Chanel alternately hated and loved her parents for naming her after a French perfume. Every guy she ever dated bought her a bottle thinking it would be cute. She fit the name though, sleek and blond with a smile that could market her namesake.
Perfection nagged at her at ever turn. When other girls were putting on the freshman fifteen, she was counting calories and going for long glistening runs. Only a weight lifter was good enough for her to date even though he treated her like his personal trophy. Pre-law won out over art because that’s what an up and coming girl should study even though Chanel’s dreams died with that choice.
She seemed unapproachable except once when I was taking an experimental art class to meet the fine arts requirement for my degree.
The professor hated my attitude and made it my painful duty to clean up the studio every Tuesday night after class. By the time everyone had left the room one particular night, it looked like a truck full of rainbows had collided with a van full of jugglers.
During the session, we had covered the walls in huge sheets that we used as canvesses. Pulling down the one that covered part of the south wall, I hung it outside to dry. I was replacing it with a clean sheet for the next class when there was a knock on the half closed door.
Chanel stood there, an apology on her face.
“Excuse me. I’m not in any art classes, but I was wondering if I could paint some time.”
Somewhere I found my tongue.
“Sure. You could paint now if you want to.”
She stared around the studio seemingly aghast at the destruction wrought by the previous occupants.
“Experimental art. Not really still life and oil painting.”
A blond wisp had escaped and she tucked it behind her ear blinking at me like she hadn’t heard. Her eyes froze on one part of our latest creation. It looked like crap to me, but she was staring at long, thick streaks of navy and gold as if Picasso himself had painted them.
“That’s really beautiful.” She paused trying to remember my unknown name.
“I’m sorry. I’m Chanel,” she said and closed the gap between us, extending a hand I had longed to touch.
“Oscar. Nice to meet you.”
She laughed. “You probably got more jokes about your name than I did about mine.”
“We could start our own marketing firm, you do perfume and I’ll do hot dogs.” I quipped.
“So did you paint the Lightning tower?”
She indicated the navy and gold lines that had transfixed her.
I shook my head.
“I’m afraid that was, Gina Beldin, the best artist in our class. I did the bowling bowl marks in green on the floor.”
Multiple expressions seemed to cross her face.
“I’ve never done anything like this,” she said, doubt creeping into her voice. “I was expecting something more normal.”
“Give it a whirl,” I said, “If you don’t like it, we’ll just start a fire.”
“Let me set you up with some paint,” I said.
Gina Beldin had a method for setting up paint so I followed that now — paint between Chanel and the wall. Further back, I made a line of brushes, stuffed animals, plants, and tire pieces that she could use to leave her mark on the world.
Peace settled over the room as Chanel stood looking over the tools of the trade.
I moved slowly through my cleanup so that I wouldn’t disturb her, but I shouldn’t have bothered. Her cell phone rang and soon she was yelling at her boyfriend. They were arguing over some muffled slight that she worked hard to keep secret.
“Gotta go,” she said quickly, marching to the door.
My plaintive tone hung in the air. It caught at her and made her stop.
She shook her head fighting back the tears.
“It’s my boyfriend. He’s got somewhere that he wants us to go and …”
Gently taking her elbow, I guided her back to the paint.
“Chanel. This is what you want to do tonight. He can wait a few minutes. Besides, you wouldn’t want to waste all of my hard work.”
A smile broke her face.
“Okay a few minutes. Since you went to all the trouble.”
While she contemplated what to paint, I took another sheet outside. When I came back in, I found her getting ready to leave a blank sheet behind her.
“I just can’t do it. I’ve never done it. I don’t know how.”
She was looking at me giving me a chance to approve of her. Invading her personal space, I turned her back toward the sheet and stood for a moment between her and her prey.
“It’s experimental art. The only way to fail is to walk out the door.”
Moving behind her, I rested one hand on her shoulder.
“Close your eyes.”
My voice dropped to a whisper and I waved my hand in front of her face to make sure she wasn’t peeking.
“Relax for a minute. Pick someone to paint about then open your eyes and just paint.”
Broad hues of red and black formed deep patterns as she layered them across the big canvas. She painted with a piece of tire, an old shirt, a stuffed dog. The acting of painting became a game as she played with texture and color.
Transfixed, I gawked and idolized and all of those other things that make women despise men. This time, it wasn’t her physical beauty that held me in awe, but the pain and strength that flowed out through her therapy. Her cell phone rang and she slammed it off and returned to her painting.
Some movement of mine must have distracted her because she looked up.
“Is it awful?”
I blinked hard. “No. ”
Hands on her hips, she studied it critically.
“One more?” she asked.
The next painting was a mix of greens, yellows, and friendly blues slapped on with a mop to mix and create a weave of brighter hues. Paint drops wrecked her trendy clothes but nothing could penetrate this new world.
She caught me staring at her.
“I like the extra color.”
“You’re one to talk. Your jeans are more green than blue.”
“Yes. But these are my painting clothes.”
“So I guess it’s okay if I do this,” she said, flipping the mop in my direction and adding to the collage that I wore.
Retaliation turned into a bit of a free for all. Paint flew and finally she rushed me with a full can.. Most of it missed splashing the floor as I grabbed both her wrists and twisted the can away. Collapsing on the floor in laughter, I held on to her wrists, almost a caress.
“Truce?” I asked.
Her body relaxed. I released her wrists. Her hands slid through mine. Only, when we had let go of each other, I was still holding her left hand in my right. We sat there stretching out time in this fantasy world. I leaned over to kiss her, but she pulled back.
“I have a boyfriend,” she said pulling back, but not releasing my hand.
“You have a jerk boyfriend.”
Her head bobbed, tears formed in her eyes, and she bit her lip. Silently she laid her head on my shoulder. Her confusion fed our time machine until I wondered if she had fallen asleep.
Her body stirred in a whisper, “We could paint.”
I realized that we had been staring at a blank canvas for the past half hour. One of the sheets I’d hung up when I was cleaning. So we painted; a silent dance, brushing against each other unintentionally, but unapologetically. She mopped red streaks of passion across my broad arcs of blue. I added bright hands onto the stretching arms of freedom that she painted.
When it was done, we hung it out to dry and she helped me finish cleaning up. We turned the lights out in the art lab and she hugged me chastely.
She never spoke to me again.
The next time she saw me on campus, she visibly tensed up, probably fearing that I would give away her secret. After that, I’d catch her eye from time to time and find the hint of an unspoken smile hiding there.
In the three years since that night, I finished school and started working. One living room wall is decorated with a faded sheet, covered in arcs and swirls. A friend told me last night that Chanel broke up with her boyfriend six months ago.
In my hand is my phone with six digits dialed.