The husband and I rested under a tree, smiling at each other. No words. My sundress was white with large yellow and purple flower shapes, splashes of green leaves, and slashes of black outlining the abstract floral designs. He wore khaki pants and a button up with the sleeves rolled up, as if he'd come to the beach right after work. The sun pulled freckles to the surface of our faces and arms and we relished every cool breeze's relief from the heat. Our shoes were in a heap and sand was between our toes.
Then a gloomy pressure weighed on my eyes. My eyes welled with tears and my breath came shallow and fast. Something in my chest clenched and panic rose in my throat as my mind's eye saw the sandy ground collapsing in massive sinkholes around the beach. I leaped up.
"The ground is going to collapse! It's all going to fall in! We have to move. You have to move!" I yelled at my husband. Backing away from the beach area, clenching my fists and blinking back tears. I nearly hyperventilated.
He didn't believe me. Smiling and dipping his head to one side in a pitying motion. He shook his head, still smiling, slowly rising, grabbing his shoes and following me past the crowds to a path in the trees. He extended a hand. Our shoes in one hand and each other's hand in the other we walked toward a nearby building. The entrance down a few stairs in a dim trench, wood planks layered into long slats built into the earth. Sand heaped in the creases of the stairs, heavy wood and glass doors opening into the public space of a dormitory.
The inside of the dorm was a massive space. Three stories down into the ground and four more up, staircases and ladders stacked in a giant column through all the levels, like a giant jungle gym. Balconies lined the common space, students watching other students crawling up the wooden maze in the center of the building, following platforms from the center structure out to the balconies and down hallways to dorm rooms, kitchenettes, and bathrooms.
I released his hand and began walking fast down a hallway at the far end of the room. Crowds of people stood in the halls, like soldiers in a trench. Panic still lingered in my body. I kept my head down and charged through the crowd, my hair was short and in curls, an awkward misshapen bob. I sensed my husband behind me, not quite keeping pace but keeping me within eyesight.
I suddenly sensed someone I knew to my right. Tall. T-shirt and gym shorts. Dark eyes and buzzed brown hair, a heavy brow and bulky torso. My ex.
I kept my head down. He said something. I ignored it and kept walking quickly forward. I didn't get far. He followed, my steps seeming three to his one, grabbing up my arm and turning me to look at him.
"I knew it was you."
He turned down another hallway and led me to a dorm room. Bright florescent lights, shiny white walls littered with posters and sketches. A cluttered desk to the right beside the doorway, a queen-sized bed centered against the back wall with a storage headboard, the various pockets and drawers stuffed full with books, clothes, papers, paintbrushes, figurines, and trash. The bed was unmade, the closet to the left crowded with clothes and shoes, the doors left open. There was a feminine presence, despite the mess. I realized he must share the room with his girlfriend.
He shut and locked the door behind us. Pushing me to the bed as he flopped on his front down the center of the bed, he ruffled through the crowded headboard. I laid across the bed parallel to the headboard, squeezing closer to the cluttered furniture piece as he inched closer and closer to me.
"You owe me a painting. You said you would paint this figurine and you never did." He never made eye contact but shoved a cluster of toys into my hands.
The plastic miniature knight was smaller than a fifty cent piece. Molded to ride a horse my ex seemed to have temporarily stuck the figure to a toy horse of a different variety. What looked like some 80s girl's toy with gnarled fake hair hanging down to the horse's knees. The horse was much too big for the knight. The knight perched on its back like some sort of tumor. Also attached to the horse was a larger action figurine. A Robin Hood with screws showing at his joints. The cheap, poorly kept toys made me sad.
"Paint it. Like you said you would." He thrust a tiny bristled brush into my hands, setting a torn piece of cardboard with paint on it on a limp pillow beside me.
I felt my breath become shallow, trying to steady my heartbeat as if I were stuck in a caged enclosure with a tiger. I avoided his eyes and kept my mouth shut, layering thin coats of metallic orange and red paint down the knight's cloak.
Outside I hear my husband calling my name, opening and closing doors, stomping down the hall. Despite my anxiety I call out to him. My ex spins around on the bed as my husband bangs on the door with a fist. Realizing the door is locked and no one is about to open it, my husband kicks it open. He bursts in and my ex tenses for combat. The man on the bed had fifty pounds and three inches on my husband but was not himself. I knew my husband could subdue my captor but it wouldn't be pretty. I calm them.
"It's okay. I'm just painting a miniature." Locking eyes with my husband I bob my head in a small nod and motion him to a chair in front of the closet.
The men calm down, everyone settling into their posts as I return to painting. As I finish the cloak I notice the poorly painted face of the knight. Blobs of light blue cover the pupil, iris, and sclera of both eyes. One shade of bright orange smeared around the textured hair of the knight. A horrible paint job reminiscent of Chuckie. It doesn't make any sense. This man is a better painter of miniatures than I am, how could he paint this figurine so poorly?
My ex inches closer and closer to me as I paint. He lays an arm over my back, mindlessly, like setting a coffee cup down on a pile of paper to prevent them from blowing away. My husband flinches. We exchange a glance and I steady my breathing, trying not to react. We remain outwardly calm but tensed for action, unsure of the hulking man's intention. I set down my brush and try to return the figurine to him.
"No. The face. You have to pain the face. Like this." He presents a crumbled sketch, sliding it onto the bed before me.
The sketch is familiar. A man with reddish, dirty blonde short hair just long enough to begin curling, hazel eyes, freckles and red stubble. It's my husband. I look up at the hubster and catch his eyes. He recognizes the sketch but is calm. He nods and points with is chin at the miniature. I paint the face in my husband's image.
As I'm painting someone enters the room through the ajar door. It is his girlfriend. She jumps a little at the door, keys in her hand, a messenger bag hanging from her shoulder. Taking in the scene she is alarmed for mere seconds. She drops her bad beside the desk and sits down, twisting the office chair to face the bed and watching the painting. She smiles at me. A little shake of her head and a glance at my ex. Everyone seems to know that he needs this miniature painted except me. I assumed he'd forgotten all about it.
The closer I come to completing the miniature the more oppressive my ex becomes. Edging closer and closer to me I feel his torso and legs pressing against me, his head leaning in next to mine, breath on my neck as he observes the painting.
I finish the knight's face and hand the glued clump of toes back to my ex. He brings it close to his face and inspects the painting. I slowly slide off the bed, setting the paintbrush on the crowded headboard. He remains fixated on the figurine, mumbling something about a horse.
My husband rises from his chair and slowly creeps toward the door.
"For the next part I'll need a container for water. Maybe a yogurt container? That'd be good." I edge around the bed and toward the door. Slipping into my sandals as I find them discarded near the door, my hands leveled in front of me in a calming slow motion bounce.
My ex nods to himself and his fiance nods and smiles to us as we leave. Somehow we understand that I won't be coming back.
My husband and I shut the door as we leave the dorm. Walking briskly down the hallway we reenter the large main room and crawl up the center jungle gym to a different exit, a sunny exit above us. On the jungle gym a girls asks if I would like to play volleyball and get drunk in a hour and a half. I turn her down and mention my family's volleyball games and how they get drunk in only forty-five minutes!
We exchange a few more words about her odd hair, dark brunette roots with the rest of her hair deep auburn to her shoulders. She claims to be a bright yellow blonde and to be concerned about her next few month's dye jobs as the factory for her dye will be closed down for a couple months. My husband chuckles and grins at me as he climbs past. I smile and shrug at the girl, climbing away on the jungle gym and realizing that everyone below me can see my underwear.
I don't particularly care.