“The Marble” by Claire Salinda
BLAST, TMR’s online-only prose anthology, features prose too vibrant to be confined between the covers of a print journal. “The Marble” is essayist Claire Salinda’s reflection on an emotionally fraught period in her life when she was drawn to crystals and tarot readings, to magical thinking and startling impulses that even now occasionally haunt her.
By Claire Salinda
I once experienced a recurring desire to hold a marble in my mouth. This was a foreign sensation occurring at a foreign time. I’d never had an oral fixation before, and this new craving for a marble coincided with the end of my marriage, another novel event in my life. The separation was necessary but unwanted, but my longing for a marble was so visceral that once or twice, I even caught myself swirling my tongue around as if one was there between my cheeks. However, when I did eventually procure a marble, I only ever kept it in my pocket.
I bought my marble in a local crystal shop that I visited on the advice of a tarot reader. I had gone to her to learn if the separation from my husband would be permanent, if it would lead to a divorce. For reasons that are not unique to couples who meet when they’re very young, marry when they’re still young, and then suddenly, one day, are no longer young, we decided to be apart for a year. It was the mandated minimum amount of time you must be legally separated before you can file for divorce in North Carolina, where we were married and lived, and besides, we still loved one another. So no decisions would be made before the year was up, aside from the decision that I was moving to Brooklyn in a few weeks as an ostensibly, if temporarily, single woman.
Still, I wanted to know what my husband and I would decide, which is how I found myself in front of a stranger and her deck of cards, asking her for clarity. I am not a believer in the mystical power of people or rocks. But I am also not not a believer; there is too much room for it to go either way, and I would hate to miss out on salvation just as much as I’d hate to be made a fool. A separation is one of those events when both the possible and the impossible seem to exist in the same moment, and if there was ever a time to reap a benefit, even one of dubious origin, this was it.
The tarot reader looked at her spread of cards and then informed me, unequivocally, that this was the definitive end of my marriage. I don’t recall the specific cards that lay between us, just that they said there was no going back. I should have, and probably could have, taken a photo of the spread. It’s not uncommon for a querent to do so, and I’m sure the reader would have allowed me to document the cards. But I didn’t.
Yet I did take a picture when I arrived at the tarot reader’s studio. In the photo, two walls of wooden shiplap converge in a partly sunny corner of a room, both painted the same shade of cream but with planks of different widths and orientations. The greenery of the outside peeks through a four-paneled window on one of the walls. Besides that, there’s nothing else in the scene to suggest where I was: no furniture, no people, no tarot cards. Just the corner of an unidentified room. And while I don’t know why exactly I took that photo, I possess a vague memory of wanting to capture the essence of something in that moment, to mark the time just before the reading, as if I knew things would be irrevocably altered on the other side of it.
In her next breath following her proclamation about the end of my marriage, the reader warned that my mother-in-law was harboring bad energy toward me and then gave me a list of gemstones that could help shield me from the malice. This was no great surprise to me, my mother-in-law’s contempt. This, after all, was the woman who’d worn a bone-colored dress to my wedding. Even my husband once remarked that she didn’t know how to hug, always holding her body at arm’s distance, even from her son.
Shopping for rocks is easier than dealing with the prognostication of divorce, so I set off for the crystal store straight from the reading, list in hand. There were seven kinds of stones on the tarot reader’s list, each with its unique properties to hopefully bolster my energetic wherewithal. I circled the small store and added what I needed to my basket: iridescent labradorite and inky black obsidian for sound sleep and protection, respectively; a few pieces of jade to bring me success and wisdom; lapis lazuli and red jasper specimens to help me stay calm and grounded; a chunky rod of near-transparent selenite for clarity; an optimistic slice of rose quartz, the crystal of unconditional love, for good measure. According to the shop employee, I was supposed to touch the gems to feel which ones belonged to me, and although I was there among the rocks with only a half measure of earnestness, I can attest that the stones practically buzzed in my palm.
When I went to pay for my small galaxy of crystals, I noticed a bowl full of deliciously glossy marbles next to the register. Like a child encountering a gumball machine, I salivated. Even now, the better half of a decade later, typing the word marble over and over again brings a pleasant fullness to my tongue. As bizarre as it sounds, it makes sense, considering that I was desiring, with every cell in my body, to understand my own life at that time, and desire is just another form of hunger. I wanted to consume the knowledge because if I did, it would no longer be apart from me. I would have control over my life. I would know.
Perhaps because I was in a crystal store, these marbles were agate and jasper and other opaque gemstones rather than glass like the ones I remembered from my childhood. Setting aside my protective stones on the counter for a moment, I submerged the tips of my fingers in the bowl of marbles and savored their cool smoothness. I lingered over one or two that immediately caught my attention—bright and striped like scoops from some sort of extraterrestrial fruits. But I eventually chose a marble that, while not dazzling in appearance, was made all the more appetizing by its milky coloring. I didn’t dare touch it to my lips, though. I didn’t feel ready yet.
Retrospection is its own form of magical thinking, and considering the marble today, it’s clear to me that I wasn’t ready to devour an understanding. Or rather, I wasn’t able to admit to an understanding of my life because, before going to the tarot reader, I already knew that my marriage was ending. When I claimed to want to know what was on the other side of that year to come, what I meant was that I wanted someone else to say the truth aloud. The tarot reader wasn’t a psychic then, just an empath. I thought I could hold a marble in my mouth in place of the words I lacked. Because although I had been sad before in my life, devastated even, I had never spoken this language of loss before, and I didn’t possess the vocabulary to explain it to myself, let alone to others.
But perhaps it also felt too tender to even get close to the place where my words were formed, and that is why I kept the marble in my pocket, next to that solar system of protective crystals. My mouth was too powerful, with its ability to render a prophecy true if I spoke it aloud. If I opened my mouth for the marble, who knew what other words would tumble out and what havoc would be wreaked, whose heart would be broken? And yet what cannot be said must still be felt. The experience of separation was so overwhelming that it demanded a somatic, almost animalistic reckoning instead of a spoken one. Of course it did.
There were many other unfamiliar and immutable desires in my body around that time of heartbreak. My first ever IUD was inserted a few days before I left for Brooklyn. The searing procedure was a convenient and optimistic distraction, allowing me the grounding experience of scheduling and prepping for my appointment while also giving me the space to imagine a future of protected sex with someone new or possibly, just maybe, someones plural. But even more so, the resulting pain in my abdomen provided a corporeal analogue to the emotional anguish I could not express otherwise. I cramped and bled for months after, the pain eventually becoming an assumed condition of my daily existence. If you had asked my body then, it would’ve said exactly what I could not: This hurts.
There were other symbolic translations and signs, too, beyond the tarot reading. A few weeks before I moved out, the first ring given to me by my husband snapped in half while still on my finger. I was driving to a parking structure between work meetings so that I could cry alone in my car, and the silver band just seemed to dissolve into two. Like my marriage, I can assume there had been a weak point in its arc that I didn’t notice, the silver becoming thinner each day until it could no longer hold itself together. I had practically begged him for that ring after we encountered it by chance in a store. It was the perfect representation of how I wanted to feel in our relationship, with its chip of a diamond embedded next to its engraved sentiment: “Loved.”
On one of our last evenings together before I moved out, my husband ran the garbage disposal and it jammed against a hard object. He reached in and extracted one of my pieces of protective jade, left behind from when I was washing my stones of his mother’s bad energy. I didn’t tell him what it was or how it ended up there, and he didn’t ask.
I arrived in Brooklyn, and the coincidences followed. For a short time, I dated a guitarist who moonlighted as a bartender, or maybe it was the other way around. Late one night when I was killing time in Washington Square Park while waiting for him to finish his shift, I was approached by a boy. I knew he was a boy, only twenty, because he told me but also because I made him show me his ID. Elliott—the same name as my husband—was from Seattle, and he didn’t know why he was in New York City. He told me I looked scary but also that I was so pretty, like a beautiful twenty-three-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx. He told me he just wanted into my vibes, cracked himself up, and then gasped when I told him that I was not Puerto Rican but half-Filipina, originally from Los Angeles, and that I was thirty-one. He said he’d take the L train to Brooklyn for me anyway. He was staying at a Marriott on a stolen credit card, down from Boston University with “some dudes” he knew, who’d goaded him into talking to me. He promised he was not a skateboarder or date rapist like everyone else he knew at school. He was a sophomore at BU but knew all the senior soccer players at my alma mater in upstate New York, and, according to him, it was “a great school.” He wasn’t even that wasted, just stressed about the stolen credit card. If I wanted to have the best night ever, I should go with him and his friends.
I recognized this college boy’s manic brazenness in a previous version of myself, and for just a brief moment I was tempted to follow him. If I had in fact still been twenty-three and still lived off the L train—because those two things had once been true—and if I had actually believed that he wasn’t that drunk, I probably would’ve gone with him; adventure often trumped reason during that naively hedonistic period of my early twenties in New York. However, I was in my thirties and living off the F train in a less cool part of Brooklyn. And also, a few years before that night, I’d made the most audacious of all choices: I’d promised a man, in front of everyone who knew us, that I would love and stay with him forever, only to later learn that I was no longer a choice he would’ve made. I had since learned to be somewhat more reasonable in my decision-making.
“Goodnight, Elliott,” I called out to the retreating boy and, in doing so, repeated an exact sentiment I had uttered hundreds and maybe even thousands of times before, each time, including this one, intending it as a loving release into the dark. Then I turned back toward the arch in the park and continued to wait for the guitarist’s shift to end.
The guitarist was the opposite of my husband in almost every way imaginable. For this alone, but for many other reasons, he was another placeholder, his own form of translation for what I could not put words to. But it didn’t mean that it hurt any less when our fling ended. I still didn’t possess the language then to give shape to my pain, but I did start to think about using my words again in the future, drafting a list of things I should write about someday: “Bartenders I Have Fucked and Maybe Loved”; “Bathrooms I Have Shared”; “Rings I Have Worn.” Instead of writing about these things then, I sipped twelve-dollar smoothies delivered directly to my front door while I watched season after season of Frasier on my couch. Days later, when I did finally leave my apartment, I walked around the American Museum of Natural History by myself and cried when I read a display on the deaths of Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and wife within hours of each other. The plaque bore a photo of Roosevelt’s diary entry that day, just a large black “X” on lined paper with a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.”
A few weeks after the museum sojourn, I took the A train alone to the beach with the intention of breaking an egg into the Atlantic. The night before, I’d attended a women’s-only energy healing circle at the urging of a sympathetic friend who knew the witch leading the ritual. If I’d had no qualms before about soliciting a tarot reader’s interpretation, I also did not see any reason to refuse a witch’s. So I sat among a handful of other afflicted women on a concrete floor, situated around a giant hand-painted eye, the eye witnessing us with its startling blue iris and we witnessing each other. No one spoke except the witch, but our pain required no translation. If love is a universal language, then so is pain—most especially so in a room full of aggrieved women.
The witch asked us all to embody our pain. I wish I could recall if this felt easy or difficult, if it was agonizing or cathartic to endure, but all I remember is that I did not cry like the others. After sufficient conjuring, when the trauma was closer to the surface of our skin, the witch instructed us to rub an egg all over our bodies so that we might transfer our pain to it. In my hand, the egg reminded me of the marble: cold, hard, unswallowable, necessary to possess. I dragged it lightly, thoughtfully, up and down my limbs, across my chest and abdomen, along my shoulders and back.
After the cleansing, we placed our eggs in plastic takeout containers filled with cornmeal so we could transport them to a large body of water for disposal without incurring further psychic harm. I took my sealed egg and went to the bar next door to have a drink with the witch. Round objects seemingly beget more round objects in my life, so we played a game of pool, I taking immense satisfaction with each hard thump of the cue stick against the ball. Of course, the guitarist walked in just then with his own intentions of having a pool game with friends. Part of the reason I had agreed to participate in the circle in the first place was because the space with the painted eye on the floor shared a wall with the guitarist’s favorite watering hole. The witch watched me as the guitarist approached. However, I was no longer waiting for him; I trusted the witch like I had trusted the tarot reader—not necessarily with my future but with my already existing present. So just as the cards had told me what I already knew, the egg lifted away what was ready to be cleansed. Now I had the egg in the cornmeal and the pool balls lined up, both waiting for me to dispatch them.
Looking out of the window of the A train the next morning on my way to the beach, the contained egg in my lap, I saw an old graveyard I’d never noticed before, which made me think of Teddy Roosevelt’s black “X.” It was overcast and already chilly when I got off the subway, despite it being just a week after Labor Day, but I appreciated the ambient moodiness and subsequently deserted shoreline. When I dug my bare feet into the clammy sand and plucked the egg from the container, I wasn’t moved to cradle it as I had the marble. I held it tentatively between my thumb and forefinger instead, aware of how delicate it was despite its heaviness. I didn’t want to crack its shell before I was ready, so I lay down on the sand instead. I closed my eyes against the glaring gray sky and, in an attempt to mimic the ritual with the witch, I concentrated hard on finding the heartache in my body, identifying it some moments later as a hollowness in my chest and stomach and as a tingly weakness in my fingers, still holding the egg. I might not have been able to grieve in words yet, but at least I could give the sorrow enough shape to locate it.
I stayed on my back for a long, long time, just breathing. When I finally did wade into the whitewash and throw the egg into the oncoming waves, I never actually saw the shell break. I knew it must have happened, though, because the subway train car I boarded back to the city was empty, and I sang along to the song in my headphones, out loud, at the top of my lungs. When I reached for the marble, still carried in my pocket, I only thought to lick it.
I stopped carrying the crystals and the marble around the time my divorce was final, but I returned to the water often. Sometimes it was the train to the beach, when it was warm enough; sometimes it was a stream on a weekend trip upstate. Most frequently, it was the lap pool at my local YMCA. I had never been a strong swimmer, but when I grieved the guitarist and started to grieve my marriage, when I finally had the room to make a new life with myself, one aspect I desired for my identity was to be a woman who swam laps in the morning. It didn’t pan out exactly as I wanted—I only had time to swim at night, for one. But I did swim. I even took lessons with other aspiring adults to perfect my freestyle and master my flip turn, building an awareness of my body with every stroke. And when I returned to my hometown of Los Angeles a few years later, I translated my laps to the local pool here.
Like all translations, though, the outcome is subjective. Last week, I did a flip turn, but the pool here is shallower than the one in Brooklyn by nearly five feet, so I smacked my forehead on the hard tiles lining the bottom of my lane. The goose egg that emerged was a convenient talisman of sorts, one that I found myself mindlessly caressing in the days following the botched flip turn. The touching bordered on compulsive, and if I was writing this a week ago, I’d be rubbing my forehead the whole time. Because even though it was tender and bruised, the echo of pain I felt when I gently stroked it wasn’t altogether unpleasant, calling to mind another egg in another body of water and, before that, a marble I used to want to hold in my mouth.
Claire Salinda is a writer from Los Angeles and New York. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Assay, Thrillist, and Pen and Ink, among others, and has been supported by the Prospect Street Writers House. She is an MFA candidate in literature and nonfiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars and is currently working on an essay collection that engages with the themes of identity, desire, sexuality, power, and place, through the lens of a mixed-race Asian woman in America. Sometimes she writes about surfing, too. Claire lives in LA, where she reads tarot and consults with companies on creative operations.