Roman ruins

“You’ve lost your marbles!” Milo yelled at Tess, returning to the argument they’d been having all week, since she walked out of her high-paying job at Gloryfish Media.

She looked up from her old oak drafting table calmly, considering him, then went on with her illustration—a new Little Red Riding Hood she’d turned into a kind of beauty and the beast tale, with a happy ending of repentance and reconciliation. It wasn’t about that Milo was fuming (though he did think it idiotic), but about how she’d given up her real job to become a freelance illustrator. Something she had longed to do for nearly seven years, and finally dared to try. For just a year, she told him, though she knew in her heart of hearts she couldn’t bear to go back to the marketing agency in the city or any other soul-destroying job.

She wanted animals with magic powers, gray ocher wolves and burnt umber owls; women healers in carmine cloaks; genies curled like unctuous snakes in natural sienna pots; flying Turkish carpets of blackcurrant red with Rumi verses stitched around the edge, ready to dart off on transforming quests. She wanted Fionnoula, their soft-coated Wheaten terrier, at her feet as she worked; to drink white peony tea from the stoneware noodle bowl she used as a teacup; to see the cottage garden out her window, with its leggy chives and echinacea, lamb’s-ear, Russian sage, wild indigo, and pale pink hollyhocks. To be at home, finally, fabulously, after so many years being somewhere else.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge before the ghosts, Milo wanted money—and then some more. He liked making money, investing it, showing it off, obsessing about its increase and continuance. The more Tess thought about how he had never wanted her happy, but just productive, earning her keep (which she saw like a castle keep, an old-time dungeon guarded by an unshaved troll in gladiator sandals), the more resolved she got—determined not to give in this time, after so many previous sheepish retractions, cowed surrenders. His words clattered around her, spilling like glass marbles over the burnished oak, the cold-pressed watercolor sheets, like one of the dramatic summer rains in Santa Fe where she grew up, those salvos of thunder and then a cloudburst hammering on flat adobe roofs and down the canales, channels for runoff, both sky and mountains bruised the color of ripe, fallen plums. She followed the thought where it led, rolling across the hardwood floor beyond the sleeping terrier, and absently painted a little spill of milky way marbles into the Big Bad Wolf’s big gentle paw.


Tess thought about it again the next day, adding a swarm of honeybees to a domed hive for a local author’s first story book. Milo wasn’t wrong. In fact, she had lost quantities of marbles, more than she could count. But he had no idea how in some incalculable calculus all the losses added up to make her what she was.


Way back in her childhood—or, Once upon a time in Santa Fe—in a back corner of the next-door neighbors’ garden shed, among snaky green hoses, pruning shears, a Flexible Flyer sled, the four Garcia boys’ bicycles and roller skates, a sawhorse with a worn leather saddle from Mrs. Garcia’s barrel racing days, and yarrow hung to dry for funny-tasting medicinal tea, a Folger’s coffee can brimming with marbles enticed Tess more than the fabled jewels of Maharajahs or French empresses sent into exile. She thought it silly to play games with those magical orbs as Danny and his brothers did; she just liked the weight and the shivery chink of them as they ran through her hands into her lap, the soft calico of her dress making a poofy pouch where they could pool. She liked the colors spun into the glass, swirls of raspberry or creamy orange or grape, like the ice-cream and popsicles Danny sold from his pushcart—which she’d followed one day like the Pied Piper to some faraway street, getting in all kinds of trouble once her parents found out she was gone. The beginning of her wanders, and her love of Danny—for nine years unrequited. Her family had moved to the other side of town, close to the church they’d nicknamed St. Bede’s in the Weeds, after London’s famous St. Martin’s in the Fields, and he and she had gone to different schools.

Only at the beginning of her junior year had she run into him at Swenson’s the first day of Fiesta. He was dipping out ice-cream again for waffle cones. Black Raspberry Marble and Marble Fudge, Toasted Almond. They’d shared two fevered adolescent years, stealing occasional half-afternoons away from study hall or basketball practice, spending two dreamlike summers in the dappled rustling shade of cottonwoods, the stippled light inside his cousin’s barn outside Nambé, by the river. Tess had learned to draw horses there, and the male body.

Then she’d lost him again for good when she’d gone off to college, first in Massachusetts, then England. Danny had gone to work at the big dairy in Albuquerque and had been killed along with two nephews one Christmas Eve on icy La Bajada Hill, swerving to miss a drunk driver.


In an old-fashioned bottle on the windowsill of the back bedroom in St. Albans with its William Morris wallpaper, claw-footed bath, her grandmother Vanessa’s marbles collected sunlight and rainlight. All clear, soft colors those, like herbal tisanes and liqueurs: pear, verbena, lavender, and eucalyptus, rose and sage; bubbles and summer mornings trapped in glass. The garden there had English robins and a small quizzical fox. The cathedral stood a short bike ride away, Roman remains and chalk stream a little farther. On their annual visits Tess and her much-younger sister Ella explored everywhere and ate teacakes and windfall apples and read, hundreds of Penguin paperbacks with faded orange spines piled sideways on spindly shelves under the stairs. Until one August, lying on the grass on a Liberty quilt, absorbed in The Moonstone, Tess was startled by an unfamiliar voice calling over the fence to her, through a flurry of rambler roses the color of buttered popcorn—the son of new neighbors, Simon Massey. By the time the month was over he’d persuaded her to apply for art school in London the following year.

In January that winter her grandmother died, and Tess’s gruff grandfather, Colonel John, got rid of all Vanessa’s things, among them her tortoiseshell and silver hair combs, the marbles, and Tess’s letters to her from Santa Fe, from Brandeis. The Colonel could never again be wooed back to good humor or a game of Canasta. He sold the house in St. Albans and bought an indistinctive flat in High Barnet.


The Greeks would maintain it was they, not Tess, who lost the Elgin Marbles, but she came to think of them as hers during her frequent visits to sketch the Parthenon Frieze while living in Bloomsbury studying Fine Arts, not far from the British Museum—or from the wonderful shop that sold pigments, resins, and gums; gouache, egg tempera, and watercolors; drawing inks, iron-gall ink, India Red sepia ink from cuttlefish. She came to know almost by heart the procession in marble, quarried from Mount Pentelicus: equestrians and chariots (horses again), elders with braided hair, musicians, water-vessel carriers, trays bearing honeycomb and cakes, placid and restive sacrificial animals, priestesses, priests, goddesses, gods.

It was a doubly enchanted time. In spring there were white lilacs blossoming in elegant Bloomsbury Square. In fall, her second year, there was the long journey down Italy by train with wonderful, absent-minded Simon who loved Roman and Etruscan art—past the marble quarries in Carrara; through Torino, Asti; down the Riviera through Genoa, Cinque Terre, Pisa, Livorno, and on. They passed Carrara late in the afternoon, white on its mountain like snow, the blocks of cut marble waiting to be sent off to their shaping. They came at dark to Tarquinia, the Etruscan town of nascent painted horses which Tess knew from the novel by Marguerite Duras.

When they arrived finally in Rome Tess was achingly sick, throat scratchy from the thick smoke in the non-smoking carriage with windows that refused to open. She sat with Simon in October sunshine in the quiet garden of the Villa Giulia, the 16th-century palace in the Borghese Gardens whose courtyard was painted with frescoes and with intricate leaves climbing the arches. It was a comfort to sit under lime trees and drink cold viscous pear juice and fizzy acqua minerale.

And though she was still feverish and dull, it was a joy the next days to be shown the Roman ruins by her English lover, the keen student of archaeology and art—especially the ancient port, Ostia Antica, with the patina of time and play of light on the cross-hatched patterns of old brick. They wandered for hours there holding hands, as if they never would let go, and Tess talked to an archaeologist sketching under a red umbrella, excited to consider that as a career. Wildflowers flourished everywhere, and extensive mosaics of ships, dolphins, horses with sea serpent tails, and a long-legged elephant or two, advertising ancient shipping firms. (If only advertising could be like that still, she’d fretted while working at Gloryfish in a modified warehouse under fluorescent lights.)


But then Carrara and its snowy marble quarries were lost to Tess, though Simon would return each year again to Rome to excavate.

Just before Christmas, overcome by gray, she met Milo, who was at UCL studying International Political Economy. Simon had for weeks renounced the outside world—including her—the way he tended to, gamely entombed in his analysis of the Tomb of the Augurs for a multiauthor volume on Etruscan funerary art. And in those dim, lowering winter days of loneliness and doubt, the slender Californian’s vitality swept Tess away. Grandmother Vanessa had said, always approvingly, “A new broom sweeps clean,” and Milo wasn’t just a new broom, but a veritable vacuum sweeper, leaving no vestige of debris behind.

Like Ebenezer Scrooge after the ghosts, Milo on meeting Tess was irrepressibly buoyant. He brightened that desolate winter with champagne cocktails, carnations, and spag bol (which his Italian roommate had taught him to cook authentically, with whole milk, nutmeg, and pancetta), and Tess’s heart responded gratefully.

He held Tess (or Tress, as he called her, short for “my enchantress!”) to a higher standard of ambition than she would ever have considered for herself. Her career was assured, he told her, with her design training and skills. She’d find terrific success in California, the best place for a job search—and for the lifestyle. Milo had no patience with other people’s quiet joys; his own brilliant, Technicolored visions put to shame all of the rest. Including dreary old London. Simon, the frowzy archaeologist. The small, contented life Tess had pictured, under a worn umbrella. She’d be much better off in Santa Monica, she could only agree, where Milo had a job lined up and she’d find something perfect too.


And so, she lost Bloomsbury, with all the rest of it, just short of her degree. She’d make her own frieze, she vowed as she walked out of the museum for the last time, full of enthusiasm, California bound. She’d paint a long parade of friends and guardians around the walls of their front room as soon as they had one to paint.


But when they bought the house in Malibu with French doors, Spanish tiles, Milo said how silly anything like that would look to their colleagues, and Tess, admitting he was right, lost heart for the project. There was her work at Blowfish, after all, which ran into a lot of overtime to meet deadlines; and the commute, a rather hellish hour and a half each way in L.A.’s tangle of freeways, completed her burn-out.

A year or two later, she almost didn’t notice what might have been called a negligible loss—an antique clay marble painted with tiny blue flowers pocketed by one of Milo’s nephews during a Saturday visit. Tess had kept the marble in a delicate hand-painted cup with saucer bought in a shop in the La Fonda lobby (smelling of piñon smoke from the big fireplace) when she went home to Santa Fe to stay with her parents for a few weeks, after losing her baby.

She’d wanted to remind herself that marbles were once used as ballast in the keels of ships, to improve stability.


Only after trying her best year after year to fit into the southern California glitz, the corporate rat-race, Milo’s inordinate expectations, would Tess reproach her grandmother Vanessa for not having relayed the second part of the traditional wisdom about sweeping. “But an old broom knows the corners.”

She’d felt cornered indeed, for many years. She’d given in and given up when her ambitious husband and coworkers failed to give her any leeway to send out green shoots. To unskein her hair like Rapunzel to make a climbing rope that might free her. To wake like the spell-tangled princess from an obliterating sleep.


There’d been the possibility of making a new start, she’d thought. They’d been talking for ages about going to stay on the island of Milos, one of the Cyclades, where the famous statue of Venus appeared in a ruined chapel or theatre. (Also, the humble ceramic Lady of Phylakopi, found in a colony of tuna fishermen, who somehow appealed more to Tess—maybe because the marble goddess was famously missing limbs, like her, and she would rather not be reminded. Her painting arm; the phantom limbs of the baby that might have been.)

Milos was said to be an island not yet discovered by foreign visitors, with artemisia, juniper trees, catacombs, a folk-art museum and summer festival. They could (Tess said) sit by the water and eat fish cooked in clay pots, drink retsina scented with pine resin. She could make paintings in ten or eleven shades of turquoise. They could (Milo countered) go to the mining museum, the catacombs, the cave of the dragon. It was Milo’s island by name, and he would properly claim it.

It might have worked, but they’d never quite gotten there. Every time the idea came up, Milo made faces about how much it would cost to fly to Greece, and how long the flights were. They wouldn’t get there now; they’d gone too far down bitter opposed paths to ever be washed up together on a gentle bone-white island where contentment was all that was on offer.


So finally, Tess reckoned, as she folded her drafting table into an oversized mover’s carton, and looked one last time out the window of the nearly empty den—sad about the flowers and herbs but with great plans for the side yard of the studio she’d rented in one of the oldest artists’ neighborhoods in Santa Fe, with salt cedar and a light-splashed adobe wall to keep Fionnoula safe—last of all of her losses was Milo.

After that, in the numinous calculus of marbles, she might be nearly complete.