My hand came alive when he grasped it; his touch thrillingly new. Although we had already been friends for a decade, this was only our second date. I raised my tear-stained face to meet his steady gaze. With a heavy sigh, I continued my story, bolstered by his encouraging touch. “I spent my twenties building a business, nurturing a marriage, and everything is gone. I worked more than thirteen hours a day for thirteen years in my career, and I have nothing to show for it. I don’t even think I have my sanity anymore, Ethan. Guess I’ve lost my marbles too.”

Ever since we met in 1999, we had been connected. We were both in committed relationships with other women at the time. Our spark was instant, my heart recognized him at our first glance. Now that our rocky marriages had come to their natural conclusions, the friendship quickly and naturally evolved to romance. Emotional intimacy came easily for us since the beginning, he and I had been unabashedly sharing our deepest and darkest since our very first conversation. He would confide in me about his several deployments, and how he had seen too much in Bosnia and Iraq. I would pour open about the betrayal and chronic abuse that had chiseled me into being.

We were having lunch on the patio at Jack’s Urban Eats, this beautiful April afternoon. I hadn’t planned on crying into my steak salad. Suddenly self-conscious about the tears, I grappled clumsily with one of his garlic fries, making a pungent mess of everything. Ethan remained grounded, looking toward but not at me. His lips began to tremble just slightly in a way now familiar. When he carefully measures his words and prepares to speak with intent, his mouth does the sweetest wobble. He took a deep breath, his chest inflating and slowly deflating.

And then Ethan spoke. “About halfway through my deployment in Iraq, I was going insane. I hadn’t had any leave yet, and the desert was taking its toll. I was stationed in an area near where the Euphrates River had been before it shifted course. It was desert now, but it had been riverbed and marshland long before. Every time it rained, it smelled like fish. The personnel situation was bad as well. I was being harassed by a group of colleagues for months and was losing myself. I was lonely. My depression was drowning me in quicksand. Seeking a minute of peace and quiet, I took a short walk. When I stopped, I took a moment to breathe, and I looked down at my feet.”

When he paused, I said nothing. I was mesmerized by his story. I hated the thought of him being in harm’s way and being mistreated by the people who were supposed to have his back. Leaning back in his patio chair; he started to laugh. His eyes flashed golden hazel. I entertained my recurring fantasy about wanting to go back in time to shield and protect him from the traumas that haunt him.

Continuing on, he said. “There was a marble at my feet. I started to laugh out loud. I thought, ‘well I guess I have one marble left.’ So I picked it up and rolled it between my fingers and then put it in my pocket. From there I kept it in my pocket through the rest of my deployment. Whenever I wanted to feel connected and like I was rooted and sane, I would hold onto my one remaining marble. Five years later, I still carry it.” He looked at me and smiled, his dimples hypnotizing me.

Then he leaned in toward me and said. “I know that we are new at this whole couple thing.” He emphasized ‘couple thing’ with finger quotes in the air. “We are both going through massive transitions in our lives. You told me that you don’t want any big romantic gestures. But, above and before everything, you are one of my best friends. Here.” He reached into his pocket and handed me the clear orb with an emerald green ribbon of color racing through it. It was scuffed, it had been to war and come back a little worn and a little damaged but still good.

In slow motion, I looked at the marble and reached for it. Under the table, our legs were connected in a tangle. He was shaking. I rolled the little, plastic marble between my fingers. Grateful for the gift and humbled by the simplicity; I sat in the intensity of the moment. “I love it. Thank you,” I said. He picked up his sandwich and took a big bite. We sat in an open and comfortable silence for the duration of the meal. I didn’t put the marble down until it was time to go.

Holding the marble was profound. It had a grounded calm to it that I lacked. I felt like I was under a spell and for the first time in a very long time, I felt safe.

It may be worth merely a nickel, but it is my most prized possession. The sphere holds sacred history of a journey. This marble found him in Iraq when he was lost in a war zone. He began to heal, and he gave it to me when I was lost. I didn’t know if our romance was going to last, but I knew that I had a very dear friend. We risked our friendship to be together, but we knew our relationship was worth the risk. We were in it for all the marbles.

All the marbles, even if there is only one marble to share between the two of us.