My House Went Up In Flames — And So Did My Marriage

Photo: VCNW / Shutterstock
house on fire

And nothing will ever really be the same, I guess.

There was a stranger there, a man in his fifties I'd say, and he had a wild look on his face, desperate eyes, and a serious mouth. It was the look you get when you need to tell someone that their house is on fire.

He stuck around, the guy did.

I don't remember much because it was all such a frantic blur, but he and the woman with him, stood there with me and my wife as we ran around and stuffed our kids and the dogs in the Honda while we took brief, painful peeks up at the flames bursting out of our highest roof like a mad tank gunner popped up out of his turret screaming "Kill 'em all!"

Looking back now, I never really knew my heart could pound that hard. 

I probably should have had at least a minor heart attack right there, rockets of pain splintering down my arm, my breath freezing up in my throat somewhere back near my tonsils.

But, I didn't.

We're all built a lot hardier than we usually suspect we are. Even in our moments of weakness and helplessness, the majority of us have this little ass-kicking generator that coughs to life enabling us to go into some sort of mode where we become like mentally bionic.

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Looking back now, if I had happened to turn around and noticed a mid-sized sedan parked in my driveway with some sad man's feet sticking out from underneath it like the witch under the house in The Wizard of Oz, I'm pretty sure I could have lifted that thing up with my two shaking arms and used my boot to drag the person out. That's how hyped I was at the moment.

But, in the end, I couldn't put the fire out — on my house or my marriage.

I just stood there, in a split-second of freezing January clarity, watching the inferno giving us the finger as it dangled out of my daughter's bedroom window and did its thing.

And yeah, it sucked, but what are you gonna do?


You're gonna do absolutely positively nothing, dude.

Fast forward the tape a few months later and I'm asleep in my mom's house underneath a bear rug hung on a couple of nails nailed into the cheap 1970s fake wood paneling of the 'spare room' which has now become my room.

My wife and I were having problems. Marital strife. Differences.

Oh hell, here's the truth: she had taken to hating the way my voice sounded in the morning and the afternoon and at night.

And I had become defensive and edgy and fatter because I was eating my way through a frozen aisle of the blues and drinking more cans of beer than were universally marked for me.

I laid there in the bed, the early spring sunshine coming through the country curtains as I stared up at the bear's fangs hanging out of his dumb*ss mouth, a mouth that hadn't mauled a wild apple or a wiggly grub worm in probably 25 years or more.

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I wanted to go home.

I wanted so badly to just go downstairs and not say anything to anybody, but just to walk straight out to my car and toss my backpack full of t-shirts and my toothbrush in the backseat and just drive back to this other house we had ended up in as a family after a fire. But I couldn't. I couldn't because I knew my wife was angry at me and I knew that I was angry at her for being angry at me and everything had turned to melted butter in my fist.

There I was, underneath that damn car myself.

And no matter how strong you think you are, no matter how strong you've been in the wake of something as nasty as fate can be, you will never, ever figure out a way to free yourself when you're pinned under the wheels of something as heavy as two or three tons of real sadness.

Three days after the fire, an insurance inspector came around while we were picking through charred things and packing up the stuff that had survived. He was a big guy who'd driven all the way up here from West Virginia on behalf of our landlord's policy.

I felt like a stone that day. I felt dead inside.

I was scared. I can admit that now, but back then I had no clue.

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The guy was a jerk, asking me to not pack anything away before he could walk around and inspect stuff. There had been so many inspectors at this point that I didn't even care. The State police had been there, the fire marshall, Barack Obama. Al Pacino had stopped in and looked around and didn't say a damn word.

I looked at the insurance guy and told him okay. But when I said it, I cut him open with my eyes and his guts oozed out of his fat belly onto the floor and we both knew it.

When he was done, he asked me some questions and then started talking about all the things that we could have done as a family to have caused a fire.

It took a while, but I slowly understood that he wanted me to tell him that we had set up the charcoal grill there in the living room that day; that we'd messed up, that we were pyro people.

He was just doing his job, I suppose. A man from West Virginia who had probably been up before dawn warming up his pickup truck as he got ready for the long slog up to Pennsylvania for an inspection. His job was to save the company money.

What was my job? What was I supposed to do?

He finished up his speech and looked at me. I was so angry and confused. 

He walked away and left.

The house got rebuilt. We're living here again. Life is so big and overwhelming and wonderful all at the same time, huh?

Or am I trippin?

The guy who pounded on our door and told us to get out of the burning house was holding my son, Henry at one point, I remember that much.

The kid wasn't even walking yet and we had him wrapped up in a blanket, as we struggled to call 911 and ran around scared and shouting and trying to make things right when they were all going pretty wrong.

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I remember looking at the man whispering into Henry's tiny cold ear. I remember him handing him off to the lady and she held him tightly to her chest to warm him and comfort him the best that she could.

Before long, the fire engines roared up and the noise was deafening and the chaos was insufferable and all four of us - my wife and my two kids - were in the Honda parked out on the road, away from the house, pointed towards the unburning horizon so the kids couldn't see anything.

The couple disappeared. Back into their car, they went, the whole scene fading in their rearview mirror. They had to be shaken up, I'm sure.

God, I'd love to buy them each a beer or three.

These days, I laugh in the spots where the flames licked the walls.

Things aren't perfect, mind you; the woman I love still seems annoyed at me whenever I appear in the kitchen complaining about things that I probably shouldn't be complaining about or when I pop my head into the bathroom when she's trying to get ready in the morning and try to steal a glimpse of skin. But, we're keeping it real ... whatever the heck that means.

She loves me. How could she not, right?

My daughter sleeps in her same old room now, between new sheets of drywall painted a lovely piglet pink, a color she picked out herself during this incredible period of time last spring when we found out that our landlords and friends were repairing the home we had found — and lost — and were sure we'd never set foot in again.

You never really think you could paint over scorched hard times with lite bright pink, could you?

Well, not for forever, the paint will eventually chip again. But for now, there's a house all around me, a house on fire with life and laughing and shouting and names being hollered up the steps and the smell of microwave popcorn and diaper poop where once it was on fire with just plain old boring fire.

Serge Bielanko is a writer and musician whose work has been published on Babble, Huffington Post, Mom.me, and Yahoo.

This article was originally published at Thunderpie. Reprinted with permission from the author.