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How to Burn Down a Marriage

“Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it — don’t cheat with it.” — Ernest Hemingway

And then he blew his brains out.

But don’t dwell on that.

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I mean, c’mon. He’s Hemingway. He knew what he was doing. He knew exactly what he had to do once he realized that all of his tarpon had been caught, and that the evening drinks weren’t nearly enough anymore. The ending is just the ending, but it’s never the end, I guess. And if you even dabble around with writing and you can’t read something like that quote from Hemingway and understand that he is actually talking to you, a still living, breathing son-of-a-bitch, dropping the wisdom on your ass from beyond the grave, well, then you probably should just stop your writing altogether and join the wide ranks of American dullards who will tell you straight-up, with serious eyes, that they haven’t written a damn thing since the finals week of high school.

If you don’t write, it doesn’t make much difference to me, though, because you’re here reading this anyway and that means you still have a dog in the fight. Look, you’re going to end up walking away from whatever I’m about to tell you with one of two notions clanking around in your head: you’re either going to buy it or you’re not.

It’s that simple.

That’s why we read/that’s why I write.

So let’s just see where we can land this thing, people.


Our marriage was so many ups and downs at once that I sometimes have trouble figuring out which ones I want to keep and which ones I want to let the maggots devour out in my summertime trash can. We met in a bar and we made out in her truck and then we went our separate ways at dawn like I guess you’re supposed to do — walk of shame and all that. But we were the ones who couldn’t let it go.

Is there a word for that? I’ve always thought it was "love," but what do I know?

By the next day, though, my world, our world, had changed forever.

Maybe that sort of thing has happened to you, too. Maybe you ended up falling in love with someone in the course of one evening and the two of you didn’t just let a one-night stand remain a one-night stand.

I hope so. I hope you have experienced that. It’s fucking wonderful, man. It really is.

The magic that was born into my life the night I met Monica almost a decade ago wasn’t something I misinterpreted, I’ll tell you that much. It was actually the opposite of any of that. Oh, don’t get me wrong — I lusted after her for a few hours at some Salt Lake City bar, sitting there talking to her, hearing her voice go in and out of my ears and listening to her but also not listening to her at times as I felt my blood sizzling down in my veins and I just wanted to grab her and take her right there on the freaking bar. I don’t know if she felt that way, right then. Women often don’t. But maybe she did, I don’t know. Later on, she did — I know that much.

Later on, she wanted to kiss me and she damn well did, buckaroo, letting me have it in the parking lot of the Super 8 over by the Perkin’s Pancake House.

I’ll never be the same.

Hell, even if I could be, I would refuse the offer.


It never took us long to figure out a way to go at each other and, for my part, I was intensely good at slinging words around that could hurt her.

Marriage is an animal that you have to feed and walk and pick up its stinky shits, even if it’s raining or the sun is blazing down and you just don’t feel like doing it. People forget that a lot. I forgot it. Or, more precisely, I never even realized that to begin with. I had no idea about marriage. I had never even thought about getting married and then, boom, I meet this girl, we hang out maybe a total of a hundred hours and we get hitched.

We were sure it was the right thing to do. No one can ever take that away from us. We came to a cliff we invented in our mind and, six weeks into knowing one another, we took each other’s hand without even touching eyeballs and we leaped.

Now we have three beautiful kids from the deal.

How could I ever regret any of that?


We argued.

We were supposed to be born two mountain rams, me and her, bashing heads on hoof-wide cliffs way up above the clouds. Somehow we got switched up though. Somehow we came down as humans.

The years rolled by and our petty arguments were as common as morning coffee, busting up out of perfectly sedate moments of our day, out of the tiniest missteps in words or looks, like land mines blowing off our legs. It never took us long to figure out a way to go at each other and, for my part, I was intensely good at slinging words around that could hurt her.

I’m not proud of that, believe me. I’ll always hate myself for the things I said along the way.

And even then I don’t know that that would be enough. I might need your brain and your eyes to get the job done right and at that point it’s just too much work.

With Monica and me, nothing really ever clicked right, I guess. Am I not clickable? I often wonder about that. I ponder the possibility that I’m just one of those immature dudes who needs to be alone in life, unattached, unable to hurt another. I could accept that, I think, but then I realize that that’s such a lame cop-out. Love is what you make it, lazybones.

It doesn’t matter much now, even though I still find myself trying to figure out what exactly went wrong with us.

It’s almost like, how could something so wildly magical in the beginning turn out to be such a goddamn drag?


Here’s the thing: If being married to me and all of my personal quirks/shortfalls/mean streaks/irresponsibility/whatever was enough to finally upend Monica’s consciousness and she woke up one day and realized that everything about her union to me was making her sad and unhappy, then what does that say about me? What the hell does that say about the fact that SHE was the one who called us out on a failing marriage, that SHE was the one to hit the brakes before we ran out of rail?

I’ll tell you what it says. It says that I would have more than likely been one of those zombies who would have gone on and on forever, just staying put, shoveling calories down my gob to ease the pain, drinking too much, never saying anything relevant or worthwhile even, collapsing within myself a thousand times a day, all in some sloppy unconscious effort to never have to deal with the reality that our old magic had molded over, and that everything good we might have had had been replaced by some more bitter, mindless version of its former self.

Towards the end, we’d pass each other in the morning kitchen and it felt like work. That’s when you know. Or, for God’s sakes, that’s when you at least ought to know. As much as I hate to admit it now, Monica knew. And I thank the soft Baby Jesus for that.

My Monica knew.


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I write about my broken heart and it’s as real as anything I have ever known — and that’s why I do it, not for sympathy or any of that crap. I don’t need your sympathy, trust me. I could use your credit card, but you can keep your puppy pats for somebody else. What I’m dealing with, meaning what became of my love affair with a woman who I’m divorcing — I created it, man, or really helped create it, and I need to own that for all that its worth. The heartbreak is my own and you can sniff it if you want and get high off it or whatever you get from it and I’m glad to share it with you, but in the end it’s all mine forever.

I wish upon every single star in the fucking universe that I could turn it all around, that somehow I could have been the guy back then that I feel like I am becoming now.

But I doubt I would have been able to swing that. Looking at it all now, the strength and patience and love that I am finding within me now could never have been born of anything but the end of us. Weird as that sounds is as true as it is.

It’s all so hard to figure out.

Every single day feels like a dream coming unwound in my hands, but I’m too asleep to do anything about it. I just have to follow it down until the morning comes.

You know, sometimes I hear people talk about how forest fires, as nasty as they are, how they really help open up a lot of seeds for the next go around, for the next forest that will rise where the old one used to reign. I like that idea.

We took something pretty special and we burnt it down, Monica and I. It happens. It hurts more than words, even though sometimes the words are all you’ve got.

In this new column, "Separating, Together," Serge and Monica Bielanko will be writing about parenting, separation and navigating their relationship in an entirely new way.

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