In one of my undergraduate psychology classes, I learned about something called a homunculus — a distorted human shape with the degree of its distortions representing how much brain activity goes into processing inputs from that particular body part — so it has enormous hands and mouth parts, for instance, and tiny wrists. As an English major, I mostly liked the avuncular sound of the word itself, the vague suggestion of a small uncle living in my brain, and the bizarre folklore associated with it, such as the 15th-century notion that a human sperm, sealed in gourd and then set inside a horse’s womb for 40 days, would look like a tiny person, only a transparent person without a body. The idea of a homunculus seemed to lend itself to mutation, and so a homunculus, for me, became a man I had unwittingly, haphazardly, incorporated into my sense of self. Homunculus became homunculi.
The first boy I really kissed, eyes closed, sitting cross-legged under a blanket — he’s still in there, for instance, with his flat feet and love of Pearl Jam. There’s my co-worker from the pizza place, who took me out one night, pushing the gas in his red Fiero until we were going over a hundred miles per hour with the headlights off on a moonless dirt road, me screaming a lot of totally ignored advice. There was Peter with the ultra-sensitive body that I couldn’t touch without hurting. My college drinking buddy, who once went out to take a piss and returned the following morning to tell me he woke up across the street with roaches crawling over his face. Bryan, my first husband, who disgusted me because he did nothing after his best friend raped his, Bryan’s, younger sister.
There was Jesse, who gave weirdly expensive Christmas presents, who strode off naked to lock his unruly 4-year-old in the bathroom, and who did too much meth for the relationship to really evolve. In no particular order, there were the Russian swing dancer, the nuclear physicist, the news editor, the one with the bowtie, the one with acid and the pumpkin he let me paint, the one with whom I lied about being on my period, the ex-con I agreed, as a high-school junior, to have sex with, only to have him turn me down because “I was too good.” Later, this guy disappeared for months with some crackhead girls, then showed up at my birthday party to steal my mom’s vermouth, pee in her recliner, and serenade me with Candlebox’s “Far Behind”: I didn’t mean to hurt you oh so bad — but I did it anyway.
It is not surprising that I messed up my second marriage to a messy barista / oil painter who ate only raw foods, slept with a shotgun beside his pillow, and bought furniture he forbade me and my black fluffy dog Zucker from sitting on. He’s easy enough to mock on paper, but he was generally kind, incredibly funny, and probably the most supportive partner I could have asked for. He loved my poems, loved my dancing, and believed wholeheartedly that if I followed my passions, I would lead an amazing life. And then I added a cinematographer to my homunculi collection. While I did not go all the way with many of the other men therein, I did with this guy, on the sunlit side of a pointlessly extravagant canyon. The marriage sputtered onward for a few miserable months before my betrothed and his formerly lesbian assistant manager fell in love.
For a time I thought, If only we had been married by a lasik surgeon, if after I said “I will” my reward was a small slit in the cornea and a complete repair of my crippling myopia.
Alas, nobody cut my eyes on my wedding day.
The groom, let’s call him Paracelsus after the 15th century homunculus theorist, arrived late to the rose garden in which we had planned the ceremony, but not late enough for the roses to actually be in bloom. I had a bouquet of daffodils in my hands, purchased earlier that day before I’d realized daffodils would be the only flowers blooming at the wedding site. The best part of the day was the groom and his best man serenading me with “House of the Rising Sun,” a song about gambling and only being satisfied when you’re drunk.
I thought getting married the second time would be so different from the first. I expected a sudden surge in love, like a stormy sea in my chest. An onslaught of feelings, sensations. Bread tasting better. Coffee smelling stronger. I thought marriage would be like quitting cigarettes.
It was like quitting cigarettes, in that it made me very nervous — and I had already been nervous for years. It was my style, maybe the result of too many attempts at love with men I barely liked. Maybe the result of trying to build a sense of self out of other people, as though I assumed they knew better than I did how I should live and be happy.
So how did I become even more nervous? For example, I stopped eating meat because the kind butcher at the Trader Joe’s offered me a ride on his motorcycle. The butcher was not kind at all. Nor was he a butcher, and he didn’t work at Trader Joe’s. But the motorcycle ride made me feel the way I expected to at my wedding. An onslaught of sensations.
And then the aforementioned Jesse walked by my desk at the newspaper where I worked, wearing a tie and dress slacks instead of his usual jeans and T-shirt, looking not at all like a meth head, and I told him that he cleaned up nice. Such a statement can be said by a married woman to a single guy in a perfectly acceptable way. But I must have chosen a different nuance, because Darryl, who covered the county beat and was by far the most stylish Navajo man I’d ever met, looked at me sharply, his lips quite pursed and his eyebrows all over his forehead. I could never tell if Darryl was actually judging me or just amusing himself.
In any case, Darryl must have been aware that the advertising exec cut quite a figure, almost 5’ 6” in his shoes but there was something 1950s about his rolled-up shirt-sleeves, the burnt sugar of his forearms, the horse-like muscles. He looked so happy to be walking by my desk, to be flirted with. He even blushed.
There was a story going around that Darryl particularly enjoyed, and that Darryl may in fact have started, that Jesse had fatally shot a man who tried to shoot him while he was out jogging with his dogs, a la the mobster Danny Greene.
I wondered if Jesse had dogs.
The rest of the day, I wrote up a short piece about an upcoming pace race and my interview with a local miniaturist painter, who had let me hug one of her chickens, and tried to think about contemporary poetry, because I had recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Writing, and I was married. And I already had a dog: Zucker, the world’s highest-jumping Chow-Chow.
Nothing happened with Jesse for weeks, other than Darryl and I somehow ended up at Jesse’s house, smoking pot in his kitchen. I wondered if all married women, at some point, took extramarital bong hits. It felt a bit like a test: If I could get high with this guy and not do anything that I wanted to do, I would pass. I would be a good wife.
But then, still, there was still the problem of the butcher.
As I mentioned, the butcher wasn’t really a butcher. He was a cinematographer, a cameraman for real movies that I had seen in theater, working with directors I really admired. I felt weirdly starstruck around him, even though he had a 1970s mustache and his ex-wife, who had been struck by lightning four times, had told me all his worst qualities.
Here’s why I called him the butcher: Instead of ultimately succeeding at wooing me, he should have offered me a fine cut of steak, which I should have coolly rejected.
He should have tried to assassinate Jesse at the pond, my town’s version of Central Park, where he’s running with his two weimaraners, Nutmeg and Coriander, and his Alaskan malamute, Zimt. He shoots, misses, and Zimt goes nuts. She breaks her leash and, the steak that I coolly rejected in his pocket, she chews a great chunk out of the Butcher’s leg, but it’s not Zimt’s day and she takes a bullet in the head. In the chaos, Jesse is able to get close enough to the Butcher to snatch away the gun. He means to deliver this asshole to the police, but wrath gets the better of him, and the canyon is deep.
I was the best wife. The End.
The next time Jesse walked by my workstation I said some new inappropriately flirtatious words. Want to be my next homunculus? Or something of that nature. By this time, of course, Darryl was bored with the whole thing, and didn’t even look up from his notes on the previous evening’s Planning and Zoning meeting.
But Jesse came over. He leaned on the edge of my fabric wall and asked if I wanted to watch a video at his place sometime, maybe 50 First Dates. I got the motorcycle feeling again, and with Darryl’s rampant eyebrows protecting my somewhat brittle honor, I told Jesse what I hadn’t actually told myself yet — that my marriage wasn’t going well, and I was planning to leave my husband.
Was I planning to leave my husband?
Was I planning to leave my husband in order to go out with Jesse?
Paracelsus deserved some financial counseling and a firm talking-to about the dangers of using turpentine in an enclosed space meant for a washer and dryer. But I had gone too far. I felt all the men kicking and punching each other in my brain. I couldn’t feel anything else. And then, like some souped-up, estrogen-crazy version of the Gingerbread man, the homunculi took over. Men, even tiny, distorted versions of men, rarely make decisions in women’s best interests, or in other men’s best interests, for that matter. And so I simply did whatever was worst for everyone. A year or so passed in this vein. Pot was weighed on old-fashioned scales. Pockets of crystals were discovered. Spoons were located in disturbing places. Unwanted bondage sex took place. Doors were locked. Police were called. And I was single again.
The cinematographer has just about nothing to do with any of this, which is why the story is named after him. This story is not about Jesse, or cheating hearts, or a complete lack of understanding of the words “I” and “will.” It’s not about nearly dying in a red Fiero, or even about having the feeling of nearly dying. It’s not about meat, or lust, or feature news stories. It’s about not being about all of these.
Who was I at 17? 19? 25? How is it possible for a person to be a compilation of things she is not? It’s like Pearl Jam making an album of other bands’ worst songs. It’s like a lesbian sleeping with her male boss. It’s like a girl missing some critical steps in the growing-up flow chart. What is supposed to happen between acing an algebra exam and losing her virginity?
It would be easy enough to blame my parents. I can make them look bad on paper, too. My dad would open beers on his drive home from work. My mom, who had chronic back pain, liked to mix whiskey and vermouth with opioid painkillers. She left my dad for someone literally named Kenny when I was 17, and every night, my dad would drink his shots, hands trembling, and tell me how much he loved her.
But that’s just another story of what is not this story. My parents might have a place among my homunculi, but blaming them would ultimately be as useful as blaming Aunt Kathy for the entire tradition of Thanksgiving just because she’s sitting at the table.
I had accidentally mislabeled myself as a small, distorted version of someone I once spent time with. Yet, there was an “I” in there, even if it took awhile to discover. She/I loved puppies so much that, in order to care for her tiny Irish setter/black lab rescue pup, she only left the house once the summer between 7th and 8th grade. She made homemade gifts for her friends through 9th grade. She ran the hurdles. She liked the idea of twins. She walked for hours and hours along the creek the ran beside her parents’ property, bare feet on the cold round rocks, or boots on the rocks, in the snow. When a snapping turtle attacked one of her dogs, she grabbed its dinosaur-like shell and hurled it off a cliff.
Eventually, this — this girl who loved without equivocation — is the homunculus I claimed, but it took a career change, a third marriage, two babies, and several deaths, including all my grandparents, my father, Zucker, and my Great Dane, who became part of my life just before my first child. It took a lot of deliberate practice of ballet, of rock climbing, of piano, of poetry, of trying to listen to people when they talk. It took a lot of false starts in the kitchen, where it turns out I don’t really like to cook things without sugar, and on the trails, where I prefer hiking to running. It look selling a house that I had given birth in. And now, having claimed a homunculus, I’m not convinced I’ve found the sense of self I’d been looking for.
More, I’ve found an image with bulging, conventionally unappealing proportions that I can live with, and recognize as not anyone else.
Kelly Dolejsi is a climbing instructor and route setter with an MFA from Emerson College. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Junto, Gravel, Dirty Paws, Timberline Review, North American Review, Fifth Wednesday, Denver Quarterly, West Texas Literary Review, and several other small journals. She lives in New Mexico.