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The Psychology Desk

Mating Habits of the Asterisk

Asterisks can mean emphasis, doubt, or prudery. In the realms of #vanlife, where expectations are low already, they can also supply the sort of sex that saves lives.

Laura Sue Phillips, Violet/Orange/Blue/Brown Flower Target, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Dillon Gallery.

When I ran into tall, bearded Sebastian at a bluegrass festival in Golden Gate Park, I was talking to a different bearded man.

“I’ve gotten rid of all of my possessions,” the other bearded man was saying, “and untethered myself from all commitments. For the last several years I’ve had no known address.” 

This man lived on a boat and would soon be setting sail to Baja for the winter, but, he said, if I came down to the dock in Sausalito before he left he would take me kayaking.

Any particular day or time? 

“I’m mostly there,” he said. “Except when I’m not.”

In comparison, Sebastian seemed grounded. He seemed to recognize me from our previous meeting, earlier that summer. Though his pupils were dilated and he was, in fact, in the midst of a three-day acid trip, he had at least one known address. This known address was a house called the Farmhouse. It was situated across the street from the home of yet another bearded man I occasionally slept with, in Arcata, Calif., a fog-socked town five hours north of San Francisco. 

When I first met Sebastian, I was in the fog-socked town visiting Jesse, the bearded man I occasionally slept with. We were smoking a joint in the lush garden between the hippie house and a fallow field. Jesse was grilling moodily, or happily, I couldn’t tell which. Emotional distance was the key to our sustainable sexual relationship. A mutual—but somehow distant—appreciation coupled with a lack of sensitivity to each other’s feelings kept the peace.

Sebastian crossed the street, sat down at the picnic table, and rolled a cigarette. I bummed a drag. Jesse went into the house, either to compose songs or retrieve seasoning. He was an equally talented musician and chef.

Sharing the cigarette, Sebastian and I also shared the dream of wanting to untether ourselves from all commitments and live in vans. We began good-naturedly one-upping each other in the category of adventure travel.

“I’m gonna go see my friend on bear patrol in Yosemite…”

“It takes three days by boat up the Inside Passage to get to the bird reserve…”

“The last time I was in Patagonia…”

“The rarer ruins than Machu Picchu…”

“You should stay with my friend in Talkeetna…”

“You should stay with my friend in Berlin!”

Sebastian constantly claimed to be on the brink of purchasing a van that never materialized, though after that first cigarette that afternoon in the yard, occasionally Sebastian himself would. I wasn’t surprised when several months later in Golden Gate Park, Sebastian materialized just as the bearded boat dweller was dematerializing. Sebastian said something unintelligible about being on his way to LA that night to check out a lead on a Volkswagen bus, then disappeared into the crowd and reappeared, as promised, exactly 48 hours later.

We met at a bar in the Mission. The van in LA hadn’t worked out, Sebastian reported, but the girl who had driven him down there had an eight-ball of coke and the trip itself had been a good adventure. Sebastian appeared not to have slept in the two days since I’d seen him and revealed that he had no place to stay. I said he could stay with me. This was a friendly, traveling thing. I’d slept on the couch at the Farmhouse a few times, and once in his bed, while he was somewhere else, either Canada or South America. I told myself I wasn’t taking him home with me, just paying forward my couch-surfing karma. 

That night, we drank whiskey on my porch and talked about the phenomenon of having a distant lover on the edges of things, whom you didn’t want to talk about but also wanted desperately to talk about, and how this caused you to speak of this lover as a place and not a person, so you could talk about them without talking about them.

“You’ll say, ‘I think I’m going to Vancouver soon’ and your friend will be like, ‘cool, whatever,’ and` then you’ll be like, ‘Actually, I’m not going to Vancouver,’ and your friend will be like, ‘OK,’” he said.

When people asked why I slept sometimes with feckless men even though I knew they were feckless, I responded that I did it to save my own life, and the lives of the innocent.

“But to you it’s this much bigger deal because it’s not really the place, it’s the person,” I elaborated.

“The person is the place,” he said. “The person is Vancouver.”

“Or Yosemite,” I said.

“Or Patagonia.”

“Or Peru.”

Sebastian was on his way to Vancouver, to see some girlfriend or lover or friend—I sensed immediately that these things were interchangeable to him—and also to enter into a green-card marriage. The green-card wife and the would-be girlfriend seemed to be two different people.

“The girl you’re going to marry is not the girl you’re in love with?”

“Not unless I fall in love with her,” he said, rolling his eyes, as if he were already resigned to the possibility that this might happen.

I resolved, at that moment, never to sleep with this man.

Conversation continued. I tried to see if I could get it all straight. The woman he was in love with, who was not the woman he was green-card marrying, was involved, strangely enough, in her own green-card marriage. The woman he was in love with was an Eskimo. Or he had met her above the Arctic Circle. They did yoga in the Artic Circle together? With Eskimos? Which was now a derogatory term?

He was going to take the woman he met in the Artic Circle on a climbing trip to Patagonia after he married the woman he didn’t love, at least not yet, or so he claimed.

“Wow,” I said, “sounds like you’ve got yourself a real adventuring love affair. That’s awesome. I always thought that if I met another adventurer and we just kept on going together it would be the most beautiful thing.”

“What do you mean?” he said.

“Like if you meet someone and have an amazing adventure, and then the adventure doesn’t end, and your love and the adventure go on, and you become lovers who adventure together.”

“Oh,” he nodded, “you have expectations.”

I felt a familiar disappointment. Sebastian was instinctively demonstrating an Olympian level of commitment-phobia. This man, with whom I had not slept, was now shaming me about hypothetical expectations I was having of a hypothetical lover with whom I was imagining having a hypothetical adventure.

Never, ever sleep with this man, I resolved again. Because if you do, after you collapse in what will no doubt be simultaneous orgasms, he will regard the very first involuntary flutter of your eyelash as expectations.

Luckily, I had no expectations of this man save that he pass me the whiskey. We chatted for a while longer about the quality of climbing and cocaine in South America. When at exactly ten p.m. I unrolled a Therm-a-rest and sleeping bag on the floor and climbed the ladder to my single loft bed, I detected the faintest whiff of surprise in the cabin’s atmosphere. This was a man unused to going to sleep on the floor in a room in which there was a woman and a bed.

I lay in my bed, congratulating myself on my emotional health. But then, as he undressed, I caught a moonlit glimpse of a bicep in flexion and a pectoral tattoo of what appeared to be a large asterisk. A crack appeared in the foundation of my resolve.

 

Sebastian appeared out of nowhere a few months later, on his way home for Christmas. The inhabitants of the fog-socked town had to come through the big city to catch planes. This was basis of the drive-by relationship I had maintained with Sebastian’s bearded across-the-street neighbor Jesse for the better part of several years.

Jesse and I would have no communication other than the occasional social media thumbs-up for six to 18 months at a stretch, then text that we were an hour away, or across the street. Jesse would sometimes show up in San Francisco with a van containing three to 12 people, constituting one or two bluegrass bands. I sometimes descended upon him in the fog-socked town with a single but high-maintenance friend who locked herself in the bedroom or monopolized the shower. We would agreeably host one another’s entourages in exchange for a night of fond, vigorous passion interspersed with discussions of conspiracy theory or artistic process. Any potentially awkward silence could be filled in by another sexual bout.

I’d always appreciated the ease of this particular exchange. It was utterly free of angst, power struggle or expectation. It was, in many ways, defined by what it was not. I often contemplated giving Jesse some kind of award for simply never saying or doing anything mean or manipulative, and always buying me breakfast.

But more upright citizens were scandalized. My brother, a serial monogamist whose idea of a second date was to bring a girl on a week-long family vacation, remarked, “That guy just thinks he can call you up any time and come and have sex with you that day!”

Asterisks help us show that we know when we’ve made a mistake, but they only can be used to correct mistakes we know we are making.

“He’s absolutely right!” I said.

“And he doesn’t have to do anything.”

“Having sex with me is more than enough,” I said. “Sometimes he buys me dinner or brings me weed.”

“But he just thinks he can do it anytime.”

“He can! I told him, ‘Anytime.’”

My brother looked perturbed and envious. I wondered if we lived in a different culture, if he’d feel compelled to stone me to death for bringing dishonor on our family and devaluing my bride-price.

Now, Sebastian had to catch a plane. My single loft bed had recently been expanded into a double, with the help of my brother, in unknowing facilitation of even further devaluation of his only sister’s bride-price.

I had a double bed. Sebastian had a pectoral asterisk, and knew words, big ones. I hadn’t had sex in the amount of time it usually took me to become mildly suicidal and homicidal—somewhere between 24 hours and a week at the outside, though I was often forced by circumstance and pickiness to weather far longer periods of celibacy. I couldn’t tell if this short sexual-deprivation fuse made me a nymphomaniac, or merely a temperamental artist, or merely a human being, but I knew that lack of sex made me suicidal and homicidal. When people asked why I sometimes slept with feckless men even though I knew they were feckless, I responded that I did it to save my own life, and the lives of the innocent. My sex life was a noble cause.

But after dinner, Sebastian declined my invitation to the cabin and made for the airport instead, claiming to be looking forward to spending the night in the terminal underneath his favorite sculpture of a giant propeller before his early flight. Expectations, I reminded myself, the disappointment of which in this case constituted more of a narrow escape.

 

The asterisk first appeared “in the earliest Sumerian pictographic writing,” and remained “in continuous use as a graphic symbol for at least 5,000 years,” according to typographer and poet Robert Bringhurst. Asterisks were the first proofreading marks, used by Alexandrian library scholars to mark up Homer’s poetry. The asterisk, or in Greek, the asteriskos, was used to mark text that a scholar thought was Homer’s real words. They used a minus symbol to mark a line they thought was fake.

In modern times, we use asterisks for emphasis, to indicate italics in media where italics are unavailable. Asterisks are also used to correct mistakes, such as when the sender of a text realizes they’ve made a typographic error, as in “See you their” followed immediately by “*there.” Asterisks help us show that we know when we’ve made a mistake—but they only can be used to correct mistakes we know we are making.

Asterisks also provide us a measure of prudery. They are used to replace letters in swear words, either by replacing the vowel, as in the case of “sh*t” or “f*ck,” or by replacing all of the letters after the first one, as in “s***” or “f***,” so we can pretend we’re not seeing what we know we are seeing.

The asterisk is used to denote a person’s year of birth (*1922), while the dagger precedes the year of his death (†2007). After the asterisk, the whole life seems a footnote, but the asterisk might just as easily connote an explosion—the individual big bang or more accurately, small whimper, that begins all human life.

In professional sports, the asterisk indicates that an athlete’s accomplishment was questionable. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record, some people wanted to put an asterisk next to Maris’s name in the record books, because Maris had had eight more games than Ruth in which to hit his 61st homerun. When Barry Bonds hit a record-breaking 756th career homerun, a fashion designer bought the ball for $750,000, then had it branded with an asterisk, and donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds, it was widely suspected, was using steroids. The US Olympic committee subsequently made an anti-steroid ad campaign with the tagline “Don’t Be An Asterisk.”

A crude asterisk-shaped drawing appears on the fifth page of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Breakfast of Champions, preceded by the words, “Here is my drawing of an asshole.” In a Paris Review interview, Vonnegut said that “Literature should not disappear up its own asshole.” To prevent this, he suggested that a “creator of literature [have] something on his mind other than the history of literature so far.” In other words, in order not to be an asshole who has disappeared up his own asshole, don’t be an asterisk. Don’t think too much about the past, or you might wind up a footnote.

As an educated person, I have learned to look at any symbol from all possible angles. With enough footnotes, my argument can be said to be sound. But the one person in the universe you can’t lie to is yourself. I can put stars in the word a**hole, but I still know what it means.

 

Sebastian and his asterisk reappeared a couple of months later. He’d sent me a picture of his own notebook from the dining car of a transcontinental train, then showed up in San Francisco one afternoon with three people in tow. At least that’s what I could deduce from his text messages; they’d spent the day tripping at the botanical gardens in Golden Gate Park. It was hard to tell how many people there were in his party, or whether the “souls” he kept referring to were actually plants.

This should be interesting, I thought. Some unwholesome part of me was merely curious to witness what might unfold. I’d just spent a weekend holed up in a borrowed Brooklyn apartment with a soulful but unstable painter, and was not yet feeling suicidal or homicidal from sexual deprivation.

Sebastian showed up after dark with a case of beer, a bottle of whiskey, and the three friends, who turned out to be a woman named Suzanne and another couple, Gabriel and Diana. Good, I thought. He had a new girlfriend. I could stick to my original plan of never sleeping with this man. The presence of this woman named Suzanne would be further assurance against ever sleeping with this man.

But he didn’t entirely seem to be with the woman named Suzanne. Their vibe was neutral. Maybe they were just friends? More likely he was torturing her in some way involving sex or its denial. She had that look about her.

We were half-undressed before we even made it out of the middle of the street. By the time we got to the curb I was nearly naked.

Like many of the women I meet through men I might sleep with or have slept with, Suzanne reminded me of myself. Similar shape, similar vibe, similar belt, similar boots. I felt a rueful kinship with her, mixed up with an animal competitiveness.

We sat around the cabin drinking the whiskey. “I did the greatest thing,” Sebastian announced. “I burned all the furniture from the living room of the Farmhouse, so everything could be new.”

The others started murmuring amongst themselves, presumably about plants. Sebastian zeroed in on me and spoke with intention. He had a lead on an amazing new van, he said. This one was really the one. It was orange and had curtains and captains’ chairs.

The description of the van was a turn-on too powerful for me to resist. I was already looking at him sideways and heavy-lidded. Vans, propeller planes, transcontinental trains, ferries up the Inside Passage—weren’t all these modes of transportation just metaphors for the one thing all the metaphors were meta-for?

“Sounds like a good van,” I said.

“When I get it I’ll come pick you up,” he said, grinning.

I was standing within reach of his long arms. He wrapped one around me and pulled me to the flattened fluff of the thin down jacket he always wore and it was like I’d never had any resolutions, any resolve. I’d carefully considered the meaning of the asterisk under those dead duck feathers, but the truth was that asterisk was inked onto living human flesh, over a heart that may not have been pure, or even knowable, but had a beat. 

The cabin was suddenly too small for the party. We grabbed some beers and went out to walk the hills. The three tripping houseguests were pleased by the sparkling lights of the city below.

On the way back, the others took a left. Sebastian and I went right, suddenly entwined. My thumb found his belt loop. His waist was no bigger than mine.

“Want to see a dead-end street?” I said. “I grew up on one.”

We stood in the cul-de-sac for a moment in silence, looking at the view. The street sloped, and I was standing downhill. When he bent toward me he seemed to come from a great distance.

We were half-undressed before we even made it out of the middle of the street. By the time we got to the curb I was nearly naked. He wrestled me into a ditch next to someone’s driveway, while somehow managing to remove both his socks and mine. I noted this with approval, constituting my last lucid thought. After that, I was finally thoughtless. It was just how I liked it—feral. I didn’t notice the cold, or that the gravel in the ditch was scraping me bloody down the length of my spine.

When I was biting and scratching like an animal in a ditch, following my nose to an agreeable-smelling armpit, colliding like a charged particle with another charged particle and neutralizing, even for a moment, I felt at peace.

“We should go back,” he said, suddenly reintroducing words to the universe. “Suzanne will be upset.”

“She’s not your girlfriend, is she?” I said. Anything was possible.

“No, no, of course not. I’m just helping her through her divorce.”

“But,” he continued, “I guess she had expectations.”

It was too late to never sleep with this man.

We went back to the cabin. The women were curled on the floor, already asleep. We slid some Therm-a-Rests under them. The third visitor, Gabriel, was smoking meditatively on the deck. He had a pleasant stillness about him. I sensed there was nothing that could happen that he would not placidly smoke through, staring out into space.

“Where are you going to sleep?” Sebastian asked Gabriel.

“I’d like to sleep next to Diana,” he said softly.

“Where am I going to sleep?” Sebastian asked the air.

“You can sleep in my bed,” I said, since we’d just had sex in a ditch.

We climbed into the bed my brother had recently expanded. Someone in the room was snoring. Multiple people, in fact, at least two out of the other three.

The bed was bolted on all sides, the mattress solid latex, the darkness new-moon black. Not a spring to creak or a headboard to rattle, only sheets to rustle and noises to stifle. In the dark, as we did it again, I couldn’t see the asterisk. But I felt it pressing against me, reminding me that even if he was an asshole, this was all just a footnote.

 

In the morning, he made everyone tea. I took my cup out on the deck and waited to bum drags of the day’s first cigarettes. The others awoke and began disassembling their beds. I didn’t know whether to be inside with the girls—was Suzanne upset?—or outside with the boys. I chatted with the only safe person, Gabriel. He was neither the man I’d slept with, nor the woman he’d scorned.

Sebastian folded his long body down beside my chair. “Suzanne is upset,” he confirmed. “I’m gonna go talk to her.” This was clearly not a crisis but just the next step in the day.

“They’re heading back down today,” he said, “so I’ll call you later,” and momentarily tickled my jaw with his beard.

I felt too guilty to hug the departing travelers, who had unknowingly been dragged along on a stealth booty call. Normally I prided myself on being a good hostess. Perhaps I’d failed in my hostessing duties due to reasons beyond my control. Therm-a-rests had been provided, but sex had also been had with someone of whom someone else had had expectations, less than six feet above their heads.

“Safe travels,” I wished them awkwardly from the steps. I couldn’t be friends with Suzanne because Suzanne was upset, but I didn’t believe in those adages “Bros before hos” or “chicks before dick” or “think before you act.” I believed in passionate sex above all. If this passionate sex had to occur in a loft bed less than six feet above the sleeping forms of three hallucinating strangers, so be it. If this belief system had led me to my current predicament and many of my predicaments before that one, so be that, too.

I went back to bed. I drifted from the restless thoughts of the unresolved into the sound sleep of the recently laid. So the idea of “never, ever sleep with this man” had given way to sleeping with this man. So I’d changed my mind, and followed the asterisk to the footnote in the ditch on the dead end. We could have expectations, or try not to have them. We could make resolutions, but nothing would ever really be resolved. The only thing we could really expect was the end.

Emily Meg Weinstein lives, writes, learns, teaches, and climbs in northern California. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Identity Theory, Killing the Buddha, McSweeney’s, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and other publications. She writes the website superlefty.com. More by Emily Meg Weinstein