In the months immediately after I filed for divorce from my husband
of 27 years, I was possessed of the strange conviction that I was going
to have an affair with Peter Coyote. We'd never met, but there was enough of a tangential connection to
prevent dismissing this notion as completely deranged: Peter Coyote is
the friend of a man I'll call Patrick, who was briefly friends with my closest friend, whom I'll call Alexandra.
I vaguely remembered seeing Coyote in "ET" and "Jagged Edge":
tall and dark, terrific voice. Then one night, searching the Internet for information about Allen Ginsburg, I stumbled upon some
pre-publication chapters posted from Coyote's (as I learned he was
called) loopy, psychedelic-soaked memoir of his days as a capital-H
Hippie, a high-profile member of the legendary Diggers and performer in
the original San Francisco Mime Troupe.
These chapters did not break any new ground in the gray-haired ponytail
memoir genre. But they were, for me, incredibly evocative of the era,
and delving into them was akin to experiencing an acid flashback.
I read them straight through, amazed at the power of the memories they
commanded. Revisiting the era's heady dangers and pleasures -- the giddy
sense of infinite possibility, the seeming surety of social and
political revolution, the electric charge of ingested psychotropic
substances -- I also revisited my own youth, remembering where I had come
from, what conscious and unconscious compromises I had made as I grew up
and bore children, what I had gained and lost. And recalling the artless
lasciviousness of the times also brought into high relief my own muted
sexuality, shaped by a long marriage to a man whose enthusiastic
midlife plunge into the gay community surprised no one.
The timing was exactly right. Coyote's unbuttoned romp through the
fields of our common youth made me remember who I was before I was the
wrung-out wife of a man whose midlife crises left a bankrupt family in its wake,
and in doing so made me aware of who I might be after I was a
wife no longer. Emerging from the trip stunned and a little
disoriented, I bonded, gratefully, to my guide. I felt I knew him.
Then I realized, hey, I could know him.
This improbable sense of connection was oddly reinforced by the fact
that the literary Coyote frequently came across as a jerk. The
fearlessness with which he revealed himself through his writing -- his
reckless honesty, even about some pretty callow behavior on his
part -- seemed brave and worthy of respect. It spoke of integrity to the
truth, a quality with enormous appeal to someone living with the damage
wrought by evasion and denial. I respected this man who was not afraid
to expose the soft, pale parts of his past to judgment that was sure to
be harsh; it elicited the same random, swift tenderness and sympathy I
feel when listening to solo vocal music or recited poetry.
The harsh exigencies of my own private life -- an out-of-control,
soon-to-be-ex-spouse with a pro bono lawyer, a pending bankruptcy, a car
literally about to blow up, a cache of unopened letters from the IRS
that my husband left behind, a 30-day deadline to find housing with no
credit, no transportation and no money in a community with nearly no
rentals, a crashed hard drive, one daughter away from home for the first
time, another daughter frantic over leaving the neighborhood,
having to sort through and pack up the house while working full
time -- left little time for earnest fantasy cultivation. But at odd times (a warm,
fragrant, full-moon midnight in my soon-to-be-abandoned garden, the
"Casta Diva" audible through the open door), my Coyote conviction provided
a focus for the fleeting moments of fierce longing for someone to
whisper my name, invite me to set aside my burdens and lay down with him
in the dark. My palms ached with a dim tactile memory of the way a man's
head felt, cradled between my hands as it moved slowly downward: Now
that head had a face.
Sort of. In real life, I wasn't sure exactly what Coyote looked like. He
was wearing some kind of space suit in "ET," and the character he played
in "Jagged Edge," creepier even than the serial killer, wore an
expression that strongly suggested he was smelling something unpleasant.
I suppose I could have gone to the video store and looked up other
movies in which he appeared, but I did not have the time -- and besides, I
saw him in my dreams, literally.
Coyote had an ongoing, mostly platonic role in a series of dreams that
loosely knit the slender threads upon which my fantasy hung. I had heard
that he bought Patrick's art; in one dream, he was in my house to look
at my friend Alexandra's paintings and was
suddenly dancing -- a dream-shill for Mark Morris, whom I really do know, and know would love the paintings. Another sequence of dreams placed him in my kitchen doing the dishes -- I had heard that he really did this at
Patrick's birthday party. In most of these kitchen dreams, I could hear
him dutifully rattling dishes without actually seeing him. But once he
was standing in front of the sink, inexplicably dressed in full scuba
gear -- flippers, tank and mask -- and I awoke in a minor snit over his
imaginary dripping on the little oriental carpet in the kitchen. And
once only, I floated into the kitchen to find him completely naked and
clearly ready to do more than the dishes.
I was aware that the very circumstance that precipitated my bizarre
fantasy -- extreme stress -- also contained its scope. I was so busy and
exhausted handling survival that it was impossible to give it
much attention. So I made a conscious decision not to worry much about
what such a fantasy said about my state of mind (and my grip on
reality), while allowing that there was at least an outside chance that
it might actually come true (some enchanted evening, big party, mutual
friends). Scuba tanks were never a part of such wistful
It didn't happen. The hairline thread of remote possibility was broken
when Alexandra decided that a relationship with Patrick required more
effort than it was worth. She broke off contact with
him; there would be no irresistible pull across a crowded room
conveniently provided by mutual friends.
Meanwhile, during one five-week
period, I underwent a surreal bankruptcy hearing, found a house for
lease, jumped through a series of flaming hoops to override my lousy
credit so I could rent it, researched and bought a used car with a loan
from my mother, negotiated a payment plan with the IRS, finished
packing, rented a truck, moved my family, reformatted my hard drive,
and hooked up the washer, dryer, refrigerator and sound system.
Last week I surfaced for air. I put on Maria Callas singing the "Casta
Diva," poured a glass of the infused vodka my son had given me as a
housewarming gift and went out into the backyard: another full moon,
different garden, cooler weather, earlier moonrise. I noted, with a
pang, that the kitchen dreams had not ported over to the new house and
the new season. I missed my demon lover, and I realized just how useful
my cuckoo construct had been.
My summer's fantasy provided desperately needed diversion from the
extraordinary pressures of my waking life. It had the fail-safe
advantage of being so far-fetched that there was no question of having
to act upon it, which would only have been an added stressor. I
did not have energy to devote to any sort of real dalliance, and needed
time and privacy to heal from the multiple blows I had been dealt. And
it was fun, falling asleep with amused anticipation of what might be
unfolding in my dreams that night. It balanced waking up with sober
dread of what might be unfolding in my life that day. In this light, my
fantasy can be charitably seen as a life-affirming, as opposed to
psychosis-supporting, response to challenges that might otherwise have
sent me screaming into the street -- or up a bell tower. It's still a
little embarrassing, though.
Summer's over, thank god. My divorce is final, and my ex-husband's
lawyer has tired of freebie saber-rattling. My younger daughter,
happily enrolled in school with her friends, has calmed down, and my
older daughter is home. We're almost unpacked. My life is on more solid
Now, in an elegiac mood, I review the arc of my brief but significant
time "with" Coyote and think of him with exactly the same indulgent
affection I feel for some of my real, long-ago lovers. Who wouldn't? He
was there for me when I needed him, did the dishes without being asked and never made eyes at other men. The tender gratitude I feel for
this exemplary behavior is quite real, and it would be simply petty to
keep carping on the fact that the affair was not.