Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Michael looked more like a beach bum than a professor, handsome with rugged, surfer flair. Sandy blond hair in a disarray of spikes. Hemp necklace strung with wooden beads. Worn Baja hoodie that looked as if it had been to Baja and back. His eyes crinkled in that smiling way that happens to men with the good luck or good genes to reach middle age while maintaining a youthful complexion.

So: easy to look at.

About halfway through class, the crowded room heated up, and he pulled that old Baja hoodie over his head to reveal a most gorgeous, sculpted, muscular torso, framed by a tight white undershirt. This was unfair. How was I supposed to concentrate when the professor looked like a beefcake pin-up? His pecs! His biceps! His deltoids! So vibrant! So healthy! So delicious!

Ignoring the devastating beauty, his teaching methods intrigued. Once he killed the lights, lit a candle, and asked us to meditate. Once he asked us to write about a body part, and didn’t flinch when I chose my vagina. In fact, he submitted the essay to an academic symposium, and stuck up for me when some older professors expressed horror at my subject matter.

As the semester drew to a close, Michael announced that he would be selling his worldly possessions and flying to Africa, where he would empower HIV-positive women by teaching them how to start small businesses.

Did such a perfect guy ever exist?

Somehow, I ended up helping him move out of his apartment. I couldn’t say no to him. After we had packed everything up and he gifted me with a pair of old bookcases, he offered to buy us some pizza. My head was already spinning from an afternoon of proximity to Adonis. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t sit casually with him, discussing his ambitious plans, knowing how the musculature of his chest impressed the thin cotton of his T-shirt. He hugged me goodbye and I almost cried. Oh, Michael, you were too perfect. Too handsome. Too vital.

Years later, his name jumped out at me from the byline of an article in the Trib. He must be back in the States! Expecting an account of his years in Africa, I delved into the piece.

Africa was only tangential to the essay. Rather, it was a poignant, revealing discussion of the change in his own life, over a decade earlier, when he learned that he, himself, was HIV-positive.

I read, stunned, of the miserable, shame-filled, dying man, who, through the power of modern medicine and positive thinking, had transformed himself into the strongest, loveliest, most vibrant human being to ever stand in front of a classroom. He had not always been thus. He had been, according to the writing, very sick, weak and underweight, embarrassed about his sexual orientation.

But he was so alive! How could the Michael I knew have sprung from the man described here, hiding beneath a baseball cap, wasting away in a free clinic?

It shames me, sometimes, still. My own little problems discourage me. It’s hard not to give up. I think of Michael, suffering from one of the most dreaded diseases of our age, transforming himself from a pitiful, sickly weakling to a golden god only after learning of his diagnosis, then taking his new lease on life across the ocean, to give what he could to those who had less. And then there’s me, with more advantages than most people, even in America, crying into my pillow because my carpal tunnel has taken a turn for the worse, and I can’t do push-ups anymore.