I still remember his name after all these years, though we spent only a brief afternoon together and I knew very little about him. Of course, I would have remembered him anyway because it was my first time, and we all remember our first time, whether celestial or horrific or simply confounding. But it was not only that. Michael was more than a man. Or less than one, depending on how you see things. He was an angel.
I know. You don’t believe in angels. I don’t either, at least not the the ones we’ve been accustomed to think of, those ethereal winged creatures in long robes and halo. But Michael was the kind of angel I do believe in. Odd, really, I don’t believe in God but I do believe in angels, of a sort anyway. Yes, I know that sounds preposterous. What is an angel who has no god to serve?
I met Michael in San Francisco. I had just turned 18 and had arrived in the city a few weeks earlier after hitching my way unexpectedly fast across the country. I might never had made it to California if the second ride that picked me up on I-80 West outside Paterson, New Jersey—a guy with a pony tail in a pink Chevy—hadn’t been headed straight to the Bay Area. His car had a major breakdown in Indiana; he bought another used car on the spot and continued to Oakland. I was in California in four days. It was one of the few times in my life I was tempted to believe in fate.
At the time I was sharing an apartment on Cole Street with two women I met in a hostel I had crashed at when first arriving in the city. It was a small place with just one bedroom, but it was all that we could afford or even wanted. One of the women would sleep on the couch, and one on the other half of my bed. I must have called forth the big sister in them, because they insisted I always sleep on the bed.
They usually took turns on who’d get the bed, but not always, and since they worked nights as masseuses in an “establishment” (that’s what Suzanne called it) and got back long after I had gone to sleep, I never knew which of the two I’d wake up to find next to me. A few times I had woken up in the morning to find a guy, too, in the bed, though nothing ever happened.
The last person I had shared a bed with was my brother, and that was back in grade school. And I was still a virgin, though at least I had stopped sleeping in pajamas. I was now sleeping with masseuses instead. As a way I suppose of imposing some kind of order on this menagerie, I decided to paint the apartment.
I didn’t see the absurdity of this gesture at the time. How could I have been sure that I would be living there the following month if I couldn’t be sure who I’d be sleeping with the following evening? But I must have some compulsive innate drive for domestic order.
Later in my life I would become that rare traveller who actually uses all the drawers and hangers and shelf space one is given in a decent hotel room. Shirts and trousers get hung up, socks, underwear and sweaters are laid out in the dresser drawers, dress and running shoes are lined up on the closet floor, toiletries get arranged on the bathroom shelf (why don’t hotel rooms have medicine cabinets?), the assortment of cables and chargers are stowed in the desk drawer. And then, of course, I hide the suitcase in the closet or under the bed. I set up house.
There was no house to create in this apartment. But painting it seemed like a start. Like planting a garden in a gold rush town, it seemed a way of taming the space.
I called the landlord, who okayed the expense and told me to arrange it with the superintendent. “Talk to Michael,” he said, “he’ll take care of everything.”
So I called Michael, with whom I’d exchanged nothing more than the usual pleasantries on the rare times when our paths would cross, and we talked a bit about colors, and then he called me back a few days later to tell me he got the paint and I should come up to his place and pick it up.
Michael lived in what turned out to be an even smaller apartment on the top floor. He greeted me barefooted in an unbuttoned chambray shirt that hung out of his jeans. He was a lanky man in his 20s with long blond hair and an unsubstantial beard. Elfin in a way, though there was nothing mischievous or sprightly about him.
He was making soup when I came up, and he invited me to stay for lunch. I can’t remember what kind of soup it was or what we talked about but I remember what happened next. After we cleared the dishes he asked me to help me make the bed. For some reason I didn’t think this was odd. Sheets are unwieldy, beds are made faster à deux, and seeing as he’d just fed me, I thought it only polite that I help.
So we made his bed and I wound up, I don’t know how, with my back against the bed and Michael in front of me. He slipped his hands under my armpits, lifted me slightly and then tossed me backwards on the bed. He then climbed onto the bed on top of me and nudging up to my crotch, slowly unzipped my fly.
“Michael,” I said, “I don’t know if I’m gay.” But my body clearly gave lie to my indecision.
“That doesn’t matter now, does it? You’ve got plenty of time ahead of you to figure it out.”
He was attentive and unhurried in his lovemaking, graceful in a way. I didn’t think my body was capable of feeling such pleasure. It felt at first as though I had slipped into a foreign body whose power exceeded my understanding or control. But Michael made it feel right, and so I abandoned myself to his ministrations.
He didn’t kiss me at first. He waited for me to draw him up close to me so that I could kiss him. I didn’t think of it at the time—it was not a time for thinking anyway—but I later understood how wise he was, letting me choose the moment to claim my desire, like an apprentice coachman asking to take hold of the reins for the first time.
As I kissed him, I could feel the gentle pressure of his lips against mine, warm, moist, full, and this was wonderful. But I also became aware of the bristle of his beard brushing against my cheek and only then, with this sense of hair against flesh did I realize, yes, I am making love to a man. And this was perhaps the most extraordinary of all sensations.
We all have a first kiss, though not all first kisses are the same. I don’t think many of my straight friends at school could date their first real kiss. They had been kissing in one way or another all through adolescence, moving from the first cautious peck to more adventurous longer kisses until that first time when mouths opened and tongues met. They were in a way continuously preparing for the first real kiss, and in their preparation had already acquired sufficient experience so as to render the difference between the first kiss of passion and its ultimate and penultimate predecessors simply one of degree. Their kisses lay on a continuum of ever deepening desire and were informed by expectation, if not right. Naturally they would kiss and kiss again and continue to find countless occasions to do so, in private and in public. That’s what straight boys and girls do.
I had no precedent or preparation for this, my first and so momentous kiss. Nor did I have the same expectation that I would find such pleasure, though I hoped with every fiber of my being that I would. And so it was not one but all the kisses my friends had had that were unloosed together in one rainy afternoon in a small apartment in the Haight.
It was not only the first time I was kissed in this way. It was the first time I felt desired. Michael lifted up the mantle of self-consciousness I was so often burdened with in school, the watchfulness I had exercised in ensuring that my lack of fit in a world in which by definition I could never fit would go unnoticed. He lifted it up and tossed it aside as easily as he released me of my t-shirt and jeans. It was gone, that feeling of not-being-right-with-the-world, the awkwardness I felt with the homophobic jokes I’d hear in the locker room after practice, the way I’d retreat into myself to become unremarkable, which is to say, not to give cause for remarks. Michael desired me and made me feel remarkable—and whole—in a most wonderful way.
It was a visitation of grace: that unexpected, unmerited divine favor revealed to us in the imparting of blessings. And Michael was its intermediary. The name was perhaps wrong; Raphael or Uriel, teacher or healer, would have been more appropriate than Michael, the warrior. But names didn’t matter.
I didn’t see him much after that afternoon and we never had sex again. By the time I painted one room I had met Noah and he had asked me to move in with him. But that was ok. Angels are not made for relationships. It was enough that he had visited me.
Image: Two Boys Aged 23 or 24, David Hockney, 1966