“It scares me to know that so many people will know my secret, my story. I have hardly shared it with anyone in the world.”
Misha loves to speak fast, in medical language, packed with technical terms and hard to understand. To a close observer, it may seem that using complicated words is his way of hiding in a tortoise shell, no need to say how he is doing or what he feels. 24 years old, skinny, tall, blond hair, highly intelligent. Misha knows to explain the viral processes happening in his body with meticulous accuracy. Three unspectacular letters. H.I.V.
In my mid-twenties, I moved to Georgia for work, a small country in the Caucasus tucked between Russia and Turkey. Almost immediately, Misha became my best friend. My plumber, my psychologist, my dog sitter. My Georgian mother. At that point, he was not yet aware of the three letters that are about to change his life. He was in the middle of his third year of medical school, striving to be an emergency doctor. In autumn, we’d stroll through the dense forests of the country, pitching our tent by the river and eating instant noodles by the bonfire, telling each other memories from kindergarten. Both somewhat socially awkward, we make a good match. Me, the outspoken but unpopular feminist with unshaved leg hair, struggling against the patriarchal structures in the Caucasus, and him: living the life of a double agent, a criminal: Secretly gay, trying to be like everyone else while already realizing he never will. Neither his family nor his friends knew any of this. For them, Misha is a good boy. In Georgia, gay people are outcasts. No one wants to be an outcast and so Misha keeps his identity secret. He absorbs himself in dreams of freedom in the West – Amsterdam, New York, Tel Aviv – the Promised Land where gay couples can behave as they like, openly holding hands and kissing.
Misha lives with his grandmother and his little sister at the outskirts of Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, the three of them sharing one room. Recently, he was awarded to be one of the Top 10 students nationwide. Before difficult exams, he drinks liters of Red Bull throughout the night. One day he told me the story of why he wanted to become a doctor: “When I was a child, maybe around nine years old, my sister had an accident. A pot of hot broth and oil got spilled over her whole body and burned her. I remember our whole family running from one hospital to the next and all the doctors said, it is too late, they will not able to prevent her death. Eventually we found one very young doctor who told us he will try everything possible in his power. He managed to save her. She is the dearest I have in life. Ever since, I wanted to save other people’s lives.”
I remember the day Misha came over to my house, almost screaming, his words scattered, his voice panicking. It is the weeks before Christmas, the wide streets of Tbilisi were filled with decorative street lights, the weather was so freezing that I could see my own breath in the air. He said, it must be a mistake, it can’t possibly be real. Only a few weeks earlier we had discussed HIV and I had told him that I never got tested and neither had he. He just had laughed and said “Why would that be relevant? I always use protection.” Now, he had taken two express-tests in the LGBTQ-Centre of Tbilisi, one after another. Both positive. That evening, he didn’t know yet that after all the years of medical studies he will never be able to work as a doctor here. No one who is infected can work as a doctor in Georgia.
The same evening, we leave the house. We aimlessly walk in the darkness, and eventually reach the City Centre. At some point we enter “Warsawa”, a Hipster bar, full of happy people and tourists celebrating and drinking hard. For them, life is just having a regular conversation with itself. Nothing is different. We order hot wine and sit down on the doorsteps outside the bar, slowly and silently sipping our drinks. Like a mantra, Misha keeps repeating “the express tests could be wrong”, that he needs to do a real test in the hospital, that it still could be a mistake. I remain silent. I know, there is not one single human soul but me in all of Georgia he can share his pain with. I also know this evening made us inseparable.