“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 in medical language, packed with technical terms that are hard to understand. To use complicated words is his way of hiding in a tortoiseshell, no need to speak about how he is doing or how he feels. Twenty-four years old, skinny, tall, blond hair, superbrain. Misha knows how to explain the viral processes happening in his body with meticulous accuracy. Three unspectacular letters. H.I.V. He knows that after six 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 a hospital in Georgia.
After I moved for a job in Georgia, a small country in the Caucasus tucked between Russia and Turkey, Misha became my best friend. My plumber, my psychologist, my dog sitter. My Georgian mom. At that point, he is not yet aware of the three letters that are about to change his life. We stroll through the dense forests of the country, pitch our tent by the river and eat instant noodles by the fire, 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, striving to be like everyone else while already realizing he never will. Neither his family nor his friends know any of this. For them, Misha is a good boy. Georgia is not a free place for gay people. Misha 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 as one of the Top 10 students nationwide. Before difficult exams, he drinks litres of Red Bull throughout the night. “When I was a child, maybe around nine years old, my sister had an accident. A pot of hot broth and oil got spilt 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 would try everything possible in his power. He managed to save her. She is the dearest person 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 weeks before Christmas, the wide streets of Tbilisi are filled with decorative street lights, the weather is so freezing cold that I can see my own breath in the air. He says 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 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. 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 for the rest of our lives.