photo of Bill Clinton shaking hands with Pavel who is wearing a white graduation cap and gown.

It Gets Worse by Pavel Frolov

Photo provided by Pavel Frolov

Wednesday, June 27, 2001

      Last night at your high school graduation there were bodyguards all over the place. Cameras were flashing. It felt like a red-carpet premier of a movie with all the stars in attendance. The ceremony wasn’t held at the actual location of the Professional Performing Arts School on 48th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues where you went for four years. It was at John Jay College auditorium, which felt as big as a Broadway theater. The entire graduation felt like a Broadway production, too. You were not in the main cast, which was small compared to the full graduating ensemble of 55 students. Only those with important names were seated on either side of the special guest speaker in the front row. From three rows behind, you kept wondering whose graduation it was.

      Would anyone believe that actors, singers and dancers had to rehearse walking down the aisles, starting on the right foot and walking in the right rhythm for a week? You rehearsed with stand-ins for his bodyguards, just standing there. You were told that if someone didn’t attend all rehearsals of walking he or she would not be admitted to the actual graduation. Security protocols!

      He looked like a hunk in his green blazer. You saw him checking out one of the tallest girls. Hillary wasn’t there. Sophie, who wrote the letter inviting Bill to speak at your graduation, said that she got a phone call from Hillary a few days before. Hillary was very sorry she couldn’t make it. Bill’s speech was sweet and cliché. “Life is a performance art.” But his presence was so powerful that it didn’t really matter what he said. Later your mother told you she saw all the other women around her crying when he spoke. At the time you thought your mother’s observation meant that she was impressed that Bill Clinton spoke at your graduation.

      You slept late today. Went out and got the papers in the early afternoon. Your graduation is in at least three papers: New York Times, New York Daily News, and Newsday. There is the same picture in the Daily and Newsday – Krystal and Bill at the podium, only the Daily misspelled Krystal’s last name, which is Pyram.

      “Former President Bill Clinton and Krystal Pyam, graduating class president of the Professional Performing Arts School, share a laugh at the podium during graduation yesterday.” 

      In the Times, there is a picture of Vanessa hugging Bill. As the former President handed out all the diplomas, each of us took ours and shook his hand. When it was Vanessa’s turn, she forgot to shake Bill’s hand and walked away with her diploma. She realized her mistake within seconds, went back, shook Bill’s hand and gave him a hug. It was cute.

      Sophie sat next to Bill on one side. That made sense. She was the reason he was there. On Bill’s other side was Jesse Eisenberg, and next to Jesse was Lee Thompson Young. That made less sense to you. Jesse and Lee were your classmates, and in class you were equal. But outside of class Jesse and Lee had already starred on TV shows. They were seated next to Bill for the press. Besides, Jesse’s sister was the Pepsi Girl, and Jesse’s parents were philanthropists who’ve donated to the Clinton Foundation. Your mother had to leave early.

      After the ceremony ended everyone poured out into the vestibule outside the John Jay College auditorium. It was loud, crowded with photographers and glowing parents. Your mother and her husband had to leave early. You caught up with Mr. Ryan, your Humanities teacher whom you’ve been infatuated with the entire year.  He asked about your summer plans and if you were going to college. You weren’t. You thought you wanted him to care, but he didn’t. What you really wanted was a father figure to tell you that you should go to college. You summed up your summer plans into “working and auditioning”.” He said, “Good.” You wanted to say more but couldn’t begin to say anything, and he walked away.

      You don’t understand what you feel. High school is over.

      In the middle of ninth grade, one day you came home and your mother said, “I know all about your school now!” She was angry. You were confused. What did she know? “My Russian friends told me that they know about this Performance Art school of yours and that it’s for black people!” It made no sense. You tried to explain that in America all schools were for black people, and that segregation ended in the 1950s, but your mother didn’t listen to you. You ended up crying and your mother ended up storming out. What friend would tell your mother such a thing? 

      Last night after the graduation you had a small after-party with two classmates, Cortney and Valentina. You were at Cortney’s apartment in midtown. You drank champagne, talked about the reporters and the whole thing. At one point, you all laid on Cortney’s bed, even Cortney’s mom. You talked about Mr. Ryan. Both Cortney and Valentina sympathized because they had crushes on him, too. Even Cortney’s mom said, “I can see how you could fall for him, he’s really hot! I mean, I’d sleep with him!” You told them you wished to tell him how you felt, but that maybe it was best to let it go.

      Cortney’s stepsister Charlotte came into the room and joined the conversation. Shortly after that, the dinner or the cake was announced ready, and one by one Cortney, her mom, and Valentina drifted out of the room while Charlotte and you stayed. 

      Charlotte said that she thought you were too good to waste your time on Mr. Ryan, and that there were plenty of people out there for you. She said that you were hot and that you should consider dating her. That she wouldn’t treat you like Mr. Ryan, who simply didn’t care. She said she would be good to you and make sure you were happy. You were flattered. You thanked her. You didn’t want to hurt her feelings either, so you just didn’t say anything. And then it occurred to you. Mr. Ryan probably would have been flattered the same way.

      Throughout the night, Charlotte kept looking at you with hungry eyes. You tried to hide from her, not stand or sit anywhere near her. You felt bad but couldn’t think of anything else to do but stay indifferent. So that was how you made Mr. Ryan feel.

February 2002

      You met two guys on AOL who were looking for a threesome. You thought you were, too. Their nudes didn’t turn you on, but you were sort of interested anyway. One of them was a lawyer, and what the other one did you can’t remember. You liked talking to the lawyer on the phone, you thought he was smart. He was in his late thirties and his boyfriend was younger. One night they invited you for dinner at their apartment on Christopher Street and 7th Avenue. 

      You came over expecting the worst but were nicely surprised. Both guys seemed to be exactly what the lawyer said they were. Plus, they had two other dinner guests: this girl Emily, and her very thin friend named Super. He was sweet. Emily reminded you a bit of Julia Roberts, but her voice sounded like Sandra Bullock’s. You told Emily, and she said people often told her that, but more often that she sounded and looked like Bullock. She said she used to work as a waitress, and tourists would stare at her and ask, “Are you her?” and she’d say, “Yes, I am. I like to disguise myself as a waitress and see if people recognize me.” You love Sandra Bullock and Julia Roberts, so you liked Emily. 

      The lawyer’s boyfriend cooked dinner. He was as meticulous in the kitchen as you are when you cook, which surprised you. Everything he did around the kitchen was extremely organized. And each time the sink filled up with dirty dishes, he washed them right away. You could tell he was a Virgo, and he confirmed it later when you asked.

      During dinner, a hot guy stopped by, he was a client of the lawyer. His name was Eric Nies, and later you learned he was from MTV. Once he stretched his arms up in the air and his shirt lifted. You caught a peak of his midriff. You wanted to see more. He didn’t stay very long. He only ate a salad, not the pork, and he didn’t smoke the joints that were passed around.

      You didn’t really care to impress anyone, so you felt comfortable. The moment you saw the lawyer and his boyfriend you knew that you wouldn’t have a threesome with them, you weren’t attracted to either. But you figured you’d socialize and get a dinner out of it. They tried to get you to stay after Emily and Super had left, but you didn’t. Although you were a little drunk and stoned, you remember very clearly this conversation with Emily about college. 

      Emily told you not to feel insecure about not being in college right after high school. She said college was nothing like what everyone said it was. 

      “What do you think people do in college? We drink every night and smoke a lot of weed, that is all that we do there. Trust me. You are not missing out on much.” 

      You told her how you were proud of being on the honor roll your senior year, after nearly flunking some classes during sophomore and junior years. You said you didn’t know what to do, or what to even want to do, being out of high school, but that you missed the structure. 

      “It all goes downhill after high school graduation. For everyone. So, you should just as well enjoy it and not expect anything good. Trust me,” said Emily.

Thursday, August 2, 2001

      You can’t believe it’s already August. You don’t even remember July. All you can remember is waking up in the middle of the day and reading a lot. You read Albert Camus’ The Stranger and then The Plague throughout July, and now you’re reading The Fall, which becomes your favorite. And you’ve been working weekdays at the Dance Studio.

      MTV’s 20 is on re-run. You knew it would be, that’s why you didn’t care to miss it when it was airing live at 7pm the night before. When your best friend Maryellen watched State & Main and took a pregnancy test because she’s paranoid. She isn’t pregnant. She should get her period soon, she said. You have to wake up in six hours for work at the Dance Studio. There is this annoying Buddy Lee ad for Lee Jeans running over and over on every channel, it looks like a commercial for a new Chucky movie because of this Buddy Lee doll in it. You feel fat after watching so much MTV. 

      Everyone seems stoned and drunk at the MTV 20 Party. Joan Jett seems surprisingly alert. Compared to how sleepy or bored she seemed as a special guest at your senior luncheon at the Performing Arts School, where she also didn’t have any make-up on. You all learn that Joan and your school’s principal Mindy are friends from a long time ago. You remember how Joan stared at you blankly when you asked her what she thought of artists like Sheryl Crow and Sarah McLachlan, whom you love. “What do I think of them? …I respect them…”

Friday, August 3, 2001

      You slept for approximately two and a half hours. You have to be at work at ten and work for eight hours straight. You have some herbal conditioner in your hair right now and have to wait a half hour before washing it out. Breakfast time. Structure.

      You meet up with Valentina, whom you haven’t seen since graduation, after 6 o’clock at Columbus Circle. The two of you end up walking north through the park and you see Guy Richie with your idol Madonna’s kids taking a stroll accompanied by two bodyguards. 

      You’ve been thinking about John the Architect for some reason lately. You have an urge to get in touch with him. He is the only person you’ve been with for as long as two and a half months, even though the sex was too vanilla. You were in tenth grade. He was thirty, but looked like JC from NSYNC. You don’t have his phone number anymore. You wonder whether to stop by his building in midtown and leave a letter or a note or something. You remember the address by sight and that his apartment is 4B. “B as in boy,” he said the night you two met. Maryellen used to make fun of you whenever you spoke about John. “Which John?” she’d ask, and you’d say, “John the Architect.” She’d say, “Which John the Architect?” You briefly dated another architect named John right before meeting the one who lived in 4B. 

      You fed Angela’s cat Zephyr today. You promised her to spend a few days with him, but so far, you have had no time to do that. But you did visit him three times already. Structure! You even bought cat food because there was none in her apartment. Angela is away with Randy in the Bahamas. Randy is your mother’s dance partner and Angela is dating him. But you have been buddies since before she started dating him.

      You and Angela work as receptionists at the Dance Studio where Randy and your mother work. You started working there on weekends while you were still in high school. You worked at Saturday and Sunday social dance parties as a helper. Every other Saturday there was a pizza party, and every other Sunday there was an Ice Cream Sundae. You set up tables and chairs, the snacks table, and served pizza or ice cream. You made $5 an hour and worked almost for six hours each time. During the winter, there was a coat check and you made more money with tips. After finishing high-school you graduated to working the front desk, and Angela had just started working there, too. Sometimes you and Angela get drinks downstairs after work. She’s bought you enough drinks to ask you to take care of her cat while she’s away. 

      Your braces are coming off in just eight days, very exciting.

Thursday, July 25, 2002

      You have a late lunch with your mother after work. She seems vulnerable and you want to take care of her. She is still coming off a cold and the medication she’s taking makes her drowsy. She talks about dancing and all the new things she is still learning. At times, she pauses and her eyes seem like they are in a fog – distant and scary. Some moments, you aren’t even listening to her, just looking at her.

      You spent so much time mentally trying to escape her. You hardly ever let her into your life anymore. She says she is the only person out there who really wants what’s best for you. Like convince you to be straight; sit you down and suggest you try conversion therapy the day after you come out to her.

      When you were in ninth grade, your mother had found a perfect dance partner. His name was Charles. He was the perfect height, and together they had a perfect frame when dancing Ballroom. But Charles had a life partner, and they were about to adopt a baby. Your mother came home one day very upset, and she started talking about how wrong the idea of two men raising a child was. You couldn’t help but defend Charles, which made your mother even more angry. She screamed asking why you were defending Charles. You said it was because you were gay. She said, “You don’t even understand what you’re talking about.”

      It will take you years to realize just how toxic your mother’s fear of those unlike her is. Her homophobia, her racism, and herself. She had to leave early during your high school graduation because she had more important things to do. Like teach little boys how to dance Ballroom with little girls. And make more friends with their Russian parents, who by then had already influenced her to think a certain way. Like when she found out you went to “school for black people.” You thought her comment about all the women crying when Bill Clinton spoke meant that she was impressed, but she couldn’t get out of there quick enough.

      Only when you finally get away from her, will you truly feel comfortable in your own skin. You won’t be expecting the worst to happen once you’re free to be yourself. But you don’t know this yet. You are still stuck with your mother, working at the Dance Studio where she can see you.

      After the late lunch with your mother, she goes back to teach a late private lesson. You go home and cry alone. 

      And then you feel a little better… and you wonder…

      Does it really all go downhill after high school graduation? 

      Does it get better or does it get worse? 

      And then you think how this new friend you have is the only person you would talk to right now, how you would not need to explain to him how you feel, and how you could just say one word, or not say it at all, and he would understand. And he reads your mind and calls you right then in that instant. You just say hello and stay silent and he knows. He says, “It only gets worse, but you get stronger.” 

      And you feel stronger.

Originally from Moscow, Russia, Pavel Frolov (He/Him) is a queer-identified San Francisco based performer and writer, recently relocated after 20 years in New York City. He holds a BA in Communication from Brooklyn College. Pavel’s recent poems have appeared online in Rise Up Review, Cosmic Double, oddball magazine, Lavender Review, Elevator Stories, Ariel’s Dream, Milk Carton Press, Visible Magazine, Poetry Festival and in print anthologies from Meniscus, Beyond Words & Wingless Dreamer.


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