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from the November 2006 issue

The Great Atlas of Polish Queens

Style Queens

I picked up my cigarettes and went for a walk through the ruts toward Świnoujście. I looked over and saw that pharmacist from Bydgoszcz lying there. She had her umbrella with the "Vichy" label opened up and was slathering on sunscreen as usual. I bowed politely, proffering my respect, and at once began pestering her about the crabs: How could I get rid of them? She gave me a whole lecture, explaining how I had to shave my entire body, even my legs and armpits because there's no place they can't spread, and in extreme or chronic cases the little bitches can even infest nose hair and ear hair and eyebrows. Finally she told me to go to the drugstore and buy a bottle of Quell, without saying anything about the crabs. Just say: "I'd like some Quell, please."

I thanked her and darted off because she'd told me that if I had crabs I'd probably picked up something even worse, so she had me come here, to the STD clinic, for a battery of tests . . . Once again she tried persuading me to buy an internet camera and give up my real-time depravities. Even though she was rich, she still lived in the very room she first saw the light of day in, with her aged mother in the next room, her first girlhood ponytail, instead of a braid, attached to a wall-hanging as a memento, the whole thing looking a little like in Auschwitz. The whole ceiling plastered evenly with porn, the peeling wallpaper hung with old movie posters from the eighties, kung-fu films, E.T. . . . And smack dab in the middle of this hole was the computer. Dear children, please make sure you never, ever answer this man's privates in a chatroom, even if he tells you he's thirteen and still plays with dolls! He's the one in the poster, the fat guy you're not supposed to talk to on the internet. He has only one thing on his mind. He's a client of the Hottie Tot escort agency and the Whippersnapper travel agency. He'll devour you entirely, bones and all. He'll stick out his tongue and start licking. He'll get at you through his state-of-the-art camera. Just imagine his enormous, red tongue clambering out of the camera and licking you all over! The Internet—that's where the real depravity takes place, that's the real Loveport, the real Queens' Beach!

"My neighbor came over, installed everything, totally professional, explained how it all worked, started up Windows, and what do you know: There on the desktop was a nude photo of 'Mr. Poland 2003'!"

The sun in its golden chariot had already covered half its course, and the buzzing of bumblebees gave way to that of flies. The sea was flat and silver, the air still, the flat water populated by half-immersed, motionless figures. Like a picture of the baptism at the River Jordan. But there was no sin now. Up above, on the dunes, stood a fat queen I had always admired. She was making a tunic for herself out of a silk towel printed with enormous white flowers; crouching, she wrapped it around her breasts and knotted the corners. She was old, but the hair in back of her head was long and dyed red. I once overheard her on her cell phone talking in Russian. Another time I greeted her from a distance, and she responded with a dignified nod of her head, like a cultured matron from Germany.

Sometimes she would walk along the woods here with a cane, like a wraith, her curly hair in back shimmering the most varied shades of vermillion, the rest of her head bald. She always wore a dress, whether from a sheet or the floral-print beach towel, anything but trousers . . . And she never, ever showed her breasts; she always tied a knot over them. There was always another man at her side, stocky, elderly—her husband. An old married couple, one the man, the other the woman, her in her floral-print beach-towel dress, him with his fishing rod and cigarette . . .

I walked past her, past a series of ruts inhabited by naked, forty-something men tanned almost to black. I walked past a great number of them. They were each alone, each with his own designer rucksack, fashionable cigarettes, expensive tanning oil, his own designer sadness plastered on his face for good. Suddenly I happened on a rut that was entirely shaded over by some bizarre bushes and occupied by two young, fashionable damsels—one with a woolly perm dyed purplish-black and enormous eyeglasses, the other gorgeous, ginger-haired, the face of an eighteen-year-old ephebe . . . They at once whistled after me, so I called back loudly:

"Hello there, young ladies! What are you doing in the shade? Is our little sun too hot for you?"

"Well, it certainly is too hot for my Roberta. Her complexion is so delicate . . ."

I was certain these were Style Queens, which is to say they lived in the big city and earned over three grand a month; but they seemed very nice anyway. In order to find out for sure, I gave them the "flat iron" test. This involved simply mentioning at some point in the conversation that one has recently purchased a flat iron for one's hair. If the queen under examination responds with "What's that?" then she fails. But if she asks, "Ceramic?" then you have a classic Style Queen on your hands.

"A ceramic one?" Roberta asked earnestly. Yes of course it was ceramic, I informed her; it simply isn't worth buying the metal ones since they're merciless on your hair. Then there's the question of whether to get a dual straightening and crimping iron. And there are all sorts of other complications, too. Straightening, fine, but with what? With those professional fluids you can buy only in the most expensive salons for a hundred zloties? Very well, but now: which brands leave a sticky residue in the hair and which do not? Then there's the question of whether to color, and if so, whether to color the whole head or just have the top spiked and highlighted—which is in again now, part of a wave of eighties nostalgia that includes Limahl's autobiography, too, by the way. But that's just the head, there's so much else. Nails, for instance. Is it better to go to a salon for a manicure, or do them yourself at home with nail clippers and emery boards? They have everything in the stores these days. And then: will generic cosmetics do or should you get them from Sabon? Well? Who can tell me? Because every Style Queen will tell you something different. And then: is it better to whiten my teeth with that crap from Rossman or go to the dentist? And my hair: when the ends start splitting, is it better to fix them with Kerastes or Wella Professional or L'anza? Who the hell knows. And clothes:

"Should I sew them myself or not? Are retro and secondhand still OK? Or maybe it's better to buy one very expensive but unusual item than to have a whole wardrobe full of shit I'll never wear anyway . . ."

Suddenly Roberta glanced at my Zara shoes, which I was holding in my hand and now tossed onto the sand, and said to the monkey next to her:

"Look, what do those shoes remind you of?"

They both giggled.

"Oh, the trouble I had with those shoes!"

So, she had the same ones. The problem with Style Queens is that whenever Zara brings out something really nice, all the Style Queens in Poland will have it on the next day; it's the only place in this country they dare shop. Unless they have something tailor-made by Arthurina, of course, but that's really upscale. Then later at Scena and Scorpio and who knows where else, suddenly everyone's wearing the same thing, and all of them always swear how they're never, ever again shopping at Zara. Well, maybe a blouse from the women's section—these queens are so skinny, with their long arms, long necks: a new type of human that can actually fit into those super tight, super short (with a diamond in the belly-button!) tops. And baubles, too, for decorating their fingernails and toenails, wrists and ankles . . . A whole market of footcare products spread out before them, those affluent queens, bored silly after the workday.

All the young Style Queens I knew had read at least one book, Dangerous Liaisons, and without exception they all identified with its protagonist, the Marquise de Merteuil. Afterward they would start their text messages with things like "Dearest Vicomte" . . . I for one always write my diary like that, in the form of letters to my girlfriend Paula, a.k.a. Madame de Merteuil . . . My handwriting is neat and sloping, with plenty of parentheses revealing all my little intrigues, most of them invented, though some really do happen, and generally seasoned with this or that juicy, cynical aside or archaism.

"Unfortunately, the majority of Polish queens," Roberta lowered her eyelashes, "are entirely too brand-conscious. They act all excited about something you're wearing, but when they notice that it doesn't have a label, they stop liking it. It never occurs to them that it might not be off the rack."

While they were explaining this all to me—although it was hardly necessary, my being a Style Queen myself—I simply nodded and fantasized about sending the monkey off to Świnoujście on a long walk—ideally one-way—so that Roberta and I could make out again, suck face to our heart's content. What would Madame de Merteuil do? What would the Vicomte de Valmont do? So I went on nodding, but we weren't really having a conversation because they were saying the same things I was; we were on the same intellectual plane (in the hair-and-fashion division, of course); we were in unison, not in dialogue. They had been sitting on the pier at Międzyzdroje the day before, people-watching at Café Papparazzi. Men were promenading past the café as if they were on a fashion runway, but not one had anything decent on—designer knock-offs, discount items, track suits. One of them, who runs a solarium in Świnoujście, was tanned practically black and wearing all white, even her hair was white, totally wrecked. And there were some other young things in for the day from Świnoujście, heifers. Two guys had slipped away from their wives to have a few beers "like in their bachelor days." And so on. All their factory seconds were showing!

Think, think—I thought—think of some way to get the monkey out of here . . . Start some Vicomte de Valmont intrigue . . . Oh, I had it!

"Look," I said to them, "just look at this ring." I held out my silver-and-titanium ring, which I'd had made by a silversmith I knew in Wałbrzych. They enthused.

"Wow! Where did you buy it?" Oh, she was mine! Roberta was mine! Mine the ginger-haired Roberta with the delicate skin . . . And now my Roberta retrieved from her bag a crescent-shaped headband made of plastic, like the ones good girls in those old school primers, See Jane Run, etc., always wore. Then she combed her hair back from her forehead with it and set it daintily in place on the crown of her head . . . Later at the dentist I came across a glossy magazine that had a photograph of David Beckham wearing exactly the same sort of headband on his head, too. She must have gotten the idea from him . . .

"Run," I said to the monkey, "run along to Świnoujście! They still might have these rings there—I just saw a man at the ferry landing selling them. Go and get one for your Roberta!"

At that, however, Roberta piped up: "What? Purchase jewelry without me? Never! He'll get me the worst one!"

I had no choice but to retreat graciously and wish them a sunny day—albeit mildly sunny, given Roberta's delicate complexion . . .

The Others

So I continued on my way. The dunes became less sheer and above them the forest with its bunkers full of stagnant water and flies had given way to meadows. Suddenly this old thing from Stargard popped up (that's how queens objectify other men, by referring to them not as "old person" but as "old thing"; and instead of saying "I was with someone," they say "I had this thing," and "There's nothing around today" and "Maybe we'll find something").

"Are you a student? Do you work?"

"Goodness, there really is nothing interesting around today," I said, trying to let him know that it was futile. But he groveled:

"I'm interesting . . ."

I managed to discourage him with banal chatter, his excitement dwindled, and he went away. I passed by a couple of Germans. I can tell Germans even naked by their tiny, flat-lying ears and handsome, intelligent faces (without an ounce of that Lech-Wałęsa-brand Polish mix of grease, mustache, and beer belly), and by their slim, expensive wristwatches. Also by the fact that they always put their cigarette butts back into the pack so they can throw them out later in special containers made for recycling. I always said "Ciao!" to them because they were so cultured and spoke English so well, and you could talk with them about literature and ecology. There was only one thing you couldn't do with them. They had something so methodical, so calculating in their eyes, something very trade about them . . . But trade had to be more Russian, bigger, and completely unpredictable in their behavior. Trade threw their vodka empties into the bushes—to recycle anything would never even cross their minds. And of course they didn't shave or pierce their balls. Real trade doesn't exist in the West. They start showing up east of the Oder and continue all the way to the other end of Russia.

But I continued, looked around, and realized that the Dowager was right: Queens always leave such a mess on these dunes, it makes you want to wring their necks.

I went on walking, and suddenly from behind a mountain of condoms, empty water bottles, and old glossy magazines there emerged one of those stars of the open-air theater and vaudeville, a kind of prewar diva. All in black, a scrap of fur on her shoulders . . . Later I realized that it was Madame Pomme de Terre. Or her ghost, rather, since she'd been a regular at the Nellybar back in the sixties. Madame Pomme de Terre was an Old Queen.

It's important to understand that in addition to the Style Queens (an innocuous and cultured sort found mainly in metropolitan areas) there is a great variety of other queen species. The Old Queen for example. Age will not make of a Style Queen an Old Queen because the latter is old to begin with. Even at birth she breathes a pre-emancipatory atmosphere of train stations and lowlifes, and equally embodies the twin pathologies of skinniness and obesity. Old Queens generally originate in small and mid-sized cities and may be found at train and bus stations, an endangered species (Attention! Under Protection from April to September!). There are also Demi-Queens, a particularly interesting variant. The Demi-Queen is likewise alternatively oriented, and that orientation lurks in every gesture. She does not, however, refer to herself as a woman, nor does she speak in a high-pitched voice, and she dresses in unassuming apparel. But just watch how she puts her cell phone back into her shoulder-bag: She leans over it a tad too attentively, opens it a bit too deliberately . . . and voilà! a purse! She radiates her orientation unconsciously—all would-be ostentation is kept under wraps. Ninety-nine percent of those emancipated upstarts from Poznań are in fact Demi-Queens. They shave their heads, but shake their asses when they walk. Musclebound, they still rub skin cream on their faces like any diva . . .

But let us proceed to the next page of our Atlas, where we shall find the Gothic Queen and, farther on, the Mall Queen (a frequenter of shopping centers, her distinguishing feature is the whitewall haircut, shorter on top than the Style Queens wear it and never colored), the Show Tune Queen (and her permutations: the Ballet Queen, the Opera Queen, the Pantomime Queen), as well as the Cloakroom Attendant Queen, the Academic Queen, and the Queen of Everlasting Cosmetics Sales. On the next page of our Atlas we find a rare species: the Press Spokesperson for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Community Queen, or LGBTQ Queen for short. Newspapers and TV stations contact her whenever there's a public demonstration against homophobia or when they need a sound bite on gay culture. As soon as an LGBTQ Queen shows up and outs herself, the media soon recognizes her for the rare and useful specimen she is. While she generally speaks on behalf of all other queens, many of them would no doubt disagree with what she has to say. But as they rarely end up reading whatever that might be, nothing happens. This species naturally combines with the Activist Queen, creating a more or less stable, but erotically unappealing hybrid.

Mall Queens, similarly, can be found crossed with Style Queens (the "everything for beauty" model of consumption); and there is an Ikea variant, as well (the "everything for home & garden" model of consumption). In general, Style Queens will cross with all subtypes except Old Queens. For example: Art Queen + Style Queen = Gallery Queen.

An example of this last type was Blackie. As the name implies, Blackie always dressed all in black, draping herself with newfangled silver jewelry. She worked in a gallery and was a regular attendee of the theater, gallery openings, and poetry readings. She was all about pretense and snootiness, long-filtered cigarettes, silver cigarette cases . . . She never took off her hat in cafés, but sat there with it on like an old woman in a beret, shoveling down her piece of cake and prattling:

"We had an Evening of Cabaret Songs, you know, which is why I couldn't make it any sooner. I was having drinks with Krystyna and Olgierd . . . We're doing a play with Stanisław, you know."

But that's nothing compared with what you get when a Style Queen crosses with a Stylist Queen. Any hair salon of note is filled with the sort, and there's no one who can cut and style or color your hair better than they can. They know whole storylines by heart, whole Gone With the Winds and Mary Hartmans. Skinny, tall, beautiful, indolent . . . They all smoke and have piercings all over their bodies. They know all the latest hairstyles. They know which direction the wind is blowing in and what happened yesterday on the runways in London. Sometimes a gaggle of them will get together in someone's fabulous apartment, themselves all equally fabulous, and sit there among the old armoires and vitrines full of trinkets, wallowing in their ennui like decadents. And instead of books the antique bookshelves are stocked with an assortment of vaguely extraterrestrial hair product containers and stacks of neatly folded, black terry-cloth towels.

From Lubiewo (Warsaw: W.A.B., 2005). Copyright 2005 by Michal Witkowski. Translation copyright 2006 by W. Martin. To be published in 2008 by Portobello Books. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

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