Being There With Kathy Acker: New Year’s Eve, 1979

Happy New Year, all! Barring breaking news, The Local will return next Tuesday. In the meantime, enjoy community contributor Tim Milk’s tale of a New Year’s Eve we can only hope to match.

ackerIllustration: Tim Milk

“You’ve got to go,” my friend insisted. She thrust the invitation into my hand. New Year’s Eve, 1979: It was touted as the celebration to end all celebrations. The glitterati of the art scene were due to attend, as the hostess had connections to all the dealers, artists and buyers. As for myself, who was still quite new to New York, the specter of beautiful people closing in around me gave me the willies.

“Okay,” I said. “What will we wear?”

“Wear what you want. I’m not going. I’ve got a date. But you’re going,” my friend commanded. “Get out there. Do it! Meet people!” She then gave me that look. “Don’t you dare stay at home.”

I’m shy by nature, and this was especially true in my 24th year. Nonetheless, my courage was bolstered by the thought that there might be something to eat at this place. I may not always succeed in working the room, but eating is always an easy fait accompli.

Like any new-to-town rube, I arrived too early. Alone, I crossed a great empty ballroom, decorated like a sultan’s palace. This was clearly an affair for the fortunate few. Studding the walls were tables swathed with satin: the cocktail bar, the champagne station, and then the oasis where canapés and wine awaited. The hostess, in a glittering gown, was all hither and thither with last minute arrangements, so I was able to pass unobserved to the table of food.

“Felipe” was the name emblazoned on the tag of the fellow who was guarding the sumptuous spread. He looked me up and down and narrowed his eyes. Who let this scruffy punk inside?, they seemed to say. As I shrunk from his malevolence, the hostess called out, “Felipe! Quick! Over here!”

With a snort, Felipe departed, leaving the spread of goodies to tempt me. My hand drew close to snatch a morsel, when something suddenly took hold of my ankle. I jumped.

My eye caught sight of a slender hand as it disappeared under the satin-draped table. Then in sotto voce I heard a young woman say: “Hey! You!”

I caught my breath. “Me?”

“Yeah, you! Get me a drink!”

I blinked. I glanced around the room. Was there a hidden camera? Was this some kind of joke? No. I was really quite alone. I returned my gaze to the table.

“What have they got there?” the voice demanded.

There was quite a selection. “Bordeaux white?” I suggested. No response. “Mm…there’s an Italian red here…”

“I’ll have the red.”

I lowered the glass and the lithe hand reappeared to snatch it away. That someone might see all of this was my utmost concern, but fortunately there was no one in sight. And so now I became altogether curious and was ready to play.

“Would you like something to eat?” I inquired.

“Yes,” came the voice from under the table; then: “Why don’t you join me? I’d like that very much.”

I looked around again. “You’re kidding,” I said.

“No,” she said. “And bring us a bottle.”

I loaded a plate with hors d’oeuvres and pilfered the bottle. Slipping behind a large floral spray, I ducked beneath the swag of satin.

Sphinx-like, the young woman peered out through the gauzy dim light. It was an attractive but curious face, framed with cropped hair and set with large, dark, almond-shaped eyes, like a Fayum mummy portrait from ancient times. They were tightly fixed upon me.

“You got a name?” she asked.

I introduced myself.

“I’m Kathy Acker,” she told me.

I had heard all about her. She was the kind of young feminist artist who made the old order of feminists nervous. Being a punk, she had it in her to be raucously confrontational, and her writing tended to celebrate all the incorrect impulses that set her critics on the warpath. Personally, I rather enjoyed her blood-and-guts style, and that pleased her greatly.

I found her intently examining me. “You like parties like this?”

I shook my head.

“Me neither,” she huffed. She bent her ear for a moment to the trifling talk of the guests as they began to fill the hall. Then she cracked a big wide grin. “It’s nice in here, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” I laughed. But I was still a bit overwhelmed that this cryptic gamine had chosen me to coax into her lair. And yet nothing in the world ever seemed more right. She noticed my pleasure, and we started to talk.

“You’d make a good thief,” she said, picking over the food. It seems that both of us had dreamed of being pirates when we were kids, and with that bond established, we talked about everything: art, the world, androgyny and love. We ate heartily and washed it down with the excellent wine. When one bottle was done, we simply reached up to take another. Meanwhile, while the guests chattered, laughed, danced and reveled, not a one of them suspected what was happening under their noses.

The clock struck twelve. Great cheers filled the room, and we used the diversion to steal yet another bottle of wine. We luxuriated like this, in wine and kinship, until all the guests were gone.

“I’ve got to be going,” she then announced. “Come on. Help me get home.”

We emerged from our lair arm-in-arm and moon-walked our way to the door. Outside, the fresh air brought me around, and I was able to hail Kathy a cab.

“Here,” she said, and scribbled her number on a crumpled invitation. She then threw her arms around my neck and kissed me goodbye. Then I watched, lovestruck, till her taxi completely vanished from sight.

The next day I awoke sprawled on the floor. Mine was an epic hangover, with a pounding frontal lobe. To make matters worse, somewhere along the twisted way home, Kathy’s number had fallen out of my pocket. How utterly cruel was fate, I thought.

As time passed, I often thought of attending one of her readings, to pick up the thread, re-establish the bond. But what on earth would I say to her then? “Remember me? That guy? Come on, you know: New Year’s? Under the table?” But that’s not the sort of thing a young gentleman says, no matter what, to any woman, let alone this particular, peculiar, androgynous sphinx.

And yet, after all these years, I still can see those two dark, inquisitive eyes, can still taste the wine, hear the song of her voice.

Should old acquaintance be forgot?