Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.
—(Jean Seberg quoting William Faulkner's The Wild Palms to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless )
New York City, 1971:
The bed, rarely made, floats in a room painted orange with big violet stars.
She spends most of her days and nights in the bed, sleeping and writing. Her hair is cut short. Twice, unable to do anything with it, she shaves it all off.
The inside of the closet is violet, matching the stars. The room could be anywhere, really, although in actual fact it's on the sixth floor of a building in Washington Heights, upper Manhattan, straddling the corner of Broadway and 163rd Street. There are gates on the two skinny windows, facing north onto 163rd. Even in 1971, the old prewar building, with its large corniced lobby, has seen better days.
The bedroom is spacious and shabby. When they arrived in New York, they scavenged for furniture in a friend's basement. There's a black, red, and white Navajo rug, a commode and two nightstands, a wood breakfast table and two matching chairs.
Mornings, the sound of the boiler kicking on wakes them up early, and they go back to sleep. Steam heat moves through the pipes, but it never fully warms the room. The apartment is on the top floor. Down the hall, a staircase leads up to the roof, and sometimes she goes there to look at the view. There's a second bedroom in the back of the apartment, with a desk and a typewriter, two sleeping bags, some spare clothes, and a piano that belongs to her boyfriend's estranged wife but still hasn't been moved. That winter, the United States invades Laos, Charles Manson is sentenced to death, and New York is rainy and cold. Two rival factions of the Black Panther Party engage in retaliatory assassinations. Four people are killed. No one will ever know if the shootings were carried out or provoked by FBI infiltrators.
The woman who lives here is twenty-three, soon to turn twenty-four. Kathy Acker, nee Alexander, grew up in New York, but returning after six years away, she feels alone and estranged. Her family's apartment on East Fifty-Seventh Street is just a few miles away, but she never goes home. Her parents still live there, and she does not want to see them. She won't visit her grandmother, who lives in a hotel apartment on West Fifty-Fourth Street, because she's convinced that her grandmother is in collusion with them. When she thinks of her childhood at all, she remembers the green walls and red flowered curtains of her hated bedroom in the 57th Street prison.
I'm ugly, I'm not ugly , she writes, if I dress eccentrically enough. I'm hideous with my short hair and draggy breasts.
Her boyfriend, Len Neufeld, is twenty-eight, but he seems a lot older, in a seductive way. Sitting up under the covers one night, she records how he lies beside me reading The Presentation of Self waiting for me so he can get some sleep he works tomorrow his hair's pushed back into a ponytail and wrinkles are lining the top of his face.
His plan, when they moved here together from San Diego the previous May, was to finish his dissertation, but each day the plan moves a little further away. He owes $100 a month in child support to his soon-to-be former wife and another $20 a month to the lawyer. He'd been invited to study linguistics at MIT with Noam Chomsky, but like Acker, he sees himself as a writer. In the bedroom together, they write down their dreams.