Like when Heath Ledger died. I was restarting college after moving back to Florida. A couple of years before I had escaped north to Atlanta, but the wet heat sucked me back down. That’s what my boyfriend and I kept saying about Florida, our excuse to move back. It’s like a black hole or a succubus or an implosion. It doesn’t matter how fast you move or how far, it’ll suck you back down and keep sucking until your over-tanned skin pinches up between your boobs and your shoulders slope forward and you’re dragging your arms like a dried out mummy. Like you’ve got liver failure or heart failure or a blood-borne pathogen. Like a zombie. Like a heroin addict. Like any other creature living on the seam of two worlds.
Living in Atlanta, I had landed some acting gigs and made some connections. I’d always wanted to be an actor. Not necessarily famous, just good at it. Then my boyfriend and I got pregnant, and halfway through the pregnancy my son was stillborn, and my boyfriend was offered a better job in Florida. All I could think was baby, baby, baby, but my boyfriend didn’t want a baby anymore after the first one died, and I thought maybe if we went to Florida with the better job and the cheap apartments and the beach and the family nearby, maybe he’d change his mind. He didn’t.
Heath Ledger overdosed two weeks after I started school in Florida, one week after my son’s would-be due date. I found out about Heath’s overdose right before I left for my classes. It was January and hot, hot. I drove twenty minutes up the highway, sweating toward school, driving up the same highway my dad drove my family down to go to Disney World over summer vacation when I was a kid. Back then we drove in the opposite direction. Away from North Florida, where I grew up. Away from Dad’s past. Away from him quitting college in his twenties to fly from Florida to South America with his girlfriends, strapping bricks of coke and heroin wrapped in soft wax paper between their thighs, then flying back to Florida to break the dope and cut the dope and hand it out. Away from the drugs. Away, but always returning.
Of course, I didn’t know about all that on our way to Disney. I’d sit in the back of the family conversion van listening to The Backstreet Boys on my headphones and singing all high and soft until my little brother threw a book at me and told me to shut the hell up or he’d die. When we got to Disney, Dad would take us to the gift shop and slide one of those Goofy hats with the eye patch over his wild brown hair and tell us about how he used to be a pirate. How having kids saved him from that bad, old life.
I had two classes that day, when Heath overdosed. (That was the day I started calling him Heath, like I knew him. Like he was the only Heath I’d ever know.) First Linguistics, then Improv. While the linguistics professor, with his New Zealand accent, went on and on about inflections and whatever, I saw Heath naked and dead in his bed. Latex-gloved hands pulling a pale sheet over his head. Snap the gloves off the hands and move backward. Sheet uncovers the face. Heath’s body rewinds. Out of the bed. Into his clothes. Pill bottles close, rise, shake through the air back to the pharmacy. Tops fly off. Pills jump back into the bulk bottles, back to the lab, back to gum, back to the plants they were cooked from.
Plants dried up and chiseled down into powder. Wrapped in wax paper. Taped to soft, cold skin of an inner thigh. Hand to plant to skin, years of money and drugs moving back and forth between hands, leading up to Heath’s sheet. The hands that started it belonged to Dad or someone like him. I walked from Linguistics to my improv class whispering, Why the fuck, Dad?, like he was the one who killed him.
Before he died from hepatitis C when I was fifteen, Dad told me his true story, shaping it like a recovery narrative. Recovery from dealing. Yeah, he had done coke and junk, but no, he was never really, really addicted. Not the way his brother and niece and nephew and the people he sold to were addicted. He was never a junkie, he just sold to junkies. He was just the one with the hands that started other people’s twirl downward. If you don’t go down like that, he said, you’ve got nowhere to come up from.
Unless you die, I said to all the dead people in my head, to this girl and this boy from high school and my cousin and Heath. All of us walking through the door to my improv class. It’s my day to perform. I’m supposed to be this brainless Valley girl. I’m supposed to act like I don’t know I’m funny. Isn’t that the kind of funny that makes the audience feel more alive? The accidental funny, like an accidental death. It shouldn’t have happened, so the emotion shimmies through the body harder and faster than other kinds of tragedy. Gut punch or guts on the table or guts in your hands.
I sit in a chair onstage across from this kid named Ian. Ian is blonde with blonde eyelashes and thin lips. He looks way too much like Heath, so I almost call him Heath on accident when he says, Hey do you want to order some drinks?
In the beginning of the semester the class was broken up into groups of two. We were all given that same first line. We had to fill up five minutes of space with lines and action after that. Scripted improv. We were our own actors, writers, and directors, Ian and I. He clears his throat and says again, Hey. Do you want to order some drinks?
I’m supposed to say, Um, my profile on J-Date makes it clear that I’m not into substances, FWIW.
He’s supposed to say, Oh, are you Jewish?
I’m supposed to say, Oh, ROTFL! Not J-date, then. I guess we met on Match.com. Hold on let me check.
I get through all my lines, but as soon as I say let me check and pull out my phone, I just start sobbing. Ian says, Um. I say, I just thought that I’d be someone else by now. You know, like I’d have found the right person.
They are the right lines, but I barely choke them out. Ian’s voice changes, like he’s Ian talking to me now, not his blind date character. He says, Yeah, I know how that is.
When he says it he blinks too many times. He looks a lot like Heath.
When Whitney Houston died everyone said, Well, of course. Like a history like that could only end one way. Like they’d all been waiting. Just a matter of when. When Amy Winehouse died, it went the same way, but she was just a kid, they said. Three years older than I was when she died, and a kid.
When I was a kid, I believed that actors didn’t need it. They didn’t need junk or coke like my dad and his brother and my nephew, or alcohol like my grandmother, or sex like one of my cousins, or pills like my mom. I knew some celebrities had overdosed in the past. They died way before Dad died. Marylin Monroe and Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and all the rest. Their deaths felt less personal. Distant. Iconic. Easy to ignore. Before Heath died, I still believed actors could just walk on stage, face each other, and become someone else. When Heath died, I realized all that iconic thinking was bullshit, and Dad was responsible for all of them. Everyone who died before he did. Everyone who would ever die because of drugs.
Dad didn’t hand any of them the booze or the pills or the coke or the heroin. He couldn’t have. By the time Amy and Heath and Whitney died, all that was left of Dad was a bit of ashes stored in an oval film canister. Only half full of him. The other half had spilled out when a random wind knocked the canister open from where I kept it on the windowsill above my bathroom sink. It fell over and half the ashes blew across the wet, moldy sink. I screamed like the almost-dead girl in a horror movie, but I bet Dad was laughing from wherever. That’s how his influence blew through my life: random hauntings, blowing out the livers and brains and hearts of all the people who had been sold his brand of escape.
Maybe that’s why drama class was my whole life in elementary school. Reach for the stars! was the motto of our school. I worked obsessively before an audition, and I was usually picked to be one of the leads in the annual school play. Like this one play in fourth grade based on The Orient Express where I was a girl secret agent from the U.S. posing as a French boy train conductor. In the big reveal, I pulled off my boy wig and let my hair flop down my back, tore off my stick-on mustache and said, Voila! Already some kind of star in my head, I believed I’d be famous on the Disney Channel or maybe a pop star. I watched actor biographies on Lifetime. Success seemed like a simple formula: start young, take the easy roles. When you’re old enough, take off your clothes and gain weight for the big ones. Grow up on screen.
And what would happen afterward? After I made it big? I never thought past that. Becoming a star, that’s what mattered. That by itself would liberate me from the stories I’d grown up with. That was my drug: breaking out. Breaking in.
I’d watch videos like My Girl and Now and Then. I was cast in a couple plays in Northwest Florida and commercials in New Orleans and fashion shows in Atlanta. I’d watch sitcoms like Friends and Dawson’s Creek, then movies like Candy and Capote. I was cast in student films in Atlanta and an unfinished feature in Florida while I finished my degree.
Acting that much, I couldn’t decide whose world I belonged in. This character’s or that one’s. Hers or hers. Standing on the seam between Dad’s death and my life, I told myself acting was my way to escape him. The drugs. The addictions. The bodies born into me from his life. From his death. I told myself I turned away from Dad and into my characters until an unexpected wind sucked me back down. Hatched open a film canister. Top off, ashes blowing.
Ashes stuck to the dirty sink. I shuffled what I could back inside with my roommate’s toothbrush and washed the rest down the drain, wondering how he could be such a monster. Ashes and a dad and a monster. That’s what they call drug dealers. Creatures from another world. From somewhere underground. From hot, angry states like Florida. From the other side. Faces eaten by the danger they sling with their hands. Cursed mummies. Sick zombies. Creatures half dead, half alive.
Was there a character inside me like that? Is that why my first baby died in my body? I had carried him for days, two bodies in my body. One dead. One alive.
In 2008, Heath died. Heath, who was my dad. Heath, who was my son. Just another man who should be upright, walking beside us, but isn’t. After he died, after I finished my skit in improv class, I went home. I broke up with my boyfriend. Up through the funeral dirt, hands first. Then face, shoulders, body. I moved to California, then Virginia, then Massachusetts, then Oregon. I chased auditions. I found a husband. I built a baby. She lived, so I built another one. Backwards from Dad’s funeral bed, I saved myself with a family the same way my dad had saved himself years before.
And now, in the first week of February, images of Philip Seymour Hoffman glide down my computer screen. The same face following itself, again and again. Philip as Truman. Philip as Heavensbee. Philip with his arms raised in a play. Philip in Manhattan with his kids. Philip talking. Philip sighing. Philip half alive with a needle in his arm, but that picture isn’t real. Built in my head. Built from the bodies of my friends who died like that. Built from the body of Dad who died from a blood disease. Not an overdose but still a needle. What the hell, Dad? Not Philip. Not you. Not him.
Now I’m here in the Pacific Northwest where winter is cold and dark, as it should be. Not the blistered arm of Florida. I’m alive in Oregon with my newborn family. My husband just drove our two young daughters to the zoo.
Now I’m offered a part in a local feature film. I turn away from Philip to read an email from the director: She seems a little shallow, put together, strong. Inside, though, she’s panicking. She knows something is broken from way, way back.
Now I sit at my desk with all this work ahead of me, to become this other person. To make you believe me. To live in her story when I could be walking through the wild animals with my kids.
I hunch over my desk. Close my eyes, rub my temples. Try to picture my character, searching my body for a woman like that. She stands straighter than me. She’s blonder. Maybe a runner or a boxer. I tell her, Go fight them. Dad and Heath and Philip. Chase them away. She chases them the way they’ve chased me my whole life. She chases them, but they keep coming back. They return and return saying, Hey, look at all these animals in their cages! Tigers sleeping. Giraffes eating. Hippos asleep under the cold winter sun. Look at the lemurs swinging from fake tree limbs. Bats climbing, ants building, snakes creeping. Chimps biting each other and chewing through their tails. All alive, but still captured, somehow thriving, in landscapes built from pictures of their homes. These manufactured realities. Sets designed from their histories. Paper leaves, cold meat, and hands on the glass between those creatures inside me and their bad, old lives.