Jan. 22, 2008. “Heath Ledger is dead. My mom just told me.” My roommate emerges from her bedroom, and shakes her head. “He was the first person I had sexual feelings for.”
Summer 2007. The New York Observer identifies Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams as avatars of the “New Victorianism.” The article is at once insufferable and enchanting: gardening, monogamy, brunch, buying lamps, wearing pretty little floaty shirts and living in Brooklyn. Having a child, and giving it an old-lady name like “Matilda.” This is the summer before I move off campus, entering the world of rent-paying pseudo-adults for the first time. Wide-eyed, I contemplate the future that stretches before me.
Winter 2005. I blow off finishing my Donne paper so I can catch the premiere of “Brokeback” in New York. I try to read Annie Proulx’s short story on the train, but I fall asleep. When I get to the city, I take the wrong subway and end up trekking 20 blocks — in eight inches of snow — to Lincoln Square. “If it’s the last thing I do,” I tell myself, “I will see hot gay cowboy action.” Along with a theater-full of Manhattan’s artsiest homos, I hang on every word Heather Ledger’s stoic Ennis unharnesses. And when he says, at the end, “Jack I swear … ” I’m sold. I’ll see the film a total of four times in theaters — a record previously held by “Titanic,” with three.
Spring 2003. Mr. Michaelson assigns chapters 6-10 of “Wuthering Heights.” Page 144: “It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how to love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.” I have not thought about Heathcliff Andrew Ledger in quite some time.
Fall 2000. Because seventh-grade habits die hard, I tape pictures of Heath gleaned from an illicitly purchased Seventeen magazine on the cover of my Roaring Spring marble composition notebook. And on my bedroom wall. And on the inside door of my gym class locker. Any flat surface will suffice, really. He has to share the cover of my math binder with Josh Hartnett — my other, slightly less intense middle school celeb crush — but I consider this a small compromise, given that I know every line in “Ten Things I Hate About You” by heart and wasn’t even allowed to see R-rated “Black Hawk Down” in theaters. Heath just gazes back at me seductively from the cover of my binder. I know he understands.
Christmas 1999. Sitting in the back seat while on a family road trip to Lake Tahoe, I leaf through the “Twenty Hunks of 1999” spread in Teen People. No particular sculpted ball of flesh catches my attention, until … I rip out the page, neatly fold it in half and tuck it into the front jacket of “Watership Down.” Refueling in Fresno, Dad sees the torn page sticking out of the book. “Who’s this?,” he asks. “Heath Ledger,” I blush. He takes the photo from the book and carefully places it on the front dashboard — where it sits for the remaining 370 miles of the journey north. “Don’t move it,” Dad cautions. “He will bring us strength and safety.”