I was invited to Open Salon long ago by Monsieur Chariot. " What would I write about?" I asked him, a friend from Table Talk. "Heath Ledger" he suggested as I'd just posted on TT a version of this story.
Ever since then I've known that one day, I would write about this close first and then the second --more mystical or surreal-- encounters. And since a friend here wrote about Heath today, I will start, a story which will sound exaggerated. But what I write is true as truth serum. As true if I were on truth serum.
I first met him on a flight from LAX to JFK. The country was just put on high orange alert with as I recall a tinge of red, or no we went from Orange to High Orange and since this happened a mere 4, if that, months after 9/11, I felt a bit panicky until I got the airport. Once surrounded by happy crowds I got happy too, soon boarding a 767 first class. (In those days I could afford it.) The plane actually had only 8 or so passengers so the pilot invited everyone up; we were all flying first.
Immediate background: I had just fallen in love in Maui, from which I'd flown to LAX with the man I'd soon move with-- to South Beach. I was in high spirits anyway as this was post 9/11 when curiously my plane fears receded because I'd flown more than most, so I comforted others' and that helped cure myself. (more than less.) Next to me, at the window seat was a cute kid and we started joking from the moment I sat down. (I've written about how I "Love in the Air".) Because this was early January 2002, we had terrorists on our minds and began planning what we'd do if someone on the plane was our target. I took out and we played with a Ma Roller ( you remember those long wooden things with curves for one's back?)
Amazingly, post 911, they were allowed. I always carried one in my backpack but soon, since the flight was delayed, while sitting on the ground for two hours, this kid and I were riffing about how since he was taller, he'd use this weapon while I'd pull the terrorist's hair.
Then we looked around at the 8 innocuous folks and realized terror was not likely to be on our agenda. We cracked up. And then we sank into one of the lovliest, most memorable chats in all my flying life. Hell, maybe in all my chatting-up-strangers life.
I have this personality, when outside, that is nothing like I am at home or with real and close friends. At home I am quiet and work hard. With guests or friends they know I'll tune in and out. But once I get outside, I greet everyone as if I've not seen a human in say, twenty years.
Even though, as said, I had just spent two days and one night with a man I adored, I told this kid about that and then, since the plane was not moving, we entered one long and contagiously intimate discussion. We listened for a while to Bobby McFerrin's "Bang Zoom" on my iPod, one noise-cancelling earphone for me, one for him. He loved this album and not everyone does. We settled in and had what he later called "the most amiable talk of my life."
He was 22 at the time; I was 56 but, and this is why I believe it went so deep between us: Because I had no idea who he was. He knew that I did not know. I believe, and have good reason to, that this lack on my part is why he talked so openly, hell it's why I could be totally myself. Heath Ledger, whose name I did not yet know, brought out, as no other passing encounter has--my highest and best self. Not that 12 + hours of intense conversation can really be called a "passing encounter." He had that gift. One he no doubt bestowed on many many others in the six years he had left to live. Yes. He had a gift, in addition to his acting gift which once I watched his films I think may be unrivaled --in his potential.
We talked about everything. About his parent's divorce, in great detail. About what it's like to be 22. About the man I just met. Then we found these fake cigarettes, not e-cigs but small nicotrol's that I shared with him, and we laughed at how much they looked like tampons, though yes, they sure took the edge off of not smoking while still waiting for take off.
And then the plane did take off as did also a most unusual alchemy between us. I didn't recall what precisely we discussed, not until much later, maybe because it was more about what we created: a love high like few others. That, far more than the content, is what was key, at least for me.
He asked me lots of questions and I think telling him that once I was a
shrink made him more open, even though I only became a shrink because I was busy nurturing and cheering up my family since I was aged two.
When I said that, he lit up, for the same was true of himself. We talked about how charisma can be a necessity in families that aren't much fun. How as the listening and cheer-up kids, something we shared, were roles we each needed-- to enliven our not too happy familes.
He talked about moving from Perth to another city in Australia and then to L.A. and I said that he was lucky to get to see the world when so young. I don't really want to stress the content, not right now, because it was the emotional bonding that went so deep, that was so memorable.
I have rarely, if ever, met a kid who was shy to the max, yet utterly, o so charmingly charismatic. And, this detail comes in later: When he was facing out the window or telling me something private but looking straight ahead, his nose changed shape. It was different than when face to face, as we were for most of the twelve hours. This will seem a non-sequitur but is actually important.
I kept asking him if he wanted to sleep and he said, "No, this is way better than sleeping" which comment of course haunted me after his death, at 28 on January 22nd 2008.
I remember coming home after this flight and my ex was there, Eddie, and I told him I was giving up smoking because because of the new Maui love, the Bobby McFarrin in my ears, and mostly due to this amazing kid with whom "I'd just exchanged souls." Jet lag, usually a problem, was non-existant.
I went to my computer, something I do whether I have friends over or not-- as surely I don't have to explain to anyone here on Open Salon.
And because this unforgettable kid had written out his cell phone and his name, which I'd stuffed into my jean front pockets-- before reading emails, I took it out, strange name I thought, and looked him up on the internet though I did not have not a clue that he was an actor nor famous. Or I had only one teeny clue.
You see, when exiting the plane, we headed to baggage. Once there, he gave me a hug I will never forget, that boy had one talented body, and he hugged me tight. Then as we walked further, there was Drew Barrymore, who got a great hug too. So at my computer, I thought, type her name, maybe he was her guy. I remembered how he played with her hair and for a second, after thinking how cute it was that she looked ragged, --one pant leg inside one boot, the other outside-- how I was, and this is strange, a little or a lot jealous. I mean I missed him as soon as he was with her. No matter how kind he was about me.
I typed in Drew Barrymore but he did not look like her first nor her second or current husband or beloved. And typing his name from the paper, I then began to see photos which I was not absolutely sure were of him or not. That's where his nose comes in. I studied him facing forward, which, check! was when his nose looked wider.
Then I found other photos of him facing to the side, and that was when he looked like snoopy. Just as I was about to put together: his name and his fame, reading that he had made 4 or so films, right that minute, in came my pre-teen daughter with her friends.
I looked up. Then I got up from the desk and hugged her and the others, asking if they'd heard of... here I had to return to desk to get his name, on the paper, " Heath Ledger." All the kids, five or maybe six, started screaming.
"Moma," my daughter said, "You TALKED to Heath Ledger?" Another girl: "Are you sure? He's a heart-throb, he's the best!" The other kids were in awe, as my stock took a steep rise. They wanted to hang with me, which was not the usual. I wanted them to see the photos. It was he.
I was teasing them and bragging, just for effect: "Girls I didn't say Hi to Heath Ledger, I talked to him for 12 straight hours." My daughter was beaming, she was now one degree of separation from Health and though she is private as a rule, and thinks I talk too personally to anyone, she was surely not embarrassed now. She looked proud. (Aside: Have you noticed that it's the chatty, funny moms who often have almost dour kids? My kid is far from dour but I think I had a bit too much personality and maybe eclipsed her. If so that was unintentional.)
But I was not de trop, not for Heath Ledger. After we had hugged, that long way his tall, wiry body took mine, just as Drew Barrymore met him, he said to her, in his sweet, soft Aussie voice, " You will never in your life meet anyone as kewl as this woman. She is older than my mom but wow, she is so one of us."
I despise; I eschew bragging but this part of the story is essential if you are even to begin to believe or willingly suspend disbelief, about where and what happened at our next meetings.
End Pt. 1