I find out in the kitchen. The electronic blast pulses through my phone, which jolts against the marble counter that it rests upon. I am not told that Philip Seymour Hoffman has died because I am his close friend or relative but because I am among the many millions of people who subscribe to the Times.
He is among the individuals so deeply revered by Hollywood that anything short of their full name sounds disrespectful, rings with an inappropriate casualness. The mass alert includes something about death but not yet anything about overdose. There is something about the number 46, a newly-stagnant age that he will never exceed. All three names are included.
I call my brother. He is three years my senior and enrolled in the same film school that Hoffman attended. I ask him if he has heard the news (he has) and if he is upset (he is). We talk for a minute or two, throwing words like artistry and tragedy around before hanging up the phone.
It begins a few months later. It is summer now, a rainy season. The air is dense with humidity, a stickiness that glues the pages of my mother’s book together when we sit outside and read. On most afternoons, warm rain sends us running for the indoors. On these days, I reread articles about Hoffman, those that mention the syringe found in his left arm, the envelope of heroin nearby his body. I struggle to picture what this final scene looks like, a lonely Sunday, a bathroom floor I visualize as cold white tile for no particular reason. He was still wearing his eyeglasses when they found him; they were resting atop his head.
I am many months too-late to this grief game, a stranger whose mourning is expected to have concluded by now. Watching him becomes a desperate attempt to satisfy fascination, as if the sheer intake of footage would give my obsession purpose. I make my way through his filmography, spacing out viewings so as to prolong my inevitable arrival at the end of the list. The loss deepens; I find him dead all over again with each performance, rediscover his body upon white tile.
I watch his quiet rage in Mission Impossible III as Davian, an international black market dealer who threatens with careful coldness. I want him to like me, a yearning to be on his side that feels closer to Stockholm syndrome than fandom. I watch him rant in Almost Famous as Lester Bangs, a rock critic with long brown hair who wears a t-shirt that says DETROIT SUCKS, who makes light of what I seemingly cannot, who tells me that the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool. His death cements these characters into the make-believe, people who will never exist for more than their two-hour runtime.
The spell has been broken. I have been duped by theatrics into an illegitimate sadness, left to miss the scruffy blonde man who looked perpetually tired, someone I have never known.
“He was just Phil Hoffman then,” my mother’s friend says. She is telling me about college, remembering the same acting program she attended with Hoffman before he left to get sober. She does not share my intrigue and resultantly gives me very little of what I’m after, which is something that might intimate that this dead stranger and I would get along.
“I didn’t see much of him,” she shrugs. “He mostly kept to himself. Was pretty quiet.”
I admire the laconic, wonder whether I would best avoid saying the wrong thing by saying nothing at all. Hoffman gives a face and a name to the quiet longing I typically reserve for the living, a long-time desire to be desirable.
The funeral program distributed at Hoffman’s memorial includes a note from David Bar Katz, one of the two people to find him dead.
Like a collapsed star, a teaspoon of you weighed a thousand tons. For the rest of my life I’m going to be looking towards the door, waiting for you to walk in.
Charlotte Klein, Spring 2018
artwork by Nadine Ng