Ryan Spahn is an actor, filmmaker and writer. He has been published by Rotten Tomatoes, Metro Weekly, USA Today, IntoMore, and American Theatre Magazine. As an actor, he can be seen in American Horror Story, Succession, The Bite, Chicago P.D., and Modern Love. Ryan is a graduate of Juilliard and is based in New York City. Go here for more info.
“Here comes Heather,” Courtney mumbles across a bustling lunch table to a sea of white, wealthy friends.
“Hi Courtney,” Heather says, flatly. “Love your cardigan.”
“Thanks. I just got it last night at The Limited. Like, totally blew my allowance.”
Heather glances to Veronica, who stands nearby, and then zips her gaze back on the seated Courtney: “Now check this out: You win $5,000,000 from the Publisher’s Sweepstakes, and the same day that big Ed guy gives you the check, aliens land on the earth and say they’re gonna blow up the earth in two days. What do you do?”
Beaming with narcissism, Courtney says, “If I got that money, I’d give it all to the homeless. Every cent.”
“You’re beautiful,” Veronica says to Courtney, and then saunters back into the abyss of high school hell.
This iconic scene from Heathers lives rent-free in my memory because a) it’s to die for and b) it’s the first time I ever saw someone I knew on screen. An actual blood relative. The 1989 deliriously wicked black comedy stars Winona Ryder as Veronica, Kim Walker as Heather, and Sherrie Wills as Courtney … or known to me as my cousin, Sherrie Sue Wills.
On December 31, 2020, Sherrie Sue died after a seven-year battle with Alzheimer’s. I believe her actual cause of death was recorded as Covid, but everyone knew, at 53, that Sherrie Sue was ready to be reunited with her family. She had lost her brother, her mother and her father to various tragic deaths years back, triggering Sherrie Sue to develop aphasia, in addition to Alzheimer’s. During her final days, Sherrie Sue’s once sparkling, joyful personality peeked through by way of a child-like, self-conscious giggle. It caused those around her to wonder what exactly she was thinking.
Memory is fickle. We covet it. Mold it. Change it. With growing distance, we have the opportunity to redefine it. At 43, I have developed a lurking, sinking feeling that my memory has begun to shift. Drift. Get lost. I notice it when I’m alone, sometimes mid-conversation with others, but the anxiety of its potential has led me to schedule an MRI.
“Can you pass me the pester? I mean, the pepper?”
I was at Yankee Stadium the other week with my nephew and my partner for a big ol’ boyband concert. When we walked up to the box office, the pox-faced kid asked to see our wristbands and then handed me our tickets.
“How ya doing?” the teen asked, with a smile.
“I’m good. How about you?” I replied.
The teen looked at me, confused, and then burst out laughing. As did their fellow co-workers.
“Uncle Ryan, why did you say that?” my nephew inquired.
“What do you mean? They asked me how I was doing.”
“No they didn’t! They said to have a good evening!”
While it was probably just a blip, as I am prone to distraction, I couldn’t shake this lurking dread that dementia is, in fact, hereditary and that I am now two years shy of Sherrie Sue’s age when she received her early-onset diagnosis.
Off the coastal shores of Maine, I was taking my adorable Chihuahua-Boston Terrier, President McKinley, for a stroll and I walked right past the cottage where we were staying. I didn’t realize it until President McKinley growled at the neighbor’s lawn statue. I thought we were in danger, but as I looked around, trying to get my bearings, I felt this sudden, fleeting wave of panic. Pure and honest confusion. The opposite of, “Oh shit! I wasn’t paying attention. LOL.”
“Babe, I would tell you if I noticed something,” my partner assured me.
Michael will be the first to declare that I am “addicted to embellishing.” Of how I am feeling, of situations, of the past. While he’s not entirely wrong, and he knows me better than anyone, I also feel, whether inflated or not, that I don’t want to find myself quietly giggling, trapped in a mind that has failed me, while others stand by in sadness. Hence my early neurological tests.
I was nine years old when I chaotically ran into the sun-kissed kitchen of my childhood home, desperate for my mom’s undivided attention: “Sherrie Sue is famous, right? Like, really, really famous?”
“I would say my cousin, Sherrie Sue, is the most famous person we know,” Mom said, trying to remove the Sunday roast from the oven without burning her only son.
“But I don’t even know her! I’ve never met her!”
“You will, honey. Someday.”
From across the kitchen, my 12-year-old sister, Angela, peeked her head in. A stand-in for Punky Brewster, Angela whispered, “Get over here.”
I dashed into the next room. Angela and I cowered in the corner, hidden from our family.
“I got a copy of her new movie,” she said, conspiratorially.
“Oh my gosh.”
Angela held up what felt like a glowing, expensive, one-of-a-kind VHS of Heathers.
“I guess it’s supposed to be scary, I think, or funny, I don’t know, or dark. It’s a new kind of genre that’s like super R-rated.”
“Ooooooo,” I said, feeling the nervous jitters.
Scary movies were our favorite. We’d bliss out over them. And our mom, in a majorly rad power-play, would sometimes allow me and Angela to watch certain scary movies after our middle sister, Nicole, was fast asleep. Jury’s out if Nicole ever recovered from her FOMO.
“We’re gonna sneak this, ’cause there’s no way Mom’s gonna approve Heathers,” Angela said.
“When, when, when, when, when?”
“Tonight. I’ll tap on your door. We can’t even wake the cats!”
“I’ll be the quietest boy ever.”
I laid in my bunk bed with baited breath, staring at the digital clock. It was after 12:27 a.m. Surely a knock would be coming.
I got up, slowly. Used the tips of my toes to make it to my door. Angela was there, index finger pressed against her lips.
Our house was totally closed for the night as we delicately found our way down the flight of stairs. Perhaps something creaked, I can’t remember, but for the sake of drama … it was an earth-shattering creak.
Angela and I quietly made our way into our family’s brown-carpeted living room. We kept the lights dim and ceremonially put Heathers into our janky VHS player. We wrapped ourselves in our grandma’s homemade blanket, plopped down inches from our small TV, and awaited the sensation of what it would feel like to see a relative in a movie.
Heathers is about a young, Elizabeth Taylor-esque, popular girl named Courtney (Sherrie Wills) who is all glam and no frills. In the halls of Westerburg High, Courtney meets her clique, the Country Club Kids, for trash-talking just as the class divas, a gaggle of gals all named Heather, saunter by. Later in the cafeteria, Courtney brags about how rich she is to her other rich friends, when one of the Heathers approaches. Much to Courtney’s surprise, Heather (Kim Walker) is with a goth-gal named Veronica (Winona Ryder). Their weird interaction causes Courtney to realize that something is amuck in the halls. She snoops and gossips her way into socially dragging the most popular down in order to lift her clique up. Meanwhile, some of Courtney’s classmates have turned up dead and Courtney suspects that the early-trench-coat-mafia-duo that has become Veronica and J.D. (Christian Slater) are the ones to blame. Eventually, the truth comes out that J.D. has been killing the kids he thinks suck, in a self-proclaimed Robin Hood-esque power play, and that Veronica may or may not be in the know. But Courtney doesn’t care. This brunette bombshell is only attending her lowbrow Sherwood, Ohio, school to become the next Queen Bee. As long as the Heathers, Veronica and J.D. self-implode, Courtney will get her wish. And, in an atypical ’80s movie plot twist that would make my mother proud, Courtney learns everything she needs to know without the inference of clueless parents, dumb teachers or stereotypical churchgoers.
That is how my memory assembles the plot of Heathers, and my memory is never wrong.
As the credits rolled, Angela and I paused the VCR. There it was. Scrolling.
I gasped. How did a relative find herself among the Winona Ryders? Did she Mike Teavee herself?
Fast-forward through elementary school, middle school, high school, and drop me at 19 years old in my packed Pontiac Grand Am as I drive from Detroit to L.A. Prior to moving, I had the tenacity to cold-call some acting agencies and landed my first manager by tricking them into thinking I was someone special. Upon signing, the frazzled guy immediately barked, “Get yourself a pager, a fax machine and a Thomas Guide, or this contract is null and void!”
I didn’t know what a Thomas Guide was. I barely even knew who I was.
My landline suddenly rang, startling me. Besides my mom nervously checking in that I had arrived in Hollywood with all my dreams intact, this was the first phonecall I remember receiving in my new life.
“Hello?” I said, not recognizing the caller ID.
“Is this Ryan?” a voice replied.
“It’s Sherrie. Sherrie Sue Wills. Your cousin.”
I almost fell over. A star was calling.
“Your mother gave me your number. I would like to invite you for dinner. I know we’ve never met, but you’re family.”
Her voice swept me back to huddling with my sister, sneaking a viewing of her famed movie. I was flooded with all the dreams that sprouted because of Sherrie Sue’s performance. I could smell my childhood home, my mother’s cinnamon candles masking her Winston Lights, the baking of her Sunday roast.
Over the next decade, Sherrie Sue and I developed a deep friendship. I saw her through her divorce and she introduced me to her favorite acting teacher, Martin Barter. We traveled through Paris and drank the fanciest of martinis. Always her treat. We’d talk boys, cry over failed relationships and dream about the movies we’d make. Together.
“When I’m with you, Ryan, I can feel the presence of my brother,” Sherrie Sue said. “You make me feel like I have family again.”
Soon, Sherrie Sue became a person who was forgetful, not always present, in her head, and sometimes aloof. Traits that, at present, my partner has said I fall victim to.
“Remember when we traveled the world and walked the Cliffs of Moher?“
I paused, heartbroken, unsure if I was meant to say, “We never went to Ireland together, Sherrie Sue.”
As I await the results from my various tests, I don’t fear the results themselves, but rather the potential loss of those inspired, profound and distant memories of family. Of events. Whether inflated or not.
“You’re gonna make it, Ryan. I can feel it. I am very in tune with the Spirit, and She is never wrong.”