I am twelve years old. I’m walking barefoot down my driveway to retrieve the Los Angeles Times, our morning newspaper. It’s still early, but the cement is warm beneath my feet and the sky is clear, promises of another perfect, 80-something degree summer southern California day. The paper is folded into thick thirds, tucked into the soft spot where the driveway meets the curb. Why these details stand out to me – barefoot, wearing a t-shirt and shorts, headed for the newspaper – isn’t really clear, except that the details consist of the moments before. Before life changed. Before unrolling the newspaper from its rubber band confines. Before reading the headlines. The top story took place the night before, on August 9th, 1969 and splashed across the paper read: “’Ritualistic Slayings’ Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered”.
A dog barks across the street. I stop halfway from the end of the driveway to my front door. Living in Thousand Oaks, a small suburb north of Los Angeles, often felt like LA was one big, sprawling backyard, where every resident was connected to another. My mother grew up in Los Angeles and my grandparents still lived there. My father worked in LA and made the commute five days a week. If something this unthinkable, this horrific could happen in your sprawling backyard forty miles away, couldn’t any residue snake its way across the 101, up and over the hills, and slither into our hometowns, into our own backyards, and catch us unaware while we are sleeping? For weeks our slumber was ragged as we dreamt paranoia infested dreams.
My memory is wrong. It’s not really the right driveway, it can’t be; the driveway in my memory faces a different direction than the driveway I was living in when I was twelve. They are two completely different driveways. Not a big deal, or it shouldn’t be, but I have to wonder why I’ve superimposed a different driveway onto this particular memory. We lived in two houses the fifteen years we lived in Thousand Oaks, first a one story and later a two story, and this driveway doesn’t belong to either of these houses. Instead it belongs to the house I lived in for seven years in Hanford, a small town in California’s Central Valley, during my late twenties and early thirties. I can only assume my memories contained the correct driveway before I lived in Hanford, so I’m left to wonder why my subconscious made the switch after leaving Hanford. I wonder why it matters.
At the time of her death Sharon Tate was only twenty-six years old. Her career was on the rise, escalating in huge part due to her role in the 1967 hit “Valley of the Dolls”, a film based on Jacqueline Susann’s provocative blockbuster novel published a year earlier. Tate played Jennifer North, a showgirl more famous for her beauty than her talent who befriends the other two female protagonists. She embarked on relationship after relationship with men who are only interested in her for her body, and has a difficult abortion along the way to stardom. Jennifer eventually is diagnosed with breast cancer, told she must have a mastectomy and she will never be able to have children. When she speaks to her current boyfriend, a middle-aged senator, he tells her that he doesn’t care about not having any children while he assures her that his love for her body, and especially her breasts, will sustain the relationship. This is before she broke the news about the mastectomy. Distraught over her childless future and yet another man who loves her only for her body, Jennifer commits suicide.
I was too young to see the film at the time, but I remember the reviews were mostly bad although the film ultimately achieved success and a cult following, particularly after the Tate-Lo Bianco murders. Despite the poor reviews, Tate proved to audiences and critics alike that she could act and she wasn’t just another blonde starlet wannabe. She was Hollywood’s darling. Even her odd choice in marriage to Roman Polanski was softened because fans simply adored her. To me, Sharon Tate was beautiful. Living in a blue-eyed blonde lala-land could be hard at times when you have ordinary brown hair and are surrounded everywhere by what was considered the ideal. Even my sister had lighter brown hair that turned blonde in the summer. Not me. The closest I got was a late spring weekend in Palm Springs when my mother told me that my hair was the color of cigarette ash. I wasn’t flattered. But Sharon Tate, with her blonde hair and high cheekbones, was a classier version of the typical southern California beach blonde. Hundreds of pictures circulated after her death and my favorites were of her and Polanski together. I was on the brink of adolescence that summer, with a head full of romantic notions. The way he looked at her, with so much love and passion. These images contrasted with the pictures taken after her death, Polanski’s look of anguish, captioned with his words that he wished it were him the monsters had killed. I imagined he lost his mind after the death of Sharon and their baby. I imagined wanting to be loved that much. I imagined being loved just like that.
I found my mother’s copy of The Valley of the Dolls by accident. I was home sick from school, and had been going through the cupboards in our dark, narrow hallway, when I came across her secret stash. Hidden under stray magazines and torn towels was a treasure chest of novels that also included Harold Robbins’s “The Carpetbaggers”, Grace Metalious’s “Peyton Place” and Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” By the time I stumbled upon the book, the movie had already been made, but it was before the murders. This was the book I gravitated towards. I grabbed the worn copy, retreated into my room, plopped myself in a comfy chair warmed by chunks of buttery sunshine spilling through the window and promptly wasted no time in finding out what all the fuss was about.
I was unprepared for what became an initiation of sorts into a secret, sordid world of grown-ups. My mother really read this stuff? Did she actually enjoy what she was reading? The very nature of the book was more than enough explanation as to why the books in the closet were not openly displayed on our bookshelf in the den alongside the popular bestsellers of the day, like Arthur Hailey’s “Airport” and Michael Crichton’s “The Andromeda Strain.” I couldn’t decide if the bigger shock was what was written on these pages or the fact that my mother owned, and I could only assume read, what was written on these pages.
My mind refused to see my mother as any of these women in the novel. The “dolls” not only referred to the manner in which these women were treated, as nothing more than toys, but also as a slang term Susann used for pills. I couldn’t wrap my head around any kind of commonality between my mother and the three main women in the book. Not in 1968 or 1969 anyway. I was too impressionable, too overwhelmed by and not really understanding what I was reading, yet I devoured that book every opportunity I had. Sex, beauty, affairs, money – these women lived and loved hard. They were alternately glorified and glamorous, objects of desire and subjects of pity. I read about Jennifer, Anne and Neely and saw in part something both to strive towards and stay away from. Had I had more maturity, I may have been able to see past the obvious differences between my mother and these characters – older, heavier, which automatically put her at a disadvantage with other women because I constantly heard her tell her friends so – and maybe I could have seen she had been playing with dolls of her own. Weight loss pills that she told me were candy, sleeping pills for those nights when my father didn’t come home…oh wait. Now I get it. It was there all the time, disguised under the most ordinary of domestic doldrums.
It’s August 9, 1982, exactly thirteen years after the Sharon Tate murders. At twenty five, I’m a year younger than the actress was when she died. I’m a wife and mother to a barely turned one year old son, and less than six weeks away from the birth of my second child. I sometimes think of the killings, of the lives that were so brutally lost, of a young mother denied her child and their future. It’s easy to remember on days like this one, when a news article appears in the paper, or a story on the six o’clock news, reminding us of the anniversary of one of the nation’s most gruesome murders.
A visit to my doctor earlier in the day had gone well, with him assuring me that everything looked fine. I was still more than two months away from my due date he had calculated, but his date was wrong. I knew when I had started to feel nauseous. I knew I was due around September 15th, not October 15th as he had determined when the two ultrasounds performed earlier in my pregnancy showed the baby’s head and chest size didn’t correlate with my original due dates, so he pushed my due dates farther back. The ultrasounds also showed that I had placenta previa, a condition that occurs in nearly one out of every three pregnancies in which the placenta lies low in the uterus, partially or completely blocking the cervix. Expectant mothers with placenta previa are told that the placenta often corrects itself by moving higher in the uterus, but if it doesn’t – which happens in 1 out of every 200 pregnancies – a cesarean is needed before the due date as complications such as bleeding resulting in major blood loss for the mother, or the placenta tearing and passing before the baby, can arise. My doctor didn’t seem concerned, so I wasn’t overly concerned. I had already had one c-section, what’s one more?
By late afternoon my labor began. With my mother watching our son, my husband and I headed out the front door to our beige Cutlass Supreme parked in the driveway and drove the ten minute drive to the hospital. I wasn’t worried. I believed the doctor would stop my labor, but if he didn’t, I’d remain optimistic. After all, I really wasn’t that far from my true due date. I still wasn’t worried when a nurse asked me as she wheeled me to the labor & delivery ward what brought me in to the hospital early responded with an outraged “your doctor gave you a pelvic exam when he knows you have placenta previa?” after I had outlined my visit for her. I didn’t know it at the time, but apparently one of the worst things a doctor can do is perform a pelvic exam with placenta previa patients; the risk is a ruptured placenta and the onset of labor.
My doctor decided against stopping the labor. He was going to deliver the baby instead. He called for an anesthesiologist and I was put completely under. I didn’t receive an epidural like I had my first C-section. They knocked me out and cut me open and my son was born, only to die within the hour. At barely over three pounds, his intestines had ruptured to the outside of his body, caused by a hernia he suffered during pregnancy. The ultrasound hinted at these results, which my doctor failed to detect. My baby stayed alive while inside me; had I had the chance to carry him longer, he may have survived.
Life went on, but nothing was the same. I knew what it was like to experience a loss so deep that once you are pulled into its depths you never come out of it the person you were before plunging in. I found it impossible to believe my baby was brought into this world only to leave before I had a chance to know him, before he had a chance to truly live. I couldn’t believe this was his fate, or mine either, for that matter. I mourned through the days, remnants of my grief trailed behind me like a hallowed echo. My husband dealt with the loss in his own way, a way that meant let’s not talk about it and everything will be just fine.
I have one picture of the baby I lost, and although I can’t bear to look at it, for years I carried it in my wallet, next to the pictures of his two brothers and sister at six weeks, three months, six months, a year.
While in no way do I compare my experience with that of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby, I couldn’t help but feel some kind of connection that on this day, of all days, I lost a part of me, too. A son, a growing family, the belief that nothing bad can touch me, the future I had planned. Every year on this day, as yet another commemorative news story covered the anniversary of the murders, I mourned my own loss. I couldn’t help but feel that life was taken from me, too. This was the beginning of so many different ends – my innocence, my belief that these kinds of things only happen to other people, a family unscathed by tragedy, my marriage.
When Sharon Tate was six weeks pregnant, she had an affair. Or at least, that’s what former actor Christopher Jones told a British newspaper in 2007. And if we believe his story, he was the one she was having the affair with. With his good looks and raw energy, Jones was touted as the next James Dean and starred in cult classics such as 1968’s “Wild in the Streets” and David Lean’s 1970 hit “Ryan’s Daughter.” Jones was friends with both Tate and Polanski, and claims the affair took place in Rome during March 1969 where he was filming “Brief Season.” Tate had flown from LA to Rome with Jones’s manager while Polanksi was in London on business. The affair was brief, yet intense – “I loved being with her” – something Jones had hoped would continue once back in Los Angeles, but filming conflicts and Tate’s death cut any hopes of that happening short.
Jones was in Ireland filming “Ryan’s Daughter” when he received the news of Tate’s death. Devastated, he returned to California where he stayed for a while in the caretaker’s cottage behind the house where Tate died, subsequently abandoning his acting career. During his interview, he explained that during a visit to the Trevi Fountain he had a premonition that Sharon was going to die. Knowing the isolated location of her house, he had urged her to get a gun, to which she responded “I couldn’t shoot anyone even if I had one.”
Affairs were certainly not a rarity in Hollywood. I remember leafing through movie magazines of the era and looking at pictures of a celebrity couple so in love one month, only to have replaced their beloved with someone new the next month. Once while looking at the beautiful black and white photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd that were taken after the birth of their daughter, I had asked my mother if she thought they would have stayed married had Todd not died in a plane crash. She shook her head no. “I don’t think so. I’m sure either one or the other would have found someone else. Those people never stay together.” I wondered about that. Their love for each other literally poured out of the pictures, demonstrating a passion that fulfilled all the requirements of my adolescent yearnings. I had stars in my eyes. But maybe my mother was right. If Todd had lived, maybe their relationship would never have lasted. Maybe Taylor and Richard Burton wouldn’t have had their sensational affair during the filming of “Cleopatra”, one that also began in Rome. But then again, maybe they still would have. I can’t imagine destiny keeping Taylor and Burton apart. I believed they would have found each other no matter what. I wanted to believe if something is truly meant to be, it’s going to find a way.
That driveway. That driveway that I’ve superimposed into my memory belongs to a one story house in Hanford. The house had a front green double door and wood paneling lined with bricks. A perfect house to raise a family. Maybe that’s why I chose that driveway, or maybe it’s because of a dream I once had while living in that house. I dreamt of a car that repeatedly drove down my street. Every time it passed by my house, a child in the back seat – I believe it was a blonde haired little boy – tossed a book out the open window. I stood by the end of the driveway and watched as the book landed at my feet. I’d pick it up, hand it back to the child, and the car drove down the street and out of view, only to circle around again and the process repeat itself. I didn’t notice a driver, just the child. When I woke up the next morning I had no recollection of the dream until I went outside to retrieve the newspaper. The driveway was shrouded in fog so thick the mist clung to my hair and I couldn’t see more than a few feet ahead of me. The Hanford Sentinel was there, making a T-shape against the driveway and the street. Lying next to the newspaper was a child’s book, from all appearances randomly tossed. I never found out who the book belonged to or how it got there. There was nothing unusual in the news that day, nothing out of the ordinary going on. Still. The sight of the newspaper in the crook of the driveway, the book lying so innocently next to it, the recollection of the dream the night before and the vapory air lent the morning a decidedly eerie feel.
For years that dream tugged at me, wouldn’t let me go. The fallen book felt like an offering, but whether I was the bestower or the bestowed upon I didn’t know. I thought of the son I lost. My three children all had various shades of blonde hair, so it was only natural that this mysterious tow-headed boy would remind me of them. Only it wasn’t one of the three, yet something persisted, something very familiar. Maybe I was stuck on the repetition. The action continued over and over, although I had no idea why. Possibly walking up and down the driveway held the explanation. I knew this dream was significant, one I could never really shake, yet no matter how hard I tried, every time I reached for its meaning, the message eluded my grasp, there but not there, much like the baby lying in my arms before the nurse reached for him and took him away forever.
Or maybe it’s not because of that dream at all. Maybe it’s because of other memories I have of that house, that driveway. The one I keep coming back to takes place in fall, on a hazy October day. It wasn’t a dream, it only felt that way. I’m standing at the top of the driveway, near the open garage door, slightly to the side, close to a rectangular patch of grass that separates my house from the house next door. Inside, my youngest son is napping. My husband has taken our oldest son and daughter to visit his family out of town. Seven years into our marriage, we’re unraveling and couldn’t seem to do anything to stop it. In the five years since moving from southern California, this is the first time I’ve declined the trip back home. I was done putting on an act and I knew my absence would send a message regarding the severity of our problems much more than my presence would.
I’m talking to a man who lived in our neighborhood, down the street a few blocks away. He’s a coworker of my husband’s and shift partner during their late-night highway patrols. We had met a year and a half earlier, at which time he and his wife and my husband and I and our young children quickly became close friends. The attraction between us was sudden and unexpected and not yet acted upon. This was before. Before my divorce. Before all hell broke loose. Before facing consequences. But here, in the lazy midafternoon sun, lingering outside in the autumn haze, I’m unaware of time and spouses and obligations as I’m swallowed up by blazing green eyes. He’s looking at me with a look I had only seen in photos, in a way I had only imagined, up until now. I feel as though I’m dizzy, dazed, dreaming, surrounded by flying particles of fine, glittery golden air. He’s the magnet that I’m being pulled to, drawn in by the intoxicating current of electricity swirling around us. From the garage, the radio plays “Higher Love” from Steve Winwood and Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles”, adding to the hypnotic trance I was falling under. I remember little of the conversation. It was all senses, and I was on sensory overload.
He had been riding his new Italian racing bike down my street when he stopped to chat. This had become an almost daily ritual, and one I found myself looking forward to more than I should have. He sat perched on the bicycle’s seat or stood, straddling the seat, and I stood near him. We didn’t leave that spot until it was time for him to go. I slowly walked beside him down the driveway, watching at the edge as he slowly rode away.
While most of our conversation is a blur, there is one question I remember him asking. He’s all smiles and stares, and I’m latched on, hooked by heat, unable to look away. He looks into my eyes and asks what kind of spell is he under, what have I done to him and I laugh. Little did he know I had often wondered the same thing about him. He would later tell me we were bound to happen, him and I, here in the same place, at the same time. We were meant to find each other, no matter what and I believed him. I knew what’s meant to be will always find a way.
The story behind the story:
The Tate-:LaBianca murders were a huge defining moment, both to me in my twelve years, as well as culturally, socially, in the end to the Sixties, the end of an era where we all came to a new reckoning. I’ll never forget walking down my driveway, picking up the newspaper and reading the headlines: the horror, the disbelief. Thirteen years later, on the anniversary of Sharon Tate’s death, I lost my second baby, an even larger defining moment in my life. Two tragedies, thirteen years apart. For the longest time, I couldn’t shake this coincidence, and thought maybe if I wrote about it, I’d discover a meaning that had until that point remained elusive. I knew when I decided to write about Sharon Tate I wanted to focus on her, and her life. This led to rumors of her affair, which provided a natural segue into my own potential stirrings of an affair. All of these threads played over and over in my head, all I needed to do was find the connection. Driveways figured so prominently in the mix I knew using them was how I wanted to frame the essay.
Cindy Bradley obtained an MFA in creative nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her essays have appeared in 45th Parallel, Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, Essay Daily, and Under the Sun, among others, and has been nominated for Pushcart and received a Notable mention in Best American Essays. You can find more of her work at http://www.cindybradleywriter.com/
“Death, Driveways, and Dreams” was first published in Under the Sun.
Header Photo by ALEXANDRE DINAUT on Unsplash
One thought on “Death, Driveways, and Dreams by Cindy Bradley”
I love the allusive connections in this piece and love the way the narrator trusts her subconscious to tie the piece together. Was the boy in the car dreamed before or after the narrator lost her child? I lose track as I read the work, but I find it doesn’t matter: that seems to be one of the truths of the essay, that the mind has created a narrative fabric to make sense of disparate happenings. The narrative signals that this is happening in the discussion of the wrong and different and mistaken driveways.