Photo by Heide Weidner
Death, Driveways, and Dreams
by Cindy Bradley
Twelve years old, I walk barefoot down our driveway to retrieve the Los Angeles Times. It’s still early on the morning of August 10, 1969, but the cement is warm beneath my feet and the sky is clear, promising 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 “Ritualistic Slayings: Sharon Tate, Four Others Murdered,” a crime that took place August 9, the night before.
A dog barks across the street. I stop halfway from the end of the driveway to my front door. I often felt that 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 our sprawling backyard forty miles away, couldn’t any residue snake its way across freeway 101, up and over the hills, and slither into our hometowns, into our own backyards, and catch us unaware while we were 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 embarks on one relationship after another with men who are only interested in 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 that she will never be able to have children. When she confides in her current boyfriend, a middle-aged senator, he tells her that he doesn’t care about having any children, assuring her that his love for her body, and especially her breasts, will sustain the relationship. 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 mostly bad reviews 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 that she wasn’t just another blonde starlet wannabe. She was Hollywood’s darling. Even her odd choice of marrying Roman Polanski was softened because fans simply adored her. To me, Sharon Tate was beautiful. Living in a blue-eyed blonde la-la land could be hard at times when one has ordinary brown hair and is surrounded everywhere by what was considered the ideal. Even my sister had light brown hair that turned blonde in the summer. Not me. The closest I got was a weekend one summer 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 Polanski’s look of anguish in the photos taken of him after her death, 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 wanting to be loved just like that.
I found my mother’s copy of 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’ The Carpetbaggers, Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place, and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. By the time I stumbled upon the print version of Valley of Dolls, the movie had already been made, but it was before the murders. I grabbed the worn copy, retreated into my room, plopped myself in a comfy chair warmed by buttery sunshine spilling through the window, and 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. Did my mother really read and enjoy this stuff? 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 such as Arthur Hailey’s Airport and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain. I couldn’t decide whether the bigger shock was what was written on these pages or the fact that my mother owned and read them.
My mind refused to see my mother as one of the three main women characters in the novel. Not in the late sixties anyway. The “dolls” not only referred to the manner in which these women were treated, as nothing more than toys, but was also used as a slang term, created by Susann, for pills. Although I was too overwhelmed by and not really understanding what I was reading, I devoured Valley of the Dolls every opportunity I had. Sex, beauty, affairs, money—these women lived and loved hard. They were alternately glorified and dishonored, objects of desire and subjects of pity. I read about Jennifer, Anne, and Neely and saw in them somebody both to strive towards and stay away from. Had I been more mature, I might have been able to see the obvious difference between my mother and these characters. She was older and heavier, which automatically put her at a disadvantage with other women. Maybe I could have seen that 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. 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 when she died. I’m a wife and a mother to a son who just turned one and less than six weeks away from the birth of my second child. Sometimes I think of the killings, of the lives that were so brutally lost, and of a young mother denied her child and their future. It’s especially easy to remember the story on this particular day with an article in the newspaper or a report 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, and that I was still more than two months away from my due date. In my opinion, however, his calculation was wrong. I knew it to be September 15th, based on the time when I had started to feel nauseous. Yet when the two ultrasounds performed earlier in my pregnancy showed that the baby’s head and chest size didn’t correlate with the September date, the doctor pushed my due dates a month farther out, to October 15th. The ultrasounds also showed that I had placenta previa, a condition in which the placenta lies low in the uterus, partially or completely blocking the cervix, something that occurs in nearly one out of every three pregnancies. 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 one out of every 200 pregnancies—a Caesarean is needed before the due date to avoid complications such as bleeding resulting in major blood loss for the mother or the placenta tearing and passing before the baby. Since my doctor didn’t seem concerned, I wasn’t overly concerned either, thinking, “I already had one C-section. What’s one more?”
By late afternoon my labor began. While my mother was watching our son, my husband and I headed out to drive the ten minutes 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 and delivery ward, what brought me to the hospital early. After I had outlined my visit for her, she responded with an outraged question, “Your doctor gave you a pelvic exam when he knows you have placenta previa?” I learned later that 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 labor but to deliver the baby instead. He called for an anesthesiologist and instead of giving me an epidural–the procedure I had had for my first C-section–I was fully anesthetized. My son was born, only to die within the hour. He weighed a little over three pounds and 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 had failed to detect. My baby stayed alive while inside me; had I had the chance to carry him longer, he might have survived.
Life went on, but nothing was the same. I had experienced a loss so deep that once it pulled me into its depths, I didn’t come out of it the person I was before plunging in. I found it impossible to believe my baby was brought into this world only to leave it before he had a chance to truly live and before I had a chance to know him. I mourned through the days as 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 I don’t want to compare my experience with that of Sharon Tate and her unborn baby, I can’t help feeling 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 could 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. That day life was taken from me, too. This was the beginning of so many different endings—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. 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, friends with both Tate and Polanski, claims the affair took place in Rome during March of 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,” Jones had said, acknowledging that he had hoped it would continue once they were back in Los Angeles. Yet filming conflicts and Tate’s death cut short any hopes of that happening.
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 an interview, he explained that during a visit to the Trevi Fountain he had 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.”
That driveway. The driveway that I’ve superimposed onto my memory of the one with the morning paper belongs to a one-story house in Hanford. The house had a green double door out front and wood paneling lined with bricks. It was the perfect house in which to raise a family. Maybe that’s why I chose its driveway, or maybe I chose it because of a dream I once had while living in the place. 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 would drive down the street and out of view, only to circle around again with the process repeating 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 lay 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. The fallen book felt like an offering, and this mysterious tow-headed boy reminded me of the son I lost and my surviving three children who all had various shades of blonde hair. 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 can’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 with putting on an act, and I knew my absence would send a stronger message about the severity of our problems than my presence ever could.
I’m talking to a man who lives in our neighborhood, down the street a few blocks away. He’s a coworker and shift partner of my husband’s during their late night highway patrols. We had met a year and a half earlier, and our families 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 mid afternoon 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,” deepening the hypnotic trance into which I am falling. 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, one I found myself looking forward to more and more. 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 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 keep my eyes off his face. 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 that we were bound to happen, he 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.