Bette Davis Lived Here

Bette Davis Lived Here

 Sisi, my miniature schnauzer, has a fetish for relieving herself in front of Betty Davis’s Laguna Beach home. She finds the paved streets boring as she sniffs for foliage that presents itself on hillsides that are often difficult to navigate. After a great deal of exploring, my dog decides to leave her scent on the red brick pavers in front of the Davis beach house. The architecture is quaint; wood exterior trim, cottage windows looking like small doors with their circular pull latches, and a thatched roof protecting them from the sun. They sit above a five-car garage, closed off from the world. There is no sign of life here.  

 

This English Tudor 1929 home sits across the street from the beach house my husband and I are staying at. He has esophageal cancer and his best friend offered us the use of his home to recuperate from recent radiation treatments. My husband sits on a second floor patio watching distant surfers mount the waves as if they are going out to battle. He inhales the smell of the ocean air, a fishy, tangy mixture of plankton and seaweed, as he gazes off into the distance. He sits listening to the sound of waves splashing on top of gray and brown boulders set near the shoreline. He knows what lies just beyond his reach. He isn’t able to navigate the thirty-some steps that lead down to the beach, but he remembers the formation of rocks, small pools of water, and cavernous walls where starfish are gathered, along with shells, clams, and washed up articles waiting to be found. He pictures me as I explore the territory between  the rocks, gathering up my treasures in a plastic yellow pail; a washed up golf ball, one black clog with pink sparkles on the straps, and a glass bottle with a soggy piece of paper inside. He closes his eyes and imagines me sitting in a cave on a rock journaling about my findings and what they mean.

I wonder if he’s thinking about loss—about life and death and the simple pleasures that one takes for granted. I wonder if he knows this may be the last time we visit the ocean together.   

My husband walks slowly with a slight limp and a cane. His right foot is edematous and nothing he does seems to decrease the swelling. He remains stubborn, refusing to increase his dosage of pain medication. It’s difficult to watch him as he looks out over the ocean and sips on his coffee, so I veer to the right, just out of his view, off to the side of the road, walking the dog and studying the Davis house; trying not to focus on the future.  

 In the early 1940s, Bette Davis lived here at 1991 Ocean Way, an enormous home overlooking the Pacific Ocean. As I peek over the wooden gate leading into the courtyard, I notice a kitchen with black and tan 10-inch square tiles—probably the original flooring. I picture Bette walking with her 2-inch heels across the floor, click, clack, click clack, not to cook, but perhaps to give orders to her chef, a butler, or the maid. The windows surrounding the house are long and narrow with white wooden shutters. The north side of the house sits next to Woods Cove, a downhill stretch of succulent, flowering plants—a staircase laden with color. The cove wasn’t developed when Bette Davis lived here. Perhaps it was a garden of natural shrubs and wildflowers, or maybe it was filled with plants; Birds of Paradise flocked together and bright pink bougainvilleas gracefully leaning down toward the tide coming in.  

 I walk the dog around the sides of the house, and let her follow the scent of foliage that guides us down to the shoreline. I want to glimpse what Bette might have seen as she stood on her back porch, high above the rocks. I wonder if she was serenaded by the musical sound of the waves late at night or if she was content sitting out on the patio, having a nightcap, smoking a cigarette, and staring out at the vastness of the ocean. The Davis house preserves an era that has come and gone—it enables me to turn back the clock if only for a few moments.

 I stare at the Davis home as if I had some connection with it—the narrow windows and doors, an upstairs window revealing a slightly opened curtain. I question what Bette might have done behind the slender glass pane. Did she slyly hold back a corner of the curtain and study people as they gathered around Woods Cove; as they walked down the pathway to the ocean? Did she purposely leave a piece of herself here by consenting to a historical plaque hanging on her front door? Like Bette, I too want to leave my mark here, under the Magnolia tree and say, “I studied Bette Davis’s home while my husband examined his changing world and watched it fade from view.” I want to leave something of myself here so others might know what happened to a man who sat up above Woods Cove studying his favorite landscape, memorizing the way the water looks as it comes closer to shore and how it reverses direction with a fury. I want to watch the fierceness of the waves as they wash over the particles of sand and stone that live forever here below the Bette Davis house.

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About TRatner

Terry Ratner is a freelance writer, registered nurse, and writing instructor in Phoenix, Arizona. In June of 2004, she graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative nonfiction from Antioch University, Los Angeles. Writing has always served a purpose in her life, but it wasn't until her son died in a motorcycle accident in March, 1999, that she began to publish her works. What's unique about Terry is the way she balances the life of a nurse with the life of a writer. "Nursing allows me to give back to the community and then write about those experiences." Ratner teaches creative writing in a variety of settings from community colleges to a school for homeless children (Thomas J. Pappas) to wellness communities throughout the Valley of the Sun. In 2004, Terry launched an Arts and Healing program for children undergoing dialysis at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center. She has published numerous personal essays, cover stories, interviews, and book reviews for a variety of national and regional publications. Her manuscript, a work in progress, features a series of twelve essays, ten of which are introduced with black and white photos, dealing with issues of family and identity.
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