Princess Diana was declared dead at four a.m., about an hour ago, but I don’t know that yet. I can’t sleep, so I’ve just put on my jogging clothes and slipped out of my room at the Paris Ritz, where I’m staying with my husband. He’s attending a meeting of physicists about black holes and the chaotic order of the universe, and I’m here mostly to shop. Or so I think.
I also think Diana’s staying here with her boyfriend and I’m passing their suite. Actually, I’m stopped in front of it. The bodyguard is gone—off duty, I assume—and I don’t want to warm up outside the hotel where I’m expecting two or three hundred paparazzi to be waiting for her as they were yesterday, so I’m standing in front of her double doors, but discreetly separated from them by several feet, and I’m pulling first one arm across my chest, then the other, when I notice there’s no newspaper hanging in a little white plastic bag from her gilded door handles, as there is on ours.
I tell myself, —She must be up already, reading her paper.
I clasp my hands behind my back, slowly bend forward, and wait, perfectly still, stretching my arms and my legs and straining my sense of hearing. The walls are surprisingly thin here, but there’s not a sound coming from the room, not the turning of a newspaper page, the murmur of a television newscast, no early-morning lovemaking. So I assume one of them woke up, got out of bed, grabbed the paper, read the headlines, then went back to sleep.
I straighten up, feeling slightly ashamed of myself. Wanting to hear them watch TV was borderline all right, but hoping to listen to them make love is going too far. So I leave.
Just before I get to the revolving door in the lobby, I slip on a pair of sunglasses and put on a baseball cap, pulling my ponytail through the hole in the back. I’m thinking that maybe in the dark, with the cap and the sunglasses and photographers who’ve waited up all night to see Diana, I have a shot at being briefly mistaken for her. It happened yesterday, but at the time, I didn’t understand what was going on—I felt like I was under attack—so I want to do it again. It’s a fantasy, a harmless fantasy for a Buckhead housewife on vacation in Paris.
But I walk out into silence—not a single photographer is here—and I feel as if I’m the one who’s being stood up.
I shrug it off, though, and go down to the rue de Rivoli and cross the place de la Concorde. I turn right at the river, where I run along the cours de la Reine, which I’m trying to remember how to translate: —The heart of the queen? Hearts of the queen? The queen’s corpse?
After a mile or two, I come to a street that’s closed to motor traffic, though people are stepping over the barricades, walking down the middle of the road toward the entrance to a tunnel, where a small crowd is gathered. The sun isn’t up yet, but the tunnel—the pont de l’Alma underpass, actually—is brightly, almost blindingly lit, and so many cameras are pointed at it that the thought crosses my mind that I’ve wandered onto a movie set. But there’s no director, nobody yelling, Action! or, Quiet. There’s no noise to quiet—no traffic or bustle, no human voices. And the sadness in the people I might have taken to be extras feels all too real.
I cross the barricade and move closer to find out what they’re looking at: a huge black Mercedes that’s been crumpled like a wad of paper.
I stand for several minutes with a group of strangers, watching the car being hoisted onto the back of a truck. There are no bodies, no ambulances, but it’s obvious that someone has died. Some people are taking pictures, but none of us is saying a word. Everybody’s barely breathing except for one woman in a sari who starts weeping and can’t stop.
The flashes from the cameras keep hitting the car and screaming off, and the air is full of a scent that’s not exactly oil or smoke or wet pavement or muddy water or human sweat or the smell of your own skin after you’ve wept, but some combination of all that and something else, something earthy and otherworldly and sorrowful, and I hear a distant sound like musical voices echoing inside a metallic cave, and I feel a tearing in me, a memory starting to rip open: my mother’s gold station wagon with the fake wood paneling on the sides and sleek chrome luggage rack on top, and the last time I saw my father, he was tying my little blue and white vinyl suitcase to the roof with a rope, and the last time I saw the car, in the dark, through the cracks between my mother’s fingers, it looked black, not gold, and it was not a car. I thought it should have been making a noise, a hiss, a steely scream—somebody should have been screaming—but the only sound I could hear was crickets, crying in the night. I didn’t know what had happened—I still don’t remember the crash—and I tried to tell myself the car had exploded like in a cartoon and my father had been ejected and he’d gone for help, he would come back with a little X-shaped bandage on his forehead and save the day. Though another part of me knew he was still in the car, and he was dying, or dead.
My mother, a former Miss Alabama with a singing ventriloquist act, had been performing at a church in Mobile, after which we’d gone to the beach for a day, and on our way home, late on a starless, moonless night, we’d hit a black bull in the middle of a black country road, and I found myself sitting in the dirt next to the car, hearing my mother call my name. The stuff in my suitcase—books and bathing suits and sundresses—was scattered over the road like so much garbage. My mother held Katie, her dummy, under one arm, and when she found me, she took my hand in her other hand, and I stood up. I didn’t ask about my father and she didn’t say anything about him, and we left our footprints on my things as we walked away from the car and into the black of the night. We never spoke directly of the accident again.
And thirty years later, in Paris, I’m trying to put my father’s violent death out of my mind—I don’t think of him that often—as I linger a few more minutes in front of the remains of someone else’s crash. Part of me wishes I could call my mother now, but what would we say?
—Hi, Mother, how are you?