saturday night's waiter opened his recitation of specials by glibly informing us that Princess Di had been badly hurt in a car crash, her boyfriend killed, so he hoped our disappointment at not having pineapple salsa for the pork chop would be minor by contrast. A few of my dinner companions chuckled politely and resumed their conversations. I spent the rest of the evening feeling vaguely alarmed, like I wanted to go home, and slightly foolish for losing my appetite over a tragedy happening so remotely from me.
And yet, when I did get home and the first image to appear on the television screen was of the hideously mangled Mercedes being loaded onto a truck, a blue banner running the width of the picture proclaiming simply, "PRINCESS DIANA DEAD," I didn't think about feeling foolish. I just sat on the couch and cried for a woman I didn't know.
I have a busy life and sadnesses of my own. Why do I feel such heartbreak over the death of not just any celebrity, but the most photographed woman of our time, a woman born to wealth and privilege, someone for whom I never expressed undue interest before? This was the question gently put to me by my (second) husband on Sunday night, as we were leaving for the summer's last family mini-vacation and I was still clutching a newspaper in disbelief.
I can cite my mother ache for Diana's two young sons, who woke to learn that they were motherless. The needlessness of her death is obvious, as is the waste of her youth, vivacious beauty and evident compassion. But ridiculous as it may sound, I feel Diana's death as a more personal loss, one expressed, for different reasons, by the people of Diana's ancestral seat in Northamptonshire, where the newspaper headline on Sunday read, "WE'VE LOST OUR PRINCESS." Indeed, that is just whom I have lost. My princess.
My mother's generation had two princesses. Grace Kelly, upon her marriage to Prince Rainier of Monaco, was the first, and it was no sheer coincidence that the White House era of John and Jackie Kennedy was known as "Camelot." Diana Spencer and I were contemporaries, less than a year apart in age. Though she may have played the fantasy games that I played, imagining that a '60s version of princeliness would carry me off (my friends and I played "Married to the Beatles," and I wouldn't be surprised if Diana did too), by a stroke of fate Diana was born into a class with real princes and the possibility for real-life fairy-tale romance.
What little girl has ever grown up not imagining that someday she might marry the prince? The games we play, the fairy tales we hear as little girls shape our romantic fantasies as women. (I'm reminded of a friend's 4-year-old daughter, who recently sat next to a polite 12-year-old boy on a plane. Upon arriving at their destination, my friend's daughter looked up at her seatmate, who had gamely played a few hands of Go Fish with her, and said, "Well, goodbye. It's been nice being married to you.") We play house, we daydream about movie stars and our friends' older brothers, we plan our "weddings" during slumber parties. In the process, we begin to form our expectations for romantic happiness, and at least some of those expectations stick with us, no matter how outwardly realistic or feminist we pride ourselves in being. (Think of all the women you know who had white weddings after all ...)
Of the estimated billions who watched sweet, shy, virginal 19-year-old Lady Di marry her prince, at least half of them must have been other 19-year-old girls like me, fascinated by the hand-sewn beading on the puffy sleeves of her dress, nodding our heads approvingly over the weight she'd lost in the stressful weeks leading up to the wedding, puzzling over the mysteries of marriage, especially to a man 12 years your senior with a bad reputation. About Prince Charles' liking for the ladies, we thought with blind satisfaction: He's been searching the world over (slipper tucked into his pocket), and now he's found her, a girl pure enough and good enough to be his princess.
And Diana was not just Charles' archetype (or so we thought at the time), but ours as well. She fit so well the role we had imagined all our lives that there was no room for envy, even little for emulation (the hair, the dress). In seeing Diana married to the prince, our fairy-tale fantasies were vindicated. That story about the prince arriving on his white horse -- it was true after all. We had every reason to believe it would happen to us with our own princes.
And so in the years to follow, with our archetypal princess taken care of, we were free to get busy with our own fairy-tale endings, our carefully orchestrated pomp and blushing betrothals. Ominously, as we came to the part of the story that always reads "... and they lived happily ever after," we began to realize that a whole bunch of details had been omitted about how you actually manage to live happily ever after with princes who, it turns out, maybe don't love you or don't love you enough, or with the pressure and power of families.
And here, then, is the ironic flip side of Diana, our princess: Diana, as her fairy tale dissolved and her prince failed her, became our sister. Once the truth of her unhappy marriage became known and the gilt of royalty rubbed off, Diana was just another girlfriend suffering the public humiliations of a cheating husband. Just another young mom with skittish, unhelpful in-laws and a husband who was jealous that she had so many friends. We could understand -- those of us whose husbands didn't love us, who felt isolated and trapped by circumstances, who wanted to protect our children from hurt, who lived through the failure of our romantic dreams. We'll watch the kids tonight, we wanted to tell her. You could use a night off and a warm bath. And as mothers, as wives, as strong women, we rooted for her during her fight to leave the royal family on her own terms, with equal custody of her sons and a fair settlement for spending her youth with a man so craven that he would allow his family to browbeat him into marrying a 19-year-old -- a girl! -- he later confessed he never loved. Just as she vindicated our girlish belief in the princess of fairy tales, so Diana stood as an example of strength for all the women like her, like me, who suffered the bitter disappointments of unhappy marriages.
Just last week, or maybe the week before, I caught the headline of some magazine at the market checkout line. "Di in Love," it said, or "A Boyfriend for Diana." Something like that. Good for you, Diana, I remember thinking casually, hoping it was true. Just as I would hope for the happiness of any woman whose story I know as I know Diana's: remotely, from a distance, but with heartfelt empathy. Just as I would be moved to tears if I learned of some other woman, someone not famous, who had suffered heartbreak after heartbreak to finally come right up to the lip of happiness, only to die for no good reason.
The belief in the fairy tale, that died a long time ago. Not because of Diana, but alongside her: As Diana was crying over Charles' infidelities, I was crying over my first prince's human frailties. The more important belief, the fleeting wish that, like me, Diana might have found some lasting contentment, died on Saturday night in Paris. And yet, as I lay in bed at night worrying about Diana's two boys and hoping that their mother's love will sustain them through this most horrible nightmare of childhood, I can't stop thinking of Diana, too. And hoping that it really was true: that Dodi Fayed loved her passionately, and in these last five weeks of her too-short life she did feel that delicious ache of being loved and desired, that his body was perfume to her, that, right at the end, Diana, our queen of broken hearts, had had her faith in love restored. That she could fall in love and -- maybe not live happily every after, but have a nice life with someone. Just like regular people.