The fault in our stars (Chapter 2)
Augustus Waters drove horrifically. Whether stopping or starting, everything happened with a tremendous JOLT. I flew against the seat belt of his Toyota SUV each time he braked, and my neck snapped backward each time he hit the gas. I might have been nervous—what with sitting in the car of a strange boy on the way to his house, keenly aware that my crap lungs complicate efforts to fend off unwanted advances—but his driving was so astonishingly poor that I could think of nothing else.
We’d gone perhaps a mile in jagged silence before Augustus said, “I failed the driving test three times.”
“You don’t say.”
He laughed, nodding. “Well, I can’t feel pressure in old Prosty, and I can’t get the hang of driving left-footed. My doctors say most amputees can drive with no problem, but… yeah. Not me. Anyway, I go in for my fourth driving test, and it goes about like this is going.” A half mile in front of us, a light turned red. Augustus slammed on the brakes, tossing me into the triangular embrace of the seat belt. “Sorry. I swear to God I am trying to be gentle. Right, so anyway, at the end of the test, I totally thought I’d failed again, but the instructor was like, ‘Your driving is unpleasant, but it isn’t technically unsafe.’”
“I’m not sure I agree,” I said. “I suspect Cancer Perk.” Cancer Perks are the little things cancer kids get that regular kids don’t: basketballs signed by sports heroes, free passes on late homework, unearned driver’s licenses, etc.
“Yeah,” he said. The light turned green. I braced myself. Augustus slammed the gas.
“You know they’ve got hand controls for people who can’t use their legs,” I pointed out.
“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe someday.” He sighed in a way that made me wonder whether he was confident about the existence of someday. I knew osteosarcoma was highly curable, but still.
There are a number of ways to establish someone’s approximate survival expectations without actually asking. I used the classic: “So, are you in school?” Generally, your parents pull you out of school at some point if they expect you to bite it.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m at North Central. A year behind, though: I’m a sophomore. You?”
I considered lying. No one likes a corpse, after all. But in the end I told the truth. “No, my parents withdrew me three years ago.”
“Three years?” he asked, astonished.
I told Augustus the broad outline of my miracle: diagnosed with Stage IV thyroid cancer when I was thirteen. (I didn’t tell him that the diagnosis came three months after I got my first period. Like: Congratulations! You’re a woman. Now die.) It was, we were told, incurable.
I had a surgery called radical neck dissection, which is about as pleasant as it sounds. Then radiation. Then they tried some chemo for my lung tumors. The tumors shrank, then grew. By then, I was fourteen. My lungs started to fill up with water. I was looking pretty dead—my hands and feet ballooned; my skin cracked; my lips were perpetually blue. They’ve got this drug that makes you not feel so completely terrified about the fact that you can’t breathe, and I had a lot of it flowing into me through a PICC line, and more than a dozen other drugs besides. But even so, there’s a certain unpleasantness to drowning, particularly when it occurs over the course of several months. I finally ended up in the ICU with pneumonia, and my mom knelt by the side of my bed and said, “Are you ready, sweetie?” and I told her I was ready, and my dad just kept telling me he loved me in this voice that was not breaking so much as already broken, and I kept telling him that I loved him, too, and everyone was holding hands, and I couldn’t catch my breath, and my lungs were acting desperate, gasping, pulling me out of the bed trying to find a position that could get them air, and I was embarrassed by their desperation, disgusted that they wouldn’t just let go, and I remember my mom telling me it was okay, that I was okay, that I would be okay, and my father was trying so hard not to sob that when he did, which was regularly, it was an earthquake. And I remember wanting not to be awake.
Everyone figured I was finished, but my Cancer Doctor Maria managed to get some of the fluid out of my lungs, and shortly thereafter the antibiotics they’d given me for the pneumonia kicked in.
I woke up and soon got into one of those experimental trials that are famous in the Republic of Cancervania for Not Working. The drug was Phalanxifor, this molecule designed to attach itself to cancer cells and slow their growth. It didn’t work in about 70 percent of people. But it worked in me. The tumors shrank.
And they stayed shrunk. Huzzah, Phalanxifor! In the past eighteen months, my mets have hardly grown, leaving me with lungs that suck at being lungs but could, conceivably, struggle along indefinitely with the assistance of drizzled oxygen and daily Phalanxifor.
Admittedly, my Cancer Miracle had only resulted in a bit of purchased time. (I did not yet know the size of the bit.) But when telling Augustus Waters, I painted the rosiest possible picture, embellishing the miraculousness of the miracle.
“So now you gotta go back to school,” he said.
“I actually can’t,” I explained, “because I already got my GED. So I’m taking classes at MCC,” which was our community college.
“A college girl,” he said, nodding. “That explains the aura of sophistication.” He smirked at me. I shoved his upper arm playfully. I could feel the muscle right beneath the skin, all tense and amazing.
We made a wheels-screeching turn into a subdivision with eight-foot-high stucco walls. His house was the first one on the left. A two-story colonial. We jerked to a halt in his driveway.
I followed him inside. A wooden plaque in the entryway was engraved in cursive with the words Home Is Where the Heart Is, and the entire house turned out to be festooned in such observations. Good Friends Are Hard to Find and Impossible to Forget read an illustration above the coatrack. True Love Is Born from Hard Times promised a needlepointed pillow in their antique-furnished living room. Augustus saw me reading. “My parents call them Encouragements,” he explained. “They’re everywhere.”
His mom and dad called him Gus. They were making enchiladas in the kitchen (a piece of stained glass by the sink read in bubbly letters Family Is Forever). His mom was putting chicken into tortillas, which his dad then rolled up and placed in a glass pan. They didn’t seem too surprised by my arrival, which made sense: The fact that Augustus made me feel special did not necessarily indicate that I was special. Maybe he brought home a different girl every night to show her movies and feel her up.
“This is Hazel Grace,” he said, by way of introduction.
“Just Hazel,” I said.
“How’s it going, Hazel?” asked Gus’s dad. He was tall—almost as tall as Gus—and skinny in a way that parentally aged people usually aren’t.
“Okay,” I said.
“How was Isaac’s Support Group?”
“It was incredible,” Gus said.
“You’re such a Debbie Downer,” his mom said. “Hazel, do you enjoy it?”
I paused a second, trying to figure out if my response should be calibrated to please Augustus or his parents. “Most of the people are really nice,” I finally said.
“That’s exactly what we found with families at Memorial when we were in the thick of it with Gus’s treatment,” his dad said. “Everybody was so kind. Strong, too. In the darkest days, the Lord puts the best people into your life.”
“Quick, give me a throw pillow and some thread because that needs to be an Encouragement,” Augustus said, and his dad looked a little annoyed, but then Gus wrapped his long arm around his dad’s neck and said, “I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.” His dad rolled his eyes.
“You’re joining us for dinner, I hope?” asked his mom. She was small and brunette and vaguely mousy.
“I guess?” I said. “I have to be home by ten. Also I don’t, um, eat meat?”
“No problem. We’ll vegetarianize some,” she said.
“Animals are just too cute?” Gus asked.
“I want to minimize the number of deaths I am responsible for,” I said.
Gus opened his mouth to respond but then stopped himself.
His mom filled the silence. “Well, I think that’s wonderful.”
They talked to me for a bit about how the enchiladas were Famous Waters Enchiladas and Not to Be Missed and about how Gus’s curfew was also ten, and how they were inherently distrustful of anyone who gave their kids curfews other than ten, and was I in school—“she’s a college student,” Augustus interjected—and how the weather was truly and absolutely extraordinary for March, and how in spring all things are new, and they didn’t even once ask me about the oxygen or my diagnosis, which was weird and wonderful, and then Augustus said, “Hazel and I are going to watch V for Vendetta so she can see her filmic doppelgänger, mid-two thousands Natalie Portman.”
“The living room TV is yours for the watching,” his dad said happily.
“I think we’re actually gonna watch it in the basement.”
His dad laughed. “Good try. Living room.”
“But I want to show Hazel Grace the basement,” Augustus said.
“Just Hazel,” I said.
“So show Just Hazel the basement,” said his dad. “And then come upstairs and watch your movie in the living room.”
Augustus puffed out his cheeks, balanced on his leg, and twisted his hips, throwing the prosthetic forward. “Fine,” he mumbled.
I followed him down carpeted stairs to a huge basement bedroom. A shelf at my eye level reached all the way around the room, and it was stuffed solid with basketball memorabilia: dozens of trophies with gold plastic men mid–jump shot or dribbling or reaching for a layup toward an unseen basket. There were also lots of signed balls and sneakers.
“I used to play basketball,” he explained.
“You must’ve been pretty good.”
“I wasn’t bad, but all the shoes and balls are Cancer Perks.” He walked toward the TV, where a huge pile of DVDs and video games were arranged into a vague pyramid shape. He bent at the waist and snatched up V for Vendetta. “I was, like, the prototypical white Hoosier kid,” he said. “I was all about resurrecting the lost art of the midrange jumper, but then one day I was shooting free throws—just standing at the foul line at the North Central gym shooting from a rack of balls. All at once, I couldn’t figure out why I was methodically tossing a spherical object through a toroidal object. It seemed like the stupidest thing I could possibly be doing.
“I started thinking about little kids putting a cylindrical peg through a circular hole, and how they do it over and over again for months when they figure it out, and how basketball was basically just a slightly more aerobic version of that same exercise. Anyway, for the longest time, I just kept sinking free throws. I hit eighty in a row, my all-time best, but as I kept going, I felt more and more like a two-year-old. And then for some reason I started to think about hurdlers. Are you okay?”
I’d taken a seat on the corner of his unmade bed. I wasn’t trying to be suggestive or anything; I just got kind of tired when I had to stand a lot. I’d stood in the living room and then there had been the stairs, and then more standing, which was quite a lot of standing for me, and I didn’t want to faint or anything. I was a bit of a Victorian Lady, fainting-wise. “I’m fine,” I said. “Just listening. Hurdlers?”
“Yeah, hurdlers. I don’t know why. I started thinking about them running their hurdle races, and jumping over these totally arbitrary objects that had been set in their path. And I wondered if hurdlers ever thought, you know, This would go faster if we just got rid of the hurdles.”
“This was before your diagnosis?” I asked.
“Right, well, there was that, too.” He smiled with half his mouth. “The day of the existentially fraught free throws was coincidentally also my last day of dual leggedness. I had a weekend between when they scheduled the amputation and when it happened. My own little glimpse of what Isaac is going through.”
I nodded. I liked Augustus Waters. I really, really, really liked him. I liked the way his story ended with someone else. I liked his voice. I liked that he took existentially fraught free throws. I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin. And I liked that he had two names. I’ve always liked people with two names, because you get to make up your mind what you call them: Gus or Augustus? Me, I was always just Hazel, univalent Hazel.
“Do you have siblings?” I asked.
“Huh?” he answered, seeming a little distracted.
“You said that thing about watching kids play.”
“Oh, yeah, no. I have nephews, from my half sisters. But they’re older. They’re like—DAD, HOW OLD ARE JULIE AND MARTHA?”
“They’re like twenty-eight. They live in Chicago. They are both married to very fancy lawyer dudes. Or banker dudes. I can’t remember. You have siblings?”
I shook my head no. “So what’s your story?” he asked, sitting down next to me at a safe distance.
“I already told you my story. I was diagnosed when—”
“No, not your cancer story. Your story. Interests, hobbies, passions, weird fetishes, etcetera.”
“Um,” I said.
“Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who becomes their disease. I know so many people like that. It’s disheartening. Like, cancer is in the growth business, right? The taking-people-over business. But surely you haven’t let it succeed prematurely.”
It occurred to me that perhaps I had. I struggled with how to pitch myself to Augustus Waters, which enthusiasms to embrace, and in the silence that followed it occurred to me that I wasn’t very interesting. “I am pretty unextraordinary.”
“I reject that out of hand. Think of something you like. The first thing that comes to mind.”
“What do you read?”
“Everything. From, like, hideous romance to pretentious fiction to poetry. Whatever.”
“Do you write poetry, too?”
“No. I don’t write.”
“There!” Augustus almost shouted. “Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it. This tells me so much. You read a lot of capital-G great books, don’t you?”
“What’s your favorite?”
“Um,” I said.
My favorite book, by a wide margin, was An Imperial Affliction, but I didn’t like to tell people about it. Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like An Imperial Affliction, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.
It wasn’t even that the book was so good or anything; it was just that the author, Peter Van Houten, seemed to understand me in weird and impossible ways. An Imperial Affliction was my book, in the way my body was my body and my thoughts were my thoughts.
Even so, I told Augustus. “My favorite book is probably An Imperial Affliction,” I said.
“Does it feature zombies?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
I shook my head. “It’s not that kind of book.”
He smiled. “I am going to read this terrible book with the boring title that does not contain stormtroopers,” he promised, and I immediately felt like I shouldn’t have told him about it. Augustus spun around to a stack of books beneath his bedside table. He grabbed a paperback and a pen. As he scribbled an inscription onto the title page, he said, “All I ask in exchange is that you read this brilliant and haunting novelization of my favorite video game.” He held up the book, which was called The Price of Dawn. I laughed and took it. Our hands kind of got muddled together in the book handoff, and then he was holding my hand. “Cold,” he said, pressing a finger to my pale wrist.
“Not cold so much as underoxygenated,” I said.
“I love it when you talk medical to me,” he said. He stood, and pulled me up with him, and did not let go of my hand until we reached the stairs.
* * *
We watched the movie with several inches of couch between us. I did the totally middle-schooly thing wherein I put my hand on the couch about halfway between us to let him know that it was okay to hold it, but he didn’t try. An hour into the movie, Augustus’s parents came in and served us the enchiladas, which we ate on the couch, and they were pretty delicious.
The movie was about this heroic guy in a mask who died heroically for Natalie Portman, who’s pretty badass and very hot and does not have anything approaching my puffy steroid face.
As the credits rolled, he said, “Pretty great, huh?”
“Pretty great,” I agreed, although it wasn’t, really. It was kind of a boy movie. I don’t know why boys expect us to like boy movies. We don’t expect them to like girl movies. “I should get home. Class in the morning,” I said.
I sat on the couch for a while as Augustus searched for his keys. His mom sat down next to me and said, “I just love this one, don’t you?” I guess I had been looking toward the Encouragement above the TV, a drawing of an angel with the caption Without Pain, How Could We Know Joy?
(This is an old argument in the field of Thinking About Suffering, and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries, but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not in any way affect the taste of chocolate.) “Yes,” I said. “A lovely thought.”
I drove Augustus’s car home with Augustus riding shotgun. He played me a couple songs he liked by a band called The Hectic Glow, and they were good songs, but because I didn’t know them already, they weren’t as good to me as they were to him. I kept glancing over at his leg, or the place where his leg had been, trying to imagine what the fake leg looked like. I didn’t want to care about it, but I did a little. He probably cared about my oxygen. Illness repulses. I’d learned that a long time ago, and I suspected Augustus had, too.
As I pulled up outside of my house, Augustus clicked the radio off. The air thickened. He was probably thinking about kissing me, and I was definitely thinking about kissing him. Wondering if I wanted to. I’d kissed boys, but it had been a while. Pre-Miracle.
I put the car in park and looked over at him. He really was beautiful. I know boys aren’t supposed to be, but he was.
“Hazel Grace,” he said, my name new and better in his voice. “It has been a real pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Ditto, Mr. Waters,” I said. I felt shy looking at him. I could not match the intensity of his waterblue eyes.
“May I see you again?” he asked. There was an endearing nervousness in his voice.
I smiled. “Sure.”
“Tomorrow?” he asked.
“Patience, grasshopper,” I counseled. “You don’t want to seem overeager.”
“Right, that’s why I said tomorrow,” he said. “I want to see you again tonight. But I’m willing to wait all night and much of tomorrow.” I rolled my eyes. “I’m serious,” he said.
“You don’t even know me,” I said. I grabbed the book from the center console. “How about I call you when I finish this?”
“But you don’t even have my phone number,” he said.
“I strongly suspect you wrote it in the book.”
He broke out into that goofy smile. “And you say we don’t know each other.”