The fault in our stars (Chapter 6)
Mom was folding my laundry while watching this TV show called The View when I got home. I told her that the tulips and the Dutch artist and everything were all because Augustus was using his Wish to take me to Amsterdam. “That’s too much,” she said, shaking her head. “We can’t accept that from a virtual stranger.”
“He’s not a stranger. He’s easily my second best friend.”
“Behind you,” I said. It was true, but I’d mostly said it because I wanted to go to Amsterdam.
“I’ll ask Dr. Maria,” she said after a moment.
* * *
Dr. Maria said I couldn’t go to Amsterdam without an adult intimately familiar with my case, which more or less meant either Mom or Dr. Maria herself. (My dad understood my cancer the way I did: in the vague and incomplete way people understand electrical circuits and ocean tides. But my mom knew more about differentiated thyroid carcinoma in adolescents than most oncologists.)
“So you’ll come,” I said. “The Genies will pay for it. The Genies are loaded.”
“But your father,” she said. “He would miss us. It wouldn’t be fair to him, and he can’t get time off work.”
“Are you kidding? You don’t think Dad would enjoy a few days of watching TV shows that are not about aspiring models and ordering pizza every night, using paper towels as plates so he doesn’t have to do the dishes?”
Mom laughed. Finally, she started to get excited, typing tasks into her phone: She’d have to call Gus’s parents and talk to the Genies about my medical needs and do they have a hotel yet and what are the best guidebooks and we should do our research if we only have three days, and so on. I kind of had a headache, so I downed a couple Advil and decided to take a nap.
But I ended up just lying in bed and replaying the whole picnic with Augustus. I couldn’t stop thinking about the little moment when I’d tensed up as he touched me. The gentle familiarity felt wrong, somehow. I thought maybe it was how orchestrated the whole thing had been: Augustus was amazing, but he’d overdone everything at the picnic, right down to the sandwiches that were metaphorically resonant but tasted terrible and the memorized soliloquy that prevented conversation. It all felt Romantic, but not romantic.
But the truth is that I had never wanted him to kiss me, not in the way you are supposed to want these things. I mean, he was gorgeous. I was attracted to him. I thought about him in that way, to borrow a phrase from the middle school vernacular. But the actual touch, the realized touch… it was all wrong.
Then I found myself worrying I would have to make out with him to get to Amsterdam, which is not the kind of thing you want to be thinking, because (a) It shouldn’t’ve even been a question whether I wanted to kiss him, and (b) Kissing someone so that you can get a free trip is perilously close to full-on hooking, and I have to confess that while I did not fancy myself a particularly good person, I never thought my first real sexual action would be prostitutional.
But then again, he hadn’t tried to kiss me; he’d only touched my face, which is not even sexual. It was not a move designed to elicit arousal, but it was certainly a designed move, because Augustus Waters was no improviser. So what had he been trying to convey? And why hadn’t I wanted to accept it?
At some point, I realized I was Kaitlyning the encounter, so I decided to text Kaitlyn and ask for some advice. She called immediately.
“I have a boy problem,” I said.
“DELICIOUS,” Kaitlyn responded. I told her all about it, complete with the awkward face touching, leaving out only Amsterdam and Augustus’s name. “You’re sure he’s hot?” she asked when I was finished.
“Pretty sure,” I said.
“Yeah, he used to play basketball for North Central.”
“Wow. How’d you meet him?”
“This hideous Support Group.”
“Huh,” Kaitlyn said. “Out of curiosity, how many legs does this guy have?”
“Like, 1.4,” I said, smiling. Basketball players were famous in Indiana, and although Kaitlyn didn’t go to North Central, her social connectivity was endless.
“Augustus Waters,” she said.
“Oh, my God. I’ve seen him at parties. The things I would do to that boy. I mean, not now that I know you’re interested in him. But, oh, sweet holy Lord, I would ride that one-legged pony all the way around the corral.”
“Kaitlyn,” I said.
“Sorry. Do you think you’d have to be on top?”
“Kaitlyn,” I said.
“What were we talking about. Right, you and Augustus Waters. Maybe… are you gay?”
“I don’t think so? I mean, I definitely like him.”
“Does he have ugly hands? Sometimes beautiful people have ugly hands.”
“No, he has kind of amazing hands.”
“Hmm,” she said.
“Hmm,” I said.
After a second, Kaitlyn said, “Remember Derek? He broke up with me last week because he’d decided there was something fundamentally incompatible about us deep down and that we’d only get hurt more if we played it out. He called it preemptive dumping. So maybe you have this premonition that there is something fundamentally incompatible and you’re preempting the preemption.”
“Hmm,” I said.
“I’m just thinking out loud here.”
“Sorry about Derek.”
“Oh, I got over it, darling. It took me a sleeve of Girl Scout Thin Mints and forty minutes to get over that boy.”
I laughed. “Well, thanks, Kaitlyn.”
“In the event you do hook up with him, I expect lascivious details.”
“But of course,” I said, and then Kaitlyn made a kissy sound into the phone and I said, “Bye,” and she hung up.
* * *
I realized while listening to Kaitlyn that I didn’t have a premonition of hurting him. I had a postmonition.
I pulled out my laptop and looked up Caroline Mathers. The physical similarities were striking: same steroidally round face, same nose, same approximate overall body shape. But her eyes were dark brown (mine are green) and her complexion was much darker—Italian or something.
Thousands of people—literally thousands—had left condolence messages for her. It was an endless scroll of people who missed her, so many that it took me an hour of clicking to get past the I’m sorry you’re dead wall posts to the I’m praying for you wall posts. She’d died a year ago of brain cancer. I was able to click through to some of her pictures. Augustus was in a bunch of the earlier ones: pointing with a thumbs-up to the jagged scar across her bald skull; arm in arm at Memorial Hospital’s playground, with their backs facing the camera; kissing while Caroline held the camera out, so you could only see their noses and closed eyes.
The most recent pictures were all of her before, when she was healthy, uploaded postmortem by friends: a beautiful girl, wide-hipped and curvy, with long, straight deadblack hair falling over her face. My healthy self looked very little like her healthy self. But our cancer selves might’ve been sisters. No wonder he’d stared at me the first time he saw me.
I kept clicking back to this one wall post, written two months ago, nine months after she died, by one of her friends. We all miss you so much. It just never ends. It feels like we were all wounded in your battle, Caroline. I miss you. I love you.
After a while, Mom and Dad announced it was time for dinner. I shut down the computer and got up, but I couldn’t get the wall post out of my mind, and for some reason it made me nervous and unhungry.
I kept thinking about my shoulder, which hurt, and also I still had the headache, but maybe only because I’d been thinking about a girl who’d died of brain cancer. I kept telling myself to compartmentalize, to be here now at the circular table (arguably too large in diameter for three people and definitely too large for two) with this soggy broccoli and a black-bean burger that all the ketchup in the world could not adequately moisten. I told myself that imagining a met in my brain or my shoulder would not affect the invisible reality going on inside of me, and that therefore all such thoughts were wasted moments in a life composed of a definitionally finite set of such moments. I even tried to tell myself to live my best life today.
For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why something a stranger had written on the Internet to a different (and deceased) stranger was bothering me so much and making me worry that there was something inside my brain—which really did hurt, although I knew from years of experience that pain is a blunt and nonspecific diagnostic instrument.
Because there had not been an earthquake in Papua New Guinea that day, my parents were all hyperfocused on me, and so I could not hide this flash flood of anxiety.
“Is everything all right?” asked Mom as I ate.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I took a bite of burger. Swallowed. Tried to say something that a normal person whose brain was not drowning in panic would say. “Is there broccoli in the burgers?”
“A little,” Dad said. “Pretty exciting that you might go to Amsterdam.”
“Yeah,” I said. I tried not to think about the word wounded, which of course is a way of thinking about it.
“Hazel,” Mom said. “Where are you right now?”
“Just thinking, I guess,” I said.
“Twitterpated,” my dad said, smiling.
“I am not a bunny, and I am not in love with Gus Waters or anyone,” I answered, way too defensively. Wounded. Like Caroline Mathers had been a bomb and when she blew up everyone around her was left with embedded shrapnel.
Dad asked me if I was working on anything for school. “I’ve got some very advanced Algebra homework,” I told him. “So advanced that I couldn’t possibly explain it to a layperson.”
“And how’s your friend Isaac?”
“Blind,” I said.
“You’re being very teenagery today,” Mom said. She seemed annoyed about it.
“Isn’t this what you wanted, Mom? For me to be teenagery?”
“Well, not necessarily this kinda teenagery, but of course your father and I are excited to see you become a young woman, making friends, going on dates.”
“I’m not going on dates,” I said. “I don’t want to go on dates with anyone. It’s a terrible idea and a huge waste of time and—”
“Honey,” my mom said. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m like. Like. I’m like a grenade, Mom. I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?”
My dad tilted his head a little to the side, like a scolded puppy.
“I’m a grenade,” I said again. “I just want to stay away from people and read books and think and be with you guys because there’s nothing I can do about hurting you; you’re too invested, so just please let me do that, okay? I’m not depressed. I don’t need to get out more. And I can’t be a regular teenager, because I’m a grenade.”
“Hazel,” Dad said, and then choked up. He cried a lot, my dad.
“I’m going to go to my room and read for a while, okay? I’m fine. I really am fine; I just want to go read for a while.”
I started out trying to read this novel I’d been assigned, but we lived in a tragically thin-walled home, so I could hear much of the whispered conversation that ensued. My dad saying, “It kills me,” and my mom saying, “That’s exactly what she doesn’t need to hear,” and my dad saying, “I’m sorry but—” and my mom saying, “Are you not grateful?” And him saying, “God, of course I’m grateful.” I kept trying to get into this story but I couldn’t stop hearing them.
So I turned on my computer to listen to some music, and with Augustus’s favorite band, The Hectic Glow, as my sound track, I went back to Caroline Mathers’s tribute pages, reading about how heroic her fight was, and how much she was missed, and how she was in a better place, and how she would live forever in their memories, and how everyone who knew her—everyone—was laid low by her leaving.
Maybe I was supposed to hate Caroline Mathers or something because she’d been with Augustus, but I didn’t. I couldn’t see her very clearly amid all the tributes, but there didn’t seem to be much to hate—she seemed to be mostly a professional sick person, like me, which made me worry that when I died they’d have nothing to say about me except that I fought heroically, as if the only thing I’d ever done was Have Cancer.
Anyway, eventually I started reading Caroline Mathers’s little notes, which were mostly actually written by her parents, because I guess her brain cancer was of the variety that makes you not you before it makes you not alive.
So it was all like, Caroline continues to have behavioral problems. She’s struggling a lot with anger and frustration over not being able to speak (we are frustrated about these things, too, of course, but we have more socially acceptable ways of dealing with our anger). Gus has taken to calling Caroline HULK SMASH, which resonates with the doctors. There’s nothing easy about this for any of us, but you take your humor where you can get it. Hoping to go home on Thursday. We’ll let you know…
She didn’t go home on Thursday, needless to say.
So of course I tensed up when he touched me. To be with him was to hurt him—inevitably. And that’s what I’d felt as he reached for me: I’d felt as though I were committing an act of violence against him, because I was.
I decided to text him. I wanted to avoid a whole conversation about it.
Hi, so okay, I don’t know if you’ll understand this but I can’t kiss you or anything. Not that you’d necessarily want to, but I can’t.
When I try to look at you like that, all I see is what I’m going to put you through. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to you.
He responded a few minutes later.
I wrote back.
Oh, my God, stop flirting with me!
I just said:
My phone buzzed moments later.
I was kidding, Hazel Grace. I understand. (But we both know that okay is a very flirty word. Okay is BURSTING with sensuality.)
I was very tempted to respond Okay again, but I pictured him at my funeral, and that helped me text properly.
* * *
I tried to go to sleep with my headphones still on, but then after a while my mom and dad came in, and my mom grabbed Bluie from the shelf and hugged him to her stomach, and my dad sat down in my desk chair, and without crying he said, “You are not a grenade, not to us. Thinking about you dying makes us sad, Hazel, but you are not a grenade. You are amazing. You can’t know, sweetie, because you’ve never had a baby become a brilliant young reader with a side interest in horrible television shows, but the joy you bring us is so much greater than the sadness we feel about your illness.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Really,” my dad said. “I wouldn’t bullshit you about this. If you were more trouble than you’re worth, we’d just toss you out on the streets.”
“We’re not sentimental people,” Mom added, deadpan. “We’d leave you at an orphanage with a note pinned to your pajamas.”
“You don’t have to go to Support Group,” Mom added. “You don’t have to do anything. Except go to school.” She handed me the bear.
“I think Bluie can sleep on the shelf tonight,” I said. “Let me remind you that I am more than thirty-three half years old.”
“Keep him tonight,” she said.
“Mom,” I said.
“He’s lonely,” she said.
“Oh, my God, Mom,” I said. But I took stupid Bluie and kind of cuddled with him as I fell asleep.
I still had one arm draped over Bluie, in fact, when I awoke just after four in the morning with an apocalyptic pain fingering out from the unreachable center of my head.