The fault in our stars (Chapter 10)
We could only take one suitcase. I couldn’t carry one, and Mom insisted that she couldn’t carry two, so we had to jockey for space in this black suitcase my parents had gotten as a wedding present a million years ago, a suitcase that was supposed to spend its life in exotic locales but ended up mostly going back and forth to Dayton, where Morris Property, Inc., had a satellite office that Dad often visited.
I argued with Mom that I should have slightly more than half of the suitcase, since without me and my cancer, we’d never be going to Amsterdam in the first place. Mom countered that since she was twice as large as me and therefore required more physical fabric to preserve her modesty, she deserved at least two-thirds of the suitcase.
In the end, we both lost. So it goes.
Our flight didn’t leave until noon, but Mom woke me up at five thirty, turning on the light and shouting, “AMSTERDAM!” She ran around all morning making sure we had international plug adapters and quadruple-checking that we had the right number of oxygen tanks to get there and that they were all full, etc., while I just rolled out of bed, put on my Travel to Amsterdam Outfit (jeans, a pink tank top, and a black cardigan in case the plane was cold).
The car was packed by six fifteen, whereupon Mom insisted that we eat breakfast with Dad, although I had a moral opposition to eating before dawn on the grounds that I was not a nineteenth-century Russian peasant fortifying myself for a day in the fields. But anyway, I tried to stomach down some eggs while Mom and Dad enjoyed these homemade versions of Egg McMuffins they liked.
“Why are breakfast foods breakfast foods?” I asked them. “Like, why don’t we have curry for breakfast?”
“But why?” I asked. “I mean, seriously: How did scrambled eggs get stuck with breakfast exclusivity? You can put bacon on a sandwich without anyone freaking out. But the moment your sandwich has an egg, boom, it’s a breakfast sandwich.”
Dad answered with his mouth full. “When you come back, we’ll have breakfast for dinner. Deal?”
“I don’t want to have ‘breakfast for dinner,’” I answered, crossing knife and fork over my mostly full plate. “I want to have scrambled eggs for dinner without this ridiculous construction that a scrambled egg–inclusive meal is breakfast even when it occurs at dinnertime.”
“You’ve gotta pick your battles in this world, Hazel,” my mom said. “But if this is the issue you want to champion, we will stand behind you.”
“Quite a bit behind you,” my dad added, and Mom laughed.
Anyway, I knew it was stupid, but I felt kind of bad for scrambled eggs.
After they finished eating, Dad did the dishes and walked us to the car. Of course, he started crying, and he kissed my cheek with his wet stubbly face. He pressed his nose against my cheekbone and whispered, “I love you. I’m so proud of you.” (For what, I wondered.)
“I’ll see you in a few days, okay, sweetie? I love you so much.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” I smiled. “And it’s only three days.”
As we backed out of the driveway, I kept waving at him. He was waving back, and crying. It occurred to me that he was probably thinking he might never see me again, which he probably thought every single morning of his entire weekday life as he left for work, which probably sucked.
Mom and I drove over to Augustus’s house, and when we got there, she wanted me to stay in the car to rest, but I went to the door with her anyway. As we approached the house, I could hear someone crying inside. I didn’t think it was Gus at first, because it didn’t sound anything like the low rumble of his speaking, but then I heard a voice that was definitely a twisted version of his say, “BECAUSE IT IS MY LIFE, MOM. IT BELONGS TO ME.” And quickly my mom put her arm around my shoulders and spun me back toward the car, walking quickly, and I was like, “Mom, what’s wrong?”
And she said, “We can’t eavesdrop, Hazel.”
We got back into the car and I texted Augustus that we were outside whenever he was ready.
We stared at the house for a while. The weird thing about houses is that they almost always look like nothing is happening inside of them, even though they contain most of our lives. I wondered if that was sort of the point of architecture.
“Well,” Mom said after a while, “we are pretty early, I guess.”
“Almost as if I didn’t have to get up at five thirty,” I said. Mom reached down to the console between us, grabbed her coffee mug, and took a sip. My phone buzzed. A text from Augustus.
Just CAN’T decide what to wear. Do you like me better in a polo or a button-down?
Thirty seconds later, the front door opened, and a smiling Augustus appeared, a roller bag behind him. He wore a pressed sky-blue button-down tucked into his jeans. A Camel Light dangled from his lips. My mom got out to say hi to him. He took the cigarette out momentarily and spoke in the confident voice to which I was accustomed. “Always a pleasure to see you, ma’am.”
I watched them through the rearview mirror until Mom opened the trunk. Moments later, Augustus opened a door behind me and engaged in the complicated business of entering the backseat of a car with one leg.
“Do you want shotgun?” I asked.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “And hello, Hazel Grace.”
“Hi,” I said. “Okay?” I asked.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
My mom got in and closed the car door. “Next stop, Amsterdam,” she announced.
Which was not quite true. The next stop was the airport parking lot, and then a bus took us to the terminal, and then an open-air electric car took us to the security line. The TSA guy at the front of the line was shouting about how our bags had better not contain explosives or firearms or anything liquid over three ounces, and I said to Augustus, “Observation: Standing in line is a form of oppression,” and he said, “Seriously.”
Rather than be searched by hand, I chose to walk through the metal detector without my cart or my tank or even the plastic nubbins in my nose. Walking through the X-ray machine marked the first time I’d taken a step without oxygen in some months, and it felt pretty amazing to walk unencumbered like that, stepping across the Rubicon, the machine’s silence acknowledging that I was, however briefly, a nonmetallicized creature.
I felt a bodily sovereignty that I can’t really describe except to say that when I was a kid I used to have a really heavy backpack that I carried everywhere with all my books in it, and if I walked around with the backpack for long enough, when I took it off I felt like I was floating.
After about ten seconds, my lungs felt like they were folding in upon themselves like flowers at dusk. I sat down on a gray bench just past the machine and tried to catch my breath, my cough a rattling drizzle, and I felt pretty miserable until I got the cannula back into place.
Even then, it hurt. The pain was always there, pulling me inside of myself, demanding to be felt. It always felt like I was waking up from the pain when something in the world outside of me suddenly required my comment or attention. Mom was looking at me, concerned. She’d just said something. What had she just said? Then I remembered. She’d asked what was wrong.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Amsterdam!” she half shouted.
I smiled. “Amsterdam,” I answered. She reached her hand down to me and pulled me up.
We got to the gate an hour before our scheduled boarding time. “Mrs. Lancaster, you are an impressively punctual person,” Augustus said as he sat down next to me in the mostly empty gate area.
“Well, it helps that I am not technically very busy,” she said.
“You’re plenty busy,” I told her, although it occurred to me that Mom’s business was mostly me. There was also the business of being married to my dad—he was kind of clueless about, like, banking and hiring plumbers and cooking and doing things other than working for Morris Property, Inc.—but it was mostly me. Her primary reason for living and my primary reason for living were awfully entangled.
As the seats around the gate started to fill, Augustus said, “I’m gonna get a hamburger before we leave. Can I get you anything?”
“No,” I said, “but I really appreciate your refusal to give in to breakfasty social conventions.”
He tilted his head at me, confused. “Hazel has developed an issue with the ghettoization of scrambled eggs,” Mom said.
“It’s embarrassing that we all just walk through life blindly accepting that scrambled eggs are fundamentally associated with mornings.”
“I want to talk about this more,” Augustus said. “But I am starving. I’ll be right back.”
When Augustus hadn’t showed up after twenty minutes, I asked Mom if she thought something was wrong, and she looked up from her awful magazine only long enough to say, “He probably just went to the bathroom or something.”
A gate agent came over and switched my oxygen container out with one provided by the airline. I was embarrassed to have this lady kneeling in front of me while everyone watched, so I texted Augustus while she did it.
He didn’t reply. Mom seemed unconcerned, but I was imagining all kinds of Amsterdam trip–ruining fates (arrest, injury, mental breakdown) and I felt like there was something noncancery wrong with my chest as the minutes ticked away.
And just when the lady behind the ticket counter announced they were going to start preboarding people who might need a bit of extra time and every single person in the gate area turned squarely to me, I saw Augustus fast-limping toward us with a McDonald’s bag in one hand, his backpack slung over his shoulder.
“Where were you?” I asked.
“Line got superlong, sorry,” he said, offering me a hand up. I took it, and we walked side by side to the gate to preboard.
I could feel everybody watching us, wondering what was wrong with us, and whether it would kill us, and how heroic my mom must be, and everything else. That was the worst part about having cancer, sometimes: The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. We were irreconcilably other, and never was it more obvious than when the three of us walked through the empty plane, the stewardess nodding sympathetically and gesturing us toward our row in the distant back. I sat in the middle of our three-person row with Augustus in the window seat and Mom in the aisle. I felt a little hemmed in by Mom, so of course I scooted over toward Augustus. We were right behind the plane’s wing. He opened up his bag and unwrapped his burger.
“The thing about eggs, though,” he said, “is that breakfastization gives the scrambled egg a certain sacrality, right? You can get yourself some bacon or Cheddar cheese anywhere anytime, from tacos to breakfast sandwiches to grilled cheese, but scrambled eggs—they’re important.”
“Ludicrous,” I said. The people were starting to file into the plane now. I didn’t want to look at them, so I looked away, and to look away was to look at Augustus.
“I’m just saying: Maybe scrambled eggs are ghettoized, but they’re also special. They have a place and a time, like church does.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong,” I said. “You are buying into the cross-stitched sentiments of your parents’ throw pillows. You’re arguing that the fragile, rare thing is beautiful simply because it is fragile and rare. But that’s a lie, and you know it.”
“You’re a hard person to comfort,” Augustus said.
“Easy comfort isn’t comforting,” I said. “You were a rare and fragile flower once. You remember.”
For a moment, he said nothing. “You do know how to shut me up, Hazel Grace.”
“It’s my privilege and my responsibility,” I answered.
Before I broke eye contact with him, he said, “Listen, sorry I avoided the gate area. The McDonald’s line wasn’t really that long; I just… I just didn’t want to sit there with all those people looking at us or whatever.”
“At me, mostly,” I said. You could glance at Gus and never know he’d been sick, but I carried my disease with me on the outside, which is part of why I’d become a homebody in the first place. “Augustus Waters, noted charismatist, is embarrassed to sit next to a girl with an oxygen tank.”
“Not embarrassed,” he said. “They just piss me off sometimes. And I don’t want to be pissed off today.” After a minute, he dug into his pocket and flipped open his pack of smokes.
About nine seconds later, a blond stewardess rushed over to our row and said, “Sir, you can’t smoke on this plane. Or any plane.”
“I don’t smoke,” he explained, the cigarette dancing in his mouth as he spoke.
“It’s a metaphor,” I explained. “He puts the killing thing in his mouth but doesn’t give it the power to kill him.”
The stewardess was flummoxed for only a moment. “Well, that metaphor is prohibited on today’s flight,” she said. Gus nodded and rejoined the cigarette to its pack.
We finally taxied out to the runway and the pilot said, Flight attendants, prepare for departure, and then two tremendous jet engines roared to life and we began to accelerate. “This is what it feels like to drive in a car with you,” I said, and he smiled, but kept his jaw clenched tight and I said, “Okay?”
We were picking up speed and suddenly Gus’s hand grabbed the armrest, his eyes wide, and I put my hand on top of his and said, “Okay?” He didn’t say anything, just stared at me wide-eyed, and I said, “Are you scared of flying?”
“I’ll tell you in a minute,” he said. The nose of the plane rose up and we were aloft. Gus stared out the window, watching the planet shrink beneath us, and then I felt his hand relax beneath mine. He glanced at me and then back out the window. “We are flying,” he announced.
“You’ve never been on a plane before?”
He shook his head. “LOOK!” he half shouted, pointing at the window.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I see it. It looks like we’re in an airplane.”
“NOTHING HAS EVER LOOKED LIKE THAT EVER IN ALL OF HUMAN HISTORY,” he said. His enthusiasm was adorable. I couldn’t resist leaning over to kiss him on the cheek.
“Just so you know, I’m right here,” Mom said. “Sitting next to you. Your mother. Who held your hand as you took your first infantile steps.”
“It’s friendly,” I reminded her, turning to kiss her on the cheek.
“Didn’t feel too friendly,” Gus mumbled just loud enough for me to hear. When surprised and excited and innocent Gus emerged from Grand Gesture Metaphorically Inclined Augustus, I literally could not resist.
It was a quick flight to Detroit, where the little electric car met us as we disembarked and drove us to the gate for Amsterdam. That plane had TVs in the back of each seat, and once we were above the clouds, Augustus and I timed it so that we started watching the same romantic comedy at the same time on our respective screens. But even though we were perfectly synchronized in our pressing of the play button, his movie started a couple seconds before mine, so at every funny moment, he’d laugh just as I started to hear whatever the joke was.
* * *
Mom had this big plan that we would sleep for the last several hours of the flight, so when we landed at eight A.M., we’d hit the city ready to suck the marrow out of life or whatever. So after the movie was over, Mom and Augustus and I all took sleeping pills. Mom conked out within seconds, but Augustus and I stayed up to look out the window for a while. It was a clear day, and although we couldn’t see the sun setting, we could see the sky’s response.
“God, that is beautiful,” I said mostly to myself.
“‘The risen sun too bright in her losing eyes,’” he said, a line from An Imperial Affliction.
“But it’s not rising,” I said.
“It’s rising somewhere,” he answered, and then after a moment said, “Observation: It would be awesome to fly in a superfast airplane that could chase the sunrise around the world for a while.”
“Also I’d live longer.” He looked at me askew. “You know, because of relativity or whatever.” He still looked confused. “We age slower when we move quickly versus standing still. So right now time is passing slower for us than for people on the ground.”
“College chicks,” he said. “They’re so smart.”
I rolled my eyes. He hit his (real) knee with my knee and I hit his knee back with mine. “Are you sleepy?” I asked him.
“Not at all,” he answered.
“Yeah,” I said. “Me neither.” Sleeping meds and narcotics didn’t do for me what they did for normal people.
“Want to watch another movie?” he asked. “They’ve got a Portman movie from her Hazel Era.”
“I want to watch something you haven’t seen.”
In the end we watched 300, a war movie about 300 Spartans who protect Sparta from an invading army of like a billion Persians. Augustus’s movie started before mine again, and after a few minutes of hearing him go, “Dang!” or “Fatality!” every time someone was killed in some badass way, I leaned over the armrest and put my head on his shoulder so I could see his screen and we could actually watch the movie together.
300 featured a sizable collection of shirtless and well-oiled strapping young lads, so it was not particularly difficult on the eyes, but it was mostly a lot of sword wielding to no real effect. The bodies of the Persians and the Spartans piled up, and I couldn’t quite figure out why the Persians were so evil or the Spartans so awesome. “Contemporaneity,” to quote AIA, “specializes in the kind of battles wherein no one loses anything of any value, except arguably their lives.” And so it was with these titans clashing.
Toward the end of the movie, almost everyone is dead, and there is this insane moment when the Spartans start stacking the bodies of the dead up to form a wall of corpses. The dead become this massive roadblock standing between the Persians and the road to Sparta. I found the gore a bit gratuitous, so I looked away for a second, asking Augustus, “How many dead people do you think there are?”
He dismissed me with a wave. “Shh. Shh. This is getting awesome.”
When the Persians attacked, they had to climb up the wall of death, and the Spartans were able to occupy the high ground atop the corpse mountain, and as the bodies piled up, the wall of martyrs only became higher and therefore harder to climb, and everybody swung swords/shot arrows, and the rivers of blood poured down Mount Death, etc.
I took my head off his shoulder for a moment to get a break from the gore and watched Augustus watch the movie. He couldn’t contain his goofy grin. I watched my own screen through squinted eyes as the mountain grew with the bodies of Persians and Spartans. When the Persians finally overran the Spartans, I looked over at Augustus again. Even though the good guys had just lost, Augustus seemed downright joyful. I nuzzled up to him again, but kept my eyes closed until the battle was finished.
As the credits rolled, he took off his headphones and said, “Sorry, I was awash in the nobility of sacrifice. What were you saying?”
“How many dead people do you think there are?”
“Like, how many fictional people died in that fictional movie? Not enough,” he joked.
“No, I mean, like, ever. Like, how many people do you think have ever died?”
“I happen to know the answer to that question,” he said. “There are seven billion living people, and about ninety-eight billion dead people.”
“Oh,” I said. I’d thought that maybe since population growth had been so fast, there were more people alive than all the dead combined.
“There are about fourteen dead people for every living person,” he said. The credits continued rolling. It took a long time to identify all those corpses, I guess. My head was still on his shoulder. “I did some research on this a couple years ago,” Augustus continued. “I was wondering if everybody could be remembered. Like, if we got organized, and assigned a certain number of corpses to each living person, would there be enough living people to remember all the dead people?”
“And are there?”
“Sure, anyone can name fourteen dead people. But we’re disorganized mourners, so a lot of people end up remembering Shakespeare, and no one ends up remembering the person he wrote Sonnet Fifty-five about.”
“Yeah,” I said.
It was quiet for a minute, and then he asked, “You want to read or something?” I said sure. I was reading this long poem called Howl by Allen Ginsberg for my poetry class, and Gus was rereading An Imperial Affliction.
After a while he said, “Is it any good?”
“The poem?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s great. The guys in this poem take even more drugs than I do. How’s AIA?”
“Still perfect,” he said. “Read to me.”
“This isn’t really a poem to read aloud when you are sitting next to your sleeping mother. It has, like, sodomy and angel dust in it,” I said.
“You just named two of my favorite pastimes,” he said. “Okay, read me something else then?”
“Um,” I said. “I don’t have anything else?”
“That’s too bad. I am so in the mood for poetry. Do you have anything memorized?”
“‘Let us go then, you and I,’” I started nervously, “‘When the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table.’”
“Slower,” he said.
I felt bashful, like I had when I’d first told him of An Imperial Affliction. “Um, okay. Okay. ‘Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, / The muttering retreats / Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels / And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: / Streets that follow like a tedious argument / Of insidious intent / To lead you to an overwhelming question… / Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.’”
“I’m in love with you,” he said quietly.
“Augustus,” I said.
“I am,” he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
“Augustus,” I said again, not knowing what else to say. It felt like everything was rising up in me, like I was drowning in this weirdly painful joy, but I couldn’t say it back. I couldn’t say anything back. I just looked at him and let him look at me until he nodded, lips pursed, and turned away, placing the side of his head against the window.