The fault in our stars (Chapter 11)
I think he must have fallen asleep. I did, eventually, and woke to the landing gear coming down. My mouth tasted horrible, and I tried to keep it shut for fear of poisoning the airplane.
I looked over at Augustus, who was staring out the window, and as we dipped below the low-hung clouds, I straightened my back to see the Netherlands. The land seemed sunk into the ocean, little rectangles of green surrounded on all sides by canals. We landed, in fact, parallel to a canal, like there were two runways: one for us and one for waterfowl.
After getting our bags and clearing customs, we all piled into a taxi driven by this doughy bald guy who spoke perfect English—like better English than I do. “The Hotel Filosoof?” I said.
And he said, “You are Americans?”
“Yes,” Mom said. “We’re from Indiana.”
“Indiana,” he said. “They steal the land from the Indians and leave the name, yes?”
“Something like that,” Mom said. The cabbie pulled out into traffic and we headed toward a highway with lots of blue signs featuring double vowels: Oosthuizen, Haarlem. Beside the highway, flat empty land stretched for miles, interrupted by the occasional huge corporate headquarters. In short, Holland looked like Indianapolis, only with smaller cars. “This is Amsterdam?” I asked the cabdriver.
“Yes and no,” he answered. “Amsterdam is like the rings of a tree: It gets older as you get closer to the center.”
It happened all at once: We exited the highway and there were the row houses of my imagination leaning precariously toward canals, ubiquitous bicycles, and coffeeshops advertising LARGE SMOKING ROOM. We drove over a canal and from atop the bridge I could see dozens of houseboats moored along the water. It looked nothing like America. It looked like an old painting, but real—everything achingly idyllic in the morning light—and I thought about how wonderfully strange it would be to live in a place where almost everything had been built by the dead.
“Are these houses very old?” asked my mom.
“Many of the canal houses date from the Golden Age, the seventeenth century,” he said. “Our city has a rich history, even though many tourists are only wanting to see the Red Light District.” He paused. “Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”
All the rooms in the Hotel Filosoof were named after filosoofers: Mom and I were staying on the ground floor in the Kierkegaard; Augustus was on the floor above us, in the Heidegger. Our room was small: a double bed pressed against a wall with my BiPAP machine, an oxygen concentrator, and a dozen refillable oxygen tanks at the foot of the bed. Past the equipment, there was a dusty old paisley chair with a sagging seat, a desk, and a bookshelf above the bed containing the collected works of Søren Kierkegaard. On the desk we found a wicker basket full of presents from the Genies: wooden shoes, an orange Holland T-shirt, chocolates, and various other goodies.
The Filosoof was right next to the Vondelpark, Amsterdam’s most famous park. Mom wanted to go on a walk, but I was supertired, so she got the BiPAP working and placed its snout on me. I hated talking with that thing on, but I said, “Just go to the park and I’ll call you when I wake up.”
“Okay,” she said. “Sleep tight, honey.”
But when I woke up some hours later, she was sitting in the ancient little chair in the corner, reading a guidebook.
“Morning,” I said.
“Actually late afternoon,” she answered, pushing herself out of the chair with a sigh. She came to the bed, placed a tank in the cart, and connected it to the tube while I took off the BiPAP snout and placed the nubbins into my nose. She set it for 2.5 liters a minute—six hours before I’d need a change—and then I got up. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“Good,” I said. “Great. How was the Vondelpark?”
“I skipped it,” she said. “Read all about it in the guidebook, though.”
“Mom,” I said, “you didn’t have to stay here.”
She shrugged. “I know. I wanted to. I like watching you sleep.”
“Said the creeper.” She laughed, but I still felt bad. “I just want you to have fun or whatever, you know?”
“Okay. I’ll have fun tonight, okay? I’ll go do crazy mom stuff while you and Augustus go to dinner.”
“Without you?” I asked.
“Yes without me. In fact, you have reservations at a place called Oranjee,” she said. “Mr. Van Houten’s assistant set it up. It’s in this neighborhood called the Jordaan. Very fancy, according to the guidebook. There’s a tram station right around the corner. Augustus has directions. You can eat outside, watch the boats go by. It’ll be lovely. Very romantic.”
“I’m just saying,” she said. “You should get dressed. The sundress, maybe?”
One might marvel at the insanity of the situation: A mother sends her sixteen-year-old daughter alone with a seventeen-year-old boy out into a foreign city famous for its permissiveness. But this, too, was a side effect of dying: I could not run or dance or eat foods rich in nitrogen, but in the city of freedom, I was among the most liberated of its residents.
I did indeed wear the sundress—this blue print, flowey knee-length Forever 21 thing—with tights and Mary Janes because I liked being quite a lot shorter than him. I went into the hilariously tiny bathroom and battled my bedhead for a while until everything looked suitably mid-2000s Natalie Portman. At six P.M. on the dot (noon back home), there was a knock.
“Hello?” I said through the door. There was no peephole at the Hotel Filosoof.
“Okay,” Augustus answered. I could hear the cigarette in his mouth. I looked down at myself. The sundress offered the most in the way of my rib cage and collarbone that Augustus had seen. It wasn’t obscene or anything, but it was as close as I ever got to showing some skin. (My mother had a motto on this front that I agreed with: “Lancasters don’t bare midriffs.”)
I pulled the door open. Augustus wore a black suit, narrow lapels, perfectly tailored, over a light blue dress shirt and a thin black tie. A cigarette dangled from the unsmiling corner of his mouth. “Hazel Grace,” he said, “you look gorgeous.”
“I,” I said. I kept thinking the rest of my sentence would emerge from the air passing through my vocal cords, but nothing happened. Then finally, I said, “I feel underdressed.”
“Ah, this old thing?” he said, smiling down at me.
“Augustus,” my mom said behind me, “you look extremely handsome.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. He offered me his arm. I took it, glancing back to Mom.
“See you by eleven,” she said.
Waiting for the number one tram on a wide street busy with traffic, I said to Augustus, “The suit you wear to funerals, I assume?”
“Actually, no,” he said. “That suit isn’t nearly this nice.”
The blue-and-white tram arrived, and Augustus handed our cards to the driver, who explained that we needed to wave them at this circular sensor. As we walked through the crowded tram, an old man stood up to give us seats together, and I tried to tell him to sit, but he gestured toward the seat insistently. We rode the tram for three stops, me leaning over Gus so we could look out the window together.
Augustus pointed up at the trees and asked, “Do you see that?”
I did. There were elm trees everywhere along the canals, and these seeds were blowing out of them. But they didn’t look like seeds. They looked for all the world like miniaturized rose petals drained of their color. These pale petals were gathering in the wind like flocking birds—thousands of them, like a spring snowstorm.
The old man who’d given up his seat saw us noticing and said, in English, “Amsterdam’s spring snow. The iepen throw confetti to greet the spring.”
We switched trams, and after four more stops we arrived at a street split by a beautiful canal, the reflections of the ancient bridge and picturesque canal houses rippling in water.
Oranjee was just steps from the tram. The restaurant was on one side of the street; the outdoor seating on the other, on a concrete outcropping right at the edge of the canal. The hostess’s eyes lit up as Augustus and I walked toward her. “Mr. and Mrs. Waters?”
“I guess?” I said.
“Your table,” she said, gesturing across the street to a narrow table inches from the canal. “The champagne is our gift.”
Gus and I glanced at each other, smiling. Once we’d crossed the street, he pulled out a seat for me and helped me scoot it back in. There were indeed two flutes of champagne at our white-tableclothed table. The slight chill in the air was balanced magnificently by the sunshine; on one side of us, cyclists pedaled past—well-dressed men and women on their way home from work, improbably attractive blond girls riding sidesaddle on the back of a friend’s bike, tiny helmetless kids bouncing around in plastic seats behind their parents. And on our other side, the canal water was choked with millions of the confetti seeds. Little boats were moored at the brick banks, half full of rainwater, some of them near sinking. A bit farther down the canal, I could see houseboats floating on pontoons, and in the middle of the canal, an open-air, flat-bottomed boat decked out with lawn chairs and a portable stereo idled toward us. Augustus took his flute of champagne and raised it. I took mine, even though I’d never had a drink aside from sips of my dad’s beer.
“Okay,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, and we clinked glasses. I took a sip. The tiny bubbles melted in my mouth and journeyed northward into my brain. Sweet. Crisp. Delicious. “That is really good,” I said. “I’ve never drunk champagne.”
A sturdy young waiter with wavy blond hair appeared. He was maybe even taller than Augustus. “Do you know,” he asked in a delicious accent, “what Dom Pérignon said after inventing champagne?”
“No?” I said.
“He called out to his fellow monks, ‘Come quickly: I am tasting the stars.’ Welcome to Amsterdam. Would you like to see a menu, or will you have the chef’s choice?”
I looked at Augustus and he at me. “The chef’s choice sounds lovely, but Hazel is a vegetarian.” I’d mentioned this to Augustus precisely once, on the first day we met.
“This is not a problem,” the waiter said.
“Awesome. And can we get more of this?” Gus asked, of the champagne.
“Of course,” said our waiter. “We have bottled all the stars this evening, my young friends. Gah, the confetti!” he said, and lightly brushed a seed from my bare shoulder. “It hasn’t been so bad in many years. It’s everywhere. Very annoying.”
The waiter disappeared. We watched the confetti fall from the sky, skip across the ground in the breeze, and tumble into the canal. “Kind of hard to believe anyone could ever find that annoying,” Augustus said after a while.
“People always get used to beauty, though.”
“I haven’t gotten used to you just yet,” he answered, smiling. I felt myself blushing. “Thank you for coming to Amsterdam,” he said.
“Thank you for letting me hijack your wish,” I said.
“Thank you for wearing that dress which is like whoa,” he said. I shook my head, trying not to smile at him. I didn’t want to be a grenade. But then again, he knew what he was doing, didn’t he? It was his choice, too. “Hey, how’s that poem end?” he asked.
“The one you recited to me on the plane.”
“Oh, ‘Prufrock’? It ends, ‘We have lingered in the chambers of the sea / By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown / Till human voices wake us, and we drown.’”
Augustus pulled out a cigarette and tapped the filter against the table. “Stupid human voices always ruining everything.”
The waiter arrived with two more glasses of champagne and what he called “Belgian white asparagus with a lavender infusion.”
“I’ve never had champagne either,” Gus said after he left. “In case you were wondering or whatever. Also, I’ve never had white asparagus.”
I was chewing my first bite. “It’s amazing,” I promised.
He took a bite, swallowed. “God. If asparagus tasted like that all the time, I’d be a vegetarian, too.” Some people in a lacquered wooden boat approached us on the canal below. One of them, a woman with curly blond hair, maybe thirty, drank from a beer then raised her glass toward us and shouted something.
“We don’t speak Dutch,” Gus shouted back.
One of the others shouted a translation: “The beautiful couple is beautiful.”
The food was so good that with each passing course, our conversation devolved further into fragmented celebrations of its deliciousness: “I want this dragon carrot risotto to become a person so I can take it to Las Vegas and marry it.” “Sweet-pea sorbet, you are so unexpectedly magnificent.” I wish I’d been hungrier.
After green garlic gnocchi with red mustard leaves, the waiter said, “Dessert next. More stars first?” I shook my head. Two glasses was enough for me. Champagne was no exception to my high tolerance for depressants and pain relievers; I felt warm but not intoxicated. But I didn’t want to get drunk. Nights like this one didn’t come along often, and I wanted to remember it.
“Mmmm,” I said after the waiter left, and Augustus smiled crookedly as he stared down the canal while I stared up it. We had plenty to look at, so the silence didn’t feel awkward really, but I wanted everything to be perfect. It was perfect, I guess, but it felt like someone had tried to stage the Amsterdam of my imagination, which made it hard to forget that this dinner, like the trip itself, was a cancer perk. I just wanted us to be talking and joking comfortably, like we were on the couch together back home, but some tension underlay everything.
“It’s not my funeral suit,” he said after a while. “When I first found out I was sick—I mean, they told me I had like an eighty-five percent chance of cure. I know those are great odds, but I kept thinking it was a game of Russian roulette. I mean, I was going to have to go through hell for six months or a year and lose my leg and then at the end, it still might not work, you know?”
“I know,” I said, although I didn’t, not really. I’d never been anything but terminal; all my treatment had been in pursuit of extending my life, not curing my cancer. Phalanxifor had introduced a measure of ambiguity to my cancer story, but I was different from Augustus: My final chapter was written upon diagnosis. Gus, like most cancer survivors, lived with uncertainty.
“Right,” he said. “So I went through this whole thing about wanting to be ready. We bought a plot in Crown Hill, and I walked around with my dad one day and picked out a spot. And I had my whole funeral planned out and everything, and then right before the surgery, I asked my parents if I could buy a suit, like a really nice suit, just in case I bit it. Anyway, I’ve never had occasion to wear it. Until tonight.”
“So it’s your death suit.”
“Correct. Don’t you have a death outfit?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s a dress I bought for my fifteenth birthday party. But I don’t wear it on dates.”
His eyes lit up. “We’re on a date?” he asked.
I looked down, feeling bashful. “Don’t push it.”
We were both really full, but dessert—a succulently rich crémeux surrounded by passion fruit—was too good not to at least nibble, so we lingered for a while over dessert, trying to get hungry again. The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light.
Out of nowhere, Augustus asked, “Do you believe in an afterlife?”
“I think forever is an incorrect concept,” I answered.
He smirked. “You’re an incorrect concept.”
“I know. That’s why I’m being taken out of the rotation.”
“That’s not funny,” he said, looking at the street. Two girls passed on a bike, one riding sidesaddle over the back wheel.
“Come on,” I said. “That was a joke.”
“The thought of you being removed from the rotation is not funny to me,” he said. “Seriously, though: afterlife?”
“No,” I said, and then revised. “Well, maybe I wouldn’t go so far as no. You?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice full of confidence. “Yes, absolutely. Not like a heaven where you ride unicorns, play harps, and live in a mansion made of clouds. But yes. I believe in Something with a capital S. Always have.”
“Really?” I asked. I was surprised. I’d always associated belief in heaven with, frankly, a kind of intellectual disengagement. But Gus wasn’t dumb.
“Yeah,” he said quietly. “I believe in that line from An Imperial Affliction. ‘The risen sun too bright in her losing eyes.’ That’s God, I think, the rising sun, and the light is too bright and her eyes are losing but they aren’t lost. I don’t believe we return to haunt or comfort the living or anything, but I think something becomes of us.”
“But you fear oblivion.”
“Sure, I fear earthly oblivion. But, I mean, not to sound like my parents, but I believe humans have souls, and I believe in the conservation of souls. The oblivion fear is something else, fear that I won’t be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don’t live a life in service of a greater good, you’ve gotta at least die a death in service of a greater good, you know? And I fear that I won’t get either a life or a death that means anything.”
I just shook my head.
“What?” he asked.
“Your obsession with, like, dying for something or leaving behind some great sign of your heroism or whatever. It’s just weird.”
“Everyone wants to lead an extraordinary life.”
“Not everyone,” I said, unable to disguise my annoyance.
“Are you mad?”
“It’s just,” I said, and then couldn’t finish my sentence. “Just,” I said again. Between us flickered the candle. “It’s really mean of you to say that the only lives that matter are the ones that are lived for something or die for something. That’s a really mean thing to say to me.”
I felt like a little kid for some reason, and I took a bite of dessert to make it appear like it was not that big of a deal to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean it like that. I was just thinking about myself.”
“Yeah, you were,” I said. I was too full to finish. I worried I might puke, actually, because I often puked after eating. (Not bulimia, just cancer.) I pushed my dessert plate toward Gus, but he shook his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, reaching across the table for my hand. I let him take it. “I could be worse, you know.”
“How?” I asked, teasing.
“I mean, I have a work of calligraphy over my toilet that reads, ‘Bathe Yourself Daily in the Comfort of God’s Words,’ Hazel. I could be way worse.”
“Sounds unsanitary,” I said.
“I could be worse.”
“You could be worse.” I smiled. He really did like me. Maybe I was a narcissist or something, but when I realized it there in that moment at Oranjee, it made me like him even more.
When our waiter appeared to take dessert away, he said, “Your meal has been paid for by Mr. Peter Van Houten.”
Augustus smiled. “This Peter Van Houten fellow ain’t half bad.”
We walked along the canal as it got dark. A block up from Oranjee, we stopped at a park bench surrounded by old rusty bicycles locked to bike racks and to each other. We sat down hip to hip facing the canal, and he put his arm around me.
I could see the halo of light coming from the Red Light District. Even though it was the Red Light District, the glow coming from up there was an eerie sort of green. I imagined thousands of tourists getting drunk and stoned and pinballing around the narrow streets.
“I can’t believe he’s going to tell us tomorrow,” I said. “Peter Van Houten is going to tell us the famously unwritten end of the best book ever.”
“Plus he paid for our dinner,” Augustus said.
“I keep imagining that he is going to search us for recording devices before he tells us. And then he will sit down between us on the couch in his living room and whisper whether Anna’s mom married the Dutch Tulip Man.”
“Don’t forget Sisyphus the Hamster,” Augustus added.
“Right, and also of course what fate awaited Sisyphus the Hamster.” I leaned forward, to see into the canal. There were so many of those pale elm petals in the canals, it was ridiculous. “A sequel that will exist just for us,” I said.
“So what’s your guess?” he asked.
“I really don’t know. I’ve gone back and forth like a thousand times about it all. Each time I reread it, I think something different, you know?” He nodded. “You have a theory?”
“Yeah. I don’t think the Dutch Tulip Man is a con man, but he’s also not rich like he leads them to believe. And I think after Anna dies, Anna’s mom goes to Holland with him and thinks they will live there forever, but it doesn’t work out, because she wants to be near where her daughter was.”
I hadn’t realized he’d thought about the book so much, that An Imperial Affliction mattered to Gus independently of me mattering to him.
The water lapped quietly at the stone canal walls beneath us; a group of friends biked past in a clump, shouting over each other in rapid-fire, guttural Dutch; the tiny boats, not much longer than me, half drowned in the canal; the smell of water that had stood too still for too long; his arm pulling me in; his real leg against my real leg all the way from hip to foot. I leaned in to his body a little. He winced. “Sorry, you okay?”
He breathed out a yeah in obvious pain.
“Sorry,” I said. “Bony shoulder.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Nice, actually.”
We sat there for a long time. Eventually his hand abandoned my shoulder and rested against the back of the park bench. Mostly we just stared into the canal. I was thinking a lot about how they’d made this place exist even though it should’ve been underwater, and how I was for Dr. Maria a kind of Amsterdam, a half-drowned anomaly, and that made me think about dying. “Can I ask you about Caroline Mathers?”
“And you say there’s no afterlife,” he answered without looking at me. “But yeah, of course. What do you want to know?”
I wanted to know that he would be okay if I died. I wanted to not be a grenade, to not be a malevolent force in the lives of people I loved. “Just, like, what happened.”
He sighed, exhaling for so long that to my crap lungs it seemed like he was bragging. He popped a fresh cigarette into his mouth. “You know how there is famously no place less played in than a hospital playground?” I nodded. “Well, I was at Memorial for a couple weeks when they took off the leg and everything. I was up on the fifth floor and I had a view of the playground, which was always of course utterly desolate. I was all awash in the metaphorical resonance of the empty playground in the hospital courtyard. But then this girl started showing up alone at the playground, every day, swinging on a swing completely alone, like you’d see in a movie or something. So I asked one of my nicer nurses to get the skinny on the girl, and the nurse brought her up to visit, and it was Caroline, and I used my immense charisma to win her over.” He paused, so I decided to say something.
“You’re not that charismatic,” I said. He scoffed, disbelieving. “You’re mostly just hot,” I explained.
He laughed it off. “The thing about dead people,” he said, and then stopped himself. “The thing is you sound like a bastard if you don’t romanticize them, but the truth is… complicated, I guess. Like, you are familiar with the trope of the stoic and determined cancer victim who heroically fights her cancer with inhuman strength and never complains or stops smiling even at the very end, etcetera?”
“Indeed,” I said. “They are kindhearted and generous souls whose every breath is an Inspiration to Us All. They’re so strong! We admire them so!”
“Right, but really, I mean aside from us obviously, cancer kids are not statistically more likely to be awesome or compassionate or perseverant or whatever. Caroline was always moody and miserable, but I liked it. I liked feeling as if she had chosen me as the only person in the world not to hate, and so we spent all this time together just ragging on everyone, you know? Ragging on the nurses and the other kids and our families and whatever else. But I don’t know if that was her or the tumor. I mean, one of her nurses told me once that the kind of tumor Caroline had is known among medical types as the Asshole Tumor, because it just turns you into a monster. So here’s this girl missing a fifth of her brain who’s just had a recurrence of the Asshole Tumor, and so she was not, you know, the paragon of stoic cancer-kid heroism. She was… I mean, to be honest, she was a bitch. But you can’t say that, because she had this tumor, and also she’s, I mean, she’s dead. And she had plenty of reason to be unpleasant, you know?”
“You know that part in An Imperial Affliction when Anna’s walking across the football field to go to PE or whatever and she falls and goes face-first into the grass and that’s when she knows that the cancer is back and in her nervous system and she can’t get up and her face is like an inch from the football-field grass and she’s just stuck there looking at this grass up close, noticing the way the light hits it and… I don’t remember the line but it’s something like Anna having the Whitmanesque revelation that the definition of humanness is the opportunity to marvel at the majesty of creation or whatever. You know that part?”
“I know that part,” I said.
“So afterward, while I was getting eviscerated by chemo, for some reason I decided to feel really hopeful. Not about survival specifically, but I felt like Anna does in the book, that feeling of excitement and gratitude about just being able to marvel at it all.
“But meanwhile Caroline got worse every day. She went home after a while and there were moments where I thought we could have, like, a regular relationship, but we couldn’t, really, because she had no filter between her thoughts and her speech, which was sad and unpleasant and frequently hurtful. But, I mean, you can’t dump a girl with a brain tumor. And her parents liked me, and she has this little brother who is a really cool kid. I mean, how can you dump her? She’s dying.
“It took forever. It took almost a year, and it was a year of me hanging out with this girl who would, like, just start laughing out of nowhere and point at my prosthetic and call me Stumpy.”
“No,” I said.
“Yeah. I mean, it was the tumor. It ate her brain, you know? Or it wasn’t the tumor. I have no way of knowing, because they were inseparable, she and the tumor. But as she got sicker, I mean, she’d just repeat the same stories and laugh at her own comments even if she’d already said the same thing a hundred times that day. Like, she made the same joke over and over again for weeks: ‘Gus has great legs. I mean leg.’ And then she would just laugh like a maniac.”
“Oh, Gus,” I said. “That’s…” I didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t looking at me, and it felt invasive of me to look at him. I felt him scoot forward. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and stared at it, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger, then put it back.
“Well,” he said, “to be fair, I do have great leg.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s all good, Hazel Grace. But just to be clear, when I thought I saw Caroline Mathers’s ghost in Support Group, I was not entirely happy. I was staring, but I wasn’t yearning, if you know what I mean.” He pulled the pack out of his pocket and placed the cigarette back in it.
“I’m sorry,” I said again.
“Me too,” he said.
“I don’t ever want to do that to you,” I told him.
“Oh, I wouldn’t mind, Hazel Grace. It would be a privilege to have my heart broken by you.”