The fault in our stars (Chapter 12)
I woke up at four in the Dutch morning ready for the day. All attempts to go back to sleep failed, so I lay there with the BiPAP pumping the air in and urging it out, enjoying the dragon sounds but wishing I could choose my breaths.
I reread An Imperial Affliction until Mom woke up and rolled over toward me around six. She nuzzled her head against my shoulder, which felt uncomfortable and vaguely Augustinian.
The hotel brought a breakfast to our room that, much to my delight, featured deli meat among many other denials of American breakfast constructions. The dress I’d planned to wear to meet Peter Van Houten had been moved up in the rotation for the Oranjee dinner, so after I showered and got my hair to lie halfway flat, I spent like thirty minutes debating with Mom the various benefits and drawbacks of the available outfits before deciding to dress as much like Anna in AIA as possible: Chuck Taylors and dark jeans like she always wore, and a light blue T-shirt.
The shirt was a screen print of a famous Surrealist artwork by René Magritte in which he drew a pipe and then beneath it wrote in cursive Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (“This is not a pipe.”)
“I just don’t get that shirt,” Mom said.
“Peter Van Houten will get it, trust me. There are like seven thousand Magritte references in An Imperial Affliction.”
“But it is a pipe.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. “It’s a drawing of a pipe. Get it? All representations of a thing are inherently abstract. It’s very clever.”
“How did you get so grown up that you understand things that confuse your ancient mother?” Mom asked. “It seems like just yesterday that I was telling seven-year-old Hazel why the sky was blue. You thought I was a genius back then.”
“Why is the sky blue?” I asked.
“Cuz,” she answered. I laughed.
As it got closer to ten, I grew more and more nervous: nervous to see Augustus; nervous to meet Peter Van Houten; nervous that my outfit was not a good outfit; nervous that we wouldn’t find the right house since all the houses in Amsterdam looked pretty similar; nervous that we would get lost and never make it back to the Filosoof; nervous nervous nervous. Mom kept trying to talk to me, but I couldn’t really listen. I was about to ask her to go upstairs and make sure Augustus was up when he knocked.
I opened the door. He looked down at the shirt and smiled. “Funny,” he said.
“Don’t call my boobs funny,” I answered.
“Right here,” Mom said behind us. But I’d made Augustus blush and put him enough off his game that I could finally bear to look up at him.
“You sure you don’t want to come?” I asked Mom.
“I’m going to the Rijksmuseum and the Vondelpark today,” she said. “Plus, I just don’t get his book. No offense. Thank him and Lidewij for us, okay?”
“Okay,” I said. I hugged Mom, and she kissed my head just above my ear.
Peter Van Houten’s white row house was just around the corner from the hotel, on the Vondelstraat, facing the park. Number 158. Augustus took me by one arm and grabbed the oxygen cart with the other, and we walked up the three steps to the lacquered blue-black front door. My heart pounded. One closed door away from the answers I’d dreamed of ever since I first read that last unfinished page.
Inside, I could hear a bass beat thumping loud enough to rattle the windowsills. I wondered whether Peter Van Houten had a kid who liked rap music.
I grabbed the lion’s-head door knocker and knocked tentatively. The beat continued. “Maybe he can’t hear over the music?” Augustus asked. He grabbed the lion’s head and knocked much louder.
The music disappeared, replaced by shuffled footsteps. A dead bolt slid. Another. The door creaked open. A potbellied man with thin hair, sagging jowls, and a week-old beard squinted into the sunlight. He wore baby-blue man pajamas like guys in old movies. His face and belly were so round, and his arms so skinny, that he looked like a dough ball with four sticks stuck into it. “Mr. Van Houten?” Augustus asked, his voice squeaking a bit.
The door slammed shut. Behind it, I heard a stammering, reedy voice shout, “LEEE-DUH-VIGH!” (Until then, I’d pronounced his assistant’s name like lid-uh-widge.)
We could hear everything through the door. “Are they here, Peter?” a woman asked.
“There are—Lidewij, there are two adolescent apparitions outside the door.”
“Apparitions?” she asked with a pleasant Dutch lilt.
Van Houten answered in a rush. “Phantasms specters ghouls visitants post-terrestrials apparitions, Lidewij. How can someone pursuing a postgraduate degree in American literature display such abominable English-language skills?”
“Peter, those are not post-terrestrials. They are Augustus and Hazel, the young fans with whom you have been corresponding.”
“They are—what? They—I thought they were in America!”
“Yes, but you invited them here, you will remember.”
“Do you know why I left America, Lidewij? So that I would never again have to encounter Americans.”
“But you are an American.”
“Incurably so, it seems. But as to these Americans, you must tell them to leave at once, that there has been a terrible mistake, that the blessed Van Houten was making a rhetorical offer to meet, not an actual one, that such offers must be read symbolically.”
I thought I might throw up. I looked over at Augustus, who was staring intently at the door, and saw his shoulders slacken.
“I will not do this, Peter,” answered Lidewij. “You must meet them. You must. You need to see them. You need to see how your work matters.”
“Lidewij, did you knowingly deceive me to arrange this?”
A long silence ensued, and then finally the door opened again. He turned his head metronomically from Augustus to me, still squinting. “Which of you is Augustus Waters?” he asked. Augustus raised his hand tentatively. Van Houten nodded and said, “Did you close the deal with that chick yet?”
Whereupon I encountered for the first and only time a truly speechless Augustus Waters. “I,” he started, “um, I, Hazel, um. Well.”
“This boy appears to have some kind of developmental delay,” Peter Van Houten said to Lidewij.
“Peter,” she scolded.
“Well,” Peter Van Houten said, extending his hand to me. “It is at any rate a pleasure to meet such ontologically improbable creatures.” I shook his swollen hand, and then he shook hands with Augustus. I was wondering what ontologically meant. Regardless, I liked it. Augustus and I were together in the Improbable Creatures Club: us and duck-billed platypuses.
Of course, I had hoped that Peter Van Houten would be sane, but the world is not a wish-granting factory. The important thing was that the door was open and I was crossing the threshold to learn what happens after the end of An Imperial Affliction. That was enough. We followed him and Lidewij inside, past a huge oak dining room table with only two chairs, into a creepily sterile living room. It looked like a museum, except there was no art on the empty white walls. Aside from one couch and one lounge chair, both a mix of steel and black leather, the room seemed empty. Then I noticed two large black garbage bags, full and twist-tied, behind the couch.
“Trash?” I mumbled to Augustus soft enough that I thought no one else would hear.
“Fan mail,” Van Houten answered as he sat down in the lounge chair. “Eighteen years’ worth of it. Can’t open it. Terrifying. Yours are the first missives to which I have replied, and look where that got me. I frankly find the reality of readers wholly unappetizing.”
That explained why he’d never replied to my letters: He’d never read them. I wondered why he kept them at all, let alone in an otherwise empty formal living room. Van Houten kicked his feet up onto the ottoman and crossed his slippers. He motioned toward the couch. Augustus and I sat down next to each other, but not too next.
“Would you care for some breakfast?” asked Lidewij.
I started to say that we’d already eaten when Peter interrupted. “It is far too early for breakfast, Lidewij.”
“Well, they are from America, Peter, so it is past noon in their bodies.”
“Then it’s too late for breakfast,” he said. “However, it being after noon in the body and whatnot, we should enjoy a cocktail. Do you drink Scotch?” he asked me.
“Do I—um, no, I’m fine,” I said.
“Augustus Waters?” Van Houten asked, nodding toward Gus.
“Uh, I’m good.”
“Just me, then, Lidewij. Scotch and water, please.” Peter turned his attention to Gus, asking, “You know how we make a Scotch and water in this home?”
“No, sir,” Gus said.
“We pour Scotch into a glass and then call to mind thoughts of water, and then we mix the actual Scotch with the abstracted idea of water.”
Lidewij said, “Perhaps a bit of breakfast first, Peter.”
He looked toward us and stage-whispered, “She thinks I have a drinking problem.”
“And I think that the sun has risen,” Lidewij responded. Nonetheless, she turned to the bar in the living room, reached up for a bottle of Scotch, and poured a glass half full. She carried it to him. Peter Van Houten took a sip, then sat up straight in his chair. “A drink this good deserves one’s best posture,” he said.
I became conscious of my own posture and sat up a little on the couch. I rearranged my cannula. Dad always told me that you can judge people by the way they treat waiters and assistants. By this measure, Peter Van Houten was possibly the world’s douchiest douche. “So you like my book,” he said to Augustus after another sip.
“Yeah,” I said, speaking up on Augustus’s behalf. “And yes, we—well, Augustus, he made meeting you his Wish so that we could come here, so that you could tell us what happens after the end of An Imperial Affliction.”
Van Houten said nothing, just took a long pull on his drink.
After a minute, Augustus said, “Your book is sort of the thing that brought us together.”
“But you aren’t together,” he observed without looking at me.
“The thing that brought us nearly together,” I said.
Now he turned to me. “Did you dress like her on purpose?”
“Anna?” I asked.
He just kept staring at me.
“Kind of,” I said.
He took a long drink, then grimaced. “I do not have a drinking problem,” he announced, his voice needlessly loud. “I have a Churchillian relationship with alcohol: I can crack jokes and govern England and do anything I want to do. Except not drink.” He glanced over at Lidewij and nodded toward his glass. She took it, then walked back to the bar. “Just the idea of water, Lidewij,” he instructed.
“Yah, got it,” she said, the accent almost American.
The second drink arrived. Van Houten’s spine stiffened again out of respect. He kicked off his slippers. He had really ugly feet. He was rather ruining the whole business of authorial genius for me. But he had the answers.
“Well, um,” I said, “first, we do want to say thank you for dinner last night and—”
“We bought them dinner last night?” Van Houten asked Lidewij.
“Yes, at Oranjee.”
“Ah, yes. Well, believe me when I say that you do not have me to thank but rather Lidewij, who is exceptionally talented in the field of spending my money.”
“It was our pleasure,” Lidewij said.
“Well, thanks, at any rate,” Augustus said. I could hear annoyance in his voice.
“So here I am,” Van Houten said after a moment. “What are your questions?”
“Um,” Augustus said.
“He seemed so intelligent in print,” Van Houten said to Lidewij regarding Augustus. “Perhaps the cancer has established a beachhead in his brain.”
“Peter,” Lidewij said, duly horrified.
I was horrified, too, but there was something pleasant about a guy so despicable that he wouldn’t treat us deferentially. “We do have some questions, actually,” I said. “I talked about them in my email. I don’t know if you remember.”
“I do not.”
“His memory is compromised,” Lidewij said.
“If only my memory would compromise,” Van Houten responded.
“So, our questions,” I repeated.
“She uses the royal we,” Peter said to no one in particular. Another sip. I didn’t know what Scotch tasted like, but if it tasted anything like champagne, I couldn’t imagine how he could drink so much, so quickly, so early in the morning. “Are you familiar with Zeno’s tortoise paradox?” he asked me.
“We have questions about what happens to the characters after the end of the book, specifically Anna’s—”
“You wrongly assume that I need to hear your question in order to answer it. You are familiar with the philosopher Zeno?” I shook my head vaguely. “Alas. Zeno was a pre-Socratic philosopher who is said to have discovered forty paradoxes within the worldview put forth by Parmenides—surely you know Parmenides,” he said, and I nodded that I knew Parmenides, although I did not. “Thank God,” he said. “Zeno professionally specialized in revealing the inaccuracies and oversimplifications of Parmenides, which wasn’t difficult, since Parmenides was spectacularly wrong everywhere and always. Parmenides is valuable in precisely the way that it is valuable to have an acquaintance who reliably picks the wrong horse each and every time you take him to the racetrack. But Zeno’s most important—wait, give me a sense of your familiarity with Swedish hip-hop.”
I could not tell if Peter Van Houten was kidding. After a moment, Augustus answered for me. “Limited,” he said.
“Okay, but presumably you know Afasi och Filthy’s seminal album Fläcken.”
“We do not,” I said for the both of us.
“Lidewij, play ‘Bomfalleralla’ immediately.” Lidewij walked over to an MP3 player, spun the wheel a bit, then hit a button. A rap song boomed from every direction. It sounded like a fairly regular rap song, except the words were in Swedish.
After it was over, Peter Van Houten looked at us expectantly, his little eyes as wide as they could get. “Yeah?” he asked. “Yeah?”
I said, “I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t speak Swedish.”
“Well, of course you don’t. Neither do I. Who the hell speaks Swedish? The important thing is not whatever nonsense the voices are saying, but what the voices are feeling. Surely you know that there are only two emotions, love and fear, and that Afasi och Filthy navigate between them with the kind of facility that one simply does not find in hip-hop music outside of Sweden. Shall I play it for you again?”
“Are you joking?” Gus said.
“Is this some kind of performance?” He looked up at Lidewij and asked, “Is it?”
“I’m afraid not,” Lidewij answered. “He’s not always—this is unusually—”
“Oh, shut up, Lidewij. Rudolf Otto said that if you had not encountered the numinous, if you have not experienced a nonrational encounter with the mysterium tremendum, then his work was not for you. And I say to you, young friends, that if you cannot hear Afasi och Filthy’s bravadic response to fear, then my work is not for you.”
I cannot emphasize this enough: It was a completely normal rap song, except in Swedish. “Um,” I said. “So about An Imperial Affliction. Anna’s mom, when the book ends, is about to—”
Van Houten interrupted me, tapping his glass as he talked until Lidewij refilled it again. “So Zeno is most famous for his tortoise paradox. Let us imagine that you are in a race with a tortoise. The tortoise has a ten-yard head start. In the time it takes you to run that ten yards, the tortoise has maybe moved one yard. And then in the time it takes you to make up that distance, the tortoise goes a bit farther, and so on forever. You are faster than the tortoise but you can never catch him; you can only decrease his lead.
“Of course, you just run past the tortoise without contemplating the mechanics involved, but the question of how you are able to do this turns out to be incredibly complicated, and no one really solved it until Cantor showed us that some infinities are bigger than other infinities.”
“Um,” I said.
“I assume that answers your question,” he said confidently, then sipped generously from his glass.
“Not really,” I said. “We were wondering, after the end of An Imperial Affliction—”
“I disavow everything in that putrid novel,” Van Houten said, cutting me off.
“No,” I said.
“No, that is not acceptable,” I said. “I understand that the story ends midnarrative because Anna dies or becomes too sick to continue, but you said you would tell us what happens to everybody, and that’s why we’re here, and we, I need you to tell me.”
Van Houten sighed. After another drink, he said, “Very well. Whose story do you seek?”
“Anna’s mom, the Dutch Tulip Man, Sisyphus the Hamster, I mean, just—what happens to everyone.”
Van Houten closed his eyes and puffed his cheeks as he exhaled, then looked up at the exposed wooden beams crisscrossing the ceiling. “The hamster,” he said after a while. “The hamster gets adopted by Christine”—who was one of Anna’s presickness friends. That made sense. Christine and Anna played with Sisyphus in a few scenes. “He is adopted by Christine and lives for a couple years after the end of the novel and dies peacefully in his hamster sleep.”
Now we were getting somewhere. “Great,” I said. “Great. Okay, so the Dutch Tulip Man. Is he a con man? Do he and Anna’s mom get married?”
Van Houten was still staring at the ceiling beams. He took a drink. The glass was almost empty again. “Lidewij, I can’t do it. I can’t. I can’t.” He leveled his gaze to me. “Nothing happens to the Dutch Tulip Man. He isn’t a con man or not a con man; he’s God. He’s an obvious and unambiguous metaphorical representation of God, and asking what becomes of him is the intellectual equivalent of asking what becomes of the disembodied eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in Gatsby. Do he and Anna’s mom get married? We are speaking of a novel, dear child, not some historical enterprise.”
“Right, but surely you must have thought about what happens to them, I mean as characters, I mean independent of their metaphorical meanings or whatever.”
“They’re fictions,” he said, tapping his glass again. “Nothing happens to them.”
“You said you’d tell me,” I insisted. I reminded myself to be assertive. I needed to keep his addled attention on my questions.
“Perhaps, but I was under the misguided impression that you were incapable of transatlantic travel. I was trying… to provide you some comfort, I suppose, which I should know better than to attempt. But to be perfectly frank, this childish idea that the author of a novel has some special insight into the characters in the novel… it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.”
“No,” I said. I pushed myself up off the couch. “No, I understand that, but it’s impossible not to imagine a future for them. You are the most qualified person to imagine that future. Something happened to Anna’s mother. She either got married or didn’t. She either moved to Holland with the Dutch Tulip Man or didn’t. She either had more kids or didn’t. I need to know what happens to her.”
Van Houten pursed his lips. “I regret that I cannot indulge your childish whims, but I refuse to pity you in the manner to which you are well accustomed.”
“I don’t want your pity,” I said.
“Like all sick children,” he answered dispassionately, “you say you don’t want pity, but your very existence depends upon it.”
“Peter,” Lidewij said, but he continued as he reclined there, his words getting rounder in his drunken mouth. “Sick children inevitably become arrested: You are fated to live out your days as the child you were when diagnosed, the child who believes there is life after a novel ends. And we, as adults, we pity this, so we pay for your treatments, for your oxygen machines. We give you food and water though you are unlikely to live long enough—”
“PETER!” Lidewij shouted.
“You are a side effect,” Van Houten continued, “of an evolutionary process that cares little for individual lives. You are a failed experiment in mutation.”
“I RESIGN!” Lidewij shouted. There were tears in her eyes. But I wasn’t angry. He was looking for the most hurtful way to tell the truth, but of course I already knew the truth. I’d had years of staring at ceilings from my bedroom to the ICU, and so I’d long ago found the most hurtful ways to imagine my own illness. I stepped toward him. “Listen, douchepants,” I said, “you’re not going to tell me anything about disease I don’t already know. I need one and only one thing from you before I walk out of your life forever: WHAT HAPPENS TO ANNA’S MOTHER?”
He raised his flabby chins vaguely toward me and shrugged his shoulders. “I can no more tell you what happens to her than I can tell you what becomes of Proust’s Narrator or Holden Caulfield’s sister or Huckleberry Finn after he lights out for the territories.”
“BULLSHIT! That’s bullshit. Just tell me! Make something up!”
“No, and I’ll thank you not to curse in my house. It isn’t becoming of a lady.”
I still wasn’t angry, exactly, but I was very focused on getting the thing I’d been promised. Something inside me welled up and I reached down and smacked the swollen hand that held the glass of Scotch. What remained of the Scotch splashed across the vast expanse of his face, the glass bouncing off his nose and then spinning balletically through the air, landing with a shattering crash on the ancient hardwood floors.
“Lidewij,” Van Houten said calmly, “I’ll have a martini, if you please. Just a whisper of vermouth.”
“I have resigned,” Lidewij said after a moment.
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
I didn’t know what to do. Being nice hadn’t worked. Being mean hadn’t worked. I needed an answer. I’d come all this way, hijacked Augustus’s Wish. I needed to know.
“Have you ever stopped to wonder,” he said, his words slurring now, “why you care so much about your silly questions?”
“YOU PROMISED!” I shouted, hearing Isaac’s impotent wailing echoing from the night of the broken trophies. Van Houten didn’t reply.
I was still standing over him, waiting for him to say something to me when I felt Augustus’s hand on my arm. He pulled me away toward the door, and I followed him while Van Houten ranted to Lidewij about the ingratitude of contemporary teenagers and the death of polite society, and Lidewij, somewhat hysterical, shouted back at him in rapid-fire Dutch.
“You’ll have to forgive my former assistant,” he said. “Dutch is not so much a language as an ailment of the throat.”
Augustus pulled me out of the room and through the door to the late spring morning and the falling confetti of the elms.
* * *
For me there was no such thing as a quick getaway, but we made our way down the stairs, Augustus holding my cart, and then started to walk back toward the Filosoof on a bumpy sidewalk of interwoven rectangular bricks. For the first time since the swing set, I started crying.
“Hey,” he said, touching my waist. “Hey. It’s okay.” I nodded and wiped my face with the back of my hand. “He sucks.” I nodded again. “I’ll write you an epilogue,” Gus said. That made me cry harder. “I will,” he said. “I will. Better than any shit that drunk could write. His brain is Swiss cheese. He doesn’t even remember writing the book. I can write ten times the story that guy can. There will be blood and guts and sacrifice. An Imperial Affliction meets The Price of Dawn. You’ll love it.” I kept nodding, faking a smile, and then he hugged me, his strong arms pulling me into his muscular chest, and I sogged up his polo shirt a little but then recovered enough to speak.
“I spent your Wish on that doucheface,” I said into his chest.
“Hazel Grace. No. I will grant you that you did spend my one and only Wish, but you did not spend it on him. You spent it on us.”
Behind us, I heard the plonk plonk of high heels running. I turned around. It was Lidewij, her eyeliner running down her cheeks, duly horrified, chasing us up the sidewalk. “Perhaps we should go to the Anne Frank Huis,” Lidewij said.
“I’m not going anywhere with that monster,” Augustus said.
“He is not invited,” Lidewij said.
Augustus kept holding me, protective, his hand on the side of my face. “I don’t think—” he started, but I cut him off.
“We should go.” I still wanted answers from Van Houten. But it wasn’t all I wanted. I only had two days left in Amsterdam with Augustus Waters. I wouldn’t let a sad old man ruin them.
Lidewij drove a clunky gray Fiat with an engine that sounded like an excited four-year-old girl. As we drove through the streets of Amsterdam, she repeatedly and profusely apologized. “I am very sorry. There is no excuse. He is very sick,” she said. “I thought meeting you would help him, if he would see that his work has shaped real lives, but… I’m very sorry. It is very, very embarrassing.” Neither Augustus nor I said anything. I was in the backseat behind him. I snuck my hand between the side of the car and his seat, feeling for his hand, but I couldn’t find it. Lidewij continued, “I have continued this work because I believe he is a genius and because the pay is very good, but he has become a monster.”
“I guess he got pretty rich on that book,” I said after a while.
“Oh, no no, he is of the Van Houtens,” she said. “In the seventeenth century, his ancestor discovered how to mix cocoa into water. Some Van Houtens moved to the United States long ago, and Peter is of those, but he moved to Holland after his novel. He is an embarrassment to a great family.”
The engine screamed. Lidewij shifted and we shot up a canal bridge. “It is circumstance,” she said. “Circumstance has made him so cruel. He is not an evil man. But this day, I did not think—when he said these terrible things, I could not believe it. I am very sorry. Very very sorry.”
We had to park a block away from the Anne Frank House, and then while Lidewij stood in line to get tickets for us, I sat with my back against a little tree, looking at all the moored houseboats in the Prinsengracht canal. Augustus was standing above me, rolling my oxygen cart in lazy circles, just watching the wheels spin. I wanted him to sit next to me, but I knew it was hard for him to sit, and harder still to stand back up. “Okay?” he asked, looking down at me. I shrugged and reached a hand for his calf. It was his fake calf, but I held on to it. He looked down at me.
“I wanted…” I said.
“I know,” he said. “I know. Apparently the world is not a wish-granting factory.” That made me smile a little.
Lidewij returned with tickets, but her thin lips were pursed with worry. “There is no elevator,” she said. “I am very very sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“No, there are many stairs,” she said. “Steep stairs.”
“It’s okay,” I said again. Augustus started to say something, but I interrupted. “It’s okay. I can do it.”
We began in a room with a video about Jews in Holland and the Nazi invasion and the Frank family. Then we walked upstairs into the canal house where Otto Frank’s business had been. The stairs were slow, for me and Augustus both, but I felt strong. Soon I was staring at the famous bookcase that had hid Anne Frank, her family, and four others. The bookcase was half open, and behind it was an even steeper set of stairs, only wide enough for one person. There were fellow visitors all around us, and I didn’t want to hold up the procession, but Lidewij said, “If everyone could be patient, please,” and I began the walk up, Lidewij carrying the cart behind me, Gus behind her.
It was fourteen steps. I kept thinking about the people behind me—they were mostly adults speaking a variety of languages—and feeling embarrassed or whatever, feeling like a ghost that both comforts and haunts, but finally I made it up, and then I was in an eerily empty room, leaning against the wall, my brain telling my lungs it’s okay it’s okay calm down it’s okay and my lungs telling my brain oh, God, we’re dying here. I didn’t even see Augustus come upstairs, but he came over and wiped his brow with the back of his hand like whew and said, “You’re a champion.”
After a few minutes of wall-leaning, I made it to the next room, which Anne had shared with the dentist Fritz Pfeffer. It was tiny, empty of all furniture. You’d never know anyone had ever lived there except that the pictures Anne had pasted onto the wall from magazines and newspapers were still there.
Another staircase led up to the room where the van Pels family had lived, this one steeper than the last and eighteen steps, essentially a glorified ladder. I got to the threshold and looked up and figured I could not do it, but also knew the only way through was up.
“Let’s go back,” Gus said behind me.
“I’m okay,” I answered quietly. It’s stupid, but I kept thinking I owed it to her—to Anne Frank, I mean—because she was dead and I wasn’t, because she had stayed quiet and kept the blinds drawn and done everything right and still died, and so I should go up the steps and see the rest of the world she’d lived in those years before the Gestapo came.
I began to climb the stairs, crawling up them like a little kid would, slow at first so I could breathe, but then faster because I knew I couldn’t breathe and wanted to get to the top before everything gave out. The blackness encroached around my field of vision as I pulled myself up, eighteen steps, steep as hell. I finally crested the staircase mostly blind and nauseated, the muscles in my arms and legs screaming for oxygen. I slumped seated against a wall, heaving watered-down coughs. There was an empty glass case bolted to the wall above me and I stared up through it to the ceiling and tried not to pass out.
Lidewij crouched down next to me, saying, “You are at the top, that is it,” and I nodded. I had a vague awareness of the adults all around glancing down at me worriedly; of Lidewij speaking quietly in one language and then another and then another to various visitors; of Augustus standing above me, his hand on the top of my head, stroking my hair along the part.
After a long time, Lidewij and Augustus pulled me to my feet and I saw what was protected by the glass case: pencil marks on the wallpaper measuring the growth of all the children in the annex during the period they lived there, inch after inch until they would grow no more.
From there, we left the Franks’ living area, but we were still in the museum: A long narrow hallway showed pictures of each of the annex’s eight residents and described how and where and when they died.
“The only member of his whole family who survived the war,” Lidewij told us, referring to Anne’s father, Otto. Her voice was hushed like we were in church.
“But he didn’t survive a war, not really,” Augustus said. “He survived a genocide.”
“True,” Lidewij said. “I do not know how you go on, without your family. I do not know.” As I read about each of the seven who died, I thought of Otto Frank not being a father anymore, left with a diary instead of a wife and two daughters. At the end of the hallway, a huge book, bigger than a dictionary, contained the names of the 103,000 dead from the Netherlands in the Holocaust. (Only 5,000 of the deported Dutch Jews, a wall label explained, had survived. 5,000 Otto Franks.) The book was turned to the page with Anne Frank’s name, but what got me about it was the fact that right beneath her name there were four Aron Franks. Four. Four Aron Franks without museums, without historical markers, without anyone to mourn them. I silently resolved to remember and pray for the four Aron Franks as long as I was around. (Maybe some people need to believe in a proper and omnipotent God to pray, but I don’t.)
As we got to the end of the room, Gus stopped and said, “You okay?” I nodded.
He gestured back toward Anne’s picture. “The worst part is that she almost lived, you know? She died weeks away from liberation.”
Lidewij took a few steps away to watch a video, and I grabbed Augustus’s hand as we walked into the next room. It was an A-frame room with some letters Otto Frank had written to people during his months-long search for his daughters. On the wall in the middle of the room, a video of Otto Frank played. He was speaking in English.
“Are there any Nazis left that I could hunt down and bring to justice?” Augustus asked while we leaned over the vitrines reading Otto’s letters and the gutting replies that no, no one had seen his children after the liberation.
“I think they’re all dead. But it’s not like the Nazis had a monopoly on evil.”
“True,” he said. “That’s what we should do, Hazel Grace: We should team up and be this disabled vigilante duo roaring through the world, righting wrongs, defending the weak, protecting the endangered.”
Although it was his dream and not mine, I indulged it. He’d indulged mine, after all. “Our fearlessness shall be our secret weapon,” I said.
“The tales of our exploits will survive as long as the human voice itself,” he said.
“And even after that, when the robots recall the human absurdities of sacrifice and compassion, they will remember us.”
“They will robot-laugh at our courageous folly,” he said. “But something in their iron robot hearts will yearn to have lived and died as we did: on the hero’s errand.”
“Augustus Waters,” I said, looking up at him, thinking that you cannot kiss anyone in the Anne Frank House, and then thinking that Anne Frank, after all, kissed someone in the Anne Frank House, and that she would probably like nothing more than for her home to have become a place where the young and irreparably broken sink into love.
“I must say,” Otto Frank said on the video in his accented English, “I was very much surprised by the deep thoughts Anne had.”
And then we were kissing. My hand let go of the oxygen cart and I reached up for his neck, and he pulled me up by my waist onto my tiptoes. As his parted lips met mine, I started to feel breathless in a new and fascinating way. The space around us evaporated, and for a weird moment I really liked my body; this cancer-ruined thing I’d spent years dragging around suddenly seemed worth the struggle, worth the chest tubes and the PICC lines and the ceaseless bodily betrayal of the tumors.
“It was quite a different Anne I had known as my daughter. She never really showed this kind of inner feeling,” Otto Frank continued.
The kiss lasted forever as Otto Frank kept talking from behind me. “And my conclusion is,” he said, “since I had been in very good terms with Anne, that most parents don’t know really their children.”
I realized that my eyes were closed and opened them. Augustus was staring at me, his blue eyes closer to me than they’d ever been, and behind him, a crowd of people three deep had sort of circled around us. They were angry, I thought. Horrified. These teenagers, with their hormones, making out beneath a video broadcasting the shattered voice of a former father.
I pulled away from Augustus, and he snuck a peck onto my forehead as I stared down at my Chuck Taylors. And then they started clapping. All the people, all these adults, just started clapping, and one shouted “Bravo!” in a European accent. Augustus, smiling, bowed. Laughing, I curtsied ever so slightly, which was met with another round of applause.
We made our way downstairs, letting all the adults go down first, and right before we got to the café (where blessedly an elevator took us back down to ground level and the gift shop) we saw pages of Anne’s diary, and also her unpublished book of quotations. The quote book happened to be turned to a page of Shakespeare quotations. For who so firm that cannot be seduced? she’d written.
Lidewij drove us back to the Filosoof. Outside the hotel, it was drizzling and Augustus and I stood on the brick sidewalk slowly getting wet.
Augustus: “You probably need some rest.”
Me: “I’m okay.”
Augustus: “Okay.” (Pause.) “What are you thinking about?”
Augustus: “What about me?”
Me: “‘I do not know which to prefer, / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendos, / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.’”
Augustus: “God, you are sexy.”
Me: “We could go to your room.”
Augustus: “I’ve heard worse ideas.”
We squeezed into the tiny elevator together. Every surface, including the floor, was mirrored. We had to pull the door to shut ourselves in and then the old thing creaked slowly up to the second floor. I was tired and sweaty and worried that I generally looked and smelled gross, but even so I kissed him in that elevator, and then he pulled away and pointed at the mirror and said, “Look, infinite Hazels.”
“Some infinities are larger than other infinities,” I drawled, mimicking Van Houten.
“What an assclown,” Augustus said, and it took all that time and more just to get us to the second floor. Finally the elevator lurched to a halt, and he pushed the mirrored door open. When it was half open, he winced in pain and lost his grip on the door for a second.
“You okay?” I asked.
After a second, he said, “Yeah, yeah, door’s just heavy, I guess.” He pushed again and got it open. He let me walk out first, of course, but then I didn’t know which direction to walk down the hallway, and so I just stood there outside the elevator and he stood there, too, his face still contorted, and I said again, “Okay?”
“Just out of shape, Hazel Grace. All is well.”
We were just standing there in the hallway, and he wasn’t leading the way to his room or anything, and I didn’t know where his room was, and as the stalemate continued, I became convinced he was trying to figure out a way not to hook up with me, that I never should have suggested the idea in the first place, that it was unladylike and therefore had disgusted Augustus Waters, who was standing there looking at me unblinking, trying to think of a way to extricate himself from the situation politely. And then, after forever, he said, “It’s above my knee and it just tapers a little and then it’s just skin. There’s a nasty scar, but it just looks like—”
“What?” I asked.
“My leg,” he said. “Just so you’re prepared in case, I mean, in case you see it or what—”
“Oh, get over yourself,” I said, and took the two steps I needed to get to him. I kissed him, hard, pressing him against the wall, and I kept kissing him as he fumbled for the room key.
We crawled into the bed, my freedom circumscribed some by the oxygen, but even so I could get on top of him and take his shirt off and taste the sweat on the skin below his collarbone as I whispered into his skin, “I love you, Augustus Waters,” his body relaxing beneath mine as he heard me say it. He reached down and tried to pull my shirt off, but it got tangled in the tube. I laughed.
* * *
“How do you do this every day?” he asked as I disentangled my shirt from the tubes. Idiotically, it occurred to me that my pink underwear didn’t match my purple bra, as if boys even notice such things. I crawled under the covers and kicked out of my jeans and socks and then watched the comforter dance as beneath it, Augustus removed first his jeans and then his leg.
* * *
We were lying on our backs next to each other, everything hidden by the covers, and after a second I reached over for his thigh and let my hand trail downward to the stump, the thick scarred skin. I held the stump for a second. He flinched. “It hurts?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
He flipped himself onto his side and kissed me. “You’re so hot,” I said, my hand still on his leg.
“I’m starting to think you have an amputee fetish,” he answered, still kissing me. I laughed.
“I have an Augustus Waters fetish,” I explained.
The whole affair was the precise opposite of what I figured it would be: slow and patient and quiet and neither particularly painful nor particularly ecstatic. There were a lot of condomy problems that I did not get a particularly good look at. No headboards were broken. No screaming. Honestly, it was probably the longest time we’d ever spent together without talking.
Only one thing followed type: Afterward, when I had my face resting against Augustus’s chest, listening to his heart pound, Augustus said, “Hazel Grace, I literally cannot keep my eyes open.”
“Misuse of literality,” I said.
“No,” he said. “So. Tired.”
His face turned away from me, my ear pressed to his chest, listening to his lungs settle into the rhythm of sleep. After a while, I got up, dressed, found the Hotel Filosoof stationery, and wrote him a love letter: