The fault in our stars (Chapter 13)
The next morning, our last full day in Amsterdam, Mom and Augustus and I walked the half block from the hotel to the Vondelpark, where we found a café in the shadow of the Dutch national film museum. Over lattes—which, the waiter explained to us, the Dutch called “wrong coffee” because it had more milk than coffee—we sat in the lacy shade of a huge chestnut tree and recounted for Mom our encounter with the great Peter Van Houten. We made the story funny. You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice: Augustus, slumped in the café chair, pretended to be the tongue-tied, word-slurring Van Houten who could not so much as push himself out of his chair; I stood up to play a me all full of bluster and machismo, shouting, “Get up, you fat ugly old man!”
“Did you call him ugly?” Augustus asked.
“Just go with it,” I told him.
“I’m naht uggy. You’re the uggy one, nosetube girl.”
“You’re a coward!” I rumbled, and Augustus broke character to laugh. I sat down. We told Mom about the Anne Frank House, leaving out the kissing.
“Did you go back to chez Van Houten afterward?” Mom asked.
Augustus didn’t even give me time to blush. “Nah, we just hung out at a café. Hazel amused me with some Venn diagram humor.” He glanced at me. God, he was sexy.
“Sounds lovely,” she said. “Listen, I’m going to go for a walk. Give the two of you time to talk,” she said at Gus, an edge in it. “Then maybe later we can go for a tour on a canal boat.”
“Um, okay?” I said. Mom left a five-euro note under her saucer and then kissed me on the top of the head, whispering, “I love love love you,” which was two more loves than usual.
Gus motioned down to the shadows of the branches intersecting and coming apart on the concrete. “Beautiful, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Such a good metaphor,” he mumbled.
“Is it now?” I asked.
“The negative image of things blown together and then blown apart,” he said. Before us, hundreds of people passed, jogging and biking and Rollerblading. Amsterdam was a city designed for movement and activity, a city that would rather not travel by car, and so inevitably I felt excluded from it. But God, was it beautiful, the creek carving a path around the huge tree, a heron standing still at the water’s edge, searching for a breakfast amid the millions of elm petals floating in the water.
But Augustus didn’t notice. He was too busy watching the shadows move. Finally, he said, “I could look at this all day, but we should go to the hotel.”
“Do we have time?” I asked.
He smiled sadly. “If only,” he said.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He nodded back in the direction of the hotel.
We walked in silence, Augustus a half step in front of me. I was too scared to ask if I had reason to be scared.
So there is this thing called Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Basically, this guy Abraham Maslow became famous for his theory that certain needs must be met before you can even have other kinds of needs. It looks like this:
Once your needs for food and water are fulfilled, you move up to the next set of needs, security, and then the next and the next, but the important thing is that, according to Maslow, until your physiological needs are satisfied, you can’t even worry about security or social needs, let alone “self-actualization,” which is when you start to, like, make art and think about morality and quantum physics and stuff.
According to Maslow, I was stuck on the second level of the pyramid, unable to feel secure in my health and therefore unable to reach for love and respect and art and whatever else, which is, of course, utter horseshit: The urge to make art or contemplate philosophy does not go away when you are sick. Those urges just become transfigured by illness.
Maslow’s pyramid seemed to imply that I was less human than other people, and most people seemed to agree with him. But not Augustus. I always thought he could love me because he’d once been sick. Only now did it occur to me that maybe he still was.
We arrived in my room, the Kierkegaard. I sat down on the bed expecting him to join me, but he hunkered down in the dusty paisley chair. That chair. How old was it? Fifty years?
I felt the ball in the base of my throat hardening as I watched him pull a cigarette from his pack and stick it between his lips. He leaned back and sighed. “Just before you went into the ICU, I started to feel this ache in my hip.”
“No,” I said. Panic rolled in, pulled me under.
He nodded. “So I went in for a PET scan.” He stopped. He yanked the cigarette out of his mouth and clenched his teeth.
Much of my life had been devoted to trying not to cry in front of people who loved me, so I knew what Augustus was doing. You clench your teeth. You look up. You tell yourself that if they see you cry, it will hurt them, and you will be nothing but A Sadness in their lives, and you must not become a mere sadness, so you will not cry, and you say all of this to yourself while looking up at the ceiling, and then you swallow even though your throat does not want to close and you look at the person who loves you and smile.
He flashed his crooked smile, then said, “I lit up like a Christmas tree, Hazel Grace. The lining of my chest, my left hip, my liver, everywhere.”
Everywhere. That word hung in the air awhile. We both knew what it meant. I got up, dragging my body and the cart across carpet that was older than Augustus would ever be, and I knelt at the base of the chair and put my head in his lap and hugged him by the waist.
He was stroking my hair. “I’m so sorry,” I said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” he said, his voice calm. “Your mom must know. The way she looked at me. My mom must’ve just told her or something. I should’ve told you. It was stupid. Selfish.”
I knew why he hadn’t said anything, of course: the same reason I hadn’t wanted him to see me in the ICU. I couldn’t be mad at him for even a moment, and only now that I loved a grenade did I understand the foolishness of trying to save others from my own impending fragmentation: I couldn’t unlove Augustus Waters. And I didn’t want to.
“It’s not fair,” I said. “It’s just so goddamned unfair.”
“The world,” he said, “is not a wish-granting factory,” and then he broke down, just for one moment, his sob roaring impotent like a clap of thunder unaccompanied by lightning, the terrible ferocity that amateurs in the field of suffering might mistake for weakness. Then he pulled me to him and, his face inches from mine, resolved, “I’ll fight it. I’ll fight it for you. Don’t you worry about me, Hazel Grace. I’m okay. I’ll find a way to hang around and annoy you for a long time.”
I was crying. But even then he was strong, holding me tight so that I could see the sinewy muscles of his arms wrapped around me as he said, “I’m sorry. You’ll be okay. It’ll be okay. I promise,” and smiled his crooked smile.
He kissed my forehead, and then I felt his powerful chest deflate just a little. “I guess I had a hamartia after all.”
After a while, I pulled him over to the bed and we lay there together as he told me they’d started palliative chemo, but he gave it up to go to Amsterdam, even though his parents were furious. They’d tried to stop him right up until that morning, when I heard him screaming that his body belonged to him. “We could have rescheduled,” I said.
“No, we couldn’t have,” he answered. “Anyway, it wasn’t working. I could tell it wasn’t working, you know?”
I nodded. “It’s just bullshit, the whole thing,” I said.
“They’ll try something else when I get home. They’ve always got a new idea.”
“Yeah,” I said, having been the experimental pincushion myself.
“I kind of conned you into believing you were falling in love with a healthy person,” he said.
I shrugged. “I’d have done the same to you.”
“No, you wouldn’t’ve, but we can’t all be as awesome as you.” He kissed me, then grimaced.
“Does it hurt?” I asked.
“No. Just.” He stared at the ceiling for a long time before saying, “I like this world. I like drinking champagne. I like not smoking. I like the sound of Dutch people speaking Dutch. And now… I don’t even get a battle. I don’t get a fight.”
“You get to battle cancer,” I said. “That is your battle. And you’ll keep fighting,” I told him. I hated it when people tried to build me up to prepare for battle, but I did it to him, anyway. “You’ll… you’ll… live your best life today. This is your war now.” I despised myself for the cheesy sentiment, but what else did I have?
“Some war,” he said dismissively. “What am I at war with? My cancer. And what is my cancer? My cancer is me. The tumors are made of me. They’re made of me as surely as my brain and my heart are made of me. It is a civil war, Hazel Grace, with a predetermined winner.”
“Gus,” I said. I couldn’t say anything else. He was too smart for the kinds of solace I could offer.
“Okay,” he said. But it wasn’t. After a moment, he said, “If you go to the Rijksmuseum, which I really wanted to do—but who are we kidding, neither of us can walk through a museum. But anyway, I looked at the collection online before we left. If you were to go, and hopefully someday you will, you would see a lot of paintings of dead people. You’d see Jesus on the cross, and you’d see a dude getting stabbed in the neck, and you’d see people dying at sea and in battle and a parade of martyrs. But Not. One. Single. Cancer. Kid. Nobody biting it from the plague or smallpox or yellow fever or whatever, because there is no glory in illness. There is no meaning to it. There is no honor in dying of.”
Abraham Maslow, I present to you Augustus Waters, whose existential curiosity dwarfed that of his well-fed, well-loved, healthy brethren. While the mass of men went on leading thoroughly unexamined lives of monstrous consumption, Augustus Waters examined the collection of the Rijksmuseum from afar.
“What?” Augustus asked after a while.
“Nothing,” I said. “I’m just…” I couldn’t finish the sentence, didn’t know how to. “I’m just very, very fond of you.”
He smiled with half his mouth, his nose inches from mine. “The feeling is mutual. I don’t suppose you can forget about it and treat me like I’m not dying.”
“I don’t think you’re dying,” I said. “I think you’ve just got a touch of cancer.”
He smiled. Gallows humor. “I’m on a roller coaster that only goes up,” he said.
“And it is my privilege and my responsibility to ride all the way up with you,” I said.
“Would it be absolutely ludicrous to try to make out?”
“There is no try,” I said. “There is only do.”