The fault in our stars (Chapter 23)
A couple days later, I got up around noon and drove over to Isaac’s house. He answered the door himself. “My mom took Graham to a movie,” he said.
“We should go do something,” I said.
“Can the something be play blind-guy video games while sitting on the couch?”
“Yeah, that’s just the kind of something I had in mind.”
So we sat there for a couple hours talking to the screen together, navigating this invisible labyrinthine cave without a single lumen of light. The most entertaining part of the game by far was trying to get the computer to engage us in humorous conversation:
Me: “Touch the cave wall.”
Computer: “You touch the cave wall. It is moist.”
Isaac: “Lick the cave wall.”
Computer: “I do not understand. Repeat?”
Me: “Hump the moist cave wall.”
Computer: “You attempt to jump. You hit your head.”
Isaac: “Not jump. HUMP.”
Computer: “I don’t understand.”
Isaac: “Dude, I’ve been alone in the dark in this cave for weeks and I need some relief. HUMP THE CAVE WALL.”
Computer: “You attempt to ju—”
Me: “Thrust pelvis against the cave wall.”
Computer: “I do not—”
Isaac: “Make sweet love to the cave.”
Computer: “I do not—”
Me: “FINE. Follow left branch.”
Computer: “You follow the left branch. The passage narrows.”
Computer: “You crawl for one hundred yards. The passage narrows.”
Me: “Snake crawl.”
Computer: “You snake crawl for thirty yards. A trickle of water runs down your body. You reach a mound of small rocks blocking the passageway.”
Me: “Can I hump the cave now?”
Computer: “You cannot jump without standing.”
Isaac: “I dislike living in a world without Augustus Waters.”
Computer: “I don’t understand—”
Isaac: “Me neither. Pause.”
He dropped the remote onto the couch between us and asked, “Do you know if it hurt or whatever?”
“He was really fighting for breath, I guess,” I said. “He eventually went unconscious, but it sounds like, yeah, it wasn’t great or anything. Dying sucks.”
“Yeah,” Isaac said. And then after a long time, “It just seems so impossible.”
“Happens all the time,” I said.
“You seem angry,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said. We just sat there quiet for a long time, which was fine, and I was thinking about way back in the very beginning in the Literal Heart of Jesus when Gus told us that he feared oblivion, and I told him that he was fearing something universal and inevitable, and how really, the problem is not suffering itself or oblivion itself but the depraved meaninglessness of these things, the absolutely inhuman nihilism of suffering. I thought of my dad telling me that the universe wants to be noticed. But what we want is to be noticed by the universe, to have the universe give a shit what happens to us—not the collective idea of sentient life but each of us, as individuals.
“Gus really loved you, you know,” he said.
“He wouldn’t shut up about it.”
“I know,” I said.
“It was annoying.”
“I didn’t find it that annoying,” I said.
“Did he ever give you that thing he was writing?”
“That sequel or whatever to that book you liked.”
I turned to Isaac. “What?”
“He said he was working on something for you but he wasn’t that good of a writer.”
“When did he say this?”
“I don’t know. Like, after he got back from Amsterdam at some point.”
“At which point?” I pressed. Had he not had a chance to finish it? Had he finished it and left it on his computer or something?
“Um,” Isaac sighed. “Um, I don’t know. We talked about it over here once. He was over here, like—uh, we played with my email machine and I’d just gotten an email from my grandmother. I can check on the machine if you—”
“Yeah, yeah, where is it?”
He’d mentioned it a month before. A month. Not a good month, admittedly, but still—a month. That was enough time for him to have written something, at least. There was still something of him, or by him at least, floating around out there. I needed it.
“I’m gonna go to his house,” I told Isaac.
I hurried out to the minivan and hauled the oxygen cart up and into the passenger seat. I started the car. A hip-hop beat blared from the stereo, and as I reached to change the radio station, someone started rapping. In Swedish.
I swiveled around and screamed when I saw Peter Van Houten sitting in the backseat.
“I apologize for alarming you,” Peter Van Houten said over the rapping. He was still wearing the funeral suit, almost a week later. He smelled like he was sweating alcohol. “You’re welcome to keep the CD,” he said. “It’s Snook, one of the major Swedish—”
“Ah ah ah ah GET OUT OF MY CAR.” I turned off the stereo.
“It’s your mother’s car, as I understand it,” he said. “Also, it wasn’t locked.”
“Oh, my God! Get out of the car or I’ll call nine-one-one. Dude, what is your problem?”
“If only there were just one,” he mused. “I am here simply to apologize. You were correct in noting earlier that I am a pathetic little man, dependent upon alcohol. I had one acquaintance who only spent time with me because I paid her to do so—worse, still, she has since quit, leaving me the rare soul who cannot acquire companionship even through bribery. It is all true, Hazel. All that and more.”
“Okay,” I said. It would have been a more moving speech had he not slurred his words.
“You remind me of Anna.”
“I remind a lot of people of a lot of people,” I answered. “I really have to go.”
“So drive,” he said.
“No. You remind me of Anna,” he said again. After a second, I put the car in reverse and backed out. I couldn’t make him leave, and I didn’t have to. I’d drive to Gus’s house, and Gus’s parents would make him leave.
“You are, of course, familiar,” Van Houten said, “with Antonietta Meo.”
“Yeah, no,” I said. I turned on the stereo, and the Swedish hip-hop blared, but Van Houten yelled over it.
“She may soon be the youngest nonmartyr saint ever beatified by the Catholic Church. She had the same cancer that Mr. Waters had, osteosarcoma. They removed her right leg. The pain was excruciating. As Antonietta Meo lay dying at the ripened age of six from this agonizing cancer, she told her father, ‘Pain is like fabric: The stronger it is, the more it’s worth.’ Is that true, Hazel?”
I wasn’t looking at him directly but at his reflection in the mirror. “No,” I shouted over the music. “That’s bullshit.”
“But don’t you wish it were true!” he cried back. I cut the music. “I’m sorry I ruined your trip. You were too young. You were—” He broke down. As if he had a right to cry over Gus. Van Houten was just another of the endless mourners who did not know him, another too-late lamentation on his wall.
“You didn’t ruin our trip, you self-important bastard. We had an awesome trip.”
“I am trying,” he said. “I am trying, I swear.” It was around then that I realized Peter Van Houten had a dead person in his family. I considered the honesty with which he had written about cancer kids; the fact that he couldn’t speak to me in Amsterdam except to ask if I’d dressed like her on purpose; his shittiness around me and Augustus; his aching question about the relationship between pain’s extremity and its value. He sat back there drinking, an old man who’d been drunk for years. I thought of a statistic I wish I didn’t know: Half of marriages end in the year after a child’s death. I looked back at Van Houten. I was driving down College and I pulled over behind a line of parked cars and asked, “You had a kid who died?”
“My daughter,” he said. “She was eight. Suffered beautifully. Will never be beatified.”
“She had leukemia?” I asked. He nodded. “Like Anna,” I said.
“Very much like her, yes.”
“You were married?”
“No. Well, not at the time of her death. I was insufferable long before we lost her. Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.”
“Did you live with her?”
“No, not primarily, although at the end, we brought her to New York, where I was living, for a series of experimental tortures that increased the misery of her days without increasing the number of them.”
After a second, I said, “So it’s like you gave her this second life where she got to be a teenager.”
“I suppose that would be a fair assessment,” he said, and then quickly added, “I assume you are familiar with Philippa Foot’s Trolley Problem thought experiment?”
“And then I show up at your house and I’m dressed like the girl you hoped she would live to become and you’re, like, all taken aback by it.”
“There’s a trolley running out of control down a track,” he said.
“I don’t care about your stupid thought experiment,” I said.
“It’s Philippa Foot’s, actually.”
“Well, hers either,” I said.
“She didn’t understand why it was happening,” he said. “I had to tell her she would die. Her social worker said I had to tell her. I had to tell her she would die, so I told her she was going to heaven. She asked if I would be there, and I said that I would not, not yet. But eventually, she said, and I promised that yes, of course, very soon. And I told her that in the meantime we had great family up there that would take care of her. And she asked me when I would be there, and I told her soon. Twenty-two years ago.”
“So am I.”
After a while, I asked, “What happened to her mom?”
He smiled. “You’re still looking for your sequel, you little rat.”
I smiled back. “You should go home,” I told him. “Sober up. Write another novel. Do the thing you’re good at. Not many people are lucky enough to be so good at something.”
He stared at me through the mirror for a long time. “Okay,” he said. “Yeah. You’re right. You’re right.” But even as he said it, he pulled out his mostly empty fifth of whiskey. He drank, recapped the bottle, and opened the door. “Good-bye, Hazel.”
“Take it easy, Van Houten.”
He sat down on the curb behind the car. As I watched him shrink in the rearview mirror, he pulled out the bottle and for a second it looked like he would leave it on the curb. And then he took a swig.
It was a hot afternoon in Indianapolis, the air thick and still like we were inside a cloud. It was the worst kind of air for me, and I told myself it was just the air when the walk from his driveway to his front door felt infinite. I rang the doorbell, and Gus’s mom answered.
“Oh, Hazel,” she said, and kind of enveloped me, crying.
She made me eat some eggplant lasagna—I guess a lot of people had brought them food or whatever—with her and Gus’s dad. “How are you?”
“I miss him.”
I didn’t really know what to say. I just wanted to go downstairs and find whatever he’d written for me. Plus, the silence in the room really bothered me. I wanted them to be talking to each other, comforting or holding hands or whatever. But they just sat there eating very small amounts of lasagna, not even looking at each other. “Heaven needed an angel,” his dad said after a while.
“I know,” I said. Then his sisters and their mess of kids showed up and piled into the kitchen. I got up and hugged both his sisters and then watched the kids run around the kitchen with their sorely needed surplus of noise and movement, excited molecules bouncing against each other and shouting, “You’re it no you’re it no I was it but then I tagged you you didn’t tag me you missed me well I’m tagging you now no dumb butt it’s a time-out DANIEL DO NOT CALL YOUR BROTHER A DUMB BUTT Mom if I’m not allowed to use that word how come you just used it dumb butt dumb butt,” and then, chorally, dumb butt dumb butt dumb butt dumb butt, and at the table Gus’s parents were now holding hands, which made me feel better.
“Isaac told me Gus was writing something, something for me,” I said. The kids were still singing their dumb-butt song.
“We can check his computer,” his mom said.
“He wasn’t on it much the last few weeks,” I said.
“That’s true. I’m not even sure we brought it upstairs. Is it still in the basement, Mark?”
“Well,” I said, “can I…” I nodded toward the basement door.
“We’re not ready,” his dad said. “But of course, yes, Hazel. Of course you can.”
I walked downstairs, past his unmade bed, past the gaming chairs beneath the TV. His computer was still on. I tapped the mouse to wake it up and then searched for his most recently edited files. Nothing in the last month. The most recent thing was a response paper to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Maybe he’d written something by hand. I walked over to his bookshelves, looking for a journal or a notebook. Nothing. I flipped through his copy of An Imperial Affliction. He hadn’t left a single mark in it.
I walked to his bedside table next. Infinite Mayhem, the ninth sequel to The Price of Dawn, lay atop the table next to his reading lamp, the corner of page 138 turned down. He’d never made it to the end of the book. “Spoiler alert: Mayhem survives,” I said out loud to him, just in case he could hear me.
And then I crawled into his unmade bed, wrapping myself in his comforter like a cocoon, surrounding myself with his smell. I took out my cannula so I could smell better, breathing him in and breathing him out, the scent fading even as I lay there, my chest burning until I couldn’t distinguish among the pains.
I sat up in the bed after a while and reinserted my cannula and breathed for a while before going up the stairs. I just shook my head no in response to his parents’ expectant looks. The kids raced past me. One of Gus’s sisters—I could not tell them apart—said, “Mom, do you want me to take them to the park or something?”
“No, no, they’re fine.”
“Is there anywhere he might have put a notebook? Like by his hospital bed or something?” The bed was already gone, reclaimed by hospice.
“Hazel,” his dad said, “you were there every day with us. You— he wasn’t alone much, sweetie. He wouldn’t have had time to write anything. I know you want… I want that, too. But the messages he leaves for us now are coming from above, Hazel.” He pointed toward the ceiling, as if Gus were hovering just above the house. Maybe he was. I don’t know. I didn’t feel his presence, though.
“Yeah,” I said. I promised to visit them again in a few days.
I never quite caught his scent again.