Chapter Twenty Six

After that first day Hannah was my best friend. The ward didn’t seem so terrible with her there.

She took me to the playroom and played several Mozart sonatas. She played the easy one, K. 545, which Mozart had titled “An easy sonata for beginners.” She had trouble with the harder ones, but at my request she got the music from her parents for K. 576 and learned the slow movement.

It is a very serious, ambiguous movement. It was hard for her because it is in a hard key. But she mastered it after a few days.

“Come on, Max,” she said, “It’s your turn.”

She showed me how to play “Chopsticks.” It was so easy that I learned it in twenty minutes. She laughed, hearing me play it.

Her favorite pianist was someone I never heard of, Victor Borge. “He’s a comic pianist,” she said. “He keeps interrupting the music to say things to make you laugh.”

We spent almost all our time together. She talked about everything under the sun. She was incredibly smart and inquisitive. She had read a lot of adult books and seen a lot of movies for grown-ups, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Caine Mutiny. She told me the plots in great detail.

“The scene where Queeg tries to apologize to the officers for running away from the battle and leaving the yellow dye marker,” she told me. “That wasn’t in the book. That makes the ending of the book much weaker.”

She had a portable DVD player. She had her parents bring in a large collection of movies, which we watched together. I was amazed at how smart her remarks about them were. She had the mind of an adult, though she was only 12.

She had a DVD of the movie Dark Passage, with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. I found it haunting a very romantic.

“The plot is stupid,” she said, “but the visual symbolism is awesome. Bacall is young enough to be his daughter, but throughout the movie she plays the role of his mother, sheltering him, protecting him. Look how she takes the bandages off after his plastic surgery. Just like a mother giving birth to a child.”

We would lie on our stomachs, our heads close together. Occasionally she would rumple my hair affectionately.

She had read adult books like The Brothers Karamazov, The Alexandria Quartet, The Great Gatsby. She told me the plots. She had criticisms of all of them.

“The end of Gatsby is contrived,” she told me. “Daisy wouldn’t have been driving home with Gatsby, much less driving the car herself. She would have gone home with Tom and Jordan. Gatsby would have driven home with Nick. The whole ending is flawed.”

I couldn’t follow this, but it didn’t matter. It was fun just to listen to her.

She was almost as mischievous as Bart. She stole things from the nurses’ station. She short-sheeted another girl’s bed. She smuggled in cigarettes and vodka, I never knew how.

My first puff on a cigarette made me cough.

“You have to get used to it,” she said.

The vodka had an unpleasant taste, and it bothered my stomach, but I enjoyed the effect. It made me woozy and silly. Hannah and I started laughing so hard that one of the nurses came in to shut us up. I saw her wrinkling her nose, she must have thought we had liquor in the room. But she shrugged and went away.

“See?” Hannah said. “They’re all stupid, Max.”

We talked about marriage.

“I would never marry a Jewish guy,” she said. “They’re too serious, and they’re boring. They’re always thinking about stupid things like politics. Max, if you spent time at my house you would hear so much damn talk about Israel and the Middle East, it would make you throw up. They’re too narrow.”

“I would like to marry someone who knows how to have fun,” she said. “Someone who doesn’t take the world so seriously.”

She looked at me. “How about you, Max? Who would you like to marry?”

I thought of Sherry, how sweet she was, how kind. Then I thought of Melanie, whose bitterness had really endeared her to me. And of Elin.

I pointed to Hannah.

“You’re kidding me!” she said. “You’re teasing me, you little shit.”

I shook my head. I could see myself growing up and marrying Hannah. She was so smart and so funny, and she was never mean. Being married to her would be a constant party.

“I thought I was ugly and stupid, Max. Nobody likes me. Everybody thinks I’m too loud and opinionated.”

I didn’t know what opinionated meant. I just smiled and shook my head.

“You would really want me?” she asked.

I nodded.

She put her arms around me and kissed me. “Honey, that’s the nicest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.

Thoughtfully she added, “I think you would be good in bed. You’re so sweet and gentle. I think you could make me happy that way.”

Little did she know I was already experienced in this area.


After that Hannah and I embroidered a scheme to run away and get married. We would hide out in a cabin in the woods in some place like Colorado. No one would find us until we were already married. She would grow up to be a music teacher, and I would grow up to be a mathematician.

We would have three children, two girls and a boy. The children would have no religion.

“They’ll grow up believing in love, not God,” she said.

I thought of what our children might look like. They would have her dark eyes, perhaps my lighter complexion.

The thought of having a little boy intrigued me. My father loved me so much, so painfully. I was sure I would feel that about a son of my own. I could just see myself taking him for a walk around the block, hiding candy in a tree for him. Playing catch with him.

I had never really thought about giving. I had only thought about surviving, staying alive. The idea of being grown up, being in a position to give to somebody — to Hannah, for instance — was exciting.

It’s dangerous to allow yourself to hope. Hannah and I were both cancer patients with a bad prognosis. They always say, “Attitude is Everything,” but that’s not true. No one ever had the self-confidence of Bart, and the cancer killed him with ease.

But another thought occurred to me. Maybe hope has a value in itself.

I knew that love had a value. I still loved Bethany, even though Bethany was dead. My love couldn’t do anything for her, but it was as much a part of me as my own self. I loved Melanie, and through my love she was still with me, though I couldn’t do anything for her either.

I began to think of life in a different way. I started to think of life as this moment, this instant of life in my heart and my body. Maybe I wouldn’t grow up and have children with Hannah. But this time with her, this love, was in its small way eternal.

Bethany was gone, killed by history. The passage of time had brought her relentlessly to that moment when the car would run over her bike. The passage of time was taking her further from me every moment. But the day she held me in her arms and said, “Max, isn’t that the stupidest thing you ever saw?” — that moment wasn’t dead. It would be here as long as I was here. Maybe even after I was gone.

Hannah had read me parts of The Stranger by Albert Camus. At the end of the story, when Meursault is about to be executed, a priest tries to reason with him, to bring him to God at the last moment. “Can’t you imagine another life? What would you like that life to be?”

Meursault replies, “A life where I could remember this one.”

“Do you love this world to that point?”


The priest, not understanding at all, thought of this as a sort of hell. But to Meursault it was Heaven.  The world he had known, the beauty of being alive, the woman he had loved. Nothing before or after mattered.

These thoughts went through my mind as I lay with my head in Hannah’s lap and felt her fingers run through my hair. This was it, this was my moment. The future could do whatever it wanted to her and to me.  Nothing could take our love away.

She took my hand and guided it under her shirt to her breast. “Feel that, Max,” she said. “Some day you’ll make love to me. You’ll make me happy. You’ll make babies with me.”

Well, Max, I said to myself, you certainly have been a success with the opposite sex.

So it was that one morning, when I saw that Hannah was gone, and I asked the nurse where she was, I was not surprised to hear, “Hannah had some problems, she had to go into Intensive Care.”

I went back to my bed and lay down.

Don’t die, I thought.

She called me on her cell phone later that day. “Doesn’t this suck?” she asked. “I miss you, sweetie.”

“I miss you, too.” These were the first words I had ever spoken.

“So you can talk after all, you little bastard. Were you holding out on me?”

I couldn’t say any more.

“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “You gave me a gift, Max. I’ll always remember that.”

I listened intently, waiting for her next words.

“I’m gonna beat this shit, Max. If not for me, for you.”

If only I could have answered her!

“Hang in there, honey. We have a lot to live for.”

Later that week Hannah left the hospital. She had to have a bone marrow transplant.

I never saw her again.