Daniel once told Caitlin that taking his life drawing class would be a good opportunity to learn fundamental skills.
So much for that, Caitlin thinks, slumping in her chair. Despite her best efforts, the figure on her sketchpad is nothing but a blob: a fuzzy, overworked, impatient, smudged graphite blob with legs, hair, and fat, pendulous breasts.
In the four three-hour evening sessions she’s soldiered through so far, wearing down her pencils, kneaded erasers, and the patience of everyone around her, all she’s learned is that she’s wasted twelve hours.
She mentally rehearses what she’ll say to Daniel when he comes around. While it was nice of you to make space for me in your class and nice of my mother to forgive last month’s rent in exchange for tuition, this isn’t really working out.
Besides, she’d rather paint, covering big, blank surfaces with energetic splashes of color. She’d rather work from her imagination instead of from the lumpy, nude model the community center had provided. If Caitlin looks like that one day, she hopes someone will shoot her. She certainly wouldn’t have the nerve to pose naked in front of a whole class. Even thinking about doing it fully clothed, with all those strangers staring, gives her a creepy itch.
Yes. I’ll tell Daniel it was all a mistake.
Six easels away, he traces the lines on someone’s drawing, stooping over to point out a technique to be corrected. She watches the confident sweep of his odd, beautiful hands. His fingers are long, bulbous at their tips like a giant, human tree frog. Other than Daniel, she’s the only one here who knows why.
She’s also the only one who knows you aren’t supposed to make a fuss when he coughs or has to leave the room. She also knows that the black leather pouch at the bottom of his knapsack contains medications for his cystic fibrosis, a bunch of little vials lined up like soldiers. He’d shown them to her once, told her what each is for. There’s one to prevent infections. One does something to his immune system. One helps him breathe better. She forgets the rest. Sometimes she forgets he’s sick. Sometimes she looks at Daniel and forgets everything.
While she waits, Caitlin pulls her kneaded eraser into long, soft threads. He seems to be moving in slow motion tonight. Now he stands over the woman five easels away. From the name tags Daniel asked them to wear, Caitlin knows the woman’s name is Bess. Bess had written the four small, tidy letters in a fine-point black marker, while Caitlin chose three different colors and could barely fit her name on one paper square.
Bess can lose a few pounds, Caitlin thinks. A roll of fat protrudes below the belt of her skirt. Glasses years out of style slip down her nose; graying, mouse-brown hair sticks out of a messy bun.
And if I look like that one day, oh, my God!
Just when Caitlin starts to feel superior about her relatively flat belly and glossy, black hair, Bess laughs at something Daniel has said. Her shoulders lift from their slump; her eyes catch fire.
This strikes a queasy chord in Caitlin’s stomach. It reminds her she is only sixteen in a class full of adults, in a world full of adults, which means she has to work twice as hard to be interesting, especially to Daniel.
By the time he gets to her, there isn’t much left of the eraser. Her heart thumps wildly. She blushes hard and feels so useless and untalented that she can barely glance up at him. He’s probably looking at her in his usual way, in his patient, teacher-like, upstairs-neighbor-like way.
Certainly not the way he looks at Bess.
“How’s it going, Caitlin?” Daniel asks.
Sometimes when he says her name, she feels five years older. Today, it doesn’t take.
Caitlin can’t think of anything interesting to say on the three-mile drive home from the community center, so she steals glances at Daniel’s profile, the slope of his cheekbone, the curling, honey-brown hair, and wonders what it’s like to live on borrowed time. Her mother once said that most people born with his disease—at least, at the time Daniel was born—don’t live to be much older than Caitlin is right now.
Daniel is thirty-four.
Sometimes Caitlin forgets that, too. She often tries to convince herself that because he’s beaten the odds, he’s been given a new life, like in a video game.
He pulls into the driveway beside her mother’s station wagon. It’s only ten-fifteen. Too bad her mother is home. If not, she’d ask Daniel if she could come up and make spaghetti and watch TV. She likes his apartment better. Even though it’s messy and smells like oil paint and turpentine, it’s heaven compared to the downstairs reek of cat pee, cigarettes, and damp basement.
Caitlin’s mother is always home, it seems.
Daniel clicks off the ignition. The engine of his old car, older than her mother’s, rattles, wheezes, and exhales a series of pings and pops before finally cutting out. Never wanting to be the first to leave, she waits for him to open his door, but he doesn’t. He just sits there, facing forward, eyes taking a soft measure of something in the distance.
Then he turns to her. “You did good work tonight.”
Caitlin sinks deeper into her seat. She hasn’t earned a compliment. She has merely taken up space and played with her kneaded eraser. Served as an amusement to the other students.
He turns on the overhead light and gestures to her sketchpad. “Let me see it again.”
His hand breaks her heart: the long bones, the wide tips with broad, smooth nails, translucent as the inside of a seashell. No one knows exactly why cystic fibrosis makes his fingers look like that; it’s just one of the results. She wants to touch his fingers, but does not dare. She gives him the pad. If he’d asked for her body, her perfect, pink, sixteen-year-old lungs, she’d have given him that, too.
“It sucks,” she says to her evening’s efforts, as if it’s the sketchpad’s fault, or the model’s.
“But you’re just starting. If you keep at it, if you keep showing up, you’ll get better. I promise.”
She’d shown up because Daniel was teaching. That was before she’d turned out to be the worst student in his class. “If I want to paint abstracts, why do I have to take stupid life drawing?”
“You don’t have to do anything. Life drawing is something that’s good for you as an artist. Like broccoli.”
“I hate broccoli. So do you! Last time Mom made it for supper, you only had one bite.”
He smiles. “Warhol took life drawing.”
This gets her attention. Caitlin has an Andy Warhol print—neon-bright panels of Marilyn Monroe—tacked up on the ceiling over her bed. “Really?”
“Sure. Warhol, Pollock, Picasso…”
“Yeah, but I bet he wasn’t the worst one in his class,” Caitlin says. “I bet it wasn’t at some grubby old community center that smelled like old coffee and pea soup where his mother used to make him sort people’s old crap for ladies auxiliary rummage sales. I bet he was really good at focusing and didn’t get distracted looking at what everyone else was doing.”
This is probably the most she’s ever said to him at once. The words hover over the front seat of his car, blending into the chirps of the spring peepers and the softness of the evening air. She wishes she could reel the words back in and make them sound more clever. She wishes he would stop looking at her and say something. He doesn’t. Heat rises into Caitlin’s cheeks. “Maybe, I mean, maybe I’d do better if sometime you taught a class with fewer people? Or maybe…” She swallows the dryness from her throat, daring herself to say the words. “Private lessons? Do you ever do anything like that?”
She feels suddenly stupid and too young. Private lessons? What had she been thinking? He is so talented, his time so valuable, his borrowed time. She can’t even imagine how many months of rent that would be in exchange. It was a foolish whim, and her mother would be furious. Probably she’s furious right now, smoking a cigarette, peeking out from behind the curtain and wondering why Caitlin is still sitting in Daniel’s car, bothering him.
“Oh, forget it,” she says. “We could never afford to pay you.”
He’s still looking at her. His long-lashed, brown eyes seem to measure her instead of the night, calculating if she’s an adequate investment of his borrowed time. “Let me talk to your mother,” he says. “Maybe we can work something out.”
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Laurie, I’ve just this moment finished reading Drawing Breath and I want, need to say thank you. Thank you for the characters, thank you for the beauty of the story, thank you for the beauty of the writing but most of all thank you for not fudging the ending. There is no growth without pain and sometimes we need to be reminded of that by not getting a ‘happy ending’. Thank you for trusting that your readers would know that this was right.
Meeks, your words really touched me. Thank you. It was a hard choice but one I knew I had to make, as a writer and to stay loyal to my characters.
Just thought I’d let you know that Candy Korman reviewed Drawing Breath on Amazon.
Hey, thanks for letting me know!
My name is Amanda. I live in Poughkeepsie, NY. I just wanted to say thank you for the amazing story of Daniel and Caitlin. My husband has Cystic Fibrosis and I am an avid reader always looking for a good novel on the subject. When I saw your book took place in the Hudson Valley in the reviews I knew I had to read it.
I have read a few fiction novels on CF but none have ever included as much accurate detail as your book. I especially enjoyed the way you shared not only the view of Caitlin, loving a man with a chronic illness but Daniels view of living with the illness as well.
People see my husband and make comments about how “he doesn’t look sick.” They don’t understand the internal battle that people with CF have to fight every day. Your book shows that with perfect detail. My husband especially liked the part about “plugging in” and wanting to pretend to be a robot.
And from my point of view I can agree with Caitlin’s character being worried about Daniel and some of the comments you made, especially the one about Daniel not wanting to be touched when he was having a fit. It is very difficult being there for someone without crossing the line into smothering them.
Thank you so much for a touching story that hit home on so many levels.
I am humbled. In the process of writing this book and afterward, I’ve met and heard from some amazing, courageous people. And now you. Thank you, thank you, thank you to you and your husband for reading and for your wonderful words. “He doesn’t look sick.” Yeah. Many people don’t understand. So I’m glad I can chip away at that a little, for all of us.