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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