“This is one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve read this year. The prose flows along smoothly, and Boris’s understanding of the subtlety of language shines through. Her main characters are lovingly drawn and perfectly fleshed out, as is to be expected. But the brushstrokes with which she paints the lesser characters are even more impressive. There are no cardboard cutouts in this book. If you want to remember what your first crush felt like, read this book immediately. Even if you don’t, read it anyway. Laurie Boris is a writer to remember…” – Susan Bennett
Art teacher Daniel Benedetto has cystic fibrosis. At thirty-four, he’s already outlived his doctor’s “expiration date,” but that doesn’t stop him from giving all he can to his students and his work. When he takes on Caitlin, his landlady’s daughter, as a private student, the budding teen painter watches in torment as other people, especially women, treat Daniel like a freak because of his condition. To Caitlin, Daniel is not a disease, not someone to pity or take care of but someone to care for, a friend, and her first real crush. Convinced one of those women is about to hurt him, Caitlin makes one very bad decision.
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I didn’t know much about cystic fibrosis until I met Bill Fiscaletti. He attended the same high school as my husband. The two were introduced through their art teacher and became friends. When I came on the scene a few years later, Bill was a pretty brilliant painter and actively involved with community theater. We’d come to his plays and meet afterward for dinner. When he talked about CF it was mainly to rage about medical funding and why AIDS got all the research money when there were more kids dying from CF. Otherwise, he treated it as a fact of his life. Sometimes he had to go for treatments, sometimes he got sick, and my husband visited him in the hospital. Sure, he coughed, but after a while you just got used to it, waited until he was done, and continued the conversation. Bill was just Bill, not a guy with a disease.
Yet without having known Bill, I might have never written Drawing Breath. Heck, he’s one of the reasons I finished my first book and kept going. He was one of my heroes, although I never told him. If I had, he probably would have laughed and changed the subject. He believed in doing art, not talking about art, and he didn’t consider himself a hero. Despite having cystic fibrosis and being in pretty rough shape at times, he just went about his business, did his breathing therapy, took his medication, and poured his passion into the activities and people he loved, even though he was already way past his “expiration date.”
We silly humans can put blinders on when looking at people with horrible chronic diseases. As if they’re saints or something. Bill was flawed, like all of us. Human, like all of us. He could have a temper, especially when he sensed he was being humored or pitied. He blew deadlines. He spaced on details, which led to sometimes sad and sometimes comical results. For reasons I could never fathom even though he explained it to me (patiently) dozens of times, he was a big fan of professional boxing and especially Muhammad Ali. He could be frustrating, but he could also be sweet and thoughtful and kind, often when you least expected it. As far as I knew, he never had a real girlfriend, and that made me horribly sad, because he had so much to give and was so infinitely lovable. Maybe that’s also one of the reasons I wrote this book. But muses work in funny ways. As the character of Daniel became less Bill and more Daniel, the love I wanted to give him became more complicated, more demanding, more human.
This book is dedicated to Bill, although he’d probably tell me to stop talking about him and get back to work. So I do. I put my head down and write another novel, and another, and another.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Daniel was originally based on a friend with cystic fibrosis; however, through that alchemy of fiction, a character formed around him and Daniel became his own person. The other characters seemed like a natural fit with him. A sister, a student, a potential love interest… I thought they would populate his world well. They were not based on people I knew but grew up around the story.
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.”
Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of five novels. When not playing with the universe of imaginary people in her head, she enjoys baseball, cooking, reading, and helping aspiring novelists as a contributing writer and editor for IndiesUnlimited.com. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley.
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