Drinking You In
by Chip Livingston
Peter hopped into his VW Rabbit and popped the hood. Inhaling the heavy aroma of cedar in the ashtray still burning, an unraveling ball that Lana had rolled tightly between her hands, he stepped from the car and checked his oil. It splashed across the engine as he added the needed quart, and Lana stood beside him supervising as he tried to wipe the thick syrup with a wad of paper towels.
“You know it’s going to smoke until it burns off,” she said. “Don’t think you’re having a breakdown.”
He topped off the water in the radiator, shut the hood with a metal thunk and wiped his hands on another wad of towels. His fingers were still greasy as he took his sister’s small hands, nails manicured and clean from her standard practice of delegation, but tender palmed from the pricks of pine needles. He could smell the cedar as he kissed her knuckles.
* * * *
For all the expected trouble with his car, the drive to Atlanta was going smoothly, and Peter’s thoughts were concentrated solely on Cache, on bringing him back, whatever it would take. Warm wind whistled through the opened windows, drowning out mix tapes of once popular dance tracks. His left hand rode the hot, humid waves. His shirt off, Peter peered forward, eyes on the road, watching heat apparitions rise from the pavement.
Four hours into the drive he saw storm clouds. Peter welcomed the cool relief. He accelerated toward that downfall. Just south of Macon came the first large drops. Alligator tears. The cold rain stung Peter’s arm and he rolled up the windows. Inside the beat-up car, the pelting rain challenged the motor to a roaring match and Peter turned off the radio. Peter made out a blue sign: Rest Area Ahead.
He stepped from the Rabbit, enjoying now the water stinging his shoulders, cool points like acupuncture. Barefoot, Peter followed the cut strip ahead of him, inhaled the scent of fresh grass cuttings covered by the sudden blanket of rain. Earth. Water. Air thick with the elements. He turned away from the building housing restrooms toward the woods. In the pine hammock, Peter knelt and cupped his hands to light a cigarette. Fire. He could smell the sap in the rain. Peter tried to talk with God. He cleared the needles with his foot and doused the cigarette in the dirt and placed the filter in his pack. There was one cigarette left, and Peter separated the paper down the cylinder’s side. He poured the tobacco into his left hand, made a soft fist around it and continued.
“Esakitaumessee,” he said. “Master of Breath, it’s me, Hokkolen Yahv. Help me not to have expectations. Help me to accept whatever happens.”
A familiar sensation rose between his eyes and nose as he stood, and Peter allowed himself to cry, free from anyone’s sight. He looked toward the sky, could only make out a dim gray beyond the green and brown. And the rain continued.
“Please let Cache get well,” he spoke out loud. “Please let us remember how to save him.”
Peter released his fist and swung his arm so that the tobacco fell to the ground counterclockwise. He remembered the words on the poster at the health clinic. “The earth has acquired an immune dysfunction. We are all living with AIDS.”
Peter rubbed his hands together, swept the tobacco where it clung to his wet hand in creases. Life line. Fate line. Heart line. Head line.
“Forgive me,” he prayed, “for trying to influence things. I know I’m not…”
He stopped and tried again. “I just want so badly to…”
“Please, Creator. Help me to understand.”
Peter turned and began the walk back toward the restrooms and vending machines. He entered the red brick building, suddenly sorry he wasn’t wearing shoes as he walked across the bathroom’s slick and sticky tile. He bought a 75-cent cup of watery coffee, wiped his feet roughly against the rubber studded doormat, looked outside at the rain still pouring down. When light broke through the edges of the storm, he walked back to the car and started north again. It was still raining but the sun was coming out. The devil’s wife was beating him with a frying pan, Granny always said. It meant anything was bound to happen.
It was sunny again as he drove into the city and found Cache’s apartment. Peter looked in the rearview mirror. He reached into the backseat and grabbed a baseball cap. Peter opened the door and stretched out, looked up the stairs, and began the climb to his beloved.
Cache met him at the door. “You made it! How was the drive?”
Peter hugged him, kissed the hair by his ear, whispered, “The drive was fine.” Peter cupped Cache’s shoulder blades. “You look beautiful.”
“Come in. Take the short tour.”
The tour ended in the bedroom, where Peter lay down on his back and raised his hands behind his head.
“Tell me what you’ve been doing.” Cache sat beside him, took Peter’s hat off and rumpled his hair.
“I missed you.”
Cache leaned down and Peter kissed him, pulled him to the bed and slid his hand up Cache’s shirt. “Are you hungry?” he asked.
“I just want to touch you,” Cache said.
Peter rolled Cache over to his back, climbed on top and sat carefully astride him. Cache closed his eyes as Peter removed his shirt.
This is your body, Peter thought, lowering his head to kiss Cache across the chest. He mapped out the surface, charting sizes, shapes, positions of freckles, moles and scars. He looked for signs of change, discoloration, for something he might have missed. As they made love, Peter measured Cache’s muscles, his fat, the distance from skin to bone. Fingers brushing lymph nodes, he broke the kiss to taste the salty skin, to bite into Cache’s nipple as he watched him come.
Then Cache lay still, but Peter’s fingers kept moving. He traced the hair line from the navel, along the heart. He moved down the right arm. At Cache’s wrist, Peter’s fingers slowed and followed a vein to a chicken-pox scar just below the bend of the elbow. Peter imagined the tiny holes where they drew blood. He traced the vein back to the wrist, and like a nurse, Peter counted the heartbeats. Cache’s pulse was slowing, and Peter put his head on his lover’s chest.
He watched their come turn watery and roll down Cache’s belly. He put his palm in the middle to test its sticky pull. It smelled faintly of bleach, and Peter wondered if it was from the new drugs Cache was taking. Peter rolled to the side, his arm still draped over his love’s lean chest, then stole away quietly once Cache’s breathing settled into the familiar pattern of sleep.
Peter took a hot shower, stood naked in front of the full-length mirror, and toweled off. He waited for the steam to clear, then like a teenager, he leaned forward and examined his face. He looked for signs of change. Discoloration. For something he might have missed.
Chip Livingston’s story “Drinking You In” was a finalist for the 2016 Christopher Hewitt Award in Fiction. Livingston is the author of the novel Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death (Lethe, 2017); a story and essay collection, Naming Ceremony; and two poetry volumes, Crow-Blue, Crow-Black and Museum of False Starts. Chip teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Institute of American Indian Arts and Regis University. Visit his website at www.chiplivingston.com.