During my first reading of Brokeback Mountain, the May, 1983 camping scene struck me as very odd. These two guys have been getting together a couple times a year for twenty years (well, except for the four immediately after the Brokeback summer), and what do they talk about before they have sex? Affairs they claim to be having with women. The entire scene struck me as a piece of very bizarre denial. "We're not gay! Nope. We're just going to have a little sex. But we are not gay."
But since then, it occurred to me that the conversation says a lot about their relationship. First of all, the second part, in which they discuss their kids during their foreplay, reminds me of the kinds of conversations that old, married couples have in bed. It's as if they've been doing this for so long that they no longer slam one another against tree trunks and have wild sex for five days straight. Now, they sit by the fire and talk about dyslexia (and there's something that says how much high-school-dropout Jack has changed since the 1960's) while they undress one another.
The very ordinariness of the conversation makes me want to cry, for the ordinary relationship that Jack and Ennis weren't able to have.
And maybe more importantly, it struck me that the whole conversation says something about the way that Jack and Ennis are both in sorts of denial about what's going on. Jack's lying to Ennis; as others on this community have said in some old posts, Jack isn't seeing a neighbor's wife, he's seeing the neighbor himself. And Ennis... well, Ennis is lying to himself.
Jack's got the reputation of being the dreamer, the one who wants to be open about the relationship. But you know, Jack lies a lot throughout the story. The most obvious point, besides the "neighbor's wife" comment, is in the hotel after the reunion sex:
"...You do it with other guys? Jack?"
"Shit no," said Jack, who had been riding more than bulls, not rolling his own.
But I think Jack lies more often than that -- I think he lies about his sexuality almost instinctively. He starts the conversation in the hotel by claiming that he didn't expect to have sex with Ennis again, before he breaks himself off and admits that he was there because he wanted to "get into this again." I wonder if Jack was lying when he responded so quickly to Ennis's "I'm not no queer" that first summer -- the way he jumps in strikes me as protesting a bit too loudly. And the summer with Ennis was Jack's second summer on Brokeback Mountain -- I wonder if that's symbolic, if Jack had been involved with other men already before that summer?
It's funny, though. I don't find myself blaming Jack for lying. He certainly doesn't get rewarded for honesty -- it strikes me that it costs Jack a lot to tell Ennis how badly Jack wanted to get back together with Ennis, that time in the hotel room, and again when Jack suggests getting a ranch together. And Ennis just pulls away, shoots down the dream. (And what happened during that barely mentioned visit after Alma divorces Ennis, when Jack drove 1200 miles for nothing? It breaks my heart just to think of it.) It's as if lying is a defense mechanism for Jack.
Ennis, on the other hand, tends to tell the truth... as he sees it, at least, mostly. He talks about masturbating while thinking of Jack. He tells Jack about how sick he felt after leaving Brokeback Mountain. He doesn't try to fake wanting sex with Alma after she asks him to use condoms. He doesn't lie to Alma when she confronts him about his relationship with Jack, at Thanksgiving after the divorce -- he just stops the conversation with the threat of violence.
And maybe that's what Ennis always does when something comes near breaking through his self-deception. Maybe that's why he hit Jack, that last day on the mountain -- because something threatened to make Ennis stop lying to himself, to make Ennis admit just how much he cared about Jack. (It's a good thing, perhaps, that Jack didn't try to turn around during that embrace-from-behind, the "shared and sexless hunger" moment. Maybe, if Ennis had had to face his feelings for Jack directly, that embrace would have turned violent too. :( )
One of the really, really cool things about the structure of the story is the way that the seriousness of the relationship is hidden until the end, mirroring Ennis' denial of the relationship. As I read the story for the first time, I kept scrolling on, expecting to find the mad passion implied in the prologue (when Ennis wakes remembering Jack in his dream)... and then I got to the end, and realized that it had been there in the first encounter, but it was hidden in the unemotional language. Ennis doesn't realize that he's been in love until it's too late, and as a reader, I didn't realize how powerful the love story was until the story was over.
When I finished the story, I immediately read it again. No wonder Ennis dreams of Jack every night; it's the closest thing he can have to a good re-read.