Brokeback Island


And you actually think there are appropriate limits to abortion rights? . . . That some unborn lives are more valuable than others? . . . What about first trimester fetuses? . . . Vegetative geriatrics? . . . . Should health care be universalized? But what qualifies as “health care”? . . . . . .What do you think about executive power? What are your thoughts about . . .


Scott and I were arguing. More often than not, we agreed. On several occasions, though, we both spoke at once and, in our enthusiasm, refused to yield for several seconds, yammering at full tilt straight at each other. We addressed these weighty matters while riding in a rental car from the Savannah, Georgia airport to Hilton Head, South Carolina, where my parents own a second home.

We turned into a nature preserve just after entering the island with the intention of seeing alligators. Walking among ancient swamps where Native Americans once built shell mounds, we somehow got around to the topic of Dick Cheney and agreed that the guy who told him, twice, to “go fuck yourself” during a New Orleans press conference was a paragon of American freedom. We also agreed that Richard Pryor, whose recent death had led to a resurgence of his brash routines, nailed race on the head harder than a dozen Black Studies departments and all their towering egos and chatterbox graduate students ever could.

We planned this trip back in June. Now it was January, and the sky was clear blue and the temperature crisp, staying in the low 50s. There was no other point to our venture than talking. Simple as that. Talking was something Scott and I did as intuitively as bullfrogs croaking across a pond. We’d been going at it for over 12 years.

It’s not that I can talk to Scott about anything because he’s an especially stable person. He’s such a hypochondriac that once, upon sustaining a racquetball shot to the forehead, he convinced himself that the swelling was a brain tumor. On another occasion, when we started grad school together in Baltimore, he was so distraught about leaving Texas that he grew a red shock of a beard and didn’t leave his apartment for nearly a semester. During his self-imposed hibernation I frequently brought him food and, every time, he answered the door wearing nothing but his boxer shorts and said, “leave me to suffer my fate alone—hey thanks for the grub, dude.”

So no, it wasn’t emotional stability that endeared me to Scott, but something far more necessary in a friend: Scott loves a good conversation. One need not be particularly stable to perfect this art. A lack of stability, in fact, probably helps.

We returned to the car, having seen no wildlife more exciting than a few grackles, and moved on to discussions about the best periodicals and blogs, the legitimacy of affirmative action, the Puritanical implications of the V-chip, and Hillary Rodham Clinton. While things were clearly progressing conversationally, however, there was an underlying issue that we had yet to confront. It turns out that the premise of our trip had come under substantial outside scrutiny.

Indeed, talking might have been what bound us. Talking might have been why we were here together. But talking was also the problem.

Brokeback Mountain, the much-hyped movie about a couple of gay ranch hands had just hit the screens and more than a few people noticed that Scott and I were staying alone at my parents’ beach house on an island in South Carolina. Particularly eye-raising was that there was no apparent reason for us to be doing so. Our intimacy was, I’m the first to admit, completely by design. When we planned our trip we were insistent upon the requirement that nobody else join us because—again, quite selfishly—we didn’t want our conversations to be interrupted. As the date of our meeting approached, however, the Brokeback press intensified in direct proportion to the questions that began to badger us. Soon it became clear that loved ones on both sides had whipped themselves into the conviction that Scott and I were planning a “brokeback professors” tryst.

“Tell me again,” my mom kept asking, “why you are going on this trip, with another man, just the two you, no one else, by yourselves, all alone, to a beach house for God’s sakes, for a long weekend . . ?”

When I explained that we were best friends and liked to talk, she looked at me like I had responded in Swahili and, like a White House reporter, rephrased the question.

Scott was fielding his own line of questioning. “What academic conference was it that you and Jimmy will be attending in Charleston?” his stepfather kept asking.

After explaining for the third time that it wasn’t a conference and that he wasn’t going to Charleston, Scott gave up and announced that we were on a panel at the annual meeting of APA—the “American Pontificators Association.” Somehow this worked.

But my mom wouldn’t be thrown off her scent. This is a woman whom when I lived under her roof pretty much hounded me as a closet addict of every bad habit known to teenagers. Like J. Edgar Hoover in his house dress, she searched my car for drugs, made me breath into her face every time I entered the house, diagnosed me with severe depression if I so much as slept past 9 a.m., and once made arrangements for me to attend rehab when she found a note from my cousin that read, “Jimmy, it was a blast doing LSD with you in Chicago.” The reference was to Long Shore Drive.

Proof that my mom’s zeal hadn’t slackened came when Scott and I pulled up to a sporting goods store to purchase a packet of fish bait and, just as I was choosing between lures or shrimp, my cell phone rang. My brother was calling.

“Hey man I’m in Savannah.”

“You’re where?”

“Yeah, Savannah, on a business trip. I’ll be there in 30 minutes. We’ll do dinner and I’ll stay over. You guys having fun?”

I coughed out a laugh. I knew my mom put Michael up to this “business trip.” But I just said “more the merrier” and he came over and then, for a night, everything changed.

Scott and I were now men among men. We drank a bunch of beer and talked about hunting and movies. After the second bottle of wine at dinner and a visit to a local bar, we were well into discussions about horsepower and boats. My brother told a terrific story about defending himself against a suspected burglar by clicking an unloaded rifle while hovering in the closet of his bedroom. Scott admitted keeping a hatchet (!?) under his bed for his homeland security. Both were shocked that I slept un-armed. We all retired at 2 a.m. and Scott and I arose at 10, well past decent fishing time. My brother had already left, hustling out in such a rush that he left behind an expensive tie and his watch. The entire evening had been more Sideways than Brokeback Mountain.

The night after my brother left Scott and I sat out back—looking I’m sure like a modern day Ennis and Jack—and watched the tide fill up the intercoastal waterway. We talked, enjoying an extended discussion about the environmental implications of suburbanization, the lunacy of David “God Damn” Brooks, and the hidden potential of rural America to stoke its populist roots. It occurred to me as Scott talked how easily we fell back into our groove. Sipping Chardonnay, clad in metrosexual duds, enjoying the breeze coming off the ocean behind “our” getaway beach house, we were challenging each other through the kind conversation that lets nothing pass unquestioned. And then, as it always does, the conversation got down to private matters, stuff only the closest of friends can share, stuff most people never even mention—secrets, fears, and the like. It was that kind of conversation where nothing is questioned—just internalized, and understood.

Step into any humanities graduate seminar room in the nation and you’re bound to find very bright young people engaging in what they pretentiously call discourses on sexuality. A popular theory goes something along the lines of this: Nobody is really gay or straight but, instead, located somewhere in between on the delightfully broad spectrum of sexual options. It’s all flexible, gender-bended, and open to interpretation. Scott and I were more than familiar with this academic cant. And it did absolutely nothing for us. It did even less for the people around us. What ultimately mattered to us on Brokeback Island was the freedom to talk. What ultimately mattered to those around us was the underlying hunch that we might—God forbid it!—be gay. The art of conversation and a brazen obsession with sexuality had become hopelessly entangled. In part because of a Hollywood movie, homosexuality was now “out” in the national conversation. Meanwhile our personal conversation—something that strikes me as fundamentally more important than sexual orientation—was deemed suspicious. It had become much easier to believe that two men were gay than that they genuinely liked to talk to each other about important things in nice settings while wearing (admittedly) trendy foot ware.

I will frequently joke with my students that the fall of American civilization will come when everyone is distracted by e-mail, I-pods, cell phones and Blackberrys. But I’m only half-kidding. These devices—and the bizarre behaviors they induce (been to an airport of late?)—might help us communicate. They might bring us together in lust and live-and-let-live tolerance. But they also make the world a place where meaningful talk becomes so irrelevant that should you base a trip on it everyone starts giving you the business.

When I finally got around to seeing Brokeback Mountain, I, like most critics, thought it was a touching story about two men who fell in love. It was, in other words, a touching gay love story. No big deal. What was so interesting to me, though, was how little Ennis and Jack actually had to say to each other. Yes, Ennis grunted out his feelings every now and then and, sure, Jack had his monologue-driven moments. But when you got down to it what stood out most about the movie was the clipped dialogue, the quiet stretches of tension, the scenery and, of course, the sex. I was impressed with Ennis and Jack for a variety of reasons, but the quality of their discussion was more awkward than anything else exchanged between them. In this department, clearly, these men had a lot to learn.

But not me and Scott. A couple days after I saw the movie Scott called me at work. He, too, had seen the movie and we talked about it for an hour or so. Then, oddly enough, he suggested a summer retreat. Same place, same purpose. I made a joke about the timing and nature of his suggestion—you know, right after our discussion about the movie and all.

“Relax, dude,” he said without skipping a beat, “we’ll just call it a fishing trip.”

James E. McWilliams does the vast majority of his talking in Austin, where he lives, and San Marcos, where he teaches.

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