“It was his own plaid shirt, lost, he’d thought, long ago in some damn laundry, his dirty shirt, the pocket ripped, buttons missing, stolen by Jack and hidden here inside Jack’s own shirt, the pair like two skins, one inside the other, two in one. He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.” (Proulx, 52)
I think perhaps one of the most pertinent struggles in Brokeback Mountain is Jack and Ennis’ unyielding desire to remain ‘masculine’ by their own perception, while simultaneously justifying being in a loving homosexual relationship with each other. Considering their station in life, their rural isolated upbringings, lonely laborious jobs, and the general independent cowboy culture that is deeply woven into Proulx’s prose, Jack and Ennis have mutually agreed to completely ignore the contemplation of their own queerness. Although Jack was more forthcoming and emotional about his and Ennis’ connection, supplying daydreams of the two living together on a ranch of their own, the deep guttural fear of queer discovery and resulting violence kept their lives from developing with one another. The shirts signify so much more than just collected clothing, but rather a small crack in a harshly masculine narrative, tangible proof of Jack’s emotional loyalty to Ennis. Ennis finally allows himself to remember Brokeback Mountain, a place and time so far removed, and the desperate burying of his head into Jack’s shirt is both longing for his lover, and a world in which everything was perfect. The secluded and somber nature of the moment, Ennis standing utterly alone in Jack’s childhood bedroom, also is indicative of Ennis’s lack of ability to express emotions of desire, nostalgia, love, and loss. I also believe this is a moment of regret. Regret at his prior inability to truly tell Jack how much he means to him, and how he should have thrown his anxiety about their relationship to the wind, and at least tried to contemplate his queer identity alongside him.
The concept of ‘two skins’ vaguely gestures at the idea of soulmates, which is yet another truth that Jack’s sudden and violent death has forced him to process. But everything, Jack, the shirts, and all high-altitude fucks considered, leads back to the mountain. The mountain and it’s haunting, inescapable ‘imagined power’. The shirts are a historical relic of an era that is hungrily remembered and insistently chased after, it’s a memory of when their relationship was acceptable, because nobody was watching. Ennis’ belief that homosexual love and masculinity are not mutually exclusive is distilled within the depths of the mountain, as their private, uninterrupted love was what Ennis could handle, and perhaps more importantly, what society could allow.