Hello Mr.

Essays   ISSUE 05 | ESSAY | PHOTO   Jun 14, 2017

He Opened Up

By Jason Hanasik


 
    
 

Steven and I arrived at Patrick’s house in Rochester, NY, at around 1 a.m. We had been on the road since six that morning andwere running off the buzz of surviving the drive and knowing a bed was within reach. By now, the snow was falling lightly, and I asked Steven if we could make two pictures before bed – one by the tree in his brother’s front yard and one directly in front of his brother’s house.

He said, “Sure,” but only after we had a beer and unloaded our gear.

Before I flew back to the East Coast for the holidays, Patrick and I discussed the possibility of getting together at one of our favorite hangouts: Pinboys, a bowling alley near Lynnhaven Mall. Patrick was working during the week for a company in Virginia and commuting to Rochester on the weekends to be with his new wife and her family. Finding a job in the greater Rochester area had been tough since Patrick had retired from the Marine Corps, so he returned to our hometown, where a large military installation sustains the local economy.

As I was approaching the bowling alley, Patrick sent me a text telling me that he had secured our lane, and that I should just grab some shoes at the desk and come find them. “Them?” I wondered.

I rented a pair of bowling shoes and found my way to Lane 13. As I was tying my laces, Patrick’s younger brother, Steven, walked up beside me with a 13-pound bowling ball in his hand and a shit-eating grin on his face.

Our conversation was stunted and awkward. There was some banter about military politics, where everybody was living and who else we had seen from high school but most of the time we just drank beer and flung our bowling balls into the ten pins at the long lane in front of us.

That night was the first time I’d seen Steven since he’d stood guard next to Josh’s casket. Josh had been Steven’s best friend, and they'd enlisted in the Marine Corps the same day. Like Patrick and me, Josh and Steven had been inseparable throughout high school. But unlike Patrick and I, they’d enlisted together and helped each other endure the rigors of boot camp. They even found a way to be stationed together at the same base in Hawaii.

Although the four of us were always passing each other in the doorways of our family’s homes, we never consciously spent any time together as a group. Patrick and I agreed that one of the reasons was because Steven assumed I was gay and wanted to stay as far away from me as possible. Truth be told, I wanted just as little to do with my sexuality at the time, too. Since then, I have come out, confirming Steven’s suspicions. And though others who had issues with my sexuality grew to accept it, Steven never seemed to come around.

At the end of our evening of bowling, Patrick suggested that we spend New Year’s in Rochester with him and his new wife. Caught in the rush of the reunion and, more importantly, the aftereffects of our third pitcher of beer, I looked at Steven and said, “I’m game if you are.”

Seemingly drunk, it took Steven a second to register the offer. He paused, then smiled. Patrick beamed, and we started discussing the logistics of renting a car, and if we should make a stop to see other friends in New York City.

•••


12
 

I met Steven at 6 a.m. at a car rental shop close to the Hampton Roads Bay Bridge Tunnel. We split the cost of a basic compact car rental and contorted our six-foot-plus frames into its small interior. It had been a week since we had seen each other at the bowling alley Sober and without Patrick as a jovial buffer between the two of us, the conversation was focused on directions to Rochester and whether or not either of us wanted the heat to be turned up. Once we were on our way, we both fell silent and let the radio fill the space.

Somewhere along the Eastern Shore, I broke our unspoken pact, turned towards Steven and asked him how he was coping with Josh’s death. He deflected the questions with a series of short answers, “I’m fine,” and, “You know, okay,” as the car entered a corridor of tall pine trees. I nodded and said, “Oh, okay.” I could feel that he wasn’t telling me the truth so I went silent, turned back towards the road and closed my eyes.

A few minutes passed and Steven – staring straight ahead – said, “Actually, I am not okay.”

With little more than a quick inhale, Steven started to seemingly vomit all of the viewpoints surrounding the controversy of Josh’s death. At that point, all I knew was that Josh had died because his chopper crashed in a lake in Iraq. The family was told that he had drowned with all of his gear still clinging to his back. Steven countered this claim saying that something wasn’t right considering the circumstances. I pressed for clarification and he went silent. Having been around the military my entire life, the dance of small revelations followed by immediate withdrawal was not new to me, so I just let it be and continued to look out the front window at Route 13.

At some point during our short discussion, I unconsciously turned the radio down so we found ourselves coasting in silence for a few minutes. There was an odd tension in the air, kind of the way humidity can almost suffocate you after a rainstorm in a large city. Finally, I looked over at Steven and said that I was sorry. He winced as if he was disgusted so I quickly looked back at the road.

The car was still bathed in shadow from the trees when Steven silently let go and started to weep. He swerved a little in his lane, so I asked if he needed to pull over.

“No, I’m fine,” he said.

The corridor of trees ended, and the car was once again full of the bright, mid-morning sun. As Steven regained his composure, I turned towards him.

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked you,” I said.

Steven winced again and then his face quickly settled and he told me that he had not told anyone how he felt about Josh’s sudden death. He said that he just shut down. He had never expected to stand watch over his best friend’s body while it lay motionless in a flag-draped coffin. More so, he was terrified when he boarded the plane for Iraq immediately after Josh’s funeral because he didn’t feel safe anymore. It was like the myth the military had fed him had disintegrated the moment he looked down at Josh’s body.

I looked forward and thought, Fuck, what do I say?

A moment or two passed and then I finally thanked him for sharing how he felt. He nodded and looked at the road ahead.

•••



1

I turned the radio back up. We let a Top 40 station fill in the rest of the conversation. Shortly after stopping for dinner at a Burger King just over the state line in Pennsylvania, I received a phone call from my father that a bad snowstorm was moving through the state.

The mood had shifted, and our conversation about death had transitioned into one about Steven’s various girlfriends. As predicted, the snowstorm met us a few miles up the road, and we both reminisced about how long it had been since we had driven in a whiteout. My father warned that it would be rough, but we didn’t expect visibility to drop as quickly as it did.

The opening bars of a familiar song came on the radio, but, for the first 10 seconds of the song, I couldn’t place it. Right before Whitney Houston began singing, I remembered the first line and joined her: “I believe the children are our future...” Steven looked over at me and laughed. I immediately stopped singing but Whitney continued on.

I was so focused on the snowstorm in front of us that I missed Steven’s inhale ahead of the second stanza. Suddenly, Steven took the mic, “Everybody’s searching for a hero, People need someone to look up to!”

As the chorus began, I joined Steven, and in our best falsettos we sang, “I decided long ago, never to walk in anyone's shadows.”

For the next three and half minutes, we took turns singing the song for each other, screaming out sections in full-chest voice and vocalizing over Whitney’s melody. By the time the song finished, we had decelerated to 10 miles per hour and I could no longer see the brake lights of the car in front of us. We coasted in a haze of pop songs for what seemed like hours. As we crossed the New York state line, the snowstorm subsided and I took a nap.

We arrived at Patrick’s house in Rochester around 1 a.m.

•••

Over the course of the next week and a half, Steven and I grew closer, and I shot a few pictures of him. The best ones were taken those first few days when I had no idea what I was doing. I was not sloppy as much as I was naïve and searching for a picture that would describe this new space that had opened up between the two of us. Watching Steven perform in front of my viewfinder felt right. He was a familiar foreigner. He seemed to be as curious about me as I was about him. Our picture sessions were like the first few dates of a promising relationship. We each offered ourselves up wholly to the other person without concern or mediation. It was the safest I had felt with another man in a long time.

On New Year's Eve, after Patrick and his wife had gone to bed, Steven and I were out in the garage drinking a few beers. Stories of Josh started to surface again, and I watched tears gather in Steven’s eyes. Drunkenly, he swayed back and forth a little bit and I walked towards him. We were uncomfortably close, even for me, but he didn’t back away. The tears were flowing from both his eyes and mine at this point, and I reached out my arms for a hug. He relaxed into the embrace, and we both sobbed.

In the middle of our hug, I realized that it had been a while since I had held and been held by a man. It felt so good, and I flashed to endless nights of cruising online, looking for someone to hold and hold me, not caring if we ever hooked up. In retrospect, it makes sense – the only other times I had been that close to a male my age was on the dance floor of a gay club. I didn’t have a script to go by, and I started to confuse our intimacy as a sign of sexual possibility on his part.

Our hug ended, and Steven said he needed to head to bed. I stepped back, swayed a little bit and told him I needed to as well.

The next morning, I wondered why, like many men I know, I perceive male vulnerability and intimacy as a code for homosexuality.

We left Rochester two days later.

•••

During the ride home, Steven asked me what I planned to do with the pictures of him. I couldn’t tell if he was nervous about what the images might reveal or if it was just a way to make more conversation during the tiresome ride back to Virginia. I hesitated to tell him that I thought I may have stumbled upon a way of visually dismantling the myth of the impenetrable (straight) American male. The same myth he had watched crumble when Josh died. In my eyes, Steven had finally shed that skin a week and a half ago, in a dark corridor of tall pine trees somewhere along the Eastern Shore.

When I finally stopped analyzing why he asked the question, I said, “Oh you know, I’m just playing around at the moment. You remind me of your brother, the best parts of him – at least the parts I consider to be the best.” I explained that I had been trying to photograph the friendship between his brother and me for the better part of five years and that the images had failed. Not because they were bad, but because there was not much at stake in the them. They were just lovely photographs of a man. At their worst they verged on very tame homoerotica, and at their best they were simply pretty. The problem was that all of the images lacked the emotional intimacy that the two of us shared in our day-to-day friendship.

Steven was puzzled and asked why they had to be anything more for me than a picture of my friend. I asked him to remember the moment in the car on the Eastern Shore when he finally opened up. He grunted, which I took as confirmation that he was back in that headspace.

I floated the question, “Why did you decide to finally tell someone – and why was that me?” He said he didn’t know. I told him I didn’t either, but that there was something magical in that moment and that I wanted to better understand it.

Steven was silent and stared out the car window for a moment, and I thought, perhaps Steven’s arrival and our process of accepting each other is a second chance at capturing that magical space men can occupy together?

With a devilish grin on his face, Steven turned toward me and said, “I’m game.” I didn’t quite know what he was game for, but I knew a sports reference was a good sign.

•••

Steven and I met up once more during my trip back to the East Coast. The energy was different between us, and I struggled to take a “good” picture of him. Although he was excited and willing, whatever space that existed in the car and in New York was gone. He seemed distant. He certainly had not returned to the same guy I knew before the trip, but he was not nearly as open as he was the week prior. Maybe the return to the familiar sent his guard up. Perhaps, while remembering the time we had spent together, a red flag had been raised in his mind and he now thought that something was not exactly “normal.” I don’t know, because I never asked.

During our shoot, I could tell that the images I was making were not great. Hoping that we’d break through to the emotional space we co-created in his brother’s basement, I continued to photograph him for about an hour. I thought, “If only I could figure out a way to make a picture of that complicated embrace we had on New Year’s Eve.”

“Let’s move on to something else, somewhere else. You don’t seem to be as excited about these pictures. It’s almost like you’re working too hard,” Steven said. I guess he could tell that things were different between the two of us, too.

I lowered my camera, and we started wandering in an area of overgrowth, an area which the park system had seemingly forgotten. Steven pushed through the brambles and a path finally opened up in front of us. We realized that the area had, in fact, not been forgotten, but instead was intentionally left wild to hide a series of substations or power generators.

I raised my camera up to my eye as I followed Steven through the maze of green boxes and underbrush and found myself continuously pulling focus to keep him sharp in the frame.

Walking around with a camera to my eye is something I rarely do because the camera blocks my peripheral vision and makes me feel incredibly exposed.

When I pulled the camera away from my eye for a second, I realized that I felt completely safe with Steven. In fact, I feel protected when I am with him or his brother. Maybe it’s because they are trained to kill people with their hands. Or maybe it is because we have an unspoken understanding that we will protect each other no matter what, a sort of brother’s pact.

A cloud moved out of the sun’s path, and I asked Steven to turn around. The wind picked up and smacked him as he turned towards me. He scowled a little, and I snapped the shutter button. The camera clicked, and I closed my eyes for a second, and the image I had just made started to appear on the back of my eyelids. The harsh noontime light flattened him, and it appeared as if he was a cardboard cut out – flat and one dimensional against a field of trees and bushes. As I looked at the scowl on his face and the side-eye he shot me over his sloping shoulder, I couldn’t find the man who sang “The Greatest Love of All” with me in the middle of a snowstorm. In this moment, he had regressed to the men who loomed large over my youth – the impenetrable ones who wouldn’t let me in, wouldn’t open up, and created a cold and uninviting portrait of masculinity.

The temperature seemed to have dropped 10 degrees during our time together, and I heard storm clouds approaching. I opened my eyes, looked down and realized that it was my last exposure.

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