Thomas Dai is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Brown University. He holds degrees from Harvard and the University of Arizona, and is currently at work on a collection of essays. His writing and photography have appeared recently in Literary Hub, The Southern Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.
My relationship has unfolded across three cities. But now my boyfriend and I are heading into uncharted territory.
For Liam’s last birthday, I got him three maps—one for each of the three cities where we’ve lived as a couple. I bought the templates for these maps on Etsy, printing them off at Walgreens and mounting them on our kitchen wall in flimsy, black frames. Read left to right like a geographic sentence, the maps show better than any photo album or stack of correspondence how our relationship has developed across time and space.
Now, ever since Liam told me he was leaving, I catch myself staring at the maps at least once a day, as if these representations of where we have been can help me navigate to wherever it is we are going.
The first city is Tucson, where we met while enrolled at the local university. More accurately, we met on Tinder—a virtual map on which profiled selves, each having ceded their location to the map, try brokering linkages with one another. Liam liked the fact that most of my photos on Tinder showed me enjoying the great outdoors. I liked the economy of our messaging: Hi. How are you? Let’s meet here. Ok.
Tucson was built in a desert, bracketed by mountains on all sides. It boasts one busy road named Speedway, another named Congress, and a mall in the foothills called La Encantada where you went when your iPhone was broken. Around the time we met, the students in my writing classes were all obsessed with a song called “Closer” by the Chainsmokers which name-drops Tucson in its second verse. The song could be heard at all hours near campus, pulsing from the broad verandas of the frat houses at night and heralding each class change on the artificially green quad. Liam and I would smirk at each other whenever we heard the song, though I’m pretty sure we both knew the words by heart.
Most of my memories of Tucson take place at night, when the western sky had just ceased its color show and hundreds of stars were condensing into sight above (for astronomical purposes, Tucson has very strict rules about light pollution). Our courtship also took place in the quasi-dark. We met often at a video rental palace that had managed to outlive Blockbuster by carrying hard-to-find films from niche international directors. Most of the movies I chose came from China, where my parents were born. I was contemplating moving there after graduation, and screening these films with Liam was my arty way of inviting him along. All spring, we sat in his apartment watching Lou Ye’s Summer Palace, or Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, or Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love.
When summer came at last, I moved to a city in central China, and Liam soon followed.
The second city is Chengdu, which was built on a wide and fertile plain. If our first city looked like a grid when viewed from above, our second looked like a series of concentric circles, each called a ring road. More people live inside these circles than in all five of New York’s boroughs. Yet when we talked about Chengdu to people back home, we described it as “medium-sized by Chinese standards” and “laid-back,” with a thriving underground culture of dance clubs and artist collectives.
In the second city, we said “I love you” and “wo ai ni” to each other constantly. The words were new so we said them pressed against each other on the metro during rush hour or while placing tender cuts of meat in each other’s bowls at hot pot. For a year, we loved each other in a two-story, $500 apartment with terrible rose-print wallpaper upstairs, and we loved each other in 7-Eleven at midnight, dancing in the aisles with Magnum ice cream bars in our hands, and we loved each other outside, on the street, watching golden leaves flake from the gingko trees. Because this was China, we often had to love each other through our face masks (the air quality was quite poor that year), which is to say we loved each other in unfair weather, in a city where the sun rarely shone.
The differences between us also grew more apparent. Liam had never been outside the U.S. until he met me, whereas I had been visiting China to see relatives for years. At times I felt like Liam’s Mandarin mouthpiece, a translation app through which he ordered meals and directed cab drivers. I resented this asymmetry even as I enjoyed the cachet Liam’s whiteness occasionally bestowed on me—how eyes would follow us curiously across every crowded room, how random strangers sometimes complimented me on my green-eyed, curly-haired “friend.”
In the end, even I wasn’t vindictive enough to hold my boyfriend moving across an ocean against him. I had chosen a place far away and he had met me there, exporting himself into my geographically bipolar life.
The third city is Providence, Rhode Island, where we’ve lived for a year now, trudging up and down College Hill and listening to the squirrel traffic across our roof. My desire for a Ph.D brought us here, and will hold me glued to this place for years to come. Once more, we live by a university, listening to the songs which carry across the quad. Every weekday, I walk in one direction to class, and Liam drives in the other for work. The building we live in is shorter and draftier than any we’ve occupied before. “It used to be a nunnery,” our landlady told us when we moved in, and so we pad about its floors wearing only our underwear, calling each other sister.
But a few months from now, Liam will get on a plane and I will not. I helped him find this exit: He wanted to move abroad again, so I edited all his application materials for the Peace Corps and celebrated with him when he received a posting to Nepal. There was no question about whether or not he was going. A child of the West, Liam wasn’t happy living on the East Coast, where his commute ate two hours of each day and the mountains were, by his estimate, mere hills.
Now that the abstract idea of his departure has a name—Nepal—and even a date—January 2020—attached to it, I have a lot of questions, none of which should surprise anyone who has stared down the barrel of a long-distance romance. Should we stay together? Should we break up? Should we stay together but quietly sleep with other people? Should we sleep with other people but tell each other all about it, giggling on the phone in our separate time zones?
He will learn to inhabit the place he is going in intimate ways only he can know, and I will stay here, buried beneath my books, surveying our past cartographies. My friends want to know if I’ve ironed out a plan for what is to come, but how do you draw a map for a landscape you haven’t yet crossed? How do you make up a legend or fix a compass rose to a love happening in two places at once?
Liam and I have slid into the assumption that we will try to make it work, in whatever configurations present themselves during his 27 months abroad. We will communicate about every new configuration, be open but not too open about our desires and our jealousies, and maybe even enjoy this spell of time apart while it lasts. I think of this as an honest, sensible approach most days, but then there are other days when I wake up beside him in our bed and consider issuing brash ultimatums: this place or that one; take me or leave me.
The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan writes in his 1974 study Topophilia that a person’s environment is not just a “resource base to be used or natural forces to adapt to,” but also a network by which they find “profound attachment and love.” I learned to love Liam by learning to love the three cities on my wall. Our love would be a shapeless, intangible thing if it weren’t for those places and all the distance we’ve traveled to live inside their lines. The cities triangulate us, locating who we have been to each other even as they leave room at their edges for all that is unknowable—those blank spaces that mapmakers refer to as “sleeping beauties.”
I’d be lying if I claimed I didn’t fear the slumbering potential of that blankness, the vertigo of falling off all our maps. But there’s also an excitement in knowing we won’t be stalled here, bound to this hilly city by the sea. If I hope for anything, it’s that Liam looks at the maps on the wall as much as I do and that he commits to memory all the ways we’ve come and gone. Maybe, in the future, they’ll help him find his way back.