Learning About Love from Strangers

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon

“I have often had the experience of looking at love from a distance,” Thomas Dai writes in The Southern Review, “of knowing it more as a concept than as the warm, embodied feeling it is supposed to be.” By photographing the inscriptions that lovers leave on rocks, trees, and various public places around the world, Dai finds insight into what queer love is and might be for him. Although sexually active, he examines his desire for encounters versus the kind of romance that leaves its own lasting mark. In the process, he leaves his mark in this personal essay, rather than carved deep enough into bark to kill the tree.

Looking through the photos in my folio, I realize that the lovers’ marks repeatedly appear in places where two entities meet in discord or unity. Romantic vandals leave their marks at the Grand Canyon, where red earth cleaves into blue sky, and at Niagara Falls, where Canada abuts America. The lovers go to Stanley Market, in Hong Kong, to sprinkle their names on the tide line, and they haunt the grounds at Dunkirk and Manassas, where opposed forces once met in mutually assured destruction.

I don’t know yet whether our doubleness needs such commemoration, if I should be getting out my chisel and my paints and going to that border, that wall, that place where often we like to meet. For so long, I have thought about love as a feeling which leaves no such traces, which lives and dies in the moment. I have thought about love through the words of philosophers like Barthes and poets like Ocean Vuong—Vuong who writes: “To love / another man / is to leave no one behind.”

What I have avoided thinking about too deeply is the hope I hold against these words, the hope that we will not disappear into or away from each other, that we will keep our separateness but stay somehow a unit, moving through the world not alone but in each other’s company, each other’s co-feeling. For some reason, I do not balk at the cliché this figure enacts—love as two people’s shared journey, a long march through city and fen. I think of a time long ago, in Manchuria, when I watched many couples casting red paper lanterns over a frozen river. There was a metal train bridge in that city, covered in thousands of lovers’ marks left by people from all over China. I spent hours picking over this bridge as carefully as I could, wanting to record each and every lover’s mark I could find, to bear witness, however fleeting, to all these collected love affairs, these different moments excerpted from so many strange lives. Standing at the bridge’s center one night, I looked out and saw a flock of lanterns detach from the river’s southern bank. The lanterns floated on unsure winds to the river’s other side, where I assume they fell into the snowdrifts as trash.

Read the story