Houses Filled with Honey
I can remember the first time I realized that the places in which I imagined books happening were always variations on the same three real-life places: my dad’s apartment, my primary school1, and my grandmother’s house. No matter what I added in imagining, I knew the bones of the fictitious places were the same as the ones I inhabited. I could recognize them, the way in a dream you know things to be true without any evidence.
The catalogue of places upon which I project fiction has expanded since then, but many remain the same. My grandmother’s house and my dad’s apartment are the most frequently used; they are the homes I have had and known since before I could remember.
There are places from movies I remember more clearly than their plots. They are so lodged in my brain I feel as if I’ve been in them, and I obsessively seek out certain ones just to live in them again, even if the films themselves are unimpressive. The seaside house in Dan in Real Life2. The supermarket aisles in Cashback. The space beneath the quilts where Lizzie and Jane whisper in Pride & Prejudice.
There are places I’ve visited over and over in dreams. A park with a stone pyramid that’s made appearances since my first nightmare, the one where a gorilla was my mother, and she dragged me barefooted across fields of sharp objects. I was 6.
A city I named “Free City” since the last time I dreamed it, because halfway through I recognized I had walked through it a hundred times in previous dreams and needed a name for it. (Is that true or was it only true in that dream? I’m not sure, I can’t tell the difference—either way the memory is sandwiched in dream memories and very unclear. Is a dream a place or a time?)
My brothers and I all dreamed the same secret bedroom into my grandmother’s house, in the same attic space. One of them said it looked like the stepmother’s bedroom from Cinderella, but in mine it had twin beds with burnt orange quilts and a cranberry wreath and windows that overlooked the lawn of my middle school—a patchwork geography not unlike my practice of imagining the places in fiction, not unlike the magic geography of filmed worlds.
In fever dreams I always enter the laundry room of my dad’s apartment, and the back wall opens and becomes a rickety wood-planked walkway. The walkway crisscrosses a brown misty swamp, which is lit like New Orleans the first time I drove back to it after Katrina (dim and glowing brown from refinery lights), and the mist-swamp is an extension of the Darkwood levels in the video game Fable, the ones with balverines that spring out of the mists to swipe at you.
I often check on the memory of my dad’s apartment to make sure it is still there. (The laundry door never fit well, it made a whiff as it dragged along the carpet, and the warm laundry smell followed.) I walk through his home from the front door to the bathroom at the end of the hall and make sure I can picture every corner properly with no gaping holes. In the carpet, in the pile of clothes pouring out of the bedroom closet, in the order of objects shoved against the wall by the dining table, there may be answers to questions I do not yet know I have.
The skinny-legged desk is still there in the corner; no one ever sits at it. Santana CDs are scattered near an old cassette organizer on the corner of the green and red Persian rug layered over the cheap gray carpeting. There’s the stick furniture my dad made and bought for my teddy bears to sit in and, curled between it, the single living vine of the potted pothos that hung above.
There are other memory-places I often check on: a basement bar somewhere in Bruges where my brothers and Bryan and I drank and cried. There were dried flowers hanging from the ceiling and a prayer bench against the wall. It was brown and dim and warm and old-feeling. The chairs were heavy, scratched up wood, very square. The stones in the floor were fitted together roughly and polished and scuffed with use. I left my bag there. We ran back to find it, and there was a new group at our table. I had to crawl between their feet to reach it, as I sometimes do in my memory to remember more precisely the feeling of very old floors in a very old city.
There's a bedroom in New Orleans I particularly loved—peeling white walls, wood floors, two pairs of windows (one that sunlight streamed through, one on the wall to my roommate’s room). I put my mattress right on the floor, slept under a quilt my mom sewed for my dad, had a three-legged dresser held up by books and postcard versions of my favorite works of art taped to the walls. I kept rocks and tiny bottles on the windowsills. I lived there my last year of college, a year I became bony with stress and fixated on deserts. It would take me some years to finally get to one.
In my current panic over the state of the world, the only comfort seems to be making my current home warmer, stranger, more full of plants. The word “safe” rolls around in my brain over and over again, and with every terrifying new executive order, I feel myself rallying, “We need to make this place safe,” though I know safety is an illusion. I dragged home about ten potted plants one night this January, succulents and hardy houseplants propagated by a man I found on Craigslist and planted in sawed-off gallon jugs.
I think of a line in Boy, Snow, Bird, “The floorboards were so snugly fitted that walking across them was like gliding across a bank of honey. There were no clocks, no real sense of time passing. It was the kind of house you went to in order to get well.”3 I treasure the image of that house, and I think of how I have always saved certain places in my head for a future pain. I have plans for retreats I may never take, how I’ll rent an apartment in a half-empty desert town or an A-frame cabin in the shadow of Mt. Hood when I only have one thing left to do: get well.