Want to Explore Your Childhood? Start With a Floor Plan.

Like most writers, I am afraid that the wrong words will sap the radiance from my most elusive memories — largely uneventful moments that nonetheless remain charged with luminous feeling: the midsummer cloudburst I saw while reading in my bedroom, its sudden gloom inking the sky like a sorcerer’s tempest; or the drowsy unease that descended when, bolting up in the middle of the night, I was convinced I’d been flung into a mirror dimension while I slept. But I also worry that the right words will pin down those memories best left swimming just beyond coherence. What if fixing them in language changes them, dims their light? If I can hold, in a sentence or two, the formative mysteries of one childhood afternoon, what’s there left to live for?

But a floor plan cannot disappoint me. There is no simpler architectural drawing: The fiction of a celestial eye, a floor plan describes the barest of physical relations. It is an approximation, a bunch of lines promising neither ambience nor texture. Early last year, I decided to try to sketch floor plans for the many places I’ve lived in long enough to call home. The project’s definitive flatness has freed me from the task of completing a memory, offering instead a scaffold for its unfolding, a way of marking it without risking its betrayal.

Maybe it sounds cold to replace depth and specificity with a diagram whose lines seem to express enclosure. Look again: This is not an image of containment but one of gentle anchoring. Its scant motifs — which indicate the presence of walls, doorways, stairs — circumscribe space, but the blankness among them is cavernous with possibility. Like a coloring stencil, a floor plan is an invitation. Its firm outlines seem a more reliable index of reality than my prose. I mark these contours so I can step inside and feel some scant assurance of truth from set parameters. My imagination needs a low fence, a road sign or two.

The first home I mapped in earnest was a small apartment nestled in the hills of my hometown, where Zhuhai city faded into a semirural stretch. On every landing, something was always peeling: walls striated with gray paint like shedding snakes; red and gold signs (for good fortune) coming unstuck from the last new year. I started by drawing the living room, marking the front door with an arc, then a box for my bedroom, wherein I sketched a window that I still dream about, even now. Like most other gated suburbs in medium-density Chinese cities, ours was a cluster of nondescript buildings, countless lives piled to the skies. The views were constant: austere vistas of concrete blocks, sometimes snaked with fog. But my window looked out onto a stone wall and the dark hill that rose beyond it, thick with enough forestry and foreboding that for years I recalled it as a looming mountain claimed by wolves.

Sometime in the past decade, that neighborhood was razed for a taller and shinier future. Since there are virtually no photos of the homes I lived in after infancy — our apartments shrank and their messes ballooned, the novelty of my growing bones waned; back then, the camera was not yet a new, glossy limb but something you fetched for an actual occasion — I can drop by only through the front door of a dream. Usually, I glide from room to room like a cloud, blown by a strange wind that steers me toward old patterns of living: coming home after school, say, and swerving into the kitchen for a snack, then through the hallway to my bedroom, which had my favorite window. These nocturnal visits are my only way back, which means my recollections of those homes are defined by how I moved through them.

Even when I do see pictures from early childhood, they lack a sense of relation. A snapshot of my melon-cheeked self eating cake on a table tells nothing of the backdoor shortcut to our kitchen, the route I later took to sneak more. As mnemonic devices, photographs are intimidating in their mimetic perfection. If Vermeer conjured a corner of my childhood bedroom on canvas and asked me to finish the rest, I’d have a hard time. I’ve never been interested in faultless replicas, but in keeping what’s left.

Only floor plans have given my memories of movement a tangible form, a shape for the routine motions that made up my days. I have since mapped most of these homes, though there’s one I still avoid: my grandparents’ old apartment, which sits just a few feet from the hospital where I was born. They moved out long ago, so I’ve already forgotten too much. When I try to picture it, rooms dissolve into shadows or recede into impossible horizons.

The week my grandfather died, I dreamed of that apartment for the first time in years. It was banal, the way most dreams are when you’re in them. I walked through the front door and into the living room. I looked out the window and saw my grandfather on the street below. But I remember when the dream logic began to fray, when this sight revealed itself to be exceptional, because in our world of entropy, people die, and you do not see them walking around again. A floor plan is the only way I’ll retain anything of that route to the window. So I’ll map that home someday — even though the walls have faded, even though nothing can grasp how it feels to move through a dream of home and see someone you love, crossing the street on an ordinary day.

Phoebe Chen is a writer and Ph.D. candidate with work in Artforum, The Nation, The New York Review of Books and elsewhere.

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