I remember not remembering.
When I was eight-years-old, a plane crashed into the Twin Towers. I remember that the school day had just started; we were in choir class. I remember hating that choir was first period because it always felt too early for my vocal chords. We had only been in class for twenty minutes or so before we were told to return to homeroom. Our teacher, Mrs. Dorsey, explained what had happened in the simplest terms possible. Joey started crying because his father was there on business. Not in the Twin Towers, but in New York City. I got nervous because my aunt lived there. Not in New York City, but in Buffalo and when you’re eight-years-old, you don’t know how far away places are from each other. I didn’t think that there could be over seven hours of driving between those cities, because to me, at the time, it was relative. I remember we listened around a handheld radio to the news until our parents picked us up one by one. I remember later thinking how I never listened around the radio to the news, but that was something my grandmother would have done in the 30’s and 40’s. I don’t remember being picked up, but I do remember watching the news later after overhearing my parents debate whether I should see or not see the attack on television.
More recently, I overheard someone on the subway tell her friend that she didn’t remember 9/11 because something else “awful” had happened in her life that same week. I didn’t hear what it was; she didn’t say. Since she was young at the time, she puts no weight on that event, only onto whatever happened afterwards. That's ludicrous, I thought. 9/11, after all. Never forget. I remember thinking that 9/11 couldn’t not have an effect on every living citizen in the United States and even beyond that. Yet somehow, this person felt outside of that moment. I think about her often, now, after that train ride. Her not remembering.
Likewise, I spend a lot of time thinking about an empty shoe. Not a pair of empty shoes, but one lone shoe on the street or stairs or casually tossed aside in a park. Empty shoes follow me everywhere. But this obsession isn’t really important. The lost shoes don’t impede my life; they just interrupt it. I’m putting my own weight on these shoes. You may see an empty shoe and think nothing of it. I on the other hand have to know, how does someone lose one shoe? Why not both shoes? Why lose a shoe at all? What about the bare feet or foot? And how many people are walking with one shoe, not two, right now? I try to ignore them, but my attempts fail.
I wonder if the woman who doesn’t remember 9/11 thinks of lost shoes on the street. That is to say, she probably doesn’t because I put my own meaning on the shoes. They probably don’t mean anything at all.
I remember when I lived in Madrid, I saw lost shoes almost every morning on my way to the Atocha train station, a reconstructed place that eleven years prior had been bombed. Those three bombs took 191 lives. That was two years and six months after 9/11.
A shoe waiting for its pair, I thought. I often saw these lost shoes alongside the Reina Sofia art museum. Sometimes I wondered if they were just a modern art display jarring reality, an interactive piece, until I moved back to Chicago and noticed the same trend. You walk alongside Lake Shore Drive and low and behold, a shoe. A lost, empty, plain shoe. How perturbing those shoes are to me (and maybe to you too).
One of my best friends despises the number twenty-three. I don’t know why. He has never told me. He says that number follows him everywhere and it’s never good. I doubt he thinks about lost shoes. In fact, I know he doesn’t. I once asked him why one shoe would be lost. He told me about a time he was drunk after a fraternity party in college and he threw one of his nice dress shoes in the bushes. He went back for it the next morning.
The number twenty-three doesn’t mean anything to me except when I was twenty-three-years old I tied a pair of old, black, low-top Converse together and threw them on a tree branch on New Years’ Eve. That moment seemed significant, like I was letting go of all the steps I took in those shoes years prior. Like all the times I remember walking by empty shoes in my own Chucks were gone. Those memories are placed on a branch of a tree on Belden Avenue. I remember thinking how beautiful it was to see a pair of shoes, and not one lost shoe, tied together, decorating the branch.
One time I walked and noticed not shoes on the ground, but twigs. Lots of lost, tangled, disarrayed twigs. Twigs became the new shoes for a moment, equally upsetting, equally subjective. On that walk, the twigs reminded me of every haircut I have ever had. Trees shed just like hair follicles yanked off tops by stylists. The twigs reminded me metaphorically of ripping my own hair out at every disappointed prospect: an application rejection, a bad date. I pictured the trees pulling out their twigs in frustration. I wonder if that tree holding my Converse is upset.
Trees don’t feel, stupid.
Did the Twin Towers ache?
I enjoyed having a break from thinking about empty shoes, a break from the girl who didn’t remember 9/11. Sometimes I meld these recollections together and think about times I’ve seen Holocaust memorials. Shoes were collected before Jews went into gas chambers. In Budapest, there is a monument along the Danube River of Jews who were murdered by fascist men who were members of an organization called Arrow Cross. The victims lined up by the river so that when they were shot, they would fall in. Today, there is a statue of empty bronze shoes to commemorate those who died there and lost their own lives, their shoes, in the river.
I don’t think the shoes I see on the street have nearly as much significance, but they take up room in my memory space.
Solipsism comes to mind: “the view or theory that the self is all that can be known to exist.” I have also heard it be referred to as “navel-gazing.” The reassurance of your own existence. The way we construct ourselves in the universe. What we notice, what we remember, plays an important role. Solipsism seems like a synonym for narcissism. The first word has a better definition.
Once, I was walking towards Panera. To get there, I had to dodge through a crowd of people. I didn’t think about the gathering at all; I was just angered that they were blocking my path. It wasn’t until later that I found out that the crowd was a group of Black Lives Matter protestors assembling to demonstrate their disgust at the Chicago cop who had shot a young black boy sixteen times. Sixteen gun bullets gone. He died just like those Jews on the Danube River. At the time, I was upset, which is why the crowd of people just felt like a roadblock instead of something important. I carried no inquiry; I just wanted to get to my destination. I was meeting up with a friend who had betrayed my trust for a reason that doesn’t really seem to matter to me now. As I walked, I couldn’t think about anything except my own vexation. I wasn’t thinking about the world outside of me, the gathering crowd on Michigan Avenue.
I guess that’s how someone could forget 9/11.
I probably spend too much time wondering how the mind works, what makes a memory, an obsession. I have always wondered how the world sustains itself and think about how it won’t, how subjective experiences are. I guess this is to say, humans are selfish. We tend not to think outside of our own scope. Sure, it’s possible, but it’s another matter entirely to separate your own experiences and emotions to anyone and anything you encounter. For some reason, we always think that things are placed here for us and for our lives. So if you have a fear of clowns, for example, and one approaches you at a parade or a child’s birthday party, it’s automatically a terrifying offense to you.
I remember watching a video of myself at my preschool graduation. There was a clown there. I have always been afraid of clowns ever since one apparently laughed right in my face when I was three-years-old, when I went to the circus for the first time with my parents. They remember this and I don’t. But I must remember, somehow, because clowns still scare me. In this video, I volunteered as a participant for the clown’s demonstration. Several of my classmates volunteered too, but they did it willingly. I did it to face my fear. The clown had us pull dozens of scarves out of his sleeve, you know the trick. When I returned to my seat, I had tears running down my cheeks softly. This feels like a memory, but I don’t remember it. I only remember watching the video. I sometimes remember his big, red clown shoes. Maybe clowns are my number twenty-three.
I remember learning that memories become murky as time moves forward not only from forgetfulness and fallibility, but also when recounting a memory, you’re only remembering the last time you remembered that memory.
How do memories revolve around tragedies?
I remember wanting to find a stranger to make out with the evening that Paris was bombed in November 2015 by ISIS affiliates. My friend Anna and I went to Wrigleyville to go dancing. The bars were dead that night, which is abnormal for that area in Chicago. We danced. We grew tired of the crowd. I saw a man throw up into an empty glass and a woman waddle like a newborn calf in her seven-inch heels. I wondered how expensive her shoes were, her fashion statement, and how much they really cost to make in some third world country. I don’t remember Paris because I wasn’t there. I do remember pulling out my phone in Wrigleyville. I read an AP news alert notification and then put my phone away.
The next day, people compared the Paris bombing to 9/11. On the 14th of November, I saw dozens of people change their profile pictures to one with a filter of the French flag. A friend of mine posted a photo that day of a plaza by the Eiffel Tower with the American flag on top, something the French government had done the day after 9/11. There was a call of mass support for Paris. There was also outrage that more attacks had occurred the same day in other parts of the world like Tunisia, but Paris was the one that received the most press. Paris is the most famous city in the world. Paris had been hurt. 128 people died and I was dancing in a bar.
A year prior to the Paris attack, I was in Spain. Two gunmen had invaded the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters. 12 people died and I was immediately afraid to be living in Europe. That followed the breakout of Ebola. Madrid was the first city to have a victim contract this virus outside of Africa. Madrid grew scared. I was teaching high school students English at the time and they were the terrified ones. I didn’t know how to respond to their worries because saying, “We’ll be fine,” didn’t sound sufficient. Commuters avoided touching metro poles and stairwell rails. I remember that there wasn’t much more that we could do, that we couldn’t hide from the virus. During this time, I couldn’t help but think about my father’s ancestors who were Jewish and living in Spain during the Spanish Inquisition. They had to flee the country for their beliefs. While I was living in Madrid, I had the absurd thought that maybe the Ebola virus was my warning, that I wasn’t meant to be in that country just like my ancestors. I remember thinking it was a sign I should leave.
The Ebola scare preceded Greece’s economic crash of 2015. I remember that when I first arrived to Madrid the Euro was worth $1.39 to the dollar and when I left it had dropped to $1.10. But Greece is still a country and the streets are filled with homeless vendors selling their furniture and hand-me-downs, like shoes. I still think about how I spent several evenings drinking and not caring about anything but myself and over-thinking empty shoes or why someone wouldn’t remember 9/11 or what can happen in a day rather than what happens in a day. I often think about those things instead of the current events in our world.
Fear is easy to remember, though it is sometimes just as senseless as an attack.
The summer after I graduated college I was walking around Iowa City at night with my friend who hates the number twenty-three. We had a mission. Earlier that day, he had passed a sign near a Hyvee grocery store that said, “This way to the Friendly Farm.” We drove back there later and attempted to navigate a woodsy path to find the “Friendly Farm.” Whatever it was, we didn’t know. It was as dark as being inside the crevices of a cave. My friend held onto me. He was scared. I was invigorated. The dark didn’t bother me. We never found the farm.
Later that summer, we went to a concert in Des Moines and I remember feeling so helplessly alone at one point even though I was in a crowd of people. I didn’t say anything, I just felt afraid and then my fear went away. I remember looking at couples and girls wearing crop tops and short shorts sitting on top of men’s shoulders screaming to the stage, drunk and young. I felt unsettled by the crowd, my surroundings. I remember thinking that I should have been having a good time, but I felt anxious instead, similarly to the way my friend felt in the dark. It’s easy to remember this moment. It has a trigger.
I remember the day my paternal grandfather died much more than I remember the day Paris was attacked, even though that event happened more recently. I was with my parents and I was twelve and we lit a candle for him. It stayed lit all night. The next day my mom found a poppy plant bloom in our front yard. It was early June and the first flower in the garden to blossom. I remember thinking that was amazing, in the literal sense of the word. The flower gave my father comfort, like it was a sign from my grandfather that everything was okay, that he wasn’t suffering anymore. I remember being older and asking myself if it was a coincidence or did everything really connect? Were there causes and effects for supernatural reasons? The moment we noticed the bud bloom affects me more than international tragedies. Perhaps I’m solipsistic. Perhaps I’m a narcissist.
I remember that I have always thought too much.
In January, I went to the club Berlin on Belmont Street with a friend for his most recent birthday. It’s a late nightclub that plays music videos in every corner of the space. Drag queens dance on stages placed in the middle of the dance floor. I remember that I saw a Swedish looking man who was by himself. He was drinking a Heineken and wearing a beanie and an oversized white puffer coat. I stared at him the whole night. I’ve been at bars by myself before and have seen people alone in bars, but Berlin seemed like a place in which you wouldn’t want to be alone. There was too much happening: lights, sounds, bodies. I wondered if he went there by himself often or if he was just too high and stumbled upon the place. He reminded me of a Kurt Cobain song, the illustration of one. “Will you stop thinking?!” my friend said to me, noticing that my mind was elsewhere. “I can’t,” I smiled at him. “You know this.”
I began thinking about this man after leaving the club. I wondered where he was from and what he did for a living and if he was in a bar like I was during those attacks on Paris. What was he most afraid of and where was he on 9/11? I think about his nicest pair of shoes. I think about how horrible it is that I won’t ever know the answers to these musings, how this stranger occupies room in my mind.
Lately, I try to think about what I’ve been doing, what has stopped me in my tracks or what I have ignored. I remember when I was five I was afraid, like many five-year-olds, of monsters under the bed. My mom used to take a Shaklee spray bottle filled with water and spray under my bed to send the monsters away. I didn’t know it was water and I thought it worked. I wish there was a monster spray-bottle for the world. I could have used one on 9/11. I could have used one when I went up to that clown in preschool or the day I started noticing empty shoes and scattered twigs on the ground.
I wonder what you were doing during those days.
About the Author: Sophie Amado is currently working towards her MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago. She received her BA in English from the University of Iowa, where she participated in the literary scene by volunteering with the IYWP and created the continuing reading series, Paper Tongues. Her work has appeared in the Daily Palette.