My recent breakup the first week of June wasn’t one I wanted or expected, but it was one I had to initiate anyway. Boundaries, communication, reassurance, desperation — it was a mess. I’m learning, slowly, painfully, to get better at identifying points of no return. I wish I could see something happening as it’s happening to me and know when there isn’t a way to come back from it. I’m trying to come to terms with the fact that these points of no return, when I’m impacted by the actions or choices of others, aren’t up to me. Denial won’t make it go away, and I can’t just choose not to be hurt after all. Even if I personally want there to be a way to fix things or undo what has hurt me, even if I am desperate to imagine a way back to normal, that doesn’t mean the circumstances will change. Sometimes damage is irreparable. Shit happens.
This is hard for me. I’m a creature of routine, who finds stability deeply and profoundly romantic, who wants to keep a good thing going, and who often doesn’t understand why we can’t. Why can’t nice things last forever? Why can’t we keep what is good?
This is what keeps me coming back to my favorite diner.
This diner is the reason I can’t imagine moving out of my neighborhood. I’m across the river from many of my friends, living instead in an area that is equal parts old houses and new apartment buildings springing up where long-empty warehouses used to squat by the river. My diner has been here since these condos held lumber and since those houses were affordable for young families. It’s a beloved establishment; lines snake down the block at brunchtime every weekend, and people vy for tables and keep careful watch for openings on the stools at the counter. When the staff see me in line, they wave through the windows. I’ve been coming here regularly (and tipping heavily) since I moved here, and they’ve seen me through a lot.
The day of my breakup, I asked my friend who lives a few streets away to drive me. I don’t have a car, and I couldn’t face the bus ride back from my now-ex’s apartment alone. But when Eddie picked me up, what I first took for sleepiness in his voice I soon realized was something else. There’d been a sudden bereavement; he’d been crying on the phone with his family on the other side of the country. Neither of us were doing great, neither of us wanted to be alone. And so, we made a plan: I’d have an hour to pull myself through the conversation I was dreading, and if I wasn’t out in an hour-and-fifteen-minutes, he’d come get me. I couldn’t drag it out, he told me, it needed to be done. And then, we’d go get food after. Breakfast on me, I said. It was the least I could do, given the circumstances. (Neither of us had been able to eat.)
After, as he drove me back to our neighborhood, we chuckled about the bizarre catharsis of two people sitting companionably in a car, sobbing about two entirely separate things. We parked and waited in line with the last brunch stragglers, making jokes about the birdhouse we spotted across the street that had been designed to be a perfect miniature replica of the house it adorned. We made small talk with the folks in front of us and waved back through the glass when our favorite servers inside noticed us. We acted like we were fine, and if the lead server Denise wasn’t convinced as she took our tearful orders of pancakes and corned beef hash, she kept that to herself.
Their signature plate-sized “mancake” pancakes were what I’d had the first time I’d brought my ex there, too. They’d only come with me a couple of times, because they weren’t fond of my neighborhood. But they liked this place, and we held hands at the bar, bantering with servers Tyler and Matty about baseball and movies as they refilled our coffees. The first time I’d brought them, we had a table in the back room, a little further from the rush so we could hear each other better. They laughed when I made my usual joke asking Matty for a bloody mary spicy enough to hurt my feelings, and we held hands across the linoleum tabletop while sharing a blueberry pancake and chicken fried steak.
The chicken fried steak is my regular order: as a southerner raised by midwesterners, this counts as my ancestral cuisine. It’s a simple dish, sure (I joke about dishes where the name is the recipe; you take the steak and you fry it like chicken, ta-da!) but when it’s done right, it’s really right. Here, the coating is crispy and flavorful. The gravy is creamy without skewing bland and savory without skewing too salty. It’s a dish I brag about to the friends I know appreciate good comfort food, and the last time I brought a partner before this now-ex to the diner, that’s what I’d ordered then as well. I don’t bring everyone here, but I bring the ones who matter, because meeting my diner is more important than meeting my parents. My partners may typically meet my parents later than most, but if you can’t pass the diner vibe check, there will be no meeting the parents, and there will be no first anniversary.
The diner is a litmus test. When I bring a crush here, I am looking for signs in the way they order, their behavior, their reactions, that they are observant and appreciative of the right things.
- Are they impatient in line or do they understand how hard the team works to look after people at breakneck speed?
- Do they notice that, instead of a bell no one could hear, fishing-line snakes across the ceiling from the door, tied to KISS action figures that rise and fall every time the door opens?
- Do they see how protective Denise is of the other servers? Do they notice that Jordan isn’t just her coworker but her son, how he keeps an eye on her when things get hectic indoors and how she watches out for him when the line starts winding past the windows?
- Tyler may seem shy taking your order at first, but are they excited when he comes out of his shell when talking about movies? Do they understand how impressive his encyclopedic, informed-but-unpretentious film fluency is?
- Do they understand how skillfully Matty banters with people in a way designed to make them feel like insiders on the joke? Do they notice his instinct for a person’s perfect conversation topic?
- Do they understand that places this special don’t just happen?
And sometimes, disappointingly, the answer is no. I’ve brought people there who rolled their eyes at the wait, complaining about the popularity as if we weren’t just like every other customer. I’ve cut bites off my chicken fried steak for someone as the realization slowly dawned upon me that I would never come here with them again. Listening to someone I had fancied grimace and grumble at the things that make the diner charming and precious to me, a pit would form in my stomach and slowly sink, pulling my appetite away with it. There was nothing I could do to stop it; there was no way I could set my cutlery down and lean toward them to say against the din: I just want to eat a nice meal in my favorite place with someone I like, and I am begging you not to push me out of love with you when all I want is to be here.
But points of no return happen when I least want them. Sitting across from my friend, both of us still red around the eyes even as we laughed, my appetite abandoned me even though I wasn’t ready to go. I left my tip and asked for a box, and Jordan brought one without commenting on how little of my pancake I’d been able to manage. I thought about the obvious symbolism of packing up for later nourishment what was hard to stomach at the time. I thought about how if a diner named Stepping Stone turned up in this context in fiction, I’d find the writing heavy-handed.
Last week, my friend (and editor) Kayla was here in town, and I got the chance to take her with me to Stepping Stone twice. We waited our turn in line with easy Saturday-morning smiles, followed Tyler to a corner booth, and ordered more entrees than either of us could manage because we wanted to try all the specials, including a giant savory mancake. When the plate arrived, it looked naked without the usual sweet accoutrements of maple syrup or whipped cream, but from the first bite it dazzled, stuffed inside with gouda, bacon, jalapeños, and scallions. I was speechless (either from the size of the bite I’d taken, or from the lowkey religious experience that bite represented), so I savored my slice while Tyler caught me up on some awesome documentaries he’d seen and swapped takes with Kayla about Cronenberg and Crimes of the Future. In the background, Jordan and Matty zoomed about, refilling our coffees and adding olives to my bloody mary. When Matty came by to tease me about baseball season, I told him the news: “Yeah man, it’s been a crazy few weeks, I broke up with my partner, yeah, the one you met that time, yeah.”
“To better things!” he said, grinning. Kayla watched the two of us, and I could see this essay playing out before her.
“Yeah man,” I said, “y’know, I’m actually writing an essay about it, and about y’all —”
“Us?” Tyler had heard and paused beside us.
“Yeah — after I broke up with them, I came here immediately after. Denise must’ve seen, I was a weepy mess, but she didn’t say anything.” Behind them, Jordan looked up and smiled knowingly.
The thing about being a “regular” is that the watching goes both ways; however much I see about their dynamics and their interests, they see mine too. These folks don’t miss a thing, whether it’s a cooling cup of coffee or a tearful sniffle mid-order. The next time I bring someone there, the team will know what it means. They’ll know, and I’ll know, what we’re both watching for, and we’ll know what any subsequent absence or presence indicates. At the bottom of their laminated menus, it reads: “We, in our infinite wisdom, reserve the right to include automatic gratuity. During peak business hours, we are unable to split checks more than two ways. We reside in a quiet neighborhood. We like our neighbors. Please respect our neighbors!”
The diner’s slogan follows: “You eat here because we let you.” And I do. It’s the home of my heart and the healthiest boundary I know.
Oh to have a place like this. I really loved reading this. Everything changes and everything must end but to have a place you’re known and that you know so well.
Words can’t describe how much I loved this essay. Beautifully done.
i love this so much, i love you so much
I’ve loved every entry in this series, but this one spoke to my gut as well as my heart, making me so hungry for my favorites from local places that are sadly no longer in business and making me vow to get breakfast tomorrow from one of the places that is still around. 💜
It’s always good to have a place where you feel part of it and it’s welcoming, it’s hard not to get attached.
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Holy shit. I also had an unexpected and awful break up in the first week of June, I also cling to routine and spaces, and I am also lucky enough to have people in my life like the crew at your diner. Reading this was like looking in the mirror in the best possible way, reminding me that the last few months of my life have not, in fact, been a complete black hole and actually allowed for some moment of true connection and beauty that I am eternally grateful for. This essay is a masterpiece and I cannot thank you enough for writing it.
This was my favorite essay from diner week! They were all great and it’s not a competition and no one asked, but this was the best one <3
oh this was just beautiful! i’m so glad you have a place where you can go and have every part of you filled