On Saturday mornings, we go to Leo’s. Sometimes Sundays, too. It’s the place where hangovers are cured, where we talk too loud and order too much. We get sodas — sorry, I mean pops — and ice water in thick red plastic cups. We feast after a night on undergrad chaos. There was the pregame at ours and then the party somewhere else and then the postgame another place. We trade stories as we inhale finger food and each other’s sticky morning (it’s well after noon) breath. We peel off our layers when we arrive, line the backs of our chairs with scarves, sweaters, puffy coats with their pockets stuffed with gloves or mittens. Midwest winters are a constant cycle of layers, of sheathing and unsheathing. I miss it sometimes. The tucking away into something warm and soft and the tingly rush of emerging from it.
The others have memories of their specific Leo’s Coney Islands in their respective corners of the state, but not me. They tell me tales of the 24-hours Leo’s, the one in Dearborn, the one in Birmingham, which I’ll eventually get to experience late at night after a music festival. I grew up with clam boats at Friendly’s. I grew up only experiencing the messy wonder of a meat-and-onion-slopped coney dog once a year during my family’s July trip to upstate Michigan where my mother and her siblings grew up on cold, quiet lakes. There, we always made at least one trip to Lud’s, where I always got the fish and chips but always made sure to snag some bites of someone else’s coney.
At Leo’s, I don’t order the staple namesake item either, but I never turn down an offer to take a bite of another’s coney dog. I’m drawn to something else on the menu, something so simple yet genius. The chicken fingers pita. Like a gyro… but… with! chicken! fingers! Rubbery Swiss and American cheese slices flank crispy chicken, lettuce, tomato, with tzatziki sauce topping it all off. I add an innovation of my own, taking my side of fries and smashing some of them into the pita. It’s the same way I like to modify a mcchicken.
The Leo’s group changes from visit to visit. It all depends who’s up in time, who’s ready to go, who’s the right amount of hungover (hungover enough to crave greasy, salty food but not so hungover as to not be able to handle fluorescent light). It all depends how many people with cars you can wrangle together. I’m always Leo’s-ready. And so is W., who’s one of those coveted few with a car to help shuttle. I ride shotgun with him and our crew of bleary-eyed, hungry friends.
We work at the college paper, me and W. We’ve become incredible close, and we like to share food. Sometimes when one of us gets too busy in the newsroom, we’ll get food for each other. We don’t keep track of who owes who money for snack runs. We’re perpetually lending each other the same fifty cents over and over for the coke machine downstairs. Like the coke machine, Leo’s feels like a ritual. W. and I don’t get to leave the bubble of the newsroom very often, and we leave the bubble of campus even less. A little over six miles away, Leo’s feels like a trek. It might as well be on the other side of the world.
I’m not out at this point in time, but W. is. Sometimes we joke about how much of a lesbian I am. He edits a gushy column I write about Claire Danes’ performances through the years and he writes GAY in capital letters at the top of it. I like when we joke about it. It doesn’t feel mean. It doesn’t feel like a knife, which is sometimes how that word lesbian feels. When he and I talk about it, it’s the closest I come to meaning it for real. It’s safe to joke about it, a way to touch something just a little bit and then pull away. These jokes between us, our journeys to Leo’s, it’s all ritual. It’s all complex but uncomplicated friendship.
On a night before a trip to Leo’s, we’re at a party. W. says he’s going to get another drink inside, and he leaves me in the yard with A., another person I’ve grown very close to at the paper. We don’t share food — mainly because she’s vegan. But we share so much. More than either of us know.
I have something to tell A. It’s a secret. No, it’s something I’ve been afraid to tell her. And I don’t know why. This should be easy. It’s coney island diner talk. It doesn’t need some big preamble. And yet, I delay. I trip over my words. I place my hand on her shoulder and squeeze, and it’s such a bizarre father-son gesture, but that’s kind of normal for us, our friendship constantly looking like other types of relationships. I finally just say it, the words coming out too fast and staccato. I tell her I’m hooking up with our friend. He’s one of her best guy friends. It doesn’t go over well. She keeps saying everything will change, and I keep asking her to be more specific, but she keeps just saying everything. I don’t understand, but I also feel the same way, like something seismic has occurred, something not unlike betrayal. This shouldn’t have been so hard. She has a boyfriend. I’m single. Just messing around with a guy from the paper. We’re all friends. We’re all very good friends.
A. and I are getting louder. We’re fighting, I realize. And then W. interrupts, and A. walks away, and W. asks me if we just broke up, and I laugh, but when I look at him, I realize it might not be one of his jokes. He might be asking if there’s something more here. It would be so easy to open up to him here. But I don’t know what to say. And later, at Leo’s, it’s like it never happened at all.
Now, I live over thirteen hundred miles from the nearest Leo’s Coney Island. Nothing tastes exactly the same as the chicken fingers pita at Leo’s, I’m sure. The chicken tenders sub at Publix comes close, another brilliant vehicle for breaded chicken. But it’s its own thing entirely. Other places do fried chicken gyros. It’s not like Leo’s has proprietary ownership of the stuff. But I’ve still yet to taste that exact taste ever since I left Michigan, my own nostalgia and associations indelibly flavoring my mouth memories.
As I’m writing this, I learn Lud’s closed years ago. As I’m writing this, I keep checking the Leo’s Coney Island official website, making sure I remember the chicken fingers pita correctly, making sure the location I frequented with friends in undergrad is still open (it is). As I’m writing this, I start making a plan to recreate the chicken fingers pita. It wouldn’t be hard.
But those exact tastes aren’t what I’m chasing at all. A recreation wouldn’t satisfy my hunger. Not even the real thing would. It’s much easier to think about a chicken fingers pita, to long for it, to reconstruct it in my mind than to ask the questions I’m really after. Like what really happened with W.? Why did our friendship unravel so suddenly? Was it even sudden? Is that just the way I remember it now? We didn’t have some big fight, but maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe we should have talked more through shit. Maybe we should have given each other more space to shift. Or maybe we were always going to pull apart and I should stop chasing down alternative endings. I just miss the goddamn chicken fingers pita. Which is really just another way of saying I miss him.
As I’m writing this, Co-Star has the nerve to send me a notification that simply reads reach out to them. It would be logistically easier to reach out to W. than to get my hands on a Leo’s chicken fingers pita from all the way in Florida. Emotionally harder though, of course. I can’t order friendship reconnection off a menu.
A. and I did find our way back to each other, the time and place unexpected and unplanned. And for a burst of time, it was like we’d stepped into a time machine. I was in my chicken fingers pita era again. But nostalgia is tricky. Or, more accurately, it’s a trick. We were trying to remake the friendship we used to have, but it didn’t fit us anymore. So the friendship changed and then changed again, and that wasn’t bad. It was good. It was better than nothing at all. And all that was new to me, that willingness to shift the shape of a friendship, to sheath and unsheathe. It shouldn’t always feel like a chicken fingers pita. Unchanging. The same ingredients in the same order. We aren’t fixed individuals, and our friendships shouldn’t be fixed either.
It wasn’t the consistency of the Leo’s food that thrilled us; it was the wildness we brought through the door. The specific conversations about specific college shenanigans. The loud chats about our latest passions, heartbreaks, dramas, full of interruptions and questions and laughter between bites of fries. The stuff that’s harder to remember than the food, impossible to recreate.