If you walked by the Johnny Rockets on Thayer Street in the summer of 2007, you may have noticed a rather sad boy sitting at the window by himself, nursing an order of french fries.
The month after my first real break-up, for lack of anything better to do with myself, I would drive to Thayer Street and spend hours in the mock-retro, chain eatery that seemed to ease both my heartbreak and my summertime sadness, which were colliding in a spectacular fashion as I simultaneously entered the doldrums of post-college life.
Why Johnny Rockets?
Why Thayer Street?
Why egg salad every night before the chain took it off the menu?
The great thing about living in Rhode Island is that you can find yourself falling into random patterns of behavior that arrive and disappear with no reason whatsoever.
I took comfort in the friendly staff, in particular, a waitress with a gorgeous Irish accent and sparkling personality who learned my name and order, and treated me with the same affection the characters on Cheers reserved for Norm.
You may be thinking that, like most forlorn young men, I chose solitude during that period, but you’d be wrong. Solitude would probably have been the healthier option, but since I’ve already admitted that I was existing off a diet of egg salad, milkshakes and french fries, you must know that health was not on my mind.
Rather than take time to reflect, I would invite friends to meet me at Johnny Rockets, and when they asked if I was talking about some irreverently named new bar, I would have to qualify that, no, I really was talking about the actual Johnny Rockets.
Most of them would show up, commiserate with me, watch as the staff danced to “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” and then offer to go see a movie with me at the Avon.
(I’m confident this is why I’ve seen Gone Baby Gone more times than any gay man on earth.)
One evening I made the mistake of inviting a date to Johnny Rockets, and while he was nice enough to indulge me while I bantered with my favorite waitress and asked about her brother’s new tattoo parlor back in Dublin, the whole thing felt wrong.
I had attempted to bring the promise of love into a place I’d reserved for mourning. As a writer, I know part of world-building is making up rules for how your created environments work, and it turns out, the real world is no different.
My date asked if I wanted to go back to his place, but he cautioned that several of his pet birds didn’t like intruders, and I may need to cover my face with something upon entering.
“Unless you have a helmet in your car? Do you? Helmets work really well. They’re mostly friendly, but I wouldn’t want them to do to you what they did to the last guy.”
I decided to go see Gone Baby Gone instead. Say what you want about Ben Affleck, but all that tortured toxic masculinity is like chicken soup for the broken twink’s soul.
That summer, Thayer Street was the perfect place to throw a nightly pity party. It was a melting pot of bikers, screaming teenagers and chainsmokers. Everybody was willing to talk to you and nobody wanted anything to do with you, and even on my darkest day, I could always overhear a conversation that reminded me I was better off than most people.
Once, while walking back to my car, I passed by Kartabar and heard a guy telling his friend that his landlord was starting to ask about dried seaweed on the lawn, and even though I couldn’t stick around long enough to get the full story, I had a feeling whatever was going on with that guy was was worse than a measly break-up.
By September, the students were back and I had grown tired of watching grown men and women dressed like soda jerks do a bastardized version of the Electric Slide while Aretha Franklin played in the background.
Even my favorite waitress whose name I can’t remember (I want to say Maureen O’Hara, but I know that’s not right) went back to Ireland to help bail out her brother. Change is a given in Providence, but if you’re down in the dumps, that might not be such a bad thing.
Healing happened incrementally. The part about getting over a break-up that nobody tells you, because it doesn’t sound wise or inspiring, is that all the moping and despair just gets … boring. No matter how many milkshakes you throw at it.
If you walk down Thayer Street now, you won’t see the Johnny Rockets anymore, although the B.Good that took over didn’t bother to change the architectural structure of the previous owner, so at first glance, you might think it’s still there.
One night about a month ago, I was grabbing take-out from Kabob and Curry, and I had one of those half-second flashes where you’re standing in a spot you’ve been in before and you get a sudden clarity on a moment from your past.
There I was, 14 years younger, sitting in the window and holding onto the belief that my life was always going to be as disappointing as fries are when you don’t eat them right away or when they’re drenched in too much ketchup or when the salt ratio is off.
I could never have imagined that life was going to offer so many more instances of unquantifiable joy and emotional pain that would make that first break-up feel like a mosquito bite. I could never have dreamed that one day there wouldn’t be anymore Johnny Rockets or Kartabar or Paragon or Store 24 or Tealuxe and so help me if anything ever happens to Antonio’s I will burn this city to the ground.
When the pandemic began and everyone was reaching out to everyone else they’d ever met in their life, the man who broke up with me all those years ago reached out to see how I was doing. We got to talking, and he told me that after the break-up, he spent most of his time at a coffee shop downtown, trying to figure out what he should do next.
The pair of us were within a five minute drive of each other and as far apart as any two people could be. Shortly after that summer, he moved away and hasn’t been back to Rhode Island since, although lately, he’s been missing it.
“What about you,” he asks me. “What did you do that summer?”
I thought about how honest of an answer I wanted to give him and then decided on–
“Oh, I met this girl from Ireland and we hung out a lot.”
Sometimes the truth is like ketchup.
A little goes a long way.