In her youth, she was taken on a class trip to Chicago. There were many sights shown, but Maren could remember scarcely a one except the setting that changed her life forever and tapped into who she was as a human being: Ed Debevic’s. It had never occurred to her that such a place could exist—would be allowed to exist. But the establishment was created in a different era, when people were perhaps less easily “rattled.” Specifically, 1984. Oh, how Maren would have loved to live in such an epoch. Capitalist oppression be damned, for the present time was even more capitalistic than the so-called Decade of Excess.
Already bearing an inherent love for “50s-themed” diners spurred by coming from the state that brought the world Mel’s Diner, Maren was looking forward to this moment on the itinerary more than any other. Fuck the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Navy Pier and the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. All Maren wanted to do was get into a booth and experience the “verbal abuse” that was nothing more than “common parlance” in the 50s. You know, that snarky dialogue people were willing to write off as mere “repartee.”
When you asked most kids what they wanted to be when they grew up, the majority would come up with safe stock answers like “fireman” or “doctor.” Worse still, “teacher.” Maren knew the second she was introduced to Ed Debevic’s that she wanted nothing more than to be one of the “diner workers” there. All other jobs simply had no appeal now. The idea that such a milieu existed where you could actually verbally abuse people without judgment or consequence had Maren seriously considering “missing” the flight back home by “accidentally” getting lost (Kevin McCallister-style in Home Alone 2). Yet she knew all that would do was invoke the ire of her parents. No, she would have to bide her time and wait for the glorious day when she could move to Chicago and start her life anew, as it was always meant to be: freely calling people “dummy,” “stupid,” “blockhead” and other assorted 50s slang that still held up as being totally irreverent.
Although she went through the charade of applying to and getting into college, selecting Northwestern as her institution of choice to milk the most money from her parents, Maren knew that she would never set foot on the campus. She would simply pocket the cash her parents dutifully sent her and work at Ed Debevic’s for four years without interruption. When the time came for them to expect to be invited to a graduation ceremony, well, she would cross that bridge when she got to it. In the meantime, she was free to be the unabashed cunt she had been burying inside herself for the sake of being part of “polite society.” What she couldn’t have possibly accounted for, of course, was falling for one of her regulars. Nor the fact that she ought to have been aware of how this regular obviously got off specifically on being treated like garbage, which would present a problem when they weren’t in the Ed Debevic’s environment. For she was more closely aligned with the “sweet-natured” self she couldn’t help being outside the context of the diner.
“We hate you as much as you hate us!” the restaurant announced. But people, being as thick as they are, never seemed to apprehend the very clear warning about what one was getting into when they entered the diner. The disclaimer so often seemed to go right over their heads. Which is precisely why Maren found it refreshing when she first encountered Dick. Yes, that’s the name he was vehement about being called, despite the fact he probably ought to have opted for Richard in the modern era (not that much can be done to salvage such an unfortunate name even when it’s not turned into a diminutive).
Her co-workers, in truth, thought that Maren calling him Dick was taking it “too far” because they assumed she meant it in the spirit of “you’re a dick.” But no, they were quickly informed by Dick himself that this was his name. Even though he looked more like an Evan: mild-mannered, mediocre, thin hair, pale skin. All qualities that should have turned Maren off, but what kept her interested was how much he truly seemed to relish being debased and degraded. It was as though he went for this more affordable (despite the menu’s price points being rather high) experience rather than forking over the kind of cash required for a dominatrix. Yet Maren learned too late that Dick would only ever be satisfied by this precise sort of abusive and transactional exchange.
When she first spent some time with Dick outside of the diner, he came across as palpably disappointed that she wouldn’t continue adopting the “rude girl” persona she was so deft at radiating inside Ed’s. She explained to him that working there was how she managed to stay sane and civilized in the “real” world, an admission that made Dick’s heart sink all the more. She also explained the origins of how she came to be so obsessed with Ed Debevic’s and that, thinking back on it, she couldn’t actually believe her teachers would arrange to take highly sensitive elementary school children to such a place. Which is why she was glad she grew up in a somewhat less “censoring” time. Sure, her generation had to deal with more severe bullying that went totally unquestioned, but if it meant that such a phenomenon could give Ed Debevic’s a pass, then so be it.
All the while, she could register the total lack of attentiveness on Dick’s face. She couldn’t figure out what she had done wrong after he seemed so riveted by her when they were back in the diner. As they walked closer to the Ohio Street Beach, where Maren often liked to sit and reflect after her shift, she could bear his attitude no longer, turning to him and demanding, “Why are you being so fucking standoffish right now?”
That got the light in his eyes to flicker again as he frankly admitted, “I guess I like you better when you act the way you do in the diner. It…excites me.”
Oh, she thought. He’s one of those. And yet, instead of running in the opposite direction as she should have, she decided to oblige him. To give him what he wanted. She couldn’t say precisely what compelled her to do it. Maybe she had been feeling lonelier than she realized, and having someone to walk with at her side made her remember what it was like to have a romantic connection, ersatz though it was. So she berated him. She took it to a twenty-first century level by incorporating more harsh vocabulary, to boot. And soon enough, they were in his apartment, which just so happened to be the penthouse. Seeing that he had money did make her feel somehow slightly better about what she was doing, because she never felt bad for people with money.
Their “love” story, obviously, could only end badly. And while that was the case for most love stories, it was especially true of this one. For it was all based on Maren putting on her charade, and doing it precisely because she wanted so desperately, for whatever reason, to be “loved” by this person—knowing full well that he was incapable of any such emotion. Maybe that’s why it was so important to try to pry it out of him, because it would then truly mean that she was loveable.
As she let everything fall by the wayside, from her friendships to her already tenuous dynamic with her parents (increasingly suspicious of just what the fuck she was doing over there in Chicago), she started to flicker in and out of her true identity, losing track more and more of the person she really was versus the waitress from the diner that Dick (and everyone at Ed’s) expected her to be. After months of this schizophrenic lifestyle, Maren accidentally let the veneer slip while she was working one day, interacting with customers in a normal and friendly manner that was totally off-putting to them. One patron complained to Jared, the manager, “Excuse me, but the only reason we came into this overpriced dive was for the novelty of being verbally abused. So, I’ll ask again: can we get a server who knows how to talk some shit?”
It appeared, thus, that Maren no longer knew what she was doing. Jared told her as much a few days later when he informed her that they were going to have to “let her go.” That, as it stood, she no longer seemed suited to the requirements of the job. This assessment made her burst into uncontrollable sobs as Jared sat there awkwardly, not knowing what to do, apart from ask, “Do you want me to get you a tissue?” She didn’t. What she wanted was to have never met Dick. All he did was trip her up and make her question everything—her very existence, at times. Was she even real? She was becoming nothing more than a refraction of everyone else’s view, and it was starting to terrify her. After leaving Ed’s for the last time on the day of that firing, it occurred to her that she hadn’t heard from Dick in almost a week. It was as though he was palpably “done” with her now that she couldn’t give him any more cruelty, absorbing it all for himself to radiate back at her.
When she reached the edge of the Ohio Street Beach that evening, she decided to go further, wading into the freezing cold water and wondering if anyone would care enough to stop her. As it turned out, Dick actually did, fishing her out at the last moment out of nowhere. How had he known to show up? How long had she been flailing about in the small waves? These were queries he didn’t bother to acknowledge the next morning when she awoke in his bed, disoriented and almost forgetting that she had lost the only thing in her life that had ever made her feel truly alive: a job at Ed Debevic’s.
Hearing her stir, Dick brought her a piping hot cup of coffee in a mug with an image of Elvis Presley’s face on it. It was a sight that made her shudder. All at once, she had had her fill of 50s nostalgia, and wanted to forget entirely about the decade that was now forever entwined with the profession she thought she was born for. As she reached for the mug, Dick deliberately dropped it just as he was handing it off, so that scalding coffee poured all over her right arm and lap. Dick, so looking forward to hearing her cry out in pain, was surprised to find that all she did was bite her lip and suppress the urge to scream. She would not give him the satisfaction. And yet, he persisted in trying to goad her, to get a rise out of her.
He had now transformed into the abusive one. The student surpassing the teacher, as it is said. And as he proceeded to unleash all manner of hurtful comments in her direction, she leapt out of the bed, grabbing whatever oversized coat from the closet she could get her hands on as she scurried into the elevator and pressed the button for the lobby frenziedly. She could still hear his scathing rebukes sometimes, even now. Whenever there was a lull at the Mel’s on Highland Avenue in Hollywood. Eventually, she paid her parents back any money she had dipped into from her alleged college fund; she preferred it that way, not wanting them to feel like they were owed something by her—least of all a “career” path they could boast about to friends.
In the years since she fled Dick’s penthouse, she had “deprogrammed” from the alternate reality of Ed’s—hell, even the alternate reality of Chicago itself. And what Maren learned to accept was the “natural order” of things: the customer treats the server like shit, not the other way around. Some, in short, were born to be verbally abusive, while others simply did not have the stomach for it.