The Royal Cliffs Diner went out of business. It used to be my favorite diner in northern NJ, but now there are bulldozers in the parking lot. Why was it my favorite diner? It is impossible to know. The part of New Jersey where I was raised, Bergen County, has diners everywhere. Forced to pick one over another, a person has no choice but to settle for the littlest thing. Royal Cliffs had Eddie Murphy’s autograph framed over the doorway. Maybe for that reason, maybe for no reason, it was my favorite.
The last time I went to Royal Cliffs was during the holiday season of 2011. I was with Ditkus, an old friend from high school. Both of us had grown up in the Land of Diners, and both of us had moved away in our 20s—I’d gone to Queens with my girlfriend, and Ditkus went to Colorado to get sober.
Returning to Royal Cliffs, we found that it was not the paradise we remembered. The staff was bleaching the floors, and the sicksweet smell of Clorox was part of our meal. I had opinions about this perhaps more than I should have.
I have my own history with bleach. When I was 18, I got a summer job at Ivy Lane Auto Service. My time as a junior mechanic there marks the period in my life when I most loved Jersey. I got oil stains on my clothes, and I loved that. I would test drive old Volvos listening to CBS FM, and on the weekends I would explore abandoned construction sites with my Jersey girlfriend. It was all very pastoral and Springsteenesque. But during one of our weekend adventures I got poison ivy on my legs, and I started to worry that it would ruin everything. Poison ivy was unattractive and persistent. It brought pus into my life. It was unromantic, and its name appeared to be mocking Ivy Lane Auto Service, which was a place I loved. I would not abide that.
So, I started pouring bleach on myself. I bought a jug of Clorox at the Drug Fair across the street from Ivy Lane and started applying bleach to my legs 2–3 times a day. The poison ivy quickly receded, but the bleach had other consequences: I ruined a few of my parents’ bathmats, and the hair on my lower legs fell out for a while. Most of all, the smell of bleach permanently and vividly became a part of my mind. To this day it reminds me of summer heat, the oppressive white-sky kind. It also reminds me of itching and ripping. Ripping Band-Aids off my hairless, bleach-treated skin turned out to be more painful than the bleach itself, and the sensation of that lives on for me in the smell of bleach.
Of course, I had chosen bleach because I wanted it to be intense. I was testing a theory: that I could summon the chemicals of NJ to do my bidding. That I could conquer poison with poison. As an 18-year-old, I was could not decline this science experiment. It felt daring and extreme, which is how I decided it was the right way to go. It was like an adult’s version of the blood code in the first Mortal Kombat: the results were glitchy and unpredictable, but also lurid. And irresistible.
Even now, the smell of bleach casts spells on me. It has a dizzying, narcotic effect. It is not a smell I like, despite our past. It is a smell of death: a cousin of chlorine, and a distant relative of Agent Orange and other jungle atrocities. And this, perhaps, is why it killed Royal Cliffs. They underestimated its power. They thought, “Who’s gonna smell it?” but they should have known: everyone would smell it. It is an unsubtle smell, with unsubtle consequences.
Before our final trip to Royal Cliffs, the last time I saw Ditkus had been in August, 2010. We had spent that summer giving Ditkus rides. Ditkus would call one of the gang from a pay phone, because he had been kicked out of the house again, and one of us would have to drive him to this or that rehab center. Ditkus knew the directions. He had opinions about which ones were good, and over the course of the summer we all learned where the NJ mental institutions were.
We drove him to Bergen Pines. We drove him to the hospital in Ridgewood and the one in Englewood. In the car with Ditkus the passenger, Ditkus the drug addict, each of us would struggle with whether to say difficult things to our friend. Whether to address the ways in which Ditkus was fucking up his life. He had a way of being nonchalant that made it impossible. He did not seem stoned or homeless. He did not exhibit the panic of a person being driven to the psych ward. He was sleepy and bored. He was the friendly tuba player we knew in high school.
We staged interventions, all of which failed. We found ourselves increasingly sucked into the Ditkus Zone of Nonchalance. We returned to the things we enjoyed discussing with Ditkus: the weirdness of Faith No More, the weirdness of Pizza Hut. In the meantime, we tried to draw certain boundaries. For instance, I would take Ditkus out to dinner, but I wouldn’t lend him money. I wrestled with the creeping sense that I was contributing to the demise of my friend.
By August, it was no longer an emergency when Ditkus called with an emergency. At a certain point his parents had the police remove him from their house, which was a slight escalation in the cycle of Ditkus family dysfunction. I was called on to bring Ditkus to the hospital, just so he would have somewhere to sleep—not taking him in was one of the harder injunctions to uphold, but, like Ditkus, we all still lived with our parents.
“Do you wanna go to Vintage Vinyl?” I asked Ditkus as soon as he got in the car. He said sure. I picked up Robert, one of the gang, and we drove 70 miles south to our favorite record store in Fords, NJ. We bought pizza somewhere on Route 1 and tried to kill time before Ditkus had to be institutionalized again. Tried to restore some sunshine to a summer that was otherwise ruining his life.
On the way back to the hospital in Ridgewood, Ditkus started talking from the back seat. He said he planned to get a job at a guitar store. Robert and I exchanged a look. “Ya know,” one of us said, “you sort of need to have your shit together to get a job like that.” Ditkus was unmoved. He described his life as a guy in a guitar store with resolute vagueness. This was the new plan, he said.
We were getting close to the hospital parking lot. I asked Ditkus what happened once we dropped him off—we’d done it before, but no one really knew what he did inside. “It’s actually better if you bring me to the emergency room entrance,” he said. “I usually say I’m suicidal, and then they’re required to put me up for a while.”
I drove over to the ER. This part, at least, Ditkus seemed to have figured out. I asked how long he could usually fake being suicidal before they turned him away. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even know if I’m faking anymore.”
The car was quiet for a moment after Ditkus said that. We had left the Zone of Nonchalance. Robert and I were now aware that it was, at last, time to say important things from the front seat. It was time to speak to Ditkus about the value of his life. Somewhere over the course of that summer, we had all felt ourselves become less articulate. Each of us had adopted some Ditkus-style vagueness in our thought and speech. We had gotten less good at telling the truth. It was time now to get suddenly good again.
“Ditkus,” I said. “I know your life sucks. But you gotta know how much you mean to us.” It did not feel like a particularly profound thing to say, and I felt guilty for that. I felt guilty for bringing us to the record store on a day that Ditkus thought of suicide.
“Ditkus,” Robert said. “We’re your friends and we love you.”
“Yeah,” Ditkus said.
Did he seem like a man about to kill himself? Was he standing on the brink of death? He looked big and sweaty, and he had his usual non-hairstyle. He was staring past me and Robert, staring at something through the windshield. His jaw was set. He wiped his forehead with his wrist.
“Thanks,” Ditkus said, and he got out of the car. Robert and I watched from behind as he waddled into the Emergency Room.
Ditkus lived. He was sent to a recovery program in Colorado. He didn’t have a phone at first, but I would sometimes get pay phone calls from him with good news. He had gone through detox. He was working the steps. He sounded like Ditkus, but less adrift. He sounded sober.
These phone calls were infrequent and shorter than you would expect. Ditkus and I never had a robust friendship on the telephone. At our closest, we would only call each other to announce that we were waiting for one another outside. We would talk, or not talk, in cars and in diners. That was the relationship.
Ditkus’s calls from Colorado felt long-distance in an age when long-distance phone calls were no longer significant. I had no idea what to picture when Ditkus described his newly emerging life. It was the kind of thing we never used to discuss on the phone, and some of the biggest details were left unsaid. At a certain point I realized he would not be moving back to NJ. He was doing well in Colorado: he had a job and a place. He lived there now.
It was a year and half before Ditkus visited Jersey again. He came to town in late December for a week of holiday-family stuff, during which time the big question was whether he would get along with his parents. He did. For the first time, it seemed that Ditkus might be more well-adjusted than the rest of us. He was also skinny.
It was my idea to bring him to Royal Cliffs. I missed their food, and I was curious to see if they were still the same after all this time. I was sure that Royal Cliffs would be exactly as I remembered—in the Land of Diners, nothing is ever supposed to change.
But Ditkus and I found that the years had not been kind to Royal Cliffs. Neither of us thought the restaurant was about to go out of business, but it did feel old. The signed headshot of Eddie Murphy had been faded by sunlight. The staff seemed tired and bummed. The coleslaw in its little paper cup was decrepit, decrepit even beyond the withered pulp we had been used to as teenagers.
And then they brought out the bleach. I looked at Ditkus and raised an eyebrow. We turned and looked at the guy with the mop, and he returned our look with the concerted blank expression of a person from Jersey saying, “I dare you to say one word about this bullshit.”
I looked back at Ditkus. The smell of bleach hung between us, toxic, familiar, native. I said, “You know, I can understand it. The choice.”
“Yeah,” Ditkus said. “I can understand it too.”
Ivan Anderson is a writer based in Queens, New York. Read more at HeavyMetalHeartbreaker.com.