A few weeks before my daughter turned one, my wife and I decided to let her try Taco Bell for the first time. This wasn’t a calculated decision, nor a recommendation from the pediatrician or a snippet from one of the bajillion parenting books you get when you’re expecting. Rather, it was the shortcoming of two functional adults who’d realized that their kid was hungry and that they were too tired to actually cook. It was a random, spur-of-the-moment thing, like adding on an order of Cinnamon Twists because they’re only a dollar and fuck it, who cares about 170 calories anyway? It didn’t hit me until we’d settled on Taco Bell. This was a big deal. So I did what any millennial parent would. With a mix of self-righteousness and horror, I over-thought it.
See, Taco Bell played a part in so many formative experiences that, as a thirtysomething new parent, I’d come to reflect on. I applied for my first credit card outside of their spot in Muncie, Indiana, in exchange for three hard shell taco supremes. I spent many 2000s summer nights meeting my brother for what we called the ultimate fast food meal: one Crunchwrap Supreme, one double cheeseburger from McDonald’s, and a shared sixer of Old Milwaukee Light. When my wife and I were commuting an hour each way to work while waiting to close on our first home, we took off early one day to try the Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Taco (RIP) as quickly as possible. Taco Bell was, I realized, an artifact in the background of so many memories I held dear, like a charming, quirky painting in the background of family photos. And here I was, given the opportunity to paint that canvas for another human being.
I’m not the type who thinks about his order. When the craving hits, my soul breathes it into me item by item so I can recite, pay, and collect as quickly as possible. But when I stepped up to the counter, having left my wife and daughter at home while I picked up the goods, and heard the familiar “Hi, how are you?” grumble from the kid behind the register, I froze. Choked. Took a step back.
Which item could possibly be the start of my daughter’s seven-layer canvas?
“I’m good,” I muttered, swallowing back the temptation to tell him I’m taco-tastic, nacho bad, or any other dad joke that, as a relatively new father, I’d decided I was free to adopt. “Just don’t know what to get my kid.” I stared at the menu, weight piling on my shoulders as a small line formed behind me, and started to assess my options:
- Crunchy Taco Supreme: classic, but impossible to tackle with only four teeth
- Crunchwrap Supreme: contains a little bit of everything, but too loaded for a baby’s mouth
- Nacho BellGrande: cheesy, meaty, crunchy, but unmanageable for tiny baby hands
As the line began to grow and the kid behind the register started dozing off, the pressure began to mount. Sweat beaded on my forehead and trickled down my cheeks like condensation slipping down the side of a 32 oz. cup of Baja Blast on a summer afternoon. I wouldn’t waver, though. I couldn’t. There are things that, as a parent, you revel in introducing to your kid. Their first baseball game. Their first day of school. Their first taste of sub-par, whitebread Mexican food.
The grumbles started. People murmured “what the hell?” about the sweaty man staring up at the menu, and my stomach groaned for the meal it had been promised. The solution hit me before a riot could break out, though. The cheese quesadilla. Classic, but simple. Artfully complex in its balance of cheesiness and a zesty kick. Soft enough to be chewed by four big-gapped teeth, and diceable for tiny baby hands. The answer I’d been looking for.
I ordered, and as soon as the cashier gathered up my food from the back and tossed it onto the counter, I ran to my car. I sped home, pedal to the floor, leaning forward as the anticipation for my daughter’s first taste consumed me. It was the high school rush of an XL Mountain Dew all over again, only this time it was natural, driven by the pride of having provided for my family. A modern day, tex-mex hunter-gatherer.
I’d dreamt of walking into my house to applause, or at least to giggles and a smile from my daughter. Instead, I was met with the piercing screams of a child who, with fire sauce red cheeks, turned her face away from the probiotic-infused organic berry yogurt with which my wife attempted to appease her. I paused, bag dangling from my fingertips, one hand still on the doorknob, and soaked it in. The hanger. The desire. The passion. My daughter’s first Taco Bell craving. The gripping, uncompromising desire that only a lukewarm quesadilla can fulfill.
Her red cheeks took me back to my own fits. The time I drunk-stumbled to a Taco Bell at 3:30am and yelled at the locked doors. The time my brother wouldn’t let me eat my Crunchwrap Supreme in quiet, so I grabbed his chicken burrito and threw it out the window. The time—
“What the hell are you doing?” my wife snapped.
I looked up, having drifted off into the memories. I ran to the kitchen to grab the pizza cutter and finish what I knew would be a bad slicing job on the quesadilla. I whipped her food out of the bag, smiling at it through the plastic window in its packaging, and completed cutting it first into mismatched fourths, then into baby bite-sized pieces. My daughter’s shriek spurned me on as I moved the tiny pieces from the counter into her BPA-free plastic plate. The zesty, cheesy triangles piled upon one another, building the foundation for my child’s Taco Bell memories to come. I grabbed an equilateral piece I’d accidentally cut and placed it on top, then stepped back to admire my work. Some fathers throw balls and others build playgrounds, and I’d get there eventually. For now, though, I had this.
I set the plate in front of her, and the house fell silent. My daughter’s eyes widened, and she stretched out her fingers and slowly descended them upon the meal I’d provided. She grabbed two handfuls, ignoring my perfect equilateral in the middle, and held them high above her head as if in ritual, and my heart warmed. I put a hand on my wife’s shoulder and looked down, smiled, thinking that hell, we could be in Today’s Parent.
Hands still raised, my daughter squeezed her fists, cheese squirming its way out from between her fingers. The screams started back up again, beginning at mild and making their way past hot and back up to fire as she slammed her hands against her highchair’s tray. Bits of quesadilla bounced off it and to the ground, and she rubbed the remaining pieces in circles as if painting twin orange suns, stopping only to bat at us if we tried to stop her or feed her a bite. By the time it was over, the rug was stained yellow, the dog was sick from the excess scraps, and my daughter had styled her hair Super Saiyan with quesadilla sauce—a far cry from the canvas I’d set out to paint.
That’s the thing about parenthood, though. Despite your best intentions and the effort you put into making an event magical, it can all blow up into something else altogether. And even though you find yourself picking nacho cheese out of your kid’s hair at 9:00pm on a Friday night and scrubbing at the sauce stain on the rug every day for the next two weeks, it’s worth it. You live más.
Adam Shaw lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife and daughter. He holds an MFA in fiction writing from Concordia University, St. Paul, and his thoughts on books, beer, and everything in between can be found online at www.theshawspot.com. He tries to be a good parent but is really just making it up as he goes.