From the outside, the hotel looks like any other resort in Palm Springs — a sleek white building studded with needless glass windows and an assortment of cacti framing the entrance. But I know that inside holds my personal hell.
Once I enter the Tacoasis, a real life version of the Taco Bell bell bongs in my ear. I glare at the man stationed next to the instrument as I make my way to the front desk. “Checking in?” a woman at the concierge chirps. She’s wearing a scarf covered in bright orange tacos.
Rubbing my ear, I hand over my credit card and ID.
“Here’s your gift bag for the Zhang/Patel wedding,” the woman hands me a surprisingly non-greasy paper bag along with my room key. “We hope your stay is Fire!” The key is an imitation of Taco Bell’s sauce packet. Mild. Exactly my excitement level for the weekend.
* * *
I love Helen. We’ve been friends since middle school, since the moment she peed herself after getting double bounced on my trampoline. As her maid of honor, I shielded her as she peed herself on a moving party bike in Nashville. But once I walk into my room, my love curdles into hate, much like the texture of Taco Bell’s nacho cheese after five minutes.
I haven’t been able to stand the sight, smell, taste, or texture of Taco Bell for eight months. Not since Jerry dumped me. In the Taco Bell where we went on weekly double dates with Helen and Pooja. After four years of dating. Before I even finished my Crunchwrap Supreme.
And now, here I am, at The Bell, Taco Bell’s pop-up hotel, for my best friend’s Taco Bell-themed wedding, alone, even though I RSVP’d for two. The weekend goal? Grin and bear it. And don’t eat any Taco Bell.
I flip the hot sauce packet throw pillows so I don’t have to see the branding. I use an extra towel to cover the hideous framed oil painting of the Nachos BellGrande Combo. I turn off the neon sign outside the bathroom that says “Make Salsa Not War,” partly because the light is blinding but mostly because it’s fucking stupid. I scroll through GrubHub to see what I can order for dinner. Is it chaotic to order Olive Garden to the Taco Bell Hotel?
* * *
The following day, invigorated by my covert Giant Cheese Stuffed Shells Operation, I survive the Diablo Hot Yoga session in the morning, which is aptly named because it’s so hot even at 7am that it feels like I’m indeed inside Satan’s inflamed butthole. I fake small talk with the other bridesmaids as we get our nails and hair done at the salon. I recoil at the idea of a Taco Bell gel manicure so I subject myself to the Cinnabon Bun hairstyle instead. I make up excuses to avoid the Avocado Toast-ada and Caesar Taco Salad, much to the horror of Helen’s college friend.
“But they’re exclusive!” she cries. A fleck of chicken lands on my hand.
My enthusiasm wanes throughout the day. The synchronized Saucy swimmers are impressive but tacky and I can only smile for so many hours over Taco Bell-themed merchandise. Bikinis. Keychains. Tumblers. Stainless steel taco holders.
I stay at the rehearsal dinner just long enough for my appearance to be noted, picking up and setting down champagne flutes of alcoholic Baja Blast without drinking them. Just as I’m about to slip out, Helen corners me behind a palm tree.
“You’ve been a bitch all day,” she says. Helen has always been blunt. “It’s my wedding. Can you please just try to be happy for me?“
“Do you know how hard this is for me? Every second I’m here, I’m just reminded of Jerry. Why couldn’t you have gotten married in a normal fucking place like a church or city hall?”
“Look, I’m sorry Jerry left you. I am. But your grudge against Taco Bell is ridiculous and misplaced. It’s a restaurant chain! Get over it!”
I snort in disbelief, “That’s rich coming from the person getting MARRIED at their branded hotel!”
“I’m just disappointed. What about all those nights when we bailed on going out just to order a Taco Party Pack and watch America’s Next Top Model? You used to love Taco Bell, even before Jerry. I thought you’d at least be able to remember that.”
Helen stalks back to the party, wobbling around the hot tub, leaving me feeling guilty and confused. Mostly confused. Why the fuck does this place have a hot tub?
* * *
In the morning, I do my own hair and makeup rather than face Helen. I’m still not at a point where I can fake happiness. Helen would see right through it, which would probably be worse. Instead, I slip out to the patio where a pre-ceremony brunch has been sitting out for an hour. I gulp down some coffee, surveying the piles of jalapeño chicken poppers and towers of toasted cheddar club sandwiches made with chalupa shells.
“They’re leaving piles of hot meat and dairy out in 107 degree heat. Great.” I turn at the sound of someone who seems to detest the current spread as much as I do. It’s a man who looks like he just walked off the pages of GQ and dare I say, looks good in a tan suit?
“Not a fan?” I ask.
“Not of these. It’s all so try hard.”
“Isn’t that the whole theme of Taco Bell?”
“Touché. I’m Ben, by the way.”
My palm is sweating already but I go in for the handshake anyway. Ben holds my hand in a firm grip that makes my cheeks turn as red as a Fiery Doritos Locos Taco. We talk about our resort experiences so far — he avoided the Diablo Hot Yoga but was now stuck with a Taco Bell fade — and our mutual longing for some real ice cream, not crushed ice and horchata smoothies.
Since he’s proven himself a kindred spirit, I reveal my illicit food deliveries. He lets out a long whistle.
“I know we just met,” Ben leans in conspiratorially, his eyes holding my gaze. The air between us is now 207 degrees. “But do you want to get out of here? Just for a little bit. Promise we’ll be back before the ceremony.“
I really shouldn’t leave, but I am hypnotized by this hot man pouting and promising to take me away from a roomful of Lava Sauce Lovers.
He offers to drive, “It’ll be a surprise. Come on, live más.”
I want to leave my mortal body when we pull up to a Taco Bell. It’s either so remote or so old that it hasn’t even gotten the new minimalist bell rebranding. It still has faded geometric magenta shapes decorating the walls and tables, standing alone in the sands of time.
“The things a guy’s gotta do to get a good ol’ Crunchwrap Supreme,” Ben chuckles to himself, pulling into a parking spot. “I couldn’t stand all that pretentious Taco Bell food. I just need the OG menu.”
He rushes into the Taco Bell before I’ve even unclipped my seatbelt. I hesitate at the threshold, the door left ajar. I catch a blast of air conditioning and a waft of the greasy, cheesy smell I still associate with Jerry. Not eating Taco Bell has been my way of reclaiming a sense of control in a situation where I had none, to try and purge myself of that humiliation. But as I watch Ben’s casual lean against the counter as he orders, I know that if I don’t go inside and eat some Taco Bell with this perfectly charming guy, I’m still letting my ex control me.
I slide into the seat opposite Ben. Paper parcels and hot sauce packets adorn the plastic tray. He gulps half a gordita.
I make my selection: a Crunchwrap Supreme. The tortilla hexagon is perfectly browned and warms my hands. I take one bite, then another to ensure I have the right balance of ground beef, melted cheese, lettuce, tomato, and sour cream. The tostada crunch is a beautiful sound. That crunch is the sound of my life snapping back into place.
Ben stops chewing to watch me savor my meal. I don’t tell him about the Supreme step I just took. But I do accept his offer of a Mexican Pizza.
* * *
We rush back to the hotel just in time for me to join Helen and the other bridesmaids.
“Jesus Christ, Jeni. You’re late and you have Fire Sauce on your fucking face!” Helen almost thrashes me with her bouquet.
After a beat, she looks me over and repeats slowly, “You…have FIRE SAUCE on YOUR FUCKING FACE!”
I suppress a grin, “Can I use your dress as a napkin?”
She pulls me into a tight hug.
When Helen and Pooja recite their vows, I dab at my eyes with the same napkin I used to wipe away Fire Sauce. My smile is genuine as I watch them feed each other Crunchy Tacos Supreme (beef for Helen, black beans for Pooja). Afterwards, Ben hands me a champagne flute of Baja Blast Freeze and we toast to the happy couple.
At the reception, I don’t sneak away to order Olive Garden. I fill up a plate with permutations of burritos and tacos engaged in unholy alliances with Cheetos. I dig into each, not caring if sour cream runs between my fingers or if a jagged taco shell tears the inside of my cheek. I think I dropped diced tomatoes down the front of my dress, but I don’t care. (It can be a surprise for Ben later.)
For now, everything is a Cinnabon Delight.
Nicole Zhu is a writer and developer based in New York. Her writing has appeared in Catapult, Eater, Electric Literature, and Jellyfish Review. She writes a biweekly newsletter about the writing process and sustaining a creative life. Find her on Twitter @nicolelzhu.