I was a chubby teenager, a self-doubting sixteen-year-old who craved love and acceptance more than the salty-crisp delights of my much-desired Nachos BellGrande. As I pulled up to the drive-thru, my eyes skittered to the words on the light-up menu. BellGrande. Beautiful large. Perhaps it was destiny. I could be beautiful and large, nestle comfortably into the wide-spread of my hips, relish the ripples in my thighs as they stuck to the hot vinyl of my car seat. Later, I would learn to fully inhabit myself, to appreciate my BellGrande body, but at the drive-thru the words caught in my throat. I heard myself sputter, “Taco Salad,” into the speaker.
Not that there wasn’t much to admire in the Taco Salad. All the Taco Bell standard ingredients were present: a slop of beans, a crumble of meat, cheese, sour cream, and a sprinkle of green onions, all cradled in the belly of the fried tortilla shell. It was the shell that I loved most. Sometimes I scraped off the other ingredients into the wilting cardboard box that housed the salad so that I could devour the shell unadorned. I loved the crisp bubbles that burst between my teeth, showering my lap with flakes of tortilla. I loved the floor of the shell, how it grew soggy from bearing the weight of all those toppings. As I popped pieces of shell into my mouth and let them melt on my tongue, I rested safe in the truth that my meal was healthy, that I could Taco Salad my way towards a less flabby stomach, a boyfriend, adoration. I wasn’t a fool. I ordered my Taco Salad minus the sour cream, that plop of wasted calories. I devoured the shell, leaving only flakes in its wake. I failed to appreciate the blissful cloud, thick as sour cream, that kept me suspended in my delusions of diet fast food.
Then like a brittle tortilla shell left too long in the fryer, my illusions shattered. As I waited to be called for my annual physical at my pediatrician’s office, I paged through a copy of McCall’s. I stumbled upon an article exposing the most unhealthy of the unhealthy fast foods. The Dirty Dozen. I was obsessed with calories, and felt my pulse quicken at seeing the high tallies of some of my old favorites: the McFish, Burger King’s Chicken Parmigiana, the Double Whopper. I had given those up those delights long ago. Putting away childish things meant leaving breaded meats behind. I flipped the page of the magazine. My breath caught in my throat. In the number one spot, surrounded by a red circle with a slash bisecting the picture-perfect shell: my beloved Taco Salad. The shell alone had enough calories for two meals. The meat and sour cream were only a small fraction of the caloric horror show. My heart fluttered. My stomach dropped. My cheeks flushed as a panic set in at all the calories I had unknowingly consumed, at the self who existed before this moment who so confidently said, “Taco Salad” then looked with condescension at her friends with their nachos and Burritos Supremes. It had all been a lie, a ruse to snare suckers like me. The article advised a more sensible order to replace the dangerously caloric Taco Salad. Bean and Cheese Burrito, hold the cheese. But who held the cheese? Was there no shelter from the shedding of innocence? No refuge. I would hold the cheese. I would.
The 7-Layer Burrito was a revelation on par with the new truths that I was racking up during my junior year of college. The world was on fire, fat was a feminist issue, and meat was very much murder. Taco Bell life became a beans-only affair. The 7-layer burrito had my newly minted vegetarian back. I abandoned my bean burrito, left it behind like a high school boyfriend who never left my dead-end hometown. My senses had been awakened, my eyes opened. The rice was the secret. It broke up the monotony of the beans, gave the other ingredients—the sour cream, the guacamole, the cheese, the lettuce—some needed lightness and texture. And as James, my friend and current Taco Bell employee, was quick to point out, “It made the beans a complete protein.” Complete proteins were very important that summer. We loaded up. We ate our 7-layer burritos until gastric distress forced us to crumple the last of the tortilla into the bag.
But Taco Bell giveth and Taco Bell taketh away.
We had no warning. James had quit his job slinging tacos by then, moved back into being a full-time student, and had no idea of the cold splash of 7-Layer Burrito-less existence that was about to greet us when we pulled up to the drive-thru menu and saw it had disappeared. The splashy posters that made it look like the burrito was tunneling our way, a tornado of flavor, were gone. The space on the flickering menu where the 7-Layer-Burrito once beckoned was vacant.
James cleared his throat. “Two 7-Layer Burritos,” he said, pretending like we had not noticed the absence. He was about to launch into the rest of the order, “Nachos Supreme, hold the meat” when the speaker crackled back to life.
“I’m sorry, sir. That menu item is no longer available.”
“But don’t you have all the ingredients to make it?” He asked.
A pause. I imagined the worker rolling her eyes, making a jerk-off motion. Get a load of this asshole. They probably saw so much tragedy, so much of humanity’s underbelly in a single shift. I almost felt guilty that he had asked although I wanted one as badly as him.
“I’m sorry, sir. We can make you a bean burrito with sour cream and guacamole, but those will be extra.”
James shook his head. “Goddamnit.”
We sat there a moment, contemplating the 7-Layer Burrito-less world. It was like a reverse Wizard of Oz. Our world had flickered back to a black-and-white existence. A Bean and Cheese Burrito add lettuce monotony.
“No, that’s alright,” he said and ordered Nachos BellGrande and a Burrito Supreme, adding Cinnamon Crispas as a small consolation.
I was a woman who had been on a whirlwind affair with her true, decadent love only to be forced to return to her husband, shame-faced and resigned to drudgery. This was real life. The 7-Layer Burrito life was a dream. I bit into my burrito with curled lip, tongue poised to grapple with the glop of beans that, without their partner-in-protein, would surely stick to the roof of my mouth. The rice was transformative, keeping the texture light and chewy, not the gritty paste that was in my future. I had known ecstasy. I had known loss. It was better to have loved and tasted guacamole, rice, and sour cream in a symphony of squirts and dollops and sprinkles for no additional charge than to have never tasted it at all.
“But can’t you just add those things to your burrito?” My mom asked like the employee had suggested.
“It’s not the same,” I said.
I shouldn’t have to add the extras. We had it all.
I never recovered from the betrayal. The 7-Layer Burrito returned, added an option for a crispy shell and reconfigured into various incarnations but I was already gone. I haven’t set foot in a Taco Bell. I haven’t triggered the crackly speaker to life as I drove over the drive-thru sensor in decades. I grew old. I discovered taquerias where rice comes standard and beans are not both gritty and wet at the same time.
Now when the advertisements for taquitos and chalupas and taquito-rrito-lupas scream onto my television screen, the enticements for fourth meal, for running to the border, I burrow further into my couch. I am living my best Bellgrande life. I make my own nachos and devour them without shame. My burritos have as many layers as I want. When I order a salad, it’s because I crave the crunch of lettuce and the acidic zing of vinaigrette, not because I am constructing a calorie smokescreen. I endured my Taco Bell disappointments, I learned from betrayal. I tip my hat to the Bell’s powers of reinvention, to its ability to build a fast food empire atop the recombination of five ingredients and a succession of zippy slogans. Still, as the screeching guitar of the commercial fades, I curl my lip. I mutter, “Jesus Christ, that looks disgusting.”
Katherine Sinback’s work has appeared in The Rumpus, Gravel, Crab Fat Magazine, Nailed Magazine, Drunk Monkeys, and Oyster River Pages, among other publications. Born and raised in Virginia, Katherine is living her best BellGrande life in Portland, Oregon with her family. She blogs at ktcrud.blogspot.com and can be found on Twitter @kt_sinback.