1997: Part One
The middle school’s playground included a large soccer field encircled by a quarter-mile track. From the edge of the field, through the chain link fence, across one of the busiest streets in town, it sat: Taco Bell.
Seeing Taco Bell every day would be enough of a siren’s song for tweens, but this Taco Bell represented something bigger, something more. The cohort of eight grade teachers had dangled a proposal, a potential reward, in front of us: lunch for anyone who earned a 4.0 GPA. During our regular lunch period, we would get to leave campus for a special lunch at Taco Bell.
The problem was, I was terrible at Physical Education. Most of our grade was based on our mile run time and measures of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test. I’d never fully passed. Despite my stellar academic record, I was always just shy of a 4.0. Always just shy of the Taco Bell adventure.
But as visions of tacos danced in my head, I found myself getting a little faster with each mile run. Every time I thought of a hot sauce packet, I squeaked out two extra sit-ups. The draw of fountain drinks pulled me up over the chin-up bar. I was passing the test. I was earning my A (minus). I had it: the coveted 4.0.
The day of the Taco Bell trip, I laced up my best black Airwalks, barely visible under my wide-leg jeans. I opted for a dark colored t-shirt, since I was known for being messy with Fire sauce. As we approached the gate at the end of the field, I could feel my pulse pounding in my ears. We’re really leaving campus. We’re really going to Taco Bell during school. We’re really hanging out with our teachers, and we’re excited about it.
I ordered a three crunchy taco combo, and filled my Star Wars cup with Diet Pepsi. It tasted like freedom.
1997: Part Two
I’d finished eighth grade riding the high of my 4.0 GPA and felt confident in tackling high school with the same gusto and academic vigor.
Spoiler alert: high school is a lot harder than middle school. And while I generally did just fine in the subjects I’d always excelled in (English, History, Dramatic Arts), and I was avoiding taking a regular PE class by participating in a sport (Water Polo), I hadn’t quite counted on my nemesis: Math. Specifically, Algebra II.
Six weeks into the school year, and one week before auditions for the Winter play, we were alerted to the impending arrival of our progress reports. e were given a copy during school as a “heads up” to what was waiting at home.
I wasn’t prepared at all for the grade I saw next to Algebra II: D. I felt like someone had punched me and was strangling me at the same time.
There weren’t a ton of expectations placed on me as a kid. I helped babysit my little brothers and had to contain the tornado of clutter that tears through every teenager’s bedroom. But the one non-negotiable was keeping my grades up.
With no time to prove that I could bring up that D in Algebra by the semester’s end, my first shot at being involved in the Drama department–the only thing that I truly cared about in high school–was in serious jeopardy..
After school, my best friend’s mom picked us up to take us home. I immediately begged to borrow her cell phone. I knew I had to tell my mom about my grade before she opened the mail and saw it herself, and I prayed to any and every higher power that I’d ever heard of that she’d listen to my explanation.
As soon as she answered, I started rambling. I promised to get a tutor. I pointed out a recent test had tanked my grade. I apologized, swore I’d work harder, and assured her that one progress report was in no way indicative of how serious I would take my studies from now on. I begged her to let me still go to auditions the following week.
The words flew out so fast it took me a minute to realize I’d forgotten to mention the reason for my intense monologue was a not-so-stellar Math grade. Order of operations were clearly not my strong suit.
I held my breath as I waited for my mom’s response. My best friend stood close by, our shoulders touching, and her mom watched from inside the car. After an eternity, or about ten seconds, my mom thanked me for telling her first and then, to my utter astonishment, said I could still participate in the play.
As I handed the phone back to my best friend’s mom, she smiled and said I deserved a trip to Taco Bell before she took me home.
I went inside and ordered two bean and cheese burritos, which I promptly covered with four packs of mild sauce (each). They tasted like relief.
Going to graduate school for Mass Media Studies wasn’t what I expected it to be, and while I was happily progressing through my courses (even the math requirements, I never got lower than a C+ after that Algebra progress report), I missed the thrill of theatre like I’d had in high school. After a handful of auditions, I landed a role in a local community theatre. I was home.
I’d been flirting with the “cute sound & lights guy” for a few weeks. It had resulted in one mix CD (from him to me), a handful of kisses after a cast party, and a lot of phone calls.
One day, he offered to pick me up and drive us to the theater. I asked him if we could grab something quickly for dinner beforehand — something fast.
He told me the only fast food he could really get was Taco Bell, since he was a vegetarian. He always ordered bean and cheese burritos. I told him I never really ordered those, because they reminded me of how I almost lost my first shot at being involved in a play because of my math grade. He smiled and said, “Well, it looks like it worked out in the long run.”
Rather than going through the drive-thru, we got out and went to the counter. He got his burritos; I got soft taco supremes. Carrying the bag back to the car, I suddenly felt a surge of butterflies in my stomach. I really liked this guy, but I didn’t really know where we stood, and I wanted answers.
“So…where are we?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” he replied.
“Like…is this…official?” I’m usually not so unsure with words. I could feel myself squeezing the bag between my feet, thanking past me for not getting crunchy – aka easily breakable – shells.
“You mean, are you my girlfriend?” he asked.
“Yeah. Are we boyfriend and girlfriend?”
“I’d like that.”
My heart swelled. “I would too.”
The butterflies quieted down and I was able to eat my soft taco supremes. They tasted like hope.
I picked up my maid-of-honor from the airport on Wednesday. My wedding to the “cute sound & lights guy” was the coming Sunday. Thursday night was my bachelorette party, with a few bridal party-only activities planned for Thursday during the day.
“It’s your day,” my maid-of-honor told me. “Starting with lunch. Where do you want to go?”
I smiled and looked out my apartment window. From my vantage point, I could see across the street to a large purple banner with a white bell that read Open During Construction.
“I want Taco Bell,” I smiled.
“Aw, like your first official date!” she swooned.
We went across the street and went to the counter, since the Drive-Thru was closed, thanks to construction, once again found ourselves at the counter instead of in the drive-thru. We laughed as we explained this was the official start of my bachelorette party, just like it’d been the official start of my relationship. The teenager taking our order seemed unimpressed.
We each ordered a pile of different items. I can’t even remember the exact items what all we ate but I know they tasted like bliss seasoned with and the promise of a lifetime ahead.
Colette Marie Murphy is a novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, screenwriter, and blogger. She earned her Master’s Degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies from San Diego State University, and then went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Literature and Writing Studies from California State University, San Marcos. Her thesis is titled True Love’s Bite: The Twilight Saga as Fairy Tale and Media Virus. When she’s not writing, she’s usually knitting or performing with an improv comedy troupe. Her favorite Taco Bell order is two crunchy taco supremes and a bean & cheese burrito. You can find her on Twitter at @ThatColette.