The Fifth Stage

The interior of Taco Bell is tropical plastic; to us, it counted as the first stage of simulacra: a faithful copy of paradise. But we were concerned with other interiors: the interior of the mouth that is warm and raspberry-colored, the interior of the soft taco that is soft, orange, salty ground beef. Not that any of us were making out with anyone’s raspberry warm inner-mouth back then. It, like the soft taco, was just something that we really wanted, all the time. At least the taco was something we knew how to get.

I don’t even remember the exterior of the Taco Bell we went to nearly every weekend, just the shape, maybe. And the slogan: the bell on the sign, a marquee with a special. It wasn’t what drew us to it.

We, as teenagers, just needed a place to go. There was only a diner in our small town—pop. 1,600, not counting the farms on the edges of town— there was just a little diner that closed after dinner and a gas station that had a Subway counter and three booths in the back and the ice cream shop that only little kids and their parents went to. When you stayed in that town on a non-school-night you felt it closing in around you, like the pine trees were actually an enclave of vampires, or maybe were just hiding the real vampires: townies with their arms in long camouflage-print hoodies. It wasn’t your blood they wanted but something else, something they eked out every year. And then you turned 25 and were tending bar at the only bar in town and you saw it in some younger person’s eyes and realized you were losing that something, too, and you wanted it back yourself, if only to have one more night of open windows on the highway, laughing at something stupid, just to watch it all eke away again. I don’t know where all the other teens went. We weren’t invited to any of the parties held inside barns. We went to Taco Bell.

Taco Bell was 35 miles away, part of a popular mall that also had a theater and surrounding suburbs with nicer houses than any of us had. Sometimes we saw a movie, if we had the cash, but we always went to Taco Bell first. 

One time, to get to Taco Bell, Grace accidentally hit a family of racoons as they crossed the dark highway. When we got to the parking lot, under the big glowing bell, our mood was darker than usual, thinking about the babies. When we get together now, me and Grace, we still feel bad about that one. 

Usually, Craig drove, because he got us there the fastest. It only took him 15 minutes to go all 35 miles. He bragged about that a lot. I don’t know why we are still alive.

None of us went to Afghanistan, like many of our classmates. Is probably one reason. 

The other reason is luck. We should not have been driving so fast, we should not have been laughing so hard at what was to become of us, or what could become of us. But everything was just a road to get to what we would soon have. We didn’t know it could ever close, that it would close forever, along with the theater and the rest of the strip mall, a decade after those nights.

Those nights, Alex would order a Double-Decker Taco. The interior of that is another exterior. Like us, inside the tropical pastel Taco Bell. Inside us a mixture of emerging class consciousness, sex, anxiety, and joy, feelings that are soft composites of feelings we’ve just heard about, like the beans that mixed with the meat, until they are indistinguishable. And he’d get Cinnamon Twists for dessert. We knew that they were just fried rotini, dusted with sugar: an imitation of a churro. This is the second stage of simulacra, an unfaithful copy, like the Chalupa. Which is what I always ordered.

There is nothing on the menu Taco Bell that is the first stage of simulacra—a faithful copy— if you are considering it a Mexican restaurant, which it itself does not. When they tried to debut in Mexico, the website was www.esotracosa.com: “it’s something else.” 

We knew it wasn’t supposed to be anything but itself, and we wanted it. We wanted other stuff, too, from the past and from the future. Sometimes on the drive there we’d talk about how college would be, how high school had been, and both were just a haze of sepia in our minds. This, like the burrito that seems like it could be authentic Mexican cuisine but was actually invented in California, is the third stage of simulacra: an image of something that seems like it existed, but never did. 

Craig would get whatever sounded good that night. He wasn’t afraid of the new. And, at Taco Bell, there was (and is) always something new, like the BLT taco, the Enchirito, the Cool Ranch Dorito Taco. I don’t know where he is now. Grace always got three Soft-Shell Tacos. 

When Pizza Hut came to join Taco Bell at its counter, it shut down things at our location for about two weeks. I have no memory of that time. When it was open again, the pastel seats were still there, but there was a new sign outside and it all smelled like childhood, like those nights in a booth ordering a Personal Pan Pizza and staring at my parents’ salads from the salad bar as they dripped onto the red-checked tablecloth. Our needs, the ones we were just defining, were being re-mapped and mixed with nostalgia that we felt too young to be having. But the Personal Pan Pizza from the Taco Bell Pizza Hut didn’t taste the same as those childhood nights when we had gotten plastic pitchers of Root Beer and watched our siblings pick their toppings off. That taste, those perfect crispy greasy crust-edges resulting from years of using the same oiled pans over and over, couldn’t be reproduced at a Taco Bell. For all it could do, for every fresh culinary creation and abomination it could produce, it couldn’t do that.

Still, it was nice to have more options. From then on, Grace got breadsticks along with her Soft Shell Tacos. I still got a Chalupa and two hard shells and a Mt. Dew. 

We did this until we graduated, Craig, Alex, Grace, and me.

Years later, I briefly had a husband, and he briefly worked at Taco Bell as a second job to pay off his student loans. He introduced me to the menu item that would replace the Chalupa, for me: the Cheese Quesadilla with extra Creamy Jalapeno Sauce. I was already done with college, and Taco Bell was already done trying producing commercials that advertised them as “Mexican food” in the US. Now no one was pretending. This is why there is no fourth stage of simulacra—the image that has no relationship to anything in reality— present at Taco Bell: it is advertising, now, just what it is: Taco Bell. Taco Bell is not Mexican food, Taco Bell is only Taco Bell. No more pretending. 

I couldn’t eat there for awhile after that. I remembered the way his clothes smelled when he got home from his shift. 

Ten years later, our teenage Taco Bell near the abandoned mall (now a mattress warehouse) has been turned into a vape shop. But many of the locations have stayed open and some have upgraded to Cantina status. If you are over 21, at Taco Bell Cantina you can get a margarita or a boozy Twisted Freeze. And anyone can get a plate of appetizers and sit in a real restaurant, no outdated pastel-tropical-plastic seats in sight. I went into the one near my new house, in my new city. I got a Cantina Margarita, which was too sweet in a good way, and a Chalupa. There were some teenagers in there, but mostly it was young families. I sipped it as I sat and waited for my Chalupa. There’s a lot of wrought iron, bare wood, and neon. I didn’t think about memories, not even the Taco Bell of my past, not even the smell of my ex-husband’s skin when he came to bed. The Chalupa was pretty good. It may have been the same, a faithful representation of the past, had I wanted it to be. But the citrus syrup on my lips, the interior of my mouth, made everything different. 


Dani is from a small Midwestern town and currently teaches writing and literature in Austin, TX. She recently finished her first novel and can be found online at daniwheeler.com

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