I have never had to know the inside of a Taco Bell.
Other fast food restaurants, I have known and been. My first job was at a Dairy Queen. I know in muscle memory the weight and jostle of the bags of milky sweetness, the feel of the flow across my hands as their contents escape into the top of the ice cream machine. I know the texture of soft serve, ripened and pushing back against a waiting cone, and the brush of your fingers against mine as I deliver the top-heavy, perfectly swirled dessert you’ve been waiting for. I have inked sugary salutations and well wishes onto your cakes, words that will be carried out into the world and then, like everything does, melt away.
I have been the teenage mission control of McDonald’s, headsetted and brimming with purpose in the drive-through chute. I have heard exactly what you want, and if what emerged from the depths of the kitchen was not that, I have taken it back, releasing your cheeseburger and its unwanted pickles into the returns bin, feeling it land with a thud against the rest of the day’s mistakes. I have handed you a new sandwich. I have made it better.
I once received a first kiss inside a Burger King. It was late, and as I closed my eyes against the too-bright lights, I was startled to feel a mouth against my own. He would go on to propose in an Olive Garden and become a thoroughly disappointing husband.
At a KFC in St. Louis, I stood blinking, straining to understand. “You’re.. out of chicken?” They were out of chicken.
Through it all, there is Taco Bell. In the montage of my life, I am piloting a series of cars in the direction of the familiar neon sign. I am asking for a combo burrito, minus red sauce, minus onion. Just beef, bean, and cheese, I am adding, because Taco Bell has been an early teacher of the importance of clear communication. At Taco Bell, when I pull back around the drive through and, as the window opens, explain that my pre-departure examination has revealed a thick line of red sauce defiling an otherwise pristine burrito, it is I who am made whole. A pair of hands reaches for my unwanted meal. The hands reemerge moments later, proffering a warm plastic bag full of wrongs righted, a relationship repaired.
At Subway, I make sandwich art according to the whims of my patrons. The smell of the bread turns my stomach.
At Steak’n’Shake, I learn on my second night as a third-shift waitress that the busser has had a heart attack, leaving me to cover the floor and also to clean the entire restaurant. As the night advances an ache pools in my pair of ill-advised Converse and shoots up my back. The busser will survive. I will quit after my third night. And Taco Bell will make, just for me, something soft and warm. My combo burrito will be pillowy in my hands. I will barely need to chew as I take it in, submitting to its desire—its very design—to soothe me from the inside out.
We were outside Denver when I heard the news. I was driving the rental car. My daughter was in the back seat; next to me sat the woman who had been my partner for half my child’s life, and who, unbeknownst to me, would be moving out a year later. “That item is no longer on the menu,” pronounced the voice from inside the Taco Bell. “But,” the voice added, hearing the dismay in my reaction, “if you want, you can order a beef burrito and add beans.” Listen to me, Taco Bell seemed to be saying. It may not be what you wanted. It may not be the way you thought it would look. But we have a path forward. Please drive through.
Kitti O’Hallaron is a queer spiritual director and artist living in Dallas, Texas, near a Taco Bell whose outdoor sign permanently reads “NEED A JOB LET’S TACO BOUT IT.” Kitti’s writing has previously appeared exclusively in academic journals; we all make mistakes.