“Can we go to Taco Bell?” I asked my Maman, looking hopefully across the street from the gas station at the blinking neon lights in the day. “Please?” I added in a pleading whine the way willful children do. I am a willful child. The grey Mazda sedan Maman drove had just been washed in the drive-through car wash. In order to save a few dollars from the automatic drying service, we were wiping the lingering condensation from the water jets with the Chevron blue paper towels that were dispensed between each gasoline kiosk. You know, the ones meant to clean the drips that the complimentary squeegee left on your windshield after you cleaned off the bugs from your last cruise on the freeway.
Despite it being a hot summer day that would surely dry off the droplets as we drove down the main thoroughfare of our suburb, Maman still insisted on drying the car by hand in order to avoid any water stains. I ask her why and Maman won’t answer. I never understood this impulse since it wasn’t like our vehicle was anything bordering on luxury. What difference did a few dried water droplets make? After all, the used car leaked water under the dashboard any time it rained. There were mornings where my sneakers got soaked before I even arrived at elementary school. The wet shoes were more important to my day than the dried water stains on the car dropping me off at school.
Maman looked up from her wiping and gave me a look that said “No.” Instead of outright refusing, she said what every child of immigrants loathes to hear; “We have food at home.” She squatted to get low to the car and continued to wipe the sides.
Ugh, this sucks! As I dragged the thick blue paper towel over the side view mirror, shame crawled into my face, blooming red, along with the sting of Maman’s rejection. Drops of water hit my knees, marking the ashy dry skin almost like a benediction. Why were we like this?
Maman sighed at the dejected look on my face, her own face settling into an expression of concern. She knew I hated doing this, but she didn’t know the exact reason why. I could never tell her, even to this day, that I felt like it showed the other gas station patrons how cheap my immigrant family was, not even willing to upgrade to the car wash option with the drying service. Instead, we used exorbitant amounts of paper towels immediately after the car went through the course of the car wash. There wasn’t anyone else in the parking lot doing this with us. With this action, we marked ourselves as different.
“Please?” I asked again. I cajoled the way that young children do, knowing that I was only a few queries away from what I really wanted; Nachos Bell Grande. We definitely didn’t have nachos, bell or grande at home. Did we have Nacho Cheesier Doritos, Maman’s favorite flavor, at home? Yes. But anything else even distantly related to Taco Bell, whether it be refried beans, sour cream, or the stray hot sauce packet was woefully absent from our Iranian home. There was a clear demarcation between American and Iranian food at home and we definitely ate Iranian food more than American. Combined with the pickiness of Baba, my father, who didn’t care for Mexican food, always opting for sushi whenever he deemed it was an occasion to dine out. If my Maman knew I wanted nachos, the version she would make at home would include shredded string cheese, tomato paste, and some form of pita bread. I wanted Nachos Bell Grande, not a Mexican Pizza.
Normally I would leave my mother to her own devices, drying off the car and pouting while sitting in the front passengers’ seat as the only child feeling embarrassed. But today was different. I got out of the car and helped to my Maman’s surprise. Her five-foot frame towered over mine as I took half-hearted swipes at the water lingering on the car, thinking I could earn passage across the street to Taco Bell with merit. I needed the holy combination of diced tomatoes, refried beans, sour cream, nacho cheese sauce, and ground beef crowning the delicate tortilla chips below for reasons I couldn’t explain. Maybe it was the onslaught of Taco Bell commercials, showing how different my life was from what I watched on television. Maybe someone at school mentioned Taco Bell and I decided that that’s what kids do with their parents. Maybe I was just hungry.
Maman looked up at me; at the expectant expression on my face, to the water dampening my knees, and then across the street. Her eyes caught the signs plastered in the windows at Taco Bell. Emblazoned in purple, white, and yellow were the magic words: ‘2 for 99 cents,’ referencing the bean burrito promo that was going on. There was only one thing my Maman loved more than saving money by using free items; using that saved money on a bargain or sale.
She sighed heavily, knowing that she had lost and that I wouldn’t let it go. “Okay,” she said simply and resigned. “Don’t tell Baba,” she said in Persian.
The deal had been struck with terms of secrecy. I rolled my eyes. “Of course I won’t tell Baba,” I replied. There were days where it felt that Baba hated anything that brought me fun. This ultimately became the first of many moments like this in my childhood, where I was bound to secrecy from telling either parent what the other one did to make me feel normal. Chicken nuggets and cheeseburgers transformed into eating home cooked meals when I would report back to each parent “how my day was.” This subterfuge was necessary because my parents wanted to stay true to their Iranian roots and make sure I knew them too. But the call of assimilation was strong. There was only so much rice and stew a kid could eat before wanting a bologna sandwich with Kraft cheese. The call of Taco Bell was just one against many siren songs.
With the car finally dried to Maman’s satisfaction, we crawled back into its protective sanctuary from the other gas station patrons. I gingerly placed my feet next to the plastic garbage bag duct-taped under the dashboard to catch what water leaked from the car wash. My heart raced in anticipation. Nachos Bell Grande would be mine at last! As we drove around and across the main street, the Taco Bell sign glimmered in the sunlight, looming closer with each second. Finally, with a deft right turn, we turned to park. Of course, we weren’t going to the drive-through. Eating regular food in the car was strictly forbidden, therefore we couldn’t leave any evidence of our clandestine Taco Bell excursion.
As we walked through the parted doors, a delicious deep-fried smell wafted towards us. I fell in love immediately with everything from the purple and grey booths, the fuschia bell cradled in the Taco Bell logo, the warm oil odor heavy in the air, to the plethora of sauce packets resting in their black wells across from the register. Heaven. I was in heaven. It looked just like the commercials, except without the chihuahua. We stepped up to the register and Maman cursorily scanned the menu. When she asked if I wanted anything from the kid’s menu, mentally I scoffed. Screw the kids’ menu, I was going big for my Taco Bell spree. Nachos Bell Grande here I come! You knew they were big because they had grande in the title.
Surprisingly, she acquiesced to my demands for the nachos and ended up ordering the coveted ‘2 for 99 cents’ bean burritos for herself. Our total came out to less than $5. I’m sure that as far as my Maman was concerned, that amount of money was worth it for how excited this small adventure made me. Usually as an only child, I was off to entertain myself. Here was something small, something other than toys, books, and TV, she could give me that would bring a smile to my face.
When they called our number, signaling our food was ready to devour, I was the one who ran to the counter to retrieve our wares. We hunkered down in the hard plastic booth to feast. The Nachos Bell Grande may not have been TV commercial-ready, but it was still a sight to behold. The tortilla chips nestled in their black plastic bed were enrobed in velvety nacho cheese sauce that I couldn’t wait to stick my finger in. The crown jewel of sour cream doled out on top sang in a symphony with the diced tomatoes sprinkled amongst the seasoned beef. Sure I would’ve preferred way more sour cream, perhaps a trio of crown jewels to dip chips in at my leisure. However, this was my prize for wiping down the car with my Maman. As it sat in front of me, I felt relief at this instance of normality. Going to get Taco Bell with my Maman was delightfully American and I dug into my nachos with glee. I rationed my sour cream to make sure I had enough for each chip, wanting to get a bit of each dynamic ingredient into my mouth with every bite.
“I’m surprised you didn’t want a Happy Meal,” Maman said, looking at me in a bemused manner as she unwrapped her bean burrito. Then she looked down at her own reward for saving money and tore into a Fire Sauce packet with her teeth. “You always love the toys.”
“But they don’t have nacho cheese at McDonald’s,” I said, dragging a chip through the aforementioned sauce.
Maman chuckled. “Good point.” She dipped her head gratefully as she took her first bite. “Mmm,” she said in appreciation, her eyes crinkling in the corners so I knew she meant what she said. “So good”
It was so good. It tasted unlike anything I had ever experienced up to that point. We ate quietly together, amongst the sounds of the restaurant, and I bathed in this feeling of camaraderie. It was different but a good difference. Not the type of different I knew my immigrant family to be than everyone else in our white suburb. When you first walked into our home, the smell of fenugreek leaves, curry powder, and saffron would hit your nostrils. Delicious, yes. But different.
When different is your normal, the most mundane Americana becomes exotic. Everyone made fun of the hot lunches at school but I secretly loved the frozen french bread pizza and canned ravioli we were served. We rarely purchased processed or frozen foods and I could never get these flavors at home. Despite the “south of the border” branding, Taco Bell was something uniquely American that you couldn’t get in Iran, something that we couldn’t cook at home, or have served at school lunches. And finally that day, I got my taste of Nachos Bell Grande.
Described by The Bold Italic as a “verbose advocate,” DENA ROD is a queer Iranian American poet and essayist who focuses on illuminating their diasporic experiences. They’ve been widely published in anthologies and their first poetry collection, Scattered Arils, is now out from Milk & Cake Press. You can find more of their work at denarod.com