The Taco Bell At The Edge Of The Universe

Taco Bell is a transitory space. You stop at a Taco Bell. You don’t stay there. When you are between meals, between waking and sleeping, between high and sober, Taco Bell provides extraplanar respite. Wherever you travel, those paper sack provisions always make it through customs.

I am in transit now. I am in Melanie’s car, enroute to her house. What little I’ve eaten came off the shelves of convenience stores, none of it hot and none of it fresh. Melanie works in HR. Tomorrow her company has a layoff, and half their staff will be newly jobless. Like me.

Today we are in limbo. Today we eat Taco Bell.

We are going to the best Taco Bell, Melanie says. What makes it better? It’s the closest one.

I exchange $25 for a lumpy bag. I clutch it to my chest, heavy and warm like a swaddled animal. Inside it are our provisions: a Crunchwrap Supreme, a Doritos Locos Taco, and a Beefy Five-Layer Burrito, along with whatever Melanie ordered. I also got a small Baja Blast to wash it down. I am a visitor here. None of these foods are familiar, but they all feel nostalgic anyway, resonating with my 90’s childhood full of overbold colors and flavors. 

Melanie steadies the steering wheel with her knees as she rips open her burrito. She chomps off the top, manic and gleeful. Gas pedal down as I sample the Blast.

During astral travel, its unwise to hurtle naked through the aether. Our bodies can’t handle it. Baja Blast provides a comforting cosmic medium, a sweet splash you can surf from star to star. I grab my board and suck it up the straw. Gravity eases. My stomach drops. The Blast coats my insides with its mild syrup, fizzing with the forced prickle of soda-fountain carbonation. It leaves a cloying, beachy aftertaste. It has neither the bravado of Mountain Dew nor the citric clarity of Sprite but has blunted notes of both. I am drinking a roll of tropical Starburst, a liquid cushion for the rest of my journey. I’ve already had more than I want, but I keep accidentally drinking more. The top seems loose. I snug it into a cupholder, monitoring for spillage.

Seven minutes later, we are home. Second stage. I hustle the bag inside. We are losing heat by the minute. We unpack in front of the TV.

It’s time to go big. I take out the Crunchwrap Supreme.

The Crunchwrap is soft, floppy, and fully loaded. The hot tortilla smells amazing. It is white and griddle-browned, radiating soft warmth. It takes both of my hands to hold it.

A bite tears open the sky of a private galaxy. Two worlds, one hot and one cold, are separated by the corn tortilla. On one side lives cumin-loaded beef, red and salty, the temperature of a heat lamp. The finely minced meat is active and tumultuous, emitting bursts of umami that leave a lasting salt heat. The other side is slower and simpler, sour cream and shredded lettuce offering a soothing crunch. The sour cream is not sour. It is a coolant and a lubricant. Among the whitewashed shreds sits the occasional stiff and bland tomato chunk.

The two worlds are held in balance by the fried corn disc between them. That disc may have been born crunchy, but hot meat and cool cream have steamed it soft. It can now flop however the Crunchwrap demands, bending and warping under gravitational stresses. The lettuce seems sympathetic to its captor and protector. Like the corn disc, these shreds of lettuce have long since lost their freshness, are now a mere shadow of their former selves, but they still provide texture. They still know who they are.

I survey the shreds, hoping to understand, but the Crunchwrap’s depths still hold secrets. I question the tortilla. Why do I feel so adrift without my job? Did any of my work mean anything? What will happen to the hundreds of people losing their own jobs tomorrow? 

The tortilla offers no answer back. It is just a tasty poofy pocket. Its soft sheathe contains innocent multitudes, none of whom can see me coming.

I consume the universe.

The disc collapses. Meat, corn, and cream combine inside me in an entropic implosion. I am the tortilla now. The cream and produce mellow out the heat, but the salt of the beef accumulates relentlessly. Just desserts for an axe man. 

I am left with a cold throat and a salt-raw mouth. The universe sits heavy in my stomach. A sip of Baja Blast settles me, a cheap substitute for grief. I need distraction. 

Enter the Doritos Locos Taco.

The DLT comes lodged in its own custom 80’s-themed cardstock structure. The taco shell is blanketed with hypersaturated Dorito powder, a matte pigment that traps all light, reflecting only orange. It is clearly volatile.

The powder comes off at the slightest provocation, dusting my fingertips. Once crunched, the powder zaps my mouth into jittery excitation. The dull yellow shreds within the taco are animated by its electric current, making them taste like cheese. 

Deeper inside, sour cream slicks the bottom of the shell. Its gluey heft holds the fractured hull together as I bite off big chunks. Embedded in the cream are morsels of lukewarm meat, a joyless protein prize. Its flavor is an afterthought. It’s simply something to chew.

I stare into the television’s swirl, skimming the subtitles as my crunching drowns out the dialogue. I am insulated from the world, slack-jawed and detached. A welcome diversion, but this is no way to live. I need to face myself honestly. I need to reclaim my body.

So I grip the Beefy Five Layer Burrito. 

It is folded flat, a stackable cylinder. It is the temperature and texture of dry skin. It feels like I’m holding a limb.

I chomp off the top, releasing a burst of steam. Inside are molten cheese and sour cream, a primordial sauce that pumps up and down the burrito’s interior with each squeeze of my hand. Suspended in the sauce are refried beans, thick and dark, their fibrous mass gelatinizing the sauce into gooey chunks. Salt again floods my mouth, a now-familiar heat. A thread of bean husk or beef gristle lodges in my teeth as I bite again, the sudden compression spurring a fresh eruption. Molten innards spill over the top, leaving chunks along the rim. The volcanic discharge cools quickly, core elements of the burrito scattering as they solidify and settle in my stomach. From these ashes, life might spring.

All the food is gone. Now it’s just me, Melanie, and a pile of trash. Our journey took less than twenty minutes. My heart is racing, and I’m wracked with hiccups. My final sip of Baja Blast, tepid and diluted, does not help. 

A friend of mine told me the difference between deep meditation and LSD. Both can get you to the same amazing and transformative places. But while meditation is like slowly charting the paths of a vast and dense forest, dropping acid is more like getting tossed into the back of a helicopter while blindfolded and dumped into the deepest part of the forest without a map.

I don’t think I’ll ever meditate my way south of the border, and the airlift version has left my stomach a little shaky. 

Melanie is supine on the couch, smiling back at me. She’s okay. We’ll both be okay.

I guess the trip you hope for isn’t always the trip you need.