I knew the moment she broke up with me that I needed to go to Taco Bell. When she barreled into my room and berated me about my distant attitude—as I loaded up a bowl—I listened to her as intently as I could, but my high soundproofed my ears and turned her words into ground beef. It felt like the room went out of focus—like someone smeared their thumb across a camera lens.
“Ari, I can’t take this anymore.” She stormed out, nearly tripping on dirty clothes. When she was gone, all I could think about was how I desperately needed a Baja Blast for my cotton mouth.
I went out to the living room to get my keys. My mother was still awake, watching some second-rate crime show. I tried to creep out the door like there were landmines under the rug, but I heard her speak up.
“Lena didn’t stay long,” she said.
I turned around at the door, high as fuck and trying to hide it, but my bleery red eyes were probably a dead giveaway. I made an attempt at a sentence:
“No, she and I won’t be seeing each other anymore apparently.” I said.
She turned her head back toward the TV.
“What a shame. She was such a nice girl.” She said.
I knew what that meant in my mother’s language.
As my beat-up car sliced slowly through the night , I had my mind on two things: the Baja Blast and my previous ex, Casey. Like Lena, Casey was a self-described “dreamer” peppered with tattoos and piercings. The difference is that Casey was a blazing flare of a person. She would organize protests and get in heated debates with me over who actually killed John F. Kennedy. After these protests and debates is when we loved each other the hardest, both physically and emotionally. I missed burning like that.
Lena was lovely, but she was a placid lake. She looked hard, but was sensitive and grounded. I would try to start debates, but she would insist on hearing out my side until I got to express every point.
“Your opinion is absolutely valid.” She would say.
She never threatened to consume me, which is the thrill I wanted. Now, I know her outburst from earlier must’ve taken a lot out of her. I mean, I heard her blast Midwest Emo music as she pulled out of my driveway. I was also perfectly aware that I had ruined something potentially good for me. But that didn’t matter.
While I drove, I sparked up a joint and took a thick hit, letting the world haze around me. The gray smoke whirlpooled in my car, so I cracked the window and let the night air battle with the clouds I exhaled. I thought I’d let myself unwind on the way there—be at peace and not try to think about her, even though I could barely stop myself. Casey would’ve loved a late-night Taco Bell adventure. We used to go on them all the time. I mean, fuck our arteries. She used to order a Crunchwrap Supreme combo and I would get the Steak Quesarito. Both of us got the Baja Blast as our drink, of course. I think you can tell a lot about a person by their Taco Bell orders. With Casey, she was adventurous but not in a reckless way. Like we would often trespass but it would be to swim in motel pools. Most of this adventurousness was kept inside. She would talk about going on crazy excursions, like breaking into the state capitol and spray painting the word “fascists” on the walls, but we would never do it, which is very similar to the Crunchwrap supreme. To me, your Taco Bell order says more about you than your zodiac sign. For example, Lena was an Aries but none of the traits attributed to an Aries described her. Her order of a Nacho Bell Grande combo, however, said it all.
When I approached the building, even over the skunkish scent of Purple Kush, I could smell the seasoned beef. The bell glowed a brilliant yellow like a hard taco shell. If I could salivate, I knew my mouth would be overflowing at that moment. I could already taste the tropical limey-ness of the Baja Blast, could feel its carbonation crackling along the contours of my tongue. To add to the perfection of the occasion, the drive-thru was completely empty. There was nothing standing between me and my fast-food salvation.
I pulled up to the menu which was as bright as the lights on the Vegas strip. It was blurry and the letters break-danced across my line of vision, but I had the menu memorized anyway. I rolled down my window. After some silence, a voice that sounded like it could narrate a nature documentary spoke through the speaker. I became mesmerized by it, I looked at it for so long, I started to fall a little bit in love. It then grew a pair of wide-set black eyes and a Cheshire-cat-esque smile.
“Welcome to Taco Bell, how are you tonight?” He said.
I let out a snicker. How am I tonight? That was as good a question as any. It might’ve been a not-so-funny thing to ask, but of course when you’re high everything is hilarious. Especially the fact that the speaker was—y’know, sentient.
“Better now that I’m here.” I joked.
“Better now? What happened before?” He asked.
“I just got dumped so there’s that,” I said.
“Well that’s a fucking bummer. Would you like to talk about it?” he said.
I checked my side mirror to see if there were any cars behind me. Sure enough, there wasn’t. I didn’t have anything else to do so I thought I might as well just spill my guts.
“Well, I completely fucked things up with her. I was distant—only really present during sex. But really, I wasn’t even present then because I was thinking about my ex before her. I’m always thinking about her, you see. Which I know is completely cringe and fucked up, but here I am.”
This was all true. What I didn’t elaborate on, because it would’ve been even more inappropriate, was the awful experience in which I took Lena to a motel pool to recreate Casey and I’s first sexual experience since we couldn’t do it at my place. Every time I brought somebody home, my mother would turn up the crime show so loud that we couldn’t even hear ourselves think. Nobody wants to hear “the victim died from a severed femoral artery due to eleven stab wounds” while trying to get off, so we went to a cheap motel, one complete with a flickering neon sign and roaches skittering across the beds. The roaches literally begged us to kill them, so we went outside to the pool. Anyway, while Lena and I fucked in that greenish pool, (while the front desk guy was probably watching) I ended up blurting out “Casey” while looking Lena directly in the eyes. You’d think that would’ve halted things right there, but nope. After that happened, she asked me to say it again and so (like an idiot) I said it in the most feeble voice possible. She may or may not have finished after that.
I caught my reflection in the rearview mirror and looked back into my own eyes, picturing what it would have felt like if that were done to me. Would I have spiraled? Would I have driven us through McDonalds and pretend like nothing happened just like she did? Then his Morgan Freeman voice snapped me out of my thoughts.
“I understand what that’s like, not being able to get rid of an ex. Hell, mine shows up in my backyard sometimes. Yet, despite this, part of me still wants her.” He said.
His words were a warm tortilla, wrapping me like a human burrito. My high brain said: I think I have just found my new best friend. Maybe, I would make him a friendship bracelet if he had hands.
“Let me know more about you,” I said.
He told me about how he and his ex were high school sweethearts who had everything going for them. But then one day, she started randomly showing up to Taco Bell once he got the job and started acting all possessive, especially in front of his boss which would’ve made sense if she wasn’t twenty years older than him. She would often search through his phone and try to find evidence of him cheating on her, but could never find any.
“But I was devoted to her, I would never do that. So one day, it just became too much. The jealousy, the paranoia, so I had to leave her. It still hurts, though. But sometimes she leaves me little gifts when she visits so I guess it’s not all bad.”
It sounded to me like the girlfriend was too attached. It made me think of why Casey left me. I would go to Casey with everything—extensive theories about the moon landing (faked by Stanley Kubrick) to complaining about how my mother hasn’t given me a single ounce of praise since I dropped fifteen pounds freshman year due to anxiety. I tried so hard for both of them, Casey and my mother. For example, in high school I was at the top of my class, not Valedictorian or even Salutatorian, but still did well. Yet I heard nothing from my mother. I even heard that she was watching Netflix on her phone when they called my name at graduation. With Casey, I remained devoted and would listen to her. She would grow detached at random points and I would have to bring her back to reality. Sometimes, she was convinced that I wasn’t a human being, but a really sad ghost of a Victorian girl. I would have to tell her that I just look like that and am just—well, sad. Lena, however, always saw who I really was. Maybe I resented her for that.
I had to bring myself back to reality after a bit, in that drive-thru line. I didn’t realize I had zoned out again until he said “Hello?” for the third time.
“Sorry, I’m still here.” I said.
At least I thought I was. I took one last hit from the joint then flicked the filter out the window.
“Good,” He said, “I thought I had lost you.”
He laughed a bit after that.
That’s when I told him I didn’t realize until then, until he said the word “lost” how lost I had truly been. How Lena always had to try and find me when I was miles away in my own head, staring at the unread books on my shelves or thinking about who actually did 9/11. But I would mostly think about why Casey left me for someone else. She said that I was too much for her and that I should “cross over to the other side”. She probably thought I was a ghost again, but her first statement said it all. Regardless, it made me hole away like a naked mole rat. But that ruined me more than it protected me. So, when I was done telling him all of this, I realized I needed some sort of answer—something to help me wrap my head around what I felt.
“What do we do with ourselves now?” I asked him.
“I would say we do what we’ve always done. I’ve learned to just survive. But I suppose that isn’t much of a life, is it? Based on what you’ve told me, it seems like you’re also a survivor. Surviving, however, is not just meeting our most basic needs. No, we have more needs than that.” He said.
After he said that, I slumped even further into my chair and screwed my brows together in thought. I don’t know if I was too high to comprehend what he actually said, but it all seemed too right to me. I was neglecting my needs and thereby hurting two people rather than just myself. As for what I do with myself, I must not try to sustain myself based on an image. I must consume what is actually there. All this time, I was feeding off of a hologram, living off of what will never be again. After all, Casey was with someone new, the girl who she told me not to worry about during our relationship, but still. I took one final look in my rearview mirror: looked straight into the abyss of my pupil and it stared right back at me. Then, I noticed the Saharan nature of my tongue. My needs were not met.
“Anyway, what would you like to order tonight?” He asked.
The moment of truth, finally, after all that time. I took a deep breath, filling my lungs with the chilly night air, then exhaled. I thought of what was there, what I could tangibly get to meet my needs. After a few beats, I finally said my order:
“I’ll get a Nacho Bell Grande combo. Dr. Pepper for the drink.”
The speaker smiled even wider and said, “I’ll have your total at the window.”
When I pulled up to the drive-thru window, there was a young man with skin polka-dotted with acne. He had fluffy, disarrayed hair the color of copper and his name tag read “Peter”. He wasn’t quite what I expected, but then again, I had no idea what I expected. I still don’t know whether or not the speaker and him were one and the same, but I felt good enough to live and wonder.
“Your total will be $7.99.” He said.
We shared a look: eyes locked and a half-smile on our faces. I paid for the meal then he handed me my bag and drink. After that, I sent a text to Lena. I wish I had sent something more articulate, but I simply said “I’m sorry”. I drove off into the night. I knew I wouldn’t sleep after this meal, but I didn’t care. When I got home, my mother was asleep on the couch. Re-runs of her crime show draped over her like a blanket.
The victim died instantly after blunt trauma to the skull.
I turned off the TV.