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Taco Bell Tuesdays

By Allan Wu | 26 Oct 2017

It’s a Tuesday. I’m excited because I know what kind of Tuesday it is.

It doesn’t happen every Tuesday and probably not even most Tuesdays, but ever since Mom was laid off, she pulls up to KinderCare on some Tuesdays during lunch when she isn’t busy taking care of my baby brother. Today is one of those Tuesdays.

“My mom is picking me up for lunch today,” I excitedly tell Ms. Satish, my classroom teacher, for the fourth time today.

Mom pulls up in the slightly green, slightly blue Honda Accord that she and Dad got a few years before I was born. I then pile into the backseat that is painted with an assortment of funny drink stains and markings that oddly have the same size and shape as the bottom of my shoe. Sometimes I ask to sit in the front, and today is one of those days. I try my luck and ask. Like every other time, she says no, not until I “zhang da le,” which is Mandarin for “grow up.” We then pull out of the loading zone and drive off. I stare out the window as the lines of trees blur into a forest green, which is my least favorite Crayola color, and watch as KinderCare shrinks smaller and smaller in the distance until it is no larger than its logo.

Our destination is like any other building in the plaza not far from school. It has a plain, stippled stucco exterior, but is uniquely branded by its colorful bell logo. Taco Bell.

We go in. Mom places our order, which is the same one she orders every time. One chicken soft taco for me and one chicken soft taco for her. To me, chicken soft tacos are the best food items ever invented – a perfect combination of texture, taste, and cheese. As she pulls bills and coins out of her purse, I run to the counter with black plastic baskets placed on top. They contain what I feel is the best part about Taco Bell: their hot sauce packets with funny sayings printed on the front like Will you marry me?

Everything happens exactly the same as every time before. Mom and I sit down as we wait for them to call our order, across from one another in their sticky, semi-swiveling chairs. After they call our number, Mom grabs our tacos and we eat. Except this week, I do something different. I finish my taco quickly, maybe too quickly, and so I eye the taco in Mom’s hands. It somehow stares at me, so I can’t do anything else but stare back at it. And Mom, noticing this not-so-subtle interaction, offers me a bite. After the bite, Mom just smiles and says I “zhang da le.” I leave thinking I did – that my increased appetite was surely me growing up.

In the following trips to Taco Bell, everything is more or less the same – the seats are still sticky, the black plastic baskets still contain sauces with funny phrases printed on top, and we still order two chicken soft tacos – but Mom continues to let me take a bite out of her taco. Eventually this one bite becomes two, and two becomes three. “You can have it,” Mom says one day as she motions towards her taco. “I brought my own lunch.” I believe her – but on the drive home that night, I don’t see her lunchbox.

When I was in middle school and my mom was working again, her company would provide their employees with a free catered meal during luncheons or important events. My mom, knowing that my brother and I always longed to eat at restaurants and if not, at least something other than the same home-cooked, simple Chinese meals we ate each night, always brought these meals back home, untouched and in their original packaging, for us to eat for dinner. Though I never thought her home-cooked dinners tasted bad and she would always give less credit for her cooking than she deserved, what we ate was always the same: some variation of shredded potatoes, lightly sauteed bok choy and green beans, and rice. Because she would often come home late on those days, my brother and I would pay careful attention to the front door if she wasn’t home by 6 pm. I remember feeling my anticipation and excitement grow as the doorknob turned. “I know the food I make at home doesn’t taste the best,” my mom would then apologetically say as she always did while handing my brother and me the carefully wrapped lunch as she stepped through the door. “I think it’s a sandwich.” Those were some of my favorite meals. The best part about them? What we got each time was always a surprise. Sometimes it was just pizza or a sandwich, but sometimes, it was something exotic, like a gyro. I always looked forward to these meals. Yet it never occurred to me that in order to bring back these lunches, my mom would skip these meals. She never once tasted those neatly packaged, catered lunches.

My Boy Scout patrol once came over after school to plan for a trip. A group of eight middle school boys plan about just as well as zero middle school boys, and as expected, we worked into the evening. We were all hungry and since my mom hadn’t made dinner yet, she decided to order pizza – enough for my family and my fellow Scouts. When the pizza came, we stepped away from the little work we had done. We lifted the pizza box lids, revealing the glistening slices and releasing a freshly baked aroma, and mobbed over it, strategically pulling out the largest, most topping dense slices. By the time we had finished, there were some scattered pineapple chunks and two slim slices remaining. I remember looking at the box expecting my mom to eat them, but instead, she took these two slices and saved them for my dad who was having a long day at work and wasn’t home just yet. I don’t know what she ate for dinner that night.

My mom used to tell a funny story to my brother and me when we were younger. When my mom was still just an elementary school student in China, her family lived a very simple and poor life. My mom would always say they didn’t know they were poor since everyone in China was poor at that time and they had nothing to compare it to. One day, her mom, my grandma, had the chance to go on a business trip, which was practically unheard of at that time in China since the Cultural Revolution had left China’s economy in ruins. Business, in many ways, did not exist. Not only that, this business trip was to Hong Kong, which at that time was under British rule and as a result, was as socioeconomically developed and as Western-influenced as you could get in the Far East. During this business trip, her mom saw a banana for the first time and bought the biggest, greenest one she could find in the market with the money she had. She only knew what it was because she had seen pictures of it before. Her mom would then keep this banana tucked away safely underneath layers of clothing in her suitcase for the rest of the trip and bring it all the way home, where it was now still as big as before but no longer as green. She then cut this banana into three equal pieces, one for each of her daughters: my mom and her two sisters. I used to find the idea of carrying a banana in a suitcase funny. For my mom though, she says that was the best one-third of a banana she had ever tasted in her life until this day. I believe her.

Now I’m old enough to drive, maybe old enough to understand. I drive by that small, stucco building, where the bell logo’s once colorful shades have been replaced by modern purple and violet hues, and pull up in one of the empty side lots.

I sit by myself in the lot for a bit and realize how long it’s been since my last Taco Bell Tuesday and how, at times, I’m less sure that I’ve “zhang da le” than I was back then. I catch myself before my thoughts carry me away and enter into the store where I am met with the familiar smell of deep-fried goodness and seasoned ground beef. I wait for my friends, who are always late and show up late to this meetup as well. After everyone has arrived, we place our orders and eat. I order a couple of chicken soft tacos, which don’t taste exactly the same way they did when I was younger but are, nonetheless, still tasty. I have moved on from the “Mild” sauces, the only ones I could handle when I was younger, and now exclusively use the “Hot” sauces. We talk about our freshmen years at college, the late nights we spent goofing off with friends, and the later nights we spent cramming for midterms. The pile of finished taco wrappers grow in the middle of our table as we go through taco after taco. The momentum of our conversation slows to a sparse chatter and as we’re about to leave, I get up first and ask if they can wait.

“I’m going to get something for my mom real quick,” I tell them as I walk towards the cashier’s counter.