The summer you lose much of your eyesight, Taco Bell introduces its first new sauce in your lifetime. You are sixteen, and growing blind spots in the center of your left eye have spread to the right. By the time doctors diagnose your untreatable condition, you’ve tried the so-called Wild Sauce, but it’s disappointing: a blend of burnt tomato and excessive heat. Rather than enhancing the other flavors, a dissonant sourness is all you taste. Soon Taco Bell removes Wild Sauce from the menu, and you return to high school, legally blind, unable to read or drive but with enough peripheral vision to sometimes pass for the sighted teenager you used to be.
In your hometown, progress has always been measured by the arrival of chain restaurants. The 1980s saw the first Bennigan’s and Domino’s, the 1990s Applebee’s, Outback, and Olive Garden. You are proud to say, however, that you have never lived in a world without Taco Bell. Long after Charleston, West Virginia’s first “authentic” Mexican restaurant opened downtown, and despite the many meals and sombrero-clad birthdays you celebrated at Chi-Chi’s, Taco Bell remains your favorite Mexican food. Some friends dispute your classification of Taco Bell as Mexican food, but what else do you call a menu featuring tacos, burritos, nachos, and—note the adjective in this last item—Mexican Pizza?
What you eat says a lot about your personality, and your love of ethnic cuisine like Taco Bell reveals an adventurous spirit. While elementary schoolmates clung to burgers and fries, you were experimenting with Taco Bell’s little-known green sauce, taken off the menu the previous decade, but your parents knew they still offered it upon request. In college you meet people who regard Taco Bell as somehow inferior. Their opinions of other fast food chains are rarely more charitable, but you can’t help but take it personally each time someone spins an urban legend of cockroach eggs from the ground beef hatching in the intestines of Taco Bell customers. Your affinity for Taco Bell exudes none of the worldliness you thought it would with new friends from larger cities and states more populous than West Virginia. You don’t mention that, unlike the college’s cafeteria, at Taco Bell and other fast food restaurants, you don’t need anyone to read you the menu. What they have never changes.
By way of a rejoinder to ad hominem attacks on your beloved Taco Bell, you tell a girlfriend about the summer before your eyes got bad, when your family watched the world’s top tennis players compete in a tournament in Cincinnati. Returning to your Holiday Inn after a night match, you crossed the highway to a Taco Bell whose employees informed you they were closed. The door was unlocked, they said, because “that tennis player, Andre Agassi, knocked on the door and we let him order.” Weeks removed from his first Grand Slam championship at Wimbledon, Agassi was such a fan of the chain, you heard somewhere, that he had a makeshift Taco Bell on his private plane. For years, this is one of the stories you tell to validate your taste and identity. And if a story about tennis helps people forget you can no longer play tennis, watch tennis, or cross a highway, so be it.
It’s a myth that the other senses of the blind are enhanced or superior to those of the sighted. Without vision, or in your case very much of it, the visually impaired merely pay more attention to sounds, smells, tastes, and sensations. Whether or not Taco Bell is in fact the embodiment of the risk-taking, windmill-chasing lifestyle you thought it was, eating the same, familiar foods might not be the most expansive use of your senses. The subtleties of Picasso’s Blue Period will always elude your limited acuity, but can’t you compensate with a more sophisticated palate? An ear for jazz? You’d love to name a perfume a girl is wearing, like Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, but you don’t know that many girls.
In graduate school, more cultured friends introduce you to Thai food, Vietnamese, Indian, eventually and not without significant consternation, sushi—not California rolls, but the kind with actual raw fish. Noting the wide gap between coffeehouse coffee and the Folger’s you make at home, you learn about grinding your own beans, French presses, the different flavor profiles from Africa, Central and South America, islands in the Pacific. In short order, you’re able to locate hints of lemon and lavender in a cup of Honduras, vanilla and caramel in Nicaragua, honey and black tea and champagne in Ethiopia Yirgacheffe.
After years of Pasta Roni and Dinty Moore beef stew, you begin to cook. Really cook. Risotto and pesto, tuna steaks and Parmesan-crusted chicken breasts, enchiladas and chilaquiles—real Mexican food. Chopping vegetables without seeing them isn’t difficult. It was laziness and inertia, it seems, and not blindness that kept you out of the kitchen.
The cooking, of course, is for a girl. Something always is. Your practice of downplaying your disability while getting to know someone often gives the wrong impression of what you can and cannot do. The wrong impression is the one you prefer, even if it hasn’t served you particularly well. Your new girlfriend’s reactions when you’re unable to join her for a subtitled film, get much out of an art museum, or find her in a crowd seem to vindicate your lies of omission. You move in together and to compensate for your limitations, you resolve to do all the cooking and the cleaning. For five years, it is enough.
Except, two months after the wedding, she tells you she has made a mistake. She needs someone who can not only cook, but locate ingredients in the grocery store, drive there, and obtain them. “Your world is so small,” she says, but to you it feels enormous, a gigantic mystery you will never solve.
Your best friend flies to Nashville to drive you back to North Carolina. While you load the moving truck, your wife offers to grab lunch from a drive-thru. She asks what you want, and you think about it.
In time, you will go on dinner dates with other women: truffle fries with garlic-lime aioli, duck confit in a cranberry reduction, crab quesadillas dipped in egg yolk. You will learn that the foods you share with dates matter less than what you tell them.
Today, however, your wife and best friend make small talk while you chew your Double Decker Taco. For the first time, completely and with every taste bud, you understand why they call it comfort food. You couldn’t be more grateful for how familiar it tastes: the balanced tang of red sauce, the crunch of shell after the give of flour tortilla, the lettuce just a little salty from the seasoned beef. It tastes like the best days of your life.
James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic (Southeast Missouri State University Press, 2015), winner of the Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. His stories and essays have been published by Literary Hub, Writer’s Digest, Sonora Review, Story Quarterly, and The Texas Review, among others. Fiction Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle, he lives in North Carolina with his wife. Find out more at jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter @jamestatehill.