“We shall meet in the place where there are no taco salads.”
-George Orwell, probably
I slide into the lunchroom with vigor. They have that cute turnstile at the door I squeeze my hip into as if I’m going through gate 6 of Yankee Stadium, but it’s no ballgame to me. My face, cloaked with that American Flag gator, is stern under the fabric. Stolid as the steel on the counter where trays slide by with cheeseburgers, fries, egg rolls, General Tso sauce, bacon egg and cheeses (the most economical of Kennedy lunch orders), small pizza pies, Reubens, Cubans (the sandwiches, not people), Philly cheese steaks, Chicken Caesar wraps, empanadas, quesadillas, and the taco salad.
There’s something about that taco salad that drives those guys behind the counter wild. Maybe it’s some sort of intoxicant that makes Joe so eager to sell it to you. When he makes those taco salads, (which, it is important to note, is really more of a wrap than a salad, an advertising misnomer I am reluctant to forgive), wild horses couldn’t stop this man from convincing you of buying his magnum opus.
He looks at me through those glasses, I am taking a minute of deliberation. I said it before, this is not a game to me. Not a single lunch product will ever be bought by Gianni Bove without the utmost contemplation.
“I made salads today, Gianni,” he says, the facsimile of a smile covered by his KN95 mask. “taco salads.” He’s in full out laughter now. I squint my eyes just enough to show that I concur with his humor. He’s referring to my short-lived diet that took place the first week of November. I went up to him with an almost infinite quantity of gall and actually said, “Would you mind making the garden salads without avocado?” If I ever end up in hell, I think Satan should probably spare his fire and just spoon-feed me avocado. Especially with how gas prices are looking. But I digress.
Like the good man he is, he did make those salads for me. But after a short while I grew weary of the whole self-care thing and stopped buying them. He hasn’t let me forget my failure.
“I really recommend you get the taco salad, I made them great today.”
Not wanting to disappoint him, I got that taco salad. I didn’t love the price, but I bought it anyway. I gave Joe a little nod as I stepped out.
To my surprise, when I went back to my lunch table, everyone I sat with was also munching on that famed taco salad wrap.
“He got to you too, huh?”
“I just can’t say no to the guy.”
“Well is it good at least?”
“It’s good enough.”
I opened the plastic container it was lying in. The tortilla looked back up at me as if I was making it uncomfortable with the way I stared. “I’ll wipe that look off your face,” I said, and lifted it slowly to my lips in a constant, sweeping motion. Upon my first bite, I tasted that dreaded avocado. I forced it down, trying not to make a whole scene in which a prance to the garbage pail and gag the quarter-digested mush out of the orifice of my mouth. But that first bite was also my last. Which was sort of awkward, because now I had nothing to eat. I watched my non-avocado-abhorring friends eat their farce of a salad.
“Why don’t you just get something else?” someone said. I chuckled at their naïveté.
“What do you think he’s going to say as soon as I walk in there so soon? ‘How was my taco salad?’ ‘Did you enjoy my taco salad?’ And what am I to say?”
“I dunno, just lie.”
“I’m a terrible liar. I get all perspirey and yellow around the eyes when I lie. You should see me in the confessional! Thank God they have that screen.”
“He won’t notice.”
I shrugged it off. For a while I sat at my table, my unfinished salad adjacent to me, my head turned at a right angle from my torso, watching all the kids walk out of the lunch room with their taco salads. They all had taco salads. I looked around, scrutinizing the entire lunch room. There must’ve been 100 kids in that cafeteria. I couldn’t find one who wasn’t eating a taco salad.
Has free will escaped our school’s clutch, and how? How did Joe crack this concept so fundamental to our humanity? What made the taco salad so inexplicably ineluctable? Was it his gaze as you opened that sliding refrigerator door and picked one onto your tray? (And why were the taco salads refrigerated, anyway? Who was the authority that decided that the taco salad, like revenge, is best served cold?) This couldn’t be true: I had to restore my faith in my own autonomy. I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul. And I’ll be damned if I let someone possess such influence over my lunch order. I will free the destinies of every student in the firm grasp of the taco salad wrap’s allure.
So I go back up to that turnstile. I kick it open. One of the metal poles, propelled by my momentum, hits me on the backside and sends me forth to counter. I look Joe in the eye, and am about to say something. Can I have a cheesebur—but I freeze. I don’t know why, but my mouth turns dry and numb. I cannot speak, I cannot do….anything. As if held by some occult hand of a specter, my arm reaches for the refrigerator. I try to protest, but I can’t even breathe. I cannot see Joe in my periphery anymore. I can only succumb to the permeating presence of the taco salad on my reality. I stride sloth-like, without life, to the register. The operator rings up my second taco salad of the day. She’s in on the whole game, she knows why I’m here. I am controlled. I am a puppet. Two avocado-scented tears trickled down the sides of my nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. As my finger slides the cash
over to her, I love the taco salad.