Taco Bell As Proust’s Madeleine Cake

The reverie starts when I see the bell, purple and tilted mid-ring. I’m in St. Louis again and it’s nine years ago, after midnight: the only time I’ve ever eaten Taco Bell. My friend is house sitting in his cousin’s mansion, and I’m exhilarated to be so close to wealth, to be inside it. I leap into the pool, sip beer under the stars. But I am riddled with recent wounds — my closest friend has just moved to another continent, and my girlfriend is leaving soon too, done with me anyway. When I emerge from the pool, I’m freezing and unable to find a towel.An acquaintance is wrapped in two of them, having already been out for a while, and refuses to share one with me. She sees me shivering violently and still won’t let go of either towel. Maybe in another era of my life, I could have laughed it off even as I shivered. “Can’t spare a square?” I could have said. But in that moment, her refusal makes me feel intensely alone.For some reason, when the party breaks up, I go straight to Taco Bell. Maybe because it’s open late, a sympathetic ally of the deep evening. Maybe a friend suggests it. Maybe I’m a little drunk and want something I’ve never had. Back in my own dining room, I’m surprised how good it tastes: like mainlining salt and fat. My roommates and I gobble up the tacos, staying up later and later, happy in our own company. With each passing hour, the towel incident takes on less significance, smoothed out by our good time. ***Back in the present, I’m restless trying to pinpoint the Taco Bell on Google Maps where I remember it being on my street in St. Louis, but it’s vanished. Did it just close or did I misremember something?My old neighbor in St. Louis promises to text her “bell aficionados” to see what they recall, but it slips her mind. I keep probing the vacancy, like tonguing the hollow of a lost tooth, and the missing franchise starts to feel symbolic of memories dissolving over time. After a decade, whole years get condensed into a few defining or random moments. The towel memory, just by virtue of being recalled, starts tinting that St. Louis era a darker color than I remember.  In search of my own lost time, I begin spelunking through a dusty email thread sent in the months after the towel and taco night — my postgraduate year. Written to that close friend who moved away, the emails swim with detail. At night, I devour the dense paragraphs, and the navel gazing quickly turns addictive. I wonder if it’s the quarantine — being confined to a home-bound, Zoom-ridden present — that makes me so eager to stuff myself with the past.The st. louis sky is magnificent. At one point it felt like we were driving towards heaven as it would be depicted by classical painters. I arrived in okc at 4am. I was the only person outside in the whole downtown. Felt like all of society was dead. Eerie.When I was unemployed, I went on a spree booking solo bus trips to random places. They were enlightening detours, but spend long enough alone and it can wear on you. In Oklahoma City, it was exhilarating that I seemed to have a city all to myself, but the novelty wore off and in the dark hours, I was sick with loneliness. I skim more of the emails, stopping whenever my eye catches on something.for a minute it struck this deep chord inside of me, like oh you knew you were missing something but havent admitted it to yourself, there are really cool people out there, you’re just not with themThere was an exodus of my friends after graduation, but I chose to stay, in love with a city. It becomes telling that in the emails, I was constantly quoting Before Sunrise, sharing the movie’s concern that there are only a few people you ever get to connect with, meaningfully, truly. Movies, at that time, maybe in the place of deep experience, were like personal bibles I kept and consulted in a drawer beside my bed.Are you still jotting down interesting things you notice / people say? It is a curse for me.Anything I hear or see like that I have to write down.I seemed almost desperate to accumulate my own scanty happenings. Not surprisingly, I was smitten with Ross McElwee films, which tend to turn the lens on the director. I remember one moment in a documentary of his that feels relevant: it’s the middle of the night, he’s drunk, whispering to the camera in his parents’ living room. He worries that he’s fallen into the crack between his film and his life.  It was one of the very few times ever that I felt the small thrill of really collaborating with another person, them adding to you and you adding to them.  Sometimes people say that reading your old writing is boring, but I’m hungry for more feasts of remembrance, trawling for resonances, differences. I think: have I collaborated seriously since then? It’s hard to stop scanning.She had a twitter account and she said something about how sometimes when she’s drunk she’ll read it like a long list and realize there is an imbalance between the persona she projects and how she thinks of herself.I read more fragments and learn that I still viewed time as moving in semesters that year. I loathed when people said “you’ll love it” when they barely knew you. I was impressed when someone responded that they were “well” in response to “how are you?” since I was more of a “not bad” type of person. I had a series of almost lovers but became good friends with all of them instead.The year, incrementally, became something worthwhile.***The nostalgic reading feels shadowed by Taco Bell, like the chain is an official sponsor of my memories. It turns out the iconic bell was not conceived as an allusion to the ritual of eating tacos, as in “It’s taco time! Come and get it!” The origin is even more mundane, just a nod to the founder, Glen W. Bell. But after my email-bingeing sessions, it conjures up the idea of remembering, like “that rings a bell,” as though the taqueria is a temple of endless recall. That phrase — the ringing bell — apparently came from Pavlov and his drooling dogs, triggered bell by bell, in hope of more meat powder.One afternoon, the hourglass I use for writing shatters, slipping from my grasp. The black sand explodes across the floor in liberation, like containing time is an impossibility. I know I have to recommit to the present at some point, but for now, I open up the email thread again.i was saying how any really good friendship is like a romance. She said: yeah, we have a little love affair going on, i think.The era is starting to feel salvaged, less isolated, turned like the night of the first memory. That year was a lonely time, sure, but it was rich in connection too. I scroll for more, thinking about a scene described in the Taco Bell founder’s obituary. Apparently, the first-ever customer bit too hard into his taco and the juice stained his tie, yet he came back for seconds. “That was good,” he reportedly said. “Gimme another.”

Jason Schwartzman’s first book, NO ONE YOU KNOW, is forthcoming from Outpost19 in Spring 2021. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Narrative.ly, The Rumpus, Hobart, River Teeth, Nowhere Magazine, Human Parts, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Hippocampus Magazine, and elsewhere. You can find him on Twitter @jdschwartzman.

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