The whole scene collapses my brain like a whoopee cushion: I’m no longer sixteen years old, and Taco Bell is no longer a “quick decision” kind of thing. It’s laborious. No longer can I wade up to the counter and start picking out items—something they’ve newly rearranged from only six ingredients—then start eating it like I’ve already scheduled an entire afternoon on the toilet. I can’t shove two orders of Nachos bel Grande into a bowl and then work it into my cake eater during back-to-backs of The Twilight Zone, all while pretending I don’t have a bucket list. When eating something like a Burrito Supreme, there’s more than hunger to consider—I need to keep in mind that I have a wife, a dog, blood pressure medication, and a colon that’s only going to tolerate so much of my nonsense. One or two more abdominal afternoons in the bathroom, and all twenty or so feet of my intestines are going to pay me back by relaxing during a client meeting with an audible and wet groan—me waking up about an hour later surrounded by a hazmat crew, a single post-it note stuck to my chest. The words, clearly penned by my liver, are terse: “Salad! Salad, you son of a bitch!”
Prattling on about getting older isn’t going to serve me any good on this one. For anyone already on a strict diet of Metamucil, granola, and blood thinners, you’re never old enough unless you can remember throwing eggs at minorities as a part of a normal school day. For anyone who’s wearing the stuff you wore to elementary school as a skin tight fashion accessory, you’re now far too old to like, you know, what-ev-er. Let me be clear about my first paragraph though, Taco Bell is only nasty once it’s entered your body—prior to that—the stuff is delicious. McDonalds foodstuffs may be able to strip the paint off your car or preserve a corpse for the summer, but it’s a tasty business, and yes, I have heard about the good Christian work they’ve been doing with a taco shell made entirely from Doritos, but I have a doctor’s appointment soon and I don’t need to explain to him why I’d be tinted orange at both ends.
It’s not about Taco Bell, or McDonalds, or whatever your preferred death-by-sodium might be. It’s about the stuff we eat and the ways we’d never thought about it before. As a teenager, there was never any question what I ate, in what quantities, and how often. I like to imagine a conversation with my sixteen year old self when trying to find a place to eat for dinner. The first sticking point would probably be the word “dinner” as a singular event—sixteen year old Matthew is expecting two and a half dinners, minimum. There is no futzing about when it comes to fast food. It’s food, it’s fast, it’s cheap and it’s goddamn delicious—we’re going to Taco Bell, and probably more than once. Calories, sugars, fats, sodium, these are words that sixteen year old Matthew has heard before, but has never considered on a personal level, words he’s only read on another failed chemistry test, or under the guise of a hand puppet in a bacon costume.
What sixteen year old Matthew should, but doesn’t consider, is that he’s dining with an older version of himself, and that older Matthew has specific dietary needs due to the ravages of time, an ever-sensitive stomach lining, and a wild new proclivity for avoiding what he’s come to call “the afternoon bloat-nap.” Places like Qdoba and Chipotle are supposed to be an alternative, as if their slop is any more healthy than the stuff we’ve been raised on at the traditional fast food place. It’s the same six ingredients, it still comes from a plastic bag, and it’s still been doused in chemicals originally designed to clean the hull of an oil tanker. The only difference now is that the staff at these faux-Mexican joints wear different uniforms and are forced to yell things about the ingredients across the room, like it’s actually being cooked and not just microwaved by a semi-concious grad student named Malcom or Gray. It’s still delicious, but it’s still terrible for me, and while I sometimes like to pretend it won’t, it still gives me a hot-spicy-teary bout of the trots.
Our bodies keep changing, as do our tastes, and with that comes a new level of responsibility when trying to plan a day. Dieting and calorie counting become the hook that your food choices swing from, and applications for our future space telephones can help make the decision on what snack is better for you—a bell pepper, or a saggy bag of lukewarm hog fat and a straw—which do I choose? The one I prefer is called “LoseIt!,” and it helps to free my day from the overwhelming shame I feel after eating a Big Mac and then feeling like I need to hibernate. LoseIt! takes your weight, takes your height, does some fuzzy math and kicks out a daily caloric budget based on how many pounds you’d like to lose per week and what your specific goals might be. I thought the stuff nothing more than bedeviled voodoo nonsense when I started using it, but after a few weeks (combined with regular cardiovascular exercise), the “fat fairy” came into my bedroom and took away those pounds, leaving not a shiny quarter in their place, but the ability to run farther, last longer, and “brick my ass muscles like a firm stack of johnny cakes.” My wife has a dirty mouth.
I still have to keep a wary eye on different foods. I have one friend whose nose starts running when he drinks beer, and another who’s started juicing for every odd meal—both the results of whatever psychosis and bizarre molting a body succumbs to when your thirties kick into gear. Finding delicious low calorie foods is cause for celebration these days, and sixteen year old Matthew is filled with disgust and despair. Standing in a Bed, Bath & Beyond with a friend of mine and swooning over the high-powered motor in a juice machine, you know, to get the extra nutrients, wasn’t something I’d written on my when-I-grow-up list, but here I am, standing over an overpriced fruit mutilator and wondering how often I’ll use it to justify its cost. Sixteen year old Matthew would’ve purchased a pound of cheap candy, accidentally knocked over a few dozen wooden salt shakers, then briskly walked into another isle like he’d fooled the security cameras into thinking he was suddenly taken with the cheese cloths and lemon bags.
I guess my point, if I ever really have one, is that nobody gives us a manual on this stuff after leaving the hand-holding confines of a high-school. They don’t tell you that when you enter your twenties, your acne is never really going away, and that your body hair isn’t quite done populating your pasty pink surface areas, and that you still don’t know how to bargain shop. Life is a big old string of embarrassments, occasionally knotted with sexual deviancy and various medications. They don’t tell anyone this, and I’d doubt that even they know for sure how to deal with “backne” or gums that bleed whenever you eat walnuts. They also don’t tell you when you enter your thirties and decide to eat cheap fast food tacos on a whim, you’re going to cry when you shit.
Music in this episode:
Anitek – Blueprint