You can’t just order cheese, I say.
Of course you can, he says.
It’s seriously tacky, I say. Especially if you’re bringing in another restaurant’s food to dip in the cheese, I say.
We are lounging in line at the Taco Bell at 6th and South. It is late, very late; we’ve been engaged in all manner of nefarious Saturday-night activities. We were already on our way home when my fiancé expressed a sudden craving he simply could not ignore, something that was fundamentally – according to him, anyway – an urgent need in his lizard brain.
Knowing my fiancé, this could only mean steak fries with cheese sauce, and hence we find ourselves at the South Street Taco Bell holding a greasy paper bag and, apparently, planning to place an order for cheese. Just cheese. Just a lot of cheese.
This is embarrassing, I comment.
It’s fine. They probably get asked for much stranger things here.
Knowing South Street, this is a likelihood. I stare out the window and wonder vaguely what Man with Snake, a South Street staple since I was in high school, is doing this evening.
We finally reach the register, and I take absentminded note of the cashier: A young-looking woman, racially-ambiguous,beautiful; her nametag reads “Mary Beth.”
How can I help you? she asks sweetly.
My fiancé very obviously hides the bag of fries behind his leg as he starts to speak, and I roll my eyes.
I’m sorry for this, I interrupt, and now he rolls his eyes.
Do you mind?? he demands.
Sorry, sorry, I say. I just feel bad for her, I say. You do you, I say.
Mary Beth is waiting patiently, smiling cheerfully, and I feel a rush of gratitude for everyone in the service industry who has to put up with drunken fools like us every weekend.
I feel, in fact, a warm glow; something pleasant, unrelated to the whiskey I’ve consumed; it is the loveliest sense of inner calm and contentment. I marvel at this change from the disgruntled irritation my fiancé had been sowing mere moments before and smile back at her.
Yeah, can I just have five containers of cheese?
I give Mary Beth a look of empathy. After all, I have to live with the man, so who else but me can understand her pain right now?
Mary Beth, however, is unfazed.
Sure, she says. Do you want it warmed up? she says. I’m not really sure how to ring that up, so it’s on the house, she says.
The glow is spreading through my limbs from my core like a blast of dopamine, my brain’s reward system overwhelmed with evolutionary cues and actively soaking up all this bliss.
I am not sure, when the lights first start to flicker, if I am seeing things; I’ve had a fair bit to drink, after all. I am also toodistracted trying to find an explanation for the rush of inner delight in which I am currently awash to pay much attention to anything else.
Then I notice the hanging light above the register pulsing.
What is that? I say.
What? my fiancé asks, a goofy grin on his face.
The lights…I say.
The lights are quivering faster, and I’m starting to see little yellow sparks in my peripheral vision. I have never felt so much at peace.
Oh, yeah…I see it. Must be electrical. Say, I love you, he announces.
But do you…feel that? I ask tentatively, ignoring this sudden show of affection.
Feel what? he questions. I feel great!
Feel…it? I manage inarticulately. I’m having trouble focusing, so wobbly is my vision with the lights strobing faster, and the ineffable joy bubbling up in my sternum is difficult to ignore.
Here’s your cheese, says Mary Beth cheerfully, and I look at her and gasp.
She is surrounded by an aura, a halo of light, pulsing just whenthe lights pulse, the same rhythm as the current of elation vibrating within my frontal cortex. She radiates a sense of serenity, something harmonious and austere, and I find I cannot look away from her, this Taco Bell siren in the midst of our urban sea.
Then the lights go out entirely, and blackness engulfs the restaurant.
Oh my God! I exclaim involuntarily.
There is the sound of mild chaos, chairs scraping, mothers calling out for children, bodies banging against one another and the door rattling in its frame as people find the exit.
It’s ok, it’s just a power outage. The emergency lights will come on in a minute, my fiancé soothes.
But it’s the regular lights that come back on, revealing a few abandoned tables with food still scattered on the surfaces and huddles of customers blinking dazedly at the sudden brightness.
That was…weird, I say, the sense of contentment already evaporated, absent, extinct, as if it had never existed in the first place. I am breathing hard, however, and feeling slightly winded; my adrenaline is spent.
I want the good feeling back, like a hedonist, like I am missing something necessary which has been torn from me. A nagging headache beginning to blossom makes me wonder if this is what hedonism feels like the rest of the time.
Can I help you? I hear a bored voice ask.
I look to the register and see a pinched middle-aged man, balding, annoyed. His nametag reads, coldly, “Manager.”
We’re already being helped, thanks, I respond, looking around for Mary Beth and the takeout bag of cheese, just cheese, only cheese, that she had been preparing to hand us before the lights went out.
The bag is there, on the counter. Mary Beth, on the other hand, is nowhere in sight.
You can’t have already been helped, Manager says slowly, like he’s explaining a simple concept to a young child who is having difficulty grasping the mechanics. I’m the one taking orders, and I haven’t helped you.
No, I insist, we ordered already, we spoke to…
My fiancé shushes me, grabbing the bag with the cheese from the counter and starting to usher me towards the door with a hand on my waist.
It’s fine, we got the cheese and she said it was on the house…
Wait! I hear rudely behind us. You can’t just take that! You have to pay for it!
I sigh, wishing we had never made this extra stop. Exhaustion is starting to descend on me, and I’m still longing for that sense of rapture in my muscles and bones and fingernails and hair follicles; I’m wondering where on Earth it went.
We were already helped, I repeat to Manager, gesturing to the bag in my fiancé’s hand. She took our order and brought us our food and…
She? There’s no one here but me today. And you have to pay for that! Manager’s face is getting red, but I am also growing angry. All I want to do is leave, and, instead, we are getting grilled by the Manager of the South Street Taco Bell at one in the morning, all for the sake of my future husband’s godforsaken cheese fries.
I’m telling you, she said she couldn’t ring it up, but we’re happy to pay…”
There’s no other cashier here! says Manager, exasperated.
Yes, there is! I say, also exasperated. She was short and pretty and her nametag said Mary Beth and she was at the register right before…
I trail off at this, because Manager is no longer listening. He is, instead, staring at me like I’ve asexually reproduced a clone before his very eyes. His eyes are wide and glazed, his mouth slack, his focus somewhere over my left shoulder.
She was at the register, I try again, and then the lights…
Mary Beth, says Manager, and his voice catches, sounding strangled; he clears his throat and starts over. Mary Beth has been in a coma at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania for two years.
His gaze switches between us, as if he’s waiting for a punchline, as if he expects an explanation.
We…I say with complete befuddlement…we saw…
How did you know? Manager says, barely audibly.
The three of us are bathed in neon light from the signs outside, and I can our reflection in the mirror over the banquet against the back wall: Two goths in black, resplendent in eyeliner and studs, standing across from a man in a uniform shirt and tie; he is hunched over slightly, as if he’s been punched in the stomach, and does not appear to notice the line beginning to build in front of the register.
The fries are starting to smell obviously like fries, and I find myself wondering distractedly if Manager, too, thinks it’s tacky to order nothing but cheese from the local Taco Bell, very late on a Saturday night, deep in the midst of a Philadelphia summer.
Then I wonder if Mary Beth is still in her coma.
Shannon Frost Greenstein (she/her) is the author of “Pray for Us Sinners,” a collection of fiction from Alien Buddha Press, and “More.”, a poetry collection by Wild Pressed Books. She is a former Ph.D. candidate in Continental Philosophy and a multi-time Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Pithead Chapel, Bending Genres, Epoch Press, X-R-A-Y Lit Mag, and elsewhere. Follow Shannon at shannonfrostgreenstein.com or on Twitter at @ShannonFrostGre.