She knew precisely what she was getting into. And yet, she couldn’t have imagined it being even more cliche than she suspected. But honestly, what did she expect at a Taco Bell job fair beyond a slew of acne-pocked high school students (she still had acne, too, granted… but it was more “errant” now)? Did she think that a bevy of business casual attired white folk in their late twenties would be lined up around the building in the hope of a chance to sling dog meat for fourteen dollars an hour? Maybe some part of her half-hoped that would be the case. For at least it would mean she was still somewhat on track in “the timeline.” You know, the unspoken one they hammer into you from the beginning about how life is supposed to go (especially when you have whiteness “on your side”). Get good grades, go to college, get a job that pays you to live in “cush” circumstances so you can eventually have a family and repeat the cycle of endless banality.
Serena was not on track within “the timeline” at all. She was so far off the track, in fact, that someone was already ringing her death knell in the form of the Taco Bell logo that now loomed above her tauntingly. She might as well push herself into the grave, it was true… at least based on the way society regarded you if you did not adhere to the strict plot points (calculated according to your age) of “the timeline.” Then again, she didn’t fall into the income tax bracket that could even afford a burial, so she supposed she would work at the Taco Bell for the rest of her days just saving up for some cemetery real estate. A place where her more successful siblings could visit her now and again, as they would still be alive and well thanks to having followed “the timeline” correctly, therefore having “high-rolllin’” pensions.
As she appraised the teen and college-age candidates, all either Black or Hispanic, she knew that she was not the only one who wasn’t following “the timeline.” Except, in her case, she was technically supposed to have a better chance of doing so. As some of the would-be employees eyeballed her strangely, as though she shouldn’t be there, she wondered if she merely had bad luck or if she hadn’t tried hard enough to take the most advantage of her “Caucasian station.” So now, here she was. Standing in a queue with all the others who had been driven off the most societally coveted timeline, yet she was the one who looked the most foolish of all. A proverbial example of: “Which one of these is not like the other?”
Erika, a seventeen-year-old Black girl who would never befriend Serena, stood behind her loudly speaking into her voice notes, “Meanwhile some white bitch is here who prolly gonna get the job over me. They gonna call it a diversity hire.”
Serena pretended not to notice anything she was saying, though Erika was very clearly trying to make herself heard, to make it known that if Serena was hired, her life would be even more of a living hell than if she was not. Which was really saying something considering how desperately she needed cash. Cash of any kind, no matter how infinitesimal. No matter how laden with the ersatz food resin of Taco Bell.
She didn’t want to come across that way to the hiring manager, however, and so did her best to exude “passion” about “Mexican cuisine.” The manager, a middle-aged man named Miguel, and Serena both knew perfectly well that Taco B was the antithesis of “Mexican cuisine,” but they both pretended just in case corporate headquarters was listening in à la Big Brother. And if they were, they surely would have told Miguel to hire someone who could try to make working at Taco Bell about anything resembling “passion.” So yes, he hired her. Along with Erika, who was soon to make her days feel like being locked inside of a torture chamber. Albeit a psychological warfare one.
Their first day working the same shift was “innocent” enough. Until it wasn’t. The vitriol went from half- to full-mast with thirty minutes left until closing. This was the time when they were both meant to be cleaning up the kitchen area and starting to wipe down the counters. But Erika asserted that she had been doing the majority of the heavy lifting with “customer interfacing” that day, and told Serena she was leaving. “You do it,” she shouted out from the door as she left, adding, “And don’t forget to lock up. You ain’t in your suburban neighborhood anymore.”
Serena wanted to scream back that she didn’t live in a suburban neighborhood, except that she did, and it would have been a lie to say otherwise. Cliches exist for a reason, and she couldn’t deny that. She only wished that both she and Erika weren’t fulfilling them so easily.
From Erika’s perspective, everything about Serena’s presence annoyed her. She didn’t think it was right that a white girl was now even infiltrating the minimum wage job space, and took to calling Serena “Gossip Girl ho bag” around Day Three. Serena knew Erika’s intent was to get her to bow out of the job, proving that white people were lily-livered and couldn’t handle shit. But Serena was not going to be driven out. That paycheck, which amounted to about three hundred dollars a week, was essential to her saving enough money. What she would do when she reached the amount deemed “enough” was unclear to her, but felt it was too far in the future to worry about anyway. So no, Erika could not make her yield. No matter how many times she left raw meat out and blamed the health code violation on Serena, or mopped the floor without putting a caution sign up so that a customer might slip and Serena could be blamed for being the one not to drag out the sign. Miguel loved Erika. She put on her mask of pleasantness for him, and the two got along swimmingly. Serena was just the awkward white girl who pretended to love “authentic Mexican cuisine” like Taco Bell. Miguel was starting to see through her charade as she made audible gagging sounds at the sight of the food prep process, which he insisted she be trained in as well, in addition to manning the cash register.
It was here, too, that Erika was allowed a chance to shine, proving that nothing made her squeamish and that she was ready to take on any task in order to eventually transcend into management material. One day, when Erika was sitting out back enjoying a free chalupa on her break, Serena emerged with a trio of tacos in hand for her own fifteen minutes as well, finding the courage to attempt making conversation, despite knowing that it would only result in pain. Somehow, she managed to get her to speak long enough without insulting Serena (or simply choosing to walk away) for Erika to explain that she was in this Taco Bell thing for the long haul. She wanted a manager’s position there so that she could eventually break out into managing somewhere else. Somewhere with slightly more, let’s say, prestige. Serena didn’t have the guts to tell her that she would be branded as a fast food worker forever by other companies, manager or not. That wouldn’t have been the way to encourage her, even though she knew full well Erika would never give a shit about self-censoring when it came to her thoughts regarding Serena.
When Serena tried to steer Erika toward a conversation about college, Erika laughed in her face. “You think I can afford that shit?”
Serena wasn’t going to make it worse by asking if her parents might be able to help. For all she knew, her parents were out of the picture. Or maybe just plain destitute. The point was, even Erika, without college on her docket, had a timeline in place that she was following. Alas, it was Serena who eventually graduated to becoming an assistant manager (she admitted to no one, not even herself, that giving Miguel a hand job several times in the janitor’s closet is what had clinched the deal). When that happened, she had served as a catalyst for Erika to leave, in a twist of acerbic irony that flipped the switch on Erika being the one determined to get Serena to quit. Years later, when Serena was still working there, she still thought about Erika. How she had managed to alter her timeline for the better. For Erika came in one day to order so that she could rub it in Serena’s face that she had started taking business courses at the community college (in between paying for them with a new job at Arby’s).
Who knows where Erika would end up in the timeline of her life, now corrected for the better in society’s eyes? All Serena knew was that this was her permanent timeline now. And though it certainly compelled her almost daily to “make a run for the border” (as the old Taco Bell slogan used to urge), she knew this was her destiny. Not meant to be anything grand as she had once been led to believe because of false indoctrination. Some people get church bells in Paris, others get a corporate logo with a bell. And, really, it wasn’t so bad once Miguel got a girlfriend and became too paranoid to make sexual favor requests any longer.