Sep 18, 2015

Flour Or Wheat

I've been coming here a long time, to this strip mall hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant off the freeway, with the chicken quesadillas I decided somewhere in my mid-20s (without much research, admittedly) were the best in Los Angeles.

In 199-something it was a small chain with franchise dreams and few locations, one of which was near-ish my apartment. When it closed I started commuting to a location that was not near-ish. It was far-ish. And when I brought someone along they would inevitably pronounce, between bites, that it wasn't worth the gas.

I paid them no mind.

I have a history of mental health issues and routine is important to me. Also consistency. Which might be why, once I started coming, I didn't stop. Why in the hundreds of times I've approached the counter I've always ordered the same thing.

Always.

One chicken quesadilla on a flour tortilla with guacamole. Rice and beans on the side. Plus chips.

Seriously. I've never tried anything else on the menu. For all I know the shrimp tacos make men weep. I don't care. They're not on my radar.

Yet somehow, despite getting the same meal about twice a month maybe ten months a year for almost fifteen years, the guy behind the counter never remembers my order.

Ever.

Or, by extension, it would seem to follow, me.

This isn't "Cheers." Nobody knows my name. And if anyone's glad I came, they're keeping it to themselves.

Eventually I learned not to expect the guy behind the counter to know my order. What I could expect was a set mouth and a flat stare. Free of charge.

And that's been a relief.

At times.

At times I have deeply appreciated being made to feel anonymous. No one approaches me here. No one asks for a photo. No one seizes an opportunity to go full koala around my waist while a friend repeatedly fails to take a picture on their smartphone.

Other times, vacuum-sealed in my LA existence, moving from apartment to car to freeway and back, the luxury of not having to touch or be touched by another human being mine to indulge, I have very much wanted the guy behind the counter to know my order without me telling him first.

But no. Every time I walk in we have essentially the same exchange we've been having lo these many years:

Him: Upward nod and/or raised eyebrows with a split second of eye contact to signal I have his attention.

Me: "Chicken quesadilla, please."

Him: "Flour or wheat?" They've got two kinds of tortillas to choose from.

Me: "Flour." Let's not go crazy.

Him: "Rice and beans?"

Me: "Rice and beans."

He spreads a flour tortilla on the stovetop, sprinkles it with cheese while I pay at the register then get my salsa from the salsa bar. Unless I get my salsa from the salsa bar first then pay after. That part changes depending how fast the lady at the register rings me up. (I think of this as my chance to practice being flexible.)

When my tortilla is done browning and the cheese melting, the guy takes it off the stovetop and says, "Chicken or steak?" Even if I am the only customer in there, mine the only order being juggled, I will be asked to repeat my choice of protein.

Me: "Chicken."

Him: "Rice and beans?"

To be fair, I don't know his name or order either (assuming he eats there too). To be fair, I'm sure it's no picnic chopping onions and grilling carnitas for a living. I spent a summer scraping uneaten refried beans off plates at a Mexican restaurant in Phoenix. An outdoor restaurant. In Phoenix. In summer. So while I don't/won't insult the guy behind the counter by pretending to understand the depth/breadth of his experience, I feel like I can imagine it. At least a little bit.

Or maybe not. Maybe I'm just a spoiled jerk with a sense of entitlement. Maybe the guy's having an off decade. Maybe his dog ran away and never came back. Maybe he needs some sweet understanding. Maybe I should cool it with the judgments and projections. Maybe it shouldn't matter to me that he can't (won't?) remember my order.

But it does.

Whatever. I don't come for the service. I come for the quesadilla. Which, most likely, is average. But which, drawn to ritual as I am, I've eaten enough times to become sentimental about. Ditto the 90-minute drive there and back, the smell of the hand soap in the bathroom, the validation stamp with the red ink they stamp on my parking stub that gets on my fingers if I touch it before it dries. This is my spot. My joint. My Cheers. Even if nobody knows or cares what my name/order is. This (most likely average) quesadilla is threaded through my LA history, this city I've liked and hated (almost) equally, a place I came to because it's "where the work is" and, now that the work is taking me away, I'm thrilled to leave. A town that has never felt like home, even if it was where I chose to lay my head.

As the poet said, #notmyvibenotmytribe.

Which is why, on the eve of my permanent departure, about to begin a new job in a new city in a new country, as I ready myself for a set of experiences that promise change and growth and shift and all the things that used to frighten me but which today I recognize and embrace as gift and gold, it's only fitting that I make the drive to my little Mexican restaurant one last time, for one last chicken quesadilla on a flour tortilla. And by doing so honor all the other times I came here to enjoy "my last quesadilla." Not because I was leaving town but because I was going to go home and kill myself.

Of my close friends, I've known Depression the longest.

By 10 we were well-acquainted. He was there for my first attempt, at 15, for my second, freshman year at Princeton, and for the multiple dress rehearsals and close calls that followed. He was there as recently as four years ago, seated in the front row for what was in some ways my most serious breakdown since college. When all I wanted was to die. When Depression had me convinced - deep down, on a cellular level - that I Would Always Feel This Way and that There Were No Other Versions Of Me/Life On Offer.

That was before I realized Depression is a Liar.

That was before the daily meditation, the prayer, the affirmations. Before the therapy, the men's work, the move from isolation into community. Before the self-expression via writing (privately, professionally) and coming out (publicly). Before the gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) letting go of the people, habits, and belief systems that knocked me out of my body, lowered my frequency, and robbed me of a good night's rest. Before the gradual conclusion that I did not come into this world preprogrammed to self-destruct. (That upgrade/virus came later, courtesy of outside influences.) Before the understanding (remembering?) that my birthright is joy. But joy won't just come when I call it. I have to invite it. Gently. With intention. Building a connection, a trust, over time.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes. Chicken quesadillas.

Over the years, on a handful of dark days, I would determine that my final meal would be my favorite and when it was finished, I would exit this earth. Because I couldn't imagine feeling better. Because I couldn't imagine a different, vastly improved state of existence.

Which, obviously, represents a colossal failure of my imagination.

That was another tool in Depression's toolbelt: the limits of what I could and could not imagine.

The man I was then couldn't have pictured the man I am now, moving (more) consciously and (more) thoughtfully through the world, (more) alert to the people, habits, and belief systems that invite peace and purpose into my life on a daily basis. A man departing (escaping) Los Angeles with a plateful of things to look forward to.

The man I was then wouldn't have believed any of this was possible. But it was. Is.

And to celebrate, I'm treating myself to one last chicken quesadilla on a flour tortilla before I go. Because it's f-cking earned. If I do say so myself.

I park my car in the underground lot, get my parking stub, enter the restaurant. I walk past the guy behind the counter and into the bathroom to wash my hands. Emerging, I get my tray, approach the counter, and see that for the first time in the near fifth of a century I've been frequenting this chain, on what is potentially and very probably my final visit to this strip mall hole-in-the-wall, this totally unexceptional restaurant I've spent years patronizing and a not inconsiderable amount of gas money getting to from various apartments, the guy behind the counter has already got a tortilla heating on the stovetop for me. Flour.

Eyes down, he sprinkles it with cheese, says to me or himself or to both of us, "Chicken quesadilla."

It is a statement. Not a question.

I say, "Yes. Please."

And "Thank you."
By Wentworth Miller....

Thank you for sharing.

And to you, my dear I., to remember that before being gay or hot or quiet or on hiatus, he is a human.

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