On the Road Finding Peace at the Most Beautiful Taco Bell in the World
I need the ocean to quiet my thoughts, the surfers to remind me I’m a person, the Taco Bell as a place where I become solid again.
When my husband and I moved to California three years ago, I promised myself I would not be one of those people who never went to the beach. It seemed inevitable to take for granted what was routinely available, the way you don’t appreciate breathing through your nose until you have a cold.
Still, I was determined. Every Friday at 3 p.m., after my East Coast colleagues had logged off, I took 280 to the 1—a very California sentence—to one of the beaches nestled among the cliffs. I parked in a gravel lot and walked the steep trail to the ocean. The beaches were a far cry from the Carolina coast I went to growing up. The sand was coarser, the wind colder. It was overcast more often than not. Most days, I was alone. But even when I wasn’t, I couldn’t hear other people. The waves echoed against the cliffs, simultaneously deafening and silent.
When we adopted our dog Penny, I brought her with me and taught her how to dig holes in the sand, then how to swim in the shallow surf of the bay at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. She can handle the path to the beach better than I can, cornering fast and looking up at me from a lower switchback to make sure I’m close behind. As a city dog, she doesn’t get this leashless freedom every day and runs in an elliptical orbit to the water, down the surf, then back to me. When she sees a bird, she chases it. When she’s excited, she howls.
On the way home, we often stop at the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world. It’s located directly on Linda Mar Beach, a three-quarter mile swath of sand tucked between two rock faces. The Taco Bell has an observation deck, where onlookers can watch the surfers as they bob in the shallows. Shielded by the bluffs, the waves are big enough to ride but less tumultuous and unpredictable than the neighboring beaches that have posted warnings not to swim. I like to buy a Crunchwrap Supreme, sometimes a draft beer. Even with a tab of less than ten dollars, it feels indulgent. For the views, it’d be a steal even at twice the price.
There are no cliffs behind us for the noise to boomerang off of. It moves past us and dissolves over the highway. I feed Penny bits of tortilla as we listen to the chitter of plovers and watch families wrangling toddlers or the complex social dynamics of middle-grade surf camp. We sit until we can’t anymore, until time or traffic or the chill drives us back home.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been escaping to the water. I love the gravity of it, the texture and buoyancy, to float and to sink, springing off the bottom of the pool into resistance, the pull of a wave. In our backyard pool, I would touch the floor of the deep end and hold myself down as long as I could hold my breath. It was a temporary piece of oblivion in a house where I was never alone. Sometimes, in the water, I would scream or cry the way I wanted to but couldn’t on land. Sometimes I would just sit at the bottom, feeling the pressure of the water in my ears and all over my body, until I had to come up for air.
I’d emerge to a bright and open sky, the pine trees rustling overhead, our golden retriever barking and pacing, waiting for me to resurface. As an adult, I’m surprised that it was only the dog monitoring how long I’d been under. Maybe I wasn’t down for as long as I thought I was, my perception of my lung capacity magnified by childhood. Maybe my eyes were blurred from the chlorine. There must have been an adult somewhere.
But I don’t remember being watched. How I remember it is a severe reentrance, squinting at a too-bright sun, the roar of sound coming back, the sharp bark of worry from an uncomplicated love, my parents on the deck seeking their own underwater.
My mother would want me to tell you that there was always someone watching me. She would want me to write that I was safe and loved, and I was. Love and safety are not enough to prevent depression or anxiety or addiction or any other mental illness. But that’s also not what she would have called my problem, or anyone else’s in our family. We were all struggling, often at the same time, so we thought it was normal. The assumption was that everyone else felt this way too, and it wasn’t visible except to the people to whom they were closest. Drowning isn’t a call for attention or obvious struggle against the depths. It is a deceptively quiet act.
These days, I don’t go into the water when I’m alone, only with someone. I’d tell you it’s for safety reasons, and that would be true, but not in the way of riptides or sneaker waves, which I think about all the time, but only when I’m not near the ocean.
The truth is that, when I am alone, I think about walking directly into the sea until I lose track of where the land is. “Pulling an Awakening ” is what I call it, which sounds more glib and less extreme than an intrusive thought, which is what it actually is. While I didn’t have any acute suicidal thoughts until I reacted poorly to an SSRI , I’ve always been called by the void, never more so than when near water. I don’t think about sinking or dying, the inevitable end, but about hearing nothing but waves and sky, my head being so full of the sound of water that it can be empty and still.
Drowning isn’t a call for attention or obvious struggle against the depths. It is a deceptively quiet act.
Intrusive thoughts are not real , as any therapist will tell you. They are stray images or thoughts beyond your control. No matter how real and distressing they feel, they are not tied to any true desire or action. They are to be acknowledged and let go of. But more than any of my other symptoms, the insomnia and the fatalizing and the inability to handle my own life, they make me feel actually crazy, like I can’t control my own mind or trust myself. I fear that I actually do want to walk into the water, that I’m going to do it, that maybe I’m doing it right now. I curl my toes in and out of the sand to confirm that I am standing on the shore, pat the car keys in my pocket, rub Penny’s ear.
I don’t like to talk about my intrusive thoughts because I’m afraid they make me sound crazy too. But during the depths of my episodes, I can’t get away from them. I don’t know how to explain that my brain is telling me I should walk into the ocean but it’s not a voice in my head, and it’s also not what I want.
On bad days, though, they require my complete attention. The cycle of questions and answers that reorient me toward the real world is rote, almost mechanical: What am I feeling, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, what is the worst thing that could happen, what is the best, what is the most likely? They take too much time and yet I need them to anchor me. It’s exhausting to talk myself down. To do all that while engaging with other people feels like watching TV and listening to the radio at the same time, so, mostly, I don’t. But I still sit with them—with my husband, with friends, with Penny—so there’s something more than just the intrusions in my head.
After my lows, my weeks of seclusion, I emerge with shame and apologies: for being absent, for being irritated, for not following through. For needing to spend time at all being awash in nothing. I tackle my inbox. I make plans. I clean my apartment. I feel grateful for the things and people that are right where I left them, and I redouble my efforts to be good to them.
And still, on Fridays, I go to the ocean. The waves are too big at the beaches further north, so I take Penny to Pacifica to swim. I wait until I’m knee-deep in water to let her off leash and then launch her ball into the waves. For the first few throws, she swims after it, but then she lets it get carried in by the surf and bobs for it in the foam. Surfers paddle past us, up to, and then through a wall of haze: smoke or fog or both. I can see them move like light in water in some sort of beyond and then break through on their feet—or more likely their bellies, paddling back in. The waves are too loud for us to hear each other, but they smile at me, or more likely the dog, as they pass. I throw the ball again.
The Taco Bell is on the south curve of the beach. It is a refuge that sells airbrushed towels and swim trunks and anything else you might have forgotten at home with a reminder to Live Màs. They’ve got cheap food, a lot of it, and weathered siding to shelter you from the wind. Penny and I make the walk when we are soaked and tired, cutting up to the walk-up window for people with sandy feet and wet dogs. I still can’t really hear, but it doesn’t matter. I know what to say. My order is simple and always “for here.”
We eat slowly and watch the surfers. I think that maybe I’d love surfing if I weren’t scared of it. Or maybe I just like the surfers, the way they make way for each other, how they watch out for each other. I feel safer at the Taco Bell beach because there’s someone else out there, someone I don’t have to talk to but who sees me up to my waist in water, who would notice if I walked out further than I should.
I prefer to be alone most of the time, but as my anxiety and depression have gotten worse and my treatment options have become more limited, I’ve had to rely more on people. I sit with my husband while he works. I go to the parklet up the street and sit for hours. I go to museums or parks or the corner store. I wish I didn’t need the reassurance of other people or a soft transition back into the real world, but I do. I need the ocean to quiet my thoughts, the surfers to remind me I’m a person, the Taco Bell as a place where I become solid again.
But when I disambiguate the darker reason from the acts themselves, they amount to a deeply lived life, not a waste of time at all. I get to sit on a bench and look at a Rothko, unhurried. I get to drink wine at my neighborhood shop and bring the bottle home for my husband, who always makes space for me and teaches me something new. I get to go to the park and watch the little kids in their chain gang walk to the playground. I get to trace the line of the Pacific Ocean. I get to go to the most beautiful Taco Bell in the world.