Burgers and Boys at Jack in the Box — Read a New Essay by Susanna Donato
ESSAY: FAST FOOD, BY SUSANNA DONATO
When I was seventeen, I swapped my cap and gown for a fake-denim visor and pocketless polyester jeans that would help pay my way to college. My best friend Annette’s summers had paralleled mine since we were twelve, but that year, she preened in an air-conditioned office while I donned the female species of Jack in the Box uniform, with puffed sleeves and a Peter Pan collar to mark us as bait. Rules supposedly protected us: no more than one open button could titillate from the placket. But a construction worker flexed his forearm at me to shimmy his naked-lady tattoo. Which burger has the best meat? I told him, I don’t know, I’m a vegetarian.
My graduation party was Annette driving us girls around in her 1968 Plymouth Belvedere wagon. We ordered drive-through fries and Whopper Juniors, hold the beef, and parked to eat. Strange boys parked beside us. Annette and I slithered from the car to flick off the light switch that powered the Burger King sign. Back in the Belvedere, we watched, dipping in ketchup, chewing, while the BK employee trudged out to switch the sign on again. When Mom grounded me for missing curfew, I said, In a month I’ll be in New York. You’ll never know when I come in. Her shoulders twitched. That may be, missy, but for now you live under my roof. She was uncaged, too, a freshly single parent, wings still wet.
As we walked in the dark to Mr. Steak to see a boy, I reported that on my day off from Jack in the Box, the assistant manager had squeezed between the counter and the shake machine, grinding against a girl named Pepper, who’d worked at every fast-food chain there was. She punched him in the face. Knocked him down. I was sorry I’d missed it, I told my friends as we passed a doorway flickering with blue TV light. A man stood there, naked, his penis a soft white threat in dark fur. He smiled. We walked faster, but we were such nice girls, we almost smiled back. At Mr. Steak, the boy had clocked out. We forgot to use the restroom, or so we said, and so we squatted in the shadows outside Denver Christian School and bared our flanks. (We peed outside that whole summer, every time we got drunk, like we’d taken a vow.)
We fled to the Great Sand Dunes one weekend to let sun and sand slough the grease. In Taos, skater boys circled like ravens, lured by our silver earrings, burnt skin, clove cigarettes. We lied and said we would attend their party, but we didn’t want to be collected. When Shelley flashed her dimples and faked a Southern accent, two men in a muraled van bought us beer. It was two hours back to our campsite, but Shelley drove 90 mph to save time, so we could sooner pyramid our empty Keystone cans on the picnic table and cackle when we knocked them down. In the tent I fluttered, awake — what was loneliness? I asked the stars, what was freedom? — until I pressed my back against Annette’s and slept.
By day, I handed a drive-through order to a man whose testicles lay outside his nylon running shorts, like a small bald rodent. By night, my friends and I smoked in the stands at Red Rocks, exhaling through a bubble wand while we waited for Depeche Mode to stride out and wave, gleaming in the light, new and rich and leather-shining like freedom. Our feathers were already starting to tatter. A Goth girl I used to know had grown slack, scabby pink scalp showing through her black-dyed hair, and her boyfriend had the staggered teeth of a junkie. My shins were brown-pocked from standing on Jack in the Box tile. Waiting for the concert, every popped bubble burst smoke, like magic, a dirty surprise. I wanted to think the man in the drive-through hadn’t meant to flash me. I preferred to imagine he had been embarrassed.
August afternoons, the monsoon rains washed the Jack in the Box parking lot. The hail ping-ponged, the streets emptied, and the fryer fell silent. With the managers gone, I sat on the greasy office steps with Kwesi, a boy who also only migrated to Jack in the Box for a season, unlike Hakim who unfurled his prayer mat in the room where we scooped guacamole, unlike Sancho whose clients ordered Jumbo Jacks with a side of weed. Kwesi carried a notepad in his hip pocket to write the titles of the books I was reading. I memorized his white smile. We were both going places, college places, and grinning our plans at each other helped to beat down our fear.
My last night at home, Annette and I idled in the alley in her Belvedere. My mother’s bedroom window went dark. Moulting, I no longer remembered what she knew of me. Annette and I cried so my tears were on her face, and I tasted hers while I clutched her narrow shoulders in her white men’s T-shirt, and we laughed through the crying, I love you, no really, as we tried to imagine living apart. We were damp, feathered things. We were working at being wild. All we trusted was each other.
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Susanna Donato is writing The Only Girl in the Record Store, a music-driven memoir about coming of age as a gothy, redheaded minister’s daughter in the 1980s and ’90s. Her work has appeared recently or is forthcoming in Blue Earth Review, Hippocampus, and the anthology Everything I Need to Know About Love I Learned From Pop Songs. She lives in Denver.