Chapter 1

        On a corner in Los Angeles—which one, I don’t even want to remember—there is an office. I worked there for a very brief time. The office manager’s name was Michael MacDonald. We went on a Quest together, and there were windmills involved and I know what you’re thinking but I would like to set this straight right off: he is not Don Quixote, and I am not Sancho Panza. First of all, he’s not Spanish, Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, or whatever, as much as he wishes he were.
        And I have a vajayjay. So clearly there are differences.
        I don’t know much about Cervantes beyond what I could Google, but our story is not “one of the foundations of Western literature,” or about “chivalry and the death of chivalry,” or a “postmodern ironical commentary on the first modern novel” with “ample figural use of contradiction, inversion, and irony.” It’s a totally trivial story, about a totally trivial thing—the most trivial of things: food. It’s even about the most trivial of foods: the burrito. With Mr. MacDonald, that is, Don Miguel, it was always about the burrito.
        Or so I thought.
        He always wore a narrow black tie with a sad, ugly little knot and a white pressed short-sleeved shirt. I think the knot wasn’t ugly from lack of care, but from too much of it; it looked as though it were tied and untied five times every morning, like he was trying to make it so perfect that he ended up just killing it. He was in his fifties, tall, on the skinny side, with fine, slightly thinning hair that wasn’t exactly unattractive, but was unfashionably long. Although he kept a trimmed, pointy beard, he always looked like he was a week past needing a haircut.
        “Maria,
mi hija, I’m terribly disappointed in you,” he said one day as I returned, with my lunch, to work at my desk. He shook his head. “¿Tu eres Chicana, y ese lo comes? ¡Qué lástima!”
        I hate it when people talk in that upside down punctuation.
        Yes, my given name is Maria Guadalupe Sanchez, but I don’t speak Spanish, okay? I know
no, amigo, taco, and no problemo, same as you. But me no speako the lingo, José. When I asked my mom why she never spoke Spanish at home so I could learn it, she told me that since I was already being raised without a father, it would be easier on me if I spoke “English like the other girls.” So I ended up with her black eyes and cocoa skin, her Frida Kahlo eyebrow (in my case, plucked obsessively), even her freaking accent, but not a shred of the language. Worst of all possible worlds, thanks Mom; nice job.
        Anyway, I figured out from Mr. MacDonald’s pointing at my takeout bag that he was saying something not so nice about my choice of lunch. It was a burrito from the Monty Zooma’s Fresh Mex Express that had just opened up across the street from our office, between Wok n’ Roll and Godfather’s Pizza. I was so…totally…bored with Chinese and pizza that I had gone to Zooma’s the first day it opened. I’m not an adventurous eater, and I’ve never really liked Mexican food. Mom only allowed Mexican in the house when her mom visited, so I was left with mega-bad associations: Slamming Door Enchiladas, Chilly Con Emotional Carnage. The fiery food, for me, went along with heated arguments. Angry red salsas went with angry red faces; the tears from freshly peeled and chopped onions with the tears of sliced and diced family traumas. To fresh wounds, add a squeeze of lemon, and salt to taste.
        So when I confronted the menu at Monty Zooma’s for the first time, I glanced over the
Chipotle Chicken Del Rey and Carnitas Puerco Rico and skipped down to the For Los Niños section. Even though I really wasn’t a burrito fan—they’re usually too big and, for some reason, they always seem fall apart on me—I ordered a BRC burrito (BRC for Beans, Rice, and Cheese, in English, the way I like it) with no onions. I ignored the salsa bar with its fifteen different sauces ranging in spiciness from Va-va-voom Verde to Racy Rojo Red. I liked my food plain. Boring, some of my friends said.
        “What?” I said to Mr. MacDonald, avoiding his eyes, holding up the already-soggy-at-the-corners bag. “It’s fine.”
        And as far as I knew, it
was fine. Their menu said the beans were made with vegetable oil, so no trans-fats, which was good because I’m always watching my weight; I don’t want to end up like my Aunt Sofia. I had asked for the whole-wheat tortilla, which must be good for you, right?
        Mr. MacDonald shook his head, extended his forefinger, and gave me that “come here” waggle that’s so patronizing, as if they owned you, like you were a servant or something. In the case of Mr. MacDonald, at this point I still thought he was harmless, so I shrugged and followed him into his office. I’d been in there before, dropping off copies of reports, memos, supply requests, whatever, so it wasn’t a big deal. His office was kind of bizarre, not much going on besides company-issued metal shelves lined with office supply catalogues and management training seminar workbooks. A big phone book, untouched. (Hellooo? Heard of a little thing called “the Internet?” Why do they even send those huge books out anymore?) Two yellowing birthday cards that looked like they hadn’t been moved or taken home since some office birthday party now lost in the mists of time. The only décor that was obviously his was some weird Mexican stuff: a big black felt sombrero with sparkly, gold trim like a mariachi would wear; a miniature mariachi trumpet on a shelf below that; a Day of the Dead altar thingy, all pink foil and skeletons; a seashell sculpture of a frog sitting on a toilet, reading a book. Although everything had a layer of dust on it, it was all arranged perfectly; all pencils sharpened, paper clips sorted by size in a compartmentalized tray, all papers on his desk at exact right angles to its edges. Estelle, the managing partner’s secretary, had told me that Mr. MacDonald had a touch of OCD. Once, when he had stepped out during a small meeting in his office, Estelle moved a file on his desk ten degrees off the perpendicular, and they had all made a quick betting pool to see how long it would take him to notice and correct it. Estelle won the fifteen bucks; it took two seconds.
        Mr. MacDonald slipped behind his desk.
        “Muéstrame ese, tu burrito,” Mr. MacDonald said, indicating my lunch bag, and when I stared at him blankly, he added, “Show me your burrito, por favor.” I didn’t see any reason not to show our office manager my lunch, but it felt strangely intimate as I set my Diet Coke down on an empty spot on his desk, opened the bag, slid the burrito out from its cocoon of tortilla chips, peeled back its paper wrapper, and timidly revealed one end of it. A bit of liquid from the salsa dribbled out of the corner of the folded tortilla and splatted onto a stack of tidily arranged papers on his desk, which had “Sign Here” sticky notes all over them.
        “Ohmigod, sorry!” I said, but he didn’t even seem to notice.
        “That,” said Mr. MacDonald, “is not a burrito.”
        He leaned forward to his computer, clicked the mouse on his desk twice, and spun the monitor around to show me a web page. “
Ésto,” he said, “es un burrito.”
        The page loaded slower than molasses on the five-year-old law firm’s PC. From the URL it seemed to be a foodie blog:
http://www.theperfectburrito.com/blog. An image near the top of the page finally resolved into a painting of a woman, a familiar woman surrounded by a familiar, pointy golden aura. My mom may have abandoned the Spanish language, but she couldn’t let go of the Catholic Church as easily. Aside from weddings and funerals, I only remember going to church, like, twice, but I somehow always knew who that pretty young woman with the dark olive skin and blue shawl was, the one glowing peacefully with an inner light, the light from the candle Mom always burned at her bedside, right next to my first grade school portrait. The young woman was my namesake, the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe.
        As the bottom of
the JPEG loaded on Mr. MacDonald’s computer, I saw that Guadalupe’s hands weren’t pressed together in prayer, as they always were on Mom’s candles, but rather holding, as she might hold the baby Jesus Himself, a gleaming plate the color and shape of a halo…on which rested a foil-wrapped burrito.
        “That,” I said, “is not a burrito, either. It’s a picture of a burrito. And you know you’re going to hell, right?”
        That was something my mom said to me often. The hell part, not the burrito part. But whereas she always meant it, condemning me as she did daily, in ways big and small, to eternal damnation for sins ranging from kissing boys to masturbation (“
Mommm!”) to taking the Lord’s name in vain (“I am not! I said ‘Jeez!’”), in this situation, I was actually joking. The truth is, I don’t believe in God; all that stuff just seems so stupid to me. Like my friend Nessa said to me in tenth grade, “If God created Man in his image, does God have a hairy back and genital warts, too?” That was so gross to me that ever since, I’ve had a hard time imagining a Creator. But mostly what bugs me is all the different churches. I used to pass, like, five on my way to work, and thought about how inside each one there’s a preacher saying that all the souls in all the other churches are going to go to hell. So who are you supposed to believe? Me, I don’t have time to figure it out; I’ve got to go to work, and Sunday is my laundry day.
        Still, for some reason, when the photo on Mr. MacDonald’s website finally finished loading and I saw that the shining Savior in Mary’s gentle arms came, not with a Multitude of the Heavenly Host, but with chips and salsa, I felt some kind of tiny, invisible emotional ruler rap on the knuckles of my conscience, and I got a little offended. I wondered why. I’d never been a practicing Catholic, and it’s not like Catholicism is genetic…or is it?
        Anyway, this isn’t my story, it’s his. Or anyway, I’m making it his. I’ve never been comfortable in the spotlight. The point is, I didn’t really want to write all this down, but the therapist said I should. And now that I’ve started…it’s weird, it’s not that like I believe in fate or destiny or whatever. But I’ve got this feeling that I’m
supposed to write this down. If so, I hope the Muse or somebody helps me out, because I have no idea what I’m doing. And maybe writing will help me figure out why I got involved in all this in the first place. A lot of people have asked me about that, and for other details of exactly what happened. I’m the only one who was there the whole way, or most of the way, so I’m the only one who can tell the story, the real story, as opposed to some of the things he wrote on his blog, which—well, I’ll just put that out there, the URL’s good again, so you can decide for yourself.
        Anyway, this is the tale of how Don Miguel de Los Angeles no McDonalds and I tried to walk from L.A. to San Francisco to find The Perfect Burrito.


To view all illustrations for this chapter, click here.