This meal matters.
To an outside observer, with no knowledge of Justin’s life, perhaps it would seem insignificant. Perhaps a more experienced chef would laugh at him, for he is following, to the letter, a recipe he has called up on his phone, though the meal is simple: chicken, with sides of steamed broccoli and a pasta nest with a garlic butter sauce.
A more experienced cook might not check the chicken every few seconds to ensure that it is neither over nor undercooked. He might not need to refer to the recipe multiple times for every measurement that he makes for the garlic butter sauce. He surely wouldn’t need to skim, again, the article Justin has pulled up about cooking pasta properly.
Justin did not have to go to work today. He took one of his sick days for the explicit purpose of cooking dinner for Marissa’s birthday. She doesn’t know this, yet, though she’ll know immediately when she arrives him and sees his vehicle in the garage. Marissa leaves for work an hour before Justin and gets home an hour before, as well.
Justin has never been a very thoughtful person. He is not unkind, or uncaring. He just doesn’t usually think much about the needs of others, and, more specifically, what he might be able to do to fulfill those needs. Through the years, Marissa has been wonderfully accepting of this fact. Or rather, she has put up with it. Today, Justin wants to reward her for her patience.
Marissa cooks dinner. That’s a fact in their household, as solid as the floor beneath their feet. Ever since they started dating in college, she’s been the one to do the cooking. She tried to teach Justin a few times. She gave up quickly, telling him he had no aptitude for it and that she would rather just do it herself.
The way their current work schedules fits together has only entrenched the habit further. Marissa starts dinner when she gets home from work, and it is finished — or very close to it — by the time Justin pulls into the driveway. If, for some reason, Justin needs to provide dinner, he brings one home from a restaurant.
Justin is content with the way things work. He’s come to accept them as How Things Are (the capitals here are important), and he’s never had any desire to break away from it. Until recently. Until he started to notice, a few months ago, that the light that once shown in Marissa’s eyes when she served a meal had begun to fade away. The joy she once expressed when talking about her recipes faded. In fact, she barely talks about them at all any more.
She barely experiments with the food, either, like she used to. Cooking became a hobby, a passion, for Marissa, and for years she would improvise and adapt her recipes to make something smart and interesting when she or Justin started to feel bored with their usual fare. These last few months, she’s been making the same food over and over again, with little or no improvisation.
The meal is almost ready, and Justin is proud of himself. It’s not a feeling he experiences often, and so he feels it to its fullest extent, like a new drug to which his body has yet to become accustomed. He’s pretty sure he overcooked both the chicken and the pasta, and while the broccoli is perfect (to him), he knows that Marissa is going to think it’s overcooked. He hopes she’ll be happy anyway.
Justin did something this morning he never imagined he’d do in his entire life. It went much better than he expected. He baked a cake. As soon as Marissa left the house, he ventured to the grocery store. That, at least, he was familiar with: it became an unspoken deal, years ago, that if Marissa was to do all of the cooking, Justin would be the one to bring home the ingredients.
When he returned home, he made the cake. It was easier, he thought, than cooking. The measurements were precise. All he had to do was to mix the ingredients together and put them in the oven at the right temperature, then wash the dishes while it baked. He made the frosting while it cooled, and when he tried to apply it, he learned why, in fact, making a cake is not easy.
The cake was ugly, and the dinner would be imperfect in a way that it never was when Marissa made it, but still, Justin was happy. He had been so caught up in planning this meal that he hadn’t bought Marissa a gift. He hoped she could forgive him.
The sound of the garage door sliding upward fills the house. Justin rushes around the kitchen excitedly, grabbing plates onto which the to serve the food and a lighter to set flame to the candles he has set onto the dining room table. He is just placing the plates upon the table when Marissa enters through the door.
She smiles, a surprised, hesitant smile that brings more beauty to her face than Justin has seen there in months. She sets her bag on the kitchen counter and, before either of them have said a word to one another, embraces him, her body pressed up against his and her face nested between his neck and shoulder.
When she pulls away from the embrace, she is laughing and wiping a tear from her cheek, and he knows that, whether the food is good or not, it has already made her happy.