It’s 4pm when Matt receives a text from Izzie:
Hey Dad- Code: Red
Dya mind picking up some pads for me on your way home from work? Thx <3
Matt looks away from his phone and runs a hand down his face. It’s not the first time he’s had to deal with his daughter’s menstrual cycle and is certainly not the last. However, there’s only so many pity looks a single dad can take while purchasing maxi pads at the local grocery store. He’ll just have to suffer through another one.
At his little desk, Matt packs up early. His computer is closed and his now-cold second cup of coffee is drained. Eye contact with his coworkers is avoided and he weaves around cubicles to catch the next available elevator. The ride down is a long one, but outside the foot traffic is light. It’s only a few days until New Years so the trees stand bare and Matt’s breath makes little clouds before him. “Dragon’s Breath,” as his children call it.
There’s rows of cars in his work’s parking garage but not a single soul to be found. His keys fumble in his hand and his car blinks when he unlocks it. The passenger seat is taken by a small cardboard box that’s been ripped open at the top. When Matt slides into his minivan, he pushes the box onto the floor to make room for his coat and bag. A muffled crack comes from it and he freezes, one hand on the wheel, one foot on the gas. He leans over to retrieve the box and foldes back the flaps of cardboard. Inside is a mug his son Carter had given him; “WORLD’S BEST DAD” written across the front. Now there’s a small chip in the rim, taking a chunk of O from “WORLD.”
It’s not a sign. Matt doesn’t believe in that sort of thing. But it’s a jab in his throat because he knows the mug is wrong.
Minutes later, his car is rolling out of the garage and into the city streets. Music suddenly blasts from the speakers, a treat left by Carter from the last time he was in the car and had control of the volume knob. The song isn’t anything he knows, just a rapper shouting a string of words.
It’s mostly green lights out of the city and Matt drives faster than normal. Usually, he’s a careful driver with experience from years of young kids, but now he’s swerving around pedestrians and electric bikes. He thinks it’s just because he’s tired; it’s been a long day, afterall. When he reaches a yellow-turning-red traffic light, he stops his car and taps the steering wheel. Then he realizes he never responded to Izzie’s text from earlier and grabs his phone to unlock it with the 4-digit password.
Please tell Carter not to have any snacks this afternoon because I’m making a special dish.
Matt replies, trying not to get frustrated by autocorrect. The light flicks into green and he’s off again.
There’s a little grocery store on his way home so Matt stops at it. He needs to pick up stuff for dinner, along with Izzie’s pads. He snatches a shopping cart outside before opening the door and hearing a familiar bell. A woman with graying hair and a nose ring shoots a half-smile in his direction. Matt shoots one back. He tugs the cart down the first aisle and loads a container of chocolate chip cookies and doughnut holes into it. Then he moves along to feel through a few apples and oranges to make sure they’re in decent condition. The cart squeaks when Matt rolls into the pasta aisle and comes to a stop as he pushes three boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese into it. So much for the “special dish” tonight.
In a few minutes, he’s arrived at the Health & Beauty aisle and he can’t help scratching his balding head. So many bright-colored packages and bottles with facts and whatnot. How in the world is he going to find the right pads?
A woman with a crying kid trailing behind her walks briskly into the aisle and freezes awkwardly when she sees Matt. She plucks something off a shelf near her and smiles without her teeth. In fact, it almost looks like a frown. She’s gone before he can ask her anything.
Matt’s mouth is slightly open and he puts a hand over his mouth. There are little whiskers from a day without shaving. He closes his mouth and steps towards the products, finally reading a label that mentions “pads.” It says 100% leak-free and has a little pink note that says “Teens.” Matt glances around at the shelf behind him and realizes he’s too tired to find the brand he got for Izzie last time. Didn’t he learn anything from the past year of midday texts, underwear washing, and “Code: Red”s?
He checks out and turns away when the woman scans the pad box. She taps her nails and places it carefully into a plastic bag. Next, the pasta, the pastries, the fruit, and a container of dish soap Matt picked up before getting in line.
The woman, with a name tag that reads Marcela, chuckles and mutters, “Having a night to yourself?”
Matt shrugs but doesn’t think it’s funny. “I wish. Thanks.”
She sighs with that pity look he knows all too well, “Happy New Year to you and your menstrual cycle.” Marcela manages to say it without bursting into laughter.
He can’t get out of there fast enough. His shopping cart is emptied into his trunk and the cookies crumble against each other. When he falls into the driver’s seat and twists the key into place, he remembers that he’s almost out of milk at home. Oh well, he thinks, another morning of cereal without milk. He pulls out onto the street and continues on his path back to his house. The traffic is heavier now that it’s around five o’clock when everyone’s trying to get home to their children and nannies.
Matt can’t afford a nanny, and doesn’t think his children need one, either. Izzie is thirteen and certified in babysitting and CPR. Carter is ten and less trustworthy, but he knows how to dial 911. His kids walk home from school and only have to wait an hour and a half without him.
Matt takes a hard right on red and bumps down a normal street with normal-looking houses. He parallel parks next to a mailbox, gathers his work bag, and retrieves the groceries. With one hand, he checks his emails for the first time in 2 hours (Matt is a strict don’t-text-and-drive supporter) and with the other he unlocks the front door of his home.
It’s quiet inside except for the low hum of the television, probably Carter watching some Youtube video. Matt closes the door and almost crashes into Izzie who stares up at him with her big, brown eyes. He jumps back, surprised, then slowly drops the bags at his side.
He bends down to her eye level and asks, “Hey Iz. How was your day?”
She licks her lips, “Hi. Good. Yours?”
Matt shifts uncomfortably. “Mine was OK.”
“Great. Did you get my text?” She looks impatient.
He shoves his hands into his pockets. “Yes, they’re in the bag. Mind carrying them in for me?”
Izzie mutters, “Sure. Thanks, Dad,” and lifts them into the kitchen. He follows her in, watching as her hair bobs up and down in its high ponytail.
“Iz, want to help me make dinner tonight?”
She’s digging through the grocery bag and finds the maxi pads, keeping her face neutral when she reads the label. Matt knows he got the wrong brand immediately, but takes the container of dishwasher and stuffs it under the sink.
Izzie is already walking away, “Sorry, I have a lot of homework. Maybe Carter will do it with you?”
“Busy Izzie,” Matt calls after her.
She laughs, but it sounds forced.
He puts the cookies and doughnuts away into a cabinet and tries not to worry about disconnecting with his children. It’s been a long day and everyone’s stressed about the new year, he convinces himself. He grabs an apple and shoves it into his mouth, setting the other fruits aside in a bowl. Finally, he fills a large pot with water and sets it on the stove.
Matt eats the apple thoughtfully as he tears open the three boxes of Macaroni and Cheese. He tastes the sweet contrast between the mushy and the hard parts. It helps him relax, but only a little bit. He leans against the fridge with the apple held by his pointer finger and thumb. There’s something inside of him today, a nagging, tired feeling. He tries to decipher it, blaming it on how busy work was and how exhausted he is about skipping into the new year. Maybe it was the jokester from the grocery store, but he doubts it. People do stuff to him like that all the time. Still, there’s something else.
The water is boiling. It snaps Matt back into the present and he pours each box carefully into the pot. It makes a nice sound, like heavy rain, when it hits the bottom. He takes another bite of his apple and sets a timer on his phone for seven minutes.
While he’s doing that, he gets a notification from a coworker. He lazily reads through, skipping over big chunks, and finally collapses into a dining table chair. The apple is naked now, all the good parts bitten off to produce a skinny white core. Matt responds to the message slowly before dragging himself over to the trashcan to throw away the apple core. Three minutes left on the timer.
In the momentary silence, he hears the British accent of a Youtuber. “Carter!” Matt hollers into the living room, “Stop watching TV. You know the rules.” The volume of the TV raises ever so slightly, but it’s noticeable. Carter doesn’t respond.
Matt stands there for a few seconds, listening in on the latest Minecraft hacks, but is startled away by his timer going off. He lets it ring a few times before walking back over to the stove.
The heat is turned off and the pasta is drained. To not make any more pots dirty, he uses the same pot to make the cheesy sauce. He pours in the powder and adds butter and the few drops of milk they have left. After adding a pinch of salt, he stirs it around with a worn-down spatula and pours the pasta back in. More stirring follows.
“Kids! We’re ready to eat!” He shouts at the three plates and spoons before him. By himself, Matt sets the table, gives everyone a generous bowl of pasta, and pours himself a glass of water.
The TV is clicked off and Carter comes bouncing in. “What’s the special meal, Dad? Izzie told me you were making one.”
“Shut up, Carter,” Izzie hisses as she strides in.
Matt slides his seat out at the front of the table and smiles, “No, it’s OK, Izzie. Carter can ask whatever he wants. I made Macaroni and Cheese for you guys! Homemade and delicious.”
Carter lowers himself into his seat and stares at the bowl of pasta in front of him. “That’s not what homemade means, Dad.”
“Yeah, but it’s better than the Pizza Pockets and frozen pizzas and microwavable chicken nuggets we’ve had every day for the past year,” Izzie offers.
“Exactly,” Matt says, “something special for the New Year.”
“That isn’t for a whole three days,” Carter points out, talking with his mouth full of cheesy goodness.
“Whatever,” Matt replies, and picks up his spoon. He’s about to dig in when he feels that thing, that feeling inside of him make his heart clench in his chest. “Wait, wait! We forgot to say grace!”
Izzie freezes mid-bite. She wrinkles her eyebrows, “But we’re Jewish. And we never say grace.” Carter nods in agreement but still shovels food into his mouth.
“Then it’s a perfect time to start the tradition!” Matt says enthusiastically, offering his hands to Izzie and Carter. Both decline, so he decides to hold his own hand. “Dear . . . uh, dear God? Thank you for this nutritious meal and this roof over our heads. We acknowledge not everyone in this world is as lucky as us. Thank you for my children who are safe and healthy. Amen.” A weight feels lifted inside of him, but not totally. Matt sinks his teeth into a spoonful of Macaroni and Cheese, barely noticing that Izzie and Carter were also holding their own hands under the table. He swallows before speaking again.
“Uh, you guys, like, know I love you, right? Like, so much. More than anyone or anything else.” His children look up, their mouths hanging slightly open. “I know it’s been a tough year, but we got through it together. I’m always here for you if you need anything.” With this, he winks in Izzie’s direction. “Literally, anything.”
“We love you too, Dad,” Izzie says, a light smile on her lips.
“Love you,” Carter mumbles through his food.
Matt grins, inhaling the comforting smell of pasta and cheese, and looks at his family. He feels lighter now, like he could do anything with this New Year, this new opportunity, this fresh start. Maybe everything will turn out after all.
“By the way, Dad,” Carter gulps, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “We’re almost out of milk.”