You approach the dough like it’s the dough’s first time and not yours. Although, technically, it is for the dough, too—you’d only just made it, beating in the flour with a wooden spoon until your arm hurt.
You hadn’t planned to bake today. In fact, you’re supposed to be getting dressed right now for the funeral your dad is taking you to in about an hour. But when you opened your closet and looked in at all the navies, browns and blacks, pants as large as tents, hooded sweatshirts, and the one dress you own, which you haven’t worn since your college graduation six years ago and your father told you, tears in his eyes, how much you looked like your mother, you closed the door and walked down the short length of hall toward the kitchen. You pulled out flour, butter, yeast, brown sugar. You stared into the bowl, watching the yeast form bubbles on top of the water.
Now, you jab your finger into the dough, watching for the bounce back. You’re surprised when it’s soft, like the skin under your belly button, surprised like the first time you touched a penis when you were thirteen. You’re not a novice baker, but you’ve only begun working with yeast doughs in the last year, working your way through cakes, cookies, and pies first.
You started baking in middle school after days like those when you were forced into a bathing suit for gym class and all the girls laughed when your arm fat floated on the surface of the water. Even Ms. Simon looked disgusted with you, her lip curling up so high even her crooked tooth showed. On days like those, you couldn’t wait for the cookies to cool before slipping them in your mouth, burning your tongue. At dinner, you tried telling your dad you weren’t hungry—said all you wanted was a salad or an apple—but you couldn’t stand to see the hurt in his eyes, don’t you like my cooking? So you ate whatever he cooked you: lasagna he claimed was his grandmother’s recipe, but you knew came from the back of the box of noodles, or laulau, a recipe from your maternal grandmother, the one you’d never actually met, but who sent you cards for your birthday and Christmas always with a dried hibiscus flower flattened inside.
Last week, when your dad came in, looking dazed, you made him a cup of coffee, sat him down at the kitchen table and patted his hand when he told you about the sudden death of his long time friend, José, who used to live next door to you when you lived with your dad. He was also the father of your childhood friend, Roberto—Robbie.
As your dad talked, swirling his coffee cup, you thought about Robbie. You remembered the stories your dad used to tell of the two of you splashing in plastic kiddie pools as toddlers, as if that’s what had solidified your friendship. When you got older, Robbie led the games you played. He played Superman while you had to be Lois Lane, always in trouble, although you wished you could play the superhero. He’d shake his head and tell you that girls can’t be superheroes.
“What about Wonder Woman?” you asked, placing your hands on your hips, chin raised.
“She’s not cool,” he said, and you lowered your chin.
Once, you refused to play unless you could be the superhero. He didn’t talk to you for a week. It was the longest week of your life up to that point, wandering from room to room looking for something to do. When you complained to your dad who sat at the kitchen table, opening envelopes, the checkbook open at his right elbow, he listened carefully, his face screwed up with interest. Then he sighed. “It’d be nice to be saved once in a while.” He smiled, then kissed your forehead and told you not to worry about it. Things wouldn’t always be that way. You weren’t sure if he was talking about your fight with Robbie, if he had even heard you. He picked up a pen and slouched over the checkbook, the conversation over. You decided then not to question Robbie again.
When your dad finished telling you about José’s death, tears brimmed in his eyes, and you felt bad for him. He never could keep from crying, even when you could tell he really wanted to. After the death of your mother, you could hear him through your bedroom wall crying every night for a year. Once, when José had come over to tell your dad about his divorce, it was José who ended up consoling your dad rather than the other way around. “I should have known,” your dad wailed. “How could you know?” José asked.
Your dad is a romantic who reads his horoscope in the paper every day, a pastime he used to do with your mother that he never gave up after her death. You grew up listening to the horoscopes, at first attentive. Later you dismissed them as useless information and a waste of time. The horoscopes hadn’t helped you keep from gaining the weight your mother had. They hadn’t helped your dad move on in the years after her death. And they certainly hadn’t helped your dad when he was up for tenure when you were in middle school. He didn’t get it, and so you were stuck wearing clothes from thrift store racks, the only ones big enough to fit you designed for old ladies.
When you told your dad what you thought of the horoscopes, he looked hurt but didn’t say so. He merely read them to himself over the breakfast table, once in a while gasping out loud in an attempt, you thought, to get you to ask about it. The first time, you did ask him about it. He glared at you, eyebrows raised, then lifted the paper higher up and said, “Oh, you don’t believe in this rubbish anyway.” From then on, you ignored him and read the back of the cereal box instead.
Last week, sitting at your table, he let out a few tears, wiping them away with his hands and staring into his coffee cup.
“Roberto will be flying home for the funeral,” he said after regaining composure. Your heart stilled, but you nodded. At the mention of his name out loud, your mind recalled his warm eyes, the bit of stubble thickening on his chin and upper lip—the first boy in the class—and the hand-me-down clothes from his older brothers that never fit him right. You wondered why, after all these years, you remembered these things about him first, the image you have of him from when he was still sweet.
By all accounts, you and Robbie should have drifted apart by the time your breasts came in when you were ten, or at least when you got your period a year later. But while the kids at school called you “Camilla Godzilla,” they called Robbie “King Kong” and made ape noises at him. Soon, the kids at school walked behind the two of you and recited the same insult: “Who do you think would win in a fight between King Kong and Godzilla?” “Well, King Kong’s definitely stronger, but all Godzilla would have to do is sit on him.”
They’d explode with laughter, and it was around then that Robbie began taking your hand and gripping it tight. You’d smile then, with your head down, eyes tracing the cracks in the gold-flecked tile.
Your dad finally took a sip of his coffee and set the cup back down on the table. “Of course, you’ll come to the funeral with me,” he said. It was not a question, but you paused. You hadn’t thought of this, but he was right. You had to go. Who else would he have to go with, your mother long dead—as far as you knew he’d never even considered remarrying—his best friend now gone, too. You looked up at him, made a conscious effort to soften your expression. “Of course,” you said.
At first, your hands are clumsy, smashing the dough down into the butcher-block countertop scattered with flour, though you try to copy the video you’d watched on your phone. You watch the video again, first blowing the flour off the screen, to make sure you aren’t missing something. But as far as you know, you’re doing everything exactly the same. Only your dough isn’t rolling into a tube.
Perhaps it’s the counter, but there’s nothing you can do about that. The stained butcher-block was here when you bought the house, and though your salary as an HR rep at a small insurance company gets you by, there’s certainly not enough for any remodeling.
Your dad was so proud when you bought the two-bedroom shoebox of a house. He went from room to room, talking about his grandchildren taking their first steps in the living room, being shushed to sleep in the second bedroom, splashing in the pink bathtub. You laughed out loud, unable even to picture a man crossing the threshold to the front door, let alone to your bedroom or your vagina. He took your laughing as a sign of your happiness and reminded you that you have your mother’s smile. You thought it kinder to let him.
That was the day he hung up the picture of your mother on the bit of wall between your bedroom and bathroom. In the picture, your mother is smiling, her eyes disappearing into her cheeks the way yours do when you smile. In the background, there are palm trees, so you know the picture was taken before your parents got married.
After the wedding, she and your dad left right away for the continent to your dad’s home state on the east coast where he already had a teaching job at the community college. Your mother never returned to Hawaii, though sometimes, despite yourself, you like to think she’s there now. That if you got on a plane and crossed the Pacific you could search the islands for her. You like to picture the two of you with arms wrapped around each other in your moment of reuniting. The picture and the memories your dad has shared are all you have of her now.
You decide your tube is long enough and make a horseshoe out of it like the video instructs. You cross one end over the other, make a twist. Do you twist once or twice? You aren’t sure. You try two twists but run out of dough, so you untwist, try one, and bring the ends to the bottom of the horseshoe, pressing them in with your thumb until you make contact with the countertop.
The whole thing feels like an awkward middle school dance. You go one way, your partner another. Robbie, in his older brother’s dress shoes that were at least two sizes too big, clomped around and stepped on your too-tight kitten heels. You wore a polka-dot dress, even though you hated polka dots; it was the only one they had in your size.
You hadn’t noticed when your strap broke and your dress slipped down lower and lower each time you shook or jumped. It was his face that told you something was wrong, and when you looked down, there was your cleavage—the very thing you’d been hiding underneath large hooded sweatshirts for three years—a long line from sternum to belly, and your breasts just barely hanging onto the dress.
You snatched the dress up quickly, and ran to the girl’s bathroom where you cried, the mascara your dad finally let you wear melting down your cheeks. A minute later, Robbie came in, tentatively, calling your name. You wiped your face with toilet paper and met him at the sinks.
“You’re not supposed to be in here,” you said, trying to steady your voice, but you let out a quiver.
That’s when he’d offered to show you his. Like this made you even. Your mind moved in a hundred different ways: this is wrong; he owes you; what if it’s gross; he must like you; what if someone catches you. So you were surprised to find yourself nodding, and the two of you locked the handicap stall door. He unbuckled his belt. You covered your mouth to suppress a giggle when he pulled it out, letting it flop down onto his lap. You reached out your hand without even thinking about it, and brushed the skin with the tip of your finger. When it jerked to life, you pulled your hand away. He reached out and grabbed your breasts. You let him. When he pulled the front of your dress down, you let him. You kept your eyes on his slowly rising penis, and he pulled your nipples to a point with his thumb and index finger.
When your dress slipped all the way off, he jumped back. You stood there, exposed. Every roll in your belly, the cellulite on your inner thighs, the stretch marks on your sides. You watched his eyes widen as they raked over your body. His cheeks reddened, and he looked down. He seemed surprised to find himself exposed. In a flurry, he tucked his penis back in his pants and buckled his belt. Then he bolted out the door. You pulled your dress back up, your nipples still hard from his touch.
You toss your overworked pretzel to one side of the counter and pull another fistful of dough from the pile, smashing it flat beneath your hands.
You cringe at the memory. How for weeks after your exchange in the bathroom you thought about his lips on yours, what that would feel like. But he didn’t sit next to you on the bus anymore, avoiding eye contact when he strode past you to the back. The tiny bit of vinyl next to you stayed cold, and when you got up, the lone imprint from your butt looked larger by itself than when there had been two.
For weeks you didn’t understand. You tried calling to him when he slipped off the bus before you, sure if you could just talk, things could at least go back to normal. You kept the memory of his hand in yours and the fantasy of his lips locked away. But he sped away from you in a few strides of his long legs. There was no catching up—your calves tingled and fluid filled your chest with each attempt. Tears blurred your vision of him disappearing into the crowd of middle schoolers. When you stood there, outside the school catching your breath, other kids bumped into you as if to remind you how much room you took up, and you forced your feet to move again.
You spent more time at home and your dad noticed. When he came home and found you on the couch with a cookbook, he always said the same thing: “What are you doing home?” Once, fed up with the question, you asked him where he thought you should be. He laughed and said, “Out there, breaking hearts.” You were so mad you went to your room and slammed the door. You wanted to stay in your room the rest of the night—to show him exactly where you did belong—but hunger once again got the best of you, and you came out when he knocked on your door and told you dinner was ready. You ate more than you meant to, clearing your plate, and you felt ashamed and sick to your stomach.
He asked you about Robbie, but all you could say was that he didn’t want to be your friend anymore. Your dad said that was normal. That Robbie needed friends who were boys.
It wasn’t long before things at school got even worse. Robbie suddenly did have friends, you noticed. You watched him across the cafeteria from the empty end of the lunch table where you ate. He laughed with a group of boys you knew to be soccer players, and you wondered how Robbie had suddenly picked up his dad’s love of the sport when he’d shown no interest before.
But it was more than just Robbie’s newfound popularity. You were no longer “Camilla Godzilla'' but “Easy Squeezy,” which you found pathetic because of its lack of creativity. When you told your tormentors so with narrowed eyes, they laughed harder. But what bothered you more than the stupid name was not knowing what it meant. Some of the boys made kissy faces when you walked by. Some turned around and wrapped their arms around their bodies, their hands feeling up and down their backs.
The soccer boys did these things when you approached their lunch table one day. You ignored them. Instead, you watched Robbie’s face flush when he looked from you to his new friends. Eventually, he lowered his eyes, and suddenly you had the information you’d walked over to get. He’d told them something—probably some skewed version of the truth, but it didn’t matter. No one would believe a desperate whore.
Your own shame overpowered you then, standing before Robbie in the cafeteria, and you couldn’t raise your eyes to his face. You wanted at least to glower at him since you couldn’t speak, but you glowered instead at the tile, the gold flecks shining in your eyes. That night, standing at the kitchen counter, you ate a dozen cookies as soon as they came out of the oven, one right after another.
You roll with more ferocity now, the dough stretching and bending to your will. It moves back and forth across the countertop, your hands moving outward, and then lifting back to the center. Soon, your counter is full of dough twists, and you dig into a cabinet for the biggest pot you have, which you heave onto the stovetop. Nine cups of water looks like nothing within the pot’s depths and you wonder if you should choose a smaller one. But you shrug and take down the baking soda. You pour a half-cup into the water, feeling the box get lighter and lighter in your hand.
As you wait for the water to boil, you fuss with the pretzels, pulling on the loops to make them larger, more pronounced. You pinch the dough to make it thinner in places where it seems to have expanded.
By the time you hit high school, the rumor was so deep it was ingrained on your every move, every word. You didn’t go to any more dances because no one would ask a fat whore like you to a dance. And there was no point going alone. A whore only dances to get something from someone. So when your dad gave you a blank check for a prom dress, you bought yourself a stand mixer instead, your face burning with guilt as you wrote the cost in that little box. You weren’t sure who you pitied more in that moment: yourself or your dad who seemed to actually believe you could get a prom date.
College was an extension of high school. Some like Robbie, went as far away from your hometown as possible. But most ended up at the community college in town, either to learn a trade or get some useless degree. For you, it was your only real option out of high school. The discount your dad got you was better than you could rightly turn down.
By then you were tired of the rumor that followed you everywhere, and thought that if they were going to call you a whore, you might as well be one. The irony, of course, was that it wasn’t as easy to get a guy to have sex with you as they made it out to be. It wasn’t until your sophomore year that you found someone willing, and without much thought you lost your virginity in his dorm room where you lay in the dark with your shirt and socks still on, your dimpled knees hanging over the edge, while the pressure in your vagina mounted. You bit your tongue to keep from crying.
You were relieved when he had his orgasm, slipped out of you and sat back on the bed panting. Silently you got up, put on your underwear and pants, and headed toward the door.
“See ya,” he said when you opened the door.
“Bye,” you said with an awkward wave of your hand. You never saw him again.
When you got home, you cried in the shower, scrubbing your whole body with the bar of soap. After, with a towel wrapped around your head, you cut cold butter into flour and salt with a pastry blender, the bowl rocking from the force of your arm.
When the water boils, you drop one pretzel in and watch it expand. You count out thirty seconds before scooping it out and sliding it onto a baking sheet. You do the rest with each of the pretzels, staring into the boiling water, your gaze going fuzzy.
When your baking sheet is lined with pale, puffed up pretzels, you notice that they’re all different sizes, not quite the same shape. But you pop them in the oven and hope they end up looking like what they’re supposed to be.
While they bake, you sit at your table sipping a cup of coffee. It’s gone cold, but you don’t bother to reheat it. You can hear the clock on your kitchen wall ticking, and you count the seconds, keep track of the minutes, even though you set the timer on the stove. The irresistible smell of baking bread fills your tiny house and your stomach growls.
There’s a quick knock on your front door before it opens and your dad walks in.
“Something smells good in here,” he says. He’s wearing black pants and a dark green corduroy jacket. You know these are the nicest clothes he owns. He stops short when he sees you, sitting at the table in your flannel pajama bottoms and a sweatshirt.
“Why aren’t you dressed?” he asks.
You shake your head, unsure what to tell him. How can you make him understand?
“I couldn’t find anything to wear,” you say.
He furrows his brow. “Just wear anything. You always look beautiful, just like your mother.” You think if you hear him say that one more time, you’ll scream.
“You always say that,” you say instead. You feel the frustration in you rising, and you wish he would look at you, but he’s striding to your bedroom, opening your closet door. You follow him and stand sideways in the doorway.
He pulls out the dress, holds it out to you. “What about this?” he asks.
You’re not even sure it fits anymore, and you can’t stand the thought of Robbie seeing you in that, your fat poking out the armholes, your dimpled knees exposed. You shrug your shoulders. He drops his. Tears creep up to the surface of your eyes, but you don’t try to stop them.
The timer beeps, but you don’t move, don’t raise your head.
“Is this even about clothes?” he asks.
You let out a long, shuddering sigh. “It’s never been about clothes.”
He nods, and you know he’s known all along, even if he’s pretended not to. You grit your teeth in anger. You could tolerate thinking he was oblivious, that he lived in a fantasy world. But knowing that all this time he has been rejecting the truth and seeing only what he wants to see is more than you can stand. Your heart pounds furiously.
“Why can’t you see me for what I am?” You hold onto the doorframe to steady your knees.
“What are you?” he asks, holding out his hands, the dress swaying on its hanger.
You’re not sure, so you don’t answer. All you can do is gesture down at your body. His eyes don’t follow the motions of your hands, but stare straight into your face.
“Look at me,” you say.
He sets the dress carefully on your bed and takes a few steps closer to you. He puts his hands on either side of your face and looks into your eyes.
“I am looking at you.”
You pull your face away and step back into the hall. “No you’re not. You never do.”
“Why can’t you see in you what I see in you?” You’re surprised to hear the frustration in his voice.
You pull the picture of your mother off the wall and hold it out in front of him. “This is who you see. Not me.”
He looks truly angry now. A smile creeps up your face. There’s a twisted side of you that’s enjoying this. Another side of you is disgusted. You hold the picture above your head. You want to bring it down and hear the glass shatter. You want to see the fury on his face.
Instead he looks scared, his eyes flicking between you and your raised arm. You hadn’t expected that, and so you’re stuck, the picture hanging in midair, your heart pounding so hard you’re sure you could see it throbbing under your skin.
Slowly he raises his hand and takes the picture from you. He wipes the smudges on the glass with the sleeve of his jacket. You exhale in a long, shaky breath.
“You’re right,” he says, looking from the picture to you. “I do see her in you.”
You feel like you’ve caught your dad doing something naughty, and it’s strange and uncomfortable. You shift your weight; your feet ache.
“She had life in her. I see that life in you too. When you aren’t constantly trying to hide from it.”
You open your mouth to retort, but there’s nothing you can say. Hearing the truth so bluntly hurts.
“Go look in the mirror. Smile. You’ll see it there too.” He squeezes past you out of your bedroom and rehangs the picture on the wall. “Then get dressed and meet me outside. I’ll be waiting in the car.”
You’re left standing there, head down, tears dripping and soaking into the carpet. The timer on the stove beeps again.
You take a deep breath, wipe your eyes, and make your way to the kitchen where you turn off the timer and the oven, and take out the pretzels. They smell wonderful. They’re golden brown, though slightly burnt on the edges, and you just know, that if you could pull them apart without burning your hands, they would be thick and soft, and steam would rise out of them.
Leaving them on the baking pan, you go back to your room where the dress still lies on the bed. You take off your sweatshirt and flannel pajama pants, leaving them heaped on the floor. You stand in your room in just your underwear, letting your rolls cascade down your body. You trace the stretch marks across your hips with your fingers. Chin to chest, you locate your belly button under a fold of skin.
In order to see yourself, you must go to the bathroom to stand in front of the only mirror in the house. You stand back, into the hallway, to see more of yourself at once. You try smiling, like your dad told you to, and watch your eyes squint with the effort. Your teeth are white and straight, another gift from your mother. Your tan nose wrinkles along the bridge. And suddenly you’re laughing, staring at yourself in the mirror. Standing half-naked in the hallway. The whole thing is ridiculous. Your rolls bob up and down as you laugh and tears form in the corners of your eyes.
And there is your mother, in one of the few memories you have left of her, smiling and laughing while she holds you in the air and spins you around, her dark curls dancing around her face. She’s right there in the mirror smiling at you now. Same sparkling eyes and same bouncing curls. They’re full of life, and for the first time you see it within you, too. It’s been there all along, albeit buried deep. And now that you know it’s there, you don’t want to hide it anymore. Don’t want to hide from yourself or anyone else. You put your hands on your hips, lift your chin and face yourself in the mirror.
You wipe your eyes and hurry back to your bedroom before you can change your mind, the floor creaking with each shaky step. In your closet, you pull down every oversized sweatshirt, every brown and black and navy piece of clothing you’ve been hiding behind. You leave them in a pile on the floor and step over it toward the bed where your dad left the dress.
With trembling hands and a deep breath you pick up the dress and pull it over your head. The fabric glides over your skin, leaving goose bumps. You smooth down the pleated skirt, slip into your slingback heels.
You wonder how Robbie will look now. You picture him tall and lean like he was when you last knew him. The regular updates from your dad used to leave your mind reeling, and you’d put up that wall, which worked as long as you knew he was still far away in Colorado. Now, you feel the wall weakening, or is it yourself, gaining strength? It’s a strange feeling, foreign.
You wonder if he’ll say anything to you or continue to ignore you. But it doesn’t matter.
You wrap two warm pretzels in a napkin and head out the door where your dad is waiting for you in the car, just like he said he would be.