I clenched the soft fabric in my fists, feeling the dense, heavy stuffing compress and then expand once I let it go again. I was sitting down where I’d stumbled backwards, on the low table that was holding the smallest mixer in the kitchen. It was the night shift at our bakery, where the two of us started mixing dough at 10:00 PM. Not all of the lights were on yet, and the fluorescent bulb above us buzzed and flickered. My manicured but no-nonsense fingernails seemed to go blurry and out of focus as I slowly shook my head, dazed.
Ian stood by the larger mixer, uncomfortably shifted his weight from one red tennis-shoed foot to the other. “I, um… yeah,” He laughed uneasily. “I am a liar. I'm sorry.”
As bakers, we usually try not to touch our faces or hair so we can avoid having to constantly wash our hands in the middle of jobs. Ian nervously ran his hand across his dark, Latino face and took off his floury white hat to scratch his scalp. A rim was indented in his shiny, poofy-on-top black hair. Hat hair. It made him look irresponsible and overworked at the same time.
I sighed. I knew if I spoke without careful control I would explode in some way-- probably in laughter. “So what are you really? I know you’re not what you were pretending to be.” I lifted the pillow that was still body temperature up.
“What does this mean?”
Ian nodded. “About that...”
“I expect you have an explanation to—um—explain how it came to this?” I prompted him.
“As a matter of fact, I can explain,” he began, but I interrupted him, ranting.
“--To have such a big scam going for months—or is it years, now? Of course: years of deceit and lies! And I’ll bet I’m not the only one who’s been taken in. I mean, I thought you were an honest, plump, and comfortable chef without a sly bone in your body, and now… now… well, look at you!”
Ian looked down at his dapper waistline and back at me, lifting his hands. “Wait, so being thin makes me sly?”
“No, wearing a pillow around your stomach while you’re at work so everyone will think you’re fat makes you sly! Just a little bit sly!” I caught myself getting up in his face, lifting finger and thumb to measure the amount of his deplorable mischief, and raising my voice a bit. I lowered my hand. “You have flour on your cheek, by the way.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Embarrassed, he rubbed it off on his sleeve.
There was an awkward pause.
“Rachel,” he said. “I’m sorry for-- misleading you-- on my size.”
“Well, why did you? Are you just wearing that thing for fun?”
“No. I had to do something to get this job! You know the saying, ‘Never trust a skinny cook’? Until I got out of culinary school, I thought it was just a saying, but I had no luck finding a job until I wore it! Before the pillow I got turned down in fifteen different interviews. After that, it was only two or three until I got this job.”
Before the pillow, he said. I could just see a timeline covering Ian's life, like they’d have in a biography or historical documentary: Here we have Ian's Skinny Days. Next is the Era of the Pillow of Fake Fat. “I don’t really know what to think now.” I looked down at the way my white button-up uniform slumped outwards, like rising bread dough. “Ian, how dare you? Now I feel huge!”
“You look fine! Don’t let that worry you!” Ian protested. “People trust your plumpness. No matter what I eat, I’ve never been able to gain weight. Just have a high metabolism. If I didn’t wear that pillow all of you would hate me.”
“Hate you? Nah. Well, the fact that you were fatter than me always made me feel better,” I admitted, and shook my head again. “This still changes things.”
“What does it change?” Ian stepped closer into the light, a head taller than me. “I’m still the same clumsy baker who bumps into corners. I still snitch cookies when our boss isn’t looking, and I still sing without being able to tell how horrible it sounds.”
I looked up as he made an apologetic face. It didn’t help reassure me. He looked totally different now. I stepped away from him, leaning my back against the bench where I pinned the yeast dough every night. In two hours, Dave would come in and start frying the doughnuts we sold. I'd never felt awkward being alone in the kitchen with Ian before. It was a new feeling.
“So I guess you want me to keep it a secret, huh?” I asked finally.
“That’d be nice. But… if you think it really is sly and wicked than maybe I should lose it slowly, and be how I really am, but not in an instant like tonight.”
“You scared me, okay?” I took my hat off altogether, running a hand through the wisps of hair that were already messy. “Your stomach fell out and slid to the floor!”
“Well, if you hadn’t pounced on me from behind, trying to scare me—“
“Oh, come on, you deserved that. Remember the jam? Do you?”
A smile grew on his face. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Ah, take your fat back.” I handed him the pillow and went to wash my hands. While rubbing the foamy soap in, I glanced back to watch him put the pillow under his loose button-up shirt and tuck it into the black-and-white-checkered pants of his uniform. This wasn't good. Instead of working with a tall, dark, and round coworker, I was spending a couple hours alone with a fun, single, and easy-going man who was now at least 70% more attractive than before. Also, there was the strict no-dating-between-coworkers policy at our bakery that kept coming to mind.
“Time to look for a new job,” I muttered.
“What’d you say?”
“I said I need to renew my gym membership. Do you need the small mixer right away, or can I use it?”
Yep, definitely time for a new job.