“SO IS THIS WHAT YOU DO HERE—make Rube Goldberg machines?” Jacob said, after I’d spread string, scissors, plastic cups, and a few small peg boards across the breakroom counter. He was sitting at the table eating a sandwich and fries from a styrofoam box. I watched as his paisley tie dipped into ketchup. That’s how new he was to the pediatrician’s office—no one had told him yet that Medical Assistants could dress business casual.
“Huh? No, I’m the Scribe? The one who inputs the doctor’s notes into the patient database? The job’s kinda tedious, so I started pushing thumbtacks into the corkboard behind my desk and wrapping rubber bands around them two at a time. Set up a little maze down the wall for a marble to travel down. Janet, the Nurse Practitioner—not Janet, the Lab Tech—saw it and liked it. She started bringing patients by for demonstrations, and then she asked me to build a machine in here.” Stop rambling. Why do I turn into an idiot whenever a hot guy is around? “I’m Ethan by the way.”
“Hi. I’m Jacob. Your machine sounds cool. Where’d you learn to make them? Did you go to an engineering school or something?”
I answered his question by pulling out my college ID and showing it to him, not remembering the terrible picture on it. Scraggly beard, eyelids half-closed, a questionably-high James Franco smirk. Jacob pulled a matching ID card out of his messenger bag.
“We must have just missed each other on campus,” Jacob said.
After that, a pause filled the room. “When you’re done eating, do you want to see the machines?” I asked. Jacob nodded, mouth full of pastrami.
I took him down the long hallway past the exam rooms to the corner where my desk squatted and showed him the machine. I handed him a silver marble and pointed.
“Drop it on the highest rubber band there,” I explained, and we watched as the marble glided across the vertical maze, and down to where I’d looped the final band around the switch of my desk lamp. The marble clicked against the switch and my light turned on, which also caused Jacob to beam.
“Like I said, I have a lot of free time.” I tried not to notice his long eyelashes or his one crooked tooth; I itched my ear instead. “So, yeah, the kids liked it, and pretty much everyone in the office is looking for new ways to distract patients. It was a hit.”
“I see why.”
Two coworkers came out of the exam room next door and asked me to demonstrate my machine again, after which, one of them, Cindy from Billing, said she wouldn’t mind her own machine. I told her I’d see what I could do.
AT LUNCH THE NEXT DAY Jacob ventured down the hallway again carrying a milk crate with about a dozen random objects in it.
“Hey, Ethan, I did a little googling and brought you some supplies.” His elbow brushed my shoulder as he set the crate down on my desk. I could feel heat disperse through the ridges of my ears. “I…If you feel like it, I can help you with Cindy’s machine.”
“That would be great,” I said, avoiding his gaze by inspecting the items in the crate. Some dowel rods, duct tape, a hamster wheel, and… “A blender?”
“I figured if we couldn’t use it, maybe I could make us some margaritas? Not here…I mean, back at my place…but, you know, not like that.”
Not like what? A date? I felt tingling in my feet. “Why don’t we just play it by ear?”
The rest of the work day dragged. When it was finally just Jacob and I, we took out all of the things he’d brought. We decided to make a machine that would unfurl a sign at Cindy’s desk. Jacob started pounding pegs into a pegboard. When I caught myself watching the curve of his bicep contract with each hammer blow, I started tinkering with the blender.
“What’s the plan?” he asked.
I told him what I was thinking: dowel rods and a wedge to guide a marble into the bottom of a flat, paint-stirring stick. The stick would jerk and a string attached at the top of the stick would yank a paper clip free from the sign we’d hang from Cindy’s desk.
“Sounds good, but I wonder if we could incorporate her chair somehow or put something on the floor? I saw a video last night where they wrapped an electric cord around a chair les so when someone pulled it out the machine started.”
“We could, but how long do you want to be here tonight?”
He faced me, a grin triggered a set of dimples. That crooked tooth. I knocked something off the desk and was turning my head to see what it was when I felt something swipe my neck. I smacked at it without thinking, connecting with Jacob’s nose and cheek. He had tried to kiss me.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Are you ok? I was…um, let’s maybe not kiss? At work, I mean, with the security cameras. But definitely again.” I put my hand on his shoulder and winked. I never wink.
“Well, at least we got that awkward first kiss out of the way, right?”
We quickly set up Cindy’s surprise after that. Jake printed out a picture of a cat with a pink party hat over its ears and a wry look.
We tested the machine a few times and started repacking the milk crate with the items we didn’t use. I picked up the blender still sitting on the breakroom table where we’d left it.
“Hey, you still up for some drinks?”
“Absolutely, but we won’t be needing that.” Jake pointed to the blender. “I just needed some way to ask you out.”
To my NYC Midnight friends, this is an edited version of the story I submitted. Group 54—romantic comedy, a pediatrician’s office, a blender.