He traced my name into my chest after he heard it, the e blazing across my ribs like a comet. On the dance floor, he grabbed my hips and kissed me.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“For the stars in your eyes.”
“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.
The horse’s tongue grazes the back of my neck. It’s soft, slick, with muscle behind it. But Jupiter’s always liked to lick the sweat off me on summer days. Kurt says Jupiter licks him, too. Says it’s because Jupiter considers us part of his herd, or he’s asserting his dominance over us or something. But I just think he’s sweating too much and needs the salt. I guess that makes me his salt-lick-slash-shit-shoveler.
I bend my knees a little, pitch the shovel forward across the stall floor, and walk to the wall. Jupiter waits a second before he follows. I hear him scoot forward, and then his tongue is under my ear, making me jump a little. I tell him “Hee-ahh,” all long and slow like the month of August. Jupiter obeys by keeping his tongue to himself and letting me finish mucking his stall. That’s when I hear a horse—probably Hester—at the other end of the barn let out a low hoot, a stomp like a two-step, and then the melody of a conversation.
“Sullivan’s all talk.” I recognize the machismo right away; I’d recognize it underwater and in space. “He won’t really tell your mama. He probably wants to read it as much as you do.”
“I don’t know. He’s not that into end-of-the-world stuff.” My brother’s girlfriend’s voice, Serena. She’s the only one I know that can make two syllables out of the word ‘world.’
“But he is into knowing what everyone in class is talking about. Trust me. He wants to read it, too. And that’s too bad because you’re going to give it to me when you’re done, aren’t you?” I can only assume my brother tickles because Serena laughs and nothing he said was funny. I hear a quick grunt and then the unmistakable click of a kiss breaking apart. “Does that convince you?”
I can’t hear Serena’s answer; she’s all whispers. It takes two or three of their clicks for me to think to tell them I’m here. But then I get a better idea.
As quiet as I can I pull the latch on Jupiter’s stall—its creak blends into the other barn noises: whinnies and water pumps and bats in the rafters preparing for their evening chase. Kurt and Serena are still talking softly. I look at the horse standing a few feet away, twitching its ears at me. It’s the one time I can remember when he doesn’t charge me after I open the door. I offer up my arm, and he starts licking. Slowly, slowly, I inch Jupiter out of his stall and into the thoroughfare. Once he’s out it’s like someone’s riding him, I guess because he wants washing. He walks right onto the thick mats that line the shower stall. A surprised shout echoes off the roof.
“Damn it, Jupe, stop licking me for a minute.”
“How’d he get in here?” Serena says, sounding unphased.
“Hold that thought. I’m just going to put him back.” When Kurt turns the corner, flushed and missing his shirt, I make sure I’m giving him my widest grin. He skips right into a run. Then it’s my laughter bouncing around the barn, and I’m hiding in the orchard out of breath wondering how long I should wait before I go back in.
FROM WHERE PHILIP SAT he couldn’t tell why people were laughing. The bride was only seconds into her march up the aisle and the back pews were already snickering. Since everyone was facing her, he saw the backs of fifty people’s heads tilt up in laughter. He felt his date, Ben, shrug his shoulders and then half-stand to get a better look. The laughter in the sanctuary swelled with each step of the bride. Philip looked toward the groom, who was smirking, and the groomsmen—there were 4—all looked toward the back wall with brows set deep in concentration. Odd.
The church was long—one of those monstrosities they built in the 90s, the kind crammed with Escher stairways and skylights shaped like amoebas. Everything in the church could have come straight off the set of Beetlejuice. A large skylight shaped like a cross shone down over the chancel. The day was overcast, but Philip imagined the drama of the moment the sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shined a spotlight on the…minister? Preacher? Father?
He leaned to Ben’s ear. “What do Methodists call their preachers?”
“No, that can’t be right.”
“Look, Philip. Behind her.” Ben pointed above the bride. Given the dramatic and glacially slow step-together walk that, for some reason, was only employed during weddings and graduations, she was only about a quarter of the way down the aisle. She was gorgeous, Philip’s Aunt Stephanie, even more so after a morning of facials and waxings and touch-ups and blowouts. She had the Taggart nose—that same bump on the bridge that made everyone ask Philip when he broke it—but her complexion was darker and her emerald eyes made her look more like a Greek woman in an epic poem than the Irish lass she was. Philip spotted a gray disc bob above his aunt’s head. The drone held her veil in two places from above, making the edges wave to both sides of the congregation. Occasionally, whenever the drone fell behind pace, the veil tugged on the bride’s hair. Aunt Stephanie didn’t look bothered by it though. She kept her gaze on the nervous bald man awaiting her on the steps that divided the sanctuary from the chancel. The groom patted beads of sweat from his boxy forehead. The light shining down on his bald head made him look like one of those strange IKEA light bulbs.
“Is that a Millennium Falcon?” Philip asked.
“Six of them!” The crowd’s laughter muffled Ben’s excitement. Behind the first drone, five others became visible to the front of the congregation, working to keep the veil afloat above the train. Philip took a second to study what joy looked like on the side of Ben’s face he could see—the dimple, the etches around his eye, the sharp arc of his hair around his right ear. The abrasion on his forehead was almost fully healed. Today was their seventh date, which is why Philip hesitated to invite him to the wedding. But the days following the mugging shifted their relationship into a higher gear, convincing Philip to do something he’d never done before: introduce a boyfriend to his family.
“Did you see the bridesmaids?” Ben asked. All four women wore a flurry of taffeta and thin garlands in their hair. From their garlands dangled long teal ribbon, four or five of which were attached to still more drones that topped the women’s heads like mechanical halos.
“Who’s steering them?” Philip checked the front of the church again. He hadn’t noticed the little black boxes in the groomsmen’s hands before. Tangles of lace and ribbon fell from their antennae. Their looks of concentration suddenly made sense. That accounted for four drone pilots; who were the others?
“I don’t know,” Ben said, still beaming at the wedding procession, “but they’re really good at it. Have you ever tried to fly one of those things? It’s harder than it looks.” Ben flashed Philip a wink. Thank God it was going well, Philip thought.
For another story with Ben and Philip, read Periphery.