A Lab Outing

“Good work, Lizzie, that was super direct!” I call from behind her, as we cycle up to the Free Press, one of Cambridge’s myriad pubs. We’d taken off from lab at 6pm. (I’d stopped working an hour earlier, was rearranging my laptop’s Desktop—“That’s an excellent Friday afternoon activity,” had commented Lizzie.)

“Think we should lock our bikes up here?” She shouts over her shoulder at Ignacio and I. We do and walk into the pub, M.L.T.—Monthly Lab Thing—officially begun. There’s a large table that says “Reserved” on it, accompanied by crumbly dust, a jenga set, and an old banana.

“Says Reuben for 7pm,” Lizzie comments on the note stuck to the table, taking a seat. Ignacio slides in the other side. “Where’s Joey?” he asks.

“Technically he said he’d meet us in a little while, not that he was meeting us here,” I say. Lizzie grabs us some menus. Ignacio and I continue the track of our bike-ride conversation: grad school acceptances when it’s just the two of us, rowing conversation always. Ignacio—Nacho, as I’ve been instructed to call him—is officially known as my “colleague”. We’re on the same project at work, run each others’ participants, hang out in the Common room together waiting for our moments of small talk with said participants while we wait to restart their computer programs. We spend a lot of hours of the day together.

“You think I’m this jock, but I told you about that, remember,” Nacho is saying when Lizzie gets back, and I remember the violin story. Nacho’s mother didn’t want him to play sports to preserve his hands for playing the violin, and he says that after that he was busy dating people. “Being a nerd wasn’t cool, and I cared more about that, so my grades kind of reached a plateau. I did some basketball, but mostly I was focused on the dating.”

Nacho’s 6’5” and doing a jock year—a rowing year, to be specific. Going full-strength every morning multiple evenings every weekend multiple times. On the 6:30am schedule, outings, land-based workouts, full of descriptions of sets. It’s crazy how much you can learn about the things that occupy through peoples’ heads by the peppering of things they say when you’re there day after day. Nacho’s drinking a Diet Coke right now, because “I had that brioche at lunch,” and “I have two outings tomorrow.” Food—rowing—grad school—friends abroad—being welcoming—learning about people—smiling. He’s got this huge grin and deep voice and easy demeanor. It’s not everything that makes a person—Nacho and I laughed about this this morning, that we’re layers and layers like onions—but he’s comfortable and that’s how he presents himself to me. He has other quirks for different people, like the bro shoulder hug, and the Australian accent for two other lab members. He always asks about my plans and how I’m doing, is the first to comfort people in the lab. He’s making fun of himself before others start about the Diet coke.

“Hey–” Reuben drawls, walking up to the table. He sets his stuff down, goes up to grab a beer, eventually settles at the head of the table in the alcove. Lizzie tells him that the Jenga box was already on the table when we got here, “like they knew”. She deposits the banana on a table opposite: “This could be a band name—the Casual Banana.”

“Man, I forgot the other band names you came up with,” I say, trying to recall all of those lunchtime conversations. Joey’d made fun of Lizzie at the time, since Lizzie had just jumped in with names two days in a row, though it’d been a while since the last time she came up with one.

Seven o’clock rolled around, and Poly, Joey, and Vasilis rolled in, settled on the bench next to Lizzie and rotated Reuben and Nacho around the table so that everyone would fit. Poly said we could definitely form a band: Nacho with his violin, and Lizzie’d learnt the drums instead of the flute like her mother had wanted.

“Joey, don’t you play the drums?” Poly said, and the half of the table listening to this conversation swiveled in his direction. He’d been pretty quiet so far—said he was feeling a bit sick—but said he’d always played drums, and that he’d play it here if there were a set around. Bit of discussion about bands, bit of discussion about a possible “family friendly rave” we could go to—dismissed because it was too expensive, tangented into whether we wanted to watch an opera concert in Sussex, then the conversation wrapped around back to Diet Coke.

“I have a race tomorrow!” Nacho insisted, as Joey and Reuben poked fun. He’d been right to mock himself about it earlier, because man did he have it coming. Beers on the table for all the boys, wine for all the girls. “Jock-bro-manly-frat boys” is what I’d call the ensuing conversation, which was enlightening in that I’d never really seen that form of pressure taking place right in front of me. Nacho stuck to his guns though, at least at that point in the night.

The food arrived while the other end of the table was playing preliminary Jenga rounds. Jenga is a game with blocks that stack, and the goal is to pull out blocks from the bottom of the stack and put them on the top without tumbling the whole tower over. These Jenga blocks have words on them—“drink a finger”, “dance for thirty seconds”, and if the blocks are written in a language no one at the table speaks, they’re a “wild card” and you have to drink a shot of tequila but you can make someone else do it with you. You knock over the stack, you buy and drink a shot by yourself. Reuben’s leading one of the “rhyme with” blocks, where he says a word that begins with an R and everyone has to find a rhyming word.

“Rain,” he announces, and it takes its turn around the table. I forget who loses—it’s only the beer or wine, doesn’t matter really, everyone’s happy to drink that as long as it’s not the tequila.

I’ve become one of the rule-keepers: “Proper noun,” I insist, and Lizzie thanks me, though we’re all making fun of Reuben. “There’s no such thing as the single-touch rule!” he says, reaching for a block and then changing his mind after he’s touched it. “Everyone else has been playing that rule!” I assert, and he smiles at me and announces that he’s the only one who can make arbitrary rules. It goes on for a while.

Reuben’s a post-doc in the lab, often brings his girlfriend Claire on these outings. I don’t know him as well, but he’s matter of fact, a casual leader and quick to laugh. He knows a lot and enjoys documentaries and is a serious biker completely without the associated jock mentality (even I have the jock mentality). Dark eyes and great posture and all about the knitted jumpers.

“All right, I’m done eating,” Joey announces, and therein begins the enforcement of the tequila rules. “The point is to be scared, to have that fear in your stomach, because no one wants to get wasted off tequila,” he tells me when I say I want to play but not drink anything.

“Could we drink vodka instead?” Poly asks, and Nacho decides that that doesn’t work, because hangovers are guaranteed with tequila but not vodka. I’m insisting that they’re all peer-pressuring, and Lizzie jumps in that I should be able to play.

“I’ll cover you,” Poly says, and I say, “Absolutely not.” We go back and forth about the likelihood of us tipping the Jenga tower over or not—“we’ve got steady hands!” but in the end I sit this one out. Vasilis has a beer next to me but is insisting he’ll join the next round, after he observes the rules.

(After the first round, Vasilis announces that the rules seem unjustifiably arbitrary. “That seems like kind of the point,” I laugh, and Joey chimes in vigorously about the purpose of drinking games.

Vasilis is quiet a lot of time but always seems like he’s content where he is. I don’t know him that well either, but he’s extremely smart, logical, patient; friendly, also, and encouraging.)

Joey gets a truth or dare Jenga block, and he tells us about Heffalumps—the villain in a Pooh Bear story—in his youth. Poly gets up and dances for 30 seconds but when she sits back down she bumps the table and makes the tower fall. I try a drop of tequila after she’s finished her glass. “Worse than wine,” I conclude.

“You signed the kinesthetically binding contract!” Joey crows at one point, after Ignacio goes up and has to drink a shot. “The what? Is that a rule?” Lizzie asks. “Oh, the K.B.C.,” she sighs eventually after we’ve finished that discussion, “Oh, the K.B.C., you should have said,” and from there on I know it’s one of the lab’s inside jokes.

Lizzie’s British and thoughtful and is incredibly easy to talk to, for seemingly everyone she meets. She fits in well in the drinking crowd, fits in well with the girls-night-out crowd, with the science crowd—dispenses advice and teases and stands her ground. She’s been doing her Zumba class at the gym, can make clothes, is very intelligent, makes these wry observations about the world. Bright eyes and this kind of calm way of looking at you and the table before she jumps in.

(Everyone in this lab is so smooth—backs down seamlessly and teases relentlessly and takes people seriously all in this fluid circle of continuing conversation. Everyone cares about each other and listens to each other. It’s never awkward—it’s continually cohesive. How can everyone have a relationship with everyone else, how can we all work in the same rooms for at least five days a week, and have this be true?)

“Cot,” Poly announces.

“You already said that!” Reuben says.

“No, I said caught, not cot, spelled ‘c-a-u-’”.

“Well, it doesn’t rhyme!” Joey says, “Yacht, caught, cot, doesn’t rhyme.”

“Yacht, caught, cot, does too!”

“It does,” I say, “yacht, caught, cot.”

“Nooo, yacht, caught, cot,” says Reuben,

“No, it does, yacht, cot—” Poly breaks in.

“You said we’re rhyming with our own accents!” Vasilis accuses Reuben.

“It doesn’t rhyme!” Joey says, Australian accent strong.

“Does too!” I say, with my associated American pronunciation.

“It depends on the accent,” Vasilis cries, exasperated, who is Greek, like Poly, and thus has a mix of British, Greek, and American accent.

“I’m drinking the finger,” Poly announces, and that’s the end of that.

Poly is the person I spend the most time with besides Nacho. She’s the lab’s glue, essential especially before we started working smoothly with each other—comes by and asks everyone how they’ve been, organizes group activities, organizes all lab activities, organizes rowing activities, organizes everything. She’s eager to learn, works a ridiculous amount, does her best to make everyone happy and picks up responsibilities like they’re flowers. Sensitive and engaged, extremely caring, and she writes the best passive aggressive emails I’ll probably ever see. She just thinks about everyone all the time, and works so hard—the first to ask how the details of our lives are, with big open eyes and a boundless energy animating her body and face.

“How’s your breakfast food?” Joey asks, having watched me pick apart the cheesy chips (chips = American fries) and move on to the eggs and ham. “Cold,” I say, grimacing. “You’re supposed to dip the chips in the egg,” he tells me. “But noooo,” I tell him with a smile, long-familiar with this debate. My eating habits are well-known in the lab—in that I eat weird things consistently and go extremely heavy on the cheese—and Joey finds them especially amusing. “The cheese needed to be eaten first, before it congealed.” “We’ll come back during the summer, and the brick walls will radiate heat and then everything will be hot,” he tells me. When Reuben asks me how my meal was a half an hour later, and I tell him it was cold, and Lizzie says I should have eaten the chips with the egg, I say: that’s what Joey said.

Joey sits next to me in lab, and so I know a collection of things about him, like his taste in music and which swear words he prefers and that he plays footie (soccer) now and then. He’s an engineer by training and worked as an engineer on cochlear implants; he’s very smart (a recurring theme in this lab), has a work-hard play-hard mentality, and is very good at thinking critically about work and figuring things out. He’s Australian and misses the life there, swears by good coffee and has a way of throwing his hands up in the air while still exuding engagement. He has that combination of serious focus and careless fun that always throws me when I see it in people, and has a jaunty way of walking and eyebrows that emanate expressiveness. His housemates and him are building a boat in their backyard, and they’re going to drag it to the nearest body of water and celebrate with flowing champagne in the Cambridge sun.

“Sorry, science thing, but we have someone in the lab who doesn’t blink,” Lizzie says, turning towards me. Lizzie and Lukas and I had done a pilot experiment this morning, with Lizzie and Lukas as the experimenters and me as the test subject. It was a brutal experiment—it was the first time they’d tried using this technique, and thus it took about twice as long as it would take once they’ve smoothed out the kinks, plus the technique involved is a bit painful for the participant. But we all made it through.

“It’s not that I don’t blink, I’ve just had training,” I say diffidently, because this is high praise. In experiments involving extracting high-precision timing information from the brain, the ability to fixate well—stare at a dot without moving your eyes—and not blink is highly prized.

“But she just blinked,” Joey says, as the table turns to me. “And blinked again! And again!”

“It’s just a sign she’s a vampire,” Poly says. “See, no blinking, pale skin, stays awake without caffeine, no drugs—”

“It’s because of the drugs, that’s why—”

“She blinked again! And now her eyes are closed—does that count if her eyes are closed?”

“I’d love to hear someone use that as an explanation—no, it’s not that I do drugs, it’s just that I’m a vampire,” Lizzie concluded, and they bounced along with that (I lost the thread, I think it made sense at the time), me helplessly shaking my head at them, until we moved on.

Lukas had declined the invitation to come tonight: “I’d love to come, but I have to rest tonight. You have any movie recommendations?” There’s been a cold passing through the lab, and in the true spirit of lab-shared illnesses, it’s hit seven out of nine of us in the last few weeks. We’d joked about whether Lukas was high on painkillers or not when Lizzie, him, and I were running the experiment, and he went home as soon as we’d finished.

Lukas is German, almost always smiling, thoughtful, also an extremely hard worker. He plays volleyball for the Blues (that’s the Cambridge Blues, the university team. The school color is actually mint green, but that’s Cambridge for you.) I had the hardest time with him in the beginning, because his conversational style is unique: he listens carefully to everything that you say, and will either respond seriously and thoughtfully (but often with a smile), or will start this smile and tease you about it, with gentle sarcasm, in just as earnestly a way. It meant that I had no idea whether a comment was supposed to be sarcastic or not, but I like the impact that this style has had on me now. He invites you to be a quick replier, to keep the joke going, to keep the hyperbole running, to keep tucking praise within exaggeration and deliver it to people constantly. I always visualize him attentive, about to concoct his reply and grin.

“Does everyone in this lab have a nickname?” I ask at some point, after I’ve been instructed in the proper use of “Nacho” (I wasn’t even saying his full name correctly, since I’ve been using the South American pronunciation rather than the Spanish “th” sound), and we’ve decided it’s hard to shorten mine or Vasilis’s. Joey calls Reuben “Ruby”, most people call Joseph “Joey”, “Poly” is short for “Polytimi”, and we have “Nacho” and “Lizzie” as well. Nuno’s isn’t shortened, but he’s already two syllables—Nuno’s at home right now, a new father and thus with different priorities. He’s told us that he thought parenthood would be like adding a new project—he just had to redistribute his time. It’s not actually like that at all, he says: instead, your entire worldview changes, and suddenly lab isn’t as important as making sure your son’s gaining weight. Nuno is the sweetest and one of the nicest people you could meet.

“I’m heading home now,” I tell everyone eventually, after Nacho has ducked out for his outings tomorrow and the tequila shots are still going strong.

“It’s only 9:30pm! We’ll make them play another game soon,” Poly says, and Lizzie nods.

“Nah, it looks like you guys are set for a while. Next time, when we play The Game, I’ll stay longer.”

They concede gracefully, and discuss what’ll happen during the next Monthly Lab Thing, which happens to fall on my birthday. (I get to pick the restaurant and activities, score!) The give and take of this lab is amazing, and everyone cheerfully salutes me as I walk out.

It’s still early, so I bike over to my College to go work out on the elliptical, musing on how there’s a personality concept wherein some people are more influenced by what others around them are doing than other people. This was the most peer-pressured situation I’d been to for at least a year, and I concluded that it was no wonder I’d been weird in middle school and beyond, because I actually would have to be stubborn as f*** to be drinking water when literally everyone around the table had some sort of pleasant alcohol and were in addition downing tequila shots that they definitely didn’t want to drink. In some respects I care deeply about what others think, and in most cases I only do exactly what I want, I thought, doing my pull-ups while my laptop blared the new song from Zootopia (excellent new Disney film, I recommend everyone see it).

Good night though, I concluded. Facebook later announced to me that the lab had continued playing Jenga and then traveled on to Karaoke. Good night at the pub, good night with friends, once in a lifetime group of people who I love in and out of lab. Doesn’t get better than this.

I love going to bed happy.

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