Jonathan Safran Foer was not a particularly secretive man. He simply didn't like to tell people about his habits. This reluctance didn't change much, prone as he was to slip random objects into his pockets, or if he had them on hand, one in a seemingly endless series of plastic bags. If anyone asked, he told them that he collected simply because it was something he had to do. Collecting was one of only a few passions in Jonathan's life, but it manifested in many other forms, of which most people, including Alexander Perchov, were blissfully unaware.
Alex was sitting in the cramped kitchen, attempting the completion of the newspaper crossword puzzle. Jonathan warned him that the ones printed in the New York Times tended towards the impossible, but Alex proudly declared his status as a bilingual, which he regarded as second-to-none after walking around an Anglophone country for five days. Jonathan had been hesitant to contradict him, and fled the kitchen to his equally cramped bedroom with the stated intention of checking his email before Alex realized that all the words he knew were at least ten letters too long and knowledge of American popular culture thirty years out-of-date.
So Alex sat there with his glass of disgustingly pulpy orange juice (his host refused to allow anything less healthy than its full potential into his refrigerator), fuming over the impossible crossword. No matter what angle from which he approached the clues, none of it made any sense. Frustrated, he set down his pencil, and looked around Jonathan's apartment. He liked it here. Everything was so impossibly clean and meticulously organized, quite the opposite of Alex's home back in Odessa. There was another contrast that slightly disconcerted him: not too much of this apartment resembled its owner. Even the stuff that did was very calm and restrained -- tomes on Judaism tucked neatly on the bookshelves, various paintings depicting what might have been faint suggestions of Jonathan's imaginary Trachimbrod, including Van Gogh's sunflowers, and, of course, the health food. Jonathan didn't even like walking past the meat isle at the grocery store, and winced when Alex tried his first genuinely American hamburger and couldn't hold back proclamations of how delicious and perfect it was ("Could you keep that to yourself, please?"). The only thing in the apartment that truly spoke of its inhabitant was The Wall, which Alex couldn't help but stare in awe of. If he reached out to touch an artifact, there was always a story that went along with it, and always a second cousin, great-uncle, or some other distant relative that Jonathan could go on and on about. Of course, Alex found Sabine the most fascinating, but he was hesitant to ask Jonathan any more about her than he already had. He would tell him what he wanted to, and leave him clinging to his every word, and that's the way it was during that expanse of storytelling into which time seemed to dissolve. He turned the corner and observed Jonathan tap way at his whirring grey computer, which could easily be as aged as some of his artifacts. Curious, he crept up to the back of Jonathan's chair, watching his hands fly over the keyboard.
"What are you writing?"
"AAAAH!" Jonathan shrieked in panic, shooting up out of his chair and turning around to both face Alex and hide the screen. "Oh … it's you. Um, sorry about that."
"I am sorry, too, for nearly acquiring you a heart attack," Alex said, shocked by his violent reaction. "That was the loudest noise I have ever witnessed you manufacture." Jonathan gave a small an embarrassed smile, attempting to retain his composure. "What were you doing?"
"Oh, um, not anything … not anything specific, really."
"You informed me that you were revising your e-mails. Was that a not-truth?"
"I did. I … I didn't have any." He looked a little dejected. I must compose for Jonfen an e-mail, Alex wrote on his brain.
"So, you did something else, yes?" Alex's only contact with computers was the monthly update of the Heritage Touring website, which he did from his friend Gregory's house, but he knew that there was more to the internet than just business sites. "You dig to play video games?"
"It really doesn't matter. Hey, you want to go get a hamburger or something?"
Alex thought of his smutty magazines, for which he went through much travail to hide from his parents, his father, particularly. It wasn't that he would disapprove or reprimand him. It was more just a matter of keeping his father seeing him in a somewhat dignified light. "Jonfen, it is permissible. I must admit that if I were in ownership of a computer, that I would do the very same thing."
"What are you implying, Alex?" Some defensiveness entered Jonathan's tone.
"You are looking at the smut," stated Alex. He continued before Jonathan could say anything. "It is not a matter to be embarrassed, regarding. And I am hardly a person to judge such things.
"No! I would never do that!" He looked at Alex's gaudy gold nametag necklace, and tried to re-iterate. "I mean, you can do it if you want, but I'm not like …" He looked from the necklace to the floor. "Oh well, there's no convincing you any other way." He had the expression of a particularly guilty person in a confession booth, except that he was a Jew, obviously, and Alex wasn't sure if Jews did such things. "I was on myspace."
"You were what?"
"It's a website. It's stupid, but … I don't know." He sat back in his chair, and let Alex see the computer.
"And what does it do?"
"Well, nothing," Jonathan answered blankly.
"Huh?" The crossword was no longer the only thing he didn't understand today. "If it does nothing, then why are you viewing it?" He looked at the screen, perplexed.
"It's useful for keeping in touch with people. And meeting new ones."
"Why do you not just go outside?"
"You know what? Forget it. There must be something you want to --"
"No, I intend to see this!" He pulled Jonathan's chair away from the desk, and attempted to shove him off, which failed, and he ended up sitting on Jonathan's lap. Which was awkward, to begin with but more so considering that Alex was easily over a foot taller, so Jonathan couldn't see what Alex was clicking on.
"And these are photographs of you …" he said in a falsely serious voice, punctuated by small outbursts of suppressed laughter. "And look … all of these pretty girls wrote that they are finding you cute!" He set his elbows down on either side of the keyboard. "Jonfen, you should not be so distressed by girls, they dig you just fine."
"Well, I am kind of … well …" He couldn't seem to force out the last word.
"Yes. That," Jonathan responded, angry but controlled. Alex had forgotten that he preferred "not tall."
"It doesn't matter."
"That's easy for you to say. How tall are you, exactly?"
"That doesn't matter, either. The point, Jonfen, is that many people are finding you cute," said Alex as he played with the space bar, "and you should not be melancholy by your … not tall-ness." He couldn't see Jonathan's reaction, but he had a feeling that he was contemplating it. He turned to see him, and Jonathan's eyes quickly darted from somewhere in the distance to Alex, who leaned in closer. This clearly provoked Jonathan to his usual subdued panic, which the Slav always found so endearing. One second longer …
Alex stood up and walked to the door to survey Jonathan's confusion.
"So … can I really have that hamburger?"
The very little pigment in Jonathan's face flooded back into it.
"Yeah, of course you can."