“Mind if I sit down?” He looked up to see a woman around his age, medium height, brown hair and blue eyes.
“Sure,” he said, and returned back to his laptop. She produced a book from her bag and flipped open to a dog-eared page.
A soft blue glow illuminated the man's stern face as he flicked his finger over the touch-pad in search of something. There was something he had to do online but couldn't quite remember it. Instead, he refreshed his profile page, then his bank page, then an entertainment news page. They all returned exactly what they displayed before. His bank page had columns of numbers, some black, most red, but he only cared about one in particular. Four figures, followed by a period, then two uninteresting figures: this was his life worth, the grand totality of his earnings. It was modest, somewhere on the lesser side of the order of magnitude, but he was destined to see it grow. Thus, every couple minutes or so, he refreshed the page to see if the numbers had increased yet. Since waking it had only gone down once, a few dollars after his morning coffee. He was delighted to see it change so quickly after purchasing. He was tempted to buy a croissant or something to go with the coffee solely for the reason of seeing it update so quickly.
“It is quiet in here, do you think so?” the woman sitting diagonal to him said. He was aroused by a slight familiar accent.
“Yeah,” he said. “I guess.”
“Is it always so quiet in hostels?” she said, setting her book down.
“I said, is it always so quiet in American hostels?”
“Oh. Maybe. Dunno.” He looked down and did another round of refreshing.
“You are American, then?” she asked.
It took him a beat to look up and respond. “Yeah.”
She chuckled. “I suppose it isn't hard to tell. I am German.”
He showed his first sign of interest. “No way, I took three years of German in high school.”
“Also! Sprechen Sie Deutch?”
“Ein bisschen.” he said, mispronouncing the ch.
A silence. He returned to his laptop, focusing now on his profile page. Mindlessly he scrolled through a list of his friend’s updates, looking to catch anyone he cared about doing something more fun than he was. Days ago he posted that over the weekend he was going to “travel a bit”, but kept the location and duration a secret in order to drum up some intrigue. A few people—none of consequence—expressed their jealousy and asked where and he declined to answer. He reached the end of the list without reading a single update, then refreshed the page again.
“Do you think,” she asked out of the silence, “that people don't talk to each other because they are afraid to be judged?”
The question went past him, but he didn't want to fuel the conversation by asking for her to repeat. Instead he only hummed an introspective response.
“Hostels are places to meet new people and experience new things. But everyone is in front of their laptops.”
“Maybe they just want some alone time,” he said, hoping she would take the hint.
“Then why go to a hostel? Why not just a regular hotel?”
“It's cheaper here, maybe.”
“May I ask where you are from?”
“The city up north.”
“And why are you here?”
“I guess I just want a profound travel experience.”
“But you are on your laptop, no offense.”
“Yeah, I got some things to do on it.” He couldn't remember what, though. Another round of refreshing, another glance at the bank account. Perhaps he thought someone would deposit a check that he wasn't expecting. After graduating high school, his father deposited a sizable sum into this very account. As far as he knew he still had the account and routing numbers, so it was entirely possible his father could deposit more at any time.
He remembered what his father had said: “This is your graduation present. You can do whatever you want with it. Go to town, I don't care. Just do me a favor and invest a little of it, okay?” It was his intention to invest some of it, but before that he contacted his friends and said dinner was on him that night. It wasn't just that night, but the night after, and the night after that. Many nights dinner was on him, and lunches, and movies, and other things as long as they weren't too much. This new-found popularity appealed to him and over the summer before college he chased it as long as the five digit sum would allow. As his friends slowly drifted away to other schools and he saw the number slowly decreasing, his father's advice to invest resounded in his ears. Only after the number had dipped below the half-way mark did he make any effort. That day he opened an investing account on a reputable website and felt that adequate. As yet, no money has changed places.
Now, he stared at the number and imagined it magically increasing, first back up to the five digit amount, then up to six, seven, eight, and deep in his imagination, nine or even ten digits. And with this money he would do things, build stuff, invest, and... buy things, and... just do whatever he wants with the money he earned working hard on things. And no one would take it away from him with taxes. Somehow he would not pay taxes.
“Online, people can make their own life,” she said, “show only what they want to show. But in real life, they can't control what is shown. That is why I think people don't like to talk to other people, because they're afraid of being judged.”
Another beat to look up. “I don't do that,” he said.
“You don't choose exactly what pictures to display?”
“No. I don't care what other people think.” He refreshed his profile. The blue banner came up empty.
“I don't want to sound old, but it seems like with the internet people are more cynical.”
“Isn't that, like, to live like a dog?”
“When Diogenes lived it, now it just means distrustful of others.”
“People can sometimes be assholes.”
“But you can’t know until you talk to them.” Again, silence, but not enough to let him return to work.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Darren.” he replied.
“Yelka. Yel like in screaming. Ka like polka from Germany.”
“Nice to meet you.” He extended his hand and shook hers half-heartedly. Only then did he notice her close-cropped ear-length hair and single dimple on the same side as her hair was combed.
“You speak really good English,” he said, “probably better than me.”
“In Deutchland we learn at a young age. Plus I love America, especially the National Parks. Have you been to them?”
“When I was a kid my family drove to Yellowstone, but I can't remember anything.”
“Are you in university?” she asked.
“Only my second semester. Got a long way to go.” His eyes flitted back to the warm blue glow.
“What do you want to do?”
“Business I guess.”
“What kind of business?”
“I don't know, managing. Business management.”
“Managing a toilet paper factory?”
“A smart businessman can make money anywhere. Why not a toilet paper factory?”
He had no answer aside from: I wouldn't make enough money there. That is too degrading. He didn't want to say that.
Their once promising conversation fizzled out, and he took this opportunity to refresh his pages. There was something he had to do before he logged off, but it kept slipping his mind. He was sure that if he kept browsing it would come eventually. He looked at his number and visibly perked up. It had increased slightly since last check. The transactions showed only one number in the black: Account Interest: $1.24. This only happened every six months and it must have happened just then. What did that make his interest rate? He tried to divide the interest by the principle but the math was too hard. Still, the number had gone up and he memorized the new one.
The girl—Yelka, he remembered—stood up and made a cup of tea. He considered packing up and leaving before she came back, but something held him there. For the first time that day he looked around the common room of the hostel. Sitting around the room, mostly alone at a table, were young and old people from across the globe, but he didn’t know that. If he polled the people he would have found out that the only continent unrepresented was South America. To him though, they all had the same look he had seen in seemingly every face he had ever met: gloom-neutral, downturn, introspective without cause. There was not one face that interested him, not one person he could imagine having a decent conversation. Why had Yelka talked to him? Was it because he was the only one in the room without this dejected face? Did she see the future promise in him?
Two women talked to each other in a corner, their conversation the only noise save a washing machine slowly churning away. Every word they said was clear throughout the room, so heavy was the silence. They realized this after a few wayward eyes caught theirs, and the conversation petered out until they retreated back to the laptops in from of them.
Yelka inspected a package of old crackers on a shelf marked “usufruct”. Most people—aside from the pedantic anglophile who put it there—read it as “u so fucked” and shied away. She returned to the table, steaming mug in hand.
“Listen, do you want to go to the museums downtown?” she asked.
He hadn’t been, and he had no reason to go. He had no plans to do anything in the city, aside from the thing on the internet that he just couldn’t remember. Without looking up, he said “Which ones?”
“The Art Museum. I heard the mining museum is good, too. Whatever ones you want.”
He took his smartphone out of his pocket and checked the battery: about two-thirds full. If things got bad and he was stuck in a boring situation, he could keep checking his sites as long as he had a clear signal or a decent WiFi source. “All right, whatever.”
As they walked the streets of downtown they talked about themselves, filling in any bits of information they thought was worthwhile. Yelka explained that she had recently graduated university with a degree in engineering physics and was taking half a year off before starting a PhD program. Darren said he was lucky to never have to take any math higher than college algebra. Yelka wanted to explain the importance of math in business and economics but held her tongue. As they waited at crosswalks for the light to turn green Darren would slyly turn away from Yelka and take out his phone and flick through it. She had no electronic devices and only looked up at the unremarkable buildings as she waited for him to return to the real world.
In the museums, the quiet nature of their ambiance suited Darren, but Yelka never hesitated to whisper into his ear. His worst sufferings came in the Impressionist section, in which Yelka was quite knowledgeable. Darren's only insight to art was to remark—to himself—that even though the Mona Lisa was Italian, it was kept in a French museum. He thought nothing of the blotchy and blurry pictures on the wall. Art would never help him in his life, until he became so wealthy to afford covering his walls with the most recent and expensive pieces, and this was only a way of impressing—had this something to do with what Yelka was saying?—other people.
Halfway into the mining museum and just before the hands-on gold panning exhibit, Darren decided he had had enough. Yelka reminded him that he paid twelve dollars for admission, but Darren decided the loss of money was worth the decrease in boredom. He stopped in the gift shop, Yelka not far behind, to look at mugs and reproduction old-time hats. When he couldn't find a keychain with his name on it, he left. The walk back to the hostel was silent. Yelka walked a few paces behind him and they never looked at each other.
When they arrived back at the hostel, Darren expected Yelka to peel off with a quick goodbye and that would be the end of the relationship. Instead, she followed him into the hallway and stopped him before a certain door.
“I’m sorry you didn’t like the museums. They weren’t that good anyway,” she said.
“Whatever. I’ve been to boringer ones,” he said.
“This is my room here. It’s private and you can come in if you want.”
“Like, private? No one else is in there?”
“Just you and me.”
He looked down and shook his head. “I don’t know, I kind of have things to do, and…”
“You can leave any time; you don’t have to stay the night. We can do whatever you want.”
“I don’t know,” Darren said, still shaking his head.
“Is it because a girl is inviting you in, not the other way around?” she asked sarcastically.
“No, it’s not that, just…”
“Is it because we are not drunk? Is that the American mating ritual?”
“What? Hey, don’t be pushy.” He looked up and scanned her features. Her limbal ring, perhaps more pronounced in her youth, was slowly fading into the blue of her eyes. She was nowhere near model status, and he could name at leave five girls back at school more attractive than her. Did she want him? Was she worth the time?
“Or you can go back to playing on your laptop,” she said, maintaining her acerbity.
“Why are you doing this?”
“Why? Because everyone was sitting there in the room, silent. I saw you and wanted to give you something to do.”
“So you dragged me to some boring museums? Thanks.”
“Were they any more boring than your computer?”
“You know what, I don’t know how they do things in Germany, but in America we don’t just make fun of people to their face.”
Yelka signed. “I'm sorry, I don't want to make fun of you; I just want to give you something to do other than sit in front of the computer. Did you see all of the people in the common room? Almost everyone was sitting in front of their laptops. Do you want to be like them?”
Darren's forehead crunched up in the middle, his eyes pleaded for an escape. “Look, I told you before, I have lots of things to do, and I can't waste time going to museums or hanging out with strange people!”
He cataloged all of the things he could be doing now: researching new investment opportunities, reading the stack of business books his father bought him, looking at all the art he would buy once he became rich. What was wrong with looking at his friend's profiles? Is it a crime to keep up on celebrity news? No, he concluded. A Man needs a break after hard work and this was his time, not the time of some random German girl who thought she was so much better than him.
“Okay,” Yelka said, “I had fun at the museums at least.”
“Yeah, well enjoy your time in America.” Darren said and immediately turned around and headed back to him room. He unlocked the cubby where he had stored his laptop earlier and climbed into bed with it. Closing the curtain on his bunk-bed, the blue light of the laptop screen flooded the only space he would ever command.