There was an allegedly imaginary Errol Morris documentary, actually my favorite of his, that introduced the extra-terrestrials among us. The seven-hour miniseries, which we scarfed up while cocooning during a daylong downpour, made a strong case for a fundamentally gentle population of these humanoids scattered in our midst, sometimes — not always — networked a bit, but making sincere efforts to integrate with their hosts. Following the documentary’s launch, which took a while to distinguish itself after the huge Netflix torrent that first introduced it, the alien visitors gradually started to emerge from very deep closets, but the series, meanwhile, dropped out of the streamer’s listings.
We had pounced when we first saw the doc posted on the Netflix roster but when we fervently recommended it to friends, their searches came up with nothing. Searching for the director’s name with alternative spellings was no help. No way it was Hulu. Morris ended up denying that he had ever made this film. Seven vivid hours of our lives disavowed. The “Great Errol Morris Hoax” would later be examined as a cultural phenomenon.
One old girlfriend of mine, Narlene, who had been epically secretive when we were together and went totally underground years ago when I first met my wife, Nikki, and enthused to them both about how wonderfully they would get along, dropped us a line asking to meet up. It’s been misplaced but went something like this,
Dear Paul & Nikki,
Way overdue but I think you’ll understand. I was delighted when you two hooked up (Yeah, spied a bit, most recently at the IFC. Close enough to tap you on the shoulder. I’m still far too shy.) and the invitation to meet Nikki was tempting but I wasn’t ready to be unguarded. Nikki, don’t think of me as an ex. Old lovers are interchangeable. Paul understood me far better than I thought possible and I knew that you two are granite-solid as a team. I should have taken the leap back then. I’m finally ready. Thinking of meeting up at one of those wine bars on Franklin Street. Drop me a line if you like.
Nikki did the math, “It’s been 15 years!”
“I did think that I had an influence on her but nothing on that level. That gratuitous reference to the IFC was an odd touch as it’s been a while since we saw anything at IFC. Parenthetically, that Errol Morris series had a brief run there, right? “
“Allegedly. Her genuflection to me seemed sincere. But, right, she did not see us at IFC. Pretty sure that Morris didn’t stray from documentaries with that one and, if she’s kept tabs on us at all, we have been talking it up. Message planted between the lines in advance of a big reveal?”
“That wouldn’t be a stretch for her.”
“Extraterrestrials among us, like imbeds, fraternizing with the locals.”
“Don’t want to assume, but so many have surfaced since that phantom flick and there’s even a support group to make them feel welcome.”
“New frontiers of diversity. Are workplace discrimination laws due for revision?”
“Unless they stay out of the workforce and get by on stock speculation.”
“A couple in the documentary seemed dumb as dirt. Maybe they shovel the spaceship engine’s coal.”
“Maybe their way of feigning harmless.”
“Speaking of harmless?”
“She is anatomically correct but incapable of guile, other than the IFC bit which I agree we can attribute to incremental disclosure.”
This was someone whose modus operandi was to just appear at odd hours, sometimes noting that she’d stalked me a bit earlier but had too many chores to make an adventure of it. I eventually took the cue that I should not only be comfortable with her stealth but compliment her on her skills. The text message she sent us was relatively transparent, cutting straight to the chase, even suggesting a place. I was recalling a 12-stepper or at least a teetotaler, but she’s proposed a wine bar. No harm in that.
Narlene framed the enoteca’s doorway beaming. Our ‘You haven’t changed a bit’ was sincere. Hers was gracious and greeted with arched eyebrows. We ordered without a fuss. Nikki hijacked the toast, “To being proud of our origins.”
Narlene followed up with, “To quick studies!”
I capped it with, “To surgically precise hints.”
“Still, you could have been obtuse and let me squirm.”
“That’s not the fun part. Too much catching up to do, Gnarly.” The old pet name felt good and Narlene took her cue to start divulging. She began by giving props to Errol Morris who got the facts and the tone completely right. She would not have been emboldened by something half-assed.
Narlene, swirling her glass like a favorite toy, averred. that aliens love fine wine. Like Koreans, they marvel that it’s been squandered so long on dull-palate Europeans. I recalled her inordinate fondness for syrupy soda fountain Sprite. She recollected it as tagging along with me for that suspect concoction.
First/second impressions, she remained almost painfully sincere but was far less evasive than before. Certainly less scattered now, Narlene doled out calibrated anecdotes, like a baking recipe that could go south if not carefully scripted. I suppose it would have been reckless to lead with slopping our facts into a hot wok then stirring vigorously.
While we’re on the topic of cuisine, she related arriving on this planet in an edible pod, like albumen but crunchy. High fiber. She was born with an egg tooth just to breach the outer layer but it popped out before she had to smile at anyone.
“More like salted corn chips, toasty from entering your atmosphere. A network of veins supply a paste with extra nutrients, not quite like anything of yours but hummus wasn’t entirely new to me.”
“Now you’re pulling our legs.”
“Seriously. You’d prefer them to these damp ceiling tiles we were just gifted.”
Already chomping away, I confessed, “I could still empty this bowl out of habit.”
“Good foil for wine, nasty without it.”
“Some wag has been calling this proliferation of Brooklyn watering holes ’alcohol filling stations.”
“Long’s they don’t serve it from a nozzle. Anyways, the pods came to this planet through much the same mechanism as a dandelion’s seed cannon. Scores, hundreds at a time rained down upon earth depositing children from planets undergoing environmental disasters. The adults of our galaxy, the generation that ensured irreversible catastrophes at an accelerated pace, had - once again -done shitty due diligence in identifying earth as a planet with a long-term future.”
By the time the second round of generous pours arrived, a verbatim account was out the window. Narlene’s pod had gradually slowed after entering the earth’s atmosphere. The child had very limited ability to steer without damaging her vessel and its speed was down to a brisk drift, so she decided not to fight it when she was swept over a cityscape. She bounced off the shaft of a spire and scraped a few glass and concrete facades before skidding onto the roof of a three-story apartment building where the pod collapsed into a heap of debris and she feasted on it before packing the balance into a pre-scuffed knapsack with a rainbow unicorn decal.
Every several blocks there was a public square anchored by a fountain glistening with coins and the select Lotto scratch cards she purchased were good for pocket money. The next step was to ingratiate herself with a family, preferably a matriarchy, ideally one that could rent her a spare room cheap. Extra points for quickly becoming a room & board package with a flaky grandma in charge or extra privacy such as a finished basement. “You’ll recall that I had them all.”
Acing the GED made her life vastly easier. She figured out where she could get the most college credits recognized and arranged some very independent work/study program by citing family responsibilities, e.g. flaky grandma, and displaying uncanny skills.
Those fellow seedlings she’d established contact with had emphatically confirmed what she already sensed, that too much gaming the system, in this case either unethical behavior or just far outshining one’s putative peers, drew way too much attention. There was already talk of the ‘space gypsy girls’ among us. She excelled without showing off and socialized sparingly.
When she first took me home and introduced me to her family, (I was right to suspect adoption, but couldn’t have imagined that she had adopted them. You’re far from a family you’d barely seen during months of evacuation training and clearly lonesome and you call the new folks ma, grandma and sis with conviction, and soon you’ve got everything but the birth certificate.) we had several minutes of tractionless conversation around an unmuted television then she then took me two floors down to her sumptuous nook in an otherwise inhospitable pipe web of a basement.
Turns out that what I’d romanticized as claiming an outpost for privacy was actually failure to recognize a substandard rental. Also, that what I’d generously gleaned as the family’s off-kilter charm was a near-paralyzing social awkwardness that Narlene was subsequently able to remedy, albeit very hit or miss, being an alien and all. She still visited them from time to time and still paid inflation-adjusted rent.
While particulars were amply volunteered, she still eluded some direct queries, “So, what do you do?”
“I do well.”
“Doing well; for questionnaires, ‘consultant’”
Another nugget of disclosure was that some flash mobs, but not all, are from Narlene’s home galaxy where this is how people stage celebrations/shindigs together. It was nice of earthling folks to embrace and evolve it, obviating any need to explain themselves. Lately, people are barely startled enough to fish out their cellphones.
Narlene explained that she physically developed to be pretty precisely like humans because the universe only has so many pathways for evolution and so many templates to start with. The trajectories that end up with humans, octopi and acres-wide fungus networks beneath the forest floor are among the dozen or so on our planet — look harder, folks - and the scant few hundred in the universe, so finding a broadly compatible species is not so harsh and there are simple procedures for body customizing.
This being Brooklyn, the wine bar doubled as a a barbecue joint, one with the smoker jutting out onto the sidewalk. There was a blond family, parents and two teenage daughters with pony tails, eating so strenuously that it was giving their foreheads a workout, bulges pumping where there should be barely enough muscle for frown lines. This got the conversation lurid enough for lucid recall.
Narlene said,” That business about identifying extraterrestrials by the involvement of forehead muscles in vigorous chewing is a calumny! It is an entirely human phenomenon and it is disgusting.”
“I’d never heard that. Or noticed it before.”
Alright, they’re not earthlings, but they’re not from my galaxy either. They should stay out of restaurants.”
“Bit of earthling intolerance there.”
“There’s a universal norm for this. It’s the bare minimum of common courtesy to gestate into the form of your hosts. And any knucklehead can accomplish this.”
“Are there other things to watch out for?”
“None so egregious.”
“Had I been on the lookout for it, I suppose your ‘tell’ was riding your bike up flights of stairs.”
“That’s not so tough. It’s like skipping stones. Just get into a rhythm at the proper speed and you’re only hitting the corners.”
“And then you take flight.”
“I actually looked into it the other day and the few folks who’ve mastered it take a bone-jolting ride up short, wide steps. And they have grotesque calves.”
“Like volleyballs. Unlike mine, right?” We feigned surreptitious to confirm that and both flashed an ‘okay’. Forehead aside, all of Narlene’s facial muscles were fully deployed in unalloyed mirth. This was virtually a new face. I realized that I’d never seen her remotely so relaxed. The ratio of enigmatic to charismatic had just flipped.
So, both dazzled and addled, Nikki and I had instantaneously (re-)bonded with Narlene and the momentum had inched towards a proposal for outing her with select friends and relatives of ours, those relatively few who knew or knew of her way, way back. She demurred kind of open-endedly and we went about with our merriment. The wine had unwound her plenty but she was still a bit reticent, at least by our brazen standards. Admittedly, this revelation was more consequential than being openly bisexual. Still, there was that lure of feeling that her abiding albeit covert friendship made us far more interesting people so I felt maybe too keen on getting her secret greenlighted for broadcasting.
A cousin of mine who was around for the Narlene era would be passing through town with her husband the next weekend. I knew that they’d met her a couple of times, “Okay to tell cousin Jeanine we’ll be five?”
“Getting there. I recall her as warm but bemused by your strange consort.”
“That’s nice. Give me time.”
The weekend approached with no greater breakthrough, than “I’ll let you know in advance if I’ll be turning up.”
The morning of our rendezvous there was an error message in my e-mail. It instructed me to click on an explanation of why my last message to Narlene (There’d been no uncompleted volleys since she’d resurfaced.) went undelivered. It opened onto a row of URLs for articles about “the sirens”, those crafty extraterrestrial babes who thrived on using their otherworldly wiles on earthlings, most notably those who would gaslight human males into believing that they also were aliens awakening to their true nature. The sources of these articles were highly disreputable, squarely within batshit range, but clustered within the past two days, so clearly a trending topic. The string was followed by the sign off,
No longer safe. Maybe catch you on the rebound.
P.S. Your memory is not faulty. My tongue is neither forked nor two feet long. Arrgh!
P.P.S. So, do you believe in guardian angels? They aren’t real but I can probably do a rough facsimile.
The alien seductress reports subsided after a while but nestled into the quotidian fabric like the monster under the bed. An origin story eventually emerged. It amounted to a QAnon off-shoot’s lunge for the spotlight, but it reinforced the unease over the prospect of aliens among us. The existence of that Erroll Morris movie is still being disputed. The actual ETs seem to have rode it out handily, but, as empaths, they were likely gutted by that flare-up in hostility, particularly the spike in young women being assaulted for alleged resemblance to the sirens. They were back to clandestine living for the foreseeable future.
Did she ever get back in touch with us? Can’t say that she has. Nope.