Models; movie stars; captains of industry; aliens from eons-old civilizations who had come to Earth a half-million years ago and now blended in almost indistinguishably from humans—they all came into Mister Miagi's, the hot new Japanese fusion restaurant that had everybody talking. The head chef was a celebrity, and everybody wanted a piece of the rice and raw fish action. Meat-Packing District, New York City. Manhattan baby, the big time. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. Which is also what aliens say about Earth when they're deciding which planet they should migrate to. Earth baby, the big time: if you can respirate the atmosphere there, if you can develop resistance to the microorganisms there, you can adapt to almost anywhere.
Jerome wasn't stricken by the presence of celebrities, but it was interesting to see who might pop in. On a given night there might be a dozen famous people dining in the restaurant, and a dozen lesser-known but still breathtaking models getting staggering drunk in the lounge. Jerome was a bartender at Mister Miagi's, working the service bar on the top floor in the main dining hall. Service bar was a great gig because one only had to make drinks for the wait-staff, didn't have to run a single tab, and shared in the tip pool for the restaurant where the bulk of the money was made. Further, the bar itself was set far off to the side, with the front window opening out onto the top of the service stairs, which lead down to the basement level where the lounge was. Almost nobody in the restaurant could see in, which for a bartender is a magnificent thing. One can drink occasionally on the job, one can eat the food waiters and kitchen staff bring them on the sly, and one is privy to all the gossip because every worker on the floor congregates around this station when they have a couple minutes to relax.
However, the service bar wasn't completely cut off from the restaurant. The diners sitting along the far left section of the sushi bar had their backs turned to the bartenders, and the sushi chefs who could have looked in were generally far too busy for even a brief glance. Their focus was unbreakable, partly because the expectations for food presentation were so high, and partly because they worked with outrageously sharp knives. If they but looked up for one distracted second, it could easily have meant the loss of a hand, finger, or even toe. Worse still, a chef could accidentally kill the man working next to him, perhaps by negligently cutting a primary artery with a wayward meat cleaver.
But there was one table unique to the rest. Just to the right of service bar's front window there was a seat from which a single diner had the ability to peer in on the goings-on. Table 64, a four-top. It was a corner table sitting along the outside edge of a wall built out of stacked, illuminated water bottles. From the perspective of the bar this table was blocked from view by an enormous square concrete pillar, save for Position #1, which faced the service window. Not exactly at a perpendicular angle, but one very close to being so. Through the six inches of empty space between the concrete pillar and the water-bottle wall, the person sitting in the Position #1 chair could peer directly into the service bar but nowhere else. It was from this vantage point that supermodel Tyra Banks had spent well over an hour casting bizarre glances in Jerome's direction.
That afternoon Jerome had been getting buckets of ice for his evening shift from the ice machine downstairs. Stiller, the lounge bartender, told Jerome that popular comedian Dave Chappelle would be in that night.
"And there's more," said Stiller.
"He's coming in with Tyra Banks."
"Tyra Banks the idiotic supermodel?"
"Weird. I wonder what Dave Chappelle would be doing with Tyra Banks," I said.
"Why wouldn't he be with Tyra Banks?"
"I don't know. I guess he seems pretty down to earth, you know. Lives on a farm in Ohio, passed up fifty million dollars to continue his television show. His comedy is intelligent and incisive. Tyra Banks seems exactly like the kind of person he wouldn't like, or at least the kind he would scathingly mock in one of his sketches."
"So you know what kind of person Dave Chappelle is now, eh?" Stiller was skeptical.
"I'm not saying I've peered into the guy's soul, but it's the impression I get."
"Whatever. They're here together tonight so you must be wrong."
"Maybe they're talking business," Jerome said.
"Yeah maybe. What kind of business?"
"How the hell should I know—maybe Tyra is just a fan and it's considered bad juju to turn her down when she asks you out to dinner."
"I kind of think Tyra looks like an alien," observed Stiller.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Jerome asked.
"Nothing, I guess."
Who was Tyra Banks? To Jerome she was an inexplicable cipher. Far more successful than her supermodel peers, she had turned her career wearing clothes and being photographed into two hit television shows, the vapid but mildly entertaining America's Next Top Model and the vapid, unentertaining talk show Tyra.
How does somebody who appears patently unintelligent and uninformed become, if not a media giant, at least a media superstar? Jerome had seen America's Next Top Model all of three times, and had never been able to make it through more than fifteen minutes. But he recognized it as somehow a cultural indicator, a program of the times, reflecting the desire almost all young women have to be beautiful, famous, rich, and glamorous. If America's Next Top Model was Tyra's homage to profound superficiality, her talk show was the forum in which she aimed at real depth, though rarely appeared to achieve any. It was clear that she wanted to be some kind of Oprah Winfrey, not just a celebrity, but a woman working wonders in the world and bringing hope and happiness to millions. Tyra however seemed so oriented to the surface, and so lacking in true humanity, that her efforts came off as ludicrous. Jerome hadn't seen much of the show, but he did see that somewhat remarkable episode where Tyra put on a fat suit so she could for one day experience what it was like to be obese. At the end of the show she sat with two gigantic women, who all held each other and cried, leaving the viewer to wonder just how insane or self-centered Tyra was if she really believed herself to now comprehend the depths of misery that grossly overweight women experience in response to the prejudice of others. Who was this Tyra Banks? Was she even real? Jerome always had the sense that if one performed a dissection of her body, they would find no anus, no vagina, and varieties of internal organs never before seen in a human being, or on planet Earth for that matter.
Hours later, around ten o'clock, Dave and Tyra came in and were seated at Table 64, along with a second woman who was apparently Tyra's friend or manager. Dave ordered a non-alcoholic beer, which I thought unusual. I don't know why it was surprising. I suppose it was because literally nobody had ever ordered a non-alcoholic beer, and because Dave was a celebrity it was easy to expect him to be knee-deep in alcohol, drugs, hookers and hard living. But Jerome's startle was tentatively neutralized by the fact that Dave did appear stoned out of his mind, or at the very least tired. Imagining him stoned was no trouble as he often spoke about his marijuana use in his act. If he had been anybody else, Jerome would have simply guessed he was exhausted. Maybe that's why he ordered a non-alcoholic, Jerome mused. He didn't want to fall asleep in Tyra's presence. Likely she would find anything other than alert fascination with herself superlatively offensive. Tyra herself ordered one of Mister Miagi's specialty martinis made with wasabi-infused vodka. Sounds terrible but it wasn't half-bad. Jerome was somewhat taken aback that she drank and ate like a normal person, because if she had neither anus or vagina he couldn't imagine how she would excrete waste. Perhaps it came out her pores, if pores she had. Or maybe Tyra carried a rubber-lined purse in her lap into which she cleverly dumped all her meals and beverages, discreetly throwing them out at the first convenient moment.
It was policy at Mister Miagi's to fire any staff member found initiating contact with well-known guests. If one spoke with them in anything other than a business context, it was out the door and the following paycheck would be your last. Servers of course could yak it up freely, admit they knew who the celebrity was, insist they were big fans, and otherwise practice the art of sycophancy. At least so long as it didn't go beyond the bounds of good taste and become annoying to the star. It was preferred that servers simply treat famous guests as they would any other guest (or just slightly better), and not acknowledge their star status. So it was that servers who made the least indication of knowing who a celebrity was were singled out to work their table.
Jerome liked his job for the most part. He didn't want to be fired. And maybe he wouldn't have, but it's possible that had he been free to talk to Tyra Banks on his own terms, he would have discreetly leaned his face into the six-inch space between the pillar and the wall and said, "Trya, why the fuck have you been staring at me the entire evening?" If anything, it would have been interesting to see what kind of reaction he'd receive.
Earlier while Jerome was mixing a Cosmo he had felt somebody's eyes heavily upon him. But who did they belong to? It wasn't the managers, it wasn't any of the sushi chefs. For some time he labored under the peculiar feeling, having no source from which to place it. But by chance he looked to his right, and lo and behold took note of two gleaming peepers boring into him. Eyes which belonged to Tyra Banks. Jerome looked away, assuming it was just a chance eye contact. He finished his order before looking back. The dark eyes were still on him, penetrating, as if her gaze hadn't once been averted in the meantime.
"Hey Brian," Jerome said to the other bartender a few minutes later, "Tyra Banks is staring at me." Jerome had by then taken regular peeks towards Tyra, and every time he'd looked she was looking back at him.
"Yeah," said Brian. "She's staring at me too. I think she wants to take me home and bang my brains out. But I'm not going to. I have a girlfriend you know."
"No seriously, she's been staring at me all night. And it's the weirdest look I've ever gotten."
Andrea, the sommelier, had come in the main door to grab a bottle of wine and overheard the conversation. "Maybe she thinks you're hot," she said.
"Tyra Banks thinks I'm hot? I don't think so. This chick sees the best-looking guys in the world all the time. Why would she think I'm hot?"
"You're cute," Andrea came up and pinched Jerome's cheek.
"Do you think she wants me for her modeling show? Do I have what it takes?"
Andrea and Brian both inspected Jerome from head to toe, shaking their heads.
"What is that supposed to mean?" Jerome asked.
"You're not a bad-looking guy," offered Andrea. "But I wouldn't say you look like the other male models who come in here. They have better hair, better physiques, narrower faces. I think they're usually taller too."
"I'm six feet tall!" Jerome protested.
"So? They're like six two."
"Okay but first of all, if I was already a model I would have a lot better hair and a perfect physique too. Those guys are paid to work out and get their hair done. Secondly, there are a lot of models who have untraditional looks, that's what makes them visually interesting."
Andrea laughed, "If you think she wants you to model, go ask her."
Brian said, "Yeah, you think you're going to be discovered on the street like some chick at a mall or Giselle in Brazil?"
"All I'm saying is that woman is staring at me." Jerome turned to Andrea, "I'm not ugly or anything am I? She's not thinking like, who is this ugly motherfucker making drinks?"
Andrea said, "No, I don't think she'd be thinking that. Who knows?" And she left to deliver her wine.
Jerome didn't think he was a bad looking guy, but certainly not model material. Andrea was right, he didn't much resemble the models who had come into the restaurant. The Tyra situation reminded him vaguely of a night when Calvin Klein had rented out half the restaurant for a company party. Jerome hadn't been working but had been dining at the sushi bar with a friend. One of the men, probably not a model but one of the administrators or photographers, had also been giving him a strange look whenever he walked by. It was neither bad nor good, but Jerome had decided it leaned towards the negative. He'd been wearing a striped shirt with striped slacks and though they were close they weren't the perfect match. So Jerome figured the guy was thinking he was a total douche-bag for wearing such an uncoordinated outfit. The guy had kind of a cocky, snobbish, jerk-off yuppie look, but he looked good. It was easy to imagine him judging everybody who passed his gaze and wasn't in the top ten percentile of attractiveness as a frumpy and boorish troll.
The present situation with Tyra was different, however. He wasn't dressed in his own clothes, but the Mister Miagi's uniform, black slacks and black shirt. Even if the shirt's black didn't quite match that of the pants, Tyra couldn't see the pants and so couldn't have made that call. Besides, the look on her face was entirely unfathomable. It wasn't critical, it wasn't glowing. It was neutral but not indifferent. Her eyes were alive and alight with some strange thoughts, and had Jerome been pressed to say he would have claimed the gaze skewed ever so slightly to the side of favorable, though it hardly came across as complimentary. But he didn't dare imagine one of the most famously beautiful women in the world being infatuated with him merely on account of his dazzling appearance. Yet there was nothing about him so repulsive or freakish it would satisfy anybody's taste for the grotesque.
"Brian," Jerome said, "take a look, man. Don't lean over the bar though. Walk over to the stairs like you have to get something, then check her out. I'm telling you, it's not a judgmental look or a favorable look. It's completely indecipherable. But it's not a blank stare either. There's something going on inside that woman's head. I can see hamster wheels spinning."
Brian left the bar to take a look. Upon his return he said, "Yep, that chick is definitely staring at you."
"Weird. Do you think she's bored or something, and is just finding somewhere to plant her gaze?"
"Why would she be bored? Her assistant doesn't look bored. She's having a grand old time. And they're with Dave Chappelle. I bet he makes interesting conversation."
"Yeah but Chappelle looks like he's about to pass out or he's stoned out of his mind. He ordered a non-alcoholic beer for fuck's sake." Jerome had passed the table earlier pretending he had a reason to go into the kitchen. He'd taken a roundabout way behind Tyra's head, and thereby espied the drowsy-looking Dave Chappelle.
Sammy was their server. He was a young, good-looking flamboyant gay man. He came to put in a couple drink orders for another table. "Hey Sammy," I said, "you serving 64?"
"Dave and Tyra?"
"That I am."
"Well what's the deal with Tyra? She's been staring at me for over an hour now. Don't look."
"Are you sure she's staring at you?"
"Well what else is there over here to stare at? She has a direct line of sight, and if she isn't staring at me she's staring at the liquor bottles on the shelf behind me, and I have no idea why they would be so captivating." Jerome and Sammy both looked at the liquor shelf. Just bottles of booze, nothing most human beings living outside Saudi Arabia haven't seen at one time or another in their lives. "Although," mused Jerome, "she does kind of look like she's staring past me. It's like that old thousand-yard stare soldiers get, you know?"
"I don't know. Hello, do you think they'd let me in the military?" Sammy struck a resoundingly homosexual pose. Head back melodramatically, right hand hanging limp-wristedly in the air.
"When they've killed a lot of people, or are shell-shocked or something, soldiers get this look occasionally like they're staring off into some distant horizon. The thousand-yard stare. Kind of like a flashback."
"Ooooooh," moaned Sammy, leaning in. "Do you think Tyra is a serial killer? That would make an interesting musical."
"How the hell should he know, Sammy," said Brian, "does he look like her biographer?"
"Let me go ask them if they need anything," said Sammy.
While Sammy was at their table Jerome leaned over and met Tyra's gaze directly for five seconds. She gave no indication that Sammy was addressing the table, nor that she and Jerome were meeting eyes. Her face was frozen, her eyes alight with whatever strange thoughts were coursing through her mind. It must be strange to have Tyra Banks' mind, thought Jerome. I'll bet it's like a circus of the surreal in there.
Sammy returned. "Well, she's definitely looking over here. She didn't even notice I was there."
"What do you think? Am I like this super-hot guy who doesn't even realize it?"
"Hard to say," said Sammy, pinching Jerome's cheek. "You're kinda cute."
"What are they talking about at the table? Is she bored?"
"I don't know. The other woman is definitely more lively than the other two. She seems to be having fun. But Dave's like falling asleep, and Tyra—I don't know—she's always kind of looked like an alien to me."
"She just has that big forehead, you know? Kind of domelike, like a little green man, or a grey." Sammy walked with his hands up like ET, or Frankenstein or a zombie or something. Sammy wanted to be an actor. Jerome didn't think he was going to make it. At least he had the dialogue right. "ET phone home, ET phone home," he gurgled as he went around in a circle.
"That woman is beautiful, man. Exotic but definitely gorgeous. How would you know, you're gay."
"Whatever," said Sammy. "Let's just put it this way. If I were straight, I wouldn't fuck her."
"Yeah? Who would you fuck?"
Sammy considered the question with his index finger on his lips and eyes closed. "Let me see—Naomi Watts. Heather Locklear. And that one girl who starred in Bridge to Terabithia."
"Dude, she's like fourteen."
"I'd wait until she was sixteen," Sammy leaned in with a big mischievous grin on his face. "Then I'd fuck her brains out."
"Yeah," Brian said, "but you'd probably fuck them all in the ass, huh?"
Sammy smirked facetiously at Brian. "Don't you wish, hot stuff." He left to deliver a water bottle to one of his tables.
Nearly an hour later Jerome said to Brian, "They must be having a decent time. They're still here."
"She still staring at you?"
"She sure is. Hey, you know what I'm going to do? Before they leave I'm just going to meet her gaze until she looks away. Have a staring contest. You think I'll get in trouble?"
"Maybe. But I say go for it. If she says anything I'm sure you can explain the situation. I'll back you up."
Jerome continued making drinks, working up the courage to stare Tyra Banks down. It wasn't such a big deal, but he felt a little nervous. His heart rate increased, he had butterflies in his stomach. But he had to do it, had to see what happened. He told Sammy to inform him when they'd asked for their check. "Will do," said Sammy, and about fifteen minutes later told Jerome they'd asked for the bill and were getting ready to leave. It was now or never.
Jerome took a breath and steadied his nerves. Bracing himself for whatever happened next, he rested his elbow casually on the far left of the service bar, and nonchalantly met Tyra's gaze. It was a little unusual at first, slightly uncomfortable. But again she made no indication he was looking at her or that they'd locked eyes, and this made it less awkward than it otherwise might have been.
About ten seconds into it a strange euphoric feeling came over Jerome. He felt light-headed though not faint, and felt buoyed up or supported by water, as if he were free-floating languidly in a glass tank filled with dense embryonic fluid. He slipped into a mesmerized, hypnotic state, and somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that he could not look away even if he chose to. The feeling of free-floating in a tank became so strong that Jerome began to visualize it vividly. There he was in a tall cylindrical tank, unconsciously afloat in a clear pinkish fluid. There was a breathing tube inserted into his mouth and wires attached to various parts of his body. He was nude. He then saw that his was not the only tank, but only one among a long row of them, each one housing a different person in some kind of embryonic sleep. It was an enormous warehouse of a kind, or loading bay of a gigantic ship. It was a spaceship, crossing the universe divide, and Jerome briefly saw it as it appeared from the outside, making its way silently across the dark, empty eons of cosmic space.
A very low, baritone, sultry, humming voice took shape inside his mind and seemed to fill it. It felt like an external voice, as if some being were telepathically impressing it inside his head. At first a droll hum, it quickly fashioned into words. 'I am not of this Earth, and neither are you. Hundreds of thousands of years ago we came here to escape our planet, which was dying. Our gravitational pull had decreased and our atmosphere was floating away from us. Our moons were gradually coming nearer the planet, siphoning off our air and creating great storms upon the waters. We searched the proximate galaxy for a host planet, and found Earth the most suitable to our needs. In enormous ships we came, stored in hibernation tanks. For tens of thousands of years we crossed the mighty gulf of space. We dreamt, and lived for eons inside our dreams. We as a species always had slight telepathic powers, but in the ships we linked up telepathically and lived inside a mental community, a civilization made up of nothing but dreams that lasted a hundred times longer than any civilization Earth has yet seen upon its surface. When we arrived on Earth we found it most agreeable to the physical adaptations we had already developed on our own planet. Oxygen, nitrogen, and the other gases which composed your breathable atmosphere were the same that made up our own, though in different proportion.
'In fact, the planet was so like ours we found that a similar evolutionary history was taking place, and that the simian form was quickly approaching states of advanced consciousness. Our species felt that there were likely other forms of consciousness besides that which resides in the simian body type, but we had never encountered any. Indeed, on most of the life-bearing planets of which we were aware, only organisms with rudimentary forms of consciousness existed. The humanoids on Earth were closest of all to approaching our level of evolutionary sophistication. At that time there existed a number of humanoids, all in the primate form. The ancestors of your kind were the most advanced, and we found that with some genetic modifications we could breed with them. There were many tens of thousands of us, and even though we found the environment congenial we could not guarantee our continued existence unless we could breed with a native species and create a hybrid being. Nearly half of us were commissioned to interbreed with humanoids, while the other half would maintain the integrity of the alien gene pool.
'Those who interbred by turns became what you call homo sapiens, and those who didn't remained a species utterly alien to the planet. But socially and culturally there was a convergence, so that our kind cohabited with yours and developed civilization together. From the strength and quality of your telepathic radiation, it is estimated that your great-grandfather was a full-blooded alien who bred at some point with a human, your great-grandmother. The signal grows weaker with each generation, and should you breed with a human, your children will have only trace amounts of alien psychology. If they breed with humans, their children will have none or only imperceptible amounts. We still consider persons of your percentage as potentially members of our alien race, but you must have a name. Because you are a child of the stars, a star man, I shall christen you as Rudolfo the Wanderer. You shall always be estranged from your alien kind, yet not fully human, and as such you will go through your life as a sojourner, never fully partaking of either of your kinds' sensibility."
Then just like that, the spell was broken, and Jerome shook the trance's residuals from his head. Tyra was gone and he realized they'd paid the check and were getting up to leave the restaurant. Brian appeared at Jerome's side. "Well," he said, "how'd it go?"
"How long have I been staring at her?" Jerome asked in wonder.
"About thirty seconds."
Jerome shook his head and scratched his chin, then said absentmindedly, "I think she gave me a star name, Rudolfo the Wanderer."
Brian raised his eyebrows before saying, "I think you need a drink partner." He filled a highball a third of the way with Grand Marnier, then hid the glass beneath a towel. "Whenever you're ready," he said.
Jerome squatted and downed the Marnier in one gulp, set the glass down and drifted away into a curious contemplation. The star man alone with his star man thoughts.