Mort spends the evening in his underwear, imagining that if a woman was with him the sight of his half-naked body would fill her eyes with lust. But if a woman was with him, he would not be in his underwear; he would be out with said woman, leaving star-dusted trails though their kingdom of merriment. They would rub feet under the table of a pretentiously formal restaurant, requesting from the stoic restaurant orchestra a bout of Dixieland jazz; to which the conductor or head violinist would roll his eyes, as would the waiter when he caught on to the game of footsie, as would the old couple made witness to their fondling in the elevator, as if to say, you two love birds need to get a room.
Back at Mort’s apartment they would step over each other’s feet, shedding clothes so fast they collapse onto the bed naked. Then she would look up and notice for the first time, since they hadn’t taken their eyes off each other, a Dixieland jazz band assembled by the radiator. She would give Mort a look that said, so that’s what you were up to, you sly, beautiful, almost tragically masculine man. And he would give her a look that said, you said you wanted magic (referring to when they met at a local magic show, proceeds for which went to starving children in Calcutta) then magic, my sweet, is what you get.
The music would start, the musicians with their faces turned down as per Mort’s request, since his companion’s friskiness would be anchored by a streak of well-bred modesty. The clarinet would play them through foreplay, the trombone coming in once the action got serious. In the apartment next door, Mr. and Mrs. Wilson would hear the music and smile, tapping their feet as they knitted and read by candlelight. What the Wilsons would not do is bang against the wall and threaten to call the police, and the noise of their knocking would not alert the Tabers, who live in the apartment on the other side of Mort’s, who too would start knocking in aggrieved response.
Meanwhile, back in Mort’s room, the band would be in full swing, as would he, so to speak. When he lowered his body onto his companion’s she would not squirm under his weight, but accept it, as though his heavier than usual body was a paradoxical relief, knowing she was with someone so physically abundant that under his cover she was safe. Although, this was probably impossible given her delicacy. So she may squirm a little, but she is a trooper, and had once said she would rather be smothered painfully by his body than breathe easy without him.
Then it would be over. Or no, not yet. She would be done, but he would be looking down at her as if to say, would you like me to be done? because if not I can go for hours yet. He lingers here, at the moment she would shake her head in disbelief, as if saying, my god, what did I do right to deserve you. She would, of course, tell him to finish at his leisure, that he deserved it, that he deserved more than he thought his due, more than even he could imagine.
He stops and rewinds, just before the moment she gives him the go-ahead. Before he can get there, one of the Wilsons bangs on the wall, says they can hear him breathing and is he having a heart attack, what with his weight. He doesn’t respond, tries to bring her back. Then the Wilsons say that if he doesn’t respond they will call an ambulance as per their good nature. So he says he’s okay, taking a nap and to please keep it down. Then the Tabers chime in, telling the Wilsons to mind their own business and leave the poor guy alone, and the Wilsons tell the Tabers they’re just trying to help, and Mort finally gets them all to quiet once he has established that he is okay and appreciates their concern. But when he returns to the room, the woman, the moment she will grant him his greatest pleasure, he can no longer control it, and the drummer of the jazz band intuits this, ensuring that Mort’s unexpected orgasm rolls into rim shot.
SoulMateSearch.com is headquartered in a middle floor of a downtown high rise, its mid-building positioning becoming a repeated metaphor for the company’s objective, which is to elevate love beyond the street level grit of daily life, but not so far off that it is ultimately unattainable. The staff writers gather in a conference room, all of them with shaved heads except for Mort, who watches the pale, freshly shaven heads with concern, a discrepancy to any fathomable logic, and yet a detail that leaves him feeling as though he, completely haired, is mired in some singular absurdity. When Mr. Stern, the company’s creative director, walks in, he too has a shaved head, and he looks around at the other shaved heads and then at Mort and says, “It’s nice to see so many of you joined in solidarity.”
Then Mr. Stern says that perhaps the best move—now that a camaraderie has been established that he hopes will carry Rita, a woman of monumental compassion and resolve, through the tough journey of chemotherapy—would be to press forward with business. And business, he stresses, is not all good. The meeting is a sort of troubleshooting session resulting from last week’s online testimonials which corporate saw as less than ideal, ideal being a testament to the historically generous nature of love. But what corporate saw in last week’s testimonials was love as gimmick, love as something selective and rare, rather than abundant and interconnecting.
Case in point: Mort’s testimonial, which had not been singled out but referred to in a meeting of the higher ups, had been from the point of view of a man with admittedly high standards. Finding no one in his social circle able to live up to these standards he signed up for a SoulMateSearch.com account, which led to Veronica, who enlightened him of the fact that love is a matter of finding that special someone you are spiritually meant for, and has nothing to do with being an internationally renowned model, studied in the art of tantric healing, with C-cupped breasts.
Mr. Stern invites the writers to think of love as a religion, SoulMateSearch.com being the church, and the “soul mate” being God. If one falls in love, they have found God. But what happens if that God fails them? Their faith gets shaken, and when one’s faith is shaken it takes time to get unshook. What the company wants, then, is not to provide God, but to provide the congregation. Though users think they are looking for that one idol infallible enough to be worthy of worship, what they’re really looking for are the people who will kneel with them in prayer.
In short: SoulMateSearch.com’s service is not, as the name would suggest, to match you with one person, but to match you with humanity, to establish a community of like-minded and like-hearted, a community of repeat users. So in order to reorient the writers with the infinite joys of human connection, Mr. Stern says he is instigating a mandatory assignment, where the writers will be paired up and spend the evening together as though it is a first date, leading to testimonials that are true to the human experience, which, the poets would agree, is the experience of love.
As Mr. Stern reads the assigned pairs, Mort is staring at Rita, who had, about a month ago, announced that she was diagnosed with stage three lymphatic cancer. That day had been tough, people crying, embracing, gathering in the break room and around the water cooler with shrugs meant to say, you never know what to expect out of life and I’m grateful to be here, grateful you are here as well.
Mort, uncomfortable with such scenes, had held out in his cubicle.
Looking at Rita now, he tries to be thankful, as must the others in the room, that he does not have cancer, that, even though he finds less and less unclaimed time in which to dream, he does have time and can dream. Then Rita looks at him, as if she has intuited that her hardship has provided Mort a modicum of contentment. But it turns out she is looking at him because he is her assigned date for the evening, her escort into a world of synthetic affection. She does not look thrilled.
After the meeting, as the other pairs begin making arrangements, Mort approaches Rita. Even as others wilted at her sobering announcement, she held it together. A single woman in her late thirties, she has never seemed given to sentimentality, a stark contrast to her typical testimonials, which are often about women who, after years of fruitlessly wading through a sea of losers, had finally found some great prize, a prince among dirtbags, thanks to SoulMateSearch.com.
“Don’t worry about not shaving your head,” Mort imagines her saying. “It’s a pretty silly way to show support. In fact, there’s something dignified about the way you stood up to this strange pretense of solidarity, when in truth, I’m the one dying, alone.”
He imagines telling her those were exactly his thoughts and that he respects her too much to turn her disease into a novelty, a false notion of goodwill that he can boast about at the next poker night. But as he approaches, none of this seems to light on her face. Instead, she tells him she’ll meet him at a restaurant at eight, and they should go back to his place afterwards to write, since her mother, who’s staying with her, would not be keen on having company. “And make sure you keep the place warm,” she says, staring him straight in the eyes and motioning to her pale head. “As you can see, I tend to run cold.”
Mort tries to imagine Rita in his apartment, and in his mind she is larger than in reality, sucking the air out of the tiny place, leaving Mort out of breath and exhilarated. He imagines them sipping wine, which will nourish their intimacy so that he will have the courage to ask about her cancer. She will tell him that her life has become difficult, but what’s most difficult is the fact that she has no one to brace her through it. From there, he jumps to a hospital waiting room. Maybe he will accompany her into the doctor’s office, where she will receive the good news: her cancer is in total, definite remission, if that’s even possible. And at the celebratory party he will throw for her, Rita stands to give a toast, saying she’s been through the greatest trial of her life, and would not be here today without Mort, her rock, the person she has waited for forever.
But when he meets her at the restaurant, she looks nauseous. As he sits down, she hurries to the bathroom, which she does twice more over the course of dinner, each time returning with the exhausted, disoriented expression of someone who has just vomited. She picks at her meal, looking down at her plate while Mort makes nervous small talk. When the bill comes she insists on paying her half.
After dinner, they drive in separate cars to his apartment. He excuses himself, and in the bathroom takes a deep breath, troubled by a wave of anxiety that comes from allowing another into a space so intimate it is like letting them read your thoughts. If she were to read his thoughts now, she would see that he is running through the gamut of unlikely situations ending with this night becoming a love story.
When he leaves the bathroom, he expects Rita to be doubled over in nausea, either from the chemo or the company. But she has laid out her notebook and pens on his coffee table, has put on her reading glasses, and is scratching her bald head, ready to work.
Mort suggests, as Mr. Stern advised, that they use material from their actual experience of the night. Like what if they write a testimonial from the point of view of a woman who has cancer and who fears having no one with her at the—
She cuts him off, saying, let her guess, some man comes to her aid, investing in her even though she cannot guarantee him a future; doesn’t he sound chivalrous.
He tells her perhaps chivalry is what users are looking for, the idea that no matter how undesirable the situation there will always be someone to—
She cuts him off again, telling him no one would buy it, this is exactly what corporate doesn’t want, a gimmick.
He suggests maybe the woman survives her cancer. What are the odds?
She tells him they aren’t good.
As he is stumbling to recover a narrative in which this night could yield some fruitful ending, the Wilsons knock against the wall, asking if that’s an intruder and if so, they’re calling the cops.
“It’s me,” Mort calls back. “And I’m working, if you could just keep it—“
Mrs. Wilson asks who else is there, they heard two voices and is it a woman, to which Rita replies that though she is a woman she is only a colleague. Mr. Wilson says that’s good, a man needs a companion. Rita emphasizes that this is only a one-time thing, it’s for work, not social. Mr. Taber chimes in then from his apartment, telling Mr. Wilson to leave Mort and his date alone. Rita reiterates this isn’t a date, and Mr. Wilson tells Mr. Taber to leave him alone, can’t he hear they’re in the middle of something.
Mort tries to quiet their bickering, but they pay no attention to him. He turns to Rita, hoping he will see a look of amusement on her face, a look he will always remember and will share with her once they’ve created a breadth of history, saying, that first night when the Tabers and the Wilsons were going at it, I very distinctly remember the look of amusement on your face. And she will say, yes, there was amusement, as well as love and appreciation for you.
But when he looks at her, there is no love or appreciation or amusement. Her hairless face is scrunched in disgust, as Mr. Taber warns Mr. Wilson to mind his own damn business.
Mort’s walls suddenly seem porous, and he feels as though too many voices have infiltrated his space, have come to taint the perfect images he sees in his mind. There is a pattern to his thinking, he realizes, a pattern that begins with unblemished happiness, then gives way to reality. For this reason, his SoulMateSearch.com testimonials come easy to him. As he sees it, the service they provide is one dependent on illusion, what love can be as opposed to what it is, and of the former he has become an expert.
If Mort could exist only in his mind, he would exist in a world where all tumors are benign, where all walls are impenetrable, where he is appreciated and admired for all the things he thinks he should be appreciated and admired for, the things nobody knows about him, that he clenches his feet on cold tile, that he feels breathtaking sadness in the silence that follows a passing train, that his only desire is for things to be good, good for everybody, even those he does not know.
Now, Rita is looking at Mort so pointedly his mind contracts. What comes out is an image of her at the office, laughing with their coworkers around the water cooler as Mort’s mouth goes dry with the realization that his pleasant inner life has come under the scrutiny of a discerning outside world.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taber are vehemently exchanging insults, banging on the walls so hard it is a wonder they do not crack. Mort imagines them cracking, the landlord on her monthly inspection asking him where the cracks came from and why did he try to conceal them with what appears to be toothpaste. Then the walls do crack, and Mort does not know, at first, if it is really happening. Plumes of drywall sift through the deepening fissure, clumps crumbling at the force of Mr. Wilson’s fists. And so too does something inside Mort crumble, the wall that had for so long been his protection. The fracture has now become an opening as round as Mort’s gaping mouth. Mr. Wilson slips through the open wall, entering Mort’s living room in slippers and robe. Mrs. Wilson sticks her perplexed head through the Mr. Wilson-sized hole and warns him not to throw out his back. Mr. Wilson ignores her—just as he ignores Mort’s pleas for him to return to his apartment until they can figure out how to deal with the broken wall situation—and calls out to Mr. Taber, tells him to put his money where his mouth is, or is he a coward, hiding behind his wall.
Now, the wall behind Mort begins to crack as Mr. Taber pounds a hole big enough that he too can enter Mort’s apartment. He and Mr. Wilson go toe to toe, the two of them breathing hard, in a heated, drywall dusted standoff.
Mort pleads with both men to return to their apartments. But neither man retreats, and now, even Mort’s imagination fails him. He tries to conjure a scenario ending with he and Rita immersed in some affirmation of love, but can only see the two holes into his apartment as the holes of his imagination that he has always tried to fill with happy endings.
The two old men circle each other like geriatric sharks in a sea of Mort’s discontent. He sits down, unable to stop them, and looks at Rita, imagines he sees her laughing, and that her laughter makes him laugh, and they put their arms around each other, laughing at the absurdity of life as only they, in this moment, can appreciate. Or he sees Rita crying, horrified, despairing the fact that not only is she dying, but this is what she will leave behind, a life where she had once spent a horrendously awful night with a man merely assigned her.
But as the men raise their fists, Rita takes Mort’s hand. He realizes her scrunched face is not disgust, but pity, pity for what he is going through. She says, “I’m sorry for what you are going through.” He asks her what she means, and she tells him she knows a thing or two about unexpected misfortunes, motioning to her bald head, her hairless face, her clean, smooth, alien concern. His hand is still in hers; she moves closer, and he wants her to move closer, because he has never felt this close to anyone.
Mr. Wilson and Mr. Taber have stopped circling. They watch Mort and Rita. Mort: plump and soft, an excess of something he cannot release; Rita: thin, drained to the last stage of purity; the two of them, maybe, embodiments of love and loss.
Mort cannot speak, he cannot move beyond this unexpected moment in his head, the moment that has so thrown his life off track, he does not know which direction to go. He pictures himself standing in a desert, at a desolate four way stop. And just when he looks up into the blaring sun and calls for guidance, Rita squeezes his hand and tells him what someone must have recently told her, something sentimental, something manufactured, but which, in this strange and perplexing moment, seems the only thing worth paying attention to.
“I know it’s difficult,” she says. “But try to remember, you’re not alone.”