What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

by Raymond Carver
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 799

Nick, who is Mel’s close friend, recounts a conversation that the two men and their wives had over gin and tonics in Mel and Terri’s kitchen. The remembered dialogue is dominated by Mel, who is determined to articulate a definition of real love. Nick occasionally departs from recounting the conversation to remark briefly on the room, or on the progress of their drunkenness, or to give background information about himself or whoever is speaking. The story begins with Nick’s suggestion that because Mel was a cardiologist, that sometimes “gave him the right.”

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Nick says, as background information, that Mel spent time in a seminary before going to medical school. Mel thinks that real love is nothing less than spiritual love. Terri recalls Ed, the man with whom she lived before she lived with Mel. Ed, she says, loved her so much he tried to kill her. She describes his brutal treatment of her, and she wonders what can be done about love like that.

Mel disagrees strongly with Terri’s contention that Ed’s feelings for her were love. As they argue about it, Mel accuses Terri of being a romantic. Nick and Laura are reluctant to judge, but when Terri says that when she left Ed, he drank rat poison, Laura is shocked. Mel tells them that Ed is dead and begins another story about Ed’s violence and his death, to which Mel was privy because he was on call in the emergency room. Mel emphasizes how Ed regularly threatened them. Laura in particular wants to know the end of the story of Ed. Terri and Mel disagree about whether it was right or not for Terri to sit with Ed when he died grotesquely as a cumulative result of his suicide attempts.

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When Nick and Laura make physically romantic gestures toward each other, Terri cynically teases them, saying that only because they have been together for the short time of a year and a half do they still feel romantic. They break the tension by refilling their glasses and toasting to love.

At this stage in their drunkenness, Nick describes the yard outside as an enchanted place. Mel continues, wondering what anyone really knows about love, talking about how fleeting “carnal, sentimental” love is. Mel maintains that if any one of them died, that person’s partner would go off and find someone new. Mel is also bewildered at how he could once have loved his first wife and now so thoroughly hate her. Terri worries that he is getting drunk. The situation becomes tense for a moment, and Laura dissipates the tension by claiming they all love him. Mel does not seem to recognize her as the wife of his friend, but he says that he loves her too.

Getting increasingly drunk, Mel tries to illustrate the concept of real love by telling a gory story about a car accident in which a couple in their mid-seventies is critically injured. Terri interrupts him again, then tells him that she loves him, and he says that he loves her, something they repeat throughout the story as they disagree or ridicule each other. Mel goes off on tangents about wearing seat belts, finishing the gin, and wishing to be a knight. He confuses “vassals” with “vessels.” His language and manner get more belligerent and careless. He is temporarily quieted by Nick’s observation that sometimes knights suffocated in their armor. Laura asks Mel to finish his story about the old couple. Terri gets sarcastic about Mel’s behavior and they exchange words. The room grows darker as the sun sets.

When Laura again asks Mel what happened, he makes a drunken pass at her, saying if they were not all in their present situation, he would carry her off. Terri tells him to finish his story so they can go to dinner. The story ends like a bad joke, bringing drunken despair for Mel, who still cannot explain what he is saying. He is depressed and wants to call his children. Terri talks about Mel’s hated former wife, Marjorie, and reminds him that she might answer the phone. It is clear Terri also hates Marjorie, and Mel fantasizes that he would like to go to her house in a beekeeper’s suit and release a swarm of bees, to which she is allergic. He would, he muses, only do this if the children were not home. He also wishes that she would get married again.

Mel is too drunk to do anything. In fact, everyone is too drunk to rise and go to eat, although Laura says she is hungry. Mel turns his glass over and spills his drink on the table. They all sit in the dark, listening to their hearts beat.

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