What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
A reflection on the Raymond Carver short story. Ray Carver’s classic is on an Esquire list of 75 books that every man should read. The complete piece by Fred Moramarco, a professor at San Diego State University can be found here. My selection starts here:
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” takes place in the narrator’s kitchen where he and his wife are sitting around a table with another couple drinking gin and talking. As the story begins the kitchen is flooded with daylight, and the character who utters much of the story’s dialogue, Mel, is holding forth on the subject of “love.”
It’s significant that Mel is a heart surgeon, for we are about to get a dissection of the ways of the heart in the contemporary world. In addition, the fact that Mel is a doctor has the others deferring to him constantly. The story is narrated by the male half of one of the couples, a man named Nick who tells us in the very first sentences: “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” This immediately establishes Mel’s social status and authority, anticipating his domination of the conversation. In fact, nearly 80% of the dialogue in the story is Mel’s and his views on love virtually roll over those of the others.
Mel and his second wife Terri are a relatively seasoned couple (by contemporary standards) — they have been married four years and together for five–who have been through a good deal together. Both had tumultuous previous relationships.
Mel has a very hostile relationship with his ex-wife, Marjorie; he’s still paying her alimony and toward the end of the story he says “She’s allergic to bees….If I’m not praying she’ll get married again, I’m praying she’ll get herself stung to death by a swarm of fucking bees.” Terri, meanwhile, was previously involved with a batterer named Ed, who shot himself after Terri and Mel moved in together. Terri’s insistence that Ed loved her — and that he was willing to die for his love is a sore point between the couple.
Mel insists equally that Ed’s violence negates the possibility of love. His background as a seminarian before attending medical school taught him that “spiritual” love is the only “real” love: “The kind of love I’m talking about,” he says, “you don’t try to kill people.” Terri, reflecting something of the “battered woman” profile, persists in her view that Ed loved her: “In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t.”
This conflict is a 1980’s version of the epiphany that occurs at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead” when Gabriel Conroy discovers his wife Gretta had a relationship with a man (appropriately named) Michael Furey who loved her so much he caught pneumonia while singing her love songs on a cold and rainy night imploring her not to leave.
Though Michael Furey and Ed on the surface may seem the antithesis of one another, both are utterly dependent on the woman they love; neither finds life worth living without her. While this kind of passionate intensity is an anathema in an age of “co-dependency,” Joyce and Carver want us to consider questions about the meaning of love as it actually occurs in the world—both the world of early 20th century Dublin that Joyce wrote about, and the world of late 20th century Albuquerque, New Mexico, the transient western U.S. city where Carver’s story is set.
Carver’s story, however, is much less “place specific” than Joyce’s. In an Interview with Gail Caldwell, Carver says that most of his stories could take place anywhere: “…it’s an emotional landscape I’m most interested in. These four people in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ could be sitting around a table in Albuquerque, or El Paso—but they could just as easily be in Wichita or Syracuse.”
The emotional landscape of “What We Talk About” involves recording the state of mind of the two couples as they move through a mid-afternoon and early evening talking about all kinds of love — spiritual, carnal, platonic, possessive, brutal, obsessive, unrequited, and even parental, searching for what “real” love is. Mel and Terri’s tumultuous and volatile love history of love is explicitly contrasted that of with Nick and Laura, who are also in a second marriage but have known one another for just a year and a half and are still in a state of what some pop psychologists call “limmerance,” that remarkable time in the early days of a relationship when lovers have a hard time keeping their eyes and hands off one another.
Mel, who is the narrator of the story, says “I touched the back of Laura’s hand. She gave me a quick smile. I picked up Laura’s hand. It was warm, the nails polished, perfectly manicured. I encircled the broad wrist with my fingers, and I held her.”
Yet despite the physical connection between Nick and Laura, theirs is a relationship of what we might call “lite intimacy.” Mel’s description of it as virtually perfection itself has a hollow ring to it: “Laura is a legal secretary. We’d met in a professional capacity. Before we knew it, it was a courtship. She’s thirty-five, three years younger than I am. In addition to being in love, we like each other and enjoy one another’s company. She’s easy to be with.” This is the ideal contemporary relationship — between a man and a woman who are friends as well as lovers, and the operative word here is “easy.” We all seek easy relationships, but the real world keeps intruding. And, of course, the trouble with “easy” relationships is embodied in the cliché, “easy come, easy go.”
The transience of contemporary relationships creates a need for the characters — and by extension for us as readers–to redefine what love is and what it means to love someone. The entire story revolves around a central passage, delivered as a monologue by Mel, that connects love with time as has occurred in contemporary culture. Though the myth of “eternal love” persists, the reality of contemporary transitory relationships has shaken its foundations.
I need to quote this central passage in its entirety because it capsulates the essence of Carver’s narrative. As Mel drinks more and more, the question implied by the story’s title becomes more and more urgent. Just what do we talk about when we talk about love between human beings today? Does the word mean what it has always meant, or is there something about late 20th century life that has radically altered its meaning:
“‘What do any of us really know about love?’ Mel said. ‘It seems to me we’re just beginners at love. We say we love each other and we do, I don’t doubt it. I love Terri and Terri loves me, and you guys love each other too. You know the kind of love I’m talking about now. Physical love, that impulse that drives you to someone special, as well as love of the other person’s being, his or her essence, as it were.
Carnal love and, well, call it sentimental love, the day to day caring about the other person. But sometimes I have a hard time accounting for the fact that I must have loved my first wife too. But I did, I know I did. So I suppose I am like Terri in that regard. Terri and Ed.’ He thought about it and then he went on. ‘There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.
Then there’s Ed. Okay, so we’re back to Ed. He loves Terri so much he tries to kill her and he winds up killing himself.’ Mel stopped talking and swallowed from his glass. ‘You guys have been together eighteen months and you love each other. It shows all over you. You glow with it. But you both loved other people before you met each other. You’ve both been married before, just like us. And you probably loved other people before that too, even. Terri and I have been together five years, been married for four.
And the terrible thing, the terrible thing is, but the good thing too, the saving grace, you might say, is that if something happened to one of us — excuse me for saying this — but if something happened to one of us tomorrow, I think the other one, the other person, would grieve for a while, you know, but then the surviving party would go out and love again, and have someone else soon enough. All this, all of this love, we’re talking about, it would be just a memory. Am I wrong? Am I way off base? Because I want you to set me straight if you think I’m wrong. I want to know. I mean, I don’t know anything, and I’m the first one to admit it.’”
Of course, Mel is actually the last one to admit it, and his confused, drunken monologue has a kind of terrible clarity and honesty to it. When I read this passage in my class, my Southern California students, nearly all of them from families that have experienced divorce, both understand it and are bewildered by it simultaneously. Which is to say they recognize it as the contemporary world they live in — a world of serial relationships where one year’s love is the next year’s courtroom adversary.
Both Mel and Terri on the one hand, and Nick and Laura on the other — as well as Mel and Marjorie and Terri and Ed — are contrasted with yet another couple referred to in the story, an elderly couple in their mid-seventies who have been in an auto accident. Significantly, their camper was slammed by a teenage drunk driver who was killed in the accident. The old couple survived, but “just barely.” Carver intends the couple to represent our traditional conception of love — lifetime monogamy — a love that lasts “until death do us part.”
What troubles Mel about the love between this old couple is that the husband is upset not so much because he and his wife are badly injured, but because his face is bandaged so severely he cannot move his head and look at his wife. This kind of dependence is much closer to the love of Ed for Terri or the love of Michael Furey for Gretta than it is to either the love of Mel for Terri or the love of Nick for Laura.
This kind of love involves dependence, vulnerability and need, all highly unfashionable qualities in a world of “you do your thing and I’ll do mine.” “Can you imagine?” Mel says in an increasingly booze-influenced diatribe, “I’m telling you the man’s heart was breaking because he couldn’t turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife…I mean it was killing the old fart because he couldn’t look at the fucking woman.” In Mel’s world, love is disposable, and disposable love is an oxymoron.
Carver underscores our contemporary confusion about love with two motifs he uses as structural elements in the story: alcohol and light. Nick associates the two in his first description of the setting. “The four of us were sitting around his [Mel’s] kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink.” The gin is poured liberally throughout and four pages into the story, Mel opens a second bottle and proposes a toast “to true love.” At this point the couples are in a kind of enchanted, fairy tale state, at the point in their drinking when the world seems to be basking in a rose-colored glow.
Again the consumption of gin is related to the light in the room. “The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.” The emotional landscape here is conspiratorial. The two couples appear to be moving toward a revelation but the booze has created an illusory sense of well being. At this point, Mel goes into his monologue about love in the contemporary world and Terri’s response makes clear the tone of voice in which it is delivered: “Mel, for God’s sake…Are you getting drunk? Honey? Are you drunk?”
Because Carver wrote as a recovering alcoholic, alcohol often plays an important role in many of his stories. Drinking is often contrasted with eating. Food is almost always presented as both nourishing and nurturing. Eating is a communal activity, a “small good thing,” as the title of one of his stories has it — while alcohol is a kind of empty substitute for it that neither nourishes nor nurtures but distorts and confuses. As the conversation continues, Mel makes exactly this contrast. “…let’s drink this cheapo gin the hell up. Then we’re going to dinner, right? Terri and I know a new place. That’s where we’ll go, to this new place we know about. But we’re not going until we finish up this cut-rate, lousy gin.” Even more pointedly, Mel says “I like food…If I had it to do all over again, I’d be a chef, you know?” But eating keeps getting put aside for more drinking.
Mel has passed the state of a euphoric high and is now moving into a somnambulant stupor: “Mel poured himself another drink. He looked at the label closely as if studying a long row of numbers. Then he slowly put the bottle down on the table and slowly reached for the tonic water.” Things are indeed moving very slowly at this point, and after Mel finishes the story about the old couple, Nick offers a masterful understatement, yet again linking alcohol and light: “Maybe we were a little drunk by then. I know it was hard keeping things in focus. The light was draining out of the room, going back through the window where it had come from. Yet nobody made a move to get up from the table to turn on the overhead light.”
The kitchen — significantly a place where food is prepared–gets darker and darker and things move more and more slowly. Mel especially seems to be moving in slow motion — each of his movements is ponderous and exaggerated. It takes him a long time merely to cross one leg over the other. The couples keep talking about food, about going out to eat, but continue drinking until all the liquor is gone. Mel thinks about calling his children (a sentimental insertion of parental love in the midst of all this confusion about love) but finally decides against it. “Maybe I won’t call the kids after all. Maybe it isn’t such a hot idea. Maybe we’ll just go eat. How does that sound.?” Nick responds confusedly: “Sounds fine to me…Eat or not eat. Or keep drinking. I could head right on out into the sunset.” Laura is perplexed by Nick’s response, but she underscores the poverty of the conversation about love when she says “I don’t think I’ve ever been so hungry in my life. Is there something to nibble on?”
This is certainly a figurative as well as literal statement. All of the characters are hungry for love, but love as we too often experience it in the contemporary world is a shallow substitute for the real thing. Being hungry for love is one thing, but doing something about that hunger is another. Never one to miss an opportunity for humor in the midst of gravity, Carver has Terri respond to Laura’s request for “something to nibble on” with this: “’I’ll put out some cheese and crackers,’ Terri said. But Terri just sat there. She did not get up to get anything.”
Serial, transient love is to love as booze is to food. It gives the characters the illusion of having arrived somewhere, but leaves them empty and undernourished. And the more we talk about love, the more it becomes clear that we know virtually nothing about it. The story’s conclusion is a masterful stroke — a dark, existential moment when humanity is stripped of its illusions — the gin is finished, and all Nick hears, and consequently we as readers hear, is the sound of four human hearts beating in the darkness.
Love and all our conceptions of it in this context are human constructs, what we call today a “socially constructed reality” that we employ to give meaning to the biological actuality of our flesh and blood, of our pulses pounding in the darkness. “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” One can almost hear the anguished cry of Eugene O’Neill’s Jimmy Tomorrow from The Iceman Cometh hovering behind Carver’s last sentences: “What did you do to the booze, Hickey, what did you do to the booze?”