The action of the story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” takes place over the course of an evening, in which two couples, Nick and Laura, and Mel and Terri McGinnis, sit around the kitchen table at the McGinnis’ apartment, drinking gin and talking, before they all go out to dinner together. No one so much as gets up from the table over the course of their conversation, except to get out a second bottle of gin. The story takes place in Albuquerque, New Mexico, although, as the narrator explains, “we were all from somewhere else.” Mel, a forty-five year old cardiologist, is divorced, and Terri is his second wife. Terri is also divorced and Mel is her second husband. Mel and Terri have been married for four years, together for five. Nick and Laura are married, and have been together only eighteen months.
As the story opens, the narrator explains that ”The gin and tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love.” Mel, who had once gone to seminary school, claims that “real love was nothing less than spiritual love.” They then begin to discuss Terri’s former husband, Ed, who was physically abusive to her, had threatened Mel on several occasions, and eventually shot himself in the head, dying three days later. Mel argues that that is not real love, while Terri insists that Ed did love her. While Nick and Laura’s relationship seems to be completely harmonious, and their interactions with each other kind and affectionate, Mel and Terri’s interactions take on a tone of controlled menace, barely covering a deep-seated resentment between the two of them.
The conversation continues on the subject of love while Mel becomes increasingly drunk. He gives an example of what he considered to be ”real love.” He tells them about an elderly couple who had gotten into a terrible car accident when they were hit by a teenage boy. Both of them nearly died, but they continued to survive, although both were covered from head to toe in bandages. Mel explains that, one day, the old man explained to him in tears that he was upset that, although he and his wife’s beds were next to each other in the hospital room, he could not turn his head to see her face, because of his bandages. Mel is taken with the idea that this man loved his wife so much it was nearly killing him not to be able to look at her: ”I mean, it was killing the old fart just because he couldn’t look at the .. . woman.”
Mel, now clearly drunk, decides that he’d like to call and talk to his kids, who live with his ex-wife, Marjorie. He explains that Marjorie is allergic to bee stings, and part of him would like to appear at her front door and release a swarm of bees into her house. But he is baffled that he feels such hatred for her now, when he knows that he did once truly love her. Mel then decides against calling his children, and all four finish off the last of the gin. Mel erratically turns his glass of gin upside, allowing it to spill all over the table. “Gin’s gone,” he says. “Now what?” Terri responds. At this point the narrator ends the story with a description of the four friends, sitting in silence around the table: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, no one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.”
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Raymond Carver, Published by Gale Group, 2001.