What we talk about when we talk about love
by Raymond Carver
My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.
The four of us were sitting around his kitchen table drinking gin. Sunlight filled the kitchen from the big window behind the sink. There was Mel and me and his second wife, Teresa–Terri, we called her–and my wife, Laura. We lived in Albuquerque then. But we were all from somewhere else.
There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and the tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. He said he’d spent five years in a seminary before quitting to go to medical school. He said he still looked back on those years in the seminary as the most important years in his life.
Terri said the man she lived with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her. Then Terri said, "He beat me up one night. He dragged me around the living room by my ankles. He kept saying, "I love you, I love you, you bitch." He went on dragging me around the living room. My head kept knocking on things." Terri looked around the table. "What do you do with love like that?"
She was a bone-thin woman with a pretty face, dark eyes, and brown hair that hung down her back. She liked necklaces made of turquoise, and long pendant earrings.
"My God, don’t be silly. That’s not love, and you know it," Mel said. "I don’t know what you’d call it, but I sure know you wouldn’t call it love."
"Say what you want to, but I know it was," Terri said. "It may sound crazy to you, but it’s true just the same. People are different, Mel. Sure, sometimes he may have acted crazy. Okay. But he loved me. In his own way maybe, but he loved me. There was love there, Mel. Don’t say there wasn’t."
Mel let out his breath. He held his glass and turned to Laura and me. "The man threatened to kill me," Mel said. He finished his drink and reached for the gin bottle. "Terri’s a romantic. Terri’s of the kick-me-around-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school. Terri, hun, don’t look that way." Mel reached across the table and touched Terri’s cheek with his fingers. He grinned at her.
"Now he wants to make up," Terri said.
"Make up what?" Mel said. "What is there to make up? I know what I know. That’s all."
"How’d we get started on this subject, anyway?" Terri said. She raised her glass and drank from it. "Mel always has love on his mind," she said. "Don’t you, honey?" She smiled and I thought that was the last of it.
"I just wouldn’t call Ed’s behavior love. That’s all I’m saying, honey," Mel said. "What about you guys?" Mel said to Laura and me. "Does that sound like love to you?"
"I’m the wrong person to ask," I said. "I didn’t even know the man. I’ve only heard his name mentioned in passing. I wouldn’t know. You’d have to know the particulars. But I think what you’re saying is that love is an absolute."
Mel said, "The kind of love I’m talking about is. The kind of love I’m talking about, you don’t try to kill people."
Laura said, "I don’t know anything about Ed, or anything about the situation. But who can judge anyone else’s situation?"
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.
"When I left, he drank rat poison," Terri said. She clasped her arms with her hands. "They took him to the hospital in Santa Fe. That’s where we lived then, about ten miles out. They saved his life. But his gums went crazy from it. I mean they pulled away from his teeth. After that, his teeth stood out like fangs. My God," Terri said. She waited a minute, then let go of her arms and picked up her glass.
"What people won’t do!" Laura said.
"He’s out of the action now," Mel said. "He’s dead."
Mel handed me the saucer of limes. I took a section, squeezed it over my drink, and stirred the ice cubes with my finger.
"It gets worse," Terri said. "He shot himself in the mouth. But he bungled that too. Poor Ed," she said. Terri shook her head.
"Poor Ed nothing," Mel said. "He was dangerous."
Mel was forty-five years old. He was tall and rangy with curly soft hair. His face and arms were brown from the tennis he played. When he was sober, his gestures, all his movements, were precise, very careful.
"He did love me though, Mel. Grant me that," Terri said. "That’s all I’m asking. He didn’t love me the way you love me. I’m not saying that. But he loved me. You can grant me that, can’t you?"
"What do you mean, he bungled it?" I said.
Laura leaned forward with her glass. She put her elbows on the table and held her glass in both hands. She glanced from Mel to Terri and waited with a look of bewilderment on her open face, as if amazed that such things happened to the people you were friendly with.
"How’d he bungle it when he killed himself? I said.
"I’ll tell you what happened," Mel said. "He took this twenty-two pistol he’d bought to threaten Terri and me with. Oh, I’m serious, the man was always threatening. You should have seen the way we lived in those days. Like fugitives. I even bought a gun myself. Can you believe it? A guy like me? But I did. I bought one for self-defense and carried it in the glove compartment. Sometimes I’d have to leave the apartment in the middle of the night. To go to the hospital, you know? Terri and I weren’t married then, and my first wife had the house and the kids, the dog, everything, and Terri and I were living in this apartment here. Sometimes, as I say, I’d get a call in the middle of the night and have to go to the hospital at two or three in the morning. It’d be dark out there in the parking lot, and I’d break into a sweat before I could even get to my car. I never knew if he was going to come up out of the shrubbery or from behind a car and start shooting. I mean, the man was crazy. He was capable of wiring a bomb, anything. He used to call my service at all hours and say he needed to talk to the doctor, and when I’d return the call, he’d say, ‘Son of a bitch, your days are numbered.’ Little things like that. It was scary, I’m telling you."
"I still feel sorry for him," Terri said.
"It sounds like a nightmare," Laura said. "But what exactly happened after he shot himself?"
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.
"What happened?" Laura said.
Mel said, "He shot himself in the mouth in his room. Someone heard the shot and told the manager. They came in with a passkey, saw what happened, and called an ambulance. I happened to be there when they brought him in, alive but past recall. The man lived for three days. His head swelled up to twice the size of a normal head. I’d never seen anything like it, and I hope I never do again. Terri wanted to go in and sit with him when she found out about it. We had a fight over it. I didn’t think she should see him like that. I didn’t think she should see him, and I still don’t."
"Who won the fight?" Laura said.
"I was in the room with him when he died," Terri said. "He never came up out of it. But I sat with him. He didn’t have anyone else."
"He was dangerous," Mel said. "If you call that love, you can have it."
"It was love," Terri said. "Sure it’s abnormal in most people’s eyes. But he was willing to die for it. He did die for it."
"I sure as hell wouldn’t call that love," Mel said. "I mean, no one knows what he did it for. I’ve seen a lot of suicides, and I couldn’t say anyone ever knew what they did it for."
Mel put his hands behind his neck and tilted his chair back. "I’m not interested in that kind of love," he said. "If that’s love, you can have it."
Terri said, "We were afraid. Mel even made a will out and wrote to his brother in California who used to be a Green Beret. Mel told him who to look for if something happened to him."
Terri drank from her glass. She said, "But Mel’s right–we lived like fugitives. We were afraid. Mel was, weren’t you, honey? I even called the police at one point, but they were no help. They said they couldn’t do anything until Ed actually did something. Isn’t that a laugh?" Terri said.
She poured the last of the gin into her glass and waggled the bottle. Mel got up from the table and went to the cupboard. He took down another bottle.
"Well, Nick and I know what love is," Laura said. "For us, I mean," Laura said. She bumped my knee with her knee. "You’re supposed to say something now," Laura said, and turned her smile on me.
For an answer, I took Laura’s hand and raised it to my lips. I made a big production out of kissing her hand. Everyone was amused.
"We’re lucky," I said.
"You guys," Terri said. "Stop that now. You’re making me sick. You’re still on the honeymoon, for God’s sake. You’re still gaga, for crying out loud. Just wait. How long have you been together now? How long has it been? A year? Longer than a year?"
"Going on a year and a half," Laura said, flushed and smiling.
"Oh, now," Terri said. "Wait awhile."
She held her drink and gazed at Laura.
"I’m only kidding," Terri said.
Mel opened the gin and went around the table with the bottle.
"Here, you guys," he said. "Let’s have a toast. I want to propose a toast. A toast to love. To true love," Mel said.
We touched glasses.
"To love," we said.
Outside in the backyard, one of the dogs began to bark. The leaves of the aspen that leaned past the window ticked against the glass. 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 and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.
"I’ll tell you what real love is," Mel said. "I mean, I’ll give you a good example. And then you can draw your own conclusions." He poured more gin into his glass. He added an ice cube and a sliver of lime. We waited and sipped our drinks. Laura and I touched knees again. I put a hand on her warm thigh and left it there.
"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, 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, have someone else soon enough. All this, all of this love we’re talking about, it would just be a memory. Maybe not even 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."
—excerpt [beginning] from "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" by Raymond Carver