Mel thought real love was nothing less than spiritual 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 of his life. (3)
Let's think about this. If Mel believes that real love is nothing less than spiritual love, and if he props up the story of the elderly couple as an example of true love, then this must mean that that couple had spiritual love, right? But what exactly does that mean? And is God involved?
"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." (34-36)
We don't know about you, but we're a little leery of Terri's comments here. She suggests that obsession, suicidal tendencies and even violence can be part of our definition of love. Does that sound right to you? What's another word for the way Ed felt about Terri? Or did Ed's actions have more to do with himself than with our female character?
"Well, Nick and I know what love is," Laura said. "For us, I mean," Laura said. She bumped my knee with her knee. […]
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. (42-43)
Okay, so according to Nick and Laura, love is kissing hands. Since we don't get to know Nick and Laura very well, we can't see all that deeply into their relationship. And on the surface, they certainly do seem to be in love. But Nick seems to think that because he really likes Laura, and because things are easy between them, that that means the two of them are in love. We wonder if he might want to rethink such a simple definition.
"What do any of us really know about love?" Mel said. "It seems to me we're just beginners at love." (56)
The title of Raymond Carver's original draft of this story, "Beginners," takes its name from this line. If the story were still called "Beginners," would that change the way you read it?
"I'd get up to his mouth-hole […] and he'd say no, it wasn't the accident exactly but it was because he couldn't see her through his eye-holes. He said that was what was making him feel so bad. Can you imagine? I'm telling you, the man's heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife." (75)
Ah, true love. You know it when you see it. And it, in this case, is an old dude, who looks like a mummy, who's heartbroken because he can't turn his head from side to side. Well, based on the rest of this story, with all its conflicting notions of love, this sounds like as good a definition as any.
"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." (6-7)
Feeling a little tense? We are, too. We can tell these two are talking about something that's important to them both, but the fact that they're disagreeing about it seems significant. Are they bickering? Bantering? Fighting whole hog?
I touched the back of Laura's hand. She gave me a quick smile, I picked up Laura's hand. […] I encircled the broad wrist with my fingers, and I held her. (15)
Nick's touch signals his approval at what Laura just said to Mel and Terri, about not knowing Ed well enough to judge whether he loved Terri or not. She responds with a smile, and Nick responds with another show of physical affection. These two are cute, for sure, but we can't help but wonder if their love is real love, or something else.
"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." (27)
Mel is talking about Ed, here, and they weren't exactly bosom buddies. That's because Ed uses violence to communicate. He speaks the language of threats and fear. But according to Terri, it's all in the name of love. Maybe Ed thinks his awful behavior is justified, if it gets him a chance to win Terri back. If that's the case, this guy was more than a little delusional.
Terri looked at us and then back at Mel. She seemed anxious, or maybe that's too strong a word. (68)
Here's the scoop: just before Nick delivers this line, Mel tells Terri to shut up because she said he's talking like a drunk man. We'll pause so you can recover from the awkwardness. We don't know about you, but if our spouse told us to shut up, anxious would be a week word—not a strong one. Livid sounds about right. Maybe irate. The fact that Terri seems anxious might suggest something deeper going on, as if she's worried about upsetting her husband. Worried he might do something drastic.
"Honey, I love you," Mel said.
He leaned across the table. Terri met him halfway. They kissed. (72-73)
The fact that they meet halfway for the kiss might suggest that they meet halfway in their relationship, trying to keep things balanced and fair, right? In any case, it's clear here that their affection is mutual, and their love is no joke. In this moment, they seem to be communicating quite well. For now.
"Bzzzzzz," Mel said, turning them into bees and buzzing them at Terri's throat. Then he let his hands drop all the way to his sides. (132)
Um, Mel? Your ex is the one who's allergic to bees—not Terri. But Marjorie is nowhere near this scene, so maybe he's actually communicating something to his current wife here. But what? Why threaten his ex by pretending to threaten his current squeeze?
"Terri and I weren't married then, and my first wife had the house and the kids, the dog, and Terri and I were living in this apartment here." (27)
Yep. Marriage can sometimes lead to divorce. In Mel's case, it was an ugly divorce, and it reveals to us the darker side of marriages. Since Mel has kids with his ex, and is responsible for supporting her, he's more than a little stuck. We can also see how that marriage is putting a strain on his current one.
Laura is a legal secretary. We'd met in a professional capacity. Before we knew it, it was a courtship. She was thirty-five, three years younger than I am. In addition to being in love with her, we like each other and enjoy one another's company. She's easy to be with. (30)
From this aside to the reader by narrator Nick, we get the idea that at least so far Nick and Laura's marriage is uncomplicated and drama free, in contrast to Terri and Mel's marriage. It's also a bit funny—because the fact that Nick enjoys Laura's company in addition to the fact that he loves her tells us that those two things aren't necessarily the same. Maybe it's possible to love someone and not be able to stand them.
"You guys,' Terri said. "Stop that now. You're making me sick. You're still on the honeymoon for God's sake. […] How long has it been? A year? Longer than a year?"
"Going on a year and a half," Laura said, flushed and smiling. (45-46)
Is Terri just kidding around here, or is there some truth to her statement? Laura definitely doesn't seem phased by it. Her smiling flush shows that she feels confident in her marriage no matter how skeptical Terri might seem.
"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?" (56)
Okay, this raises one big question: did Mel actually love Marjorie? Can you grow to hate someone whom you once loved? Or was it never love in the first place? And how does one wind up in a loveless marriage?
Terri and I have been together five years, married for four. And the terrible thing is […] but the good thing too […] is that if something happened to one of us—excuse me for saying this—the other person, would grieve for a while, […] [and then] go out and love again, have someone else soon enough. (56)
He may not be a romantic, but you have to give Mel some props for his honesty. He fully admits that he could move on if he lost Terri. But here's the weird part: Mel's statement conflicts with his example of the elderly man who became depressed when he couldn't turn his head to see his wife in the hospital bed next to him. See, the elderly man could only love his wife, and he couldn't find someone else and be happy if his wife died. And Mel holds their story up as an example of true love. So if he and Terri don't have what this old couple has, does that mean that he doesn't truly love Terri? Or is he just being practical?
There was an ice bucket on the table. The gin and tonic water kept going around, and we somehow got on the subject of love. (3)
We all know that alcohol loosens tongues, and these two couples are no exception. So is it the gin that got them on the subject of love, or were they headed there anyway?
She poured the last of the gin into her glass and waggled the bottle. Mel got up and went to the cupboard. He took down another bottle. (41)
This is at the halfway point in the story. The move from the first bottle of gin to the second signals a move from Ed's story to that of the elderly couple. Plus, cracking open the second bottle reminds us readers that these characters are far from sober. So we should listen carefully to their words, and take them all with a grain or two of salt.
"I'm not on call today," Mel said. "Let me remind you of that. I am not on call," he said. (61)
Mel justifies his drinking, and implies that it's not a regular thing with him, or at least that he doesn't drink on the job. The fact that he feels the need to remind anybody of anything is telling. Why's he so defensive? Maybe because he knows something's wrong.
"Come on now," Terri said. "Don't talk like you're drunk if you're not drunk."
"Just shut up for once in your life," Mel said very quietly. "Will you do me a favor and do that for a minute." (66-67)
Ouch! This is the second time Terri expresses concern over Mel's drinking and his response is hostile to say the least. Actually, it's just plain cruel. Some readers see Terri as badgering and nitpicking and see this moment as expressive of a serious problem in their relationship. But others see her as a concerned wife, who's deeply worried about her husband's habits.
"Drunk kid, teenager, plowed his dad's pickup into this camper with this old couple in it. […] The kid – eighteen, nineteen, something – he was DOA." (67)
This marks the beginning of Mel's example of true love, the elderly couple injured in this car accident. But it should also serve as a harsh reminder of the destructive side of alcohol. Sure, it loosens tongues and helps conversation, but it also kills, in more ways than one.
"He's depressed," Terri said. "Mel, why don't you take a pill?"
Mel shook his head. "I've taken everything there is."
"We all need a pill now and then," I said. (122-124)
The story doesn't talk much about drugs, but this sentence reveals that Mel is taking a variety of pills to deal with depression. It's yet another layer of the Mel onion, peeled back, and it makes us wonder: what's the root of his depression?
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. […] My head kept knocking on things." Terri looked around the table. "What do you do with a love like that?" (4)
"I love you, you bitch," sounds like a bit of an oxy moron to Shmoop. If Ed loves Terri so much, how can he call her such an awful name? The strange thing is, Terri doesn't seem to think it's much of an oxy moron at all. She totally believes Ed loved her. And that's a big problem for Mel.
When I left, he drank rat poison. […] 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." (16)
In addition to being violent toward Terri, Ed was violent toward himself. While this might have had something to do with his feelings for Terri, we're thinking this particular violence was probably caused by something much deeper going wrong for Ed.
"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?" (27)
Hey, here's an idea. Maybe the reason Mel is so upset that Terri considers Ed's feelings for her to have been love is that Ed's violent behavior had a big impact on his life, too. The guy did threaten Mel on several occasions. Maybe Mel's bothered that Terri doesn't seem more concerned for her current husband's well being. Maybe he thinks she's putting her violent ex before him.
"I sure as hell wouldn't call it love," Mel said. I mean no one knows what he did it for. I've seen a lot of suicides, and I wouldn't say anyone ever knew what they did it for." (37)
It's important to Terri to believe that Ed killed himself because he loved her. But why? Mel seems to think that this might not be the healthiest way of looking at the situation. He might be concerned that Terri is unable to separate the love Ed might have felt from her from the psychological problems that contributed to his violence and his suicide. In any case, it's a big old mess.
"The old couple, they were alive, you understand. I mean, just barely. But they had everything. Multiple fractures, internal injuries hemorrhaging, contusions, lacerations, the works, and they each of them had concussions." (70)
While Ed's violence may have been personal, the violence these old folks experience is anything but. It's random, driven by neither love nor hate. But it does affect the love between them in powerful ways, maybe even making it stronger.