Study Guide

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love Summary

Welcome to Albuquerque New, Mexico, and the home of heart doctor Mel McGinnis and his wife Terri. Their friends, newlyweds Nick and Laura, are with them, and the two couples are drinking gin and tonics and talking about love.

The first bottle of gin is devoted to a discussion of Terri's ex, Ed, the guy she was with before Mel. It is not a happy bottle of gin. She says that, the night Ed beat her, he told her, "I love you, I love you, you bitch" (4) while he pulled her around the room. Terri thinks that what Ed felt for her was love. Mel thinks that's a load of codswallop, and he wants Nick and Laura to weigh in. They're all, um, guys, this is really uncomfortable, and Terri continues with her story.

See, Ed tried to kill himself—once with rat poison, which didn't work so well, and then again by shooting himself in the mouth. That did the trick. It turns out that before he did the deed, he had been stalking Mel and Terri, who were living together while Mel was divorcing his ex wife. Have you ever seen a more tangled web?

Here's the kicker: although Terri totally gets that the whole stalking fiasco was scary, she still thinks he loved her. But Mel just ain't having that. Terri says Ed even died for love. Mel says that love has absolutely nothing to do with why Ed killed himself. In fact, it's just plain hard to know why anybody kills himself.

As the story of Ed ends, right on cue, so does the bottle of gin. Don't worry, though, the gin never runs out at Mel and Terri's.

Laura says she and Nick "know what love is" (42). Terri tells them to cut it out with their sappy newlywed love because the honeymoon will be over soon enough. Just kidding! Mel opens the second bottle and they all toast to love. Whatever that means.

Then Mel tells them a story that he thinks shows what true love means. A few months back, at the hospital where he works, an old couple came in. They had been in a car accident. While they survived (which wasn't a sure thing), the man got really down in the dumps afterwards. When Mel asked him why he was so mopey, the old man told him it's because the car accident left him unable to turn his head, which means he could never look at his wife again, lying next to him. As he tells this story, Mel and Terri bicker back and forth.

And that bickering keeps right on going when the story's done. Terri says Mel is depressed and asks if he wants a pill. Mel's all, those things don't work. He just wants to call his kiddos. But Terri nixes that idea because his ex-wife Marjorie might pick up the phone. Apparently this Marjorie is a real piece of work.

Mel says that Marjorie is "vicious" (133), and agrees with Terri that calling his youngsters is not the best idea in the world. Maybe it's time for dinner instead. So do they all get up and head to the table? Nope, they just stay put drinking gin, until the bottle is empty and all Nick can do is just sit there, listening to the sounds of their heartbeats.

  • "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"

    • There's a small shindig going down at the Albuquerque home of Mel and Teresa (Terri) McGinnis. Mel is a heart doctor and he's leading the conversation.
    • In attendance are the narrator (who we soon learn is named Nick) and his wife Laura. 
    • It's early afternoon, and they are sitting at the table drinking gin and tonics, gabbing about love. 
    • Mel thinks "real love is nothing less than spiritual love" (3). He'd been a seminary student for five years before he went to medical school, and he seems to think that those were the good ol' days.
    • Mel's wife Terri says that "the man she used to live with before she lived with Mel loved her so much he tried to kill her" (4). Uh… what? Do tell, Terri.
    • Terri describes the night her ex beat her. He told her, "I love you, I love you, you bitch" (4). 
    • Mel and Terri begin arguing over whether what Ed (her ex) felt for her was love. Terri insists that it was love, but Mel thinks otherwise. 
    • Mel wants Nick and Laura to put in their two cents. Do they think Ed's actions toward Terri showed love? 
    • Um. Well. We don't know. Uh. Hmm. Let's see. Nick and Laura both play it safe, saying they don't know enough about the situation to judge it. Well played, you two.
    • That's when Nick touches Laura's hand. She smiles at him and he holds her wrist. Oh, so they do know something about love.
    • Back to Ed's downer of a story. When Terri left Ed, he tried to kill himself by drinking rat poison. 
    • Yikes.
    • Somebody took him to the hospital in time to save his life, but it did permanent and horrible damage to his gums. 
    • Mel reveals that Ed is now dead. Wait a minute. We thought he had survived?
    • The rat poison, yes. But it turns out there are other, more reliable methods of committing suicide. Namely, shooting yourself in the mouth, which is what Ed tried next. 
    • But that didn't go as planned, either, and Ed managed to survive the shooting, at least for a little while. 
    • Nick asks Terri to go on with her story, but forty-five year old Mel takes over. 
    • He explains that Ed had been threatening them all the time. They had to hide from him and look over their shoulders everywhere they went. 
    • Back then, Mel was going through a divorce from his first wife, and he and Terri were living here in this apartment, but weren't married yet. 
    • Mel was so scared, he bought a gun, too. No joke. He fully expected Ed to ambush him in the night when he got up to go to the hospital for work.
    • Terri chimes in to say that she still has sympathy for Ed.
    • What happened next, Laura asks, after Ed shot himself?
    • Nick the narrator takes a brief timeout to tell us that Laura, his main squeeze, works as a legal assistant, and that he met her on the job and things moved along from there. 
    • Nick is thirty-eight and Laura is thirty-five. They're ooey-gooey in love. He tells us that Laura's "easy to be with" (30). Sounds good to Shmoop. 
    • Back to the Ed story. 
    • When he shot himself in the head, someone nearby heard it, found him, and called the paramedics. Mel was at the hospital when Ed came in. The poor guy was still alive, but wasn't conscious.
    • He lived for three more days, with his head swollen to double size. Um, thanks for the visual, Carver. 
    • Mel didn't want Teri to see Ed that way, and he fought to keep her out of the room.
    • But Terri won the argument, and wound up staying with Ed until he died. She was the only person he had. 
    • Mel and Terri continue to argue over whether or not you can call what Ed and Terri had love.
    • Mel still thinks it wasn't love at all. Not even close. 
    • But Terri says that it was real love because Ed died for it. Hmm. That logic doesn't sound quite right…
    • Mel, for one, doesn't think that we can know for sure why Ed or other people who commit suicide do it. 
    • After Terri admits that they really were afraid of Ed and that she even called the police at one point, she pours the last of the gin into her glass and Mel gets bottle number two.
    • Laura says that she and Nick "know what love is" (42). Well bully for you guys.
    • Nick makes a show of kissing her hand.
    • Acting grossed out, Terri says that Laura and Nick are just newlyweds and will find out soon enough what marriage is all about (apparently it's not about being happy).
    • We learn that Nick and Laura have been together a year and a half, which means that they're still in the honeymoon phase, according to Terri.
    • Oh, but she's only kidding. Yeah. Right.
    • Mel opens up the second bottle of gin and they all toast to "true love" (51).
    • Soon, Mel says he has a good example of what he thinks real love looks like. 
    • Story time!
    • But before he launches into the story, he talks a little more about his feelings on love.
    • See, he thinks they're all confused about what love really is, because they're all "just beginners at love" (56).
    • He wonders how it's even possible that he loved his ex-wife so much, and that now he hates her. Oh, and then we get this little tidbit: he and Terri have been together five years, and married for four. We're guessing the honeymoon's over.
    • Although he and Terri love each other, he thinks that if one of them were to die, the other would be able to find somebody else, and their love "would just be a memory" (56).
    • Terri pipes up, and is all, um, Mel, are you drunk? 
    • Nah, he's just talking.
    • Terri swears she's not judging her hubby. 
    • But Mel wants everybody to know that he's not on call at the hospital today, so it doesn't really matter if he's drunk, okay? Okay.
    • Laura tells Mel that she and Nick love him. 
    • Looking a little confused, Mel tells Laura and Nick he loves them, too.
    • Okay, now it's story time for real. Mel says this story "ought to make us feel ashamed when we talk like we know what we're talking about when we talk about love" (66).
    • Now Terri tells him that he's talking like he's drunk. 
    • After telling his wife to shut up, he finally launches into his story. And not a moment too soon. This was getting awkward.
    • A few months ago, in May or June, Mel was called into the hospital. A drunk teenager had hit a camper with two elderly people in it. 
    • The teenager died instantly, and the couple was all torn up and had some serious injuries. It turns out their seatbelts were the only thing that kept them from meeting a very messy end.
    • Terri makes a joke about Mel doing a public service announcement trying to get people to wear their seatbelts, which prompts Mel to tell Terri he loves her. Awww. 
    • They kiss, then Mel continues.
    • Mel and his team spent most of the night operating on them and in the morning they were both still alive. After two weeks in the ICU, they were moved to a private room.
    • Taking a breather from this less-than-uplifting story, Mel tells the other three they should polish off the gin and head to dinner. 
    • Mmm, dinner. Mel says if he could start over, he'd become a chef. Sometimes, Shmoop feels the same way, but that's only when we're watching Top Chef
    • And if he could be reincarnated in a different time, he'd be a knight. Um, Shmoop totally concurs
    • Terri asks what he would do if he came back as a "serf" (85) (a serf is basically a servant).
    • Maybe that wouldn't be so bad, because "even the knights were vessels to someone" (86), but the real reason Mel wants to be a knight is their armor. It protects them from getting hurt the way the old couple in the car was hurt.
    • At this point, Terri steps in to correct Mel. The word he's looking for is "vassal" (another word for slave or servant). Not "vessel."
    • To this, Mel essentially tells his wife to get off his back. After all, he's not really an educated guy. All he knows is how to fix people's hearts, like a mechanic fixes a car.
    • Hmm. We think it might be a bit more complicated than that. 
    • Nick says that being a knight wasn't all it's cracked up to be. The armor was really hot, guys, and super heavy. Sometimes nights would pass out cold, fall off their horses, and get trampled. Hmm. A career in surgery is looking better and better. 
    • When Laura asks Mel to finish his story about the old couple, Terri makes a joke about the couple being "Older but wiser" (104).
    • Not funny, says Mel. Then he's all, if he wasn't in love with Terri and if he and Nick weren't best friends, he would love Laura and run away with her.
    • Um, way to make things awkward, buddy.
    • Okay okay. Terri tells him to finish the story so they can all go eat.
    • Story time continues!
    • Mel says that he visited the couple every day. They were completely covered in bandages, mummy-style. There were even little holes cut in the bandages for their noses and eyes.
    • The man was majorly bummed. We're talking serious depression here, folks.
    • When Mel asked him if it was because of the accident, the guy told Mel that the real reason he's depressed is because he can't turn his head, and he can't see his wife.
    • Can you believe that? Mel asks. The guy's "heart was breaking because he couldn't turn his goddamn head and see his goddamn wife" (115). 
    • Meanwhile, it's getting darker and darker, but nobody bothers to turn on the lights. 
    • Mel says they should finish up the gin and then go to dinner.
    • But Terri is worried that Mel is depressed, so she asks him if he wants a pill. He says he's tried all the pills and nothing helps. 
    • Except, maybe, giving his kids a call. 
    • That's a bad idea, thinks Terri. She advises him against it, saying his ex-wife Marjorie might answer the phone.
    • Apparently, every day Mel wishes Marjorie would die, or at least get married again so Mel wouldn't have to send her money anymore.
    • Marjorie has a boyfriend who lives with her and so Mel is supporting him, too. Nice.
    • Because Marjorie is allergic to bees, Mel always finds himself hoping she'll get attacked by a swarm. He fantasizes about releasing a swarm of bees into her house—when the kids aren't there of course.
    • Gee, we wonder why they're divorced.
    • Then Mel decides against calling his kids and asks if everybody's ready to go eat.
    • Nick could eat or just keep drinking.
    • Laura's hungry, so Terri says she'll put some crackers and cheese out.
    • Terri doesn't move from the table, though. The bottle of gin is empty.
    • Nick tells the readers, "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" (145).
    • And there you have it, Shmoopers. When we talk about love, this is what we talk about: gin and heartbeats.