At the beginning of the play, May sits in silent protest to what she considers to be Eddie's unfair, badly timed, and surprising return to her life. Eddie shows up in May's life right when she thought she was over Eddie. To her, his arrival rips open healing wounds that she was trying to forget. May prevents Eddie from getting close to her again because she resents him for leaving her alone in the trailer and having an affair with the Countess behind her back while promising to come back soon—a promise she thinks he makes frequently and never fulfills. Though May is furious at Eddie for abandoning her alone in the middle of nowhere, she is proud of the steps she has taken to live on her own in a new place in a new town. Eddie's return to her makes her hate him because it brings up all of the pain he has caused her and reminds her of her love for Eddie.
May's love for Eddie also hurts because she knows it is a love that can never exist for long in peace. Because of their blood relation and their fiery spirits, Eddie and May are constantly haunted by their past. They challenge each other bitterly and know all of the right buttons to push to get each other's goat. Their love for each other is a competition to be the least vulnerable, the least needy, and the most willful and strong, yet their desire and love for each other makes them reveal their weaknesses to each other. Eddie's return troubles May because right when she thought she could live without Eddie, he has confirmed her belief in her need for him. Ironically, that need is so painful that she knows she needs him to go away. Throughout the play she swings back and forth from asking Eddie to leave and asking him to stay. Eddie threatens to leave and then alternately, refuses to leave. Their relationship is a seesaw of abandonment and returning that is repeated over and over again in the play as May retreats to the bathroom or Eddie goes outside the motel and then comes back. They repeat this pattern throughout the play and it is suggested the whole event of Eddie leaving and suddenly returning has been repeated over the years.
Eddie and May cannot live with or without each other. They feel destined to be together because of their common past and their mutual love, but the details of their past prevents them from having a healthy relationship. Their common love and past experience binds them together but their personalities and their knowledge of their blood relation tears them apart at the seems. Their incestuous relationship and the repetition of their love and hate, abandonment and reunions cause Eddie and May to be miserable when they are together or apart. Never whole without each other, Eddie and May know that they have met their match and soul mate in life in each other but are discovering again and again that a perfect reflection of oneself does not necessarily make the best life partner. Eddie and May clung to each other as teenagers because they were magnetically attracted to one another and because they both had so much in common. Both May and Eddie came from unstable households in the same Southwestern region of the United States. Both Eddie and May loved mothers who were dependent on an unstable, alcoholic, and often absent man. It just so happens that the man was the same man, the Old Man, who is father to both Eddie and May though he did not participate in many fatherly duties. May and Eddie were brought together through their common suffering and their witness to troubled adults, but the knowledge of their incestuous relationship complicated the relationship and foreshadowed its improbability and doom.
Eddie repeats the sins of his father, the Old Man in his attempt at juggling relationships with May and the Countess. Throughout Eddie and May's childhoods, the Old Man alternately abandoned both Eddie and May's mothers. He left both women distraught and tortured by their passionate love for the same man—a man who never fully gave himself to one woman, and always abandoned them to return at an unannounced date. May feels a similar pain to her mother and has decided not to let her love for a wandering man like Eddie rule her life and her emotions. However, the knowledge that Eddie has lost May and that May cannot live with Eddie saddens both of them and leaves them each alone to face their future without each other. As the play suggests however, that future will inevitably involve additional emotional reunions and necessary, but painful instances of abandonment.
May hates Eddie for leaving her and loves him for returning. She hates him for returning because it conjures up her hateful feelings for Eddie's desertion. Eddie seems to have put the knowledge of their blood relation behind him but this knowledge haunts May and shames her. Besides her self-disgust for succumbing to Eddie's seductions whenever he returns to her, May's love for Eddie is tainted by the knowledge of their incest. May is disgusted with herself for giving Eddie second chances and she is repulsed by the familial nature of her sexual relationship with Eddie.
Eddie and May compete ruthlessly with one another to end up on top in their personal and years long power struggle. Both Eddie and May want the other to desire them. However, neither one wants to lose the position of admitting they desire the other. They both want to remain powerful enough to resist the other's desire. Eddie tries to seduce May by telling her how much he sacrificed to come see her. Eddie admits to missing May desperately. May is partly moved by Eddie's words but cannot get past the idea that Eddie has been having a relationship with the Countess. Eddie's defense is weak against her accusations. Eddie offers to leave instead of admitting to his affair. The thought of Eddie leaving again makes May upset. She tells Eddie about her date who is arriving shortly. This spins Eddie into jealousy. Both May and Eddie are jealous of the other's new relationships, and May will not take Eddie back. She does kiss him but then knees Eddie in the groin.
Eddie feels the need to prove his manhood to May throughout the play. He attempts to win May back while simultaneously keeping alive his affair with the woman they call the Countess. Eddie shows off his rodeo skills to May by lassoing his rope around the bedposts. He is an egoist who becomes even more boastful when he drinks. Eddie carries in a bottle of tequila and a shotgun at one point in the play. Attempting to show May how strong his tolerance is he drinks a lot of the bottle by himself and threatens May and her mysterious date who has yet to arrive. Being a man's man—full of bravery, taking risks and having one's way with women is Eddie's ideal. He expects May's date to be nothing but "a punk chump in a two dollar suit or something." Or at least this is what he hopes. Even when Eddie sees that Martin is harmless he continues to threaten and intimidate him. Eddie shares many traits with the stereotypical western man or cowboy though his personality and past make him a more complicated character whose depth and strivings go beyond the archetype he puts up on a pedestal and emulates.
May and Eddie's differ in their interpretation of their past and present relationship. The way these individuals remember the past and the way that each one interprets these events contributes to the shaping of their identity. May refuses to take Eddie back because she does not want to repeat the mistakes her mother made and mistakes that she herself has made again and again. She also feels ashamed about her blood relation to Eddie and wants to put those thoughts behind her. On the other hand, Eddie tries to juggle both May and the Countess because, like his father, he does not view a wandering, two-timing identity as negative. He is not bothered much anymore by his blood relation to May and he sees the repeated acts of abandonment as May's fault not his own.
May and Eddie's relative ability to move on with their lives relates to the interpretation of their memories. Their painful, complicated past plagues their present with the version of the story they happen to remember or believe in. Their memories and sense of history defines them as individuals. Their contradictory interpretation of their memories of their shard past colors their present conflict. Shepard seems to be saying that individuals' traumatic memories shape each person differently and each person's tolerance for pain varies from individual to individual and is not always compatible.
The imaginary picture of Barbara Mandrell that the Old Man sees on the invisible wall is real to him because he sees her in his imagination. In his mind he is married to this country star. He calls her, "the woman of my dreams." This has a double meaning. One, because she is a star she is an unattainable romantic figure who is larger than life because of her stardom and second because she is unattainable by the senses because she is in the Old Man's mind. The Old Man describes her picture as "realism." He sees realism as the thing that an individual decides to call reality for oneself and believe in, even if what one believes is not necessarily based on reality. His strange sense of reality permeates the feeling of the unrealistic play as well as the mutating emotions of its characters.
The Countess's Mercedes Benz is never actually seen on stage but imagined through the description of May's character who sees it outside of the motel room door. May describes the car as a "big, huge, extra-long, black, Mercedes Benz." May seems to emphasize the size of the car because to her it is solid evidence that Eddie lied to her about his affair with the Countess. The car is exaggerated and flashy—a tangible object that flaunts Eddie's new relationship in May's face as it is symbolic of power and status—things which May lacks. The car stands out in the environs of the small, dusty, middle- of-no-where-town where May lives and represents an outside, far away, glamorous world she cannot be a part of which Eddie has now joined. The car also represents May's jealousy and the way she has inflated her feelings of jealousy. May says that the car looks exactly like the car she always pictured the Countess in and one gets the sense that May has created the arrival of the car in her mind, not in reality, as in a bad dream.
The play ends with the image of fire blazing from outside the hotel window as Martin stares out at the scene of Eddie's car burning. The blaze glows around the actors remaining on stage as a testament to the passion and sins of May and Eddie. The fire is similar to their relationship in that the more it burns the more energy it creates all the while, destroying the very thing it feeds on. May and Eddie likewise are more potent, alive and engaging people in each other's presence—their passion stirs their deepest feelings but their passion is self-destructive.