The first thing we learn about Mel McGinnis is that he’s a cardiologist—a heart doctor. Of the four characters in the story, Mel, by virtue of his profession, would seem to be the one most likely to have some insight into matters of the heart. Indeed, he talks more than anyone else about love and has the strongest opinions. Yet despite the fact that Mel talks a lot, he doesn’t seem to know more than anyone else about love. As he keeps drinking and talking, his strong statements blur into confusing ramblings that don’t seem to make much of a point. He knows the story about the elderly couple is important, but he can’t explain exactly why. He knows his thoughts about past and future loves are meaningful, but the way he describes them makes him sound confused and nonsensical. And his apparent desire to kill his ex-wife with swarms of bees suggests that, far from being an expert on love, Mel knows absolutely nothing about it.
Nick, the narrator of the story, doesn’t say much, but the observations and physical movements he makes are key to revealing what love means to the four friends gathered at the table. Nick speaks up only four times during most of the conversation, twice to ask questions, once to suggest that love is absolute, and finally to say that he and Laura are lucky. At the end of the story, however, his own words begin sounding as jumbled as Mel’s, such as when he suggests that they either eat or keep drinking and when he makes a joke about heading “right on out into the sunset.” None of Nick’s comments are especially revelatory; more significant are the things he doesn’t say out loud. For example, his narration includes comments on the weakening sunlight in the room, an observation that reveals how muddled the friends’ ideas of love eventually become. He also touches Laura a great deal, holding and kissing her hand and touching her leg under the table. These are genuinely affectionate gestures and suggest that even though the friends may talk about love all night, their words don’t really matter in the end. Finally, Nick is the only one who can “hear everyone’s heart,” which suggests that he may have insight into love that the others do not.
Although no one in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” seems to have a firm idea of what love really is, Terri does have some extreme and somewhat disturbing opinions. One of the most detailed tales told around the table is of Terri’s former lover, Ed, who was terribly abusive and threatened both her and Mel. Mel is firm in his belief that Ed was crazy, but Terri insists that Ed truly loved her. She points out that Ed tried to kill himself by swallowing rat poison when she left him and, when that didn’t work, shot himself through the mouth. Although the others don’t share Terri’s ideas about love, she nevertheless has a more solid idea about love than anyone else in the story. While Mel talks of his hatred for his ex-wife and Nick and Laura merely touch each other softly, Terri is the only one who can genuinely say that she once experienced true love. Mel calls Terri a member of the “kick-me-so-I’ll-know-you-love-me school,” but no one in the story can articulate a view of love that is clearer or more convincing.