Tainted Love

“Okay, let’s dig in,” said Bennett Lovett-Graff, thumbing the sheaf of short stories gathered on the podium in The Institute Library’s reading room downtown. He glanced low over its edge, out at the audience that had assembled for the monthly “Listen Here” storytelling series. 

“The question we almost want to ask is the title of the second story: ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’ What are we talking about?”

A founding member of the New Haven Review, Lovett-Graff partners with actors from the all-volunteer New Haven Theater Company to arrange public, performative readings of great literature every third Tuesday of the month. This Tuesday, the “Listen Here” theme was “Love Hurts.” Susan Kulp and Steve Scarpa each presented twenty-minute tales by Bliss Broyard (“Mr. Sweetly Indecent”) and Raymond Carver (“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) before a crowd of thirty over tea and brownies.

“Yes, I made them. And, yes—they’re from a mix,” Lovett-Graff said. Straight off a flight from Washington, he hadn’t the time to prepare the typical from-scratch batch of cookies.

“Here’s how this works,” he explained earlier in the night. “We read two short stories (the actors go up one after another) and then we talk about it.” In addition to the baked goods, Lovett-Graff also brings some scholarly goods, guiding a participatory talkback almost as long as the tellings themselves.

Lovett-Graff cut the discussion’s weighty, opening question down to a more manageable size. “Tell me about the narrator,” he asked simply, seeking details on Broyard’s protagonist.

A coming of-age-story told through marital infidelity, Broyard’s “Mr. Sweetly Indecent” twins the musings of a young, professional woman about her first mature sexual encounters with the problem of her dad’s adultery. 

Broyard tackles themes of faith and forgiveness in an ambiguous ‘80’s-‘90’s corporate America, replete with VCRs, answering machines, and the aggressive, clutching, Xerox-room ‘office romances’ decried by the contemporary #MeToo movement.

“She’s in her early twenties,” guesses an audience member. 

“How do we know?” Lovett-Graff asked again immediately, searching for more. 

“She’s right out of college,” offered another voice.

Much of the evening’s discussion followed this format: a rapid-fire give-and-take between the crowd and its solicitous facilitator, peppered with longer-winded digressions. Lovett-Graff focused the audience in on the protagonist’s date night with the friend of a co-worker. (“Let’s call him ‘the date,’” Susan Kulp had read confidentially, intimately.)

“Let’s go over that experience,” he said. “It’s a pretty weird date, to be honest. They go into his apartment and the first thing he does is—to turn on all the lights? Not the most romantic of evenings!” He pauses. “What does she notice is missing?”

“No music,” answered one person, “No TV!” 

“She wants for him to come up behind her,” added a second contributor, haltingly, hesitantly.

Lovett-Graff nodded at this and continued on. He and the attendees forensically reconstructed the scene. “He stays in the doorway and he says to her—”

“‘—take off your clothes!’” “And he’s completely dressed!” “He gestures to a chair near the windows!”

“I’m so glad you mentioned that,” Lovett-Graff said, jumping back in on the third comment of three. He lingered on the date’s ungentlemanly behavior, pointing out how ‘the date’ doesn’t take the lady’s coat for her. “I have to ask a question,” he interjects. “This is for the ladies, but maybe also for the men: Would you be repelled or intrigued?”

“Maybe she’s looking for love in all the wrong places,” suggested someone in the audience. 

Lovett-Graff seemed to agree with this reading, shaking his head. “I can’t speak for all the experiences people have of this nature, but—personally—I thought it was the weirdest moment of female objectification. That is just creepy.”

“But he says ‘you are beautiful,’” argued another participant. “She was waiting for that!”

The audience extended this lively debate into the analysis of Carver’s story—pressuring their interlocutor and advancing their own opinions on what was or wasn’t congenial courtship. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” four friends gather to polish off some cut-rate gin but end up philosophizing about romancing. The plot pivots on two pendant sketches: a murderous, abusive, gun-toting beaux who drinks rat poison out of passion; an affectionate older couple horribly injured in an automobile crash, kept apart by their full-body casts.

“Chekhov could have written this as easily as Carver. Everything is subtext,” Lovett-Graff said. “The actors have to do double work on this. There’s not that much in the way of speech markers: ‘he said,’ ‘she said.’ Very few adverbs—very like Hemmingway!”

Indeed, Steve Scarpa went almost as far as rendering the slurring of the characters’ speech. His range of pitch and volume grew wider as the dramatis personae got drunker, as did his hand gestures. Scarpa would speed up certain sections of the recitation excitedly and talkatively, or laugh out the words as breathy gusts of voice. It appeared at times like he really was acting a role from a script and not reading prose.

Lovett-Graff kept applying the same teaching tactic he leveraged while talking over Broyard’s story. He drove the listeners towards what was strange or not obvious in the text.

“What are these people doing: getting absolutely shit-faced?” he asked, posing and answering his own obvious question before asking something harder: “Why? Why the booze?”

“Liquid courage,” murmured a young woman, her legs crunched up comfortably at the knees, heels propped on the lip of her seat. She had moments before delivered an astute point about Broyard’s use of height differences between characters: a woman’s upper hand.

“It allows people to think sideways,” Lovett-Graff added in agreement. The room worked to parse out obsession from infatuation; it chewed over the virtues of a lovers’ spat and the drawbacks of more placid relationships. 

One woman shook her head vigorously. She seemed to speak to her friend and those nearest her, but had attracted the attention of all. She objected to the characterization of one couple as “tepid.”

“He kissed her hand! He kissed her hand,” she exclaimed under her breath, delighting in the pair’s gentleness. “My husband never does that!”

Lovett-Graff went on to re-read the story’s last few lines:

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.

His voice trailed off.

“They’re scared,” someone volunteered.

“That’s—an excellent answer,” Lovett-Graff confessed. “Of what?”

“Of everything!”

Lovett-Graff found his voice again. “Will I come to hate you? Will we get into an accident,” he said, building on the comments. “I don’t know if it should scare the shit out of me. We’re talking about love, but we’re also talking about fear, we’re talking about hope—”

“—misery!”

“—we’re talking about misery, about passion.”

“Everybody’s love is going to be different,” concluded an audience member, “because everybody brings a different personality to it!”