After the theater darkened, she leaned toward me and whispered, “You have a mercenary personality.”
On the drive back to her place, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. Mercenary personality. What did it mean? I’d never heard anyone use “mercenary” that way. Of all the things women had called me on dates (“cold,” “aloof,” “self-absorbed,” “silly” if I managed to loosen up), “mercenary” wasn’t one of them.
I glanced at her, just for a moment, long enough to read her face and posture, but not so long that she’d know I was reading her. Arms crossed, chin lowered, eyes studying the road—what did she mean by all of that?
I finally had to ask. “What did you mean by ‘mercenary personality?’”
“You don’t know what ‘mercenary’ means?”
“A hired killer. Or a hired soldier,” I said.
“Was it the octopus?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I stabbed the octopus with my chopsticks at dinner,” I said. “You saw that and probably thought I had a violent side or something.”
“When you talk like that, it makes me never want to see you again,” she said. She gnawed one of her fingernails. “You sound like one of those obsessive types.”
“Because you sound obsessive.”
“I just want to know what you’re thinking.”
“What I’m thinking doesn’t matter.”
“It matters to me.”
“You’re stingy,” she said. “That’s what I meant by ‘mercenary.’ You only tipped fifteen percent.”
I thought back to the closest I’d ever been to finding love: a field trip to the Minnesota State Capitol in second grade. During the drive home, I sat next to Chelsea Hain. The thick drawl of her voice, her love of plaid, the way she gloated about her name (“Hain, which is French for hate,” she loved to inform everyone): everything about her was slightly off, but it was an offness that, sitting next to her on those stiff vinyl seats, felt oddly liberating.
“Let’s play roadkill,” Chelsea said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
She pressed her face against the window and explained the rules. “Keep an eye out for roadkill. Whoever calls it first gets the points. Raccoons are five, deer twenty, turkeys twenty-five, and skunks are thirty. But you gotta see the skunks, you can’t just smell ’em.”
I lost, but I didn’t mind. The more points she racked up, the more I adored Chelsea. When Mrs. Porter overheard what we were doing, it didn’t take long for her to classify both of us as “troubled.” But all the therapy sessions I was forced to attend as a result didn’t make me feel any less normal. It was childhood, after all. The rules were so much simpler back then.
I pulled into the parking lot of my date’s apartment. By the dumpsters, a dead raccoon lay curled up, half-crushed. I smiled and pointed at it through the windshield.
“Five points,” I said.