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  • When 'How are you?' may be a loaded question

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  • Normally I'm a pretty friendly sort and I really don't mind small talk, so whenever someone asks me, "How are you today?" I respond, "Fine, thanks! And you?" I never worry that this reply might not be true. I know that most people don't really care whether I woke up to breakfast served lovingly by my devoted husband and children, already dressed and ready for school, of course, their beds made and their hair brushed — or to total bedlam. No one is interested in the fact that I may have started my day cleaning up dog vomit from the living room rug, or that the coffee maker overflowed its basket and cascaded a gritty black river all over the kitchen counter.
    Frankly, I wouldn't want to know either. Yesterday I greeted the gas station attendant with a cheery "How are you?" Now I've never seen this man before, mind you, but by the time the tank was full I knew more than seemed decent about his family life. So for my part, when asked, I say "Fine, thanks!" with a smile and go on my way. Often it perks me up, this little exchange between strangers or co-workers. I feel genuinely convinced that for the moment things really are fine, no matter how they were the moment before.
    But every now and then, when it's been a particularly rough morning, I get an almost irresistible urge to answer in more accurate detail. Just once, when someone at work innocently asks me, "How are you?" I would like to growl, "Hormonal!" and see what happens. I like to imagine the range of reactions a response like this might fetch. The young women would giggle. The women my own age would smile understandingly. The younger, single men would misinterpret which hormones I meant. They might turn red, the shyer ones, anyway, and I guess the more outgoing types might snicker. But I especially like imagining the reactions of the men married to women my age. I imagine them knowingly backing away. "Oh-kaaaaay," they would say cautiously under their breath, and give me wide berth in the hall. One might even warn another in passing. "Don't mess with her," he'd say in an undertone, "she's hormonal." With these men, there'd be no mistaking what kind of "hormonal" I meant.
    I'm really not sure what I would hope to gain by this kind of honesty. My fantasy doesn't extend that far. In my idea of a perfect world, I suppose grousing at my associates would garner me at the very least some sympathy, maybe a cup of coffee. But I have no illusions. In the real world, I would simply be regarded as unstable. I worked with someone like that once. When you asked, "How are you?" the reply was never simple. It was never even short. It was, however, always brutally honest. You never knew from day to day whether you'd be dealing with Beauty or The Beast. Beauty was a pleasure to work with: funny, kind, helpful, even-keeled, and fair. The Beast was another matter altogether.
    Of course, she may only have been hormonal.
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