The clock read 5:01.  That was A.M.  The woman stared at the coffee maker, waiting for its hiss.  “You don’t even drink coffee,” said a voice in her head.  She tried to listen to the gurgle instead.  “Alan doesn’t,” the woman corrected as if the voice were really there, as if Alan were rustling his clothes on in the next room.  The second hand of the kitchen clock spun in a series of ticks.  She looked at it.

            “It’s a sign of weakness,” the voice sang.  The brown liquid spat into the carafe and steamed bitterness into the air.  Alan said that.  “Caffeine is for the weak.”  He’d say that to her at least once a week.  It was pretty obvious from the way he carried himself that Alan thought most habits were “weak.”  She knew he even thought that sleep was a weakness; Alan was a willful insomniac.  She also knew that most people who looked at Alan thought he was the type who went home to a pretty little wife who had dinner on the table.  That he read the paper over breakfast and was in bed by nine every night.  She knew differently, that this throw-back wife who could have been a walking commercial for the latest scrubbing pad and the perfect hostess for the neighborhood’s annual Tupperware party didn’t exist.  She knew this because she was Alan’s wife.

            The woman yawned.  5:03. “You still don’t drink coffee,” needled the voice.  She pulled out a travel mug and banged the cabinet door shut as if the voice were hovering in darkness between the juice glasses.  She’d just hide the mug before she saw Alan, avoid the glare she also got every time he saw her eat a Snickers bar although the “Caffeine is for the weak” dictum was only one of the reasons he’d glare at her when the milky chocolate stained her fingertips.  She tried to quit, once.  But it was a bad week.  By Wednesday there were five chocolate bar wrappers in her wastebasket.  She’d started carrying around one of those glossy women’s magazines, smudging fingerprints over the airbrushed models, and kept it open to an article about chocolate being a necessary aphrodisiac for women.

            5:06. Coffee was done.  “I really need to get a new coffee maker,” she said although only the kitchen clock heard her.  “But you don’t drink coffee.” The voice tried one last time as a faint ring in her ears.  The woman took a deep breath of the acrid steam and gulped the blackness from her mug, burning her tongue to shut herself up.


A professor I once had, originally from Germany, talked one day in class about answering the question, “How are you?”  Or more exactly, “H’re you?”  That passing slice of conversation we toss at the people we know, not even the people we necessarily talk to really, but people we “know.”  Small talk, it’s called.  Except, as my professor said, after spending weeks in the U.S. and actually answering “How are you?” with a response people had to listen to, a friend pulled her aside and told her it wasn’t a real question.  It didn’t even qualify as small talk.   

I have the same problem.  People ask me it all the time, “H’re you?”  I always have to think about it.  “Fine” is the best option.  It fulfills the obligation for the person who asked.  They don’t even have to hear it.  Things usually aren’t “fine.”  But details breach the contract, especially negative ones.  It forces the asker to fake sympathy, offer advice, and all that requires actually hearing what I have to say.  That would make it go from “not-even-small-talk” to “big talk.”  As my professor found out, that’s too much effort.

Sometimes, if it’s a person you used to see all the time, someone from the past, a high school reunion type person or that person you ate lunch with at your last job, then what they’re really looking for is “Great!”  Again, not an explanation, but some sort of affirmation that life has that potential, the potential for “great” with an exclamation mark.

I rarely say “Great!”  There’s this voice in the back of my head that says, “Well, it could have been better.  You could be better.”  And if that’s the case, how can I say “great” with an exclamation mark?  There’s always something in a day, a week, a vacation.  A moment when you see garbage piled up near a curb or roadkill, when you have to search and search for the end of the toilet paper in a public washroom.  Or there’s the pungent smell of urine in the vestibule at your drug store, the day gets dark too early, or you nearly missed a bus and you felt all those eyes watching you as you tripped up the big stairs out of breath.  “Great” with an exclamation mark means you didn’t notice those things.  Or it means they didn’t matter.

 “It matters,” I say to the customer in a suit buying Pampers and chewing gum. 

“What?” he laughs, taken off-guard.  He wasn’t really listening, doesn’t wait for a response, and I’m relieved.  I beep the Pampers through, and the gum.  He’s a stranger after all.

“Your total is twelve fifty-three.”  I take his twenty, give him change, and he moves on, another face pushed through my day by my conveyer belt.


The “How are you?” question isn’t really for the person being asked.  It’s for the asker.  He’d noticed that I hadn’t washed my hair again.  That’s why he asked when I came in this morning.  He gave me two looks: one for the hair, one for the caffeine.  I’d forgotten to stow my coffee mug under the seat of my car.  He would have smelled it on my breath anyway.

“I’m fine, Mr. Caruthers.”  My tongue still hurt, but I didn’t say that.  I bowed my head and made my way to the little cubby with my name on it.  Actually, my name was written on a piece of peeling masking tape, dried to the point where it had almost made up its mind to let go altogether and be trampled on by someone’s slushy boot.  I pushed at it, willing it to stay in place, for something to stay where it should, but it curled back as soon as my finger let go.