The woman walks slowly into the market, reciting her short list in her mind - oil, pumpkin puree, do I have enough money for powdered sugar too? better not chance it. She's tired, had some long days, long nights, not sleeping well what with worrying about finances and the ever growing list of things she needs to be doing, but isn't getting done. Right now, though, she's focused on her list; the rest will keep.
She finds what she needs and seeks out a cashier. She is a woman of habit - when she can, she uses the same cashier every time. It helps to ease her discomfort at being out in public. She is third in line but doesn't mind waiting.
When it's her turn, she smiles at the cashier, a woman who is something like a friend, if a friend can be made when names aren't well known, nor histories, nor personal details. Still, they are friendly toward each other, exchange pleasantries, passing a few minutes conversing. The cashier takes her time with the woman, prolonging the transaction.
The cashier asks the woman "How are you?" smiling.
"Tired, but fine - I just spent a couple of days away, getting out of the craziness."
They nod, empathetic, the madness of the holidays universal. Then...
"How are you??" She always asks, but the emphasis is new...maybe the woman can see that the cashier's smile isn't as firmly fixed as usual.
The cashier is tired, too. She has worked at her job for more than twenty years, and it's not an easy job. People can be rude, mean, angry. They come through the line listening to their music players, talking on the phone, the cashier no different than a self-scanning machine in their eyes. They do not see a human woman. She hasn't minded until that night. She says "I try not to take it personally, but today something got to me..."
"Was someone mean to you?? Tell me who it was so I can go kick their ass." She is smiling, a touch of empathy, a touch of sympathy, a touch of compassion, a touch of laughter in her voice...but she means what she said. She will find whoever was mean to her cashier friend and kick their ass for being a dick.
The cashier smiles, thinks for a moment. "I can't begin to figure out how to explain it..." She falters, looks at the next person in line, someone else waiting with thinly veiled impatience for the two women to shut up and get on with it.
The woman doesn't care. She can wait. The cashier smiles bravely and hands the woman her receipt. "Have a good one..."
She'll let it go...for now..."You too, sugar...and I hope you find within you what you need to help you let go of whatever happened - because there's no reason anyone should have the power to keep ruining your day once they've walked away. Life is too short."
The cashier smiles, eyes bright. "You're right. Thanks."
The woman says "In case I don't see you beforehand, happy Christmas."
"Thank you ---." And almost involuntarily, quietly "I love you..." because the woman sees her, really sees her, a fellow human, and asked How are you? not reflexively but because she meant it, and times are rough and people are more self-involved, but one of the hundreds of people she sees each day gave a damn.
The woman leaves before the customer behind her becomes too irritated, too impatient, sighs one too many times...and before the cashier is moved to tears because today was just hard, and some careless word or deed bruised her.
And she thinks about life, a succession of moments - good, bad, it's all in how we receive them, process them, make them ours. She resolves to return, to ask again "How are you?" (meaning it) and wait for the response because she cares, deeply.
How are you?