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Ask me how I am. Go ahead. Ask. But only if you’re interested. Trust me, I know what it’s like to put forth that question with the expectation of a concise, if not ambiguous, response, which I would plan to use as a segue into the real reason behind any one conversation. Often, that’s just what I’d get. After which, I’d springboard faster than an Olympic diver. It’s gotten to be that our inquiries into the wellness of others result from good manners more than genuine curiosity. My withdrawal from that cooperative was formally submitted immediately following the death of my father.
People tend not to ask how you are in the abruption, the days between bereavement and burial. Not, perhaps, for a few weeks. In that bubble, even the most imperceptive can draw the obvious conclusion. When it does begin, the inquiries are fewer than you might imagine. Some—always those you never expect—will find the circumstances too foreign and too treacherous to approach, choosing instead to retreat from your life until a period of indeterminable appropriateness has elapsed. Those who do reach out may be no better equipped to empathize than the previously mentioned grouping, only they make up for their deficiency with a surplus of courage. In either event, there exists a strong subset of the dispossessed that find themselves loath to air their true feelings. However sincere the design of the inquisitor, it does not facilitate the level of preparedness necessary to wade through a sewer system teeming with nipple-high emotional gunge. Anticipating this, the besought often opt for ambiguity, relying on responses gauzy enough to pacify while ushering in a swift change of subject. For some, the hollow, well-meaning sympathy proves too harsh to stomach. Others may just be plain tired of talking about it. Whatever the reason may be, a great comfort can be derived from adopting the passive position, allowing others to dominate the conversation, if only because of the supplemental schadenfreude that comes with learning that everyone’s drawing the short stick of life in some capacity.
Essential to whitewashing discourse is the employment of a verbal accelerant, some turn of phrase just vague enough to respect the investigation while prompting no follow-up. Each individual has his or her own preference, a concerted interval of trial and error revealing the most successful, nondescript clapback that sits in their holster just so. In my case, market research and focus groups had narrowed the list down to a single, four-letter f-word: fine. Other candidates had seen themselves considered but quickly eliminated due to practical inefficiency. Okay, for instance, was a contender. But it lacked the acceptable ration of positivity. Okay was how you described yourself after face-planting off a curb and managing not to lose any teeth. Okay meant “alive, but not great.” In essence, it begged further questions. Also in consideration, for a short spell, was the tried-and-true tagline of the dogged stalwart: hanging in there. Initially, I’d been drawn to it due to its innate suggestion of the fighter mentality. Yet, whereas the expression was intended to evoke the spirit of perseverance and conviction, in reality, it was received all too literally. Listeners alike found it impossible to picture me as anything but a helpless figure, dangling precipitously off some sharp edge, my blistered fingers the only things keeping me from being tenderized upon the craggy ravine below. The impression was all wrong, prompting the crinkle of a nose bridge, the pout of a lip, or worst of all, the extension of a clammy hand. People are going to pity those hanging in there; they’re going to want to help. Expecting anything less is like expecting indifference when one decides to roam the streets in cowboy boots and a Stetson with nothing but a guitar obscuring their privates. Outside of Times Square, that’s an explicit cry for help.
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Fine, though. That did the trick. Without fail, it injected the right amount of menthol and honey for someone to suck on, soothing their burning curiosity without coming on too strong. Its effectiveness, I’ve learned, is conditioned on its malleability. It’s what I classify a beige term, words like “terrier,” “follow-up,” or “economy plus.” It’s khaki, buff, sand, granola, fawn, shortbread; different shades of the same thing that no one really clamors for yet, at the same time, no one purposely tries to avoid. It’s just enough. There’s plenty to go around. So much so, in fact, that the more comfortable I became using it, the easier it was to give away. The sentiment was a lie, of course, no more sterling than a counterfeit bill. But, because of its illegitimacy, there was little remorse in spending it. Before long, I was papering the town like a seasoned money launderer.
It does buy things, the word. Time, privacy, distance, maybe even a little comfort. Though only short increments. The dollar never stretches quite as far as one might want. So, we pay and pay in greater quantities until we’ve fooled ourselves into believing it’s some sort of luxury. To a degree, we are responsible for our own misperceptions. However, I can’t help thinking some of the blame lies in how it’s been sold to us. In 1964, the Beatles, arguably one of the most iconic bands of all time, had just solidified their standing as a worldwide sensation by owning the top five slots of the Billboard charts. On one of their more B-side tracks released that year, the foursome—then at the dawn of their reign—sang about Baby; Baby who was good to me, Baby who was happy as can be, Baby who so much said it out loud and, owing to Baby’s darling admission, the boys from Liverpool were moved to croon—at the close of every verse—the same three words: I feel fine. Whether this much-junketed “Baby” was, in reality, a lover or an abstract term meant to represent the broader idea of music and newfound success is anyone’s guess. Yet, there they were, declaring their irrefutable gaga for someone or something, equating the ideas of love and fineness in a solitary lyric. And that’s how the world bought it. Not a single person questioned how antithetical it seemed for one to espouse their devotion, and in the same breath, feel just fine about it. While this is certainly not a defining example and I can only make inferences regarding each of the men’s relationships, history is telling. At the time, John Lennon, occupied in marriage to a woman he believed had trapped him, was still two years away from meeting the avowed love of his life. Paul McCartney was nestled somewhere between girlfriend number two and wife number one. George Harrison was similarly on the cusp of meeting the woman whom he would marry and later divorce due to his rampant infidelity. And Ringo Starr was a year off from wedding a woman he’d admittedly cheat on, abuse, and perhaps accordingly, drive into the arms of one of his already married bandmates. Considering all this, there might be a reason why that particular single failed to earn gold, bronze, or even limestone.
Why, then, have we come to doubt fine? Why, after prolonged exposure, does the word lose its power to persuade? My running theory has to do with the lack of a clear identity. Fine tries to be too many things. Per Google Dictionary, the term has four separate variations, with an aggregate of twenty unique definitions. Most frequently it is used as an adjective, at other times a verb, adverb, even a noun in some instances. It is a thing on Monday, an action on Tuesday, a state of being on Wednesday, and on Thursday, it takes a day off to rest. It is an object “of high quality” or “(of a person) worthy of or soliciting admiration.” Yet, by some magic, it is synchronously “good; satisfactory” and “used to express one’s agreement with or acquiescence to something.” It is remarkable yet it just scrapes by. It is a contradiction. Yesterday it was “of imposing and dignified appearance or size.” Today it is “sharp, consisting of small particles.” Still tomorrow, it is a discipline, a “sum of money exacted as a penalty by a court of law or other authority.” It is great and small. It is a burden. Fine silverware can be found in your grandmother’s hutch, fine powder in your grandson’s sock drawer. Fine brandy is available at your local liquor store, but only if it’s from France and only if it’s made from distilled wine rather than pomace. You can eat with it, snort it, and get drunk on it. Fine is everything at once while nothing really at all. It is the Swiss Army knife of words; fun to hold, but really, what are you going to do with it? Think about the last time you were in a hotel; think about that tiny bottle of all-in-one shampoo and conditioner. Think about how convenient it was, how you reached for it, and how it did its job in the moment. Then remember how, in just an hour’s time, you could have easily been mistaken for one of the Mötley Crüe front men. That’s what fine’ll get you.
The question then remains: How did fine become indefinable? To understand this, one must trace the word back to its starting point. And for this peculiar specimen, things are tricky from the get-go. While each iteration of the modern-day fine has roots in ancient Latin, etymology reveals its multitudinous fate was preordained, having been born of not one but two independent terms: finire and finis. From the outset, records defined finire as an act—“to finish.” Over the centuries of adoptions and adaptions—Old French, Middle English—some letters fell away and some were restored, but the meaning remained constant. That is, until contemporary English saw fit to separate the two, establishing finish as a word in its own right and leaving fine as an abstract term, open to interpretation. By a similar process, France likewise appropriated the Latin finis (“end”), holding on to its original meaning while confusing matters—in a way only the French could—through the interpolation of a second: “payment.” Seeking to simplify, Middle English ditched the old and kept the new, leading to the “license and registration” precursor to the fine we abhor to this day. Overall, it was the Italians who managed to preserve the purest sense of the term, evolving finis to the fine whose black-and-white text would announce the close of every melodramatic art house feature and overambitious student film everyone’s been dragged to at some point in their life.
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Stripped to its studs, clutter cleaned away, the word can be seen the way it was meant from the first, the way the architects had outlined. With nothing left to trick the eye, epiphany comes as a realization that, despite my efforts to exploit fine for purposes of deflection, I had been unintentionally speaking the truth all along. From its germ, the expression has been emblematic of a conclusion. And true to form, its users apply it in order to hasten a finish. For me, I was finished talking about death, trying to answer questions about it, trying to explain it. I was done living in its contours, being defined by it. So, I sought to end the conversation in the most efficient way possible. But, like its present-day understanding, the privilege was not without its price. Each deferral was an ignorance, an act of self- sanction with penalties that only compounded with interest. Much as I’d like to take some helping of credit for my accidental honesty, it doesn’t forgive the debt. For one, because the objective was always to lie. For another, because the receiver still wound up misled. Yes, by downright coincidence, I’d maintained the authenticity of the word, but not a soul read it that way. To claim any sort of victory would be delusion.
Fooling yourself is much more straightforward when you choose not to examine all the facts. That way, when things go belly-up, you weren’t flagrant, just uneducated. I, on the other hand, have done the exploration, the fact-finding. I’ve exposed my own verbal misappropriation, of which I was both the victim and the sole conspirator. Believing I was performing some service by not unloading upon my confidants, I swept past the topic, having dismissed their attentiveness as the child of formality and not of good faith. Not only did that reveal me as an individual short of trust, it left me as one heavy with discomfort. To continue then, with everything I knew, would make me a flat-out hypocrite. As a proponent of transparency, especially one who stands in opposition to the demonization of feeling, I can’t—I won’t— use the word anymore. Not until everyone agrees on what it means. Until that day arrives, let me tell you how I am.
I’m not over it. I won’t ever be. I won’t sanction the fact that my father got a raw deal. I can’t stomach the likelihood that his own country killed him. I don’t understand how a government can send soldiers to a warzone dusted with pesticides knowing their own men would breathe them in. I fail to see how something meant to kill trees and expose snipers could be harmless to the boys making bathtubs out of its emptied barrels. I reject the excuse that no one could have known or that it was all some big cover-up; no admission of negligence or duplicity will undo the damage. I abhor that my father fulfilled his part of the bargain and got cancer for it. I’m sickened at the thought that, somewhere, in some broken-down government office, a nameless, faceless peon had to distill his worth down to a dollar amount. I hate that blood money is no longer a foreign concept. I want them to know that a monthly check is not an absolution. I need to come to terms with what is out of my control. I’m getting better. But I’m never fine. I’m acknowledging the fact that I’ll never be done talking about this. I accept that anyone I allow close to me will eventually ask about my father, and I will have to tell them. I’m also fortunate that there’s much more to discuss about his life than there is about his death. I choose to see it as a way of keeping him around. I’m astounded at what I’ve been through, body and mind. I’m equally shocked that, after it all, most of the days are good. I still hope for a way to conceal the path that no one else becomes its unwilling traveler. I grasp how naïve that sounds. I promise to never see a cure as “too late,” and to celebrate every life it saves. I concede that it will still be painful. I’m making peace with that. But I’m never fine. I’m grateful for the weird little joys that make waking up exciting. I enthuse over a blue energy drink, a short run on a fall morning, and the fat, little beagles with their fat, little butts at the park more than is probably necessary. I recognize that, on the ride there, I probably flipped off someone’s elder for driving too slow. I’m immediately remorseful if it helps. I’m working on separating criticism from ambition and maybe, just maybe, taking it easy on myself once or twice a century. I wish I could believe those who offer praise, but fear of conceit has me firmly by the haunches. I’d rather take the business end of a horsewhip than a compliment. I will say I want to connect with people, and then hide behind my couch when the doorbell rings. I’m sure whoever’s out there is selling something and I can’t bear to turn them down. I’d like to introduce my younger self who yearned for love to the cynic whose system handles affection like an organ transplant. I think there’s a whole person somewhere in-between. I’m lonely one day and self-contained the next. But I’m never fine. I can’t stand still, yet I wish everything would stop moving so fast. I keep my blinds closed and enjoy a dark room. I write by candlelight. I buy too many candles, yes, but my electric bills are twenty dollars and I’m definitely surviving the first few waves of zombies. I adore the way the skin buzzes after a day spent out in the sun. I’m cool as anything in a crowded city or a bar yet my chest starts to tighten if I’m in the grocery store for more than fifteen minutes. I begrudge the fact that I’ll always be some level of anxious. I seize up whenever my mother so much as coughs. I check her calendar for doctor names I don’t recognize, yet I’m somehow amazed when she resists if I ask about them. I accept the waves because I know how; with each one that passes, I get better at riding them. I miss piloting jungle boats down artificial rivers under a night sky of controlled explosions. The exhaustion, the simplicity of it all. I blame myself for frittering Dad’s last good years by indulging some childish lark, even if there was no possible way to have foreseen. I called him every day. I felt his warmth and support. I realize the guilt is one-sided and entirely of my own making. I’m trying to ease up. But I’m never fine. I laugh again, more than I’d ever thought feasible. I laugh like him, big and high-pitched. I do a lot of things like him: eat his weird foods, listen to forties jazz. I even have his squared-off toes. I’ve begun to wonder if a piece of him didn’t latch onto me before he left. I pray it was the adhesive piece, the piece that glued the family together by force of sheer existence. I aim to be glue, but I feel I’m more like Sticky Tack. I count on the good, no matter how much it makes me sound like a T.J. Maxx affirmation. I prepare for the bad because I have to cover all the angles. I eagerly anticipate a two o’clock coffee run because depending on work, it might be the one time a day I get to step outside. I drink so much coffee my moisturizer needs moisturizer. I used to drink more, but then friends started forwarding me articles about kidney failure. I meander between thoughts that are seemingly unrelated and take far too much pleasure in mapping the tangent back to its bewildering jump off. I debate my own brand of weirdness: intriguing or screwy. I’m going to leave that one alone. But I’m never fine. I’m a walking refutation. I turn down invites to barbecues because small talk is crippling but watch me Uber into some dingy corner of San Jose to split a Pisco Sour in the living room of a Peruvian I’ve just met. I’m unable to explain it. I suppose I prefer to do things that make me feel alive. I fancy the idea of being meaningful in a way that’s noble and not contrived. I distrust those who fawn— them and their signature scent. I’m overly vigilant about the way I speak; meanwhile, my fear of ineloquence trips me up more than anything else. I play with humor when recollecting pain, not to mask it but because you either find the funny bits or lose yourself to the gloom. I’m rarely brief with a story. I dawdle on the details. I drive the point home, mostly because the point is drunk. I’m more honest with myself on the page than I am anywhere else. I’m indebted to the writing, for the collectedness that comes with a finished piece, for providing better therapy than any prescription or couch session ever could. But I’m never fine. I share work with my best friend, fight to trust her approval, fret when she says, “That was a punishing read.” I’m uncertain as to what she refers, my prowess or my life. I’m only bothered by one of those options. I’m confident you can figure out which. I am certain that, by now, a good number of you figure I’m a basket case. I surmise that, if you’ve made it this far, it is by the grace of charm or dismay. I decline to get caught up in the particulars. I’m just trying to tell you how I am. I told you I would. I’m a man of my word. I could go on, but I’ll leave it there. I’m good for now. But I’m never fine.
To be sure, I’m not lobbying for sticking a finger down the emotional gullet at the slightest provocation. That’d strip the crust off anyone’s warm rolls. What I am suggesting is that we start suspecting this word fine. That we pay closer attention to the users among us, with a particular focus on those who deploy it at high frequency. This is not an invitation to pry or to prod. Do that and you’ll find yourself headed home with a lifetime supply of less ambiguous four-letter words. This is an imperative to be present, to take extra care. Every fine is a trip wire. Step with intent. To circumvent the minefield is to neglect the person who somehow sleepwalked their way to its center. No one’s asking to be carried out. Just stay nearby. Talk about anything. Anything else. Anything but the ground. The distraction could be lifesaving.
As for myself, I can’t say for certain if I’ve managed my way free of hazardous terrain. The moment I stop minding my stride is the moment something blows up in my face. I like that. For once, I’ve painted myself into a corner and I’m in no rush to leave. By coming out so unapologetically against an expression, I’m bound by my own declaration of independence. Attention must always be paid. Dialogue deserves contemplation. Words have to mean something. It doesn’t mean unloading my dirty laundry on those with a predilection for pressing. It means being conscientious about my word choice—choosing terms that do justice to my frame of mind without soliciting a symposium. For too long, I conflated honesty with an obligation to full disclosure, forgetting that to be succinct is not to be disrespectful. No one’s ever faulted me for feeling shitty and not wanting to talk about it. At the very least, the admittance endorses anyone at the table struggling with their own sense of fineness. At most, it authorizes the dispensation of their grievances—grievances I’m happy to drown in.
It must sound like sadomasochism, this relief that can be extracted from the ordeals of others. But, let me be clear, my relief comes in recognizing that anyone willing to discuss it is actively attempting to work it out. To talk about pain, however briefly, is to acknowledge not only that things have been better, but also that we expect the pendulum to swing back that way. To that end, I hope no one I know is fine. I hope no one reading this is fine. Much as I wish you cotton candy clouds and a life written by Nancy Meyers, I understand that there will be heartache and how, if that is the way of things, this might come across as insensitive. Before you burn this, however, I ask you to remember the last time you felt truly happy. Remember what it was exactly that brought about such feeling, how lucky you were to have something wondrous to misplace, how the joy would be meaningless without the necessary pain. Now, remember the last time things felt as hopeless as they might in this very moment. Then remember how it only became a memory because, in order to do so, it must— in some way—come to an end.
“I’m Never Fine” is an excerpt from the book I’m Never Fine: Scenes and Spasms on Loss ©2023 by Joseph Lezza, published by Vine Leaves Press on February 21, 2023.
Joseph Lezza is a writer in New York, NY with an MFA in creative writing from The University of Texas at El Paso. His debut memoir in essays, I’m Never Fine: Scenes and Spasms on Loss (Vine Leaves Press), was a finalist for the 2021 Prize Americana in Prose and was named by Buzzfeed LGBTQ and Lambda Literary as a “Most Anticipated 2023 Release.” When he’s not writing, he spends his time worrying about why he’s not writing. His website is www.josephlezza.com and you can find him on the socials @lezzdoothis.