2015-11-26 / Sandy Days, Salty Nights

Learning how to bare fangs


My poet friend Miguel says, “In dating, you have to have fangs.”

He’s always talking like that, in metaphors.

“Fangs,” I agreed. “I could use some of those.”

People are always telling me I’m too nice. In dating and elsewhere, this softness gets me in trouble. How much better would my life be if I had an intimidating grin? Instead of shrinking from conflicts, I’d bare my teeth. Instead of apologizing, I’d growl. Instead of running away, I’d stand and fight.

“How do you get fangs?” I asked Miguel.

He shrugged enigmatically. “You just have to grow them.”

So I started picturing myself with a fine set of pointed incisors. Mine were delicate but deadly, a very ladylike pair. Charming and also threatening. When a date cancelled last minute, I didn’t pout and act wounded. I have fangs, I thought. When another date made an offhand comment at dinner — “I’m a hot mess,” I said after dropping a green bean in my lap; “Who says you’re hot?” he replied — I refused to let his words cut me. I have fangs, I thought.

Of course, some people don’t need to invent sharp eyeteeth. They’re born with them. These are the people who make the rest of us cower.

Last week, I pulled into a gas station just as a young man drove into the same row of pumps. He steered his scuffed Impala all the way forward, nose to nose with my Fiat, and scowled at me through the windshield as if I had driven in the wrong way. I forgot that I had fangs, and I raised my hands in a weak little gesture and mouthed, “What?” with the kind of smile that usually gets me out of trouble. He glared back. His naked aggression socked me, and I slunk to the pumps and back to my car without looking at him again. I have milk teeth, I thought.

It’s not foolproof, this trick, but imagining fangs is a good exercise for someone like me. Because, the truth is, I am afraid of everything. I’m afraid of getting on a plane. I’m afraid of eating dinner by myself. I’m afraid of wearing the wrong shoes.

I’m afraid the best and most beautiful parts of my life have already passed. I’m afraid I'll be an old woman living in this house by myself, suffocated by loneliness, wondering why I never got married again.

I’m afraid of so many things, too many things.

But I am also stubborn. And I refuse to let that fear keep me from trying, again and again and again, to live the kind of life I want. I am soft, it’s true, and I am also too nice. I let myself be vulnerable in circumstances where I know better, and I am easily hurt. This is fundamental to who I am, as intractable as the color of my eyes or the freckles on my skin.

But now I have fangs. They don’t make me invincible, I’m finding, and they certainly don’t make me fearless. But they make me a little more willing to take on the world.

And sometimes that’s all we need. ¦

— Artis Henderson is the author of “Unremarried Widow” published by Simon and Schuster.

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