Once And Future Perfect

ALICE STEINBACH

March 29, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

So another day dawns and, as usual, things get off to a rocky start:

You get up to find there's no hot water and your cat is sick and needs a trip to the vet but you can't take him because you've got to be at work by 8 a.m., so you're going to have to take him when you get home at 7 p.m.

If, that is, he's still alive.

Next you find out that your automatic garage door won't work, which means you have to climb in through the garage window and operate it by hand from the inside, a tricky maneuver which causes you to throw out your chronically bad back.

This, of course, comes after the telephone call from your out-of-state son informing you that a financial emergency has occurred and unless he can find someone to lend him $300, he may have to quit eating for a month.

And on top of all this, no matter what you do with your hair -- mousse it, spray it, blow-dry it, iron it, curl it -- it still looks awful.

So, you're probably thinking, what else is new? Who doesn't know that the days when nothing goes right outnumber -- by about a billion to 1 -- the days when things do.

True enough. But once in a great while we chance upon a day when the heavens come together, the stars align themselves and the gods conspire in such a way as to give us a day in which everything goes . . . right!

Such was the case for me last week when, for one brief, shining day, I stumbled by accident into Camelot.

It began with a good-news phone call from an out-of-country son. He'd just learned the job he'd pursued for months was his. Talking to him, I suddenly became aware that over in the corner Max, the old, arthritic cat, was acting like a kitten, playfully leaping into the air in pursuit of his younger brother, Fluffy. For the first time in months, Max ate his breakfast with gusto.

Arriving at the office about an hour later, I was surprised to find a check in the mail -- payment for the reproduction rights to an article I'd written 15 years earlier. That little development was followed by a phone call from another son who announced he'd been accepted -- after months of anxiety on both his part and mine -- into graduate school.

Walking to the cafeteria to get my second cup of coffee, I noticed my back didn't hurt. In fact, it felt great. It was almost too good to be true -- all this in one day. Plus my hair looked terrific.

It made me think about other days like this, days so full of good news and unbridled hope that, despite their brevity, you never forget them.

My first day in Manhattan as an art school student was one such day.

From the moment I stepped out of my fifth-floor, walk-up apartment -- armed with a sketchbook and a New Yorker magazine -- to the end of the day when I heard Charlie Parker play jazz at Birdland, I walked surrounded by a halo of youthful optimism.

My teachers liked my work, I liked my teachers, and on the way home from class, I found a part-time job at a small art gallery in the Village. Was there anything left to wish for in the world? Not really. But such fine days have a pattern of their own: Celebrating my good luck at Schrafft's soda fountain that afternoon, I actually sold a sketch -- for $3 -- to the woman sitting next to me.

All that plus my hair looked good that day.

But Camelot never lasts. In this case, it departed abruptly the next morning when I awoke with the chickenpox.

So, yes, I knew last week that my state of carefree happiness was temporary.

I knew that the cat would languish again, that the sons would face disappointments, that the surprise checks would fail to arrive in the mail, that my back would hurt once more.

And I knew, with certainty, that my hair would once again look awful.

But standing outside my kitchen door that night -- the night of the day when I dwelled briefly in Camelot -- I knew also how important such days are.

They made the stars seem brighter, somehow. And the air softer. They made the sounds of water from a neighbor's garden fountain take on the clarity of crystal.

And standing there I realized how constricted the senses can become when held captive to the stress of always trying to stay ahead of something -- without even knowing what that something is.

But here, on this singular day, life had freed me briefly from all that. I knew it was true because for the first time in a long while I caught the scent of rain in the air and noted how quickly the clouds can move by where there is no wind in the air.

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