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Annie Bruno

Veteranís Day

Cally stayed at Johnís on Sunday night because Monday was Veteranís Day and she didnít have to work. This was perfectly fine with John who didnít have a job and didnít keep track of the days of the week, say nothing of holidays. He lived in a sprawling apartment on Central Park West by some mysterious arrangement, while Cally lived with a roommate in Brooklyn, which was convenient to her job at J.P. Morgan, down on Wall Street, where she answered phones and made plane reservations to places sheíd never been for people sheíd never met.

In fact, Callyís trip to Rhode Island to begin college at Brown University was only the second time sheíd been outside Minnesota, the other time being one summer when she went to language camp at Moorhead State and she and some other kids got bored and drove over to shop at a mall in Fargo, North Dakota.

She and John had started dating her senior year at Brown, after she had finally started to feel comfortable enough to reveal her tentative sense of humor. It wasnít that she was afraid of not being funny, it was just that funny thoughts never occurred to her unless she felt completely comfortable and her mind could kind of relax and let them in. At Brown this level of relaxation had taken three and half years to achieve, but when she did, John Brotherton was the first to notice and fall madly in love with her. Now two years later he had every intention of marrying her, but he wanted to be sure she could take care of herself, that she had known what the working world was really like, so if in the future she ever thought of leaving him she would have a indelible impression of something to which she would never ever want to return. John had never worked himself, but the idea that someone would demand that he be somewhere every day from one particular time to another, during which he would have no freedom and not make enough money to ever actually buy an apartment like the one he lived in now for free was a thought so frightening he was sure living such a reality would bond Cally to him forever, after love lost its freshness and his eccentricities became less charming.

That Monday morning Cally woke to the sound of John swearing in the kitchen. She kept her eyes closed as she heard his footsteps moving toward her down the hall, weighing whether to pretend she was sleeping. It was more honest, she thought, to let him know she was awake, but as it turned out she didnít have to decide because he knocked on the door, low, with his foot.

"Cally? Iím sorry, baby, but can you open the door for me?"

Cally opened the door to find John shirtless in his pajama bottoms with Brock and Shelley, his two new Newfoundland puppies, one under each arm.

"One of them has the shits and I canít clean it up because they keep walking in it."

Soon Cally was kneeling over the tub, her knees cushioned from the tiles by one of Johnís ridiculously thick towels, as she washed the puppiesí feet with orange blossom shower gel. She laughed and started to feel lighter, the puppies were having such a good time in the water. She rinsed them off then dried them with two more thick towels that someone else would wash. She was not allowed to come out until John had finished cleaning the kitchen floor, so Cally sat against the door to wait. The puppies squirmed and rolled and, suddenly very frisky, started running around, slipping and sliding on the tiles.

In the kitchen, John had made Cally coffee. She pulled up a stool to the eat-in counter, the wood smooth against her bare thighs. She liked to "parade around in her underwear," as John said, when he pretended to protest it.

"What do you want to do today? I have the day off," Cally said.

"You do? Thatís right. We should do something fun," John replied, as he searched for the lid to his coffee cup. Last week at a tea shop he had been so pleased to find a mug with a lid, because he so hates it when his coffee gets cold, even just a little.

"Letís walk across the park and go to the Met," Cally suggested.

John took a quick sip then quickly covered the mug with its matching ceramic lid. "Are you sure?"

"Sure? . . . hmmm, yes, Iím sure."

"I mean, itís just going to be so crowded. Everyone will go to the Met on their day off. Itís a lot more fun to zig when everybody else zags."

Cally wanted to remind John that she had to zig when she could, that she didnít have day after endless day to do what she pleased. "Well, what is the opposite of going to the Met?"

"Teaching an art class to underprivileged third-graders," John answered hastily, as if he already knew she would ask that.

"Where do we find third-graders, then?"

John uncovered his coffee and took a satisfyingly hot sip then quickly covered it again. "If I could draw, I would actually do that," he said.

"We could read stories to kids at the Public Library," Cally offered.

"Thereís only about half a million people in this city who want to do that," John replied, not meanly.

"Or we could write a childrenís story. About Brock and Shelley," Cally said.

John raised his eyebrows and for the second before they dropped back down it seemed a real possibility.

Instead he reluctantly placed his coffee on the counter, cocked his head like one of the pups and asked, "Would you lie down with me and tickle my back?"

The puppies followed Cally and John down the hall to the bedroom. John threw the pillows off the bed and crawled under the covers, arranging them so they only covered his legs. Then he flopped his torso down like a seal, his head turned toward the window. Cally sat cross-legged next to him as if his long lean back were a campfire, and she ran her nails lightly in rows, up and down, methodically making sure every inch of his back was touched.

"My mom never did this," he said. "But I think Iíd rather have this now. Because with my mom it wouldnít have lasted anyway."

"Well, it would have been nice to have it then and now," Cally said softly. She wanted John to face his anger toward his mother. Sheíd started to do this herself in therapy last year, only it was anger about her father. She had hit a dark spell after graduation, when she realized that she could never go back to Minnesota, but she couldnít stay in college either. She really had had no idea where she should go.

John let his arms drop more heavily against the bed. "Did you see that?" he said. "I just thought to myself, Iím not relaxed, and then when I realized it, I could just let it all go."

"Thatís great, sweetie."

"The thing I was thinking before I realized I wasnít totally relaxed, was how anxious I was in boarding school and how I used to imagine that my mother was sitting on the edge of my bed tickling my back so I could fall asleep."

"Didnít she ever visit you?"

"She and my Dad would come take me out to dinner occasionally."

Callyís arm was getting tired, so she switched hands.

"Whatís the nicest thing your mom would do when you were growing up?" John asked.

Cally thought for a minute. The first thought she had was of her mother emerging from the bathroom in her bra and waisty underwear, pausing and then coming into the living room where she and her brother Tom were watching TV, and announcing, "I just wanted to apologize to you for flying off the handle. Iíve got my period." And then she had pressed her lips into a minimal smile and gone into her bedroom to get dressed. Cally remembered the word "period" richocheting around the room, while she prayed Tom wouldnít ask her what that was, but Tom had only looked at her and made a grotesque face by hooking his little fingers in his nostrils and bending his ears forward.

"When I had the flu she would scrape fresh apple for me, then feed me just a teaspoon a minute to be sure I could keep it down."

John was silent then said, "Thatís really enviable."

It was time to take the puppies out, as they were in the middle of house training. Cally, John, Brock, and Shelley entered the park at 72nd Street and turned left so they could walk under the arbor, where the sun dappled happily through, reminding Cally there was nothing to be unhappy about. As soon as they reached the grass, Brock squatted and peed, looking slightly embarrassed, as if he wasnít sure he was doing it right, but when he finished he ran off quickly, already forgetting, unreeling the flexi-leash to its abrupt limit.

"Shit, I didnít get to praise him. Itís the most important part," John said.

"Youíll get another chance. Probably fifteen chances just today," Cally said, helpfully.

"Will you praise him, too?" he asked.

"Of course I will."

"Iíd like us to do this together as much as possible."

"Thatís what I want, too," Cally said, lurching forward to kiss his cheek as they walked, to disguise the distance that rose up in her whenever she felt he was testing her.

Now Shelley was peeing. In confident contrast to Brock, she stared straight ahead in concentration and wouldnít be rushed.

"GOOD girl. Good GIRL!" John cooed, while Cally overlapped, "Shelley, what a good puppy. What a good puppygirl."

This put Cally and John to laughing, which sort of catapulted John into a run. Clutching one plastic-housed leash in each hand, he passed the puppies, their leads reeling back in, and when they saw him pass, they began sprinting in pure joy at this surprising new development. Cally watched them, smiling, not wanting to think what she was thinking: that feeling happy with John was often punctuated by a sudden evaporation of doubt that she hadnít even noticed was there.

Brock and Shelley were tired as only puppies can be after their romp in the park, so John put them in their little crates, which he had lined with sheepís skin, then suggested that he and Cally shower and go out for lunch. His favorite place served until 4:00 and it was 3:30 now, so they could just make it.

Over a small table with a sprig of flowers to one side, Cally watched John peruse the menu. His dark hair, still wet from the shower, was parted just an inch above his right ear, like a bald manís comb-over, only his hair was not at all thinning so it made a rather exaggerated mound over the top of his head. This was not how he normally wore it; it was just something he did out of boredom. One day he had worn one of Callyís turtlenecks to dinner, purposely liking how small it looked and how the hem landed just at his navel. She had gotten mad, the sweater was cashmere, one she liked wearing to work. His friends, however, had smiled admiringly at him, and when heíd reached for a piece of bread, the sleeve stretching thin around his mid-forearm, several had tittered and muttered congratulatory-sounding things like "you freak, I love you."

"Iím not asking you what you are having," Cally said.

"And Iím not asking you," John said, his eyes still rigorously searching the menu.

The waitress came and dropped off glasses of water, saying sheíd return in a minute to take their orders.

"Thank you," John said, turning his head and using an effort and volume that made Cally want to tell him to shut up.

John watched Callyís face while he chugged half of his water, as if wanting her to watch. "I was really thirsty," he said when heíd finished.

"After lunch, I think Iíll head back to Brooklyn," Cally said.

"And youíre announcing that now because . . . ?"

"It was on my mind, so I said it."

John nodded with short bobs, the way he did when acknowledging that sheíd spoken a simple truth to which there was no reasonable rejoinder.

This way he had of weighing the truth got to her, as she often felt she was receiving an affirmation she didnít ask for. Even when they were making love, and Cally would whisper "I love you, John," she could feel him assess the truth of it, like a piece of fruit tossed in the hand, smelled, and then either returned to the stack or consumed.

The waitress returned and John ordered the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon and Cally ordered the frittata.

"Was that really what you were going to order?" he said, as soon as the waitress disappeared.

"Yes."

"I thought for sure you were going to order the Benedict, and it would be a draw."

They often played a game to see who had ordered the better item. Usually it was pretty easy to agree who had ordered the tastiest dish, and when they ordered the same thing they called it a draw.

"Eggs Benedict was a good guess," Cally said.

"I just didnít want to lose today."

"You wouldnít lose. Thatís not why we play."

"Maybe itís not why you play."

Cally paused then purposely changed the subject. "What are you up to this week?"

"Well, I thought Iíd look for a job. Robís dad is casting something. I think Iíd be good at casting."

"What about Brock and Shelley?"

"Puppy daycare."

"Oh."

"You know, Alexís new girlfriend, whatís her name? Nathalie? Did you know she works at CNN? You should hang with her. You could do better than desking it at J.P."

"Not ambitchous enough for you, eh?" Cally joked.

"You donít have to be a Ďbitchí to live up to your potential. Ever heard of feminism? Baby, you went to Brown, for Godís sake." In the course of unfurling this blow, John flagged down the waitress and ordered two mimosas.

Sometimes Cally was keenly aware that had she not gone to language camp at Moorhead State or won the state geography contest and thus gotten into Brown University, she would not be sitting in a picturesque cafť on the Upper West Side of Manhattan wedged among strollers that could conquer the Himalayas if need be, sitting across from a bright, attractive, wealthy young man who pressed boundaries every chance he got just because he could. And if she had not gone to Brown but stayed in Byron and if John had gotten a whim to drive across country and stopped into Frank ní Steinís bar and found her drinking Bud Lite drafts with her friend Mary, she doubted whether heíd have looked twice at her. If he would have given her the time of day.

When the food came, John took a bite of his Benedict and immediately dropped his fork into the middle of his plate, as if heíd lost muscle control. "My God. Cally, this is fucking awesome. I think I won after all. You gotta taste it."

Cally took him in: the smile on his face, his asymmetrical hair, the apple flush in his cheeks from the mimosa, and his plush lips that looked expensive, they did, like his towels, and she tried to find that sparkle in herself, that spontaneous humor that meant she was okay. But she couldnít find it, so she opted for something to just end the subject without getting them into a fight. "Baby, I donít even need to. This frittata fucking sucks."

"I love when you say Ďfucking,í" he said.

They walked back to Johnís apartment holding hands. The days were getting shorter; it was already dusk. By the time Cally had packed up her moisturizer and her iPod, her favorite thick socks, and her collection of magazines and books to read on the subway, and she and John and the puppies descended the elevator and walked across the dazzling marble floor of the lobby one more time, night had fallen and it had grown colder.

Energized by napping, the puppies bobbled and darted between John and Cally, as they walked to the subway station.

"Have a good day at work tomorrow," John said, pausing at the entrance.

"I will."

Something uncertain hung between them, but when John put both leashes in one hand so he could use the other to cup Callyís cheek and kiss her with such pure intention, it fell away.

She turned into the station, hooked her bag over her shoulder, and bumped her way through the turnstile.

The local train arrived first, so Cally got on it. She just wanted to keep moving, and she probably wouldnít have to wait long for the express at 42nd Street. She got a seat, which was a relief. She lifted the strap of her bag over her head and lowered it to the dirty floor between her feet. Across from her was an adorable yellow lab in a leather halter, with the designated signs on the sides which read, "Please donít pet me now, Iím at work."

The dogís owner was an elderly man, with watery blue eyes and a freshly pressed plaid shirt under his navy blue zippered jacket. He was wearing a baseball hat embroidered with a military emblem and the words 121st Infantry Division, World War II. She wondered if heíd been there on D-Day, if heíd been among those thousands of men on the beach at Normandy.

The dog sat quietly between his knees. The man didnít appear to be blind; his disability wasnít clear. Cally wanted to say something. Something like "Thank you for fighting. It means a lot to me." But that sounded so small, so insubstantial compared with what heíd done. What would her gratitude really mean anyway, when she had spent Veteranís Day doing nothing, with someone entitled to do nothing. She hadnít thought about a single soldier all day, not even the ones in Iraq.

Still, she wanted to say something, but at 66th Street the train filled with more people, and now there was a group of teenage girls separating her and the Veteran. She could still see his dog, who had backed in as close as possible to the seat, because the purse of one girl hung on a long strap, and it kept nearly hitting the dogís nose as they bent over with laughter and swayed with the movement of the train. A space cleared between Cally and the Veteranís face and she could see he was getting angry, as if the girl were doing it on purpose. Cally wanted to reach out and tap the girl on the arm, so she would be aware, but before she could do it, the Veteran reached out and pushed the girl, nearly yelling, "Canít you see what youíre doing?"

The girl gained her footing and glared at him, then turned back to the safety of her friends. The Veteran looked wild in the eyes, furious. It seemed disproportionate and Cally couldnít help wondering if the girl had been an all-American blond like her, and not black, would he have pushed her? She suddenly noticed a handsome young black boy of about seventeen in a hooded Knicks jacket staring hard at the Veteran from across the train. He was obviously thinking the same thing. At 50th Street, the train got even more crowded. The girlís purse was bouncing again, so the dog, probably against all his rigid training, tried to get up and move. The Veteran burst from his seat in exasperation and was making his way toward the train door, when the boy in the Knicks jacket pushed him off-balance, and said, "Howíd you like it?"

The Veteran caught his balance and whirled around. "You want a piece of me, kid?"

"You donít push girls," the boy said.

"You punkass kid. Letís take it outside."

The boy just smirked and looked away, but as soon as the Veteran turned back around, the subway door opened and the boy pushed him hard, so that he stumbled out the door. The dog whimpered, which prompted the Veteran to wail, "Let me through God damn it," but then he turned around as soon as he was on the platform. "Címon kid. Get out here! You want a piece of me? You want a piece of me?"

Most people stepped off the train as if the Veteran werenít even there and just kept moving, but a gentle, tired-looking businessman tried to calm him by resting his hand on the Veteranís arm. The Veteran swatted the businessman away, nearly hitting Cally as she slipped out. She stood to the side, in case there was something she could do, hoping the boy would stay on the train, which he did. The chime finally rang and the doors closed, and the Veteran, visibly shaking, tugged his dog toward the turnstiles, still yelling at the boy, seeming disoriented, as if the incident had taken him to another place, not in New York, not Veteranís Day, but a distant place heíd been put against his will.

The businessman turned to Cally and said, "I saw that one coming, but I didnít know what to do."

Cally nodded, trying to keep tears from creeping into the corners of her eyes. She wanted to say ĎI could see both sides,í but she only said, "Have a good evening." There was no way to reconcile anything now.

She waited impatiently on the platform, checking several times for the arrival of the express train. Finally a wobbling headlight appeared in the distance, barreling down the tunnel, and in seconds the trainís aluminum sides were streaking past, the brakesí long squeal using up the last of everyoneís tolerance. People pressed in around her from all sides, a crowding of arms, chests, hips, and feet. Everyone waited, as if quieting a collective scream, and when the doors opened, together, in a heap, they threw themselves across the threshold.


Annie Bruno's work has appeared in Rubber City, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood, and Dog Culture: Writers on the Character of Canines. She lives in Los Angeles.

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