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A Change of Plan

The short story that became ‘The Heartbreak Kid’

Bruce Jay Friedman
October 03, 2007

And so finally, after four years of drift, they had found all exits barricaded and gotten married in a sudden spurt, bombing their parents with the news. A Justice had been rounded up, also uncles in the area. After the ceremony, Cantrow’s new father-in-law had taken him around and said, “It’s going to be great, isn’t it.”

“How can you say that,” said a stray uncle, wandering by. “Which one of us knows such things. Maybe it will. Then again, maybe it won’t.” That night there was a need to get away, to sail as quickly as possible into the eye of the marriage, and off they went, south, driving in a frenzy, all that afternoon, all that night. Once, bleary-eyed, they had gone through a Southern town with two wheels up on a sidewalk. Later, moving through a misted patch of farmland, Cantrow spotted a monster turkey, his first live one, and gunned the motor, thinking it was a dreaded hawk. Only once had they stopped, for chocolate frosteds, Cantrow tipping his into her lap. With soaked shorts, she broke into laughter, then chuckled her way through five more towns. This is the kind of sense of humor she has, Cantrow thought. And I didn’t even catch that.

Curling from side to side, as though the car itself were drunk, they were somehow blessed, missing head-on collisions; at the hotel, Cantrow told the clerk, “We’re not bums,” and got a room. Upstairs, zombielike, they made a feeble pass at sex, wanting to try it married, but collapsed instead into sleep. Two hours later, hardly fresh, Cantrow awoke and stared at his bride’s slack form. So that’s what I’ve got, he thought. Maybe for forty-seven years.

Down below, at poolside, the lifeguard winked and said, “Ho, ho, ho,” a standard greeting to honeymooners. The pool water slapped Cantrow awake; so did a blond girl, sitting at the edge. She had a nice fleshiness, a good hundred thirty pounds to his bride’s hundred four. He caught her scent, too, just like honey. He had never really smelled honey, but guessed it must be in that family.

“I didn’t know they allowed big puppies in pools,” she said. And now there was her voice, crushed, feminine for a change. At a club, once, he had introduced his bride to a football-star friend of his. “She’s okay,” the friend had said privately, “but I could never live with those pipes of hers.”

Cantrow fished himself out of the water and sat by the girl’s side. She was eighteen, from Minnesota, vacationing between semesters. These were her folks, at the terrace bar, the heavyset man and the handsome woman in the white silk dress. Cantrow and the girl kidded around, wound up tickling each other. Then the shadow of the hotel seemed to fall on his back like a heavy beam. “You probably know I’m married,” he said. “Just since yesterday. Down here on my honeymoon.”

“And what else is new,” she said. Cheered on, Cantrow told her some jokes; they teased each other. But there was a whisper of difference. Before it became a roar, Cantrow suddenly panicked, took her arm and said, “Look, this is crazy, but I’ve got to see you one more time and find out something. I really have to.” Their glances met, combined, turned soft together.

“We don’t stay here,” she said. “At the Regent.”

“I’ll be there at six,” he said. “I’ll work it out. For cocktails.”

“Guess who I met at the pool,” he told his bride, later, in the room. “Crazy guy from school, Blaum, always wore a tooth around his neck, called it the Sacred Tooth of Mickasee. Didn’t care what you did to him, beat him up, anything, long as you didn’t touch his tooth. ‘Fool with my tooth and you’re in trouble,’ he’d say to you. Anyway, I told him I’d meet him later tonight for a drink. No girls, though. He’s not himself when any are around and I want to see him carry on about that tooth again.” He hurried on. “I’ll just have a quick one with him and then I’ll come back and we can really start.”

In the early evening, he dressed carefully, getting his hair just right, one loop down over the eye, with feigned carelessness, for extra appeal. At the Regent, she sat with her folks at a table, but joined him immediately at the bar. He liked the size of her in heels, the weight of her, the bounce of her hair, the honeyed look. A combo began to work in a deep beat; he gathered her in, made it once around the floor, then put his nose in her hair and said, “That did it. Over to your folks we go.”

The parents were pushed back from the table, comfortable, expectant, as though waiting for a curtain to part. Cantrow stood before them and began to speak, then said, “Hold it a second,” and unbuckled his belt for comfort. “Okay, sir,” he said, “I’ve just made one helluva mistake, about the biggest one a guy can make. But I met your daughter and I’m undoing it, no matter what it takes. You see, I got married yesterday and I’m down here on my honeymoon, but it was a bad idea from the beginning. There wasn’t a damned thing in the world between us and I just got married because it seemed like the only way out. Anyway, I met your daughter and she’s the one I want. I know it’s crazy, but I could tell in a second. You should see the difference between them. There’s no comparison. I just had to be with her a few minutes and I saw all the things I was really after. She’s easier, more feminine, just real comfortable to be with. I don’t know exactly what I expect from you. What I’d like, really, is for you to study the look in my eyes and know that I’ve never been more sincere in my life and that I’m not fooling around and that I’m the right guy for her. I’m getting out of the thing and then I’m coming after your daughter, but I just wanted to lay it out on the table and see how it struck you, whether you were with me or against me.”

The father yawned, drummed his fingers on the table and said, “Not if they stripped me naked and dragged me four times around the world. Over the desert, through the jungle, under the seven seas.”

“Okay,” said Cantrow. “Long as we’re clear. But you don’t know me, sir. You don’t know what I can do. I’m coming after her anyway. Once I make up my mind on something, that’s it.

“First thing I’ve got to do is get out of it,” he said, with a bow to the parents. “You take it easy, honey,” he said, pecking her on the cheek.

“But I listen to my father,” she said, as he walked to the door.

“Another thing about you that turns me on.”

Pale and angular, Cantrow’s bride slapped on pancake before a mirror. “Hold it, hold it,” he said, tearing into the room. “Whoa. We’re not going out tonight. Any night, for that matter, unless we meet some day later on as platonic friends, and I’m not even really sure of that. There was no Blaum and no tooth. That is, there is a Blaum and the tooth part was no lie either, but I didn’t just meet him. It’s a new girl I ran into at the pool. I don’t see any point in describing what went on, because that would be just like waving a red flag in your face. What’s important is us and how flat it’s always been when you take away those first few weeks, just one, if you really want to be strict about it. Look, I’m pulling out. I admit, I shouldn’t have gone this far, but I didn’t see it clearly until just before at the pool. There’s a whole other way. With us, it would be one long downhill ride. Get yourself someone else. I admit, I’ll be a little shaky on that issue if I stop and think about it, but I can stand it. Meanwhile, I’m on my way.”

“And I’m supposed to just listen to that.”

“Oh, we can kick it around if you like,” said Cantrow, packing, “but how’d you like to lift this hotel on your back and move it across the street. That’s roughly what you’d be up against trying to talk me out of this thing I’ve got in my head. Look, here’s three hundred dollars for openers. I’m throwing in the car and just holler if you think that’s not generous. The funny thing is, as we’re making this break, I’m starting to like you more already.

“Maybe,” he said, slamming shut his suitcase, “years later, when the sting is out of it for both of us, we really can meet for dinner.”

That night, Cantrow flew north and woke up Wenger, his attorney-cousin, at midnight. “Cantrow with an emergency,” he said. “Remember that marriage I told you about? I’ve got to get out of it now. We were just hitched for the shortest time you can imagine and then the whole thing blew up. Anyway, I’m actually out of it already since there isn’t anything—tornadoes, nuclear war, you name it—that could get me back in. So you just take care of the legal part. I’ve got five grand from the service and believe me it wasn’t easy to save. Cut down on everything, meals included, to get it together. Anyway, use the whole bundle if you need to and keep the change. Just get me out.”

“If we weren’t cousins, you wouldn’t call me at this hour.”

“I’ll stick around one week, in case there are papers. Then I’m getting into something else.”

“Hi, Mom,” said Cantrow at his folks’ apartment. “The entire marriage is down the drain, but don’t worry, I’m in good health and got out clean.”

“I saw the whole thing coming,” said Cantrow’s mother. “If you’d asked me, I could have recited the entire story before it happened. Okay, how about a trip to Europe, all expenses for a month. To clear your head.”

“No, Mom, I’m bunking in here for a week, then I’ve got to go out to the Midwest on something.”

“I knew it,” she said. “Another little winner. One wasn’t enough for my son. I can tell you the end of this story, too, if you want to sit and listen.”

With great crankiness, Wenger gave the go-ahead and Cantrow took a plane west, then tracked the girl down to a small teachers’ college of Episcopal persuasion. Off-campus she lived with her folks and came home for meals. His first night in town, Cantrow announced his presence to her mother at the door. “Hi, you probably remember me from the resort hotel. I don’t expect you to let me see your daughter right off, but I thought I’d let you know I’m here and that wasn’t a wild story I’d made up when I saw you at the bar.”

“My daughter’s preparing for bed,” said the mother, easing the door shut. “She studies very hard and needs her sleep.”

Later that night, Cantrow asked around and smoked out his one rival, a fair-skinned fellow of strange, shifting sexuality. Sliding in beside him at a bleakly lit campus hangout, Cantrow ordered the local special, beer and braunschweiger sandwiches, and said, “Hi, I’ve just gotten down here and what I’m after is Sue Ellen Parker. Now look, we can do this like gentlemen, you just tapering off with another date or two to save face, or else we can go to muscle. You look pretty well set up, but the point is, if we fight, it doesn’t matter how it goes. If you take me boxing, I’ll bring in karate and if you know that I’ll go to guns.”

“Would you really do all those things,” said the fellow with a wet stare, kaleidoscopically shifting sexes before Cantrow’s very eyes.

The road partially clear, Cantrow called the girl herself. “I’d be teasing if I pretended not to be flattered, but it’s just so completely out of the question,” she said. “I mean with Mother and Dad. And me, sort of.” Undismayed, driven, Cantrow hung on, peppered her with calls, nourished himself on her great phone voice. One night that honeyed blond fragrance seemed to trickle through the wire. She said she would sneak out and meet him on the corner. Cantrow hired a car, scooped her up and off they drove in silence to a wooded place she knew. Thin, towering Minnesota trees, crowded together, stripped and haunted. “I won’t sleep with you tonight,” she said, as they left the car, “but let’s take off our clothes and run through there, as far as we can go.”

“Suits me,” said Cantrow, knowing instantly he’d been right about her.

And so they began. All the things he had missed. Nude walks and swims. Hours of savoring honeyed flesh. Sudden love, almost anywhere, under stairwells, beneath a tree. Giving everything. Wonder of wonders. Getting back. “I knew I wasn’t crazy,” he told her one night, bewitched, at some lake’s edge. “It must have been a hell of a jolt to all concerned, but I knew I was on the right track.”

A month later she phoned, out of breath. “Dad’s calling a truce. From now on, it’s the front door for us, darling.” Legitimate now, Cantrow arrived that night in a suit and tie. “I never thought I’d see the day I’d be doing this,” said her father, “But let’s have us a handshake. You Eastern fellows sure are determined. Well, more power to you, son.”

Later that night, passion undiminished, they made love in the parlor. The next night in her very room. Pacing himself, Cantrow waited another week, then told her, “Look, I haven’t been fooling around.”

“I know, darling, I feel the same way. I’ve already said something and the folks’ answer is, of course, anything we want.”

With blurred speed, the wedding plans were made. Cantrow’s folks declined, but Wenger, the lawyer, came west with the final papers. Soon Cantrow, who had always dreamed of tails, stood erect in them and watched strange blond people with great Scandinavian profiles mill around him at the church. Mr. Parker came over, cuffed him in friendliness and said, “Now this is one for the books, isn’t it. The first time you came up to us and now here we are. I think it’s great though, kind of thing you see in the movies.” He disappeared in a swirl of guests. Mrs. Parker took his place. Solid, tanned gold, an easeful ripened version of her daughter. She took his arm and said, “I want you to know how warming I find all of this. And I have a confession to make. Even at the hotel I just knew. There was something so profound about the cast of your neck and shoulders.”

“And how about how I feel,” said Cantrow. “I get sick when I think of how I could have let the whole thing slide and muffed the chance of a lifetime. Sue Ellen. Being here in Minnesota. The things that have happened. Mr. Parker. You. Even the way you just said that. That it was all so warming. And what was that word you used about my neck and shoulders. You know once in a while I’d check myself in mirrors and there really was something about them, although I guess I’d be the last one to say it about myself. But what was that you called them? Profound.

“Oh, Jesus, look,” he said covering her hand. “I wonder if we could just talk for a second, I’ll talk and you don’t say a word till I’m finished.”

Bruce Jay Friedman (1930-2020), a novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, was the author of nineteen books, including Stern and Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir. His last collection of short fiction is The Peace Process. He died at age 90 on June 3, 2020.