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The Birthright
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Raymond was the first of my bachelor friends to get married. The wedding was a week away and I was meeting him in Toronto for lunch at a favourite restaurant of his. I wanted to bring him his wedding present. The wedding would be in Saskatoon and I had already sent my regrets to the bride.
   I was expecting that it would be just the two of us for lunch. I was surprised to find three others at the table. They had been saving a place for me - between Raymond and Caroline, a friend of his. The other two were Caroline's brother and his wife.
   Raymond had told me about Caroline on the phone a month earlier. "I think I've got the perfect girl for you," was his introduction of the subject. He had tried playing matchmaker with me before. I humoured him again. He spent about fifteen minutes telling me all about her. She was twenty-two. (Raymond was twelve years older. I was halfway between their ages.) She hailed from North Bay, as did he. Their families were friends up there. She was 5 feet 8.5 inches tall. He told me her measurements to boot. I said, "When you get to know a girl, you really get to know her." She had taken cosmetology at school but was currently working as a receptionist at the head office of a major corporation in one of the bank towers downtown. For many people, she was the first impression they got of the company. She played the piano skilfully. Raymond asked if I played. I told him I didn't. "She could teach you," he replied. He took down some information about me that he could present to Caroline and he offered to introduce us. I didn't like the idea of being set up and I declined.
   So I was surprised to find her joining us for lunch a month later - a gorgeous brunette in blue jeans and high heels. She had an infectious cheerfulness. You couldn't help feeling good around her. Her ebullient spirit was nicely packaged. I was intrigued by her friendship with Raymond. I had often wondered why it's so hard for men and women to be friends. You rarely see a good friendship between a man and a woman. After meeting Caroline, I thought if anyone doubts that men and women can be friends, let that skeptic see how she gets along with Raymond. Here was proof.
   The two of them were regulars at the restaurant and knew the waitresses. While we were having lunch, an altercation erupted between a man and woman and moved out to the street in front of the restaurant. As they argued, the man would shake the woman and then push her away. He did this a number of times. They had two small children with them, a boy and girl. The kids were crying and trying to separate the adults. Our waitress explained the situation afterward. The husband and wife were estranged and were having an experimental get-back-together. They had ordered ice cream for dessert. The husband came storming into the kitchen wondering what was taking so long with the rest of their order. It was a volatile family situation that just needed some little spark to make it explode. Raymond said to the waitress, "So that was your fault. You didn't have the ice cream out fast enough." Caroline promptly added, "You homewrecker." Raymond set her up and Caroline followed through perfectly. Something I would come to admire about her was how she always knew just the right thing to say.
   After lunch, I told Raymond how impressed I was with Caroline. I thought he would pick up where he had left off on the phone a month earlier, encouraging me to become better acquainted with her. He met my enthusiasm with coolness and started telling me about his wife-to-be's unmarried sister whom he thought I should get to know. I could hardly believe such capriciousness could be serious and laughed about it. He expressed disappointment that I wasn't coming to the wedding, assuring me that it wasn't too late to change my plans. Caroline was flying out to Saskatoon for the ceremony. He encouraged me to come as a way to get to know her better. He gave me her flight numbers and times. "I can't think of a better way to get to know someone than to go on a plane flight with her," he remarked.
   So I did go. I met Caroline at the check-in counter at the airport. I hadn't been sure if our having had lunch together a week previously would be adequate premise for my keeping company with her on a three hour flight, but she was enthused about the prospect. I was certainly glad of her company. I loved her spirit. If it could have been bottled, I would have laid in a lifetime supply. She had a gift for making you feel like a million dollars. I've only ever met one other person with that gift. He was an elderly man. I don't mean to disparage people who don't have the gift. I don't have it myself. It's over and above what I expect of people.
   Caroline liked to talk about Raymond and their friendship. She told me how he had helped her find her apartment when she first came to Toronto three years earlier. He had helped her at school, letting her use his quiet study facility at OISE. Once when she had an essay due the next day, Raymond organized a production line, Caroline composing the rough draft and Raymond printing the final version. After she finished school, he helped her get her job as a receptionist. He had once taken her to an NHL game and she got to meet Wayne Gretzky. Raymond somehow brought about the meeting. When she talked about the previous summer, it was about what she had done with Raymond. They'd pulled some pranks together, like dialing a mutual friend and then playing a Kenny Rogers song into the answering machine.
   The bride met us at the Saskatoon airport. She was pleased that I had come after sending my regrets. She said I could stay at the home of one of her married sisters, where Raymond was staying, and drove me there.
   I didn't meet Raymond until the rehearsal dinner that evening. It was held at a restaurant before the rehearsal and the guests who had come from Ontario were invited. Raymond was surprised to see me. He immediately arranged for himself, the bride, the bride's unmarried sister, Alice, and myself to sit together. I felt quite privileged to have the bride and groom sit with me, having thought they would confine that favour to family members. I had felt uneasy about going to a wedding where I would hardly know anyone, but here I was being treated like a guest of honour. Raymond and I reminisced about college days and time spent at a youth camp he had introduced me to in northern Ontario. Part way through the meal, the bride and groom left, leaving me to visit with Alice. I was pleased to get to know her, just as I was with her married sisters. They were likeable people.
   Caroline was an enthusiastic guest, wanting to do anything she could for her friend. She had brought one of Raymond's suits with her, helping him to move his stuff west. The day of the wedding, she looked after the cosmetics for the bridal party. At Raymond's request, she played the piano as people were gathering for the reception in the church hall after the ceremony. A number of times during the reception, a clatter of teaspoons on glasses went up, requesting the bride and groom to kiss. One time, Raymond called Caroline to the head table and kissed her instead. She complied happily.
   I was standing beside her outside the church as Raymond was departing with his bride. Caroline pointed to him and said, "There goes my best friend." On the flight home we reminisced about the wedding, full of good will for the newlyweds. It had been such a happy time. Caroline told me about how Raymond had proposed to his bride. She thought their relationship a beautiful story. I had left my car at the airport and I drove Caroline home. We talked about getting together again sometime.
   That time came later that month. Maureen Forrester was singing with the Toronto Symphony at the Roy Thompson Hall. I phoned Caroline and asked if she'd like to go. "Sure." It was a drizzly evening and we shared her umbrella. After the performance we went to a Swiss Chalet and talked for two hours. I felt that I could talk to her about anything. I saw her to her door just before midnight. She left her umbrella sheath on my dash. I didn't notice it until I was heading home. It reminded me of Cinderella's glass slipper being left behind.
   I couldn't have asked for a first outing to have gone better. I was feeling grateful to Raymond for having introduced us. The future was looking so promising.
   Did I deserve such a wonderful girl? At my best, I think I did, and she brought out my best. I was a better person around her. She was all the jigsaw pieces missing from my life. Caroline made me feel so complete. I thought I had found my soulmate.
   I later phoned her a couple times when I had occasion to be coming to Toronto, to see if she'd like to get together for supper as she often had with Raymond. We weren't able to coordinate a time. Before calling again, I phoned Raymond out west. I knew he would be flying to Toronto sometime to pick up his car and drive it home. I was hoping we could get together. His wife answered and we had a friendly talk before she put Raymond on.
   His tone was not cordial. He told me matter-of-factly that Caroline had phoned and told him how much she enjoyed the evening we had together. I was delighted to hear that and expressed my enthusiasm for getting together with her again. I wasn't expecting Raymond's reaction. He got cross with me. He cautioned me against thinking that Caroline had mutual feelings for me, and he started advocating his sister-in-law.
   Feeling very uneasy, I reminded him that it was Caroline that I liked. Why would I want to take an interest in Alice?
   "You'd be getting a nicer girl," he replied.
   I felt dirty when he said that. He so shamelessly betrayed Caroline - a friend who trusted him completely and had been so supportive about his own marriage - in a hopeless bid to secure a husband for his sister-in-law. According to Raymond, Alice had taken a liking to me at his wedding. Caroline had served her purpose in his scheme to lure me out west to meet Alice. No longer needing Caroline, he threw her under the bus, as the saying goes.
   What had happened to his original enthusiastic recommendation of Caroline? Perhaps he was surprised that I had risen to his bait and he decided that he'd better look out for his family member instead.    I was put in an awkward position. I strongly disagreed with his assertion that Alice was a nicer girl, but I hardly wanted to get into a comparison of Caroline with his wife's sister. He should have realized that if his claim were true, his affirmative action on Alice's behalf would not be necessary.
   Looking back, the situation reminds me of an incident from a movie about the Bounty mutiny. Before the mutiny, the ship anchored off Tahiti. Tinah, the Tahitian king, sent one of his wives out to sleep with Captain Bligh. This was Tinah's way of showing hospitality. Bligh didn't want to sleep with her and was put in a tricky situation. If he declined, the king would be offended. I had thought Raymond was more civilized.
   I sensed that friendly ties with him were on the line over this matter. Right along, I had felt that our friendship catalyzed my growing acquaintance with Caroline. She trusted him thoroughly and, as his friend, I was a beneficiary of that trust. The prospect of a falling-out with Raymond concerned me. He could easily influence Caroline against me. I couldn't tell her what he was doing. She would have been heartbroken to know he would turn against her. I really wanted to have Raymond on board. Moreover, he was surrounded by wonderful people whose good will I valued. One of his sisters and her betrothed both had their Master's in English and were advising me about a manuscript I had written.
   I double-checked that Alice was the only one of his wife's sisters not committed. Raymond affirmed that was so. "They saved the prize for the last," I remarked. He laughed a bit and agreed. That was the only pleasantness he showed in the conversation. We left it that he would phone me when he came to Toronto.
   I did a lot of thinking after hanging up. I could see that I was becoming a source of trouble between Raymond and Caroline. I compared how significant a component of her happiness he was with my own significance. There was no comparison. We had gone out just once. She almost worshipped him. Perhaps I would have meant at least as much to her down the road, but that was speculative. Raymond was the main pillar in her support network. I didn't want to knock him out from under her. As long as he saw her as a rival to his family member, he would resent her. I might have proceeded with the attitude that Raymond was not really Caroline's friend, but that struck me as high-handed. They knew each other better than I knew either of them. She thought he was her friend. And I wanted to believe in their friendship.
   I had given Raymond a rocking chair - a Boston rocker - as a wedding present. I told him that I hoped it could become an heirloom. "Someday someone will say, 'That belonged to my great-grandfather, Raymond.' " I mentioned too that his wife could use it to rock the children to sleep when they came along and he could use it for reading. If I had a falling-out with Raymond, the gift that I hoped would be an important part of their household and an heirloom would instead be a sore spot in their home. What had been an expression of good will needed added measure on my part to maintain the good will between us. The irony wasn't lost on me. It should have been Raymond's turn to show some good will.
   I put further efforts to get together with Caroline on hold. Maybe Alice would lose interest and Raymond would stop pressing her case. My next trip to Toronto was to meet Raymond. I had some photos I took at the wedding to show him. I was hoping it could be a friendly get-together but his antipathy was palpable. He was still promoting Alice. I made some favourable remarks about her, citing her pleasant sense of humour, how nice she looked at the wedding, and her polite manner in patting me on the elbow when she wanted my attention. I never expressed any desire for her. When Caroline's name arose, I treated my interest in her as simply one of friendly ties.
   During our visit, Raymond mentioned his having introduced a number of couples who later married. On parting company, he told me to come west to see Alice. I suppose he thought of it as an invitation. It sounded more like an order.
   Raymond's previous efforts at playing matchmaker with me had been good-natured. This time was different. This was a mean business. It felt more like hatred than something involving affection.
   I kept up some connection with Caroline. I sent her a photo that I'd taken of her on the plane. She responded with a Christmas card with an appreciative message. I sent her one back. I mailed her umbrella sheath to her along with a letter in which I let on that I was a prince and the sheath was the equivalent of Cinderella's glass slipper. It was the only clue I had to identify the young lady I had been out with that evening. Since then I had been travelling throughout the land trying to find a young woman who owned an umbrella that fitted the sheath, but had had no luck. Could she please try it on her umbrella and see if it fits? I didn't get any response from her with that lark.
   I've read about a fairly common experience that women find baffling. "You go out with a guy on a first date, you have a wonderful time, and you think this is the start of something significant. Then... radio silence. You don't hear from the guy again." I wonder if the explanation might sometimes be that someone of influence is meddling. In this case, it was the woman's best friend. The term "frenemy" was not yet in common use and I was discovering the phenomenon on my own.
   My association with Caroline after our first date was something more than radio silence but it wasn't enough to nourish a budding relationship. I couldn't contact her without Raymond finding out. She shared everything with him.
   Alice lasted longer in the marriage market than Caroline. Raymond's desire to match me with Alice continued after my contact with Caroline ceased altogether. Many months after it had ceased, his disposition toward me was kindlier. He told me how thrilled Caroline had been to get the Cinderella letter. He was animated in describing her reaction. She said that no one had ever sent her a letter like that before. His motive for telling me was obvious: he suggested I send a similar letter to Alice.
   He got feedback from Caroline that I did not. She might have assumed that he would promptly tell me her reaction because he had originally promoted our association. She didn't know about his duplicity. Possibly I had meant more to her than I realized. If she thought me capricious, I wish she could have known that it was not my doing and though perhaps misguided, I always put her happiness first.
   When it became obvious that I wasn't interested in Alice even with Caroline out of the picture, communication from Raymond ceased. I could feel the break coming and the best I had done was to delay it. He had gained nothing through his interference but had stood in the way of my gaining something. Despite his history of trying to build a fire under me to take an interest in girls, and his alleged prowess as a matchmaker, Raymond turned out to be the strongest anti-marriage force I ever encountered.
   Years later, my sister-in-law chided me for having mishandled the situation - for placing so much importance on Caroline's friendship with Raymond. We were discussing a bewildering phenomenon. Someone highly recommends that you take a certain course of action. You do exactly what he recommends and then find you're in his bad books for doing so. In that context I mentioned my experience with Raymond concerning Caroline. "No woman would put friendship with a man ahead of a relationship that might lead to marriage," my sister-in-law declared. As much as I value a woman's perspective, I have a hard time accepting that observation. Caroline was so thoroughly devoted to Raymond.
   I've heard of relationships better established than ours succumbing to lesser complication. I wish the complication had not arisen and that I'd never been given the opportunity to possibly mishandle it.
   Despite the distressing circumstances surrounding our acquaintance, it's pleasant to think of Caroline. Occasionally in the wear and tear of life, my self-image needs recalibrating. When it does, I reset it to the way she made me feel about myself. That was me at my best. Sometimes I think of Raymond, and feel a pang. I wonder if Caroline still thinks of him as a friend. I like to believe that men and women can be friends but I don't give the matter much thought anymore. When I do, I wind up in a reverie about that twenty-two year old I once knew - that lovely, lovely girl.


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