THE NEW GUY
Maury had been in the play-reading group for almost ten years and he was still the new guy. That meant he could never occupy the recliner. This was a rule that was never spoken but he was as sure of it as he was of his nose. He generally arrived late and the recliner was always taken, but even when he was early he took a different seat.
The group was all guys, an offshoot of a men’s group he had been a member of long ago. All the others got the recliner, some more than others. Jay, the perennial host, didn’t often take it but that was seen as an act of generosity. Maury tried not to let it bother him, and mostly it didn’t. The other chairs were comfortable. It bothered him only when Foster took the recliner. Maury didn’t like prissy Foster, and was disliked in turn. Nobody liked Foster but this too was something never said. In the group there was no gossip, no talk of personal things whatsoever. They would read the play, have dessert, and go home. In ten years Maury had not had so much as a cup of coffee with any of the members outside Jay’s house.
When he told his wife Jeanine about the group and its lack of interpersonal interaction, she laughed merrily. She couldn’t imagine a women’s group so non-emotive. She considered herself as an amateur sociologist and she pestered him to take her along, just once. She wanted a firsthand look at these human oddities.
He knew it would be an enormous breach of protocol. In spite of that, or because of that, he took her along to their next reading, Major Barbara.
Maury hadn’t warned Jeanine about the recliner rule and he found himself holding his breath when Jay escorted them into the living room. Jay directed her toward a straight-backed chair next to the recliner. Maury took the next chair over. Her presence made him tense as the other group members arrived. Each suppressed his surprised reaction seeing a woman there.
Oddly, no one took the recliner. It was vacant throughout the three acts. Jeanine was given the role of Major Barbara, surprisingly since it was the plum role, and she took it on with a flair that made their usual readings seem drab and uninspired. She laughed; she proclaimed; her voice wavered in tender moments. At the end of the play there was a communal sigh of appreciation, some applause.
Dessert hour in the dining room was more festive than it had ever been. Even the dessert seemed richer, a moist three-layer chocolate cake. Jeanine, always careful about about her figure, in celebration of her performance allowed herself a fat slice. Carrying her plate back into the living room she dropped into the recliner, glowing with her stardom.
She had clearly forgotten her role as sociologist, so Maury adopted it. He watched how the others responded to her appropriation of the recliner. What a group of actors! Not one betrayed a hint of their true feelings. The evening ended with a gust of entirely fake camaraderie.
“What great guys,” Jeanine said in the car on the way home. For a terrible moment he wanted to do something to shock her out of her performance high. “Foster is a sweetheart,” she added. “You’re lucky to have such friends.”
When the next reading date approached he kept quiet about it. If she joined, he’d have to quit and he’d have to explain why, not to the guys but to her. He didn’t have any idea how he would do that.
Nobody mentioned her at that next reading, a dreary play by a Russian he’d never heard of.