There are so many clubs to join in high school. There’s the Math Club, for the significantly nerdier kids that will probably develop anxiety issues later in life. The Bible Club, for the Christians and boys who want to hook up with virgins. The Theatre Club, for the teenagers who steal cigarettes from their parents and claim to be “misunderstood.” There’s a club for every cliché, for every kid with a need to fit in. Some of them are sponsored by the school, and some of them are made-up by the members, meeting in secret to discuss their similarities. I was a member of one of those types of clubs in high school – the kind without sponsorship, but we didn’t need it. We knew what our club represented. We had only one requirement, and our dues were high – too high. We called ourselves “The Dead Dads Club.”
Call it morbid, but we had formed a unique bond – the kind of bond you can only form through a tragedy like losing a parent at a young age. We were storied. Theo had lost his dad to gang violence. He came home from school one day to find his mother sitting at the kitchen table, clutching one of his shirts and blowing her nose into it. She told him that he had died in a “drive-by shooting,” which wasn’t entirely false. She just left out the fact that he had been shot for not paying money to one of the gang leaders in town for the drugs he had bought. Alex’s dad died from a heart attack. He was bigger, almost obese, and he didn’t heed the doctor’s advice about dietary changes. He died suddenly, in the middle of the night. His mother had remarried, but he didn’t like his step-dad. He said he yelled too much and only married his mom to get in on the insurance money they had received. Charlotte’s dad died from suicide. She came home from school to find him hanging in the living room, right there in the open. She called the ambulance, but it was too late. Her mother drank a lot afterwards, and Charlotte stole liquor from her cabinet for our meetings. My dad died in a car accident on his way home from work. Someone had plowed into the side of his vehicle as he was coming through a four-way stop, but he didn’t die on impact. He died while the ambulance workers were trying to cut him out of the car. The other people in the accident walked away without a scratch, but they were charged with his death and went to jail almost a year later.
It’s funny how, looking back, none of us would have met without this one common theme. Theo was in the school band. Alex played soccer. Charlotte was a bookworm. I didn’t participate in recreational school activities. We found each other the way drug dogs sniff out heroin in backpacks – it was a distinct smell on our clothes that only we could notice. It was the way we walked down the hallways, clutching our books and staring at the floor. We found each other because we could look into each other’s eyes and see the words “my dad is dead” written plainly, but in a language no one else could understand. It was cathartic. Our tragedies – all different, all horrific – linked us in a way sports or band or books or angst couldn’t.
We didn’t tell anyone else about our club. During school hours, people probably didn’t even know we were friends. We kept to ourselves, passing in the hallways without saying a word. But, after school, we would meet at the park, under the gazebo, and the words didn’t stop coming. Charlotte would pull out a bottle, and we would sip the warm liquor and talk about our lives post-dad-death. Alex’s mom was the only one who had remarried, so his stories were mostly about his mom’s new husband and his utter hatred for him. I reasoned that maybe his step-dad wasn’t so bad, but, at one meeting, Alex showed us his bruises. His step-dad took discipline very seriously. Charlotte’s mom, the drinker, would pass out around dinnertime in the recliner. She told us how she would carefully tuck a pillow behind her hand and cover her with a blanket before heating up a TV dinner and eating it alone. I invited her over for dinners at my house, but she never came. She was too scared to leave her mom alone. Theo talked to us about all the rumors surrounding his dad’s death. He said his mom received death threats on the phone, telling her if she didn’t pay her dead husband’s debts, she would be next. He was scared. He said they had started staying with his grandmother and grandfather, but he missed his room and his bed. They wouldn’t let him play his clarinet in the house, so he had to sneak outside and play over the sounds of the dogs barking.
The Dead Dads Club saved me in high school. Growing up without a dad felt like putting together a puzzle, only to find out a piece had been missing the entire time. We would meet up before school on Father’s Day every year to commiserate the perpetual exclusion we all felt. We sometimes went to movies together. Our club didn’t have specific activities. It was about alleviating the alienation we felt from the other kids, the ones with dads at home to teach them how to drive and yell at them and love them. I wouldn’t have called us friends back then. We rarely talked on the phone or exchanged details of our lives that didn’t revolve around our shared tragedy. I couldn’t have told you a single thing about what Alex or Theo or Charlotte liked to do in their spare time or what their favorite movies were or what they planned to do after college.
The year we graduated and started to plan our separate lives, Charlotte told us that instead of going to our ten-year reunion, we should try to get together as a club – one last time. We all knew that after high school, our bond would break. People in college didn’t care that our dads were dead. We would have to grow up and enter adulthood, carrying our baggage the same way everyone else did – alone. Theo and Alex were moving away to go to out-of-state schools. Charlotte wasn’t planning on college – she wanted to be a writer, and she reasoned she could do that from anywhere. I was going to the community college, despite my mom’s protests that I needed to get out and explore the world. We agreed to Charlotte’s plan, confident in the fact that ten years wouldn’t ruin the family we had created through our club.
The years came and went, and I didn’t hear from anyone in our group. I knew Charlotte was still in town – I ran into her a few times at the grocery store. Theo and Alex were a mystery, but I kept up with them distantly through their social media posts. Alex had married a woman he met in college. Theo was set to graduate early. I had finished my years at the community college and taken a job at a factory in town. My apartment was shabby, but I liked it. I knew my dad would’ve wanted me to branch out, but I couldn’t leave my mom. She was still unmarried, living in the same house, sleeping on her side of the bed. I visited her once a month, but it was like time had stood still after I moved out. She was stuck in a loop.
I got the email notification for our ten-year reunion, but I deleted it. I waited for Charlotte to reach out. Somehow the promise of reuniting our club had never left my memory. I hoped that everyone else felt the same way, but I couldn’t blame them if they didn’t want to revisit our morbid high school years. It was late October before Charlotte sent out a group message on Facebook detailing our plan. We were going to have Thanksgiving together, two days early.
I quickly wrote back, promising my attendance. Alex messaged us a few days later explaining he wouldn’t be able to make it back because he was spending the week with his wife’s family. Theo never responded. I felt a yank at my heartstrings. Our club had fallen apart, with only Charlotte and I left. She messaged me separately, agreeing to meet me at iHop for pancakes on our agreed upon reunion – despite the fact that it would only be us.
“To hell with them,” she wrote, “Let’s get pancakes together and toast one last time to The Dead Dads Club. Just like we promised we would.” Charlotte had always been the relentless one in the group. She still hadn’t become a “writer” in the traditional sense of the word, but I followed her blog online. Her stories were twisted and sad, much like she had been in high school. I made a mental note to tell her I had been reading them when we met up for pancakes.
The day came, and I decided to go all-out. I put on a blazer with khakis in an attempt to “dress up” the way most people would for a Thanksgiving dinner. I arrived on time, with a bouquet of flowers that I decided to leave in the car because I didn’t want to give the wrong impression. Charlotte had also dressed up for the occasion. She was wearing something that resembled a prom dress. Together, we were the sore thumbs of the restaurant.
“You look lovely,” she gushed, standing up to meet me at the table and hug me tightly. She had cut her hair very short, almost boyish, since the last time I had seen her. It suited her. I knew I didn’t look “lovely.” I looked tired. I worked long hours at the factory, and I could tell the work was aging me. I felt old. But, seeing her dressed up like a school girl on prom night made me feel years younger. I couldn’t help but blush a little, and I kicked myself for leaving the flowers in my car.
We ordered our coffee and breakfast food. Charlotte talked about her mother, who had started going to AA meetings. She was three years sober. Charlotte was working on a book series loosely based on her high school experiences. Her main character also didn’t have a dad. “You write what you know,” she explained to me, giddy to share her wisdom. I told her about the factory and my apartment, but I didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation. Much like my mom, I was also stuck in a loop of sorts. I went to work, came home, went to sleep, and pressed “repeat” the next morning. Charlotte asked me if I had visited my dad’s grave, but I admitted that I had stayed away from there since graduating high school. One of our “activities” was to visit our dads’ graves once a year and put flowers on them. Since leaving the club, I didn’t have the support system I needed to stand there, staring down his headstone. She admitted she had also taken a break from decorating.
“It’s just hard, you know,” she said, “standing there alone. I could do it with you guys. But going by myself, it’s just different. And my mom hasn’t been there in years. I don’t think I can convince her to go back there. Not after the way he left us.”
Charlotte’s dad left her by choice. For the rest of us, our dads had been taken, almost stolen from our lives. They died young and abruptly. Charlotte’s dad left of his own volition, choosing to kill himself while she was at school. I could feel the old wounds starting to snag while she talked, but I tried to keep a happy face. I didn’t want her to know that I was still sad about my dad’s death. I didn’t have the words to explain that it felt like a gaping hole that I would never close for as long as I lived – it sounded too dramatic.
Charlotte paused in the middle of one of her stories, and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. Alex was walking through the door. He looked older too - but in the way marriage ages you, not time. I stood up and shook his hand. Charlotte wrapped him in a hug. He explained that he got away from the family long enough to have dinner with us, but he would have to leave early to catch a flight back to his wife. He was happy. We could see it all over his face. He said they were trying for a kid. His mom had divorced his step-dad and remarried again. This time, he approved of her new husband. He said she was happier, much happier than he had ever seen her. I felt the warm sensation creep up my spine and down my shoulders. I was happy for him. Charlotte tried to catch him up, but she was talking so fast that I don’t imagine he caught much of the conversation.
Then, without warning, Theo walked through the door. Suddenly, the warm sensation turned into tears that were burning my eyes. Theo looked good. He tried to sit down, but the three of us wrapped him in a group hug. Charlotte was crying at this point. I was holding back the tears, but I knew they would escape at any moment. We were all back together. The group of kids who hid in the park, drinking stolen liquor and talking about our dead dads, had reunited just like we had planned ten years prior. I couldn’t hold back the nostalgia.
Theo told us about his life since graduation. He was planning to propose to his long-term girlfriend. After college, he had taken an internship at a research hospital. In a few years, with a little more education, he would be a doctor. He talked with pride, the kind of pride someone achieves through hard work. I was proud of him. Charlotte couldn’t believe it. Alex patted him on the back. The tears had fully escaped, and they were running down my face at full force.
Charlotte stood up in the middle of the restaurant and tapped her spoon against her coffee cup. Everyone stopped and stared, confused and noticeably irritated. We all started to laugh, which didn’t help matters.
“Ladies and gentlemen of iHop, I would like to propose a toast to the men you see before you, as well as to myself. We are the proud members of The Dead Dads Club – a prestigious society we joined in high school after losing our fathers to various ailments and accidents. Somehow, we have all become normal, functioning adults in society. So, here’s to us – for doing it without dads.”
I looked around the table as the patrons of the restaurant stared awkwardly. Some of them clapped, but most of them just went back to their meals, whispering to their partners. We all started to smile, appreciating Charlotte’s honesty and humor. I put my hand on Alex’s shoulder, and he motioned for everyone to lean in, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms around each other.
“To us,” he said.
“To us,” we replied.
We finished our breakfast, sipped as much coffee as we could handle, and stood up to say our goodbyes. It was clear that we wouldn’t be seeing each other again. This was our Thanksgiving, and, in a lot of ways, it felt more like home than the dinners I had with my own family. We stood in the parking lot, hugging and laughing for a few minutes before getting into our cars to drive away. I waved to Charlotte, and she came to my window with a glow on her face I had never seen before.
“Wanna split these flowers and head to the cemetery?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” she said as she rushed to the passenger seat.
We laughed about the stories we had been told, commenting on the way Alex and Theo had grown up since high school. I joked that I would never grow up, and she shared the sentiment.
“We’ll be fine,” she reasoned, “We just need a little more time.”
“Maybe so,” I agreed, “But, even if I never get married and start a family, I think I’ll be okay.”
“You guys saved me in high school,” Charlotte admitted, seriousness dripping from her words.
“We saved each other,” I said.
We split the bouquet in half and decorated the graves. The flowers were half-wilted, but it didn’t matter. I stood there, staring down his headstone and sneaking glances at Charlotte, soaking up the moonlight, and, for the first time in a long time, I felt better. Our club was over. Everyone had moved on, moved into the real world. They had shouldered their baggage. Charlotte and I were still here, but I felt like we had both taken steps that night – steps in the right direction. I knew I would still see her around town, but it still felt like saying good-bye. I grabbed her hand, and she looked at me, tears streaming down her face.
“We’ll be fine,” she repeated.
“Yeah, we will be,” I said, letting her go and walking back to the car.