There came a moment when I knew. Something was going on in the attic, and I wasn’t invited. My older brothers, David, Timmy and Todd, came down the stairs in the afternoon, smug and suspicious, and swaggered into the living room. Timmy flipped the channel to Hogan’s Heroes acting like they didn’t notice I was mid-Father Knows Best.
“Hey, I was watching that,” I said standing up and crossing my arms in anger.
“So,” David said as he smoothed his dark bangs down into his eyes.
“So turn it back,” I demanded as the three of them would laugh.
“I’m telling Mom.”
“Go ahead.” They knew I wouldn’t. I wasn’t a tattletale as I knew what that would get me… a mouth full of teeth. So I stormed off into the kitchen for a few Mallomars and a glass of milk with Nestles Quick. Something was different and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Perhaps it had something to do with the red ink drawing on all of their right forearms of a sword piercing a bloody heart.
The next day I followed them up to the third floor and watched them disappear through a tiny half-door at the edge of the third floor landing. A space I knew was reserved for Christmas decorations and dead bodies. It could only mean one thing… a new club had formed. And that sickening feeling of not belonging enveloped me like Linus’ cloud of dust. I tip-toed over and placed my ear to the door. I heard murmurings and chants, something like “We Are the Sole Members of the Death Club. Susan, Kevin, and Joe are not allowed.” I wanted more than anything, at that moment, to be in that club. Sure I hated the thought of Death, it scared me out of my wits… but it was cool, and I, clearly, was not.
We lived in a three-story (four if you count the basement) house that had a fair share of odd-shaped closets, dark corners and three attic spaces with separate doors all of which were home to a secret club at one time or another. The six of us took turns declaring ownership, writing up rules, and deciding who could belong.
One year the Fireball Club was all the rage where you had to be able to suck on a fireball without any facial expression as your tongued burned in order to join. Then came the Let’s Play War, Go Fish is for Sissies club, the Dad is Mean Because He Makes us Do Chores club, the Let’s Light Matches in the Basement club, and the Our Gang knock-off He-man Woman Hater’s Club of which I was not a supporter. The closet on the stairs was home of the Hide From the Monsters club, and the other attic room off the bedroom on the third floor was the perfect spot for weekly meetings of the Seance, Ouija Board and Levitation club. But my favorite, and most memorable club, was The Dance Club.
I was about nine years old and Soul Train and Laugh-In were about the coolest shows a kid could watch. One Saturday, noticing the house was suspiciously empty, I ventured into Todd and Kevin’s room and heard dance music coming from the closet. I knocked and pulled on the doorknob and felt it pulled shut from the other side.
“Hey! What’s going on in there?” I yelled through the door.
Silence, the music shut off.
“Open the door!”
Murmuring on the other side.
After a few long minutes, the door opened and Todd, dead serious, stood in bell bottoms and his best shirt with the Nehru collar. His metal medallion glinted as he said, “Come in.”
Timmy sat like an Indian chief with a cassette player on his lap. Patchouli incense smoked in snake-like curls around his head. A lone lightbulb overhead shone down between clothes on hangers pushed to the side. Kevin, my younger brother sat to his right, his chest puffed up beneath his patterned vest.
“We have a new club,” Timmy announced as if the U.N. was listening. “Are you interested?” Does Dan Rowan love Dick Martin?
“Yes!” I exclaimed with just the right amount of enthusiasm… not too much. “How do you join?”
“You have to wear your coolest clothes, then you have to pass the dance test,” he said matter-of-factly.
“The dance test?”
“We get to pick the song and you have to dance for three minutes here in front of us. Then we get to vote if your dancing was good enough.”
“Ok.” I ran to my room and searched for the new tangerine and cream paneled mini skirt my Aunt Catherine had recently bought for me. I pulled it on, rubbed the six gold buttons to a gleam, and then zipped up my white vinyl knee boots and strutted my stuff back to that closet.
With the seriousness of the Pope in heaven, the door opened. I stepped below the hanging bulb and Timmy pushed the shiny black button of the cassette player. Bend Me Shape Me blasted and I shimmied like I was Goldi Hawn trying out for Laugh-In.
When the music ended I was politely asked to leave and the ballots were cast. Ten minutes later I was inducted into the Closet Dance Club of ’68. It would be one of my finest moments, a time when I knew who I was and how I fit into the family. I was a sister who mattered and a mighty fine dancer. What more could a nine-year old want?
Looking back, I have plenty of memories of trying to make it. Plenty of memories of wanting to get in. Sometimes I did and sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes I admitted people into my clubs and sometimes I didn’t. The funny thing is that I have very little memory of clubs lasting more that the initiation phase, because, after that, we lost interest. After that it didn’t really matter. What mattered was that we made it, that we belonged; we were someone others wanted in their club. We felt like a person who counted, someone who deserved to know the secret handshake and the secret password.
And, funny, after all of these years… it’s still what counts. That we matter to people and that we make them feel that they matter to us.