There’s a nasty bruise on my left knee. And one three inches down on my shin. Those are nothing compared to the one just under my arm and the other that’s finally going away on my right knuckle. I didn’t fall down a stairwell. Sig Other has not taken to beating me. These are war wounds – evidence of a weekend spent on the battle field of twelve year old boys and grown men – evidence of paintball.
Child Two loves paintball. And so, for his 12th birthday, rather than his weekly solo sojourn to the fields, he asked for a private paintball party that included his friends, his family, and most specifically ME. It was a big deal to him that I play and I was convinced it was his opportunity to take a shot at his stepmother although he did spend a great deal of time helping me choose my gear and talking me through strategy on the field. And in spite of excuses and protest, I found myself last Sunday sporting a protective vest, double hats, a balaclava and a mask and heading out onto a dusty battlefield. I didn’t get hit in any of my protective gear, of course. I only got hit in exposed areas. And in spite of double pants and multi-layered shirts, I bear the wounds of combat and wear them proudly.
Twelve year old boys, one on one, can be lovely. And Child Two, for the most part, has nice friends. There’s the polite boy who thanked me periodically, the tall handsome one we call “Slutty J” cuz he’s had three girlfriends in the half year of school so far (we can’t quite yet grock what it means to have a girlfriend in 6th grade but we’ve put Child Two on the case and hope for an answer quite soon), the handsome twins, and a few others whose names I kept forgetting.
I’ve always been better at remembering Child One’s friends – perhaps because she spends more time with us, perhaps because she’s more social and talks about them more or perhaps because they’re girls and therefore more familiar to me as types (the silly cheerleader, the insecure slut, the brilliant nerd, the flirty artist). The truth is, I’m not terribly used to boys and boy things. I grew up sisters and my family was largely female identified. We baked and had art projects. I was sort of tomboyish but only because I played softball and volleyball (girl sports but still sporty in my house). We referred to my grandparent’s house as “going to Grandma’s” and when we visited my mother’s sister and her husband we “went to Aunt Ruth’s house”. My mother has no brothers, my father had no brothers.
Child Two spends more time with Ex-Wife. We see him on weekends, for holidays and occasionally during the week. And mostly, Child Two is a solo act. He’s terribly popular at school but has never been one for play-dates or sleepovers. Over the years he’s brought a friend or two around. But truly, I’ve never been much good at remembering their names or really getting to know them. A day with a pack of them was an eye opener: twelve year old boys, one on one, can be lovely. Twelve year old boys in a pack take on a whole different persona. Lovely, polite, interesting young men become foul-mouthed little jerks in the blink of an eye. Hot–headed competitiveness and raucous combat yielded a moment or two of aggressive swearing and some brash attitude. And there were definitely moments when I thought about turning in my weapons and waiting out the party on the bus.
But, for the most part, the day went smoothly. Shaggy-haired Twin gave me combat tips and Slutty J checked in on me as I rubbed my sore knuckle. Whatever testosterone raged on the field calmed itself by lunchtime and by the time each boy was returned to his respective parent at the end of the day he had returned to the sweet, sleepy child we’d received. The paintball party was a massive success. And spending the day with boys, spending the day with Child Two in his favorite environment – a place where he’s transformed from our brilliant, sweet, funny son to a hardcore warrior – was a treat.
On the bus home, filthy and exhausted, I finally understood that the invitation to play with Child Two wasn’t so much about the joy he got out of my humiliation (although that certainly was a kick for him) nor was it really even an opportunity for him to shoot at me (although he certainly did that as well). Mostly, it was an invitation to glimpse behind the curtain. Child Two was inviting me, inviting all of us, to experience a side of him we don’t see on a daily basis – the side of him that is embraced by a group of older boys and men who see him not as a sensitive, bright, engaged young man, but as a fellow soldier and colleague in arms. Spending the day on the field, getting to know him, getting to know the world of boys, was an invitation to a magical world of mystery, intrigue and, apparently, bruises. And one that I will cherish long after my battle scars disappear.