Monday, Dec 09, 2019
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Monday, Dec 09, 2019
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by Jennifer Vanasco - SGN Contributing Writer For his birthday, my brother wanted to play paintball.

I think of myself as game, someone who's up for most things.

But paintball seemed & dangerous. "It'll hurt," my brother said on the phone. "It stings."

"Great," I chirped back. "No problem. I mean, it can't hurt worse than playing flag football, right?"

There was a long silence. "Well," he said, "It's a different kind of hurt."

Paintball scared me, but I still went, because my brother and I have been reconnecting over the past year or so. My brother has always been one of the pillars of my life - he manages to be both gentle and wise and also a giant tease.

He was the first person I came out to in my family, and the only one who keeps an eye on Gay politics. He knows me better than anyone else in my life, well enough that he can explain me to myself when I am struggling to figure things out.

We are emotionally close, and always have been - but we don't spend a lot of physical time together, and have sometimes gone months without speaking. For a long time, we lived in different cities. Now we just have different lives.

But he is one of the most important people in my life, so paintball it was.

Four of us walked into the indoor arena, my brother, two guys who have been his friends since high school, and me. We're all in our thirties, and in the parking lot we were joking about how badass we each thought we were, and how much damage we were going to cause.

Then we stepped inside.

Through the glass doors was the "staging room," lined with picnic tables, a carpet slick with paintball pellet oil, and pre-teens wearing face masks that made them all look like very short Darth Vaders.

"Oh boy," one of my brother's friends sighed, running his hand across his beard. "We're going to get killed."

And we did, in the first round. We were all eliminated in under 30 seconds. Because I didn't know the "hold your gun above your head when the ref tells you to leave" thing, as soon as I turned to slide out the door I was hit by eight angry pellets in my back.


That's it, I thought. Another two rounds - meaning 10 minutes - and I would have proved myself a good sport and could sit out.

But by the second round we were getting it, and by the third, we were starting to win. My brother, who had done this before, gave me gentle pointers. "Pull the lever back if your gun jams," he said. "Um, you might want to take off the safety."

By the fourth, I was seeking my brother out on the field so I could cover him as he went into "enemy" territory.

We started ending each paintball round happy and flushed, our knees stained from the paint on the carpet, our mouths full of small victories and tiny disasters.

And that's when paintball started feeling like the giant games of Manhunt - group hide-and-seek - that my brother and I played every summer growing up. I had forgotten what it was like to play on a team with my brother. How good he is at strategy, how brave in the game. And I realized that part of the reason we are so close now is exactly because we played on the same Manhunt teams as children. We learned to know and trust each other in a different way than merely sitting around the same dinner table.

We learned to respect each other's skills and very different sorts of intelligence. We learned each other in a way that has nothing to do with words, even though words are mainly the way we communicate now.

"Remember how in Manhunt you and Dennis Kelly were the fastest kids in the neighborhood?" my brother asked now, getting ready to put his mask on and begin another game.

"That was a long time ago," I said.

"Eh," he said. "You're still good."

Back behind a bunker, my brother crouched behind me as I scored a direct hit. "Great job," he said, bumping my shoulder. "I'm moving up."

I winked at him, though he couldn't see it behind my Vader mask.

"Go ahead," I said. "I'll cover you."

Jennifer Vanasco is an award-winning, syndicated columnist. E-mail her at

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