She smiled at me on the wooden deck of the church, cigarette pressed between her lips, wearing the not-quite-healed wounds on her face like badges of honor, pinned to her dress whites.
"So I guess I'm even uglier now," she said.
Everyone standing there knew that to be a lie. We had grown up with her, all of us, to some degree or another, in the sparsely-decorated and often-flooded youth-group room and the back seat of our sponsor's Suburban. She was beautiful, perhaps not so much in terms of physical attraction, but in the air of sophistication, of class, of honor that she radiated.
I bummed a cigarette from my friend Bree, staring up at the canopy of live oak trees as I lit it, slowly dragging on it as we all gathered around. Regardless of the circumstances surrounding our reunion, we had missed her. My mind, like the conversation, drifted in the cool, moist November breeze. The gravity of the situation had been lifted immediately upon seeing her, upon knowing she was alright, and we were all just old friends again.
"So I met President Clinton," she said, "and he looks exactly like how they draw him in the cartoons."
First person I ever knew who received a Purple Heart. The thought didn't cross my mind then, but with the present situation in mind, I hope to god she will be the last - the only. She seemed proud enough of it, though - I suppose when something like that happens to you, all you can do is laugh. After all, doing anything else is simply too damn painful.
"And Chelsea is one ugly bitch."
All you can do is laugh.
She finished her cigarette and flicked it into the metal ashtray, where it extinguished itself in the yellow-tinted water. We went our separate ways, decidedly different interests no doubt in both our minds that day. Still, seeing her had made me stop worrying. I guess that's what these things are about.
Petty Officer Keisha Stidham was injured in the attack on the USS Cole on October 12, 2000. I saw her at church a month later, and she seemed to be dealing with it. I haven't seen her since, but I sincerely hope she is doing alright.