Ita gazed at her, considering her words thoughtfully. "How did you get the scar?" he asked softly and only then did she realize she was stroking it. "A burn," he guessed correctly. "From liquid, I would guess?"
Leda saw no disgust, no pity, nothing but concern on Ita's face. Where every other time in her life, she would have changed the subject, instead she confessed, "Boiling water. It tipped over on me from the stove."
Ita reached out, slowly but surely, and his fingers caressed her face, halfway between a lover's touch and a doctor's assessment. "It wasn't treated properly. It shouldn't be like this."
Leda didn't feel shame at his words. She felt his anger, and it only emboldened her. "I was eight. And I'd been left alone. For days." She stopped. It was more than she'd meant to say.
He nodded. "You have spent much time alone." His hand was still cupping her cheek.
For a moment, Leda melted into the warmth of his palm and the world disappeared. Yes, she thought, and his touch only made it that much more true. She could feel it --- his compassion like a cocoon designed just for her, designed to help her grow and change and turn into something better, beautiful.
But as the moment lingered, the gushy feeling faded and her body tensed up. Suddenly, she felt awkward and ridiculous hunched over in his palm. She glimpsed a patron staring, registered the clinking silverware around them and kids splashing in the pool. Her heart began to race. She had the budding desire to run. Ita's skin was hot, too hot on hers. Like the cozy warmth of a radiator turning dangerous, and she jerked out of his touch.
She saw the tiny wince on his face and her heart sank into her lap. God, she was terrible at these things.
When she dared to look again, however, Ita's distress had vanished, replaced with empathy. Gently, he asked, "Have you ever married, Leda? Do you have a boyfriend?"
Leda picked at the skin on her fingers. "Neither. Like I said, I'm not good at relationships."
"Maybe they weren't good with you."
His face held a divine understanding. For a moment, she considered his words. "No, trust me, I'm a wrecking ball."
"Not you," he said. "Your little monsters."
"Did you just call me a monster?" She smirked. But, come to think of it, that was a pretty accurate description of her behavior with men.
Ita didn't smile. "No. The little monsters buried inside us. They're not you. They swallow your regrets and bad memories so you can sleep at night. But sometimes they get out, take over, and do terrible things."
Leda's skin prickled, feeling like he could see right through her, see the memories she'd never told anyone about, ever, the nights she carved lines into her skin to prove she existed, prove she was alive. But it made her wonder, for someone to glimpse such ugliness ---
"Then you, too, have been unlucky in love?"
He didn't answer, but he didn't have to --- his eyes filled with flickering remembrances of his own ghosts. The longer he looked at her, the farther away he swept, and Leda almost thought she understood, could glimpse a life of being let down, abandoned, ignored. That she understood all too well. "Kioni," Ita said into the sky.
Leda watched his face contort as he uttered the name. Like the path of a tornado, guilt twisted his features, rained regret into his eyes. Before her, Ita's face hardened into a mask she hardly recognized. A mask of darkness, chilling even in the heat.
Just then the waiter appeared above them. "Two more beers?"
"Yes," they both said in unison.
The laughter brought the bliss of levity rushing back. Ita peeled off his mask and tossed it aside. His smile toasted Leda along with the clink of a frosty glass.
Minutes later, they were back to funny stories and smiles, but the darkness had brought a fuzzy intimacy that still wrapped around Leda's shoulders. She felt far closer to him now, closer maybe than she'd ever let herself get to anyone. She tentatively accepted it, but deep in her bones, she had to fight the flutter of panic, fight the feeling that the closeness would crush her.
"Excuse me," she said suddenly, rising clumsily. "I have to use the ladies' room."
She teetered over hot coals all the way to the bathroom, past the diners and the food and the waiters. When she pushed open the door, she landed smack in front of a harshly lit mirror.
Her hair was a tangled mess, her face without makeup flushed and shiny. Her dusty clothes were rumpled beyond precedent.
But the overall impression of the vision Leda saw in the mirror amounted to something surprising.
She didn't look like herself at all, not one bit. Tanned and tousled, she realized she looked instead like a contented, happy version of herself she'd never known.
How long until I ruin it? she asked the radiant woman in the mirror.
Scared of the answer, she pictured Ita's face, calm and confident. She remembered him walking tall at the clinic, guiding the children through their homework at the orphanage. Everything he did was imbued with strength, goodness and purity of spirit.
Please, give me a little longer.