Unlike many people, Val was glad that the weekend was over. Sure, the past week had been stressful, with starting a new job, meeting all those people, and finding out that the last man she had loved, not only worked at the same place as her, but was currently in a relationship with a beautiful woman, leaving Valentina feeling disappointed and sad. In the span of six days, she had realized that her feelings for Tom had been hiding in the background during all those years, and were now surfacing stronger than ever.
She had hoped that she could reconnect once more with the one person, besides her parents and sister, she had ever loved. But now that there was someone else in the mix, she wasn’t quite sure if that would happen. She had to try though. She wouldn’t be able to forgive herself if she let this opportunity slip through her fingers. Valentina wasn’t necessarily aiming at ending Tom’s relationship with Alexandra. That would be selfish and cold, and even though she was highly tempted, that wasn’t her style. But she could have her friend back, and she was determined to make that happen no matter what.
During that week Val would stop by Tom’s office every day with some sort of question about work. Initially he would act a little uncomfortable with her presence there, that was why she would stick to the work issue and leave as soon as it was solved. Of course, she could have gone to Shripad, which was probably Tom’s intention from the beginning when he sent him to work with her, but what good would have that been to her, when all she wanted was to get closer to Tom. Such was her yearning, that most of her doubts related to the testing were made up anyway. Tom must have thought that she had gone dumb with all her mindless questions.
By the end of the week, she was already staying a few minutes longer, sitting inside his office talking his ears off. Tom wasn’t opening up to her… yet. He would barely say anything. Val was the one doing the talking most of the time and he would sit there listening to her every word, comments slipping out his mouth sporadically when something piqued his interest. However, he didn’t seem uncomfortable anymore. Val even dared to assume that he was pleased with her daily visits. She patted herself on the back, she was on the right path.
Valentina walked to Tom’s office early in the morning on the next Monday with a gift for Tom, two delicious cupcakes she had baked with her mom when she went to Dallas to visit her family during the weekend.
She peered through Tom’s doorway and saw him sitting in front of his desk with his earphones in, face scrunched up in concentration as he listened to his talking computer. He looked so adorable that she had to restrain herself from bursting inside, hopping on his lap and squeezing him to death in a loving embrace. Instead, she knocked two times. “Hey!”
He took his earphones off and turned his hesitant gaze to the door where she was standing, “Hey, yourself!”
“Guess what, I spent the whole day yesterday baking. I brought you something.” She stepped inside his office and outstretched her arm holding the bag containing the baked goods for him to grab it. He ignored her outstretched hand, but playfully taunted, “If you made it, I’m not sure that I would eat it. I don’t trust your culinary competency.”
“Ha!” she laughed sarcastically.
Still holding the bag in front of him, she shook it to make enough sound for him to notice it was there. “Where do I put it? Or are you really not gonna eat it? ‘Cause I’ll give this to Maria, she loves cupcakes.”
“Me too. Give me that!” He groped for a moment until she thrust the bag into his hand.
He opened it and smelled its content. “Smells good, I didn’t know you had such talent.”
“I’m no expert. I had a craving and looked up the recipe online, but they came out okay,” Valentina shrugged.
He pulled one cupcake out and held the bag containing the other one out to her.
“They’re for you. I ate too many already,” she said, rubbing her belly in a circular motion to prove her point.
“I don’t want to eat alone. Sit!” he ordered, extending the arm that was holding the bag even more, insisting that she should grab it.
She took the bag. “Alright, what damage could one more do to my already roundish body. We should get some coffee. Still an addict?”
“Oh yeah! I already had some but I can have another one. Let’s go to the caffeteria.” He stood up and fumbled for his cane in one of the drawers of his desk. When he finally found it, he lifted it up as if holding a trophy and said, “Got it!”
As they walked to the cafeteria, Valentina watched closely every one of Tom’s movements. At first, she had the suspicion that in all the years that she hadn’t seen him, his vision had worsened a great deal, but she couldn’t be sure of the extent of his vision loss. After a week of small chats in his office, she was absolutely sure that he couldn’t see anything. It hadn’t been hard to come to that conclusion. For instance, even though he was confident walking down the hallway, there was a difference in the way he walked. He was putting much more concentration in his steps and the movement of his cane, they seemed practiced. She also remembered the times when Alexandra showed him to a chair in the meeting room and in the bar, before, he didn’t need to be shown where big objectcs, like chairs, were located. A recent hint was, that back in his office when she handed the cupcakes to him, he didn’t motion to grab the bag until it made sound. However, the most evident sign was that, even though he clearly tried, he didn’t make eye contact. In the past, that happened rarely and usually when it was dark. These days she could not remember an occasion when he looked at her straight in the eye.
Valentina had so many questions she wanted to ask Tom regarding his sight, but felt she wasn’t entitled. She wondered when it happened and how he had coped. Regret washed over her once again. She hadn’t been there for him throughout what probably had been one of the most difficult times in his life.
At the cafeteria, Val offered to make the coffees. She walked to a table and placed the bag with the cupcakes over it. She watched as Tom, who was walking closely behind her, hit one of the chairs with his cane, then reached out with his free hand and found the back of the chair, pulled it out and sat down, thanking her for the offer.
“Latte, right?” she asked, hoping that at least his coffee tastes hadn’t changed.
“Yes!” He grinned, as if pleased that she had remembered how he liked his coffee.
Tom was already taking a bite of his cupcake when Val sat down on the table holding two coffee mugs. She pushed his to the hand he was swiping over the table in a repetitive motion. He wrapped his fingers around the cup and lowered his face to smell the pleasant aroma. “Thank you Valentina. For the coffee and the cupcakes… And the company,” he said smiling, oblivious to the sudden onset of sadness that had taken over her usually jovial personality.
She hummed a response and remained silent for a few minutes while they munched on the cupcakes.
“When did it happen?” She blurted out suddenly.
Tom furrowed his brows in confusion. “What?”
“Your sight? It’s gone, right?” she asked trying to be tactful but her words came out strained nonetheless.
His face relaxed as he sat back on his chair, and smiled. “What gave me away?” he said in a playful tone.
“Want a list?” she said, trying to maintain the sarcastic tone that Tom had just used, yet still feeling the discomfort of her previous upsetting thoughts.
He snorted, still smiling. “It’s not like I’m trying to hide it. I’m surprised you didn’t say anything before.”
At least he didn’t seem put off by her meddling.
“I wasn’t sure how much sight you had lost and I didn’t think it was my place to ask.”
“I have some light perception, but it’s not much,” he finally admitted lowering his eyes, his smile gone. He looked up again aiming at her eyes as he unusually tried, and continued, “You can ask, Valentina, it’s not a big deal.”
Not a big deal?
Valentina was glad the cafeteria was empty. She felt her heart sink and the knot in her throat that she had been able to hold back before, was now beginning to get uncontainable.
“Tom,” she said with trembling voice, full of regret, “I’m sorry.”
“Valentina…” Tom said with a chiding tone, evidently uncomfortable with where the conversation was heading.
“It’s not what you think. I’m not feeling sorry for you. I know you hate that. Don’t get me wrong, I am sorry that you lost your sight, but you know that I would never…” she trailed off not wanting to say that word. “I apologize for being a shitty friend. I wasn’t there for you.”
“Valentina, you did nothing wrong, we hadn’t been in touch for a while. And this,” he pointed to his eyes, “Is nothing to feel sorry about, it just happened. There’s nothing anyone could have done to prevent it.” He took a deep breath. “Look, why don’t we just forget about what happened in the past. Let’s focus on what we have now, okay?”
“I like the way you think,” said Val, calmer now and trying to lighten the mood.
“Then, we’ve got a deal?” Tom lifted his fist for her to bump it.
And they fist bumped.
From then on, everything seemed to fall into place with Tom. She kept stopping by his office to chat every day, without even having to make up work issues. Tom began to slowly loosen up, sharing more about his life and how it had been since they stopped talking.
Sometimes she would bring him a latte, and occasionally something for breakfast. They started to have lunch together every now and then, and eventually she practically stopped having lunch with her friends, to have it with Tom instead.
Val noticed that Tom rarely brought up Alexandra in a conversation. He also seemed to be free for lunch often. Granted, Alexandra was usually at the client’s offices so it might have been hard for them to meet frequently, and yet, it didn’t slip her attention that on a few occasions when she had seen Alex there, Tom had preferred having lunch with Val. Odd.
Valentina was with her new-found friends, Maria and Astrid, in a bar celebrating Astrid’s recent engagement over cocktail drinks and junk food. Val liked that bar because it was close to their office, it wasn’t too crowded and the music wasn’t too loud as to not be able to maintain a pleasant conversation without shouting. Val was only twenty-two but she couldn’t be called a party girl, she preferred more peaceful places a million times better tan noisy night clubs.
Astrid was narrating with exaggerated detail, how her fiancé had popped the question, while Val and Maria where listening intently, sighing in contentment with their friend’s happiness.
It took a while, but Astrid finally finished with her story and changed the subject, probably realizing the she had hijacked the whole conversation talking about her boyfriend and her imminent wedding. “What about you girls? No romance knocking on the door?” she asked, suspiciously eyeing Val.
“Nothing here, it’s been a while for me.” Maria shook her head in amused disappointment. “Although I think our friend might have something going on.” She was also staring at Val.
“What? Me?” asked Val, feigning ignorance.
“Mm-Hmm,” answered Maria, with a don’t-act-like-you-don’t-know-what-we’re-talking-about look on her face.
“It’s been a while for me too,” Val said nonchalantly, shrugging.
“Hmm! You think we haven’t noticed that you’ve been ditching us to have lunch with Tom every day?” said Astrid.
“I… I… were friends.” Valentina looked like a dear in headlights. Was she too transparent? Had her friends noticed that she was helplessly in love with Tom?
“We’re your friends too, and you don’t have lunch with us anymore, and you don’t bring us breakfast either,” said Astrid.
“Okay,” Val said compliantly in a low voice, her cheeks warmer by the second, “I like him, that’s all.”
“You like him how?” asked Maria, somewhat seeming disconcerted.
“I like him,” Val said again, widening her eyes and making emphasis on the “like” word, as if that would be enough for them to understand so the would drop the subject. “Besides…” Val was about to tell them that it didn’t matter anyway since Tom had a girlfriend, when the waitress interrupted to ask if they needed something else. The girls ordered their fourth round of drinks and Val took the opportunity to excuse herself pretending to need the ladies’ room, glad that the “Tom” interrogation was over. She stood up feeling a little unsteady, she couldn’t be drunk, maybe just a little tipsy. Her fourth Margarita was on the way, so it wasn’t implausible.
As she walked towards the ladies’ room, she spotted a familiar figure sitting at a table on a dark corner in the bar, she decided to move closer to confirm that her slightly drunken eyes weren’t deceiving her.
Yes. It was her. Alexandra.
Alexandra wasn’t alone, she was accompanied by a man. A man that was not Tom. A man that Alexandra was very much attracted to, judging by the way she was sticking her tongue down his throat!
Valentina felt the fire of anger taking over her. She wanted to punch that woman in the face. How could she do this to Tom?
She didn’t want to make a scene, and she normally wouldn’t say anything, but Valentina had the tequila of three Margaritas circling in her blood, plus she knew by now, that when it came to Tom, she had no tolerance for offensive behavior. Hands clenched into fists, she stormed angrily towards Alexandra’s table.
“Alexandra,” she called, trying to keep her composure.
A startled Alexandra, who had been very enthralled with her companion, flipped her head in Valentina’s direction. Upon recognizing who had just called her name, she offered a friendly smile, “Oh, hi!”
With gritted teeth, trying to keep her voice down and motioning her hand towards the offending party, Valentina said, “What are you doing Alexandra? This… this is wrong!”
Alexandra stared at her, genuine puzzlement settling on her face. “What are to talking about, Valentina?”
Confused, Valentina looked from Alexandra to the man sitting next to her, who seemed as shocked as Alexandra, suddenly connecting the dots. Her face burned and her eyes widened, only that this time it was from embarrassment instead of anger.
Oh god, did I just make a fool of myself?
“I thought that you and Tom…” she said, in a subdued tone.
Understanding dawning on her, Alexandra let out a chuckle. “Oh no, Valentina, Tom and I are just friends. This is my boyfriend Joseph.”
Joseph, who was now wearing the scariest scowl on his face, complained, “See Alex, you spend too much time with that guy, now people think you’re together.”
Alexandra shot her boyfriend a stern look and then shook her head in irritation, rolling her eyes.
Valentina wanted to crawl under the table and never come out. On top of accusing Alexandra of cheating, she now had stirred some trouble between her and her boyfriend. She had no idea of what to say to fix it. She looked at Alex sheepishly, “Alex, I’m so sorry. I made a mistake.” Then Val turned to look at Joseph. “I was wrong, there’s nothing going on between them. Really.”
Shut up Valentina! Maybe you’re making everything worse.
“Look Valentina, you are clearly not the first person to make that assumption,” Alex said, glowering at her boyfriend, “Tom and I are good friends, that’s all,” she added calmly now looking at Valentina with a soft expression.
“Thanks for understanding Alex. I’m really sorry. I’ll leave you guys alone now.” Valentina wanted to run away so badly right then, but she contained herself and slowly turned around.
“Valentina!” called out Alexandra.
Valentina turned around raising her eyebrows in expectation, “Yeah?”
“I’m glad Tom has a friend like you to look out for him,” Alexandra was smiling gratefully.
Val gave Alexandra an appreciative nod and turned on her heels to walk back to her table, now, with a huge grin on her face.
That fucking liar. He’s single!