Tom was sitting on the bus rubbing his sore eyes. His thoughts lingered on what the doctor had told him the day before. He lost around ten percent of his peripheral vision in less than a year.
Before the doctor’s visit, Tom had a strong hunch that he was going to hear something like that, but he hadn’t been prepared to face it. It wasn’t the first time this happened. He had been losing his sight his whole life and there was still a long road to go. He was used to it, he knew the drill by now, and he knew that the odds were not in his favor. But hearing the doctor say it once again felt like a punch in the gut. It had never been easy.
Sometimes his vision would stabilize for a long period, and Tom would let himself believe that perhaps that was it, that his vision would not deteriorate further. But deep down he knew that hope was futile, the unnerving truth was that his disease was ever present. It sometimes gave him a break, but one thing that it had proved in the past, was that it would eventually resurface and claim the spotlight in Tom’s life.
How long before he lost it all? No one knew. He would just have to wait and see. Pun absolutely intended.
Even though he sometimes struggled as it was, his remaining sight allowed him to function independently. He could not envision the level of independence he was able to enjoy if he ever had nothing to rely on. Would he be able to find and keep a job? What about a girlfriend? Would he find a woman who wanted a relationship with him? It had happened in the past. A girl seeming to like him, and the once the cane came out, game over. He could only view a dismal future if he was to lose his sight completely.
He had called his brother in the night, the only person he was comfortable enough to open up with, to seek advice and comfort. His advice was not to worry about something that hadn’t happened, to keep taking care of himself and to have confidence that one way or the other, things would be okay. Incredibly, his brother’s words helped Tom feel a lot better. The feeling didn’t last long though, he was getting all worked up again. Spiraling into depressive thoughts, a knot began to form in his throat. His hands were aching from rubbing and gripping his cane too tightly. Was he about to cry? No way. Not here. That was not his style. He was the one that rolled with the punches. He could put on a happy face and no one would ever know the dark thoughts running inside his head.
He convinced himself to push those thoughts aside and focus on something positive. He was about to meet Valentina for lunch, that would cheer him up.
It had been over four months since Valentina and Tom met, and by now, they were practically inseparable. They often went to the movies or to eat together, and even though Valentina had gotten quite good at programming, they still got together to study. With her weekends engaged with entertainment, she needed the extra help to finish her projects on time.
During this time, Valentina had slowly made her way up to the best friend spot. Tom wasn’t exactly ecstatic about it, he wished that she could be more. He had expected that by now, he would have been her boyfriend or over the huge crush he had on her. But getting to know the wonderful woman she was, only made the damn crush stronger than ever.
He had a good idea of how he ended in the friend zone. Since that fateful night when he “asked her out” and she batted his invitation as far away from her as possible, his confidence had faltered. He hadn’t built the courage to ask again, and the more he thought about taking that step, the harder it got to actually do it. It seemed that the ship had sailed and was now drifting directionless, close to infinity
Valentina was very hard to read. Tom could not pinpoint if she had any interest in him beyond friendship. She definitely liked him, he was sure of that. She was nice and kind to him and seemed to love spending time with him. She didn’t recoil from his attempts to be affectionate with her either, although those attempts were generally very modest, and rarely (more like never) was she the one who initiated such closeness. That, and the fact that she never flirted, were the big clues that she was not interested in anything more.
If he just grew a pair and told her about his feelings, things could change between them. The question was, would they change for better or worse? If her feelings weren’t the same as his, and he lost her due to the awkwardness of not corresponded feelings, it would just be too painful to bear.
As Tom made his way into the restaurant where he and Valentina had agreed to meet, he searched around straining his eyes to find her, but everything was still a big blur. His eyes were irritated and sensitive from the testing the day before and they looked reddish and a bit swollen, thus the reason for still be wearing sunglasses indoors. However, the added darkness meant that he could see even less than usual.
Valentina, who was sitting in a booth close to the door, waved like a maniac at him with both arms. He thanked her inwardly. By now, Valentina had taken the “Blind friend advanced course” and automatically did all those little things to help Tom in a way that no one would even notice. For instance, when walking together, she would naturally position herself to his left side, that way, if he wanted to, he could grab her arm with his free hand for her to lead him. She would read the small print to him in everything they came across, even when it wasn’t really necessary. By now, she could set, unset and use the accessibility features on his laptop when they worked together. There were many other little gestures that Tom really appreciated and loved when they came from her.
He strode to the booth trying to keep his expression neutral. When he approached her, he gave her a quick hug and moved to the seat opposite from her. “Sorry I’m late. I missed my stop and I had to walk a few blocks back.”
“Are you sick?” were the first words she spoke, concern on her face.
“What makes you think that?” asked Tom trying to hide his bad mood, and surprised that she could tell.
“You look a bit pale, you usually take off your sunglasses inside, and your body language is off as well,” she answered without taking time to breathe.
He looked down and took a deep breath still trying to calm the gloomy feelings that had taken over him on the bus. “I… I’m okay. No more sick than usual.” He looked up at her offering a strained smile.
“Tom…” Valentina reached across the table and squeezed his hand. “Is it your eyes?” she asked scrunching her eyebrows in worry.
Valentina knew about his condition and some of the troubles it caused to his vision. However, he had not told her the speed with which it progressed, nor had he complained or dwelled about his eye problems, and he didn’t want to start now.
“Yeah, I went to the doctor yesterday, they put some eye drops that make my eyes very sensitive. It was just a yearly check up to see how thing are,” he said in a nonchalant tone, as if it was no big deal.
“And how are things?”
He looked down again and remained silent seeking for a reply.
“I can still see.” His voice quivered slightly as he said those words trying to muster a smile that came out more like a grimace.
Thankfully, at that moment the waiter came to take their orders, freeing him of the interrogation for a moment, or hopefully forever.
They placed their orders and the waiter left them by themselves again. No one spoke. For a few minutes, they could only hear the murmur of other patrons and the sound of cutlery clinking on plates.
“So…” said Valentina with expectant eyes, disrupting the long silence.
“So?” Tom chuckled, more due to nervousness than amusement. The interrogation wasn’t over after all.
“Are you going to tell me what the doctor said?”
“Mm…Okay.” He raked his hands through his hair. “The vision loss has progressed some,” he said letting out long breath that he did not know he was holding in.
Valentina stayed silent for a moment, grief overcoming her features. She stood up and moved to sit at his side, wrapping her arms around his neck in a tight hug. At least he got one of those rare hugs from Valentina out of confessing his eye problems. If only it had been caused by another feeling other than pity.
“Tom, I’m sorry,” she said releasing him from the hug and looking into his sunglasses covered eyes.
She was close enough for him to see almost clearly her pale round face and green watery eyes. She was so beautiful, even with her face scrunched up in pity like that. “Valentina, don’t look at me like that. I hate to see you upset or that pity look you’re giving me. It’s the worst feeling.”
“Nothing would make me pity you Tom!” She said looking disconcerted and a bit offended. “I’m just sorry that you’re going through this. I wish I could make it better.”
“I’ll be okay. I’m just a little shocked right now. I had some hope that what I had been experiencing with my vision lately wasn’t real. It’ll sink in, and I’ll be good to go in no time.”
She didn’t look convinced. “How bad is it?”
“It depends on how you measure it,” he paused and pursed his lips, reflecting on what he should say. “My central vision is about the same in terms of acuity.” Her confused expression prompted him to elaborate. “My vision is as blurry as before, not much has changed.”
“Okay, that’s good, right?” She nodded several times as if convincing herself.
“Yes.” He nodded one time to confirm it.
She looked at him intently, waiting for him to continue.
“My peripheral vision, which is the field of vision,” he held his hands to the sides of his head in a gesture to explain what it meant, “That has been affected the most, it’s been reduced around ten percent since last year.”
“Okay.” She released a long breath. “Can you still… see? I mean, of course you can, but.. I don’t know…”
“I can still see,” he chuckled again, still nervous. This was a conversation had never wanted to have with Valentina. He didn’t want her perception of him to change. What if she came to the conclusion that he would end up completely blind and helpless, just like he had been thinking minutes before?
He gulped hard to calm his nerves and continued, “The vision loss is gradual so I really don’t notice it too much, just little things like tripping more often or relying more on my cane, I automatically adapt without even noticing.”
“Isn’t there anything that can be done?”
“Not really.” He shook his head that was slightly hanging down.
Valentina stayed silent for a moment as if pondering if she should ask the next question, “Will you…uh…will you go blind?” Valentina’s voice was trembling, her eyes starting to water.
“Well, technically I am blind, legally blind. So I guess what you meant is if I’ll go completely blind?”
He paused to think for a moment and then looked at her.
Should I tell her the truth?
“It’s likely… But it’s not written on stone. The doctor can’t make a reliable prediction. It’s different with every patient.”
Dread settling on her face, she turned her face away from him to look out the window, covering her mouth with her fingers.
Please don’t cry…
The waiter decided to make an appearance at that moment, bringing their food, which they had completely forgotten about. Valentina moved her gaze towards the waiter, smiling weakly and thanking him when he placed the plates on the table.
Valentina didn’t move, she remained on Tom’s side of the booth, sitting closely beside him as they ate in silence.
Val realized they had been sitting in silence for a long time. Tom’s news had really shocked her. She didn’t know that his condition was so serious that he could go completely blind. Somehow, she thought that he was born with the same visual capacity as now. She had no clue that his vision loss was progressive.
She felt crappy for not knowing this, but even though she was curious about his sight when she initially befriended Tom, she had been too shy to ask at the time. Recently, she rarely asked anything about it, but the reason was that she didn’t give it any thought anymore, it was just a Tom thing. What she knew about his condition, she learned only because on rare occasions, the conversation had moved naturally to that topic, and Tom had been open to talk about it. Or so she had thought. She realized now how much he had been holding in.
Valentina wanted to tell him that she and her best friend from high school, Bianca, had been planning a trip for spring break, and she wanted to ask him to go. However, she wasn’t sure if talking about that would make her seem insensitive.
She decided to take a chance. After all, that was the reason she asked Tom to meet her for lunch in the first place, and perhaps, the topic change would better his mood.
“So, I wanted to ask you something.”
Tom was suddenly yanked out of his troubled thoughts. “Uh-hu?”
Val concluded that indeed, it would be too insensible of her to talk about spring break when Tom was clearly still upset. “Nothing, we’ll talk about it some other time.”
He smiled at her, “Tell me Valentina. What’s up?”
She looked down at his lips that were gracing that sweet smile of his. “Okay…My friend Bianca and I have been talking about a trip for spring break.”
“Who’s Bianca?” questioned Tom appearing a little more alert.
“She was my best friend in high school,” Valentina rolled her eyes as if Bianca was the most famous person in the world and it was inconceivable that he didn’t know who she was.
Bianca was Val’s best friend (if not only) from back home. They had met in math class during their first year in high school, and even though they were complete opposites (Val was nerdy and shy, whereas Bianca was popular and not very sharp), they became good friends
Mr. Mathews, the math teacher, had the impolite custom to give back the scored tests in front of the whole class ordered from best to worst score, Valentina usually being one of the first names called. Bianca, on the other hand, was not even close to the average scores. She was one test away from flunking.
Desperately in need of tutoring, Bianca approached Val to ask for help. In spite of their distinct difference in personalities, they hit it off instantly. They had some sort of symbiotic relationship. Val would help Bianca prepare for her math tests, which she started to pass with acceptable scores. Bianca, on her end, included Val in her social group, where she eventually became one of the regulars. Having befriended Bianca had let Val into a world she hadn’t known before, one where she actually had a social life.
Granted, Bianca could be bossy at times, but for Val that was not a big issue, given that most of the time she had trouble making up her mind on her own. She was more a “go with the flow” kind of girl.
“So what are you planning?” Tom nodded, letting Val know that he remembered who Bianca was.
“Mexico! Tan tan tan!” Valentina sang and waved her hands with each “Tan” she sang.
Tom laughed at Val’s dorkiness, “Cool!”
“We’re thinking La Riviera Maya,” Val said in perfect Spanish.
“I love it when you speak Spanish with that perfect accent.” He squeezed her cheeks like his aunts, Louisa and Elsa, used to squeeze his as a child.
Val slapped his hands away, cheeks pink from embarrassment caused by the compliment, or perhaps by the cheek squeezing.
“La Rrrivierrra Maya,” he said trying to mimic her accent.
“Dude! You’re saying it all wrong,” she laughed.
Chuckling, he continued, “I’ve heard it’s nice.”
“I went to Cancun a few years ago with my family and it was fun, but I’m thinking something more nature related, more adventurous, some archaeology as well. What do you think?” Val locked her eyes with Tom’s in anticipation.
“Sounds great,” Tom offered, not seeming very excited.
“So? Are you in?”
“I thought you were going with your friends from high school.”
“Yeah, maybe a couple of Bianca’s friends will go. But I’d like you and Kate to come with us. You can ask your friends if they’d like to come.”
Tom thought for a few seconds, brows furrowed, as if he was doing some intense mental calculations. “Mm, I’m all for adventure! And, I’ve saved some money for my trip to Europe. I suppose I could use that to go to Mexico instead.”
“Are you sure? You’ve had Europe in your mind for a long time.”
Tom smiled at her with a little twinkle in his eyes. “I’m sure. I can go to Europe in another occasion.”
“Great! This is gonna be so much fuuuun!” Valentina squealed rubbing her hands together.