Valentina opened her eyes to Tom’s chest rising and falling, breathing peacefully. She sighed deeply recalling what had happened the night before as she snuggled closer to his chest. The best night of her life; she and Tom had kissed!
Her elation disappeared quickly when she realized she had only thirty minutes to get ready to leave to the airport. Bianca was going to flip.
She leaped from the mattress and hurriedly started picking up her things, disorderly placing them in her suitcase.
“Good morning!” she heard Tom say.
She turned to see him lying on the mattress with his hands behind his head, smiling widely up at her. She returned the smile, and continued fixing her things, “Good morning to you too. I’m late! I need to get ready really fast!”
“Do you need help?”
“No, that’s not necessary.”
“I don’t think I’d be of much help anyway,” he chuckled. He sat up on the mattress and rubbed his eyes with both hands. “Okay. I need to do something before you leave. I’ll be right back to walk you to the reception.”
He hoisted himself from the mattress and found her back with his hands. He draped his arms around her shoulders in a light embrace then lowered his face to hers and gave her a quick peck on the cheek, right next to her ear. Valentina felt goosebumps spreading on her neck, while the soft warm feeling of his kiss lingered on her skin a little longer.
Fifteen minutes later, Tom was back in her tent holding a small box in his hand. “I got this for you back in Cancun. I was waiting for a moment to give it to you. Guess now is as good time as any,” he said slightly blushing with a small grin.
Val looked at him in surprise, “Thank you,” she muttered shyly, a little taken aback by the gesture. She opened the box and her eyes widened. Inside, were a gorgeous pair of silver dangling leaf earrings. Embedded in the metal frame, were several small stones that changed their color, from white to soft pink, to blue or green when looked from different angles.
“They’re beautiful Tom, thank you so much. I love them!” She hugged him and then gave him a long kiss on the mouth.
When she pulled away from the kiss, Tom had the widest smile plastered on his face. She admired the earrings one more time, completely fascinated by the iridescent stones. “The stone is beautiful, you have great taste!” she added.
“I honestly couldn’t appreciate it very well, so I trusted the clerk’s description. She told me it’s called opal,” he said, seeming a little embarrassed.
“When did you get this, weren’t we together the whole time?” asked Val.
“That night after we went to Chichen Itza, before we went to that bar at the mall. You and Bianca went crazy with the bathing suits, so Jonathan and I started looking around and I found this nice jewelry store. I’m glad you liked them,” he said with a proud smile, then hugged her and kissed her quickly on the lips one more time. “Are you ready to go? We don’t want to piss off Bianca by being late!” he said in a mock scared tone.
“Yes, let’s go!”
Bianca and Jonathan were already waiting for Valentina when she and Tom arrived at the reception.
“Let’s go, we’re gonna be late,” said Bianca, with her usual bossy tone and without even a good morning greeting.
Val hugged Tom and whispered in his ear, “Let me know that you got home okay, see you in a couple of days.”
He smiled and nodded, then glanced at Jonathan, “Have a nice flight” he shook hands with both, Jonathan and Bianca, “It was nice meeting you.”
“You too. Whenever you’re in Dallas, call us, we’ll do something fun,” said Jonathan.
“Will do, thanks.”
On the flight to Dallas, Valentina was sitting in the window seat watching the city getting smaller as the plane gained altitude. Within minutes after takeoff, Jonathan placed his head on his headrest and immediately dozed off. Bianca was sitting on the middle seat between Val and Jonathan with her eyes closed, trying to rest as well.
Seemingly unable to fall asleep, Bianca opened her eyes and turned to face Val. “He’s in love with you, you know?”
Val, who was still looking out the window almost hypnotized by the whiteness of the clouds, turned Bianca’s way, “Huh?”
“Tom, he worships you,” Bianca paused for a moment looking at Val with a very serious frown. She continued speaking before Val could say a word. “I know you care about him, but you’re only leading him on by letting him get so close to you.”
“Bianca, why are you telling me all this?” said a puzzled Val.
“Look Val, the poor guy is in love with you, and you’ve let him get his hopes up. I’m just saying that you should draw a line. It’s only gonna end bad if you keep this up. You don’t want to hurt his feelings, do you? Besides, he’s gonna chase away all your potential suitors if you spend all your time with him.”
Given how Bianca had acted towards Tom, Val couldn’t say that she was surprised by her observations. She juggled telling Bianca that it was none of her business. Hearing her say those things had made her feel criticized for furthering her relationship with Tom. Why was it so unthinkable that Tom and her could be in a relationship?
Val decided to be honest, expecting her friend’s support if she explained how she felt. “I like him too,” Val muttered, fully aware that it was an understatement. Even though, she wasn’t entirely sure of the extent of her feelings for Tom, she was pretty sure that they were a lot more profound than that.
“You’re not serious,” Bianca stated, rather than asked. Her frown was now more pronounced in what seemed like an expression of disgust.
“I am,” Val nodded hesitantly, wondering why she cared so much of what Bianca thought.
“What the hell, Val!” Bianca almost yelled. She was genuinely dumbfounded. She obviously had not expected that kind of confession.
“I like him!” Val said louder and more assured this time.
“Val! The guy is blind!” said Bianca, still in shock.
“I don’t know, it’s weird!” Bianca retorted, growing exasperated.
“Why? He’s a great guy, Bianca. He’s sweet, and fun, and smart. The fact that he’s blind doesn’t minimize any of that. And you would have known that, if you had made the slightest effort to get to know him.”
“I think that to get involved with someone like him is a mistake.” Bianca shook her head in disapproval. “The guy is disabled, Val. You don’t want to be with someone with so many limitations. He needs help all the time”
“That’s not true! You make it sound like he’s some sort of invalid.” Val was feeling the heat rise to her face.
“Isn’t he? I saw how he clings to you like his life depends on it. I got exasperated just by witnessing it.”
“He doesn’t need to do that. He’s just comfortable around me and he knows I don’t mind.” Val paused and sucked a breath adding more calmly. “He’s my friend, Bianca. I’d do that for you in a heartbeat. It’s not a big deal.”
“God forbid! If it was me? I wouldn’t have come to a trip with people I don’t know just to be a burden.”
Val was fuming by now. How could she had just realized that her friend of years was such an ignorant bitch?
“So he should just stay home and not do anything so he doesn’t, god forbid, disturb people…God Bianca. You’re unbelievable!” Val’s tone was starting to rise so she decided to breathe deep and stay silent in an attempt to avoid making a bigger scene on the plane.
Bianca remained quite as well, but broke the silence a minute later and said in a calm tone, “All right, this isn’t any of my business…”
“You can date whoever you want,” continued Bianca, “But think of what your parents are gonna say. I know your mom, she’s not gonna like it one little bit.”
As soon as Bianca said those words, it hit Val. What would her mother think of her relationship with Tom?
When Val, Bianca and Jonathan walked out of baggage claim, Val immediately spotted Anna and Jake O’Reilly waiting for her at the pick-up area. Until that moment she hadn’t realized how much she had missed her parents, it felt wonderful to see them again. She walked as fast as she could with her big suitcase in tow, and joyfully fell into her father’s arms.
After the extreme display of affection among the O’Reilly clan, Val’s parents finally said hi to Bianca and Jonathan who were standing oddly to the side, waiting to greet them as well. Jake offered them a ride home, which the happily accepted.
The whole ride home was silent mostly, at least Val was not among the chatty, she was still mad at Bianca for her nasty comments about Tom during the flight.
When they arrived home, Val made a beeline up to the room that had been hers for many years before she left for college. Inhaling deeply the familiar scent of her room, Val entered and placed her suitcase on the corner. She plopped on her bed, tired, and still a bit angry at Bianca, and closed her eyes.
Seeing her parents and coming home had relaxed her, but Bianca’s words resonated in her mind. Val was worried of her family’s reaction to her dating Tom, especially her mom’s.
Val’s parents had met Tom in one occasion when they visited her by surprise at her dorm, and Tom had been there tutoring Val. At the time, they didn’t get to talk to Tom for long, since he practically ran off as soon as her parent’s arrived. Val recalled her mom’s reaction to Tom’s blindness being quite different from Bianca’s. She made some comments about what a pity that a boy so young was disabled. Her reaction was pity… Even worse.
Then Val began to think about the night before. Now that she was analyzing everything cold, she wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about Tom. She knew she was very attracted to him and that she cared about him deeply. At that moment when she told him that she loved him, it felt so right. She didn’t even have to think about it; those words poured out of her mouth like the had to be told. Then it was true, she loved Tom.
Startled by a sudden knock on her door, Val snapped out of her slumber, the door opened, and a face that looked very much like her own, poked in.
“Hey Mad,” Val said.
“Hey Sis,” answered Sofia, as she walked in the room.
The simple fact that they were sisters was not the reason that Sofia called Val “Sis;” it was a nickname Sofia had come up with a while ago that meant “Sister Val” because Valentina was such a prude. Val, on the other hand, had come up with a nickname for Sofia in retaliation, “Madame Slut,” because Sofia was quite the opposite from Val. Sofia was two years younger than Val, and already had much more experience with boys. That didn’t mean she was a slut, but that was what Val was able to come up with and Sofia didn’t mind, in fact, she loved the nickname; it was part of their own sisterly banter.
Val sat up and opened her arms so her sister could give her the expected welcoming hug. Sofia sat beside her and squeezed her tightly until there was no air left in Val’s lungs.
“Tell me all about your trip,” was the first thing Sofia said when she let Val free of the smothering hug.
“It was so much fun. When you’re old enough, we have to go to Mexico together,” Val promised her little sister.
“I’d like that!” Sofia said excited. “Now show me the pictures. You did take pictures, right? You only sent me two a few days ago. You’re so boring sometimes.”
Valentina laughed and handed her phone to Sofia. The first picture Sofia saw, was a selfie of Val posing with the clearest sea as background.
“Oh my god Val, it’s so pretty!” said Sofia.
“Yeah, that’s the last one I took in Tulum this morning before leaving.”
The next picture was one of the whole group that went to Gran Cenote. Sofia zoomed in to look in more detail to each face. “Who are all these people?”
“Well, you know Bianca.” Val pointed at her ex-best-friend and then at Jonathan. “And that’s her boyfriend Jonathan. He’s really fun.”
“And a saint, if he tolerates her,” added Sofia.
Valentina laughed, recalling how she had said something similar just a few days ago.
“Who’s the hot guy that was coping a feel back there?” Sofia said wiggling her eyebrows. She pointed at Tom, who was, as usual, with his arm around Valentina’s waist.
“Tom was just hugging me. People hug when they’re posing for pictures, Mad.” Valentina chided.
“That’s Tom?” Sofia said surprised. “Wow! He’s hot Val, wasn’t he supposed to be this blind computer nerd or something?”
“Well, he kind of is exactly that,” giggled Val.
“You never mentioned that he looked like that.” Sofia was pointing at Tom in a different picture; a selfie that Val had taken of Tom and her smiling widely at the camera. “What the hell is wrong with you, Sis? Why haven’t you hooked up with this perfect specimen? Like I said, you’re so boring sometimes…well, more like all the time,” Sofia said shaking her head.
“I never said he was ugly. Or that we haven’t hooked up.” Val slipped that right in there, as a way to confess what had happened between Tom and her.
Sofia turned her head to look at Val dumbstruck. “You didn’t…!”
Val nodded mischievously.
“Who’s the slut now?” said Sofia, shoving Val on the shoulder. “Tell me all about it. I suppose all this happened on the trip. You haven’t been keeping Sister Val’s romantic adventures from me, have you?”
“No,” said Val laughing. It was hard to keep a straight face when she was with her sister. All their conversations were like that. It felt so good. She had missed her so much. “Actually, it was last night. We kissed.” Val couldn’t believe what had happened just the night before, it seemed like it had been a dream.
“Really Val? Last night? How long have you known each other?”
“I know, I know. We’re kind of slow,” Val admitted.
“Slow? More like a pair losers, I would say,” Sofia said, in a teasing tone.
“Do you want me to tell you?” Val said, crossing her arms in irritation.
“All right, all right. I’m gonna shut up. Now spill it.”
Val told her sister, purposely leaving out a few things that she considered more personal, about how they had been “flirting” during the whole trip and how everything led to that final night when Tom decided to tell her about his feelings. Sofia was listening, delighted with the story of her sister’s first love, with a cheesy smile. Val knew that her sister had her back; she would be pleased as long as Val was happy.
“Oh Sis. I’m so proud of you. At last! A man in your life,” Sofia said half joking-half serious. Val’s love life, or lack of, had always been a reason for Sofia’s teasing.
“He’s great, Mad. I really like him. I know that he’s not your conventional heartthrob, but Tom is… I don’t know…” Val was left short of words, she couldn’t quite pinpoint why she liked him so much.
“Why do you say that? He’s very good looking. I really didn’t expect him to be so attractive.”
“He is, isn’t he?” Val sighed admiring his gorgeous face in the picture. “That’s the thing. Even though he looks the way he looks, he’s far from smooth when he flirts. He’s sort of insecure.” Val shrugged. “Then, he’s very nerdy. To look at him you wouldn’t tell, but he’s really smart and into computers and all that jazz. And well, he’s visually impaired, so people are put off by that too. I was, initially, but when you get to know him, he’s the sweetest guy.”
“You shouldn’t care about all that, Sis, your nerdy and insecure too. Maybe that’s why it took you guys so long to get it going on,” Sofia said with a short giggle. “Seriously, if you like him and he makes you happy, then that’s all that matters.”
“I guess, but… I know I might get some criticism. I’ve already have. Bianca was telling me that I shouldn’t date him.”
“You shouldn’t listen to Bianca, nothing’s ever good enough for her,” said an annoyed Sofia . The sisters had that in common, when they were angry, it showed.
Val kept silent for a moment, and then blurted out the ultimate question, “What about mom?”
Sofia’s expression changed from annoyed to resigned. “Mom’s… mom. You know how she is. I honestly wouldn’t expect her to be very supportive.”
Val made a face that showed her genuine worry. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
“I know you’re a goody-goody daughter. But you don’t have to tell her, Val.”
As if on cue, at that precise moment, they heard Anna voice coming from downstairs. “Niñas, come help me with dinner,” she shouted.
“I have to study. You go,” Sofia quickly said.
“Yeah, I gather you’ve been studying for the past hour,” said Val, sarcasm in every word.
“I have to start just about now,” said Sofia, then complained, “I do it all the time. Its your turn.”
Valentina just laughed and they both left the room, Sofia to hide in hers, and Val to help her mom in the kitchen.
Leaning on the kitchen counter, Val watched her mom cutting vegetables on a glass cutting board, while she chopped lettuce on one of her own.
“So, tell me more about your trip,” started Anna.
“It was great! I had so much fun. We did a lot of cool stuff,” said Val, pouring excitement from every pore. It had been fun, especially because she shared all those experiences with Tom.
Val was beginning to get flustered thinking of the things Tom and her were doing the night before, when her mother’s voice brought her out of her reverie, “Which ones of your friends went in the end?”
Val straightened on her seat, and looked up at her mom, hoping that her steamy thoughts were not too noticeable on her face. “Bianca and Jonathan, her boyfriend, and Tom.”
“Wasn’t Kate going?” questioned Anna, sounding vaguely upset about learning this little detail too late.
“No, she chose to go to New York with her sister,” said Val apologetically.
Anna looked down for a moment at the vegetables she was chopping, then asked changing the subject suddenly, “And did you like Bianca’s boyfriend?”
“He’s nice, and fun. He and Tom really hit it off,” she said, smiling at the memories. “Bianca on the other hand…” Valentina trailed off, cursing herself for bringing Tom up in the conversation, but that was bound to happen, given that she couldn’t stop thinking about him.
“What about her?” asked Anna.
“She didn’t like Tom. That’s all.” Val shrugged, trying to minimize the fact that her friend had been the opposite from nice to Tom.
“Why? He seems like a nice boy. You’ve said so yourself, so many times.”
“I don’t know,” Valentina answered, looking down at the lettuce she had been chopping. She knew all right, but right then she just wanted to change the subject. She felt like this conversation was moving to uncharted territory.
“You can’t blame her Valentina, some people can’t deal with disability very well,” said Anna, as if knowing the exact reason why Bianca hadn’t liked Tom.
Valentina recalled how she felt around Tom when she initially met him. She had been very nervous, worried that she would do or say something stupid. Bianca had enough time to get over it, only that she didn’t want to. That was the huge difference.
“I wasn’t expecting her to become his best friend, but she was rude to him most of the time. It’s not his fault that he’s blind,” Valentina said angrily, chopping the lettuce with hard strokes. She had become too livid to notice that she had dragged on the topic she was trying to avoid to begin with.
Anna stopped chopping, and looked up at Valentina. “Valentina? What’s going on between you and that boy?” she asked inquisitively. The scowl that had formed on Anna’s face was a good confirmation of what Val had feared; her mom did not like one bit the idea of her daughter in a relationship with Tom.
Valentina felt the blood drain from her face. “What do you mean?” she asked, attempting to mask her anxiety, knowing exactly what her mother had meant.
“Are you two involved?” Anna’s eyebrows were raised and her eyes wide as if scared to find out the answer to her question.
Wondering what her mom would say if she told her the truth, Valentina reflected for a moment about what to say. “Mom, I uh… Tom’s just my friend,” she lied looking down at her hands and suddenly feeling the need to bite her nails, but able to restrain herself.
Anna’s features did not soften as Val expected, instead she looked at Val sternly, as if she did not believe her. She turned towards the stove and dropped the vegetables into a pot with boiling water, and then turned to look at a distressed Valentina. “I’m sure he’s a good boy, Valentina, but you don’t want to get involved with someone with a disability, it’s a lot to deal with. And you know you can do much better.”
“Better?” Val’s features were a mixture of doubt and pain.
With eyes full of true concern, Anna said, “You’re beautiful and smart Valentina; you could find a boy that has those qualities as well… And that doesn’t have his problem. I just want what’s best for you.”
And that was it, Valentina’s mom had spoken, and very clearly.
Val’s eyes were stinging. She would not be able to say another word without bursting into tears. She mumbled something like, “I need to go to the bathroom,” and left the kitchen.
Before Val had closed the door to her room behind her back, tears were already running down her cheeks. She let them fall freely, yet stifled the sobs that were threatening to burst out so her family wouldn’t hear her cry.
“How was your trip back home?” Tom texted Valentina when he arrived at his apartment that evening after a long and exhausting day of traveling. “Mine was fine, no complications. Just missed you a ton,” he added in a second text.
Airports were a challenge for someone with limited vision like Tom. They were big, crowded and noisy. The wide spaces were a hindrance; there weren’t many walls to trail or easy reference spots. He got lost more than once and had to ask for directions on many occasions, sometimes in his rudimentary Spanish. Fortunately, it was a direct flight and, in spite of the setbacks, he made it on time to his boarding gate.
Now he was just glad to be home, sprawled on his bed, waiting for Valentina to respond to his text.
More than an hour had passed before she answered. “Hey! I’m glad your trip was fine. Mine was okay too.”
Excited, Tom began writing a long text telling her the details of his trip, but before he could finish, he received another text from Valentina, which he opened immediately.
“Tom, I think we made a mistake,” recited the monotone female voice coming from his phone.
Tom sat up exalted, wondering what Valentina had meant with that message. He had a pretty good idea, but he strongly desired it to be something else.
“What was a mistake?”
“I think we went too far last night. I’m not ready for that kind of relationship. I’m sorry.”
An avalanche of thoughts came crashing into his mind… What the hell? Last night she said she loved me. She kissed me. I slept with my arms around her.
She couldn’t have been pretending. He was convinced that her actions and words had been honest and conscious. Why was she suddenly having second thoughts? The first thing that came to his mind was his blindness. Why not? It had always been a deal breaker. Maybe she thought it through, and came to the conclusion that to have a blind friend was okay, but not a blind boyfriend? He’d had this illusion that Valentina liked him enough to overlook that he was blind. He put her up in a pedestal and didn’t realize that it would eventually come crashing down.
After that quick tantrum, he chastised himself and did his best to calm down. Perhaps he was just overthinking things, and it was as simple as she had said. She wasn’t ready.
Regardless of her true reasons, he had to answer her text; between the shock of being dumped and not knowing what to write, he hadn’t gathered the will to give her a response. He thought hard of what to say. He pondered on calling her and beging her to reconsider. But the knot in his throat wasn’t disappearing anytime soon. If he called her crying like a baby, that would only make clear that he was a pathetic and desperate loser. He decided to send her a text, in which hopefully, he wouldn’t come off as desperate.
“Valentina, I don’t regret anything. I still think we should be together. Why don’t you think about it, and we can talk when you come back.”
He hoped that text hadn’t sounded desperate, but he didn’t have time to reflect on it too much, since Valentina’s answer came in right away.
“Tom, I’m sorry, but I don’t think I’m going to change my mind. I hope this doesn’t change things between us. You know that I care about you, you’re my best friend.”
And there it was! Friendzoned again. He wasn’t boyfriend material, not even for Valentina, who had been the most understanding, supportive and sweetest girl he had ever met.
Resigned, he answered, “Okay, I understand.” He didn’t, but what else was there to say? Begging wasn’t an option; not when there was still a little pride left in him.
This is what he had feared would happen if he confessed his love for her; now their friendship was ruined. It didn’t matter anymore though. He wouldn’t have been able to hold his feelings inside any longer. It felt wonderful to spill them out, and even more amazing when they were corresponded, at least for a little while. There was only one thing left to do; even if it hurt like a bitch, he would have to mark his distance in order to move on. Being near her only made him love her more.
Valentina had cried her eyes out writing those message, hands trembling and choking on her own sobs.
Anguish and heartache had prevented Val from sleeping that night. Thoughts of how she had ruined everything with Tom creeped into her mind. She wondered how he had reacted. Was he sad, disappointed, angry? Surely all of those, after all, that’s how she felt about herself. She wanted to take it all back, but what could she say, that she was an insecure little kid that couldn’t counter her mom? She wasn’t even brave enough to wait until she got back to talk to him face to face. She panicked and had to tell him right away without thinking things trough, just to regret it later on. They loved each other and she had overlooked her true feelings purely because of her own insecurities.
What perhaps was hard to understand, was just how dificult it was for Val to overcome those insecurities. Just thinking that her mom had been able to guess her feelings during their talk scared her to death. What her parents thought meant the world to Valentina, she didn’t have it in her to ever to stand against them. Nothing they said or did could ever be wrong.
The next couple of days, Val texted Tom a few times asking how he was doing, and simple questions about his everyday. Tom would answer with friendly and polite short phrases, not really getting into details about anything.
She also texted him when she went back to school, but he didn’t ask to see her right away like he would’ve in any other occasion. Deep down she was glad that he didn’t want to see her because, although she was dying to see him, she felt ashamed of how she had managed things.
Val couldn’t shake the feeling that she had lost the best friend she’d ever had, and the only man she had loved.