Days had lingered on and Tom hadn’t made the mildest effort to talk to Val. She had been the last one to reach out, she even slipped in the “Let’s catch up” line to leave the decision to him to contact her.
He had sent Shripad to show her the testing program and work through it with her, albeit having a perfect opening to do that himself. Was he really that busy? Or was it that he didn’t want to see her? It seemed highly possible that he wasn’t interested in resuming their friendship again, given that he had been the one avoiding her all those years ago, and was still avoiding her now. She even jumbled the possibility that he could be holding a grudge, but Val couldn’t fathom Tom harboring those types of feelings. He wasn’t that kind of person, she never heard him saying anything bad about other people.
Valentina couldn’t quite explain this sudden yearning to see him. Initially, she just wanted to get rid of the awkwardness surrounding them, given that they would have to work together. But after talking to him that day, there was a longing. She felt a strong desire to see him, to reconnect, and she could not determine the exact reason. Perhaps she wasn’t over him, even though she had been convinced that she was. So many years had passed and, although he still would come to her mind on occasions, it hadn’t been painful anymore.
Val had cried and missed Tom for over a month after he stopped answering her calls and texts. She never had considered herself the kind of girl to let her life be consumed by sadness, and much less if that sadness was caused by heartbreak. Before Tom, she used to think that it was silly to mope about a failed relationship. She couldn’t understand how her friends would let themselves fall so miserably just for a boy. Until, she found herself in the same position. She was one of them, and it made her sick. Once she realized that, she decided that it had been enough. She needed to move on and forget Tom. Once she set her mind to it, it was surprisingly easy. She focused on school work, and eventually, the constant thinking about Tom was a thing of the past; until the moment she saw him again a few days ago. Now she could not get him out of her head.
Friday came with an invitation to a bar near the office, where they would be celebrating a coworker’s birthday. Val was happy to attend, since it would give her a chance to get to know her coworkers better, and maybe talk to Tom without the hassle of work.
When Maria and Val arrived at the bar, she looked around and quickly found their table where only a few people from the office were sitting. She searched for Tom, but he wasn’t there, maybe he was swamped with work after all, and didn’t have time for socializing either. She wanted that to be true, since it could mean that he hadn’t looked for her because of work. But deep down she wanted him there, even if it was only to see him again.
Every time the door opened she would turn to see if it was Tom. One of those times, it was Shripad and Ben that came walking inside. Val thought of how sweet it was that Ben’s face immediately lit up when he saw her, just like that day at the food court.
If only he wasn’t such a prick.
Ben was good-looking, even more than Tom, but he only had to open his mouth to turn from prince charming into an ogre.
He made a beeline to where Valentina was sitting and sat down on the chair next to hers. Valentina found it funny that Maria instantly rolled her eyes when she saw him sitting down. It seemed like that was Maria’s instinctive reaction whenever she was close to Ben.
As Val was getting to realize was his custom, Ben began to talk about this and that and whatnot. He was obviously trying to monopolize Val’s attention.
Oh god, this is gonna be a long night.
After enduring Ben’s conversation for what seemed like ages, the door opened once again. This time it was Tom who finally walked in holding Alexandra’s arm. He wasn’t even using his cane, which struck Valentina as strange given that when he used to hold her arm, he usually used his cane.
He must trust her more than he used to trust me.
Tom and Alexandra seemed to be very deep in conversation, not even acknowledging the rest of the people in the bar. As they approached their table, Alexandra took Tom’s hand and, just as she did the first day that Val saw them in the meeting room, she positioned his hand on the back of a chair. They said their hellos in general to all the people sitting on the table as they sat down across from Valentina.
The evening went on and conversations flew here and there. Since Val was one of the newest recruits in Sutton & Pardini, she was getting attention from many of her coworkers. She had been approached by many of them, who would give her a warm welcome or stay a while to have a small chat.
She made her best effort to be polite. To engage in the conversation. To get to know the people that were kind enough to welcome her. Ben, on his end, was doing somersaults to grasp her attention. But all she could focus on was Tom and Alexandra. Tom had his arm around Alexandra’s shoulders. He would speak close to her ear and she would giggle every time. Granted, the music and people’s chatter made it hard to hear what the next person was saying, which could be the reason for their closeness as they spoke. But still, there was something in their demeanor that suggested that they were more than friends.
When Valentina was Tom’s best friend, they would do the same thing, he would hold her exactly like that. There was a camaraderie between him and Alexandra that was extremely familiar, and it stung.
The undeniable truth was that Valentina was upset. No. Scratch that. She was jealous. Whatever was going on between Tom and Alexandra, she wanted it. That was her place. Tom’s confident. Tom’s best friend. And if she was honest with herself, Tom’s girl.
Few hours had passed and Maria had left already, leaving Val alone with no other than the charming company of Ben. Tom and Alexandra continued their playfulness to the point of causing the threat of tears rolling out of Valentina’s stinging eyes.
“Hey… um… Valentina?” Ben called, trying to get her attention for the millionth time during the evening.
Val peeled her eyes off Tom and turned to look at Ben “Hmm?” She made an effort to smile, but between her jealousy and annoyance with Ben, it was proving to be extremely hard.
Ben seemed oddly nervous, considering he always had this air of self confidence. “Do you think you and I could go out someday?” He asked with his eyebrows scrunched together as if struck by sudden anxiety.
Really! You’re asking me out now? Bad timing buddy.
Ben couldn’t have picked the worst time to ask her out. Val was not in the mood to be polite anymore. Desperate and mildly drunk, Valentina leaped up from her chair. “I need to go to the restroom,” she said, purposely ignoring Ben’s question. She went straight to the restroom, hoping that no one had noticed her little moment of despair out there. She sprinkled water on her face and rubbed it trying to wash her anger away. She looked closely in the mirror and found that all her makeup was gone, except for the smudged mascara under her eyes. She chastised herself.
What the hell is wrong with you? So he has a girlfriend. Good for him! Why are you so angry?
She dabbed her face with a paper towel until it was dry and clean. She then made her way back to the table, with the intention to grab her bag and leave, but found that Alexandra’s chair was empty. That made her change her mind. She walked straight to the chair Alexandra had been sitting on moments before and sat down. Tom visibly stiffened and sat up straighter.
“Hi,” she mumbled.
“Uh… Valentina. Hi.” Tom seemed tense.
“Where is your girl?” she asked casually, as if she didn’t care about the answer to that question.
“She went out to take a call.”
She remained silent for a moment biting her lip as she built the courage to ask what she was dying to know.
She heaved a deep sigh and went on, “Is… um… she your … girlfriend?” It appeared that blunt was the way to go about it.
Tom laid his back on the backrest of his chair. With his lips pursed, he seemed to be thinking hard how to answer that simple question. After what seemed like an eternity, he faced her for the first time in the entire evening and mumbled, “Yeah.”
“Oh! Okay.” She tried to hide her disapointment.
They sat in silence for a while until she decided to ask another question.
“Do you think we can be friends again?”
“Of course.” Tom smiled and seemed genuine, but didn’t say more.
Relief engulfed her for a moment, maybe he wasn’t mad at her after all. But the revelation that he was already in a relationship left her deeply disheartened.
She wondered again why she was feeling this way. Sure, Tom was a great guy, and handsome as hell, but they had drifted apart. And, did she have to remind herself whose fault it was? Who dumped who? Was he supposed to sit around waiting for her forever? She certainly did not wait for him.
After Tom, came Frederick, a fellow petroleum engineering student she had met in a congress in Denver. She had thought that it was only going to be a few days’ fling, yet they kept texting and skyping for six months after that. She even went to visit him in California where he attended college, and he came a couple of times to College Station. They had a lot of fun when they were together, but the distance dampened their relationship. He ended meeting some girl that lived closer to him, and that was it.
Then came beautiful, sexy, Thiago. He was the opposite from Tom and Freddy, who were nice, intelligent guys. Thiago was a flirt to begin with. He wasn’t looking for a serious relationship, and even though Val couldn’t deny that she had fun while it lasted, he wasn’t what she was looking for either. She wanted a real relationship with someone like Tom: smart, funny, caring and sweet.
Shortly after Tom and Valentina’s brief talk, Alexandra returned to the table and Valentina quickly leaped from her seat. “I think I’m gonna go now,” she said, defeat dripping from her voice.
“Bye Valentina,” said Tom, sounding pretty much the same.
Alex just stood there darting her gaze from Tom to Valentina with a puzzled expression.
Valentina walked around the table to fetch her purse. And with a few goodbyes to the remaining people, left the bar.
Tom woke up with one constant thought in his mind.
Why on earth could he not forget about her for just a minute? How effortless had it been for Valentina to pop into his life, and just like that, gain constant residence in his head. It was getting ridiculous. He sat up on his bed and rubbed his face in a foolish attempt to clear his thoughts.
After his daily minute of meditation (that hadn’t cleared anything) he hopped out of bed and quickly tidied it. Tom was a self-proclaimed neat freak, partly because that was part of his personality, but mainly because, if he misplaced something, his apartment would turn into the Bermuda Triangle and swallow said object, rendering it never to be found. Losing stuff in his own home was one of the many things that irked him about his crappy vision.
He walked to his closet and reached out to open the first drawer. He picked up the first t-shirt his hand landed on and pulled it through his head and arms. He opened the second drawer and fumbled a bit with the shorts he kept there, until he felt the raised stripes on the sides of the shorts that had been his favorite for years. Not too tight, not too loose, just perfect for running. If he remembered correctly those stripes were neon yellow over the dark grey fabric that the shorts were made of. The color of the t-shirt he had just put on, would remain a mystery. He had an app on his phone that would tell him the color of anything the camera was pointing at. But right then that didn’t matter to him. It’s wasn’t as if he would be going to any important events that morning. He finished his dressing routine by putting on socks and his running shoes, which were the third pair on his shoe rack, from left to right.
Apart from being only four blocks away from work, which allowed him to walk there every day and avoid the dreaded public transportation, one of the reasons he chose the apartment where he lived, was the well equipped gym that the tenants could use to their liking.
Running had been the best therapy for Tom in the past few years. It helped him calm down when he was nervous, stressed or upset. It was one of the things that had helped him keep his sanity during the period after he lost the little sight he had left, so he tried do it as often as his demanding job allowed him to.
Tom made his way down to the gym and when he opened the door he heard someone rustling inside. “Hello?” he called.
“Hi!” said a female voice.
Tom moved inside the gym holding his cane to the right side where he knew he would find the wooden benches that lined the wall.
“Uh, have we met before?” he asked as he walked towards the treadmill trailing each bench with his cane. He knew most of the people that used the gym, and her voice did not sound familiar.
“I’m pretty sure we haven’t,” said the woman. “I just moved here.”
Tom found bench number three, where he placed his towel and water bottle, and begun to unfold his cane. “Welcome then, I’m Tom,” he said, turning to face her.
“Oh! Thanks. I’m Sandra, nice to meet you.”
“You too.” He placed his cane over the bench next to his towel and water bottle. He turned around and slightly reached out his hand as he paced to the left, searching for the hand grip of the treadmill. An easy find. He stepped on the running belt and set his personal setting on the console, something he did easily since it was set in the treadmill’s memory. A good thing about knowing everyone in the gym was that no one dared to change it.
During all this, Sandra hadn’t moved or said a word. She was probably staring. Oh well.
Shaking the discomfort away, he began to run.
Even though the main reason he went running was to clear his mind, he couldn’t help but wander to the one thing that hadn’t moved from his head in the past week.
The night before, he had agreed with Valentina to be friends again, but he was not going to be able to keep his end of the deal. What could have been the right thing to say? He was never able to say no to her, and it seemed that the trend did not change one bit. He should have told her to let him be; only one week had passed since she made her appearance, and she already had managed to establish herself in his thoughts as if there was nothing more important in the world to obsess over.
The fact that Valentina wanted to get close to him again was wracking his brain. If he was being completely honest with himself, he really wanted to let it happen. But there was a side of him that was scared that if he allowed the relationship to grow, he would fall all over in love again, and in the end, he would end up a pitiful mess.
Another big fat lie was to tell her that Alex was his girlfriend. But desperate situations called for desperate measures. He figured that if she had any interest in him beyond friendship, that would convince her to keep her distance. However, analyzing it objectively now, he could tell that it had been an idiotic measure. They all worked in the same place, and sooner or later, Valentina was going to find out the truth. Besides, Alex had a real boyfriend and Tom could be pretty sure that neither Alex nor her boyfriend, would be thrilled about his little make up story.
Tom had just started working in Sutton & Pardini when he met Alexandra. Given that he knew nothing about petroleum engineering, she was designated to be his technical consultant on a project that Tom was appointed to write the code for.
Tom had liked Alexandra immediately; she had many attributes he found attractive in a woman. She was smart, cute and curvy.
Not long time after meeting her, he asked her out on a date. She later confessed that if he hadn’t asked, then she would have.
Although they had an amazing dynamic, there was no romantic attraction. In the end, it worked best for them to just be friends. And what a great friend Alex became.
She had become the new Valentina. She really cared for Tom and had been there for him in the good and the bad times. Back when Tom lost his remaining sight, Alex was one of the people who helped him pick up the pieces and put them back together. He was grateful to have a friend like her.
All the reminiscing had left him feeling even worse about lying. His only hope was that he wouldn’t get in trouble with Alex for dragging her into something that wasn’t of her concern.
There was one other reason to have lied. And even admitting it to himself made him feel pathetic. He didn’t want Valentina to know that he had been alone for a long time now. That he hadn’t been able to maintain a serious relationship after her. The few dates that he’d had, were always compared to her, and they never measured up.
Almost an hour of running had been great for Tom’s body. After stepping down from the treadmill, he felt renewed, fresh and awake. His mind, on the other hand, was still racing. The exercise did nothing to clear his head enough to figure how to face the Valentina situation.
“Wow! That was awesome! You train a lot, don’t you?” Tom heard Sandra say.
“Not much really, I wish I could come here more often but I don’t have enough time,” he smiled in her direction, proud that she seemed impressed with his athletic skills.
“Well, you sure have endurance, I wouldn’t be able to run fifteen minutes without fainting.”
Tom chuckled and moved to the bench to grab his stuff. He drank the whole bottle of water and dried his face with the towel.
He then reached for his cane, unfurled it, locked it in place, and began walking towards the door. “Nice meeting you Sandra.”
He took a couple of steps and heard her call him, “Tom?”
“Yeah?” He turned to face her.
“Since I’m new here, do you think you could show me around?”
Tom let out a chuckle that denoted the irony of her requests. “I don’t know if I’m the most qualified person for that, but I can try.”
“Well then, if that’s too much trouble, maybe I can show you my apartment. Have you had coffee today?” Sandra asked.
“No, but I don’t think I have time for one. Rain check?” Tom quickly answered.
“Of course, knock on my door when you feel like having a coffee, or a drink…Or whatever. I’m in apartment 6F.”
“I will, thanks. Bye Sandra.”
Tom turned towards the door and made his way out of the gym feeling flattered that Sandra had been flirting with him. She caught him by surprise, that didn’t happen often. But he also felt like a loser for rejecting her offer. He didn’t have anything to do. He was probably going to work all day, as usual, but that could have been postponed. Why did he say no?
The truth, he realized in that instant, was that he didn’t want to date anyone but…
Damn it, Valentina!
Even though he couldn’t make up his mind about how to face his Valentina dilemma, it appeared that his gut had not such quandaries.