Tired and stressed, Tom arrived at his silent apartment late from work again. He hung his door keys and cane on the key holder beside the door, and as he walked inside, he pulled out his iPhone from his pocket and asked Siri to play Schubert’s Serenade. When the soft melody started playing in the background, he begun to feel slightly more relaxed. There was one more thing left to do to complete his relaxing routine.
Tom strode to the fridge and opened the door. A flicker of light hit his eyes. He looked down to the light’s origin for a second, then shook his head… Knowing exactly where he’d left the precious drink he had been yearning all day long, he patted inside the fridge a couple of times until he touched one of the cold bottles with that familiar shape he’d been looking for. Twisting off the cap of his beer, he walked the short distance to his small living/dining room, and once his shins made contact with the couch, he let himself collapse over it. He took a big gulp of beer and sighed.
Apparently, this was going to be his schedule from now on. Home late every day. There was so much work to do at the office, and so little time. On top of that, he would have to supervise the testing that Valentina would be working on. He felt very tempted to give that job to one of the guys from his team; it would be one less thing for him to do, and it would help him avoid her.
God knows how much effort it took to get over Valentina. To this day, she still managed to wiggle into his head sporadically, when little things reminded him of her. A little over three years ago, when Tom was offered a job at Sutton & Pardini, in spite of not having any other offers, he still thought twice before accepting it, just because he thought that working in the oil industry would remind him of Valentina. Little did he know that she would end up working there as well. And to make matters worse, he was assigned to work directly with her. Of all the departments they could have sent her, she ended in his. What were the odds?
He had to hand it to Valentina, she used to care about him, she had made many attempts to stay in touch with him. He had felt like an asshole for treating her with such coldness those last times they spoke. He had been angry and disappointed, and more than anything, sad. She was offering friendship, but he had tried friendship for a long time believing that that would have been better than losing her completely. How wrong had he been, his attempt at friendship only ended in heartbreak.
Having seen her that day, figuratively that is, made old feelings stir inside him. Initially he was shocked to hear her voice. He wasn’t sure it was her when she first spoke, but the doubt quickly evaporated when she said her name. At that moment, he felt excited to be in her presence. It was Valentina! The beautiful girl that used to be his best friend. The girl that was so perfect for him in every way. They used to have so much fun together. He had loved her like he hadn’t been able to love anyone else. But now, sprawled on his couch looking at the nothingness that had been his companion for the last two years, all he felt was dread. He realized what it meant to have her around; it risked opening a door that had been shut for good a long time ago.
It all came rushing back, threatening to disrupt his life. A life that was far from perfect, but had been stable enough for him to actually enjoy it. The dark memories were back. Months of heartache. Months of regret over not fighting harder, convinced that if he allowed himself to get close to her, he would forever be in love with someone that didn’t love him the same way.
He felt like crying. He wanted to see again. He wanted to see her. To see the blurred blob she used to be, not a shapeless shadow floating around in the darkness. That feeling of despair over not being able to see, had been gone for a long time, at least it hadn’t been as strong as now, when the weight of the unyielding darkness was beginning to get unbearable. And what had triggered it?
It was around two years ago, when Tom suddenly noticed that a big portion of his sight was gone. Although, he had endured slowly losing his sight since he was a kid, and was used to those small changes in his vision that occurred regularly, this time it had been more drastic and it scared him to death.
To say he freaked out was and understatement. He dropped everything he had planned for the day, and went to have his eyes checked. The test results were shocking; he had lost a huge portion of vision in his left eye. The toughest part however, was that in the few short months after, his other eye had followed, leaving him only with what the doctors called “light perception.” Not that it had been useful for much in the past two years.
Tom had such a laid-back personality, that it had always been easy for him to bounce back when life threw him a curveball. Whatever had bothered him, was quickly left a thing of the past. Life would just go on. His reaction to losing his sight almost completely, however, had been extremely different than he had expected. He had thought that he was going to accept it and move on as usual. That wasn’t the case. He couldn’t have predicted how harder life would be without that little portion of vision he had been living with most of his life. When he realized that he was fucking blind for life and that it was so fucking hard, he fell in a deep depression like no other throughout his life.
He stopped going to work altogether and retreated to wallow among the walls of his apartment. He would barely eat, which caused him to lose a fair amount of weight. He didn’t know if it was the lack of light or his gloomy state of mind that turned his sleeping patterns into a mess, he would sleep intermittently and for long periods during the day.
Noticing the critical state Tom was in, his brother Brian, took some time off work and went to live with Tom for a while to help him get his life back on track.
Tom had lost so much weight in so little time that he was practically skin and bones. Brian would take Tom to the grocery store to buy healthy food, then he would include him in the preparation process, and finally, he would force him to eat the food they had just prepared. Brian would limit Tom’s sleeping hours exclusively to the night and fill his days with enough activities to keep him occupied. The brothers would also go running every day at a small park that was close to Tom’s apartment. Running was a habit they both used to enjoy together when they were teenagers and lived together at their parents’ house. The main difference now was the short rope both brothers would hold that served as a link between Tom and Brian, who was his guide. In less than a month, Tom’s sleeping patterns and weight were close to normal.
The next problem to tackle was getting Tom back to work. Brian convinced Tom and his boss to allow him to work from home until he was ready to go back to the office. That helped Tom keep his mind off his precarious situation and focus on the work he loved to do. It also helped maintain a relationship with his employers so, hopefully, he wouldn’t lose his job due to his absence.
Many years before, prior to leaving for college, Tom had taken occupational therapy training, but since he had relied on his residual vision too much for too long, he took some refreshing training in the Lighthouse of Houston. Those lessons helped him adapt his daily activities to his new situation. From then on, Tom felt more confident that he could lead a productive and independent life.
When Tom felt ready to go back to work at the office, his employers and coworkers were understanding and accommodating. If his absence caused some damage to his reputation, they didn’t let on. If there was something Tom was excellent at, was his work. He went back there and worked his ass off to make up for the wasted time. And it payed off. He had proven his value to the point where he recently was promoted to reservoir and production development leader after working only for three and a half years at Sutton & Pardini.
He would forever be grateful for all the effort and time Brian invested in his rehabilitation. There was no way he could have done without his nagging and supportive brother. Thanks to Brian, and to his own will, Tom was able to carve a way out of his pity party and move on with his life. He wasn’t the same person he had been before, though. His blindness had forced him into a more calm, focused and organized person. He was still the laid-back, friendly and outgoing guy he used to be, but meeting new people when he couldn’t see them or approach them with a simple glance was hard. Spontaneity and adventure were also a thing of the past. If he needed to venture into a place that was unfamiliar to him, he would prefer to do it with one of his close friends who knew how to guide him properly. If he was to do it alone, every little detail of the route had to be planned ahead, and to go through so much trouble and still get lost, just left him drained and regretful. Even walking to work, a route he knew by heart, given that he lived close enough to his office to walk there every day, could become a struggle if the scenery changed.
All these frustrations had piled up on his soul and had left a dent on his personality. He wasn’t an angry man by any means, but there was an underlying bitterness that he sure as hell despised that hadn’t been there before, and he just couldn’t get rid of it.
If life got too crappy, he would face the possibility of falling back into depression, but he had worked too damn hard to accomplish some sort of happiness to let it take over. His goal was to eventually own his disability, to recognize it as just a part of himself instead of a hindrance, and he was well on his way into fulfilling that.
Those moments when he stumbled with depression were scarcer as time went on; he had been feeling good with himself lately. The memories that were awakened by Valentina coming back to his life were not going to be a setback. He just couldn’t let that happen.
Valentina’s third morning at work in Sutton & Pardini was spent sitting on her desk, making a huge attempt at reviewing the software tutorials that Astrid had recommended. She hadn’t been able to get pass the first page, her brain was too busy thinking that Tom was so close.
She couldn’t quite determine if the reason was shame or excitement, but she was starting to feel overwhelmed knowing that she would eventually have to see Tom. She would only have to ask anyone where to find him and she would be able to see him. It felt so strange that after spending so many years not knowing of his whereabouts, he was now in the same building as her. She could see him, just like that!
It wasn’t until lunch time, after she spent the whole morning wracking her brain about it, that she made the resolution to pay Tom a visit in the afternoon and swiftly remove the band-aid; she would say hello properly, and see from there how thing worked out. But right now, she needed to eat, her stomach was rumbling and that miraculously took her mind off Tom and forced her to focus on food.
Otto, Maria and Valentina went to grab a lunch at the building’s food court. The three of them holding trays with their lunches, spotted a table where one of the developers that was in the meeting the day before, was sitting next to a very good looking young man she hadn’t met before. As they made their way to their coworker’s table, handsome man saw them approaching and instantly locked his eyes with Valentina’s while his grin grew exponentially into a gorgeous white toothy smile.
“Hello there,” handsome man said, not taking his eyes off Valentina.
As the three of them sat down, Valentina replied to the overly excited greeting, obviously directed at her, and then said hello to the developer, whose name she could not remember.
“I’m Ben,” handsome man extended his hand to introduce himself.
“Valentina,” was her sole reply as she shook his hand.
“So you’re the new intern? Had I known you were so pretty, I would have gone to the meeting yesterday.”
Whoa! That was direct!
Otto smirked shaking his head in amusement. Maria rolled her eyes. Valentina just smiled shyly, and then darted her eyes around to look at anything but Ben.
Thankfully, changing the subject and interrupting the awkward silence, Maria asked, “How have you liked it here so far, Valentina?”
Feeling relieved that the conversation took another direction, Valentina hurriedly answered, “Great, everyone is so nice.” She nodded grinning. “It seems like a great place to work. I love that there are so many people from all around the world. I think I can learn a lot here.”
“Yeah, we look like a Benetton ad, don’t we?” said Ben. “There are people from India, Russia,” he gestured at the Indian developer and then at Maria.
Maria rolled her eyes again. “I’m from Kazakhstan.”
“You just proved my point. Bet you didn’t even know that country exists. Huh, Valentina?” Ben looked pleased with his own “witty” retort and Val just stared at him waiting for the next thing that came out of his mouth. “Yeah, this place is diverse all right, we even have a blind dude,” he added, shrugging in disbelief, as if having a blind coworker was the strangest thing in the world.
Valentina cringed internally, this guy was proving to be an asshole.
“I bet that he got that promotion because he can’t deliver like everyone else. It’s against the law too fire disabled people, you know? Now he just has to order everyone around while the rest of us do the hard work,” Ben continued.
Oh.My.God, he did not just say that!
Valentina usually kept to herself when she heard idiotic comments like Ben’s, but she wouldn’t allow him to talk about Tom that way. Instead of biting his head off, which was what she really wanted to do, she looked at him sternly without a shadow of the shy girl she had been minutes before, and calmly said, “I happen to know Tom from school. He used to tutor me and he is in fact, one of the smartest people I know. I can’t believe you just said that!”
Ben was looking at her seeming shocked, probably a bit embarrassed, when the Indian developer, who was clearly embarrassed, mumbled, “Yeah man, Tom’s okay, don’t talk about shit you don’t know.”
Val glowered at Ben for a moment and then kept eating in silence for a few minutes until, just as if nothing had happened, Ben started blabbering again about his car, and then his workout routine, and who knew what else, Val lost interest very quickly.
While he talked nonstop, as if he was the only one sitting at the table, he would often glance at Valentina and flash her a flirtatious smile.
Like you have a chance. Idiot!
Tom and Dar had stayed at the office during lunch time to work on a presentation due the next day. Tom was reliant on Dar to help him design and edit his presentations, given that Tom was basically useless in that department. He had worked so hard to master his computer skills without sight, that the fact that he couldn’t do something as simple as a presentation design without help, irked him to no end. But the presentations had to be made, and Dar was the most accountable of all the people that worked in Tom’s team, not to mention one of his closest friends.
Dar already had too much work as it was, it wouldn’t be fair to throw him the “Valentina assignment,” as he had named the dreadful task of reviewing Valentina’s work. He should rather give it to Ben or Shripad who were less experienced but had a lesser load of work.
As if on cue, Ben and Shripad walked inside the room where all the developers had their cubicles and equipment, and where Tom had been working with Dar the whole day.
“I think she digs me, man,” claimed Ben.
“I think you’re delusional, she almost ate you alive!” retorted Shripad with a chuckle.
“Yeah but that’s how love starts. I like ’em feisty.”
They walked to their cubicles, and as Ben sat down in his, which was next to Dar’s, he asked, “Have you met the new girl?”
Tom’s ears perked, Ben was obviously talking about Valentina, she was the only new girl in the company at the moment. He didn’t answer Ben’s question because he couldn’t know if it was addressed to him, which was unlikely anyway; Ben was relatively new in the office, and disregarding the fact that Tom was his boss, he still had that common attitude of addressing Tom solely when absolutely necessary.
Ah, one of the many blindness perks.
Tom had learned to live with the many irritating aspects of his blindness; in addition to the initial awkwardness people felt around him, not being able to make eye contact made communicating with others sometimes challenging. Tom had his ways of making himself noticed and putting people at ease. If his methods didn’t work, he just moved on, not wasting time on people that wouldn’t make an effort. The problem with Ben was that Tom was his superior and their strained relationship was making things hard at work. He had tried to approach Ben in a friendly way many times without much progress.
“Uh-huh,” answered Dar, seeming uninterested.
“She’s hot, isn’t she?” said Ben.
“Damn right she is,” said Tom smirking. Even though he really meant it, since to him Valentina was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen, to the guys it was meant as a joke. He made blind jokes all the time with his friends and he knew that they would get it. It was also a way to help Ben loosen up a little around him, hoping he’d realize that he was just one of guys.
The joke worked on Dar and Shripad as expected; they laughed. Ben, however, didn’t seem to find it funny, instead he said in what sounded like a mocking and somewhat defying tone, “How would you know?”
“Hey man, don’t be like that,” said Dar, obviously uncomfortable with Ben’s attitude.
“I mean, how could he know,” Ben said, clearly talking to Dar. “You’re like… you can’t see, you don’t know what she looks like.” Even though his tone still had that air of defiance, it showed some sort of curiosity. It was actually the first time he addressed Tom’s blindness directly.
Tom wanted to tell him to go screw himself, but they were at their work place, and he was the boss, he had to be the bigger man. He settled for what he did best, brushing off rude and stupid comments. “If you didn’t notice, that was meant as a joke. You can lighten up a little, you know Ben?” Tom answered, managing to seem unfazed by Ben’s words. But deep down he was starting to feel a little upset; he missed being able to appreciate a woman’s beauty, and now that Valentina was there, he missed it even more. What wouldn’t he give just to see her again. But he wasn’t going to let something that Ben said get to him. He continued with what sounded a bit childish, in an attempt to make Ben jealous, “If you must know, I know her from college. When I could see. I know she’s attractive. Actually, we dated for a while. ” As if the almost-one-day they dated could be called “a while,” but Ben didn’t know that, he was evidently attracted to Valentina and at least Tom had almost-one-day of dating Valentina as an advantage over Ben.
“So you used to date. Not anymore, I guess.”
“No, not anymore,” was all Tom answered, feeling Ben’s tone getting to him again.
“That’s all I needed to know,” Ben said, in a smug tone.
Tom was feeling the anger clenching his gut. Every day he despised this guy more. The thought of him even talking to Valentina made his blood boil. Before he could come up with something appropriate to answer, and by “appropriate” a bad-ass answer and not a punch in the face (it was unlikely he would aim correctly anyway), someone knocked on the door.
“Oh! You’re busy. I can come another time,” Tom heard Valentina say.
Again, Tom was lost. Who was she talking to? She could be looking for Ben. Hadn’t he said that she “dug him?”
Noticing Tom’s confusion, Dar prodded him with his elbow, “She’s talking to you, dude,” he whispered.
“Oh! Hi Valentina. I can take a break, what’s up?” said Tom, turning his head from the computer to the door, his anger residing a little. Because he could see her shadow, thanks to the light that came from the hallway, and could tell where her voice was coming from, he could pinpoint her standing there.
For a moment, he felt relieved that Valentina was looking for him and not Ben. The previous discussion had been humiliating enough. But then it hit him, she was there to see him. What the hell did she want? Just the night before he had decided to delegate the “Valentina assignment” to one of the guys from his team only to avoid her, (which was definitely going to Shripad after that short but heated discussion with Ben) and now she was there, looking for him, without prior warning.
He nervously made his way towards her, trailing each cubicle with his hand. He had worked there for years and knew the layout perfectly, and the guys (even Ben) had learned not to let chairs out of place or things lying around, so he hardly ever used his cane in that office.
“We can go to my office. Over here,” Tom offered, in case she wanted to talk about something private. He walked out of the communal office and right into the small one a few steps away.
Valentina followed behind but remained at the door.
“Please come in Valentina, it’s not a dungeon, these are just my humble chambers,” he said smiling. “Sit down please.” He patted the back of the chair in front of his desk and walked around it to sit on his own.
Tom heard her soft footsteps as she walked into his office and then the squeak of the chair when she sat down. Every sound made his heart jump.
Sitting there expecting her to speak, he waited silently. It seemed like the first time they had gotten together to study; she would barely speak. How come he could remember little details like those from so many years ago? The truth was, he could remember anything about Valentina. Her beautiful face and body were embedded in his memory as if it had been a day and not four years since he last saw her; he could remember those roundish pale cheeks, her beautiful green eyes, her sexy lips, that nice little waist and her plump butt…
Oh god, I should better not go there…
It was painful to know that she was there, sitting right in front of him and not be able to picture her now. How much had she changed? He would forever remember her like that eighteen-year-old college student he so easily fell in love with. Or maybe not, maybe he’d forget her like he had forgotten what so many things and people looked like. Or perhaps, he’d forgotten her already and that memory of her was all wrong. That led him to wonder if she had noticed that he was almost completely blind. The last time they had seen each other, he could still see her blurry shape. But now she was only a shadow, a mute shadow, since she hadn’t said a word yet… He forced himself to stop his depressing musing, it would only make an already bad day, even worse.
“Uh, Valentina, you still there?”
“Oh, um, yes.”
“So, what do I owe this pleasant visit?” Tom put on a smile, trying to disguise his bad mood.
“Your office is nice,” she said nervously.
“Thanks, you’re welcome here anytime.” Tom continued with the pleasantries.
Again, he waited for her to speak, this time, not for long.
“I just wanted to say hi properly, we didn’t have the chance to talk yesterday and I felt like I owed you a visit.”
“Yeah. I’m glad you came. Now we can catch up.” After a short pause, he asked still feeling awkward, “So, what have you been up to?”
“Well, I’m almost finished with school. And, I just started an internship in this really cool place where really cool people work,” she said giggling. “Seriously, I love it here.”
“I’m glad, but where are those cool people? I haven’t seen any,” he said relaxing a little.
“I’m looking at one right now,” Valentina answered, turning serious.
Tom felt heat rush to his cheeks.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. As far as I can tell, it’s only you and me in here,” he teased, trying to make her believe that he had not taken what she’d just said too seriously.
“That’s right! I’m just looking in a mirror,” she chuckled.
That laugh. The teasing. This was the Valentina that he had loved. He had missed her so much. Tom was starting to feel that all too familiar tingling he used to feel every time he was around Valentina, and he knew for sure that that was not good. At all.
“Uh, Valentina, I have to get back to work. I’m working with Dar on an important presentation due tomorrow. I shouldn’t keep him waiting. I’m sorry,” Tom said standing up, resolved to end the conversation before it went further.
“Don’t worry about it,” she stood up as well, “Maybe we can catch up another day, when you’re not so busy?”
“Sure!” he said in an tone of excitement, but feeling the opposite. “I’d like that.”