It’s not Victor’s decision to make. Keeping Schneider away from the kids. Her kids, who she’s raised. But his words ring in her head for hours after Alex finds Schneider in the laundry room. Because her kid shouldn’t have had to see that. To do that. Make that call. Schneider is family, and she wants to help him, but Alex is blood, her baby. She pushed him out of her body.
“And I pushed him. It…it was just a little shove, Pen. But I still did it. Because I wanted another drink more than I wanted his help.” Schneider confesses that when he’s sweating through the first night. When she’s sitting watch at the foot of his ridiculous waterbed after going through every inch of his apartment looking for contraband.
Anyone else admitting they shoved Alex would be dead before the words were full out of their mouth. Drowned in the damn waterbed. Done. Over. But Schneider is shivering, his skin green from nausea, his dorky glasses askew on the bedside table. Without the lenses as a shield, his eyes look impossibly bright. The pupils a little dilated, the irises a pale, watery, blue. He’s crying. For himself or for Alex, she doesn’t know. And she remembers what he said when he took his chip out of the Alvarez Museum. “You're the only one who's ever trusted me, Pen. All that goes away now.” And how she told him, “It doesn't go away. It's just gonna be hard to get back.”
“A month,” she tells him now, swallowing her anger, digging her fist into his bedsheets. “I need you to be sober a for at least a month before I let you near Elena and Alex again. Do you understand me? Mamí and I will come here whenever you need us…even when you don’t need us. I will take your ass to meetings and sit there beside you. But you will not set foot near my children. Not just until I can trust you, but until you can trust yourself.”
He flinches. His knees come up to almost his chin, like he wants to turtle up in the face of her judgment. But then he nods. “Okay.”
It’s not Victor’s decision. It’s hers. And she knows Elena and Alex will fight it. They’ll argue. They’ll say they can be there for Schneider—that Elena can drive him to meetings. That they don’t want to abandon him. She has all her responses prepared before she even leaves Schneider’s bedroom. The most important one is the easiest: “I love you, but taking care of Schneider is not your job. Your job is to go to school, to live your lives, to let us be the adults.”
Taking care of Schneider isn’t her job either. She’ll do it anyway. For all the times he’s taken care of her.
In the back of her mind, she’s always known his name is actually Pat. Patrick Schneider. It’s on the lease she signed however many years ago—the one she’s never had to look at since, because he’s never raised the rent. Hearing him say his name at AA is stranger than hearing him talk about his slip, about his sobriety.
It’s like hearing a secret. Something intimate. Something that’s never been hers to know.
She tries not to think about it. How she knows so many—too many—things about him but would never feel comfortable calling him “Pat.” She stares at his sponsor instead, because the man is capital F fine.
Elena and Alex are furious with her. They spend the first few days of Schneider’s exile raging against the maternal machine. Then they give her the silent treatment for a while. Into the second week, they start to get distracted by Victor’s upcoming wedding…worrying about what they’re going to wear and what they’re going to say. But she’s still not their favorite person. Especially when she looks through their phones to make sure they haven’t been texting.
“Mom, you said he couldn’t see us. You didn’t say we couldn’t check up on him,” Elena points out.
Of course her little social justice warrior is going to be the one citing semantics. But Penelope knows even better than her what will fly with a Cuban mother. Because she had one, too. “You wanna check on Schneider? You can ask me. Consider me your Twitter update.”
“That is not how Twitter wo—“
A pointed glare is all it takes to cut off the backtalk. In that moment, at least. Because her daughter is a fighter who refuses to give up on people. Even when they let her down. She’s still hurting about Victor. Penelope knows that. And being mad about Schneider, wanting to fix what’s hurting him, is Elena’s way of ignoring all the hope she’s built up inside about her dad.
Penelope gets what that’s like. Building up hopes. About Victor. About Max. About passing her exams. Shoving all of that down to make sure the kids are fed, to not-too-obviously fuss over her mother because last year’s stroke still feels like yesterday. Counting on people, being there for people, it’s a lot. And maybe adding Schneider to her care list is too much. But she can’t not do it. She can’t shut him out. That isn’t how she’s wired. Or how her kids are wired.
So Elena and Alex are still furious with her. She’s still furious with Schneider. But it’s just an example of how they love.
She lifts the ban two days before Victor’s wedding. Because Mamí’s put the final touches on the kids’ tuxes and they look amazing and Schneider deserves to see it. He barely makes it over the threshold of the apartment before his eyes well up. And then her mother is crying and Elena is crying and she’s crying. Alex is pretending he’s not crying, but she catches him wiping surreptitiously at his eyes before he bumps Schneider’s fist.
“Did you both get taller? Is that possible? Or did I just shrink, because I dried out?” It’s a terrible joke, but it addresses the elephant in the room. Penelope gives Schneider massive props for that. For just diving right in.
But that’s the last thing she’s going to give him. The rest is up to him. Every step toward Elena as he tells her she looks beautiful. The way he bends to hug Mamí, who teasingly feels his chest and observes, “You did not shrink. You buffed up. This is good. Women like a big man.” Every move he makes from now on, he has to earn…and keep earning.
“Pen.” He swallows hard, shifts back on his feet. She can’t really remember when he started calling her ‘Pen.’ Or why she didn’t tell him to stop. Maybe because it sounds right coming from him. More right than her calling him ‘Pat.’ That is a work in progress. Like him. Schneider. Taking her hands in his and whispering “thank you.”
He’s said it a lot these past few weeks. Each time with this sincere intensity that both unsettles her and reassures her that he’s committed to staying sober this time. “You don’t have to thank me,” she laughs. “I’m just consolidating my headaches. Now you can all drive me nuts at the same time.”
“Come on, Pen.” His eyes are serious. She wonders why she ever thought his glasses shielded anything. They don’t. They magnify his emotions a thousand times over. “You know it’s more than that. You know how much this means to me.”
Maybe she does. Maybe she knows she’s really consolidating the pieces of her heart. Putting her family back together the way it belongs. But Penelope can’t think too hard about that now. She has a wedding to get through. And then a graduation. And then God knows what else. She has so much to carry. Schneider has his steps. She has hers. Between them, it’s practically a thousand miles.
“Don’t worry about it,” she chuckles lightly, brushing nonexistent fluff from his shirt. “Just help me set the table for dinner.”
He did it. So many steps. So many weeks. All to get to this place.
The cabinet door clicks shut, once again sealing its treasures behind a thin pane of glass. Schneider's two-year chip is tiny, insubstantial, next to Elena's valedictorian medal. A thin aluminum disc just a little bit bigger than a guitar pick. It's still one of the most beautiful things she's ever seen. And his hand sliding into hers, squeezing lightly, is one of the beautiful things she's ever felt.
It’s been weird. Penelope won’t deny that. Weird. Surreal. Falling in love with her best friend. Learning that she can call him “Pat.” Mainly because it got too awkward to say “Schneider” when they were in bed. “Pat” is shorter. Easier to gasp out when he’s rocking her world with sex acts that are probably a no-no in the continental United States and perfectly fine in Canada. She can just see it now: universal healthcare, legal weed, and that thing he does with his tongue.
She can see a lot of things now. With Elena at college. Alex ready to go next. Mamí is still Mamí, of course. Some things in her life aren’t going to change. And she’s actually thankful for that. Consistency is a blessing sometimes. Being able to count on the snap of curtains, on the click of high heels and the smell of ropa vieja wafting through the apartment she spends less and less time at, is like an assurance that the sun is still rising. But the rest…? The rest’s wide open.
“Hey.” Schneider nudges her with his shoulder. “Penny for your thoughts, Penny?”
She groans and elbows him as they walk back into the living room. But she gives him more than a cent. Voices a dollar’s worth of thoughts as they sink to the couch. “Remember when I told you that my trust in you didn’t go away? That it was just going to be hard to get back?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’ve never forgotten that.” He huffs out an embarrassed laugh. The tips of his ears go pink, and so does the skin beneath his beard. He looks adorable when he blushes. Like a hipster cherub. “That day…it kind of changed everything, didn’t it?”
She didn’t realize it at the time. Looking back, though, she can acknowledge they were teetering on the edge of something. A turning point in their lives. Not sure if it was for the better or the worse. Fast-forward to today, and it’s definitely for the better. He’s sober. Fighting every hour to stay that way. She’s settled. In her job, in her life, in her skin. They’re together. Who would’ve even predicted? Not her. Not her mother, who claims to know everything. It’s freaking amazing.
“I don’t just trust you now,” she says softly. “I trust me. I trust us. I trust this.”
And when Schneider kisses her, she trusts that, too.