It's a Monday morning when Penelope sees her mami running two pots on the stove - one filled with ropa vieja and the other with sopa de pollo. Penelope looks at Lydia with alarm.
"No te preocupes," Lydia answers. Don't worry. "Alex and Elena are fine. The soup is for Schneider."
"Frosted hair, bobo Schneider? Since when does he get special soup?"
"Don't be so mean, Lupita. El pobre is stuck in rehab in El Segundo. But not to worry, there is nothing sopa de pollo cannot cure."
Lydia moves around her, goes straight for the cabinet where they've shoved in all their tupperware.
"Mami estas loca? Are you crazy, El Segundo's an hour away and you don't drive."
"I know. I am going to take the bus."
Penelope groans, frustrated. It's not that she wants to be mean about the whole thing - she's a nurse, she's seen firsthand how much withdrawal sucks and Schneider, while he's still learning on the job, has always responded to their requests for repairs in record time, often sticking around to chat with Lydia (much to Victor's distaste, who finds his presence annoyingly intrusive).
It's that now, when she goes to work, she'll be worrying about her mom all day. She's still relatively new at Dr. Berkowitz's office, she doubts he's just going to let her go early if Lydia takes the wrong bus and ends up in Beverly Hills. Plus, if that happens, there'll be no one to walk Elena and Alex home from school.
"Doesn't he have, I don't know, a sponsor or a cousin, or maybe a butler, that could go be with him?" She hates herself as soon as the words spill out of her mouth. She'd never consider herself cold hearted but the question certainly is. Lydia seems to agree, if the epic glare she trains on Penelope is any indication.
"Lupita, some people aren't lucky like us. He doesn't have anyone."
Sufficiently chastened, Penelope lets the matter drop. Though she does insist on reviewing her mami's intended bus route with her before she leaves.
When Penelope returns home that night, she asks about Schneider after the kids have gone to bed. She's trying not to think about the fact that Victor has yet to come home and that, more likely than not, he'll stumble in around midnight, drunk or high or both.
Lydia makes them a cup of tea and they stand around the counter while she explains that the rehab center is horrible, hell on earth, and that the Pope really should do something about it. Penelope wonders how much power exactly her mom seems to think the Pope has but lets the comment go. Lydia's too fired up to stop anyways, and Penelope's expression softens because this is how her mami shows her anxiety - through indignation. But Lydia's wrath doesn't stop at what she considers to be poor facilities - she goes on to rail against Schneider's parents; she doesn't understand how his family will let him suffer alone.
"Oh he is miserable Lupita. They wanted to restrain him," and here Penelope has to tell her to take a deep breath, she's getting older and can't get worked up like this. Lydia listens without protest, and if that isn't a sign of how distressed she is then Victor's not home because he's out stopping crime around LA like a Latino Batman.
"He wanted to pay me," Lydia admits, "he thinks people only care when they get something in return."
Desperate to lighten the mood, Penelope blurts out, "And you didn't take it? Wow mami, you really do like him."
Lydia smacks her on the arm. "He cried Lupita. And you know what I usually say about men crying but I think he really needed it."
"What'd you say to him?" Penelope asks, because she doesn't think it'd be particularly hard to make Schneider cry and she's curious.
"I told him to eat the soup, to get some sleep, and that tomorrow, he tries again."
Penelope smiles at that, and no she's not tearing up, she just gets how those words can be comforting, and the next thing she knows she's wrapped up in a big hug and she thinks she understands what her mom meant that morning; Penelope really is lucky.
It's a Monday night and Penelope waits outside Schneider's door, struggling. Not just with her guilt over not recognizing he relapsed a month ago, when his father visited. Not just her anger that she's gone to him with every dark thought inside her head and he didn't do the same (she's a nurse and she knows how addiction twists someone up and that he was afraid but that's not quite computing with the furious dragon inside her chest right now). Not just her terror that maybe he doesn't come back from this one because he's older than he was last time and he must be exhausted by this point.
It's not just any of those things, it's also the decision she's made about what comes next and how she's about to tell him that, until he can be sober for a full month, she won't allow him to see Elena or Alex. She's already had a fight about it with the kids and her mami earlier that evening - all of them voicing some variation of how that's not what the Alvarez family does. She knew she wouldn't convince them to see her point of view through force so she went for honesty. She'd learned that Elena and Alex were ready for adult realities and she told them about the kind of man their papi used to be.
He wasn't always that way, she reminded them, and he's not like that anymore, she had added. But back then, perhaps too early for even Elena to remember, back when he'd really lost the war with the alcohol and pills, he had genuinely scared her to the point that she'd feared for her safety. They'd both been yelling but Victor had outdone her, had come at her, eyes wild and cold and unrecognizable and he'd raised his fist and had punched a hole in the wall, right next to her head and the whole time she'd thought he was about to hit her and she hadn't even been able to move. She hadn't realized she'd been shaking until her mami, Elena, and Alex had each settled a hand on her arm and shoulder. They'd told her that they couldn't picture Schneider doing anything close to that but that they understood and accepted her anxiety, her fear.
"Okay, Lupita. We try it your way."
"We can still text him right? JV baseball tryouts are coming up and I need help."
"And he always sends me an SAT prep question in the morning. I can't not practice for my SATs."
Now though, even with their support, she feels like turning around. Almost settles on coming back tomorrow when she's feeling less raw and more put together, but then she hears the unmistakable sound of someone retching and that makes up her mind for her.
Penelope goes back down to her apartment and returns with a key to Schneider's. She lets herself in - a cartoon is playing on his TV, providing the only light in the apartment. If she weren't on a mission, she'd find the place eerie (she's never seen it this shrouded in darkness), but as it is she moves on.
It feels weird to enter Schneider's bedroom. In all the years they've known each other, she's never been inside it. (Of course you wouldn't have, you're just friends, a voice inside her head hisses). She was expecting it to be more lavish - maybe some fur rugs, a poster bed, a sitting area complete with a plush leather couch by a fireplace. Yes the bed is a California King, but it's flanked by two simple, unfinished nightstands. The sheets and comforter look expensive but they're the only things in the room that do. She wonders how much time Schneider actually spends in his bedroom, and then how much he really sleeps, and boom, that's another worry to add to her list where he's concerned.
Penelope stops at the door to the master bathroom, her anxiety trumped by the need to help (to help him), and knocks on the door.
For a few seconds, there's no answer, and then, in a voice that sounds like he's been gargling rocks, he answers with his own question,
Penelope takes that as her cue to enter, stopping at the sight of Schneider kneeling in front of the toilet, looking more miserable than she's ever seen him. She takes a steadying breath and jumps into action - this is something she know how to deal with.
"Have you kept anything down?"
Schneider shakes his head and that is the absolute wrong move because it sends him back to vomiting bile and spit, his stomach having been emptied hours ago. Penelope crouches beside him, doesn't hesitate to place a hand on his back, over his sweat-damp shirt. Her other hand goes to his forehead, where she protects it from connecting with the seat as he heaves.
"Eres un bobo. You could have called me earlier."
Schneider actually chuckles.
"You haven't called me a bobo in a while."
"Gotta keep you on your toes."
Schneider reaches up to flush but he doesn't have his glasses on so Penelope does it for him. She helps him get to his feet, guides him to the sink.
"Did you have a growth spurt or have you always been this tall?"
"Can we not use words like 'spurt' right now please?"
Penelope makes a face, watches as he brushes his teeth. When he's done, she helps him out of the bathroom, setting him down on the bed.
"Where do you keep your shirts?"
"Left side, top drawer."
Penelope goes to the dresser and picks out a new shirt. When she turns around, he's already stripped off his sweat-soaked one and is shivering. Penelope gives him a once over before she hands him the fresh shirt.
"You should be glad mami can't see you right now. She'd force feed you an entire food truck."
Schneider smiles. "At least I'm ready for swimsuit season."
Penelope looks at the sharp contrasts along his clavicle, the way his hipbones jut out of his boxers. Shakes her head.
"Not the point. Have you been eating? I mean besides when you come over."
She tries to temper her tone so it doesn't come off as accusatory, doesn't really know if she succeeds.
Schneider shrugs, puts the shirt on, avoids her eyes, "The thing about drinking is, you're usually too gone to notice when you're hungry. And when you do, you just think you're thirsty."
Something snaps inside her chest and Penelope sits next to him so they're shoulder to shoulder, thighs touching.
She notices that he's scratching his arm, right at the crook of his elbow, and something inside her breaks further. She's seen this before, with him, so many years ago she'd forgotten until now.
"You relapsed on just alcohol right?"
Schneider realizes what he's doing because he puts his hands in his lap.
Penelope gives him her most unimpressed look, trying desperately not to betray how fast her heart is beating.
Schneider sighs, looks her in the eyes and she can tell how hard that is for him in that moment because he starts to fidget with his hands.
"I thought about it. I still remember my old dealer's number from memory."
He laughs then, and it's so hollow and empty and not at all like him that Penelope wants to let him off the hook, tell him she's heard enough. But she's tougher than that by miles, and she thinks he is too, so she keeps her mouth shut.
"Luckily, the alcohol hit me hard enough, fast enough."
Penelope takes one of his hands, and the two just sit there in silence while she gears up for what she needs to say now that she's exhausted her questions.
"I actually came by because there's something I need to talk to you about."
Schneider nods, turns to face her without letting go of her hand.
"You don't want me around Elena and Alex."
The utter relief at being spared having to say it has her squeezing his hand. And yeah she hates herself for feeling that way, and she hates him a little bit too, because he's always doing this, always falling on the sword without being asked, like that's the only way he thinks people will want him around.
"Not indefinitely. Just until you get your 30 day chip."
He pulls away from her then, and the action is so foreign when he always leans into her touch that she stares for a moment in dumbfounded surprise.
"There's something I need to tell you too. Something I did."
Penelope thinks she knows where this is going and she nods at him to continue.
Schneider swallows thickly, visibly distressed as he confesses, "Yesterday, when Alex found me in the laundry room? I...I pushed him. Yelled."
Penelope already knows this. It doesn't stop the fire inside her from simmering anew, even though she's come to a tentative truce with the knowledge of it.
"I've spent so much of my life trying to avoid becoming my father, Pen. And I failed," his voice breaks, breath coming out in a rush, "And I laid a hand on your son, and I raised my voice, and I can't ever take that back."
Penelope blinks back tears, struggles with what to say next because how the hell is she supposed to react to that? She wants to be angry. God knows she wants to be furious and yell. But there's a part of her that recognizes Schneider doesn't need that, doesn't really deserve it, not in the face of everything else he's done that is good. She knows the scales don't really work that way - Schneider's a grown man and her papito is still, despite his best efforts, just a kid. But, and she's just starting to realize this with a mixture of emotions she can't bring herself to examine right now, somewhere along the way, Schneider snuck into her family, snuck past her armor and nestled in her weak spots.
He starts to scratch at his arm again, the withdrawal and emotional stress hitting him hard. And in that moment Penelope finds that she can't be mad like she wants to be (it'll come out later, much later as they try to mend their bridges). For now, she takes his hand again and interlaces their fingers, telling herself that she only wants him to keep still.
"Do you remember that time a Budweiser truck turned too fast and ended up tipped over, cutting off the 101? And how that mystery flu was going around and papito was sick and mami was alone and you had come down to fix the sink?"
Schneider follows her hyperverbal pile-up like he always does and nods, the first real smile she's seen from him in a while taking over his face.
"Course I do. It was a Tuesday. First time you hugged me."
And okay, he doesn't have to say it like that, stupid bobo, and Penelope needs to take a breath to regather her thoughts.
"Do you remember what you did that afternoon? How you took care of Alex?"
A flush comes over Schneider's face and Penelope gawks because Schneider, liberal, open-minded Schneider (her mami would say 'sinverguenza') is never embarrassed and she's never seen him blush before.
She doesn't know how to process that so she squeezes his hand instead and forges on.
"Those are the kinds of things Alex will remember. I'm not saying he won't remember that moment in the laundry room too. But all those other times you've been there for him? They'll outnumber that one mistake."
He shouldn't look like she's just put a stay on his execution but he does, and dammit, she's done enough crying for the rest of the month already.
Schneider picks up on that, because of course he gets it, and when did he get to know her this well? He lets go of her hand, rubs his beard, and cracks a sad attempt at a joke.
"So, no waterboarding?"
Elena would kill them both for tying any type of humor to that topic but she's not there so Penelope chuckles, feeling lighter than when she came in.
"No. I think your body is trying to drown you enough."
"Tell me about it. Even the inside of my nose burns from the puke."
It's well into Monday afternoon when the sharp pangs at Penelope's right side start. At first, she attributes them to the lingering effects of stress; with Victor's wedding and her board exams only two weeks behind her, maybe this is her body's way of voicing its unhappiness with the gallons of coffee she consumed (later, she'll realize how dumb this idea sounded).
When the pangs don't really go away by the time she's home, she foregoes dinner and chews a few Tums. Lydia tucks a fresh bottle of Vick's Vaporub in her hand and tells her to rub it on her belly.
When night hits and the pangs get a little sharper and meaner, she decides to go to bed early. There's something oddly familiar about the whole situation but she shoves it aside (there's a reason medical professionals make the worst patients).
Penelope makes it through two hours of restless sleep before the pain pulls her out of bed, a level or two beyond what she can ignore. She stumbles out of her room, tries to make her way to the kitchen as quietly as possible. But either Lydia has suddenly become a light sleeper or she's stayed awake out of concern for her, because within seconds she's standing next to her, hand against Penelope's forehead.
"Lupita, you are really warm."
"I know mami," Penelope admits, and she can't believe she actually says the words, "I don't feel so good."
Lydia's brow furrows with concern. Penelope tries to smile, feeling guilty over worrying her mom, but of course, its at that moment that whatever is wrong in her midsection decides to rear its ugly head. It feels like a contraction but entirely in the wrong place. For a moment the world tilts and noises blur together. She feels something cool against her butt and it takes her a few seconds to realize that she's sitting on the floor of the kitchen. Her mami is nowhere to be seen.
Penelope frowns at that but then there's the slight creak of the door opening, and Lydia is back in the kitchen, followed closely by Schneider. He's not wearing his robe and he's barefoot; he must have come down in a hurry.
Lydia caresses her face. "I couldn't get you back up Lupita. Por eso te deje." That's why she left; to go get help.
Schneider crouches so he's in front of Penelope, places his hand on her forehead. The ring he always wears on his middle finger feels blessedly cool against her heated skin.
"You're really hot Pen."
Penelope can't not smirk at that. Maybe the pain is making her loopy.
Schneider looks really worried and Penelope wants to tell him it's not that big of a deal.
He scoffs - she must've said it out loud - "You're burning up and you're sitting on the kitchen floor. I think we need to call an ambulance."
"I don't need an ambulance," She states, defiant, "But I do think I might need to get my appendix removed."
And yeah she's had that answer tucked away in her brain for a little bit but no one needs to know that.
Schneider takes out his phone. "Alright I'm calling an ambulance."
Penelope smacks it out of his hand. He gasps, way too dramatic for her to take him seriously.
"No ambulance. I had to call my insurance three times to get them to pay my last claim and that was for an annual check-up."
Schneider gives her an epic bitchface and then he turns to look at Lydia, like he's imploring her to talk some sense into her daughter.
"Ay, don't look at me, es terca como una mula." Stubborn as a mule. Penelope nods proudly. Schneider looks like he's ready to rip his beard off.
"Okay fine, I'll just drive you to the hospital."
Penelope can't really remember if she protests that or not. All she knows is that Schneider is suddenly right at her side, close enough that she can smell the signature bergamot and hibiscus of his body wash.
"Earth to Pen," he says, and she can feel the vibrations of his voice in his chest, since it's apparently pressed to her back.
"Pen? You're really starting to freak me out."
"What were you saying?"
"I was saying that we need to get you up from this floor. Preferably before Lydia finishes waking Elena and Alex."
And that's enough to fully return her to the land of total awareness.
"She's doing what?"
To his credit, Schneider doesn't even flinch.
"You know it'd be worse if they woke up and no one was home. Plus, they'd kill me if they found out you were in the hospital and I didn't say anything."
Penelope pulls away from him and tries to stand up herself but yeah, there's something in her middle trying to burn her from the inside out, so she doesn't get very far.
Schneider steadies her, presses himself against her side so she has something solid to lean on as she slowly gets to her feet. And she regrets doing that only seconds later when something rises up in her throat and she starts to puke.
Schneider pivots her expertly, guiding her to the sink. He pulls her hair back, runs the water, rubs his broad hand down her back as she vomits up everything she'd eaten that day.
Near the end, when she's only spitting up bile, she can hear her mami talking to Elena and Alex in the living room, their voices completely alert and awake with concern. They've no doubt heard her puking up her guts.
Schneider's blue eyes swim in front of her. He holds up a wet dish towel, "May I?"
Penelope nods, far too miserable for embarrassment, and Schneider gently wipes her mouth and chin. He turns briefly to ask Elena to grab the mouthwash. Penelope doesn't want Elena to see her or the mess she's made and Schneider picks up on it without her saying a word. He steps around the sick on the kitchen floor and intercepts Elena at the doorway, taking the Listerine bottle from her and sending her back to the living room.
Penelope notices that she has a death grip on the counter only when Schneider places a hand on top of hers, "Something tells me you'll waterboard me later if I try to pour this into your mouth."
She smiles a little at that, taking the Listerine cap herself and rinsing out the taste of vomit.
When she and Schneider emerge from the kitchen, it's to the frightened eyes of Elena and Alex. Lydia appears only moments later with a pair of jeans and sweatpants. She throws the jeans on the couch upon Penelope's glare, "Fine Lupita, since you are this sick, I can excuse the sweatpants."
Both her mami and Elena help her get the sweatpants up her legs and around her sleep shorts while Alex goes through her purse, gathering her military ID, driver's license, and insurance card. She lost track of where Schneider disappeared to after he helped her into one of the chairs, but gets a clue when the honeysuckle smell of the earth-friendly cleaner Elena insisted they buy floats out from the kitchen. Red colors her cheeks when she realizes that Schneider's in there cleaning up her mess from the floor. When he comes out seconds later, she can only stare at his feet - he's wearing her mami's spare purple flip-flops, the big ones she keeps around to swat at spiders on the ceiling corners.
Schneider claps his hands, "Alright familia, let'go."
Penelope makes it out of the apartment, the elevator, and the building with Elena and Alex guarding her sides, ready to catch her if she stumbles. They're halfway to Schneider's car (and why the hell did that stupid bobo give himself the farthest parking space? He owns the place!) when Penelope feels the pangs again and she doubles over. Schneider's next to her then, hand on her arm, as Lydia, Elena, and Alex look on anxiously.
"Do you want me to carry you?"
Penelope's sorely tempted to say yes but she has dignity and this is Schneider and they're not together like that (he's with Avery). So she shakes her head.
Schneider acts quickly. He looks at Elena, "Think you can handle my car?"
The wording is goading on purpose and it works because Elena squares her shoulders and takes his keys, "Just watch me." She doesn't even mention that Schneider's Range Rover is much larger than their Honda CR-V.
Another shooting pain and Penelope lists to the side, right into Schneider. He holds her up without comment or question, wrapping his arms around her, supporting her weight. He tucks her hair away from her sweaty face.
"I got you."
Penelope twists her head to lean against him more comfortably, and catches Lydia looking at them, something in her eyes that Penelope hasn't seen before and can't translate in that moment.
"I will go with Elena, make sure she doesn't crash."
Alex stays behind and takes Penelope's hand, rubbing her knuckles.
Headlights split into the darkened street moments later and Elena pulls the Range Rover right up to where they are. Schneider gets Penelope into the backseat before he trades places with Elena and she takes shotgun, Alex climbing in to Penelope's left and Lydia to her right.
"Hey Alex, there should be a set of grocery bags under your seat."
Alex digs down and pulls them out, spreads one open on Penelope's lap. And then they're setting off, and Penelope tries to pretend that Schneider doesn't keep looking at her in the rearview mirror, blue eyes awash with worry.
It's 10 PM on a Monday night and the E.R. is packed. Penelope is once again reminded of the downfalls of living in one of the most populated cities in the world. Between Elena and Lydia, the check-in paperwork gets finished in record time and then they just sit and wait their turn. Only they wait, and they wait, and Penelope wants to smack both Alex and Schneider because they're bouncing their legs with repressed agitation and it's driving her nuts, more so than the endless wait and the pain in her side that has settled into a dull throb.
Thirty minutes pass and Schneider shoots to his feet, goes to the check-in window. Penelope can't hear what he's saying but the hard line of tension in his body is clear, even from a distance. He points back at her at one point, and turns enough that she can see the steel determination in the set of his jaw and eyes, shoulders drawn back, and whatever he's doing he's handling it, and something hot pools in her stomach and it's got nothing to do with her appendix throwing a fit. The check-in registrar flounders and a nurse is called over and then Penelope's name is being announced on the speaker system. When Schneider returns to their group, Alex looks up at him, and there's something new in his eyes too, and Penelope wishes her people would stop coming to secret revelations when she's in no condition to pry and investigate.
Penelope only has a few minutes to talk to her family before she's whisked away to surgery to get her appendix removed. Her mami hugs her tight, repeats a prayer against her ear in Spanish and only pulls back when she remembers that they're short on time and there are three other family members that want to have their chance to wish Penelope good luck. Both Elena and Alex try to go for casual but fail miserably, tucking their faces against her neck like they did when they were babies. Alex pulls away first and taps Elena to give Schneider a turn when a nurse pokes her head and asks them to please wrap it up. Elena finally pulls away, tries to pretend she wasn't just crying, and Penelope plays along. Alex and Elena go to Lydia and she wraps an arm around each as Schneider steps up to Penelope's bed. He just smiles at her, softly, and leans down to place a kiss on her forehead.
"We'll be right here when you wake up."
And his words carry the weight of a promise, and Penelope doesn't feel quite as scared any more.
It's 6:30 PM on a Monday and Schneider hasn't come down yet. It's not unusual these days, and Penelope understands that he's in his first serious, committed relationship. But she's woman enough to not deny her disappointment, and, to a degree, her jealousy. Schneider's always been a constant, someone she could always trust to be around. And now that he's pulled away some, his absence hits her like cold water. There's a part of her that worries over that feeling and what it means, but she reasons around it; it's normal for her to miss someone that she's used to seeing at least once a day. Everyone knows that.
But today - today is papito's birthday, and he'll be home from celebrating with his friends soon, ready to celebrate with his family (a compromise they'd reached after Alex told them he wanted both). Schneider had promised to be there and he's never broken a promise.
Lydia looks up from putting the finishing touches on her famous tres leches cake.
"Lupita, Schneider is late. Why don't you go get him before I kill him with this cake?"
"Mami you can't kill someone with cake."
"You have not seen me try."
And really, Penelope was just waiting for an excuse to go up there anyways, and her mother's threat of violence against Schneider is as good as any.
She's about to knock when she picks up Avery's voice through the door; it's not her usual upbeat pitch. It sounds like she's been crying. Schneider responds and his voice has the same thick quality, and though Penelope knows in her head that it's immoral to stand there and eavesdrop, her heart roots her to the spot.
"You keep saying you don't mean to do it, but you keep doing it. Over and over again."
"I'm trying Ave! I haven't missed a single date or event you've planned for weeks."
"That's not the point."
"Throw me a lifeline then, please, because I'm not seeing it."
"You go but you're not really there. Your mind is elsewhere. Your mind is here. And not in this apartment. The one downstairs."
Silence reigns and Penelope wonders (ridiculously) if they can her heart skip a beat outside because she knows where this is going, like a person watching a car wreck that's about to happen and being unable to do anything about it.
"Is that what this is about?"
"What else would it be? Everything else...Pat, you're a good man, and the way that you care, the way that you show that to me - those are all the things I love about you. But I can't help it that I feel like I'm always playing second string. And you should know how much it hurts to not be someone's first choice."
It's not even aimed at her but Penelope still feels how the words sting, feels that she wants to wrap Avery in a hug and strangle her in the same motion.
Inside, Schneider takes a deep, faltering breath.
"I'm sorry. I'm sorry I made you feel that way. It was never my intention."
"I know. And I know how much you care about them, and how much they care about you. I've done my best to understand, to make room for them. But I don't want to keep feeling like I'm standing between you and the people that make you happy. That's not who I want to be."
"That's not who I want to be either."
"So, what do we do?"
There's a long pause then, and Penelope holds her breath because this is the turning point - Avery's put the ball in Schneider's court and his call will lead them to the left or the right, now that the middle is so very clearly no longer an option.
"They're my family, Ave. And my family will always come first."
He's said this before to his father, nearly 7 months ago. And while Penelope had cheered him on then, this time she can't help but feel the true weight of those words, the edge to them. Before, the trade had been difficult but necessary. Now, now she feels the pain of it, the cost. And if that's how she's looking at it, what is he feeling? How much is it tearing him up inside?
Their voices drop lower after that, and Penelope makes out a raw goodbye and that jolts her back into herself, because she's still standing at the door and she's about to be caught.
She makes a break for the elevator, pushes the button frantically like it'll make it come faster and of course it doesn't. Down the hall, she hears Schneider's door open and oh, God, she's about to pass out only the elevator dings and the doors slide open and she launches herself inside.
But of course, that's too easy. The elevator lingers, and the doors start to close but they don't close fast enough - Avery steps inside, doesn't even look surprised to see Penelope.
Penelope tries for a smile but says nothing, and Avery says nothing back. Her pulse is thundering in her ears and Penelope forgets to press the button for her floor, realizes it only when she sees the blinking light for the ground floor, which Avery must have pressed.
So Penelope hangs on while the elevator descends and she and Avery stand there in silence, both women locked in their own heads, with both too much and too little to say to one another.
After what feels like decades, the elevator dings and the doors open to the main lobby. Avery steps forward, pauses right at the threshold and looks back at Penelope.
"Take care of him."
And Penelope can only nod, throat feeling tight, as Avery leaves.
Penelope gets back to her apartment with a heavy heart. Lydia takes one look at her face and grabs the broom.
"Did he drink again? If he did, he won't want to anymore después que le rompa la cabeza con esta escoba!"
"Mami, breaking someone's head with a broom is not an approved treatment for alcoholism."
Lydia puts the broom back.
Penelope feels dirty as she says it but Lydia should know so she doesn't try to pry it out of Schneider with people around (if Schneider will even show up now).
"He broke up with Avery."
Lydia nods but says nothing more. There's a look on her face that says she's not surprised. Penelope narrows her eyes.
"Okay mami, spill."
Lydia shrugs, "What? They were nice together but they weren't perfect for each other."
"He really loved her."
"He did. And he will love again," Lydia pats Penelope's hand, "Don't worry. I will find him the perfect match. It's on my bouquet list."
Penelope raises an eyebrow. "Oh yeah, like you're gonna find me a perfect match?"
Lydia smiles at her, "Of course! You are both on my list Lupita. And you are in the hands of an artist."
Lydia sets about plating the food while Elena sets the table. Six settings and Penelope doesn't have the heart to tell her that Schneider might not be coming.
The door on the knob turns and it's papito and Penelope was hoping that he would be delayed, if only to give her more time to think of what to tell him. She knows he'll understand, but it will still come as a letdown.
Penelope hugs him tight and covers him in kisses - her baby is turning 16.
Lydia takes her turn next and Alex sighs but tolerates it because he loves their attention but he's in high school now and he's supposed to pretend that he doesn't.
Elena hugs him and messes up his hair - or she tries, because Alex is taller by the day and though he's younger he looms over her now.
Dr. Berkowitz arrives with a small gift bag and a box of Jewish pastries, carried by Syd. They both wish Alex a happy birthday, Dr. B in Yiddish, and Alex responds in kind and Penelope has to do a double take since Alex clearly knows how to learn a new language (just not first year French).
Penelope stalls as long as she can but eventually they all sit down and Lydia insists on saying a prayer prior to eating. They all close their eyes but Penelope opens hers when she hears the door creak and there's Schneider, dressed in grey jeans and a dark blue button down that she decides she likes on him a little too much. He mouths an apology and Penelope just nods at the open seat.
Years ago, when she didn't really know him, Penelope would have said that Schneider was perfectly fine during that dinner. He joked and laughed and ate. But she can see the sadness that shadows eyes, how he fidgets when he thinks no one is looking. She catches the looks of concern everyone throws his way at some point during and after dinner.
Then it's time for cake and Elena and Syd dim the lights while Dr. B helps Lydia bring out the cake. Schneider takes charge of lighting the candles, the tiny, flickering flames dancing on the reflection of his glasses.
They sit Alex at the head of the table and launch into singing happy birthday, once in English and then in Spanish (and Syd's Spanish is coming along so well, Penelope can't help the burst of pride when she looks at them next to Elena). Alex makes a wish and blows out the candles. Lydia removes them and then it's time for Alex to glance around nervously, waiting for the perfect time to take a bite from the cake before someone reaches over and pushes his face into it. Eventually, after everyone promises not to push him, Alex goes for it and its Syd that gets him, sending themselves and Elena into their flailing victory dance. Alex is a good sport about it (even though some cream got in his hair) and they all eat a slice of cake. Penelope makes him open his presents in the living room, and he loves the new pairs of shoes, and gift cards, and the cash that Elena and Syd tucked into the pages of an introduction to feminist theory. Schneider hands Alex a small envelope and Alex jumps out of his seat when he opens it to find box seats to a Dodgers game.
Penelope and Schneider end up on dish duty. Schneider's in the middle of washing her mami's favorite pot when he tells her,
"I broke up with Avery."
Penelope stops drying the plates and puts a hand on his shoulder, squeezes, tries to figure out what to say, settles on,
"I'm really sorry."
Schneider sighs, plunges his hands into the soapy water.
"I just...I wanted this to work. I thought I could make it work. I mean, is there really something so wrong with me that I can't -"
"Pat, there is absolutely nothing wrong with you."
Schneider looks at her then, just as surprised as she is that she's used his first name, something she's never done until now.
He smiles at her.
"Are you gonna tell me I'll find someone?"
"I hate to be a cliche and if anyone ever says that to me again you better believe that I will set them on fire but... you will find someone. Someone that loves you and everything you carry as much as you love them."
Schneider nods, and there's something curious that enters his eyes for a moment, only he turns back to the dishes and then he flicks water at her, and of course she won't just take that lying down, and if their little water war spills out into the living room, it's entirely not their fault.
Elena readjusts her glasses so many times it takes Penelope back, way back to when she was a teenager and just starting to figure out her place in the world. It's still hard sometimes, to superimpose the image of her now, a full-fledged lawyer, with the little girl she used to be, but it's far easier, the sense of loss less sharp. She supposes it all comes with the territory of being a mother. A territory Elena is about to join in a few hours.
"Does it always take this long?" There's an imploring look in Elena's dark eyes, and Penelope takes her daughter's hands in hers.
"Well, I could explain everything that goes on with a c-section but let's just say that yes, it does take this long, and that yes, Syd and your baby girl are going to be just fine. They're Alvarezes, and Alvarezes are tough."
"You can say that again," and there's Alex, coming down the hall, shirt sleeves rolled up, tie loose around his collar, a bag of fast food in his hands. Schneider follows closely behind, carrying his and Elena's acai bowls and Penelope is glad she and Alex sprung for the burgers.
They sit down to eat, only Elena just moves the food around in her bowl. Schneider squeezes her arm.
"Have you picked out a name yet?"
Elena is happy for the distraction, "Syd let me choose. I think it's unfair, since they're doing all the hard work, but they insisted."
Tears spring to Elena's eyes. "I can't believe we're going to be mothers." And then Elena's crying, and Schneider takes the bowl from her hands while Penelope and Alex abandon their own food and wrap her in a fierce hug.
Lydia Patricia Alvarez-Pierce is born at 3:43 A.M. on a Monday, weighing a healthy 6 pounds, 4 ounces.
Both Penelope and Schneider cry when Elena announces her choice to the room. Penelope because it's a tie to her mami and her legacy, and Schneider because the baby will always carry a piece of him in her name.
And Schneider, stupid bobo that he is, tries to tell Elena that she didn't have to do it, that his name isn't really worth being passed on to the future President (and here both Elena and Syd laugh but there's a gleam in their eyes and Penelope's already looking forward to getting the photos of little Lydia rocking a tiny power suit). Then Elena calls Schneider a bobo (faster than Penelope can) and says that the decision was easy.
"I wanted her to be named after two of the strongest people I know."
And then Schneider's tearing up again and Alex slings an arm around Penelope's shoulders, "Don't worry mami, I'll name one of my kids after you."
Penelope pokes him in the ribs and Alex pulls away with a laugh.
They both watch the way Schneider's face lights up like a supernova when Elena carefully places the baby in his arms. Alex goes up next, cradling his niece and whispering to her in a mix of English and Spanish, promising to spoil her.
When Penelope holds her, she feels something bloom in her chest, and it hits her so hard she doesn't realize she's started to cry again until the drops fall on the baby's yellow blanket.
"She beautiful Elena, Syd. She's going to be amazing."
They get kicked out of the room by a young nurse. Elena is allowed to stay the night and Penelope promises to be back later in the morning with a fresh set of clothes for her and Syd. Elena tries to give Penelope a key to their house but Penelope blurts out that she has one already. And yeah, she definitely needs to get some sleep and she's lucky that Elena's too preoccupied with bigger things right now because she doesn't immediately launch an investigation as to how her mom has a key to her home.
Once they're in the hallway, Alex walks off to call his fiancé and Penelope and Schneider are alone. He's staring at the room and there's still such disbelief on his face that she calls him to her,
"Ven aquí Ojitos." Little Eyes would be the literal translation but that's not exactly it. It's not even that she finds the vibrant blue hue of them gorgeous (which she does). It's the way she feels when he looks at her, that tender, uncompromising love that shines through come hell or high water.
Schneider goes to her because he's never been able to deny her anything, and she links their hands together, their wedding rings colliding with a soft clink.
"You're still not worrying about Elena naming her daughter after you are you?"
"Partially. Partially naming her daughter after me and thank God for that. Lydia Patricia has a much better ring to it than the other way around."
"Do you remember the first time she called you dad?"
"Accidentally or intentionally?"
Penelope rolls her eyes. "Take your pick. All I'm trying to say is, she knows what she's doing, and why. She loves you. So let her."
Schneider kisses her.
"Thank you. All of this…" he looks back at the door, lifts up their joined hands. "I never thought I'd get to have it."
She kisses him.
"Well you have it, for good. Don't doubt that."
Alex wanders back, a large cup of coffee in hand, his keys in the other. He grins at them.
"I hate to break up your love fest, but I think you're forgetting that a huge group of Cubanos are going to be arriving soon for the Christening."
"Oh remember we're not calling it that?"
"Yeah we're just going to say it's a baby meet-and-greet."
"Isn't baby shower still the better term though? Like, I know it's after the fact but since it never happened in the first place—"
"Okay," Alex interrupts, "I think you both need to get some serious sleep."
"Can't argue with you there."
And so they set off down the hall, Alex leading the way, filling them in on his latest project, Penelope half paying close attention, half looking up at Schneider and the lingering look of joy he still wears on his face, and she thinks she hears her mami's voice, "Te lo dije. I told you I would find you your perfect match," and Penelope can't agree more.