Valentine’s Day that year fell, very conveniently, just after Penelope had broken up with Max. And with the emotional fallout from that and her mother’s near-death experience still lingering, the last thing Penelope wanted to do was spend another Valentine’s day eating on-sale chocolate and trying not to cry over Maid in Manhattan.
So she texted Schneider. She needed something that only he could give her.
Hey so couples get 2 sundaes for the price of 1 at Bonnies today would you possibly consider pretending to be my husband again
As soon as she sent the message, she realized how weird it would look. Sure, it was fine the first time, when she needed Schneider to scam a salesperson into not being a sexist sack of caca, but now she was trying to scam capitalism itself. She wasn’t sure Schneider would be up for it.
But then he texted back.
Send a text with even a single punctuation mark, and I’ll consider it.
~ You suck ~
I’m all yours!
Bonnie’s had a line out the door, which Penelope had somehow failed to predict.
“Thank god I’m still wearing my work shoes,” she said as she and Schneider took their place on line.
Schneider looked down at her slip-resistant, ergonomically padded clogs, then at his very expensive sneakers with zero arch support. “Aw, rats.”
Penelope laughed at him. “Ha! You played yourself.”
“Yeah, yeah.” And he put his arm around her.
Penelope waited for him to drop it. He didn’t.
“Schneider, what are you doing?”
“Oh, sorry,” he stammered, and took his arm away. “I just thought we should, you know, start working the scam while we’re out here.”
“Hmm, you’re right, we wouldn’t want to be those idiots who don’t hold hands or anything until they walk up to the counter--”
“--and while we’re out here, we might as well rack up witnesses who can testify to how obviously disgustingly in love we are!”
“Alright,” Penelope said, and she took his arm and put it back around her. “We are gonna look so in love they’re gonna give us four sundaes.”
The sundae heist had gone so well that Penelope couldn’t wait to try it again. She started keeping an eye out for couples-only deals but, weirdly enough, they were hard to come by after Valentine’s Day.
But then, a few days later, she checked her calendar and actually screamed a little bit.
The wedding she was supposed to go to with Max.
The wedding she had told all her casual acquaintances she was going to show up to with a tall, gorgeous man on her arm.
Well, she wouldn’t call Schneider gorgeous exactly, but he was tall, and gorgeous was in the eye of the beholder, and no way was she gonna show up alone to a black-tie wedding. She had her pride to think of.
Schneider you gotta be my date to this fancy wedding I was gonna go to with Max
Will there be canapes?
What the hell is a canape if thats some fancy rich people thing Schneider I swear to God
Alright. For you, bestie, I’ll do it. Even if they have no canapes. Perish the thought.
Schneider did that very annoying thing where he shaved and wore contacts and put on a suit and looked way hotter than he had any right to look. But the sight of Penelope in her deep red vintage gown (“vintage” meaning “stolen from her tia”) made Schneider hem and haw and fold his arms very tightly across his chest, so they were even.
The scam went off without a hitch until the reception, which was, Penelope realized, the part wherein hitches would inherently begin to occur. She pulled Schneider aside before they entered the ballroom and pulled at his jacket lapel until his eyes were almost level with hers.
“Where did we meet?” she whispered sharply at him.
“How long have we been dating?”
“What kind of touching is acceptable?” She gave him an especially drill-sergeant-esque glare.
He counted off on his fingers. “Hand-holding, waist-touching, slow dancing, and kisses on the cheek or forehead, but only under the most dire of circumstances.”
“Good.” She let go of his lapel and straightened his bow tie. “Move out, soldier.”
The hand-holding and waist-touching proved to be all that they needed to convince Penelope’s casual acquaintances that Schneider was the man she had raved about. In fact, it was kind of weird how easily everyone accepted that she and Schneider were together, given the very obvious fact that they would never actually be together, not in a million years. But as the night went on, Penelope had to admit to herself that there was a kind of ease to the way her fingers found and intertwined with his, or the way his hand kept finding her waist and his thumb kept gently, absentmindedly rubbing at the velvet of her dress while it was there.
But as it was (no need to think about that thumb rubbing more than was absolutely necessary), the scam worked, and by the last dance Penelope was reveling in how well the night had gone as she and Schneider slow-danced to “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
“I can’t believe this is the last song,” she murmured as she swayed and tried not to think too hard about moving her hands up from Schneider’s shoulders to run them through his wavy hair. “I think I danced to this in the freakin’ seventh grade.”
“Yeah.” Schneider smiled that big, dopey smile he had, and almost tricked her into thinking he was about to say something sweet. “You are pretty old.”
Penelope smacked him on the shoulder and wrinkled her nose at him, which just made him chuckle. “You’re older than me, doofus.”
Penelope prepared herself for some snarky comment about what a miracle it was that he still looked so good, but it didn’t come. Schneider just kept looking down at her with a weird look on his face, weird enough that she found herself casting her gaze around so she didn’t have to maintain eye contact. And she noticed something. Maybe nothing, maybe something.
“Schneider?” she said, before she could stop herself. “Kiss me on the forehead or something. Mrs. Owens is looking at us weird.”
“Aye-aye, captain,” Schneider said, infuriatingly, before brushing a curl aside from her forehead and pressing his lips there so softly, so tenderly, that Penelope actually worried her knees were going to go.
What the hell?
Schneider pulled back and glanced at Mrs. Owens. “Did it work?”
“Um,” Penelope muttered, still trying to squish those feelings back down into whatever dank hole they had crawled out of, “yeah. Sure.”
Penelope didn’t know what had possessed her to tell Scott and Lori that she had a boyfriend. Maybe it was the smug way Scott kept asking whether her weekends had been “quiet, as usual,” or maybe it was the way Lori kept bringing up, apropos of nothing, how “useful” having a man around could be and then winking very poorly. Maybe it was both. Either way, she did it, it was done, and now she was expected to bring said boyfriend to Dr. Berkowitz’s retirement party.
Bed: Made. Time: To lie in it.
Schneider please be my boyfriend at Berkowitz’s party I need to prove to Scott and Lori that I’m not lame and single
Is that an apostrophe I see before me?
If this fake-boyfriend act is gonna become a regular thing, I might have to start charging a fee for services rendered.
What’s Scott wearing? Obviously I need to dress better than him.
“Schneider!” Dr. Berkowitz yelled shrilly across the room. “Are you Penelope’s date?”
It took all of Penelope’s training to stop herself from smacking herself in the face. Of course, she had been a fool to expect Leslie to immediately understand the con that she and Schneider were running. The man had probably never told a lie in his life.
Schneider squeezed her shoulder as they walked toward the doctor and her coworkers, which was weirdly reassuring.
“Of course he’s my date, Dr. Berkowitz,” Penelope said, doing a thing with her eyebrows that she hoped would clue him in. “He is my boyfriend, after all.”
Leslie looked between Penelope and Schneider, his lip curling confusedly as he did what must has been some very stressful mental math.
Finally, he smiled. “Oh!” he said, in a weirdly relieved tone of voice. “Of course! I always knew you two would work it out. Lydia has been saying for ages that you two should--”
Penelope’s brain shorted out, so she didn’t hear the next words. Leslie thought they were actually together. Her mami thought they should be together. Leslie was going to tell her mami that they were together.
Lori was looking back and forth between her and Schneider, clearly waiting for an answer to something. Schneider was looking at her, too, a question in his eyes. He must have gotten his answer from the look of wordless panic on her face, because he put his hand back on her shoulder and turned to Lori.
“Five months,” he said. “Of course, we’ve, ah, lived in the same building for years, and I always sort of carried a torch for her, as it were, but it took us a while to figure our stuff out.” And Schneider looked back down at her, and if he was faking the look of absolute adoration in his eyes, he was a better actor than she thought he had any right to be. “And thank God we did, eh, Pen?”
She didn’t know what to say to that, so she just put her hand on his chest (which she noticed was nice and warm, or she would have if she cared about such things) and nodded.
Not twelve hours after the end of Dr. Berkowitz’s party, Penelope got a text from Schneider.
Hey Pen? Can I ask you a favor?
If you don’t want to, I completely understand.
Schneider what is it
The little bubble that showed that Schneider was typing oscillated on her phone’s screen for longer than usual. Penelope stared at it. Schneider was never at a loss for words.
Okay okay. Would you pretend to be my girlfriend tonight? My father is visiting and I kind of told him I had one and I don’t want him to think… you know
I’m all yours
Schneider’s father was more… pleasant than Penelope had expected. She didn’t know what she had expected--maybe one of those old-timey cartoons of Boss Tweed with his head made out of a money bag--but it turned out that Schneider’s sense of humor hadn’t come from nowhere, nor had his easy way of talking to people. So Penelope was a little embarrassed at how much fun she had talking to Schneider, Sr., and Schneider’s hurt looks whenever she laughed at one of his father’s jokes weren’t helping. But if she was gonna play the girlfriend meeting the dad, then by god, she was gonna do it right.
It occurred to her, though, that maybe that strategy had been a mistake. It occurred to her right when Schneider excused himself from the table with a mumble and went to the restaurant bathroom. She watched him go, kicking herself.
“I must say, Penelope,” Schneider, Sr. said as he sipped his scotch, “you are a very impressive woman.”
“Um. Thank you, Mr. Schneider,” she said warily. He was about to say something inappropriate, she knew it.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t know how Schneider managed to get a lady like you.”
“I’m sorry,” Penelope said in her most politely dangerous voice, “what do you mean by that?”
“Only that Schneider has always, you know, lacked a certain direction to his life.” Schneider, Sr. sipped his stupid scotch again, and Penelope realized that yeah, actually, she did hate him. “And you seem so driven.”
Penelope clenched the edge of the table and gritted her teeth. “Yeah. Yeah, I am. I want the best of everything, for myself and for my family, and I don’t settle for anything less.”
He sipped his scotch at her, barely listening.
“Which is why,” she continued, a little louder, “I chose Schneider. Because your son is the sweetest, most considerate, most loving man I have ever met, no thanks to you, apparently. He is the best man I have ever met, period, and he deserves so much more love than you ever gave him. ”
And then Schneider was standing by the table again, looking very confused, and she stood up, grabbed his hand, said “Thank you for the meal, Mr. Schneider. Don’t call us,” and pulled her friend away from his very affronted-looking father.
They finished their dinner at home with the others. Lydia had made arroz con pollo, and it was delicious, and everyone was weirdly quiet and exchanging a lot of looks, but that was probably just because Penelope and Schneider had showed up together halfway through dinner with no explanation. But Penelope was pleasantly surprised to see that no one asked about it, and by the time dinner was almost over she had begun to feel like she had dodged three very large bullets shaped like her mother and children.
But then her mami opened her mouth.
“So,” Lydia said, drawing out the o far too long. “I was talking to Leslie earlier.”
“Yeah?” Penelope said, mouth full of chicken.
“He had some very interesting news.” Again, the oo sounds in “news” was longer than it needed to be.
“Ay, Mami, what was it?”
Lydia spread her hands dramatically. “He said that you and Schneider are finally dating!”
She swallowed her chicken.
She looked at Elena and Alex, who were both giving her a look that told her they had talked about this already.
She looked at Schneider. He looked back at her, his expression… confused? Amused? Unclear.
And then he laughed, a small exhalation of a chuckle. And Penelope, relieved beyond measure, laughed too, louder and longer. Schneider hesitated for a moment before laughing along with her.
“Yeah,” Penelope said with every ounce of sarcasm she could muster, “me and Schneider are dating.”
Schneider forced out a snort. “Yeah, we’re--we’re in love and we go on dates and stuff!”
Penelope roared with laughter. Schneider laughed along again, a little quieter this time.
“You think we--” Penelope wheezed, “--are actually dating?” She wiped an imaginary tear from her eye. “Mami, that was a con. A scam. We were messing with freakin’ Scott and Lori, who thought I couldn’t get a man.”
“Then what were you doing together tonight?” Lydia banged on the table, as if that settled it.
“Schneider’s stupid father wanted to see he had a girlfriend, so we pulled the scam on him too! It’s all fake, Mami.”
“Seems to be happening really often for something that’s fake.”
Penelope wheeled around to look at Alex. “What did you say to me?”
“What I think Alex means is,” Elena said, putting her hand on Penelope’s, “you and Schneider have been spending a lot of time together lately, and we’ve all noticed how happy that’s been making you.”
“Yeah,” Alex said, “so when Dr. Berkowitz told Abuelita that you two were dating, we all kinda went ‘Yeah, that tracks,’ and we were really happy for you.”
Penelope looked at her children, who were smiling at her so earnestly, and then back at Schneider. And she was surprised to see that he was looking at her kids, too, with something like tears in his eyes.
And then he looked at her, and she heard herself speaking without thinking.
“We--we could never. I mean, we’re best friends, but that’s--that’s all--”
She stopped at the look on Schneider’s face. He squeezed his eyes shut, and chewed the inside of his cheek, and then stood up very suddenly.
“Thank you for the delicious meal, Lydia,” he said, very stiffly. And then he walked out the door.
Penelope looked around at her family--Lydia with her pursed lips, Alex with his raised eyebrow, Elena with her crossed arms.
“Yeah, yeah, shut up,” she said, and she got up and ran after Schneider.
Schneider didn’t answer her knock, so she just opened his front door. He was sitting on his couch, his head in his hands. He barely looked up when she entered.
“What the hell, Pen,” he mumbled, “you can’t just go barging into people’s apartments like that.”
Any other day she would have scoffed and said something about how he was one to talk, but she didn’t. Instead, she sat down next to him on the couch and, after careful consideration, put her hand on his back.
“Look, I get it,” he said into his hands. “I just thought… with everything, I thought--”
“But I get it, I’ll leave you alone, I won’t keep bothering you--”
He looked up at her then, the same way he had looked at her when they danced at the wedding, the way he had at Berkowitz’s party, the way he had when she told off his dad, and maybe, she realized, the way he was always looking at her, like she was confusing and terrifying and more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. And she wondered, for a split second, whether she had been looking at him like that too, and she decided that that would explain a lot, and then she pulled his face to hers and kissed him.
He seemed surprised, and then he didn’t, and he was kissing her back with one hand around her waist and one in her hair and he was pulling her close to him softly, in the way that everything he did was kind of soft. And she had one hand on his neck and one coiled up in his shirt and she was tugging him down until she was on her back and he was leaning over her, and it was good, of course it was, because it was Schneider, and she was wondering why it had taken her so long to see how good this would be.
Schneider pulled away, which made Penelope groan a little in protest, but she fell silent when she saw how he was looking at her, with more tenderness in his eyes than he had any right to have.
“What?” she whispered.
“Nothing. I just…” And he smiled widely, and his eyes kind of looked wet again, which was so unbelievably sappy that she couldn’t stand it--
“Oh my God, come here,” she said, and pulled him back towards her.