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The Time It Takes

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Schneider doesn’t remember meeting his soulmate. He must have, because his words are gone, faded away after fulfilling their purpose. It was probably in the early 2000s, because he remembered tracing them over and over during his withdrawal of Rehab 2: Revenge of the Shakes, but they were gone when his fingers instinctively sought them out in Rehab 3: Shitty Doctors with Shitty Needle Aim. Somewhere between the two, high off his ass, drunk out of his mind, he must have met his soulmate.

It kills him that he doesn’t remember. It kills him their first impression of him is that; the mess he used to be. It kills him he’ll never know if he’ll see them again.

Penelope knows that Victor isn’t her soulmate, and that he isn’t hers. It didn’t seem to matter to them at the time, young and dizzy in love, ready to face the odds and come out victorious. Married before deployment because hell knows if you’ll survive in Afghanistan long enough to find a soulmate and Penelope knows to take her happiness where she can find it. Then after they get back, Elena comes along, and Penelope still loves Victor, so they stay together. They make it work until it doesn’t, and even when it all goes to shit, neither of them dare to mention the word “soulmate”. She told Mami that Victor was her soulmate, and she regrets that lie more and more with every passing day.

She knows who her soulmate is, and it will never, ever happen.

It’s a relief to her that he doesn’t remember. Or maybe he does, and he’s just a better actor than she gave him credit for.

Either way, it’s best not to disturb that peace. Her fingers instinctively touch where her words used to be—and god, how she hated them from the day they showed up. Wassap? You guys are Mexican, right? I recognize the lingo.

She hid her words her whole life. The only other person to see them were Victor, because it’s hard to hide words stuck on your hip when you’re having sex with your husband. He had just laughed and told her she was much better off with someone less racist. She had agreed, and kept agreeing even after meeting….Schneider. And really? Schneider? It had to be some sort of mistake. Either that or the cruelest joke the universe had ever played.

He was….he was just…..Schneider. Nosy, annoying, too involved in her family’s business. Rich and clueless, his head alternating between stuck in the clouds and firmly up his own ass. There was no way that man could be her soulmate.

Taking back that apartment after she and Victor split had been a risk, but he had said it was a temp job, and it was unlikely he hadn’t gotten fired in the past fifteen years—owner’s son or not. So she took the offer to move back in her with Mami, and there he was. In all his loud, flat-assed glory. He didn’t seem to remember meeting her before, because he hit on her again, with nearly the same line he’d used before, like replaying a bad movie.

“So, single mom?” he’d asked, waggling his eyebrows and leaning over the partition between the kitchen and living room.

“Newly separated from my veteran husband,” she’d snapped back and watched his face fall. Good. A Penelope with a freshly-broken heart didn’t have time to waste on racist, ignorant haircuts like him.

A Penelope with a healed-up heart, full of family and friends and fulfilling work didn’t have time for him either. Really.

It starts because Elena is sitting on the couch in her stress-pose.

“Hey, Elena, what’s going on?” Penelope asks, sitting down next to her cocoon of a daughter and trying to see inside the blanket pile. A groan and a mumble emerge from the cocoon, but no Elena.

“I can’t hear you,” Penelope singsongs. She digs into the cocoon and pulls out Elena’s face.   “Seriously, what’s up?”

“It’s about Syd,” Elena whispers. Penelope smiles indulgently.

“Ah, young love. You’re gonna have to give me a little more to work with, Elena.”

The door bursts open and Schneider stumbles in. “Did I hear ‘young love’?” he demands. “Because my young-love senses are tingling!”

Penelope rolls her eyes and Schneider plops onto the couch on Elena’s other side. The cocoon lilts to one side. Schneider slings an arm around the blanket mound and gives it a squeeze. Elena sighs and digs herself out of the blankets.

“I don’t remember what Syd’s first words were to me,” she mutters. “And my eighteenth is coming up. What if they aren’t their words? What if they are? What do I do? Am I really ready to have a soulmate?”

Penelope could have guessed it would be soulmate stuff—Elena is a romantic at heart, no matter how much she argues otherwise.

“Honey, you don’t have to worry about it. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be. You’ll see.”

“Oh, like you and Papi, right,” Elena snaps. Penelope sits back, her face solid stone. Elena drops her head into her hands. “I’m sorry, Mom. That was awful. I didn’t mean it.”

“I think you did,” Penelope says with a sigh. Elena shakes her head emphatically.

“No! I mean…yeah, I kinda did, I guess. I always thought growing up that no two people could be more in love than you and Papi. But you broke up anyway. It’s hard, you know? Seeing parents split who aren’t soulmates is hard enough. It’s worse when it’s your parents and they are.”

Penelope runs a thumb under her eyes briefly. She can keep it together. She can.

“This has really been bugging you, huh?” she says quietly.

Elena nods hesitantly. “I mean…how can I believe in true love when I saw it fall apart right in front of me? I thought soulmates were supposed to make you happy, but all Papi ever did was hurt you. Hurt us.”

“Your papi made me very happy, Elena. He did for a long, long time. When we were young, we were perfect for each other. He gave me two beautiful children that I wouldn’t trade for anything.” Penelope pauses. Elena tilts her head, the unspoken ‘but?’ clear on her face. Penelope puts her hand on Elena’s cheek. Softly, she says, “But… he wasn’t my soulmate.”

Elena springs to her feet. “What?” she screeches, loud enough to make Penelope wince.

A soft voice says, “Oh, Pen,” and Penelope suddenly remembers that Schneider’s sitting on the other end of the couch. Penelope clears her throat. “Shit,” she mutters quietly.  “Can you give us a minute, Schneider?” she asks. He nods and gets up instantly. He makes it to the door before turning around again.

“Pen, if you want to talk about this later…” he offers. Penelope gives him a tight smile.

“Yeah, sure. Sometime,” she says, torn between making it clear she appreciates the gesture while also insuring that he knows they will never discuss this again. He nods and closes the door quietly. Penelope turns back to her daughter. Elena has her hands on her hips, standing taller and bigger than she feels. Penelope knows Elena’s tells and this is one. She’s thrown. She looks like the world has been pulled out from under her feet. Penelope can’t blame her.

“What do you mean, Papi isn’t your soulmate?” she asks.

“I didn’t want to tell you,” Penelope admits. “We wanted to beat the statistics. We never thought anyone would have to know differently—when we were in love, it felt like there was never a time when we weren’t, or wouldn’t be. Even after we broke it off, we agreed not to tell. We thought it was better to leave sleeping dogs lie.”

“By lying?” Elena demands. “By messing with my entire perception of love for years?”

“I’m not saying it was a good decision! But it’s the decision I made. Because I thought I was protecting you and Alex. Because I was protecting me.

Penelope can’t stop the tears that fill her eyes. Her voice cracks. “Because part of me wanted to keep living that lie a little bit longer.”

She rubs her forehead tiredly. Her head aches. “I’m sorry, Elena. If I knew how much this was hurting you, I would have come clean a long time ago.”

“Do you know who your real soulmate is?” Elena asks. The conversation isn’t over, but she knows they both need more time before they finish it. Penelope tries to deflect anyway.

“Elena—”

“Mom. Do you know?” Elena presses, folding her arms. It hits Penelope all at once, how much her little girl has grown up. She’s seventeen. She’ll be leaving home soon, off to college and her own life. She’s not a child anymore. There’s no need for childish lies to protect her.

“Yes,” Penelope says.

“Then why are you still single? Why don’t you go to him—them, whoever it is? Mom, you and Papi have been divorced for years.”

“And I’ve known who he is for basically your whole life. But I’m not going to tell him. I don’t need a soulmate. I have my work. I have you and Alex. I have enough.”

“Mom. I know you. You’re a romantic. There’s no way you’re okay with knowing you could have your soulmate and not going for it. Who is it?”

“I’m not having this conversation,” Penelope says, throwing up her hands and moving into the kitchen. She feels the need to stress eat and it’s all Elena’s fault. Elena snatches the Cheeto bag from Penelope and holds them out of reach.

“No snacks for liars!” she says.

Penelope makes a grab for the bag and manages to get it. “No allowance for meddling daughters.”

Penelope storms into her room, ready for a snack and cry and a nap. She gets as far as lying down before the tears start. She can hear Elena standing by her door and does her best to stifle herself. That’s something she’s had a lot of practice at, over the years. The footsteps outside her door retreat, finally. She keeps her crying as quiet as possible, just in case.

They don’t talk about it. It’s a huge weight on the apartment. Even Alex feels it, and he’s not in the house often anymore. Elena hasn’t forgiven her. She spends most of her time at Syd’s house, even pushing it far enough to stay overnight the first night after their fight. Penelope lets her have that—Syd is a huge comfort to Elena and it’s not like either of them can get pregnant or anything.

Penelope is staring at her pile of bills one evening, not seeing a thing, when the door opens slowly.

“Hey, Pen,” Schneider says quietly. “Can I come in?”

“You’ve never needed an invitation before,” Penelope says dryly. She stands and lifts her hands in a ‘go ahead’ gesture. Schneider makes his way to the kitchen.

“Coffee?” He asks. Penelope shrugs. He nods and starts washing his hands in the sink.

“So,” he says. “Things have been….tense.”

Penelope snorts. “Uh, yeah. What tipped you off?”

“The fact that your daughter has been spending more time in my apartment than yours, for one,” he says. He dries his hands and slings the towel over his shoulder.

“She has? I thought she was at Syd’s.”

“It’s about fifty-fifty. She said she doesn’t want Syd’s family to start worrying about her.”

There’s something unfinished about that. Penelope narrows her eyes.

“And?” she prods.

Schneider sighs, unscrewing the filter from the bottom of the tin coffee pot. “She’s been trying to figure out who your soulmate is. She’s enlisted me to help.”

“Damn it,” Penelope mutters rubbing her forehead. Schneider takes a hesitant breath. He puts down the container of coffee grounds and says, “Pen. I know it’s me.”

“I—what?”

“Elena mentioned you said you’ve known who it is her whole life. We met when she was a baby, even though I don’t remember it. My words disappeared around that time. I’m not…I’m not as stupid as I act sometimes.”

Penelope sits on the couch. She braces her elbows on her knees and puts her head in her hands.

“God, Schneider, I—”

He lifts his hands, cutting her off.

“Hey, I get it. I wouldn’t want me as a soulmate either. Especially not early 2000s me. You made the right choice, Pen. I don’t blame you.”

“Was it?” Pen asks. “Was it really the right choice? I lied to you, to Victor, to my mom. I lied to myself.”

“It was right for new-mom Penelope. It was the right choice for enlisting-again Penelope and Mrs. Victor Alvarez.”

“Yeah, so it was the right choice for me. But this is a two-way street, Schneider. And you didn’t even get a choice.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.”

Schneider places his hands flat on the counter, leaning his weight on them. Despite the quiet timbre of his voice, Penelope doesn’t miss a word of what he says.

“Look, all I know is that being around your family is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m sober, I’m happy. I got to help raise two amazing kids. ‘Soulmates’ doesn’t always mean romance. Sometimes it just means family. You’re my family, Pen. Whatever way is right for you, whatever you think is the right choice….it’s right for me too.”

“How can you say that?” Penelope chokes out. “Don’t you….if I’m your soulmate, doesn’t it hurt that…”

She doesn’t know how to finish that sentence. Schneider seems to understand what she’s trying to say. He says, “I’ve loved you for so long, Pen. The ache of not having you love me back faded a long time ago. I’m just lucky you still let me stick around.”

He smiles, something soft and a little bit painful, and pours her a cup of Cuban coffee. She takes it slowly, takes a sip. It’s perfect. Just the way Mami makes it. She sniffs and takes another sip.

“Thank you, Schneider,” she says quietly.

“Anytime, Pen,” he responds.

It’s funny how your whole world can change in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee.

Penelope thinks she wants it to change again by the time that pot is empty. So she pours a cup for Schneider, takes his hand, and leads him to the couch. She’s never been good at talking about her feelings. This is hard. But he deserves this and more, after all these years of lying. She talks about Victor and all the ways he broke her heart. She talks about how she wasn’t ready for a soulmate and how casual dating seemed like an easier way to handle being alone. She talks about how much harder it got to bring up with every passing year.

Schneider talks about the loss he felt after seeing his words gone. He talks about his trouble staying clean and the endless flings he had in hopes it would make his chest feel less hollow. He talks about finding this family and getting involved in their life and finding his own so much improved by it. He talks about falling in love with a woman who didn’t want him like that.

They talk about the future and the idea of them together. They talk about taking things slow and thinking things through. They talk about telling their family.

They talk about love.

The coffee pot is empty and Penelope leans against Schneider, feeling his chest rise and fall with every breath. His arm wraps around her securely, tucking her into his side. It’s not perfect, but it’s something. And that’s good enough for them both.

(Their short-lived serenity is soon shattered by Elena, who barges in, sees them sitting on the couch, and shrieks, “It’s Schneider?”. But that’s another moment altogether, and does not ruin the one they share right now).