More Than Words
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Nick had clapped me on the shoulder. “It happens to the best of us sooner or later,” he’d said, a mock look of pity on his face.
“What is that exactly?”
He’d winked. “I’ll leave you to define it for yourself, mon ami.” I could only roll my eyes. The man had barely left his room the entire trip, and yet suddenly he was French.
A staff member at the winery greeted us as we stepped from the car, and we followed her inside the castle, stopping to marvel at the impressive foyer with its antique-looking table in the middle of the space and a grand staircase rising beyond. The rooms to the left and the right had been turned into what looked like a restaurant and gift shop. “Your self-guided tour starts in the courtyard, monsieur and madame. Dinner will be served in the garden, and your tasting will follow.”
I took Jessie’s hand, and we followed the older woman outside to a bike rack that held numerous bicycles. Uh. My heart dropped. I looked around, but the woman was already unlocking a bike, which she leaned toward us. Jessie took the handlebars and sucked in a breath of excitement. “It’s a bike-riding tour? This is amazing!”
The woman wheeled a bicycle over to me, and I took it with a tight smile, thanking her. It couldn’t be that hard, right? Even six-year-olds figured it out. She pointed off in the distance to where the gardens began, the rows of grapevines in the distance beyond. “There are bike trails all the way through, and you are free to use any of the paths. Your dinner will be set up in Lumière de la Rose. You cannot miss the sign.”
“Merci,” I murmured, bringing one leg over the bike as Jessie had done and walking with it until I made it to the edge of the stone patio area where the bikes had been stored. The gravel under my feet crunched softly as I rolled/walked over it, and I felt even less sure about attempting to balance on what felt like an unsteady surface.
As the woman turned toward the building, Jessie was looking back at me curiously, the bike balanced between her legs and one foot on a pedal, obviously ready to hop on and go.
I attempted an easygoing smile, but it felt more like a grimace. Jessie turned more fully and tilted her head. “Don’t you know how to ride a bike?”
I ambled closer to her. “Not exactly.”
Her brows came together. “You never learned how to ride a bicycle?”
My chest tightened, and I felt embarrassed, or maybe ashamed. I didn’t know what the fuck I was feeling because the truth was, I hadn’t been raised in the sort of household where a dad took his kid out on the sidewalk and clapped for him when he finally teetered shakily ahead on two wheels for the first time. My dad had never thought I deserved more than a smack upside the head and his everlasting disappointment. “No.”
She must have sensed the underlying emotion in my tone because her eyes softened, and she swung her leg off the bike and smiled. “Let’s just walk, then. It’s a beautiful day.”
I looked at her and knew she was being nice, trying to accommodate for my lack of experience. But I’d also seen the genuine excitement in her eyes when she’d realized we were going to take a bike tour. I couldn’t take that from her. “No. I can do this.”
She studied me for a moment. “Of course you can. But do you want to?”
“Yeah. I mean, how hard can it be?”
“It’s not hard. It just takes some practice. Here, watch me.” She showed me where the brakes were on the handlebars, and then she got back on the bike and pushed off with her foot on one pedal. When she’d gained a little bit of movement, she put her other foot on the pedal and took off. I tried to do as she’d done, and after several miserable tries—that made me want to wrestle the bike to the ground until it was a bent and broken heap of aluminum—I finally managed to balance and gained some speed, steering shakily to where Jessie was waiting.
She grinned. “You got it. Come on. We’ll go slow.”
I followed behind her as she pedaled, and after a few minutes I felt more in control, getting the hang of both balancing and steering at the same time. I couldn’t help the grin that spread over my face as I pulled up alongside her, and she glanced over at me and laughed. Just like the kite, this felt like another form of flying: the breeze in my face, the rich scent of earth and the sweet scent of flowers in the air, and my own pride at having accomplished something. I thought of the way Jessie had described her childhood swing—like every good and beautiful thing in the world coming together all at once.
We rode slowly through the flourishing gardens, stopping here and there to look at something or another, chatting easily, Jessie’s laugh floating back to me as she pedaled ahead. And I felt that same mindless elation that I’d only ever achieved at the bottom of a bottle or through momentary physical pleasure. But this wouldn’t bring the eventual shame and self-hatred. This would bring memories I’d want to revisit again and again.
Because memories would be all I had.
The realization made my stomach clench, but I pushed the thought away again, reminding myself that this weekend was ours, not for regrets, but as something happy to hold on to.
“Hey,” I called ahead. “Are you hungry yet?”
Jessie glanced back and pulled to a stop at the side of the path, where I joined her. “Starving.”
“We’re supposed to look for a sign for the loom whatever garden.”
She laughed. “Lumière de la Rose. It means Light of the Rose. It was back there.” She started turning and I followed, and we made our way back to the turnoff for the garden where I’d arranged dinner to be set up.
I smelled the roses long before we arrived at the garden, a sensual smell that filled the air with a light, spicy sweetness. “Mmm, do you smell that?” Jessie asked, tipping her head up and inhaling deeply. “Nothing smells better than real garden roses.”
“Look over there.” I pointed. “I think that’s where we’re eating.” There was a round table set for two shaded by a willow tree on the edge of the garden. The table was adorned with a white tablecloth, two place settings, and a vase of roses probably freshly picked from the garden.
Jessie followed my gaze and stood staring at it for a few moments before she looked at me, her expression full of so much pleasure, my throat constricted. “You did this for me?”
“Well, the vineyard did it. I just ordered—”
“Thank you,” she said, her eyes alight with joy. “It’s beautiful.”
I smiled, and we propped our bikes against the opposite side of the tree and took a seat at the table. There was an ice bucket with champagne between the table and the tree, and I picked up the bottle, popping the cork and holding it out over the grass as it bubbled over. Jessie laughed and held out her glass, the bubbly liquid rising to the top before falling. After pouring my own, I held up my glass. “To what?”
“To never being too old to learn new things,” Jessie said, winking and clinking her glass to mine. I smiled, inclining my head in agreement. After taking a sip, Jessie sat back in her chair and sighed, looking around. “This is perfect. One perfect moment in time,” she murmured. There was something in her expression I wasn’t sure how to read, but I agreed with her words. It was perfect. Here there was nothing but us, nothing except the earth beneath our feet, the sky over our heads, the deep serenity of nature all around. It felt as if we’d traveled back in time to where no troubles, no mistakes, no past existed. Only now.
The rose garden where we sat butted up to the back of the castle. A moment later, a waiter in a white apron appeared at the doorway carrying a tray and then moved toward us. When he arrived he greeted us in French and set two covered plates on the table, removing the lids as a waft of something rich and savory greeted my nose. “Bon appétit,” he said, bowing. Then he turned and left.