Culture

Simone by Starlight: How to Lose a 'Date' But Gain the World

I moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv on a day at the end of August, 2006. The move was hot, stressed, and nightmarish; yet I felt, all the time, a strange sense of anticipation.

It made it no easier that I was taking my cat with me. In the morning, after eating part of a tranquilizer I mashed into her food, she turned woozy and cuckoo yet still managed to jump out of her cage — poorly secured by me — while I was standing outside trying to flag a taxi. She ran far up a tree, and there were terrible moments when I thought—with the movers already on the way to Tel Aviv—I’d have to leave her there, then come back and look for her.

Eventually, drugged as she was, her strength gave out and she came down the tree in reverse.

At the Tel Aviv flat we were both in a state of near-collapse, the furniture and boxes strewn around us where the movers had thrown them, the air conditioner only slowly contesting the stifling heat. Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both hot in the summer, but the latter is much more humid. When I finally went out to find something to eat, it was a steam bath. At that moment the city—after so many years on my quiet, shady, serene street in northern Jerusalem—seemed to me alien and teeming, the opposite of what I could ever call home.

And yet, on another level, I had a sense that the magic time was drawing nearer.

At nightfall I went down—it was only a 20-minute walk from the new flat—to the shoreline. The red and orange cone-lights, part of the beach cafés where you can sit outside by the sea, already glowed against the deep dusk—like in those nights three years earlier when I’d sit out there with Simone (not, of course, her real name).

The wonder was that this was where I now lived—so close to this place of legend and mystery.

I met Simone in a Tel Aviv café in the spring of 2003. It was through a dating agency, a remnant of earlier days when I was still tech-shy, leery of the internet. I was doubtful about the Tel Aviv venue; my “dates” so far, since divorcing in the mid-1990s, had all been Jerusalemites, and Tel Aviv seemed a bit far.

The dating agency, though, had given Simone a hard sell, calling her “exceptionally attractive.” It was a case of truth in advertising.

Even to say she was one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen would not be exaggerating. She was Sephardic; born in Casablanca, then they moved to Paris when she was five, then she, by herself, to Israel when she was about 20. She was Moroccan, French, Israeli, and Jewish, divorced and childless, a smoker, soft-spoken, into art, films, music, and wine.

It was Simone—as I came to see it—who “led me to the sea” after many years, in fact a life, spent inland. It was on our second or third date, at a movie in a place called the Tel Aviv Opera House, that she said, “Afterward we can sit by the sea.” I pictured some secluded place behind a rock…. But what she meant was one of the beach cafés—out on the sand, doused in soft orange light, facing the dark Mediterranean.

It was no less enchanting; in fact, it was close to the most enchanting thing I’d ever experienced. The inland boy couldn’t quite believe what was happening to him: under the stars, beside the French girl, sipping a fine Merlot, watching the blinks of the planes floating in….

The story has been told by others: “Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say….” “Are you warm, are you real, or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” At that point, standing at the shore three years later—at this point, ten years later—I don’t really know why she abruptly put an end to the affair the following fall. Her past, though, wasn’t auspicious; a few years before that she’d rather abruptly walked out on her husband, and why that was she couldn’t (or didn’t want to) really say either.

So when I moved to Tel Aviv that August, it wasn’t, of course, because of Simone—already lost in legend—but because of someone else. And of course I didn’t tell this someone else that almost the first thing I did was go down to the beachfront at nightfall and try to feel, again, that magic.

But there was no Simone there now—a woman who, even years later, even after you’d been chilled by what was cold in her, even when you were with someone else, still cast a spell. Instead there was the hour of the lights coming on—inside the cafés, and outside them, on the beach; the hour of the distant, almost forgotten sun crashing into clouds it ignited into last, almost desperate brilliance. 

But there was also what she left me: the sense of coming, at midpoint in my life, to the sea and all it meant, a world much vaster than whatever happened — or did not happen — on land,  answering silence with deeper silence and contemplation with blinks and glints.