Simone by Sunlight: Can People-Pleasing Save a Romance?

In the summer of 2003, I spent about one morning a week in a stifling Tel Aviv apartment. It’s very hot and humid in Tel Aviv in the summer. As is generally the case, there was an air conditioner in the apartment; but it couldn’t be used. Simone forbade it.

Simone, as I’ve recounted, was a stunning French Israeli I’d met on a blind date in the spring. It seemed to be going well with her. I’d come from Jerusalem once a week, during the week, for an overnight; she came to Jerusalem on most weekends because close relatives lived there, and she’d stop by.

But I not only had to endure the heat those mornings, lying in bed in her stuffy room; I also had to stay there (naturally, not all of this was unpleasant) till early afternoon before returning to Jerusalem. For a freelance writer-translator, this was possible; but it wasn’t preferable. But I complied.

The natural response is: “What do you mean you had to? Why couldn’t you tell her you preferred to leave by, maybe, ten, and get back to your computer and your clients?”

The answer is: I could have, but I feared to cross her in any way. I was in people-pleasing mode with Simone. She didn’t need to get to work (customer relations for a fashion firm, calling clients in North America) till mid-afternoon, and her morning sleep was close to sacred to her. I complied.

As for the heat, I’d ask her—exasperated, incredulous—if she really felt comfortable like this. The question seemed to bounce off her.

I was in people-pleasing mode with Simone for a few reasons. She was exceptionally beautiful; her complex ethnicity—particularly the Frenchness—also greatly appealed to me. She opened worlds to me—Tel Aviv, the night, the sea, maybe even Paris one of these months.

And then there was my side of it. Divorced for seven years, with a few failed affairs behind me, I treated the relationship with Simone like a precious plate perched on a shelf. I thought that if I honored her every whim, made sure not to cross her in any way, the plate could be kept there and wouldn’t fall.

“Half of what I say is meaningless….” That line from the entrancing song by John Lennon, and the song in general, became my mental background music for the romance with Simone. “But I say it just to reach you….”

Reaching her wasn’t easy. It had partly to do with language—and her voice. Of the four languages she knew, French and Arabic were no-goes. As for Hebrew, though good at it by then, I couldn’t understand Simone’s Hebrew because she spoke it in her low, muffled voice, one that almost seemed to shield itself from being heard.

That left English—at which she was no better than pretty good. That meant I had trouble conveying things when the word (or words) I needed was one she didn’t know; and she had trouble conveying things when she didn’t know the word(s). (Another song—in a way even more apt—would come to mind: “And I will say the only words I know that you’ll understand….”)

The problem, though, wasn’t just technical. Beyond language, beyond her voice that I strained to hear in any case, Simone tended to talk about herself in fragments and hints; she seemed both to request and repel attention. Meanwhile she raised a complaint: I was centering the relationship on me, I was more interested in my work, my daily ups and downs, than in hers.

There was truth to it, but it wasn’t the whole truth. But because I was in people-pleasing mode, I didn’t say that to her. I didn’t say: yes, but on the other hand, it’s not easy to draw close to you, you sometimes seem secretive and opaque. I would have been too scared to say that, scared of rattling the plate.

So I kept talking too much about myself, in what sometimes seemed like a vacuum; and trying harder to listen to her, hear her, understand her, which kept not working.

Our relationship, as I discussed in the previous installment, centered largely on the sea — going there at night, sitting outside at the beach cafés, something we both loved. Wine, waves, airplane lights floating in, sounds of techno-jazz bubbling up from speakers.

It lasted until a night in early October — a night with a thrill, an excitation in it, troops of swift waves rushing the shore, towering, grey, ghostly clouds over the water. I was feeling pretty high. Here I was, with wine and my French girl. If there was something better I could have ordered from the menu, I wasn’t sure what it was.

Simone, though, was cold — relentlessly cold, shivering. Nothing helped, even though it was — I thought — only a mild wind blowing in from the sea.

She said the season was now turning too cold and this would be the last night we could sit out here. I said next time she could just wear something warmer. She said — an edge in her voice — that it would not help to wear something warmer. It was too cold.

Not long after, still sitting there, she at last told me about her disease. She had had it years ago, and gotten over it, but it had left her with a cold sensitivity.

That explained the summer mornings in the apartment.

It was only about a month after that, sitting in November sunlight at a beach-café table, that Simone told me she really liked being with me, in every way, but had decided she wanted to take maybe a month or two to think about things, and then decide if she wanted to continue or not.

It’s not cold on a bright November day in Tel Aviv, but Simone was shivering, sitting back, and clutching herself.

Naturally, there seemed to be an illogic in what she said: if things were so good, why did she need to pause and take stock?

Did I try, delicately, to point out the contradiction? No. Still not wanting to upset the applecart, I people-pleased to the end. I came to the brink of saying something like that — but recoiled, fearing it would stir up unpleasant, conflictual things. I hoped, instead, that if I played along, took it slow, she’d come through in the end. I never saw her again.

Had she really just wanted someone to sit by the sea with her while the weather permitted? Had she concluded that I was incorrigibly self-centered? Given her intense charm, had someone else entered the picture? Good guesses all.

I was haunted for years by the image of her in the November sunlight, hugging herself from the cold.