Former Winnipegger Zev Cohen publishes book of short stories: "Twilight in Saigon"

Zev Cohen, who was one of
the organizers of the Jewish
schools reunion in 2017
cover of "Twilight in Saigon"

Former Winnipegger Zev Cohen, who now lives part of the year in Israel and part of the year in Calgary, has just published a book of short stories titled "Twilight in Saigon". The book is available for purchase on Amazon. Here is how the book is described on Amazon: This eclectic collection of stories crosses genre lines - war, crime, romance, espionage, science fiction, fantasy -

as it moves in time from World War II through the present and into the distant future. Its common thread is humanity and love in the face of adversity.
A journalist finds love and misfortune in the upheaval of the Vietnam war.
Working for the West, a spy is saved from the hands of the KGB.
A straight-laced British accountant finds the love of his life and evil in Hong Kong.
Immigrants grapple with despair, love, and the vicissitudes of life in new surroundings.
Politics, love and tragedy in the life of a president.
Stationed on a distant world, a Terran ambassador adapts to an alien culture as love overcomes sentient diversity.
A loyal android fights for his cruel leader.
Teenage romance during the Six Day War.
A day in a dog's life.

...and much more

 We present here one of the stories from the book, titled "Gulfs and Pleasures":

 I DO NOT RECOMMEND HAVING SEX WHILE WEARING A GAS MASK. BEYOND the empirical fact that it prevents kissing from being part of the act, it’s difficult to breathe during the strenuous effort. Within a couple of seconds, the mask fogs up, and you can’t see a thing. Moreover, the waves of giggling break your concentration. Try imagining what a naked woman and a naked man look like while wearing gas masks. You’d have to agree with me that it looks funny if not grotesque. But when there’s no choice, you do what you must do and enjoy it, if only in a limited way.

I called Orna’s cell phone as soon as the siren went off in the middle of the night. She picked up after the first ring.

“Are you alright? Is he at home?”

“No. Two hours ago, he was called up and ran off to join the guys and play war. I don’t believe that he’ll be back today. Who knows how long it will last? It’s scary, and we didn’t even prepare an airtight room. He insists that there’s no chance that it will hit us of all people. Anyway, what does he care? He’s sitting in the underground bunker ogling the girl soldiers. Nothing will happen to him.”

Orna was one of the regular participants in my first-year course on the history of European art since the Renaissance that I ran in the large lecture hall of the Gillman building. She used to sit in the front row with the other “stenographers.” Those were the co-eds who conscientiously scribbled down every word that came out of my mouth, including flat jokes and burps. She was older than them, mature and sure of her intelligence amid those Barbie dolls. As opposed to them, she would, from time to time, fire a challenging comment that proved she was listening carefully and under- standing. To my shame, or not, I wasn’t attracted to her brains, although they did arouse my curiosity. As I droned along, lecturing on autopilot, my look wandered from her hazel-green eyes to the swell of her breasts and her shapely legs. What could I do? Even a professor is a human being, isn’t he? On a depressing winter’s day, between perusal of desolate seminar papers on the play of light and shadow in Venetian painting and suicidal thoughts, I ran into her in the cafeteria. The usually hectic and packed room was unusually quiet. We were alone, not counting Sonia behind the counter. Perhaps the atmosphere of impending doom chased the regular café denizens away.

I’ll jump forward because there’s not much to say about the develop- ment of our relationship. We didn’t go for in-depth discussions about art, politics, or interpersonal relations. There was no sophisticated seduction or so-called love at first sight. We were two lonely people with their eyes open, who found something in each other that had been missing up to that specific moment. We went for it. For me, her presence filled a void that was characteristic of my life here since returning from New York and a string of what Erica Jong called “zipless fucks.” She never revealed what she found in me. I doubted that it was about my less than god-like physique. I didn’t ask for fear of bursting the bubble. I didn’t want to find out that I was just a reasonable alternative to Amnon, her here again, gone again husband. And the sex was great.

“Amnon will always be Amnon,” I replied with a tinge of baseless hypocrisy. “With or without Iraqi ground to ground missiles, he’ll always look out for number one. Anyway, you always know how to take care of yourself.”

I couldn’t help adding a bit of pretentious and hollow male know it all superiority, and I said, “But he’s right about one thing. The chance that a missile will land on top of you, in Ramat Gan of all places, is tiny.”

“Yes, definitely, Mr. Professor of art history and great international expert on ballistic missiles,” she shot back, taking me down a few notches. “Do you suggest that I drink a glass of water and calm down? In a minute, you’re going to replace Nachman Shai.”

I tried another tack.

“I can be over at your place in a few minutes to set up an airtight room. I’ve been hoarding plastic sheeting obsessively for months, and I’m sure there’s a technical drawing by Da Vinci that could guide me through it.” She giggled. It worked. She could have guessed that my building skills were negligible, but there was nothing like a bit of self-deprecating humor to bring her around and hide the truth. She accepted my generous offer, and I was on my way before she put down the virtual receiver.

The streets were abandoned at that early hour. The oily puddles left by the rain reflected the brake lights of the few cars on the road. On the radio, there was an endless stream of talking and talking. Nobody could say what was happening. Were we hearing distant explosions or just echoing thunder? Should we put on our masks or take them off? It all just went by me. My thoughts focused on expectations of Orna – hot caresses, electrifying touches, sweet breath, erect nipples, wet, wet, wet.

Here’s another suggestion for my male friends. Don’t come to your lovers tight as a spring, heart beating rapidly with passion and sweaty palms. And it doesn’t matter if it’s the first day of war or any other circumstance. You’ll come, in every meaning of the word, and it’ll be over in seconds. Much too quickly.

We were getting ready for another round when the second siren went off. Being good citizens, we put on our masks and checked the limits of human sexual capabilities under the threat of chemical attack. Between bursts of muffled laughter and the pungent smell of rubber, we got a passing grade for the efforts invested.

The cell phone rang, and Orna answered. “It’s him,” her lips expressed silently. Amnon.

 

“Yes, I understand. I’ll think about it. I’m not sure that it’s a good idea. She must already be hysterical, and she’ll make me crazy too. That’s the situation. Yeah, it’s disgusting, but I got them out of the attic, and if they tell us to, I’ll put on the mask. Be careful. Call me when you can. Kiss, kiss. Bye.”

She looked pale. “It looks as though it’s serious this time,” she explained after the short conversation with her loving and concerned husband. “His unit is moving, and for the next few days, he’s not coming home and won’t be available on the phone.”

“Where is he going? Somewhere around here?” I wasn’t asking because of some sudden fear for Amnon’s safety. I just wanted to weigh the chances that he might show up by surprise and see what the civilians were doing in the rear…at his home.

“He said that it’s secret and he can’t talk about it. He wants me to move in with his mother in Jerusalem until things calm down. You heard what I told him. It’s out of the question.”

Amnon’s secret location was troubling. My plan to get comfortable in Orna’s bed for the next few days has a whiff of danger about it now. Suddenly he calls. Suddenly he’s worried about her and wants to send her to Jerusalem. What is he scheming? He might even show up unannounced to see if she was okay.

There wasn’t much time to consider the options, as the undulating howl of a siren broke the silence. This time we could distinctly hear the distant boom that followed it. The minute that the all-clear sounded, we were in the car on our way to Eilat. We even sang “Heading South to Eilat” loudly on a childish high at 4 a.m. On the Arava highway, we joined a slowly crawling jam of vehicles. It appeared that others, lots of them, came up with Orna’s brilliant idea to get out of the bull’s eye and as far outside of the missiles’ range as possible.

Orna wanted us to move into a holiday apartment in the southern town owned by her former schoolmate, best friend, and current neighbor, Rachel. Thanks to her outstanding bodily dimensions, Rachel had taken up a modeling career that frequently brought her to Paris, London, and New York. She changed her name to Tiffany and, when traveling, left the keys to her apartment and the Eilat hideaway with Orna. She often invited her and Amnon to use the Eilat domicile. I tried to convince Orna to come to a hotel with me to survive the war in bed with room service.

Near Beer Ora, Amnon called again. He heard as we did that a missile had hit Ramat Gan, destroying his and my low probability theory.

“Calm down. I’m still at home, and nothing happened on our street,” she told him. “There was a giant explosion, pretty close by, and the walls shook, but nothing more than that.” The lies slipped off her tongue smoothly. What else could she say?

“I might go to your mother’s later. In the meantime, if you can’t reach me on the phone, it’s because I’m down in the shelter. I don’t trust that plastic sheeting that we don’t have anyway.”

After saying goodbye with kisses, she reported no chance that he would make it home in the coming days. He must make do with the underwear he took with him. I breathed easier.

In Eilat, we dragged from hotel to hotel, the bed and room service plan falling to pieces. The same scene played out everywhere. Lobbies had turned into battlefields between separate Jewish combatants. Israel war-time solidarity gave way to exchanges of curses, pushing and shoving, and an awakening of Sephardi-Ashkenazi infighting. Never did hotel managers discover so many long-lost close friends from school and the army, relatives on the side of granny from Afula, and various other people with exclusive rights. Everyone was squeezing up against the reception desks trying to get hold of even the smallest partially furnished closet. It was a nightmare. In one of the luxury properties, the security guards were unsuccessfully attempting to take apart an outpost of suitcases and sleeping bags established by two families with a hive full of nervous brats.

Again, it’s Amnon on the phone. Orna shouldn’t try to reach him at his unit. He won’t be available due to radio silence and communications security. That’s fine, I thought. The walls have ears.

We dredged up Orna’s original plan. In a few minutes, we found the holiday apartment building. It was a nondescript structure with balconies overlooking a dilapidated neighborhood minimarket. The elevator was out of service, so we climbed the stairs to the fourth floor. On each landing, we stopped for a couple of moments of hurried necking, expecting what was coming. Hands were sent out to intimate parts, lips locked, tongues writhed. As Orna tried to fish the keys out of her bag while loosening my belt, I was busily unbuttoning her blouse to get at her bra.

The door opened, and we fell into the apartment. A pleasantly cold gust of air from the air conditioner welcomed us in. Someday had left it on since the last visit. We couldn’t wait for the bed. Clothes were rapidly removed and thrown aside, and the plush carpet hosted our vigorous sexual duet.

Eventually, things calmed down, and we could hear muffled, unidenti- fiable voices coming from somewhere else in the apartment: mumbling, quiet moaning, a cadence of creaking. We got up to check the noises that seemed to be coming from behind the closed but flimsy door of the bedroom. Just in case, I picked up a thick rolling pin in the kitchen. I pushed the door open, and no terrorist jumped me. Only Orna’s somewhat hysterical laughter penetrated my consciousness. Amnon pulled back from between Tiffany/Rachel’s legs spread wide as though bitten by a snake and stared at us incredulously.