When Cohiba first emerged in the 1980s it was marketed as Castro’s private brand, and had all the cachet that came with that; sipping from a Lanceros you pictured yourself in fatigues in the wood-panelled meeting room of the politburo, your smoke rings wafting from the kind of immaculate treasure that only a dutiful personality cult can produce. Today when you smoke a Cohiba it’s all about the status. The shiniest gold rings on the fattest cigars, matching the rings on the fat fingers that clutch them. You don’t smoke a Cohiba because they’re the best; you smoke them because you’re the best. The ultimate symbol of crass capitalism.
The 1996 release of the Siglo series was the first step Cohiba took away from Castro’s cigars. The second would come in 2007, with the Maduro line, but in 2006 the release of the Pirámides Edición Limitada still smelt of the old days. Along with the ‘A’ sized Gran Corona, the Cohiba Pirámides were a tradition unto themselves, wheeled out regularly for the most special of occasions. Getting a box of these in ’06 felt like you were in on something. It felt like a diplomatic gift.
The first puff is very bitter. I had picked this day for a smoke because it seemed perfect – still and warm – but in the time it took me to walk down to the smoking spot a breeze has sprung up, and it is doing the cigar no good at all. Things improve somewhat after I build a little fort for the coal out of my various paraphernalia: the taste is strongly woody, with coffee notes.
The last time I smoked one of these cigars was around five years ago, when I passed around a box at the stag night of a friend. Aside from being a waste of good cigars, the night was a non-event, just the regulation debauchery, but I recall it mainly as my first encounter with Mark.
Mark had a nervous energy, and brought a frenetic tension with him into every room. He talked fast, and repeated himself frequently. Specifically, there was factoid he would drop at absolutely every opportunity. Mark was dating a stripper.
“Hey Mark, how’s it going?”
“I’m so tired today, had to pick my girlfriend up from work really late last night. She’s a stripper, so she has crazy hours sometimes.”
“Hey Mark, your share of dinner is $30.”
“No worries, you mind if I pay with fives? I have heaps because I’m dating a stripper.”
It always seemed like a weird flex to me. As a man who has dated several models (and one escort), I know full well the pleasure of dropping your girlfriend’s occupation, a social shorthand no less potent than “man, I gotta go to the doctor, the band on my Rolex is giving me a rash,” or “sorry I’m late, my bloody Mercedes has the worst satnav.” Where I come from though, “stripper” is a bit of a loaded term. Yes, your girlfriend is attractive enough that men will pay to see her naked, but is that really such a high bar to clear? The fantasy of the beautiful girl who is only doing this because it gives her more time to study for her law exams is somewhat plausible where I live in the city centre, but Mark was not from where I live. Mark was from somewhere thirty kilometres passed Frankston. There aren’t a lot of law schools out there. In the outer suburbs, stripping is a career you choose when you need drug money and you don’t have a lot of options.
Mark evidentially didn’t feel there was any dubiousness at all about it. He dropped the brag with such frequency that it became an easy shorthand when referring to him. “You know Mark?”
“Oh, the guy who’s dating the stripper?”
At the midway the cigar has mellowed significantly, although is still on the strong side for a teenage Cohiba. The predominant note is mid-tobacco, a little grassy on the back of the throat, with strong burnt coffee and bitter cacao notes. It tastes more or less like a badly made cappuccino, with over-roasted beans.
After years of Mark being the guy dating the stripper, he suddenly wasn’t. I encountered him at a party one night and found him hot to trot, pointing out girls, asking who was single, and articulating what he wanted to do to this or that one. He was a man on the prowl. When I asked what happened to his girlfriend, it was evidentially a sore subject. “Man” he told me, “fuck that bitch.”
It had turned out that she had been cheating on him for years, and in the end had left him for the other man. Before their relationship began, Mark had owned a house – his dream home, in his telling – which he had bought with factory sweat in his early twenties, when house prices were much lower than today. He had dated the stripper for more than five years, and the law considered them a de-facto couple. When they parted ways, the house was sold and the profits divided. He was living with his parents. “Man,” he said, by way of an exclamation point. “Forget that bitch. I am going to get laid tonight!”
He didn’t. Some five hours later he was paralytic drunk, and I poured him into a cab for his long ride back to the suburbs.
As the first band comes off, the cigar is sweet with dark chocolate and a strong coffee note. The aftertaste is dry and dusty, but with a gingernut spice that sticks to the roof of your mouth.
A year or so after my last encounter with Mark, I received an unexpected message on Facebook. I had never met her, but after some mild internet sleuthing, I recognised the sender as Mark’s ex-girlfriend. Her name was Crystal. “Hi” she said “I’m organising a party for Mark next weekend. Can you come?”
“Sure.” I replied. Why not?
It wasn’t much of a party. The house two-bedroom fibreboard near a freeway offramp in a far-flung suburb. On the kitchen island the ‘bar’ was laid out: Midori, Chambord, Galliano, Blue Curaçao, and honey flavoured Jack Daniels. No gin or whisky or vodka or anything that could be used to make an actual drink. Crystal and a girlfriend sat inside with UDLs. In the backyard, Mark and two of his mates sipped Woodstock and Cola cans around a firepit. His friends had beards, beer bellies, and Metallica t-shirts.
After a while I asked Mark what the story with the stripper was. “I thought you guys broke up?”
He rolled his eyes.
“Fuck, mate” he said. “I had the best house. My dreamhouse. Had to sell it. Two hundred grand I gave that bitch when we split up, and in six months she blows through the lot traveling and getting high with some douchebag. Then we get back together and now all I can afford is this shithole.”
At that point Crystal appeared at the screen door. “Are you ready, boys?” she called. “It’s time for Mark’s present.”
The girls had cleared the room, save for a single plastic bucket chair of a design familiar to anyone who has ever sat through a play in a school gymnasium. Mark sat on the chair, with his friends and I standing in a lose semi-circle around him. The room was lit by the unrelenting glare of two naked fluorescent bulbs directly above Mark’s head. Crystal carried in a boombox that for some reason she had plugged in via an extension cord from the back yard. She pressed play, and the opening notes of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck rang out… and then immediately ceased. She swore, and fussed with the extension cord, which was apparently defective. After three more abortive starts, she assumed a position straddling the doorway, holding the ends of the cords together, and the music resumed.
Crystal’s friend appeared from the bathroom just as the first “thunder” and drum hit shot from the stereo. She wore a red costume cape over lacey black lingerie, with a plastic devil horn headband and pitchfork. Mark grinned. “Ho ho,” he said, glancing at Crystal. “You serious?” Crystal cackled in response.
The girl began to dance, gyrating her hips, and letting the cape fall from her shoulders. Thunderstruck’s screaming guitars do not lend themselves to a sensual strip tease, and her every move seemed just a little off the beat. It also was quickly apparent why strip clubs are not typically lit by bare fluorescents; I found myself fixated on the marks on her skin more than the dance. A small white scar ran up her bicep, ending just below her vaccination spot. There was a large bruise just above the left knee. When she unsnapped her bra, her skin was red from the tension. There was a pimple on her butt. There was a mole on her lower back that she probably should get checked out.
A few minutes in, the lap dance was reaching its conclusion: nude but for her panties, the girl was bent half in two at the waist; her legs straight, and her face down near her knees. One hand was wrapped around her ankle, while the other pulled aside the crotch of her panties to expose her vulva six inches from Mark’s face. At that moment the music cut out.
“Fuck! Crystal!” the dancer yelled, without straightening her pose. “Just skip to the next bloody song.”
It was A Whole Lotta Rosie.
After a minute or so more of gyrating on Mark, the now fully nude girl began to work to the room. She took a bowl of Allen’s Party Mix from the counter, and walked towards me. “Raspberry or banana?” she asked, batting her eyelids coquettishly.
“Ahh… banana?” I stammered. She giggled, and placed the banana just above her nipple, and then proffered it toward me. Awkwardly I reached and took it off her.
“Such a gentleman” she laughed. “Take it with your mouth.”
She placed another banana on her breast, and I uncomfortably bowed to remove it, again to titters from the room.
“He’s shy,” the girl remarked, and move on. “I’ll leave him alone.”
Mark’s friends were not so shy, and were evidentially familiar with this ritual. As she visited each in turn they handled her extensively, eating their sweet off her like a donkey eats an orange.
The show ended, and Crystal brought out a cake, her friend remaining casually nude while we sang happy birthday and Mark blew out the candles. I didn’t notice her get dressed, but she must have at some point, because shortly after that we were back around the firepit and the girls were back on the couch drinking UDLs. Mark at least seemed to appreciate his gift.
“Crystal can be a real shit sometimes,” he said “but she’s all right sometimes too. Nice of her to get me that. She knows I’ve wanted a dance from that girl for a while.”
From that night, unfortunately, my relationship with Mark ended; like ships in the night, we drifted apart. I heard he and Crystal had a baby not all that long after the party, and I think another one a few years later.
The cigar ends well, smoother and sweeter in the nub than it has been at any point in its duration, with cocoa and coffee predominant. A truly first-class cigar. Better than the Novedosos and the Siglo II by a decent margin.