With the winter chill long descended, but my self-imposed obligation to this column not quite expended, I have been reduced to this: it is Tuesday night and I am hunkered in my kitchen. The ashtray rests on the cooktop so that the range hood might extract as much smoke as possible. I am clothed entirely in silk because of a misguided idea I have that it doesn’t take on the smell of smoke (the reason that it is the traditional material of smoking jackets). A smoke blanket hangs across the doorway in the vain hope that the odour will be isolated to just this room. Upstairs my bed is stripped in a vain effort to preserve the sheets. In truth, it’s a very comfortable way to enjoy a cigar, but the aftermath will not be pretty. This is the last dusky beauty I will smoke this season.
For this finale I have selected a Cohiba Piramides Extra from the original release in 2012. All cigars vary from year to year, but generally the first release is about as good as they get. Some first releases are legendary (the 2003 Siglo VI being the most famous example), while others are only great in comparison to the depths their descendants sink (Maduro 5 line, BHKs). I guess Cuba just tries a little bit harder in the first year.
At first light the cigar is toasty, with a strong, dry grass aftertaste. The tobacco is a light to medium. In true Cohiba style the smoke is incredibly smooth and rich. It tastes like class. My soft spot for Cohiba is well known; I don’t have the words to articulate exactly what it is that makes them special, but I’d like to think that words aren’t necessary. Smoke a Cohiba, you’ll see. Even the worst of them have a quality that is self-evident, that is beyond language.
Of my various sojourns abroad, my time in Japan bore a marked difference to my time in China. In China, my friends were rich as hell and, all earning western salaries in a country where you can feed a family of four for less than the cost of an ice-cream in Australia, we lived like kings, never giving the first thought to vile money. In Japan my friends were all broke. They were English teachers in the main, all living paycheque to paycheque, and those paycheques came monthly. It was the last Saturday of the month, and so I found myself alone on a Saturday night. My own existence was that of a hermit, prowling a huge apartment above a strip club by day, talking to myself. There was no way I was staying in on a Saturday night.
Japan is the kind of country where it is easy to make friends. In Australia strangers are predators: a man sitting alone in a park drinking a beer is a maniac to be shunned and avoided. In Japan the attitude is very different: he is a brother, a fellow imbiber, to be embraced and incorporated into your evening. So it was that I headed to Triangle Park, an isosceles of concrete in the heart of Osaka’s America-town. The ‘park’ sits in the middle of the nightlife district and there is a convenience store across the road that sells canned cocktails for $1, and so it naturally becomes a central congregation point for the aimless youth. If nothing else I could at least check out some girls in short skirts.
I was halfway through my fourth Cocktail Partner when I heard my name being called. It was a group of locals who evidentially knew me from some past debauchery or other. To be honest, I recalled them only barely (if at all), but who was I to quibble? We shared a drink and a cigarette, and they invited me to join them in a nearby club where a DJ they liked was playing.
The club was loud and warm, a maelstrom of writhing bodies. The DJ was good, but the VJ, who ran clips from films and psychedelic patterns in time with the music on large screens around the dance floor, was better. I soon lost my friends, and then myself, to the music; writhing in the dark, enjoying the sound and light, the heat, the smell and the viscera of other bodies.
Over time I became conscious of one particular body that had entered and remained in my close orbit, my pelvis contacting her warm rump at the zenith of my thrusts, the scent of her shampoo in my nostrils. Gradually, my incidental contact became deliberate: my caresses more lingering. With every contact she gave the palpable feeling of reciprocation; she would follow my movements, and embrace them, move into me as I moved into her. Finally I removed the subterfuge, and placed my hands around her waist, and she ground herself against me, tracing my erection with her arse.
I needed to piss, but I held it until things reached crisis point, and I whispered one of my three Japanese phrases in her ear: “chotto matte (one moment).” When I returned she wasn’t where I’d left her, and I looked around, panicked: I knew her only by touch, by smell: I hadn’t seen her face. Moments later though she was there, and hand in hand we moved to the dark recesses at the edge of the floor, and kissed passionately in the French style. Soon the moment felt right, and I deployed the second of my Japanese phrases, “ikimashouka (let’s go).”
Outside it was pouring rain, and my $2 plastic umbrella was in no way adequate to shelter two people for the ten or so block walk back to my apartment. I tried “eigo ga hanasemasuka,” my final phrase, but was met with a blank shaking of the head. I showed her my ID card with my address, attempting to indicate that it wasn’t far, but Japanese addresses don’t make any sense to any body, and it didn’t help my cause. Eventually I hailed a cab. We passed the five minute drive in awkward silence. Human affection was the only tongue we had in common, and the back seat of a Japanese cab is no place for that.
She looked very suspicious when we pulled up outside my building (and rightly so, as to all external indications it contained nothing but hostess bars and massage parlours), but entered nonetheless, and soon we were canoodling on my bed. I began to tug at her shirt, and she stopped me to unleash a great torrent of Japanese. I responded with a look of incomprehension, and throwing “chotto matte” back at me she began to rummage in her bag, eventually producing a pocket translator. She typed away on it for ages, and eventually handed it over with a paragraph of incomprehensible English word salad on the screen. I laughed and shook my head, and accepting defeat she pointed at the light. “No.” This I understood.
We made love in the dark, with her whimpering in the classic Japanese porno style. We slept curled up together, the language of affection knowing no culture. In the morning I walked her to the train station, to the Sakai line, a city to the south of Osaka. I gave her my phone to put her number in, and there I finally learnt her name: Takako. Before she left she managed to ask my age, and told me her own: she was twenty one, four years younger than I was. She had her friend text me later that day, and for a week or so we messaged back and forth. She told me she was learning English for me. Eventually, though, it petered out, and I never saw her again. Ours was a relationship that could not be sustained through texts.
Mid-way through the cigar is creamy, the smoke luscious. The grassy flavour is still dominant, although a bit earthier than it was, more cut lawn than dry hay. Behind it there is the hearty aroma of old saddles. The strength has thickened a little, trending towards medium. The class remains.
Like all good stories, Takako’s has a sequel. It was eight years later and 7,000km away, and I was at the time of my life where I had a wedding every weekend – in fact, on this particular weekend I had two. The first was in a garden in the afternoon, where a high school chum was marrying a Japanese girl. It was a quiet affair for family and intimates, and there wasn’t a reception per se, but there were drinks and canapés in the garden afterward. After those the bridal party were going out to dinner, but later in the evening the younger folks were invited to meet at their hotel suite for further libations. I have always lived by a very simple motto: “when you say ‘no’ to champagne you say ‘no’ to life,” and next to the rose bushes the bubbly stuff was flowed freely. By the time I headed to the second wedding of the day, my sails were full, and cut toward the breeze.
The second wedding of the day was a Russian affair: in truth, it was a reception, not a wedding. The wedding had been that afternoon in an Orthodox church somewhere, and had involved, someone told me, “a lot of great hats.” The event I arrived at was in a Russian reception centre in the eastern suburbs. Every table was laden with plates of cured meats and smoked fishes and, in addition to both colours of wine, each had its own bottle of vodka embedded in a block of ice. I wasn’t too hungry – I was filled with bubbles and hors d’oeuvres – but I was certainly in the mood to drink, and there were plenty willing to share a vodka shot with me. Before long I was on the dance floor bewitching a group of gorgeous Russian girls with my Michael Jacksonesque kicks and spins. We had not quite gotten to the hora when the bridegroom came over and told me I had to leave: apparently the girls fell under the jurisdiction of a table of Ukrainian mobsters, and their tolerance for my antics was quickly diminishing.
By the time I arrived at the hotel I felt great: I had enough drinks under my belt to fell a man twice my size, but somehow it was working for me. Perhaps it was all the smoked fish. The suite was large, and from the little entrance hall I had a good view of both rooms. In the lounge room my school friends sprawled languidly, their ties undone, drinking whiskey and telling jokes. In the bedroom eight Japanese girls in party frocks sat on a row on the end of the bed, facing an empty chair. I stuck my head into the lounge room for just long enough for my friends to smile welcomingly and for me to call them “homos” before I headed for the bedroom chair.
The girls were happy to see me and giggled at my jokes, and for a while I conducted it like a seminar, taking questions from the panel. Before too long the bride wanted her seat back and I found myself locked in conversation with one girl in particular. Her name was Takae, which sounds a lot like the Japanese word for “expensive,” and we instantly had a rapport. We talked for hours, and I left that night with her number in my phone. Over the next few months we become a romantic couple; there was something familiar in the way she whimpered when we made love, but I just put in down to my own cultural biases. “All Japanese girls are the same,” I thought to myself.
About a month into our relationship we got to the subject of family and where she was from, and it emerged that she grew up in Sakai, a city just south of Osaka. She had one sister, four years younger than herself. I didn’t instantly recognise the name when she told me. “Takako” I said, mulling it over. “I think I knew somebody called that.” I turned red when I put it together. “Does she speak English as well as you do?” I asked. “Yes,” came the response. “She was very lazy in high school and didn’t learn it at all, but when she was twenty one she really liked a western guy and she learnt it for him. You will probably meet her. She’s coming to stay with me in a month.”
We broke up shortly thereafter.
In the final third I begin to get a serious head spin. The cigar is full and tangy, and a little sour on the back pallet. There is a slight bitterness. I have been drinking, of course: first a whiskey sour, then a daiquiri, perhaps 100ml of brown spirits in all, but that in no way accounts for how woozy I feel. This cigar has some punch.
Like all good cigars, I take it till I burn my fingers. The Cohiba Piramides Extra. Delightful.
See you next year.