A Romeo y Julieta Churchills: age unknown, but it’s old. The design of its single band is the one used on dress boxed Churchills from the 1970s until 2008, so it’s definitely within that window. The printing on the band is terrible, the embossing more or less non-existent which, coming out of Cuba, doesn’t really mean anything, but as the bands started to improve around 2002, I’d say it’s probably from before then. The band colours are faded, and the white portion is yellowed and stained with oil. The wrapper shows signs of shrinkage, and has the fine, dry, papery quality of very old leaf. Pure speculation, but I would say 1980s. I spark it up, and the flavour is very light and cedary, with something in there evocative of newsprint.
I first met Marylou Wang at the birthday party of a Dutch acquaintance, in a plush teppanyaki joint in the good part of Shanghai’s French Concession. When I walked in the maître d’ glanced up from his newspaper and led me without speaking to a private room in the back, to the only white people in the place. The party was the standard mixture of Europeans – a Frenchman, a few Germans, a smattering of Italians – but my eye fell at once on the token Chinese girl at the table. For all their willowy charms, Chinese girls are rarely elegant or sophisticated to the western sensibility. The urban middle class did not exist in China at all until the mid-1990s, and even today children are raised by their grandmothers, and their grandmothers are products of the Cultural Revolution; hunched crones who squat in the street and spit sunflower seeds while bartering over live ducks, and who play Majong to all hours, cackling uproariously. They are a generation that the government raised to be uneducated peasants, in an era where the universities were shuttered and an accusation of intellectualism was enough to get you sent to a forced labour camp. This girl though, in a plain black cocktail dress that artfully accentuated her full bosom, with a simple string of pearls around her neck, light, natural makeup, and an easy, confident poise, was different. She spoke perfect English, with a mid-Atlantic accent. “Hi,” she said “I’m Marylou Wang.”
I saw a lot of Marylou Wang over the next couple of weeks. She had travelled extensively in Europe and studied culture and fine art, and as far as I could tell, all her friends were European. She ran a fashion boutique and was always dressed impeccably; the grace with which she floated down the street was a higher form of the art than even those privileged blonde girls from the best schools in the west have developed. She always knew a dimly lit cocktail bar nearby, and drank dry martinis and neat whisky unflinchingly.
The thing I could never quite put my finger on though was where it all came from. If she was from Shanghai or Beijing I might have understood it, might have put her down as the child of some well-connected party cadre or whatever passes for old money in 1980s China, but she wasn’t. She was from Wuhan, the very same industrial shithole on the Yangtze where I spent my formative years. I had attended the Wuhan No. 6 Junior School, and I knew what went on there. I held up my fist to swear an oath to the spirit of the Young Pioneers, and wore my red scarf and sailor uniform just like everybody else. I attended weeks of regimented dancing classes so I could dance a waltz with the class monitor at some ceremony or other (as a foreigner I was excluded from bayonet practice). I also attended the morning school wide eye exercises, and the abacus lessons, and the art class where students were graded on how accurately they copied the pictures in the book. My family home in China was below the lowest standards of public housing in Australia, but it was palatial compared to the one room apartments that my classmates’ families lived in in those countless bleak concrete tenement blocks that surrounded the Wuhan No.6 Junior School. How was it possible that this delightful orchid had blossomed in that brackish swamp?
At the halfway point there is not a huge amount to this cigar; it is light to the point of non-existence, a dull, dusty, cedar flavour. A hint of straw. Younger Romeos can be flavour bombs, with strong, complex, floral aromatics, stone fruits and chocolate, and perhaps this one might have offered those back in its salad days, but today they are gone, its oils evaporated. Cigars don’t turn to vinegar with age, they never become unpleasant, and this one isn’t, but left too long they lose their flavour, and this cigar, unfortunately, has been left too long.
For our fourth date I took Marylou ten-pin bowling, and it was there that I began to realise that the whole thing was an act, her whole persona a perfect, studied performance. She showed up in a tight, grey, satiny dress, cut halfway up the thigh, with matching bowling shoes, gloves, and custom drilled ball. I’ll never forget the way she slunk up to the lane, and how her leg shot out and folded behind her as she released the ball, and how her plump backside popped in that dress. She looked every inch the professional, and I prepared myself for utter humiliation, and yet her final score was in the low 60s, less than half of my mediocre 127.
I fell for Marylou just a bit, and I think she fell a little for me too. We dated for more than a month before I finally took her to bed on New Year’s Eve. In bed it all fell apart. Her pubic mound was unshaved, a forest of silky black, and on top of me the fullness of her figure, normally her greatest asset when artfully arranged in satiny dresses and under diffused lighting, worked against her. Her belly folded, and her breasts hung low, with creases around. I suspect she was older than she had let on.
Worse than this, far, far worse, was the loss of grace. “Ohhhhh” she screamed. “Fuck me.” “Ohhhhh. I’m coming, coming.” Her orgasm was fake, and ridiculously over the top, acquired, I can only imagine, from the one place in Western media you will never find any semblance of grace or elegance: pornographic films. It was ironic, really, as perhaps the only place where the average Chinese girl finds an understated grace is in the bedroom; in their trembling, their virginal gasping, and gentle stifled moans. Yes, Marylou was an actor, and a great one. She never dropped her character once.
Once it was over and I lay growing turgid in a pool of our mingled fluids, I watched her slink naked to the bathroom, that glorious behind, uncovered now, swaying back and forth in the moonlight. Ah, Marylou.
I called her for weeks after that, but she never would see me again. I think she knew the jig was up, that the façade had come down. Eventually she sent me a message. “I like you, but I don’t want to be your sex friend.”
I was hoping for a last minute turn around and to some extent there is one. The final inches of the cigar are fuller, heavy notes of toast and a thicker, darker wood, a little barrel aged bourbon. I’ve been sipping on a Coca-Cola sporadically throughout, and it now serves to remove the slight bitterness from the final inch, and leaves a light, burned caramel. Aged cigars are sought out for their elegance, which this definitely has, along with a balanced, delicate simplicity, but there isn’t a huge amount of flavour. Its best days, unfortunately, are behind it, but it burns nice just the same.