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Geoffrey reached for the top shelf of his humidor and extracted a snub-nose corona, five inches in length, a dark brown like semi-sweet chocolate. Juliana ran it under her nose, taking in an aroma with notes of nutmeg and walnut – and old dead leaves, of course, but she left that part out.
“You realize,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just following the instructions from Cigar Connoisseur magazine.”
“You’re very convincing,” said Geoffrey.
She took another sniff. “I do love that smell, though. Mom used to keep a box around for bigwigs, and I would sneak into her office just to take a whiff.”
“My dad used to smoke them while driving,” said Geoffrey. “I loved watching the smoke get sucked out that little triangular flap in the window. I don’t even think they make those anymore. Would you like a clip?”
“No thanks.” She reached into her handbag for a brass clipper with the inscription LAS.
“Who’s LAS?” asked Scootie. He sat at the end of the coffee table, playing spectator.
“No idea. My mother bought this in an antique shop in North Platte, Nebraska. We’ve been making up names ever since. Like Lucia Antonia Severocetti.”
“Leslie Ashton Serendy,” said Geoffrey.
“Lars Aardvark Somarovich,” said Scootie.
Juliana laughed, and squeezed the blades around the cigar. “By the way, Mother says hi.”
“Well good,” said Scootie. “One less secret I have to keep.”
Juliana put the cigar in her mouth and rolled it with her fingers. “I’ve heard,” she muttered between rolls, “that this increases the draw of the smoke.”
“Yes,” said Scootie. “But you’re not supposed to enjoy it so much.”
“I’m glad you said that,” said Geoffrey. He drew out his gold Italian lighter and held it steady as Juliana puffed up a flame. She let out a cloud of smoke, then shot it through with a whistling stream.
Geoffrey raised his eyebrows. “You’ve done this before.”
“Actually, just once. Frat party at Harvard. Old story – no one told me not to inhale, and I proceeded to get very dizzy. I did fool around with cigarettes, though. My theater-pal Leah Applebaum and I used to see who could produce the sexiest smoking style. It nearly drove the male cast members insane.”
Geoffrey had planned on remaining neutral and quiet – this being the woman, after all, who had put his friend through such hell – but he was having a hard time of it. She was just as charming as he had always imagined.
Juliana tried to let the smoke out her nose, having heard this was a good way to gather the cigar’s full flavor. She succeeded only in making herself sneeze, and spilling ashes all over the carpet.
“Damn! I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t worry,” said Geoffrey. “Flora insists I vacuum after each of these cigar parties, anyway.”
Juliana stopped smoking and eyed the tip of her stogie, a thin trail of smoke rising from the orange cap.
“Well, you know, I have no chance of identifying this thing from taste or smell. But I do have a largely useless minor in psychology, and many small stories about Mr. Urban from Mr. Jones. I know one thing positively, that you don’t take a challenge lightly, and would do your darnedest to fool me.”
Juliana took a thoughtful drag. “No I know you boys are awfully fond of places like the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Guatemala, so those are out. I’m also nixing American smokes, which would be too obvious for their steam locomotive outputs and prefab pee-hole openings.”
This brought Scootie and Geoffrey to a fit of snickering, because they had been trying for years to come up with this exact metaphor.
“Boys, boys,” Juliana scolded. “I’m trying to concentrate! I’m guessing you wouldn’t be so cruel as to bring in some obscure Lithuanian brand, so I’m thinking somewhere sneaky-close, like Mexico. And, possessing a romantic nature, you would choose something befitting the occasion, like Te-Amo.”
Geoffrey’s pirate grin grew to its full breadth. “Scootie – marry this woman.”
“I can’t,” Scootie laughed. “She’s still married.”
“I don’t care. Marry her anyway.”
Geoffrey enthusiasm turned right back to doubt when Juliana presented him with a dried-out corpse of a cigar, its pale brown exterior cracking and crumbling like the bandages on a mummy. Geoffrey dove in like a trouper, but fell into a fit of coughing at the first inhale. He blew the next one out before it could get anywhere near his throat, and Juliana broke out laughing.
“Oh! I’m so sorry, Geoffrey. Cigars don’t age like wine, do they?”
“Well, in fact, no,” said Geoffrey, working to be a good sport. “God, there’s even a couple of... singe marks here on the side.”
“I’m afraid this one makes a better story than a smoke. In the late seventies, during the fighting in Nicaragua, the national army bombed the Joya de Nicaragua cigar factory. One of the American news crews found out about this, snuck up to the rubble and made off with every stogie they could find. One of the cameramen was a school chum of my husband’s, so we got this little relic for Christmas.”
“So these little marks might even be gunpowder,” said Geoffrey.
“Check me out, Scootie – I’m smokin’ history!” Geoffrey took a big drag and hacked it back out.
Scootie laughed. “Those who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to smoke ratty cigars. Does your husband know about this?”
Juliana smiled wickedly. “Why? Should he?” She pulled another cigar from her bag. “Here, Geoffrey. Here’s a more modern Joy de Nicaragua, once you recover from that one.”
She didn’t fare so well in Scrabble. She was strong on vocabulary, weak on strategy, leaving too many double- and triple-word squares open for the competition. There weren’t too many complaints from the men, however. Geoffrey was too busy compiling ridiculously high scores, while Scootie chugged on a humongous Cuban Churchill Juliana got from a production of Carmen at the Met.
Afterward, they stood in the parking lot for a final round of chat. Geoffrey bid them goodnight with big pirate-king hugs, then went to relieve Flora at the desk. Juliana started off for Scootie’s car, then realized that Scootie wasn’t with her. She turned to find him heading in the opposite direction.
“Scootie! Where are you going?”
Scootie said nothing and continued around the corner of the motel. Juliana found him at the door to Room 14.
“I thought we might enter together this time.” He stood back and waved her inside.
Juliana heard the giggling of a retreating Flora and smelled the sulfur from a recently extinguished match. The room was lit by tiers of yellow candles, placed on every available piece of furniture, and in the center stood an ice bucket with a bottle of champagne. Scootie opened it and filled their glasses.
“Toast me, sweetheart, and then let’s screw like bunnies.”
Juliana raised her glass and said, “Te amo.” The next sensation was Scootie kissing the back of her neck with champagne-cool lips. But something else was distracting her. She walked to the door, flipped on the lights and found her answer, right there on the wall.
“Scootie? This color. Is this Sourdough?”
Photo by MJV