Pin it

The first time I heard about Niagara, the news roused me from my sleep. It was sometime around Valentine’s Day, and my friend had called early that morning to see if I’d heard about this love potion, this soft drink, that was selling all over Little Rock, where we live.

“Tommy Smith’s talking about it on his show,” he tells me. “Turn on your radio.”

Tommy Smith is Little Rock’s version of Howard Stern, all redneck raunch on his Rock and Roll Breakfast Show. His following includes strippers, stockbrokers and politicians, including Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who doubles as a Southern Baptist minister but has appeared on the show several times. As politicians go, Bill Clinton is no exception in this city. A few years ago, the state commissioners regulating liquor permits attempted to ban bare breasts at strip bars and force pasties on the dancers, which didn’t stop them from also inviting the performers to put on a show at the capitol. That’s Little Rock — a bunch of Bible Belters with the sexual curiosity of the deeply repressed in a town big enough to give them plenty of temptation.

I have lived in Little Rock for ten years and grew up nearby. I know the town well enough that I’m not at all surprised that yet another herbal aphrodisiac is considered newsworthy. And sure enough, when I turn on my radio, there’s Tommy Smith, growling in a Southern drawl about what the drink does to women, how it juices them up, makes them weak in the knees. And it didn’t just affect women — one man calls in to say the drink made him erect with one swallow; another claims the same. “Oh please,” I think to myself, and I roll over and sleep through the next forty-five minutes of panting testimonials.

I forget all about it until a few weeks later, when I pause mid–channel flip to see what Louisa Drouet, a peppy, brunet local television reporter, has to say. She’s doing a live stand-up in front of Wycoff Coffee, a small gourmet coffee shop that’s now ground zero for Niagara distribution. Drouet, pretty and flirty, says she thinks Niagara might just help everyone in Little Rock “get a little nookie.” The camera pans to an endless line of middle-aged women waiting to get the last remaining bottles to be found in Little Rock city limits.

By the next morning, Little Rock media listservs are buzzing about the drink, but mostly about Drouet’s word choice. The offensive word, in case you missed it, would be the “n word” — nookie. All that day and the next night, nookie is the talk at the state capitol, the county courthouse and the downtown doughnut shop. The rumor is that the higher-ups at the TV station aren’t happy with her word choice. My friend runs into the newscaster at a news event, at which point Drouet, who she barely knows, breaks down and gets teary. “What’s the big deal?” asks Louisa, who’s from Oregon. “Don’t these same people listen to Tommy Smith?”

Meanwhile, the depraved beverage is selling out. Bottles are running scarce, and Lari Williams, the sole U.S. distributor, is placing frantic calls to its source (and the source of so many sexual fantasies): Sweden.

Lari Williams is the Niagara goddess, and she knows it. That’s why she hates it when people are rude to her. “What a witch,” she says as she slams down the phone, having put up with the entreaties of a desperate woman demanding more of the drink. “They don’t understand — I just don’t have anymore. They think I’m lying.”

She was born and raised in Little Rock, after all, and she expects you to be polite to her, even if her store is the only place carrying the fizzy neon-blue drink that everyone in town craves and demands. So she’s running out. She wishes everyone would just deal with it. Lari’s coffee shop was never the kind of place where cliques of any kind — skateboard rats or media elites — congregated. It just another strip mall coffee shop, located next to the Hallmark store. But since Lari started promoting and distributing the Swedish nectar a few weeks before Valentine’s Day, her phone has been ringing so consistently that she’s had to install additional phone lines; she estimates that she’s been getting seventy-five calls a minute. Although she occasionally sounds hassled, Lari, a red-haired forty year old who talks at three times the speed of most southerners, is thoroughly enjoying the success of a drink that inspires women to send her flowers the morning after they’ve tried it.

Lari will tell you straight out. Niagara worked for her. Of course, lately, in the heat of the Niagara craze, she says she hasn’t opened a bottle. To start with, it’s scarce. Besides that, “Who has time?” says Lari, who’s married to Roger Williams, her high school sweetheart and now business partner. “I’m busy selling it.”

Lari, who dresses more Nashville than Little Rock — all sequined jackets and leather pants and cowboy boots and glittery belts with big buckles — is both a product of her hometown and a provocateur within it. She sends her daughter, Chelsea (pure coincidence), to Christian school, but has been pushing the fifteen year old to get a belly button ring. (Lari was chastised by administrators for showing up at the same school in a long leather skirt. She has no belly button ring, but she does have a tattoo of a marlin on her ankle.) Brought up in a devoutly Christian home, she was booted from the Church of Christ after her first divorce (Williams is her third husband). When she’s in Niagara sales pitch mode, her accent’s as soft and southern as they come; but she’s also fond of saying anyone who doesn’t like what she’s selling can “kiss my ass.”

“People in Little Rock love to know everyone’s business. This place is nothing but a Peyton Place,” says Williams, sitting at a picnic table that serves as her desk and barely fits in her tiny office. She’s ignoring the ringing phone, trying to make some sense out of the papers piled on it, an influx of orders and notes she’s scribbled to herself in an attempt at organization. “Hell, sometimes you just walk out the door and someone wants to know where you are going. This place is crazy with gossip when it comes to sex and you never know what you might see. Like our neighbor who goes in her backyard and picks tomatoes naked. Mind you, we don’t live in the damn country.”

While Lari has never latched onto anything as big as this drink, her latest success is not pure serendipity. Williams worked in radio and television promotions for ten years, and has long marketed goodies that hint at a knack for the sexy sell: the most popular of the candies she sells at Wycoff is something she calls “praline orgasms,” vanilla fudge mixed in with pecan brittle. And her method of marketing has always promised the suggestion of a chemical fix along with the sweet: “It’s like eating marijuana fudge,” she says of the praline dessert. Her seriously-spiked bourbon fudge, available for a rich fifteen dollars a pound, sells almost as briskly.

In addition to running Wycoff, Lari and her husband cater parties for the celebrities who perform in Little Rock, making chocolate stilettos for Faith Hill when she passed through, a chocolate piano for Elton John when he was in town. It was at a food and beverages trade show last January that the two of them discovered Niagara.

Lari had the sense that the drink would fly in Little Rock, one of the top markets for sex toys in the country. And people who might balk at the idea of taking a clinical, cold, blue pill to spice up their sex life — a pill that hints at failure, at illness — might feel perfectly comfortable sipping at a pretty, cobalt-colored soft drink. Even the old-fashioned honeymoons it invokes with its name are the stuff of sweet, nostalgic associations.

“I knew I could sell this product and make it take off,” says Lari, wearing a denim jacket with the word “lucky” in sequins on the lapel. “But Roger was just excited because he thought we were going to have a lot of sex.”

When she contacted Nordic Drinks in Sweden, the owners were surprised that someone from the American South would want to market a drink that had gone absolutely nowhere with the sex-loving Swedes. Once the drink took off, its disbelieving manufacturers actually flew over to witness the phenomenon.

With her attorney’s help, Lari cut a deal to be the sole distributor of the drink in the United States. She now controls every aspect of Niagara in the U.S., including marketing. She has talked to Nordic Drinks about adding “Romance in a Bottle” on the labels. Anyone who wants to sell Niagara has to be approved by Lari, who has decided to limit the drink to a handful of boutiques, restaurants, salons and drugstores across the country. The contract dictates that the drink not be sold near sex toys or in the vicinity of sex magazines.

“It has to be promoted classy,” says Lari. She takes a long sip from a straw in her oversized blue plastic cup filled with Diet Coke; instead of coffee, she drinks the stuff all day. To Lari, Niagara is no clinical chemical manipulator but a romance enhancer to be served chilled, preferably with candles, lingerie and sexy music. She calls those special evenings “Niagara nights.”

As for the drink’s effectiveness, Lari admits Niagara requires a certain mind-set. And like most things in life, it won’t work exactly the same way for everyone. “But this isn’t green M&Ms,” she insists. “Repeat business says it all.”

I pick up the one remaining bottle in Lari’s store. The aqua-colored “aphrodisiac energy drink” might have been created by a Willy Wonka who went bonkers in the jungles of South America, snatching up unpronounceable herbs — damiana, shizandra, as well as the more familiar ginseng — and then mixing them with carbonated water and sugar, plus a healthy dose of caffeine. The result? A $4.50 drink that women report makes them relaxed, tingly in the right places and fired up for a night of nookie. Lari tells caffeine-addicted women they might need two bottles. I wonder, What if you slipped someone a No-Doz and told them it was a love drug? Would that make you feel light-headed and tingly? Would it make you get wet?

Damiana, the key herb, has been sold in the United States in one form or another — formerly as an aphrodisiac oil — since 1874 (it’s also long been used in a liquor considered an aphrodisiac in Mexico; families traditionally gave it to girls to relax them on their wedding night). These days it’s marketed as a dietary supplement, which doesn’t require FDA approval. Never tested formally on humans, it has been tested on male rats. One study found that damiana had no effects on rats that were sexually potent, but did heighten mating behavior in impotent rats.

The drink is said to be particularly effective on women in their thirties, and even more effective in women older than that, which may explain why the first person I saw when I walked into Wycoff’s was an old friend of my mom’s, a widow in her sixties, whom I’ve known since childhood. “Tell your mom I have a boyfriend,” she says, winking at me. “And tell her this stuff works.”

I closely examine the bottle. The label tells me that the “love herbs” will give me good staying power, and that the drink’s caffeine will bring me to life. In a light touch, the Niagara’s mascot is a shiny red rabbit, its curvy bottom high in the air, its tail erect. I think of the bottle in Alice in Wonderland, the one with the instructions that sound like a dare: Drink Me.

For all her promotional savvy, Lari herself isn’t solely responsible for the rapid-fire spread of Niagara across town. For that, she has a kind of home-grown viral marketing to thank, one that’s been in place long before Oprah’s book club: it’s known in Little Rock as a patio party, and it’s where all relevant information about local life and love is exchanged, usually over fruit salad and catered chicken salad sandwiches.

It helped that fifty-two television stations picked up a local news story about the drink and aired it a day or two before Valentine’s Day. But even before the Valentine’s Day deluge, a certain upper middle-class community of women — the ones who might find themselves in the market for imported espresso beans and fifteen dollar fudge — had already latched on to Niagara and started spreading the word, at patio parties in their neighborhood, at the Little Rock Athletic Club between rounds of tennis or at the Pleasant Valley Country Club over cocktails.

Lari credits one such social creature in particular with talking it up, Sarah Jane Haley — not her real name, she’s too genteel for that — the wife of one of Little Rock’s most upscale retailers. Talking to me from behind the wheel of her silver Lexus, soft-spoken with a slow drawl, Sarah Jane hardly seems the type to “burn up the phone lines,” which is what Lari’s told me about her. But Lari would know; she’s known Sarah Jane since 1978, when she was one of Lari’s first hairdressing customers. Lari tells me that Sarah Jane threw at least fifty clients her way in the following months. It seems only fitting that Sarah Jane, who describes Lari as “cutting-edge Southern,” was one of Niagara’s first champions. “I said, I’ll try this for my anniversary, you know, as a novelty,” Sarah Jane tells me. I practically have to strain to hear her over the quiet hum of her Lexus, which is where I’m conducting the interview so no one would see her talking to me. In the car, I’m mostly struck by how dainty she is—even the way she holds the steering wheel is dainty, with her manicured ring fingers and pinkies outstretched, as if well-practiced from holding tea cups. “It was our twenty-fifth anniversary, and I thought it would be fun,” she says. Her intuition was right: “I felt real relaxed and real romantic,” she says. Her husband said it was great sex. The next day she bought three more bottles. Now, when she walks into the store, she just winks, and Lari slips a few bottles in her bag.

It’s not easy to get her to talk about her sex life — I might as well ask her what she and her husband are worth — but she will concede that the drink has made sex better, maybe a bit freer. “Southern women are real feminine by nature,” she says. “They tend to be more private about their personal lives. But they want to be pleasers to men, too.” Sarah Jane started telling her friends about the drink at social events — “it’s the talk of parties,” she says — and now several of them, like her, purchase the drink discreetly. Even those of them who live a few blocks away from Wycoff have the drink shipped to them in an unmarked cardboard box, lest someone get the idea they have marital problems. Southern women may be eager to please, but they’re also proud.

I’m in the supermarket line a few days later when I hear two women talking about Niagara. The one who seems to the more enthusiastic proponent is all made up, with a teased hairdo and a satin maroon track suit.

“Excuse me,” I say, “does it really work?”

The woman with the teased hairdo — it’s very Little Rock right now, kind of short but very styled — won’t tell me her name, but she’s happy to confide. “Oh, it works,” she says. “It does. I feel much more ready for sex. Sometimes after you work all day, you just don’t want to come home and have sex. You’re too tired. But this made me feel . . . ” She drifts off. I swear she gets a far-away look in her eyes. “Warm,” she finally says. “It makes me feel warm.”

It’s hard to find anyone who’s tried Niagara who doesn’t think it works some kind of magic. If you’re at all ambivalent about your sexuality — and I think it’s safe to say, a lot of church-going women in Little Rock are — maybe it’s easier to think of your desire as having an external source, rather than something that’s seething within. I like to think of myself as comfortable with my sexuality, at least by Little Rock standards . . . What, I wondered, would a little blue drink do for me?

It’s a Friday afternoon, and two bottles of Love Potion Number 9 chill in the refrigerator. My house is a mess. There are no candles or sexy lingerie. The music is the drone of MSNBC and news of a bad-and-turning worse stock market. My lover is running late as usual, and I am not exactly in the mood to swing from the wrought-iron chandelier in my dining room. But my mood usually changes when my boyfriend and I touch.

I wonder if it’s possible the drink could actually have an adverse effect on our love-making tonight. Some of what I’ve heard from various women is also little off-putting. They say it makes them giggly, almost childlike, weak in the knees. I pride myself on being, if not sexually assertive, then sexually confident — I’m not sure child-like is how I want to feel as I await my sweetheart’s embrace.

Cameron arrives, beaming. “It’s Niagara Friday! Woo-hoo!” He kisses me, and I already feel warm. Who needs Niagara, I think? But it’s for the sake of science, so out come the blue bottles. I imagine people all across Arkansas, looking at each other with dreamy looks, holding a blue bottle from Sweden.

Cameron and I sit on my couch, swigging Niagara straight from the bottle.

“Cheers,” we say. The blue looks vaguely nuclear to me; it leaves a strange, medicinal aftertaste.

“I hope this doesn’t end up like the Jonestown massacre,” I say. After a few sips and one big gulp, I notice that I do, in fact, feel tingly and giddy. I’m not sure whether it’s the drink or the fact that I feel like a teenager sneaking a fuck before my parents come home — but I do feel something different.

Then the phone rings, jerking us out of our reverie. I carry my blue bottle with me as I glide to the phone, feeling like a soap opera diva holding a glass of Dom Perignon.

Holy shit, I say to myself as my minister identifies herself. I sit the Niagara on the desk as far away from me as I can. My minister has never called me in her two years at the church. I haven’t been to church in a year, and the one day I try an aphrodisiac the voice of God calls to invite me to a new Sunday school class.

By the time I get back to the couch, Cameron has finished his drink. I tell him who called.

“That’ll make you horny every time,” he says. I laugh uncontrollably for a few seconds. He kisses me.

“I feel tingly,” I say.

“All over?” he asks.

“No,” I say, finishing off my bottle. “Just down there.”

If this stuff is supposed to make you uninhibited, then why do I suddenly feel oddly shy with a man who’s been hearing my intimate fantasies and crude talk for months?

We make out for a few minutes and then start giggling. Maybe there’s something funny about feeling like a lab rat.

“I’ll race you,” he says as he starts stripping. He rips off his clothes instead of ripping off mine the way he usually does. “I win!”

Cameron literally jumps into bed and I follow.

“What do we do now?” he says from his side of the bed.

” I don’t know,” I say. “Kiss?”

“You know I don’t feel turned on at all,” he says. “I feel like we should be playing a board game or something.”

“I know what you mean,” I say. “Odd.”

We actually talk about work for a few minutes. We snuggle. Then I notice that the pink lights and lime-green Mardi Gras beads attached to my headboard are casting a trippy glow on us. Then slowly, we get into each other, and I feel beyond wet.

Cameron slides into me, and I feel as if I am being turned inside out. I close my eyes and see groovy tie-dye circles bursting as Cameron feels deeper than he’s ever been.

“You are wet,” he groans, gripping the iron headboard.

We fuck hard. It’s like this a lot of times when we have sex, but this time feels oddly wild. Then, I feel him going limp in me. Bam! He comes, hard, fast, unexpected.

He looks taken aback. “Damn, that was the strangest orgasm I have ever had,” he says. “I came when I was soft, but I felt like I was going to come the whole time I was in. I felt like my orgasm was teetering — I felt like I was fucking in a disco.”

Cameron goes down on me, twirling his tongue around my clit. For thirty minutes, as he consumes me, I want to come badly but can’t. It’s different, somehow, from the mental block I sometimes get when my manic thoughts run wild and I start making to-do lists in my head. I desperately want to come but physically cannot. I’m on edge the whole time but something is holding me back. And I don’t like it.

Finally, just like he had described, I come harder than I have ever come in my life, I believe, and totally unexpectedly, leaving me gasping, screaming, sweating, almost crying.

After running through twenty-five thousand bottles of Niagara, Lari had a special limited shipment of two thousand flown in from Sweden to quench the thirst of frenzied and desperate Southern belles and beaux.

“It’s like Beanie Babies for adults,” she says. More like Ecstasy, I think. One man drove three hours to get a bottle only to discover the store was Niagara-free. A man from Tampa, who heard Lari on a Florida radio show, offered one thousand dollars for a bottle. She refused. She’s heard rumors that lobbyists are charming state legislators with the drink, that some stores are ordering cases from her, then jacking up the price to ten dollars a bottle. She’s not happy about those reports, or the one that her daughter Chelsea delivered: she came home from school one day and reported that she’d heard a rumor that the school was going to try to kick her out.

The thorns in Lari’s side started to get sharper, or more substantial, in early April, when Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that created Viagra, filed a lawsuit against her in federal court, claiming that the name Niagara infringed the copyright of their little blue pill. (The suit doesn’t bode well for Pfizer, given that Niagara was created in 1993, five years before Viagra received its trademark in 1998.) A judge ruled as much at a preliminary hearing, saying, “If men can have Viagra, why can’t women have Niagara?” And as for Lari, she says, “I may just be a little girl from Little Rock, and the may be a big pharmaceutical company, but I am not backing down.”

A shipment of three hundred thousand Niagara bottles is due to arrive Sunday at midnight. Lari cannot wait. Some Niagara-hungry nuts have gotten her home number and keep bothering her. She’s now recognized in restaurants as the Niagara Woman. Marketers keep calling her. They want her to buy Niagara pens and refrigerator magnets. One woman calls her weekly, leaving breathy messages on her machine: “Imagine this. Shut your eyes. Niagara. On the side of a racing car.”

“I don’t think so,” laughs Lari.

The initial shipment is already pre-sold either to stores or individuals. By the end of March, almost a million bottles will have arrived in Little Rock.

But then the shipment didn’t arrive Sunday, and Lari is beyond stressed. The ship from Sweden was in a sudden sea storm and has been held up at customs in New York. To appease the masses, Lari spends nearly seven thousand dollars to ship in one thousand bottles for first-come customers.

She announces on Tommy Smith’s show Monday morning that all bottles will be here by the end of the month. By the time I arrive at Wycoff’s early Monday morning to check out the scene, people are waiting. The first three customers are men in their seventies.

“My wife is embarrassed to buy it,” one man says.

She’s not the only one. A stream of men, who never look at each other, pour in throughout the morning. Women act like they are in high school buying condoms. Nearly everyone orders a cup of coffee to lamely cover up the fact that they are buying Niagara. One man admits he’s embarrassed. “It’s not exactly a manly thing, to say you need help in the bedroom,” he says to me quietly.

Some scruffy-looking types who look like they’re not exactly latte drinkers show up, so it’s obvious what they’re there for.

“If this stuff doesn’t work on my wife, can I call you?” he asks me.

I ask if they don’t turn on their wives anymore. They look uncomfortable. “No, our wives are just tired,” one responds nervously.

The atmosphere’s not exactly convivial — it’s actually a bit tense. No one asks anyone else in line if they’ve tried it. No one cracks a joke. It’s as if they’re all ashamed to be admitting that they might be having sex in the near future.

Throughout the morning, men, women, black, white, twenty-somethings to seventy-somethings roll through Wycoff’s buying the maximum — four bottles allowed that day. One man rolls through the door in a wheelchair and buys a four-pack.

One woman, in her early fifties, buys four bottles and returns two hours later with her son. They buy four more, sneaking past Colleen, the gatekeeper of Niagara, a twenty-something who also swears by the drink.

By noon, five hundred bottles are left. Twenty-four hours later, the Niagara is gone. I get myself one more bottle.

A few weeks later, I’m sitting in the middle of my floor, eating fried chicken from a Popeye’s paper box. My Niagara is chilling in the fridge because Cameron is coming over, and we’ve decided to give our trippy love-drug another try. Since we downed that first bottle, not a day has gone by that we haven’t talked about what we call Niagara Friday, puzzled over it, tried to figure out whether we liked the experience or didn’t. In some ways we felt closer — but I wasn’t sure whether we felt closer in a good way, or in that way you feel after you’ve been through something unsettling together.

“There was something weird there, right?” he keeps asking me. “We didn’t imagine that weirdness.” I reassure him that yes, it was weird, all right.

“But it was good before that, right?” he usually follows up. I reassure him that, yes, it definitely was.

The phone rings. “I can’t come over,” Cameron tells me, as I hear his other line ringing in the background. “I’m tied up at work.”

I go to the fridge to get myself a soda as I finish up dinner. No Coke. No Mountain Dew. I see the Niagara, its blue fluid making my refrigerator shelf look like something in a science lab.

Although we’d decided to give it one more try, Cameron and I had also debated whether or not we should. Now I find myself thinking that maybe it’s okay that he had to cancel — maybe we shouldn’t. In addition to being sexually assertive, I’m also a bit competitive — and I don’t like the idea that Cameron needs some kind of drink to make me sexy, or that I need one to find that sexiness in myself. If he and I were looking for a little bit of edge in our sex life, couldn’t we generate it ourselves, without the help of the same blue drink that every other couple in Little Rock is leaning on hopefully, desperately?

I pop the cap, then quickly guzzle half the bottle. It doesn’t quite mix with my lunch. Lari told me that mind-set is probably half the trick, so it doesn’t surprise me when I don’t feel any sexier than you ordinarily would after eating a half-pound of fried chicken — not very. The only thrill I get is a guilty one, knowing I’ve wasted a precious drink that women all over Little Rock would kill to get their hands on. I don’t feel sexy; I do feel decadent.

Lari, budding promoter that she is, promises me she’ll be getting in a new product from Sweden that will “blow Niagara away.” I suspect it’s not a toy, or lingerie, but another kind of drink or food she’ll sell in her shop. She’s turning into a Southern-fried version of Juliette Binoche in Chocolat, it seems — with a little P.T. Barnum mixed in. And despite my reservations, I suspect when the next circus comes to town, I’ll be right there, in line like everyone else.

Suzi Parker and Nerve.com. This story originally ran in 2001.