It is 7:30 when Cliff closes his office on the twenty-first floor of the Carew Tower. Through the window he watches the lights moving on the river, then he locks up and walks to the elevator. When he reaches the street level he curses himself for agreeing to meet Marie Manning for drinks at the bar of the nearby Queen City Hotel. It is his first date since he and Jane had separated. The date was Marie’s suggestion. He could have said no but she is the attorney for his top account. She also is the most gorgeous woman he has seen since--he couldn’t remember when. He shrugs, asks himself what the hell is wrong with some nice conversation over one or two drinks, and walks three blocks to the hotel. Marie is waiting at the bar.
“Hello,” she says, “right on time.”
“It’s not my custom to keep a lovely woman waiting.”
“Oh, you do this often?”
Cliff laughs. “I usually drink alone.”
“You prefer your own company?”
"What's special about tonight?"
His eyes give her an exxaggerated once-over. "You have to ask?"
"For a lawyer, you're a knockout," he says and squeezes her hand.
"Oh, you can do better than that,” says Marie. She kisses him lightly on the lips. “I’m ready for another martini.”
Cliff motions to the bartender. “Another martini and a scotch and water for me.”
It is the first of four or five rounds they will share as they get to know each other. Marie says that she has been in Cincinnati three weeks, "three boring weeks," and she is glad finally to meet a man who appeals to her. A hunk, she calls him.
“Me? That’s hard to believe,” says Cliff.
“It’s true . And I’m not easy to please.”
“I’ll try not to…disappoint.”
“You’re doing fine so far. Do you live alone?”
“My daughter is staying with me until she goes to college next year.”
“What college is that?”
“Hooray. Another Ivy Leaguer. I graduated from Yale law school.”
Cliff laughs. “A bit out of my class.”
“I doubt that,” says Marie. “You showed a lot of class in the way you handled that meeting this afternoon for Parker's PartyPak crackers and cookies. The boss was really impressed with your idea of doing a string of cocktail parties in the major markets. A wonderful way to establish the brand among distributors and dealers, he said."
He also likes the idea of putting your slogan, "Let's have a party!" on the packages. But he resisted your proposal of putting my picture on the box. Too distracting, he said."
"I disagree. I'd pick up a box just to get a better look at you."
"You and how many housewives?"
"Don't give me logic. Marketing is what I do."
“Is that all you do?” she says as she places her hand on his knee.
Cliff is beginning to feel uncomfortable. “I also write--at least my daughter Sally thinks so.” He hails the bartender.
"Are you trying to get me tipsy?"
"Of course not. I'll cancel the drinks."
"You will not. So what are you writing?"
“My daughter is pushing me to do a biographical novel, a family thing.”
“How’s it coming?”
“Slowly. In fact, I can’t get started.”
“I hope you’re not going to let your daughter down.”
“I’m good at that,” says Cliff. He orders another round of drinks.
“Talk about it.”
“I don’t. That’s why I drink alone.”
“I’m sorry.” Again she kisses him. This time he kisses her back.
“I think I like you, Cliff. I think I like you a lot.”
“I like you too, Marie.”
“What do you like about me?
“Like I said, you’re beautiful, and you look great in purple.”
"It's still purple to me. Purple excites me."
“So why don’t we mess around?”
Cliff studies her for a moment, then laughs.
“I’m serious. Why not get a room?"
“Bad idea,” says Cliff, thinking what a dumb thing to say to this stunning woman.
“You said you like me.” She begins to slur her words, just slightly.
“I do,” says Cliff. “I like you more than I should.”
“You’re still married, right?”
“Separated. My wife is in San Francisco. “
“So what’s the big problem?”
“I’d rather not talk about it.” Damn, she’s beautiful, thinks Cliff. He wants her badly, but--hell.
“Prove how much you like me,” says Marie, clutching his knee again.
“I really can‘t--”
“Damn, don't make me beg.”
“You’ll hate me in the morning.”
“Don’t be silly.”
“I’m trying to level with you, dear.”
“Cliff, you can call me sweetheart, honey, darling, babe, or anything sexy you can think of, but not dear. I mean, I'm only thirty-three."
“Ok, sweetheart.Why don't we take a stroll by the river on this warm September night?”
“No, let’s get that damn room. I’m beginning to wet myself.”
Cliff smiles. “We can’t spoil that lovely dress.”
He pays the check, puts an arm around Marie, and they walk unsteadily to the hotel desk where he signs the register, picks up the key. They take the elevator to the third floor. When they enter the room, Cliff goes to the phone and asks Room Service to send up a martini and a scotch on the rocks.
Before the drinks arrive, Marie slips out of her lilac dress and and drapes it carefully on a chair, then begins to undress Cliff. He stands in silence and tries to conceal his agony as he admires her incredible body.
They fall on the bed in a frenzy, Marie nibbling on his ear, his lip, running her tongue through the hairs on his chest. He is hoping that he can please her, as she skillfully performs her womanly tricks to arouse him.
“Help me,” She says. “Don’t just lie there.”
“I’m doing the best I can for a guy who's pushing forty-five.”
Marie continues to work her magic. No luck. Cliff swears. He has failed her…and himself…as he knew he would. The shame is more than he can take. He rolls over on his back and stares at the ceiling.
“I feel like something out of Hemingway,” he says.
Soon he falls asleep.
Several hours pass before he wakes up in a kind of pain he hasn’t known in years, the torture which generated the rage that destroyed his marriage. Jane was willing to wait out the impotency; she could not live with the anger.
Cliff gets up and stumbles to the bathroom, soaks his head, and returns to the bed. On a nearby table he sees a note, picks it up and reads: “Tiger, it takes two to tango. When you learn to dance, call me.” The note is unsigned.
How wrong it was not to tell Marie about his problem. He thought of course that, with the passage of time, he was all right again. But how do you think away a problem caused by--what? The spinal injury he suffered in the car accident that could have killed him and his daughter? No, the surgeon said he recovered from that. The real problem had to be, as the shrink said, a deep-seated psychological thing that didn’t surface until later. It had stemmed from the years of humiliation brought on by an ignorant and insensitive father who left him with a demon that sapped his strength, his potency. Maybe, as his father said, he was the mama’s boy who never grew to manhood. Look what happened to Lew. Well, dammit, he was different. No matter what his wife thinks, he was as much a man as--God, will the agony never end? Will he be a sexual cripple all his life? Hell no! He can end this thing. He decides it is time to pay another visit to the head doctor.
Or the gun shop.