Excerpt from The First Desire by Nancy Reisman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The First Desire

by Nancy Reisman

The First Desire
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2004, 320 pages
    Paperback:
    Aug 2005, 320 pages

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It's a couple of miles to the family house on Lancaster, far enough to be another neighborhood, another set of shops and parks and schools if not a distinctly separate life. But often returning to Lancaster causes time to slip, and she needs to be mindful: she needs the linen dress and gold clip earrings, the lipstick and heels and whatever else she can summon. From the outside, the Lancaster house is disarming, a solid, well-kept wood-frame, off-white, surrounded by clipped green lawn and old elms, the shade of maples and oaks and the clean-swept front porch suggesting restful lives. Today the house is quiet, the foyer, the hallway and front parlor slightly disordered, but only that. The smell of burnt coffee wafts in from the kitchen; the house is alive with the smell. Her sisters always seem to drink coffee burnt, as if there is no other way. As Sadie passes the shaded dining room, the dark woodwork and table and cabinets hushing the place into a season other than summer, Irving hangs behind her and it seems—is she imagining this?—that she might turn and find herself alone.

"Where are they?" she says.

Irving's examining his wing tips again. "The store. Papa's at the store."

She pictures her father—impeccable in a light brown suit, his dark shoes and spectacles and pale forehead shining in the heat, salt-and-pepper mustache exactingly trimmed—checking velvet-lined jewelry cases for dust, squinting at smudges on the glass. "For how long?"

"He expects me there later."

"He opened for the day?" But her father has done as much at other times, worse times, leaving a pale gray blur in his place. From the parlor there's a glint of orange, which travels in Sadie's direction: Celia's cat, slinking through the hall, now sniffing at Sadie's pumps. "And Jo? What happened to Jo?"

Irving doesn't answer. The orange cat presses against Sadie, rubbing itself across her shin, turning, rubbing itself the other way. This is distracting: a tingling runs up Sadie's leg to the rest of her, pleasant and more pleasant and then unnerving, that strong tingling and the cat rubbing itself and loudly purring.

From the kitchen there's a clinking sound and the plash of water pouring into water. "Celia?" Sadie calls. She makes her way past the closets to the back stairwell and the kitchen, the cat closely escorting her. There are white daisies in a water glass on the enamel tabletop, squares of light through thick-paned windows; garden soil trails along the floor to the back entry and the porch. Celia's at the sink, scrubbing a saucepan, flecks of oatmeal sticking to her wrists. Her face is a clear white oval, eyes hazel and unrevealing, her dress pink cotton, unfamiliar, oddly girlish. Today she's combed her hair.

"Jo's at work," Celia says.

"When did she leave?" Sadie says.

"The usual time."

Both of them, then, Jo off to her secretarial job, their father to the jewelry store, as if nothing is wrong, and Goldie will reappear any moment, ready to look after the house and check in with Celia. It's tempting, she admits, to take their behavior as reassurance and assume that Irving has misread the signs, but she knows better: this is not the sort of thing Irving misreads.

"Let's sort this out," Sadie says. "Let's sit down and sort this out."

Celia dries her hands, picks up the orange cat. Vera, she calls it. She is unnerved, you can see by the way she clings to the cat, the way she sidles up to Sadie and eyes the kitchen door.

"What's this about Goldie shopping?" Sadie says.

Celia talks at the windows and the door—or maybe it's to the yard beyond, the garden where she spends her summer. "She went shopping."

"On Sunday?"

Yes. Probably. Or Monday. No, Celia can't pinpoint the day for sure, it's possible that she saw Goldie again after the shopping, but that's not what she remembers. She does not know what Goldie shopped for. And she does not know where else Goldie might go—but here Celia refocuses on the floor.

And Sadie knows better than to expect answers from Celia now, with that look and the cat purring against her chest. She's too distracted, and even when she isn't she's still ruled by impulse, a tendency to lie. But you have to make the effort.

"What was she wearing?" Sadie says.

"Brown skirt, white blouse."

"She was wearing a brown skirt and a white blouse?"

"When she went shopping."

And now Said is imagining a cigarette, the moment of inhaling and the way everything in a room eases back a step; and the instant you exhale, with the smoke, the harsh pressure that's accumulated in your temples. "And Sunday? Celia, what was she wearing Sunday?"

"What?"

"What was she wearing?"

"She forgot her hat.  I know she forgot her hat."

"Goldie hates wearing hats," Sadie says.  "Almost never wears hats."

"That's how I know"


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