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Authors: Tarashea Nesbit

Tags: #Historical

The Wives of Los Alamos

BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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For Jerritt.

 

For Margot.

Contents

 

 

1943

 

West

Us

Until We Found Our Own

Land

In the Day, in the Night

From Fields, from Concrete

Winter

Our Husbands

Cooking

Foreigners

Growing

Help

A Good Wife

When the Ground Trembled

Talk

 

1944

 

Intimacies

Military

Women’s Army Corps

Thaw

The Director

Letters

Heat

Husbands

The Beach

Wanted

The Commissary

Ants

The Theater

Our Children

Days

Exceptions

Close Quarters

Excursions

Waverley

Children

Pond

Longing

Spreading Rumors

Crossroads

Parenting

Blame

Instructions

Other Women’s Children

When We Woke

 

1945

 

Cities

Lookouts

Our Older Children

The Hush

A Night Passing

We Cheered, We Shuddered

Us

After

Lifted

Going Back

By the End

Our Last

The Director

Our Children

We Left

 

Acknowledgments

A Note on the Author

1943

West

O
VER THE BLACK
Sea, the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Arctic, the Atlantic; in sewers, in trenches, on the ocean, in the sky: there was a war going on. Sometimes it seemed far away, barely happening, but then a mother or a wife placed a gold star in her living room window—her brother, her husband, her son, our neighbor—and the war became personal.

 

I
T WAS MARCH
, gas was rationed; therefore the streets were quiet. We heard a car pull up in the driveway. We wiped our hands on our apron and placed the apron on the dishes. The doorbell rang and a young man, just slightly older than our husbands, about thirty-five, stood on our porch in a porkpie hat and asked whether the professor was home. His eyes were the color of stillness—something between a pale body of water and the fog that emerges above it. Although dinner was almost ready our house was chilly—we could not turn on the gas heater—and we invited him in but felt embarrassed by the cold. Our husbands came downstairs and they shook hands. This man was tall, but his shoulders stooped as if he had spent his life trying to appear smaller than he was in order to make others comfortable.

 

H
E ASKED OUR
husbands about their research at the university, we asked him to stay for dinner; he declined but said to our husbands,
I’ve got a proposal
,
and together they walked down the hallway to our husband’s office, and the door closed behind them.

 

W
HEN THEY CAME
out an hour later our husbands were flushed and smiling. They shook the man’s hand, smiled, and walked him out.

 

O
UR HUSBANDS JOINED
us in the kitchen and said,
We are going to the desert
, and we had no choice except to say
Oh my!
as if this sounded like great fun.
Where?
we asked, and no one answered. If we were the ones to see the man to the door—the future Director of our future unknown location—on the front porch he said to us,
I think you will like life up there.
We asked,
Where is “up there” exactly?
He hesitated and said,
My two loves are physics and the desert
.
My wife is my mistress
,
and winked at us. We watched him walk down the sidewalk two blocks and turn the corner.

 

O
R IT DID
not happen like that at all. One day, after we read books to our children, after we folded their blankets back, kissed them, tried to hurry along their sleep, we came downstairs to find our husbands smoking a pipe in their wingback chair, the orange one, an ugly thing we did not like, and we heard them ask us,
How’d you like to live in the Southwest?
and we plopped down on the couch, and we bounced the seat cushions, just as our children did, which annoyed us, although, when we did it, we found it exceedingly enjoyable. We were European women born in Southampton and Hamburg, Western women born in California and Montana, East Coast women born in Connecticut and New York, Midwestern women born in Nebraska and Ohio, or Southern women from Mississippi or Texas, and no matter who we were we wanted nothing to do with starting all over again, and so we paused, we exhaled, and we asked,
What part of the Southwest?

 

O
UR HUSBANDS MUTTERED
,
I don’t know.
And we thought that was strange.

 

O
R ONE WINTER
day our husbands came home with burns on their right arms and told us their bosses said they needed to go west to recuperate. Out west there would be work, they said, though they could not give any more specifics about where
out west
.

 

W
E HAD DEGREES
from Mount Holyoke, as our grand- mothers did, or from a junior college, as our fathers insisted. We had doctorates from Yale; we had coursework from MIT and Cornell: we were certain we could discover for ourselves just where we would be moving. What did we know about the Southwest? A new dam, Hoover, that could, perhaps, power a grand experiment in the desert. To this and other conjectures we asked our husbands to nod
Yes
or
No
.
You won’t be telling
, we said. But no matter how seductively or how kindly we asked
Where?
and placed a hand on their chest, our husbands would not say, even if they did know, which we suspected they did.

A few of us of us had experienced secrecy already. Our husbands were professors at Columbia or the University of Chicago and just that past month the Physics Lab was renamed the Metallurgical Lab, though no one in the lab, especially our husbands, were metallurgists, or did any kind of metal extracting. The college hired armed guards to be posted inside the doors of the Metallurgical Lab, and in the last weeks even the wives were no longer permitted to enter.

 

O
UR HUSBANDS SAID
,
I’ll go on ahead
, or,
We’ll all go together
, or,
I can’t say when I will arrive but you should get on the train and set up house now
. We suggested our husbands take a job in Canada instead. They declined the suggestion. And if they told us we were going to the Southwest, perhaps saying,
We are going away
and that’s the end of the discussion
, we went to the university library and found the only three travel books about the Southwest. And the card in the back pocket of the New Mexico book had the names of our husbands’ colleagues who disappeared weeks before
to some strange wilderness
, people had said. We knew then that New Mexico was probably where we were going, too. We felt we had partially solved the mystery.

 

I
F OUR HUSBANDS
told us,
We are going away
and that’s the end of the discussion
, we knew not to ask another thing, and we kept our partially solved mysteries to ourselves.

 

T
HOSE OF US
with husbands who were going to have
manager
in their titles got to know, immediately, the general location of our future home. Our husbands informed us we were going to Site Y, outside Santa Fe. We wrote a list of things we wanted to know about our new town for our husbands to ask
them
about—we did not know who
they
and
them
were. We typed:
How are the schools? Is there a hospital? Is there adequate help? What size are the windows? How is the weather?

 

R
EPLIES CAME BACK
from our husbands over dinner as they passed the Brussels sprouts. They told us,
Rest assured, your children will receive the finest education.
And,
The hospital will take care of all your needs.
And,
You will be provided with excellent cleaning and childcare help
.
The roads can get muddy—bring your rubbers!
We raised our eyebrows. It sounded funny, official, and suspect, but we said,
That sounds nice
. We were not told that the school, the homes, and the hospital had not yet been built.

BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
4.06Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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