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Authors: Tarashea Nesbit

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BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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I
F WE INVITED
more people to dinner than we had table space for, our husbands went out an hour before the guests arrived and found a piece of wood, sawed it down, and built an extension leaf. When the scientists, our husbands, arrived to Ingrid’s house stomping their boots on the porch and calling to her husband,
Congratulations!
while holding up bottles of liquor, which should have been dificult to find in this time of rationing, we had no idea what they were talking about. Ingrid asked Henry why he was being congratulated, and we asked our husbands why they were congratulating him, but our husbands just shrugged, and then smiled; we scoffed and walked away. We went, next, to one of the female scientists, Irene, a sturdy young girl with short hair and blunt bangs, who was said to have a spectacular IQ; surely another woman would tell us. We asked her,
What’s all this about?
And she raised her head, looked down at us—she was quite tall—and said, smiling,
Why, he shot down a Jap battleship!
And earlier that day the Army radio station had reported that the U.S. military destroyed four Japanese carriers and a cruiser, but our husbands had been here all along, and so what that female scientist said was surely impossible. She was pulling our leg, though it felt like more than that.

 

W
E THOUGHT
,
Y
OU
are making fun of me
, and we concentrated our faces in the other direction so she would not see our wobbly chins, because we were inexplicably starting to tear up, we were becoming too emotional, and she was poking fun at what we did not know and we were losing our wits.
Who cares about her
, we thought. When she turned toward a man with whom she could converse about science, toward our husbands, and our husbands touched her shoulder as they spoke, we told ourselves we hated her.

 

B
EFORE WE GOT
married we asked our grandfathers, whose own marriages had lasted forty years or more,
What is the secret to a happy marriage?
And they paused, looked down at their chicken salad, and said,
You have to really like each other.
After the attraction, you have to really like the person
. We crunched our lettuce. Our teeth clinked against the fork. Did we like our fiancés? What does liking someone mean? Before we got married our mothers told us we had to communicate.
Ask him how his day was. Take an interest in his profession
. But we could not do this anymore. Our husbands were gone for twelve hours a day and sometimes did not come home at all. Instead they dragged an Army cot—identical to our own beds—into the Tech Area. And we were not allowed to ask questions.

What did we think our husbands were doing in the lab? We suspected, because the military was involved, that they were building a communication device, a rocket, or a new weapon. We ruled out submarines because we were in the desert—but we closely considered various types of code breaking.

Cooking

T
HE ALTITUDE MADE
our breads flat. We requested hot plates, and they arrived, and we carried them with us to parties. Posters of corn that said
corn is the food of the nation
!
lined the Lodge walls and we made so much corn bread, corn cakes, corn casserole, and corn with pepper that we were soon sick of corn.

 

W
E NAMED OUR
stoves after an autobiographical memoir told by a horse—one that began with his carefree days as a youth, moved to his difficult life pulling cabs in London, and ended with his happy retirement in the country. All along he recounted tales of cruelty and kindness. We named our stoves Black Beauty and snorted with laughter. Or we called it that because everyone else did, though we did not get the reference, or we refused to call it that. Mostly, we thought our stove was huge and ugly and we only loved it when the electricity went out, because since it was heated with wood and coal, we could still continue cooking dinner even if we had no power. At first, before we became savvy with our stove, we would go without supper. Sometimes there were no lights in the streets, and no flashlights to carry around, and it was dark all through town, but never quiet, and families were reading aloud, and there was candlelight, and we heard the laughter of children being tickled.

 

S
OME OF US
hated the stove situation so much we complained, and we asked for a new stove, an electric one, and if our husbands had high security clearance, something might be done about it. We called the Housing Office and heard the Army man’s voice gurgle and we guessed he had been celebrating some small military victory. This seemed to happen every day, but we thought it was really just an excuse to celebrate the enjoyment of liquor. Maybe this time it was something about the Allies landing in Anzio, or some other sign that might indicate we were beating the Germans. Although winning could be
worthy of celebration we still needed a new stove.

 

T
HE ARMY MAN
said a stove would come that day, and it did not come; he said a stove would come the next and it never came. And therefore it is possible we took matters into our own hands. Late one Sunday night, when the town was still groggy from the weekend, we gathered with Louise, Starla, Ingrid, and Katherine. We made a furniture dolly with two-by-fours, a scrap of carpet, and four wheels borrowed from Louise’s sofa. Perhaps we went into the common area and took what we needed, and felt the thrill of doing things we were not supposed to do, and it is possible we experienced this thrill more than once.

Foreigners

S
OME OF US
had not always been Americans. Our husbands went from being Hans to Jack, and we went from being Mrs. Mueller to Mrs. Miller. We changed out of slacks and into blue jeans, and already we felt more like Americans. But we were still Europeans, too.

 

W
E SAT ON
hay bales in Fuller Lodge and watched short films put out by the War Department that were aired before the featured movies. We wanted to watch
Meet Me in St. Louis
but we had to suffer through films that asked,
Why are we Americans on the march? Pearl Harbor, is that why we are fighting? Or is it because of Britain? France? China?
The list continued for at least ten more countries.

 

T
HE ANSWER TO
the question was:
For freedom. They say trouble always comes in threes—look at these faces
. And we saw Mussolini, Tojo, and Hitler at podiums, in front of hundreds of people, speaking.
They gave up their power
, the film said, and
they
meant non-Americans, citizens of other countries. Some of us had extended families that were still in Germany, France, Norway, Poland, Holland, Greece, Belgium, and elsewhere. Or we were born in the U.S. and the film did not seem strange to us.

 

W
E WERE ITALIANS
and we clenched our teeth; or we were Germans and we laughed out loud when we heard,
Germans have a natural love of regimentation and harsh discipline
; or we were not surprised. But when the film said,
German defeat was never acknowledged in the last war and they were ready to back anyone who would obtain victory for them
, we wished these silly theatrics would hurry up so we could escape into the stories of
Holiday Inn
,
Slightly Dangerous
, or
My Sister Eileen.
And if we had been brave, if we had wanted to make a scene, to say
This is wrong
, we would get up from our hay bale and walk out. But where would we go and whose mind would it have changed? We would be back in our drafty living room with only our own suffering—missing the film and worrying that our new friends might think us suspect.

Growing

O
NE SPRING NIGHT
we got permission to use a military phone to the call the outside world and we stood with our husbands and dialed our parents’ number from the military police booth, and we looked up to see what looked like millions of stars, a pointillism we never saw back home and the connection was so scratchy, we weren’t even sure it was our mothers on the line or if they could hear us. We yelled, with our husbands, in unison,
We’re pregnant!
though of course our husbands were not pregnant, but at that time, before morning sickness, before labor, when our stomachs felt just a little hotter to the touch and only our sense of smell was enhanced, it was as if they, too, were pregnant with us.

 

O
R THERE WAS
a time before morning sickness and it did not just occur in the morning.

 

S
OMETIMES,RATHER THAN
calling, we wrote to our mothers and they sent back directives:
Wash your feet twice a day. Drink a glass of wine each night. Go to bed hungry. Lots of milk. Lots of activity. Sex, but not in the last trimester. Name him Theodore, after my father. Name her Opal, after your dead aunt. Name him anything but Henry.

 

A
LTHOUGH WE TOLD
our mothers immediately, many of us did not tell one another until the fifth month. Maybe we hoped no one would notice until then because we were staying so slender. Or we did not tell because we had lost one before and we did not want to get our hopes up, or anyone else’s. We did not want to be offered condolences. We did not want to explain why our bellies were small again, but where was our baby?

 

S
OME OF US
squealed as soon as we missed a period and ran to tell the rest of us. And the second place we might run to was the Housing Office, where we would announce,
I’m pregnant!
or
I’m having another one!
because this might mean we would qualify for a bigger green house. The man at the Housing Office said,
Ma’am, you’ll have to wait until we can hear the baby crying before you can fill out one of these forms
.

 

O
UR BELLIES GREW
. Our husband’s spicy scent wafted to us from across a room and Roscoe’s litter box stank even when there was nothing in it. We requested our husbands find us milkshakes, iced tea, fried chicken, lemonade, and lentil soup. And some things on this list were impossible to locate, which made our want for them that much stronger, and other things we found rather intolerable

jalapeño peppers, grapefruit—though we loved them before. We swore we would never get pregnant again, and we hated being pregnant in the summer and how our backs ached, and we loved our pregnant bodies, how they made room for another life, how everyone told us we were luminous. We worried about our child having all his fingers and toes, and we sipped more iced tea and hoped he would come out soon. Or we wished it would in fact be a she and that she would get out of us already.

 

M
ANY OF US
had due dates just a few days apart and it was comforting to know that Starla, Ruth, Alice, and Louise would all be in the maternity ward, too. What a calming thought to walk out of the house with nothing to do except this: give birth. The idea of two weeks in the hospital—a break from cooking, cleaning, and hosting—meant having someone wait on us: nurses bringing us dinner, bathing our babies, changing our sheets, and monitoring our health. It would be a vacation! Louise said,
It’s enough of an incentive to keep me pregnant for a lifetime
.

 

W
E HELD AND
received baby showers almost weekly, in rooms of tissue paper flowers and pink, yellow, or blue streamers. Some of us thought it was bad luck to buy anything before the baby was born, but others of us thought it was morbid not to and we extended our morning coffee by leafing through catalogs of strollers and bassinets. Though our homes were temporary, we wanted to paint, choose a crib, and consider wallpaper. Polka dots, stripes, flowers. We were told red was the first color a baby could see, and we thought we could use that as an accent color, but when we saw the red samples at a hardware store in Santa Fe we thought,
blood, our brothers, the war
, and changed our minds.

 

O
UR CHILDREN CAME
fast and two weeks early, came in the backseat before our husbands could get out of the driveway, on the bathroom linoleum we had installed ourselves. We went into labor in the kitchen, and our neighbor came to help us, and someone else ran to get our husbands from the Tech Area. And when our husbands came home they heard the first earthly wails of their new daughters, their new sons, their twins, and we saw terror and awe in their eyes.

 

O
R WE GAVE
birth in Army sedans on our way up the Hill, or at the hospital, right on time. A few of us pretended that we felt no pain as the contractions grew more painful, and we smiled serenely when our friends checked in on us. Or when our husbands came to see us on their lunch break we howled and they kissed our foreheads and apologized and said they were sorry but they had to get back to the Tech Area. And if this was our first birth, the pain we knew before contractions was actually not pain at all and most pain after childbirth was nothing. We learned labor was not generally a place for modesty, and if we were in the ward together we helped one another with compresses and conversation as best we could.

BOOK: The Wives of Los Alamos
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ads

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