Over 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. It 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. He 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.
When they came out an hour later our husbands were flushed and smiling. They shook the man's hand, smiled, and walked him out.
Our 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. Or 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? Our husbands muttered, I don't know. And we thought that was strange.
Or 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. We had degrees from Mount Holyoke, as our grandmothers 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.
Excerpted from The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit. Copyright © 2014 by TaraShea Nesbit. Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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