The Wives of Los Alamos

The Wives of Los Alamos

3.7 25
by TaraShea Nesbit

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Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards (2014) in Fiction (historical fiction) and Best Book/New Mexico categories

They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret-including what their husbands were doing at

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Winner of New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards (2014) in Fiction (historical fiction) and Best Book/New Mexico categories

They arrived in New Mexico ready for adventure, or at least resigned to it. But hope quickly turned to hardship as they were forced to adapt to a rugged military town where everything was a secret-including what their husbands were doing at the lab. Though they were strangers, they joined together-adapting to a landscape as fierce as it was absorbing, full of the banalities of everyday life and the drama of scientific discovery.

While the bomb was being invented, babies were born, friendships were forged, children grew up, and Los Alamos gradually transformed into a real community: one that was strained by the words they couldn't say out loud or in letters, and by the freedom they didn't have. But the end of the war would bring even bigger challenges, as the scientists and their families struggled with the burden of their contribution to the most destructive force in the history of mankind.

The Wives of Los Alamos is a testament to a remarkable group of real-life women and an exploration of a crucial, largely unconsidered aspect of one of the most monumental research projects in modern history.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - George Johnson
…Nesbit takes an unusual and risky approach. She doesn't pick as her narrator one fictional wife or hover over the town, Cheever-like, with an aloof omniscient eye. As in Julie Otsuka's novel The Buddha in the Attic, about Japanese picture brides, the story is told by all of the women—not queued up as in an oral history, but together in unison as one haunting communal voice…In the hands of a less certain writer, the narrative style might become grating, but Nesbit pulls it off with impressive control…Because we already know the big story, the wives' tale—this diverse, incongruous ensemble—becomes that much more interesting.
Publishers Weekly
★ 10/14/2013
First-time novelist Nesbit chronicles the lives of a disparate group of women who forge a new community together after relocating to the desert of New Mexico during World War II. The collective “we” that serves as the book’s protagonist only knows that the women’s physicist husbands are working day and night on a secret government project. This clandestineness permeates their world as their letters are censored, visits home are limited, and close family and friends are forbidden to know their exact whereabouts. In the meantime, the wives carry on (or attempt to carry on) with their normal everyday lives—gossiping about one another, setting standards for practical fashion among the group, and trying to get around the bureaucracy that has them feeding their families with spoiled provisions. On occasion, the mundane turns ominous, as explosions are heard in the distance. Nesbit’s novel is divided into concise sections that report on different aspects of life in Los Alamos. The author’s writing—by turns touching, confiding, and matter-of-fact—perfectly captures the commonalities of the hive mind while also emphasizing the little things that make each wife dissimilar from the pack. This effect intensifies once the nature of the Los Alamos project is revealed and the men and their families grapple with the burden of their new creation. Engrossing, dense, and believable. (Feb.)
Library Journal
In this historical novel, the wives who accompany their husbands to Los Alamos, NM, in 1943 know only that the scientists are working on a very important war project. Nesbit uses a collective "we" to narrate her story, allowing her to explore contradictory points of view among the women. Novelist Julie Otsuka used this literary device with dramatic effect in The Buddha in the Attic, and readers may find echoes of her distinctive style here. The Los Alamos wives are at first mainly concerned with adapting to this strange and claustrophobic little community in the high desert while they long for their old lives. In August 1945, when the women finally find out what the new weapon is and what it has done, they cheer or they shudder. They feel proud, ashamed, confused, or just relieved that the war is finally over and they can go home. VERDICT This well-researched and fast-paced novel gives a panoramic view of the lives of ordinary women whose husbands worked on the atomic bomb during World War II. Recommended both for its important subject matter and for the author's vivid storytelling.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-01-22
The scientists' wives tell the story of daily life in Los Alamos during the creation of the atomic bomb, in Nesbit's lyrical, captivating historical debut. There is no one single narrator. Rather, readers follow a collective "we" as they are uprooted from their varied lives in 1943 to follow their husbands to a makeshift city 7,200 feet above sea level in windswept, barren New Mexico. (Nesbit's unusual style is reminiscent of Julie Otsuka's The Buddha in the Attic, about another set of women living behind barbed wire in World War II America—Japanese-American women before and during their internment.) The wives arrive in Los Alamos as individuals, with relationships and beliefs that Nesbit captures alongside their growing, shared realization that they are no longer in charge of their own futures—and, in the case of foreigners, even their own names (the Fermis become the Farmers). While the husbands and a few women scientists spend the bulk of their time in the "Tech Area," the wives, many highly educated with abandoned careers, cope with their new domestic realities: badly built identical houses, water shortages, limited schooling, boredom, gossip. But they also ride horses and collect pottery. And the husbands must be somewhat attentive since pregnancy is rampant. Uncomfortable social realities become exposed, as well as racism and snobbery toward the local Native Americans and the nonscientist workers. The wives also become distrustful of the members of the Women's Army Corps stationed at Los Alamos. By 1944, this cauldron of manic energy bubbles over in bouts of drinking and partying. There are rumors of musical beds. The women are all half in love with "The Director" (Robert Oppenheimer). But, by 1945, the mood darkens. An ominous secrecy heightens until the bomb is finally dropped. Individual women—like tough Louise, weepy Margaret, charismatic Starla and difficult Katherine—are less characters to follow than touchstones to keep the reader grounded as time passes in this insular world. Nesbit artfully accumulates the tiny facts of an important historical moment, creating an emotional tapestry of time and place.

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Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
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Product dimensions:
5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

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Copyright © 2014 TaraShea Nesbit
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62040-503-1



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.

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.

Our 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.

If 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.

Those 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?

Replies 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.

A week before we left, a gentleman came to the door, showed us a badge, and said, Do you mind if I ask you a few questions? Over iced tea and stale sugar cookies we were quizzed about our presence at a Marxist Pedagogy meeting in 1940, or we were asked why we were on the list of members of the League of Women Shoppers, and didn't we know that that organization was a Communist front? We were only a year out of Russia and was it true we had been captains in the Russian Army? Was it true we taught English classes for the Communist Party worker's school in Youngstown, Ohio?

It was likely our husbands were questioned as well, though many were less interested in discussing the interrogation. We told the short man with the inscrutable expressions that we wanted nothing to do with the Communist Party, that we were never involved, or that we weren't involved anymore. We said we had only been associated with them because of a previous love affair, and we did not see the point anymore, or we had become disillusioned after Pearl Harbor. We were asked to name our affiliates, and we said it was difficult to recall the people we knew then, that our memory was fuzzy on the dates and locations. We said this even if our memory was not fuzzy. We did not want to get anyone in trouble. Judging by his scowling face, this man did not like these answers. However, he went away, and no one else came to see us, and so it seemed we were still leaving for the wilderness.

Some of our husbands left first. We watched them disappear into train terminals, through the doors of unmarked black sedans, down airport runways, and we were left behind, overwhelmed. We called our friends from the phone booth and they met us at the train station or at our house with a loaf of bread, or a chicken casserole and a flask. We wondered aloud how we would ever survive without our friends to comfort us. We wanted to tell them everything we knew and everything we worried about—how scared we were and how excited. We wanted to ask their advice about what to bring to the Southwest—dresses, shoes, lotions—but we could not.

On our last day we went to see Oklahoma! on Broadway or For Whom the Bell Tolls at the Mayan Theatre and we ate at the Italian restaurant, Luciano's, that we had always wanted to try. We returned our library books, we picked up a copy of the family medical records, we took a long walk alone and asked ourselves why we had not done this sooner. We saw, for what seemed like the first time, the things we liked about the city we were leaving—whispering to the other wives at the community swimming pool, seeing women our mothers' ages leaning in close to one another at the teahouse. And though we never actually went to the teahouse we found ourselves smiling every time we walked by it. We thought we would be joyful saying good-bye to the unfriendly pharmacist, Mr. Williams, but that was not true.

We took the car to the shop to get the oil changed. We dropped off our children's old bike tires, our worn-out bathing cap, and a bucket of nails our husbands left in the garage at the Junior League's Metal and Rubber Drive. We bought a few more war bonds. Some of us had been smart enough to ask about gas and electric, and on our last day we bought an electric toaster, because we were told that where we were going would not have natural gas. We went to the ration office and handed a sealed envelope to the woman at the counter, as our husbands had instructed. She read the letter inside, gave us a curious look, and provided us with enough gas rations to get our car to the other side of the country.

We went to Barbara's and got a manicure; we requested a bright cherry red, even though we knew it would chip by the end of the day. We sewed curtains for rooms we had never seen, hoping the colors would look right and the dimensions would be correct. We packed the linens and not the piano, and we were secretly happy to realize our children would not be able to continue lessons where we were going—we were told there was no piano teacher—which meant we would no longer have to hear them practicing Chopsticks over and over again.

Or we were appalled our children would not have the necessary experience of piano at a young age and though we did not think we made good teachers—we were too soft, or we were too impatient—once we arrived and unpacked our dishes, we volunteered to teach piano in the lodge, which was also the movie theater, the gymnasium, and the community mess hall. Several children would learn to play Bach after dinner.

We lied and told our children we were packing because we would be spending August with their grandparents in Denver or Duluth. Or we said we did not know where we were going, which was the truth, but our children, who did not trust that adults went places without knowing where they were going, thought we were lying. Or we told them it was an adventure and they would find out when we got there.

The movers came and out went our sofa, our books, and our cutlery. As they loaded boxes, our neighbors drove past, slowed down, doubled back, and asked, Where you headed?, and, Why didn't you tell us? We would have thrown you a party, and, You've been great neighbors. You'll be missed. We said, Vacation, or, Change of scenery, or, Jim's work. Our neighbors did not believe us, though they smiled as if they did.

We boarded trains in Philadelphia, or in Chicago, with GIs all looking identical in their dog tags, their black-rimmed glasses, their gosling-short hair. Perhaps it was unpatriotic, but we were annoyed at the GIs who ate before us and delayed our dinners until ten o'clock, and who therefore made our children less manageable. Though we were only twenty-five, we were tired, and we were with our children, who reminded us of what we were tethered to, children who were bored for hours and who pinched and kicked one another. When our children whined, He hit me! She started it! after eight hours on the train we ran out of ways to keep them occupied, and instead we finally just stared out the window as if we were noticing the beige nuances of tan landscapes, which we were not. By the time we arrived we had seen so many mountains they had lost any sense of the majestic.

Or, less frequently, our husbands went with us. They drove us in red Studebakers, in green Oldsmobiles, our backseats filled with clothes, books, children, and the family cat, Roscoe, who meowed for hours. We stopped along the way to visit our parents, who asked repeatedly where we were going, and whom we could not tell.

Our fathers pounded their fists on the table, said, You think we are Nazi spies? Tell us! Our mothers said, Be careful. Or, Write me as soon as you can. And our children got fearful, and cried, Tell them, but we did not tell them, or our children. Later, when our fathers cooled off, when they said, touching our arm, I'm your father, you can tell me anything, we did not tell them where we were going, because we still did not know.

We hugged our mothers, pecked our fathers on the cheek, glanced out the window to see our husbands checking the air pressure in the tires. Our mothers understood; our mothers had kept great secrets. We loaded up the children, the cat, and the snacks, and headed west.



We were round-faced, athletic, boisterous, austere, thin-boned, catlike, and awkward. When we challenged people's political views we were described as stubborn or outspoken. Our fathers were academics—we knew the academic world. We married men just like our fathers, or nothing like them, or only the best parts. As the wives of scientists in college towns we gave tea parties and gossiped, or we lived in the city and hosted cocktail hours. We served cigarettes on tin trays. We leaned in close to the other wives, pretending we were good friends, cupping our hands and whispering into their ears. And, most importantly, we found out how to get our husbands tenure.

Not all of us were born in America and not all of us knew the academic world. Some of our parents had immigrated while our own mothers were in their third trimester with us, and some of us had immigrated when we were newly married and not yet pregnant ourselves. We left Paris when we heard the Germans were taking over the city, or we left Italy when we woke one cold January morning to hear a Nazi anthem being sung in an upbeat tenor outside our bedroom window. We asked, What is happening to the world? We packed two suitcases. Our husbands told the military men at the checkpoint we were just leaving on holiday, and we boarded a plane to America instead.

Some of us remembered World War I from the vantage point of elementary school age worries—going without salt, butter, and cookies—and now as young adults we did not want to get involved.

Or we thought about the December morning in 1941 when the Japanese—depending on who told the story—were angered by trade embargoes that restricted their purchase of oil and metals, or wanted to possess all of the islands in the Pacific Ocean. We went to Spanish Relief parties the night before Pearl Harbor with our husbands, and the next day, when the war broke out, we both decided there were more pressing crises than the Spanish cause. That was three years ago, and we had followed so much news it was hard to keep up. But we knew this: Germany's Hitler and Italy's Mussolini were taking over Europe. Japan's Tojo was dominating the Pacific. We heard Japan was getting closer to their goal—they had captured Borneo, Java, and Sumatra, they had overthrown the British-ruled Singapore—and in Europe the news of German occupations gave many of us the desire to do something. The Axis and the Allies. Would it never end?


Excerpted from THE WIVES of LOS ALAMOS by TARASHEA NESBIT. Copyright © 2014 TaraShea Nesbit. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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The Wives of Los Alamos: A Novel 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 25 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is written in a collective voice. It is very engaging. I learned a lot about a very specific historical time and event in only a little over 200 pages. I highly recommend this book. Another book written about the same time period is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. His book has a strong female character and is also based on actual occurances during WW II. Both books deserve A+++++++
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a novel based on the wives of the men who built the atomic bomb. Very interesting historical fiction.
Dana77 More than 1 year ago
Absolutely loved this book, everything about it.
Anonymous 11 months ago
Refreshing in that I was not obligated to like or dislike any particular person. Just sit back and peek into the lives of a group of ordinary women married to extraordinary men making history for the world.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We wanted to like this book, we tried very hard.  We like the introductory chapter thinking that we'd get to some specific characters.  We saw that the book continued to narrate in first person plural.  We got annoyed.  We could never warm to any characters because we were never given a chance to truly know them.  We felt that what could have been a marvelous tell was diminished by a poor gimmick that wore very quickly, making us want to stop reading after chapter three.
Meemo_B More than 1 year ago
Copy provided by Netgalley for an unbiased review. I was happy to get this book from Netgalley because I was interested in the subject matter, the story of the wives who accompanied their husbands to Los Alamos, NM to work on The Bomb. As I started it I thought the use of first person plural would be limited to the introduction. Unfortunately, it continued through the entire book. It felt a bit gimmicky in the start, it became annoying as it went on. Rather than allowing the reader to get to know the characters, keeping the book in first person plural served to keep the characters at a distance. I never felt like I really got to know any of the characters, because while some were called by name, it was mostly that collective "we". Some things were done well - the feeling of both time and place were handled well. Unfortunately I wasn't reading for time & place - I was hoping to get to know characters, and I didn't come away feeling like I'd come to know any of the characters well at all. Overall a disappointing read for me.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Strangely written, the this or that approach did not work for me, but the topic was interesting.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Another book about the women involved in the history of our country . It satisfied my curiosity in wanting to know where these people came from and what happened next to them but there was no emotional connection with any one character .
Anonymous 12 months ago
Of some interest would be how many people working there got radiation poisoning and was there an increase in birth defects of families whose husbands were working in "hot" places? From what i read in a fermi auto bio they were always painting over hot rooms and local cats lost fur. the government covered up a great deal later when the then unknown exposure results came in. Remember that small town school downwind from the testing area that had orders not to have recess outsude duribg fall out
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I tried to enjoy the style and perspective but ultimately it was a huge I do love a good historic novel and this could have been so good but I had to give up and move on. Just a pity!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Phroglover More than 1 year ago
Thanks to a good friend for recommending this - it is superb! I have always been interested in studying, reading the female perspective of the Westward Expansion because the male version is concrete in details. This novel examines the "universal" human voice of the women behind the men at Los Alamos using the "we" throughout the narrative which restates eloquently the commonality of human experience and emotion; reminding us that "our personal story is never just ours"(Gail Godwin). What a read - I laughed, cried, shook my head, and recognized so much of the emotions. Must read!
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MerleF More than 1 year ago
Took a while to get used to the "first person plural" without knowing exactly WHO was supposed to be talking. But after a bit got into the story: A novelized version of the history of Atomic Bomb development focussed on Los Alamos. Real people; real names; real events; a bit confused with fictional names. But stil good history from a human personal feminine point of view.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Poetically written. By describing individual family scenarios within the group Nesbit brings you in to their trials, isolation, and resiliance. I won't forget it.
VickiLN More than 1 year ago
At first the book was a little strange to me because the author wrote it as a group. and used “we”. An example is “we came from New York, or we came from Nebraska or we came from Hamburg”, or “we wanted new stoves, or we wanted to go shopping, or we wanted to be able to spend more time with our husbands”. After a while I got used to that syle of writing and it didn’t bother me. The book, while maybe not exactly as it happened, was a great story, a quick read, and one I really enjoyed. I can’t imagine what it was actually like for the men, women, and kids living at Los Alamos. Being cut mostly cut off from the rest of the world for 3 years couldn’t have been easy. I think the hardest part for me would have been not knowing the reason for them being there. Everything was such a secret and that would have bothered me a lot. I loved reading about the friendships that developed between the women, and was glad to know they did have dances etc. to make their time there a little easier. Once the project was over, I imagine everyone had mixed feelings about leaving. On one hand they had to be happy to be “free” again, but on the other hand they were probably very sad to leave the people they had come to depend on during their stay at Los Alamos. Also, I wonder how many of the women, men and children had a hard time coming to grips with the reality of what their stay there meant. Overall this was a very good read and I learned a lot since I’d never really heard anything about what it was like for those who lived there. I think this is a book anyone could enjoy, if you can get past the collective “we” narration.
GramyPat More than 1 year ago
I found this very interesting. Being raised just in Albuquerque, NM and having toured Los Alamos I know what the area is like. Also had a second cousin who worked there set the place up. A few years ago I did finally see White Sands white the atomic bomb was tested. Would recommend this book to anyone interested in see what it is like on the family side.
nookinginfl More than 1 year ago
Try as hard as I could I just couldn't get into the story....quit half way through
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is just awful!  It's a complete waste of time and money.  Ugh!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Smiles and sits down
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
"Da<_>mn." She says. She still wears the sunny eggshell yellow lace th<_>ong and br<_>a set.