Karen George

2014 Fiction Contest Judge's Choice 


             Gwen found it easiest to breathe in forests.
                  Trees sweetened the air.

            Over the past two years Gwen longed to tell Briar her secret.  

            A hundred miles from home, they neared Hazard, Kentucky for Briar’s thirtieth high school reunion.  They’d left a few days early, to have time to enjoy the October countryside, the trees at their height of fall color.  At Laurel River Lake they canoed.  In Gray Hawk they attended a Bluegrass festival.  After the reunion, they planned to hike to Buzzard Rock in Virginia, part of the Appalachian Trail.  Over the past ten years, they’d backpacked a few sections each year, tracking their progress on a map hung in the study. There was nothing like the sense of connection, of being at home in your body, in your marriage, in the world, that resulted from walking the woods in silence.  Climbing over giant rock formations, wondering where they originated, and what forces brought them to their present location. Gwen found it easiest to breathe in forests.  Trees sweetened the air.

                Briar wore his ever-present golf hat.  She loved him in that floppy hat, though it could hardly be described as anything but nerdy.  It covered his thinning hair, but he claimed he wore it to protect his pale skin from the sun.  They’d already removed two pre-cancerous lesions, one from his arm and the other from the crown of his head.

            His arms looked stiff, like he was tightly gripping the steering wheel.  He’d glanced at 
her oddly several times, as if he knew.  Had his sister told him?  No, Briar was just tired.  She’d offered to drive, but he said no, they didn’t have that much farther.  He didn’t much like her driving, but wouldn’t admit it.

            She knew what he needed—an extended vacation.  But that wasn’t happening any time soon.  He’d worked late at his computer software company for the past two weeks, in order to take these few days off.  He’d grown thinner than ever, and rarely slept through the night. Wasn’t breathing properly, but he remained uninterested in the breathing exercises she suggested. 
Gwen filled her lungs with air, held for a count of fifteen, released to a count of ten,
envisioning oxygen-enriched blood bathing her organs.  Briar smiled at her, no doubt thinking there my wife goes again with her whacky breathing exercises.  Five years ago, she had rented office space and begun a practice as a transformational breath facilitator.  She analyzed clients’ breathing patterns, and devised exercises to more fully engage their entire respiratory systems, oxygenating their entire body, nourishing them down to the cellular level.  

            Speaking the names of towns they passed, (Goose Rock, Hima, Yerkes, Bluehole, Spurlock, Thousandsticks), she wondered what it would be like to live in a small, rural community.  Would there be a need for a breath facilitator in Hazel Patch, Biddle, or Pongo?

            Gwen undid her seat belt and scooted closer to massage Briar’s neck and shoulders.  He released a deep hum.  They’d long ago left the range of their favorite alternative radio station, WNKU, and had forgotten to pack any extra CDs.  They could listen to Norah Jones, Eric Clapton, and Ray Charles only so long, before resorting to whatever local stations they picked up, mostly what Briar dubbed hard-boiled country.  

            He flinched when she pinched the area halfway between his neck and shoulder.  No, 
don’t stop, he said, dig in there.  Gwen thought about how she needed him relaxed.  Again she imagined the words she might use to tell him.  Anticipation intertwined with dread, made it hard for her to fully expand her lungs, leaving her stuck in a hypersensitive state somewhere between arousal and hysteria.  

            She might make light of her secret by saying, think of the fun they could enjoy together, from their newfound common bond, the fact that she now saw women in precisely the same way he did.  He’d look puzzled, but intrigued, and she’d go on to explain that something had shifted within her.  She found women as beautiful as men did.  She’d pause to let those words sink in, before adding, “I’m having an affair with one, in fact."


            They wove in and out of the Appalachian Mountains on the Daniel Boone Parkway– veins of coal lined rock faces, trees blazed red, orange, yellow, gold.  Beds of leaves lined either side of the road, filled the culverts, plastered the pavement.  It had rained earlier in the day.

            Briar’s cell phone rang.  Gwen grabbed it from the console between them.

            “Is that Shelley?” Briar asked.  “She left a message at work.  I never did get back to her.”

            Gwen closed the phone when she heard only a dial tone.  He searched her face momentarily before turning back to the road.  Could he tell how keyed up she was?

            As they traveled down Route 15, Gwen saw so many abandoned farmhouses in various states of collapse.  How sad, she thought, trying to picture how they once looked. Briar slowed and pulled off onto a gravel path, to get out and stretch his legs.  Gwen crossed the road to a set of six stone steps rising to a flattened area that had no doubt once held a house; a few crumbling stones all that remained of the foundation.  She stood where she gauged the house’s center to be, raised her hands palm up, as if to receive blessings.  Six water maples, three feet in diameter, formed a circle of shade around her.  She stood in their vortex, feeling the energy, the warmth of lives that had once filled the space, so happy she could hardly contain the surge. With the euphoria came the realization that her entire life might come tumbling down around her.

            Gwen carried a larger fragment of one of the foundation stones to their car, picturing where she might place it in their backyard perennial garden.  Briar helped make room in the trunk for her find, wrapping it in an old quilt they used for picnics.  As they continued to travel, she pictured the foundation stone riding in the trunk, between their suitcases.

            She waited until dark.  Route 15 had few lights.  It looked as if they were riding into a 
black hole, soon to be swallowed up.  

            “When we get to the hotel, I need to talk to you,” she said.

            Voice alive with mischief, he said, “We’re going to do more than talk.”  

            “Briar, I’m serious.  I’ve done something that I need to talk to you about.”

            The hair on her arms rose.  He looked her way, brow bunched.  The car’s air seemed to congeal.  For a time, there was no sound but the engine’s hum and the whir of tires.  Gwen snuggled the leopard-spotted afghan around her shoulders, and took several cleansing breaths.

            “Before I tell you, I need you to clear your mind of everything, and think about what is important to you, here and now, in this moment.  Let go of everything you’ve learned or heard about relationships and love.  Think about what I mean to you.”

            “You’re scaring me,” he said.

            Pockets of fog drifted toward their car.  Briar slowed, hands tightening on the steering wheel.  When he glanced at her again, it looked as though the hollows of his eyes had deepened. She patted his thigh.  He tucked his upper lip under, a habit which amused her because it made him momentarily look as if he had buckteeth.  She waited for the next question he was working up to.  He asked if it was something illegal.

            “Some people think it should be.  Close-minded people.”

            “Gwen, don’t do this.”  His tone revealed he was only half kidding. “Tell me now.”

            Dammit, what was she thinking?  She knew Briar wasn’t a patient man. This was not the start she’d envisioned.  “I’m not going through this in a car.”  

            Briar reminded Gwen that they’d had some good times in their cars over the years. They’d once got caught with their pants down.  Lucky the cop hadn’t arrested them.  They suspected he’d watched them for a while before tapping on their window.

            “Who could blame him?” Briar said.  “You straddling me, making those crazy guttural sounds.”

            Gwen smacked his thigh, remembering their country rides and extended road trips.  She’d worn a full skirt, no panties, and covered her lower half with their leopard afghan.  Yes, Briar had certainly honed his skills as a one-handed driver, she thought, as she fingered the afghan’s microfiber.


            Once inside their hotel room, Briar pinned her down on the bed, gave her a long sloppy kiss. “Now.  I want to know now.”

            Her eyes glinted with held-back tears.  “I need to walk.  We’ve been in the car for hours.”
The streets of Hazard were deserted.  It felt as if the entire world held its breath.  His pace gradually slowed, hers quickened, until they matched. He took her hand.

            The roots of massive maples, oaks, and elms raised the sidewalks, poking through in
gnarled humps like scars, or secrets that refused to stay hidden.  Gwen had begun a scrapbook of trees she encountered on their hikes and country rides through Kentucky.  Sycamores were her favorite, but she loved so many trees:  mimosa, sassafras, buckeye, catalpa.  Earlier that morning, in a town called Burr, she found a locust tree with leaves glittering golden like the fringe of a rare tapestry.

            Briar squeezed her hand.  She liked to think it expressed endearment but knew he’d tired of her making him wait.  As they passed under street lights, Gwen stepped over a perfectly symmetrical imprint of a small scarlet maple leaf.  She wondered what forces, what processes had broken down the soft leaf, bleeding it onto the sidewalk.  Had she melded into her twenty-two year marriage, into Briar?  Could she separate herself any longer?  She thought about the miscarriage she’d suffered in their second year of marriage.  It’d felt as if her entrails, her entire being, had ripped out of her.  She never conceived again.  Doctors said they had a genetic incompatibility.  Maybe they should have adopted a child.

            Briar’s bristling impatience made her feel as ancient and constricted as the trees they passed.  He looked at her quizzically.  She took a couple of prolonged breaths and began.  “I want you to remember that I love you, and that I want in no way to end our relationship.  I’m happy, happier than I’ve ever been.”  She tried to slow her words down, to calm the emotion welling up in her. If she started crying, she’d never be able to finish.

            He asked if she wanted to sit on a bench across the street. She answered no; she preferred to walk a little longer.  Over the years, she’d noticed how keeping your body in motion helped when discussing difficult subjects.

My God, she thought, this wasn’t at all what she planned to say.  Her gentle intention had morphed into stilted and arrogant phrases. 

            “I used to think,” she said, “that people in love could get every ounce of their happiness
from each other.  That each partner contained the seeds to the other’s bliss.  It’s a beautiful idea, but I’m not sure it's realistic or even how we were designed to work together as humans. I’ve found a way to experience happiness outside of marriage.”

            My God, she thought, this wasn’t at all what she planned to say.  Her gentle intention had morphed into stilted and arrogant phrases.  

            Briar stiffened, though he continued to walk. “Gwen, what the hell are you talking about?”

            She kept her eyes fastened on the sturdy oak heaving the sidewalk thirty feet ahead.   When they passed it, she’d pick another tree to mark her progress–a practice she developed early in life to steady herself and lead her forward. She could use any large object, but she found trees worked best.

            “I’m involved in a relationship with a woman.”  Her face flushed.  She felt like a small child made to feel dirty and guilty when discovered playing with herself.

            They walked a few steps.  Gwen wondered if she’d said the words aloud.  “I’m having an affair with a woman,” she repeated.

            Briar stopped.  “I heard you the first time.”  He pulled his hand from hers.  “How did this happen?”

            She said she didn’t know exactly.  Wasn’t unhappy, didn’t go searching for a female lover, or any lover for that matter, but she met a woman in her chanting group, and they had a lot in common, became friends, grew closer, when out of the clear blue sky, she started thinking of her sexually, which freaked her out and excited her at the same time.  She talked way too fast, her words like a levee let loose.

            Gwen’s throat felt raw.  She calmed herself by picturing the way Rae ran her fingers up into the waves of her hair before she rested her head sideways against the palm of her hand. She also had a habit of curling a section of hair around an index finger as if it were a curler. Gwen loved the moment when Rae released the hair and it fell loose against her shoulder. 

            “I need a fucking drink,” Briar said.

            Gwen crossed the street behind him to the liquor store.  He grabbed two bottles of Riesling from the display stand near the checkout counter.  Usually he preferred drier wines. One under each arm, he hurried back to their hotel room, not bothering to check if she followed. He walked slightly stooped over, away from her, as if protecting his face from a cold wind.  They passed a sapling, bare of leaves, under the hotel parking lot light.  Gwen shivered, turning away from the notched shadows of its branches.  


            Inside their room, they sat across from each other at a small round table by the sliding glass door to the balcony.  Briar poured them each a plastic cupful of wine, his face ashen.  They both swallowed large gulps.  It scared her the way he clenched his jaw, as if he’d already decided something, and wouldn’t be swayed.

            “I never wanted to hurt you.”  Her voice cracked.  “I don’t know what got into me, but I became obsessed with the idea of making love to her.”  

            Gwen hadn’t planned to tell Briar such details, but she couldn’t stop herself.  Explaining how she asked the woman one evening, over a glass of wine, if she’d ever been with a woman. She’d said, no, but she’d wanted to try it.  Next thing Gwen knew, she found herself telling the woman she was beautiful, sexy, intriguing, and that she wanted to be with her.  They’d been lovers for the past two years.  

            She didn’t know exactly when her perception of women shifted.  She’d never thought gay men or women disgusting, and couldn’t understand why others objected so vehemently.  Maybe it began three years ago, when she’d worked on a project with a woman rumored to be in a sexual relationship with another woman.  It was around that time that Gwen began noticing women’s bodies in a slightly altered manner:  the way fabric stretched across a cashier’s breasts when she reached behind her, or how a server’s low-hanging crystal necklace caused Gwen to imagine sliding a finger down past the vee of her sweater.  Instead of merely noting to herself that a woman had beautifully shaped lips, she began to wonder how it would feel to kiss them. Gwen didn’t believe she’d ever encounter an opportunity to find out, and just wrote it off as part of her peri-menopausal sexual upswing–a guilty pleasure.  But the more she allowed herself to imagine, the more detailed and intense her fantasies grew.

            Gwen tried to slow her breathing.  She’d almost launched into how exhilarating it was to make love to a woman.  She knew it was crazy, but it saddened her that she couldn’t talk openly with Briar about her experiences with Rae.  

            Why wouldn’t he say anything?  She explained that she didn’t want to live with this woman.  Their relationship was primarily sexual.  She saw her once or twice a month, when he traveled out of town for sales meetings.  Gwen could see he wanted to say, “how fucking convenient,” but he held the words back, perhaps afraid of what else he might say.

            “Briar, you’re the one I want to share my life with.”

            He guzzled more wine.  “I don’t know what to say.”

            She emphasized that the woman knew she was never going to leave Briar, that she was content with things as they were, didn’t have the time or the desire for a full-time relationship, her job as a criminal lawyer pretty much consuming her life.  Gwen continued talking, fast, wanting it over, like a child awaiting punishment for misbehavior.  

            “Briar, this doesn’t change anything between us.”

            “How could it not?”  He slammed his palm on the tabletop.  The open wine bottle tipped, but he snatched it up without jostling out any wine.

            Gwen forced herself to remain seated, determined to plough through.  When she touched his hand, he jerked it away, and looked her full in the face.  

            “You fuck some dyke for two years, and now you suddenly feel all guilty, and want to confess your sins?”

            “You ignorant son of a bitch.”  Gwen grabbed her wine glass and headed for the bathroom.  She filled the tub with water as hot as she could stand it, emptying a vial of lavender bubble bath beneath the faucet.  With the water cradling her, she tried to empty her mind, slow her breaths, still her heart.  Tears streamed down her face.  Their saltiness reminded her of semen, and she wondered if she’d ever taste Briar again.

            She sipped her wine and tried not to listen for sounds from the other room.  All she heard was the barely discernible sound of bubble bath suds popping.  Had he fallen asleep?  Holding her breath, eyes closed, she slid underwater.  At the age of five she discovered how much she loved submersion, gliding along the pool bottom, or just below the surface.  Water softened, lightened, and muted everything.

            “Gwen!”  The water distorted his voice, but not his tone or volume.  

            She pierced the surface, heart racing, water sheeting down her.  Briar moved toward her, arm raised, as if to slap her.  He’d never verbally or physically abused her, but maybe all bets were off.  But he pulled a towel off a hook and handed it to her.  She patted her face dry and wrapped it around her hair.

            He sat on the closed commode, elbows on knees, shoulders hunched.  “Why did you tell me this?”  

            Gwen finished off her wine.  “It’s your sister’s fault.”

            He sat up straight.  “My sister?  What in the hell does Shelley have to do with this? You’re not fucking her too?”

            Gwen slapped her palm against the water’s surface, wetting Briar’s jeans. “You know how I feel about your sister.”  She clamped her lips together, determined not to retrace old battles. “I need more wine.”

            Briar refilled her glass, hands shaking.  She took a large swig, and described the night Briar was out of town a week before.  Shelley stopped over the house, uninvited, of course, and instead of knocking, walked in and found her and Rae kissing in the kitchen.  They were just having a glass of wine before leaving for the theatre.  Gwen’s face burned, remembering the sweet taste of wine on Rae’s lips, followed by the shock of seeing Briar’s sister in the doorway.

            “Shelley had the most evil, pleased look on her face.  Probably orgasmed she was so happy to finally have some dirt on me.”

            Gwen took another swig of wine, closed her eyes, and tried to picture all her resentments against her sister-in-law draining out of her pores into the hot water, diffusing, dissolving.

            “For a few days I held onto the hope that she wouldn’t tell you, because she wouldn’t want to hurt you.  But there was no mistaking the look in her eyes.  She would tell you eventually, but she wanted to savor the control.”  

            Gwen chanced a look at Briar.  He held his face in his hands.  She didn’t even know if he 
heard her.

            “I wanted the chance to tell you myself.  I honest to God don’t know what I expected.  I just didn’t want to lose you.”

            She still believed that if she could only take her time to fully unfold her experience layer upon layer, her husband couldn’t help but see how important this was to her.  Just the initiation of the affair, the exhilaration and freedom of doing something so unlike her, so far out of her comfort zone.  It had changed her.  He wouldn’t be able to deny that Gwen carried this exuberance into her life with him.  

           Briar left the bathroom without looking at her.  She saw him stop at the dresser, shove the room key into his pocket.  He eyed the cornerstone she’d asked him to bring inside.  He placed his hands around it, hesitating as if to steady himself.  In profile his face looked calm. Gwen called his name seconds before he lifted the stone and flung it toward the carpet.  It cracked into several large chunks.  She felt the impact in her chest.  The vibration churned up the tub water.  Briar left, slamming the door.

            She wanted to go after him, but felt so cold.  She filled the cooled bath with hot water to the rim. Grabbing the wine bottle on top of the toilet tank, she clamped her lips around its mouth and chugged.

            Clutching the bottle’s neck like a torch singer hugging a microphone, she belted, “Oh my man, I love him so.  He’ll never know.”  She laughed hysterically at the power of her voice, how it echoed. “Oh my life is just despair, but I don’t care.  When he takes me in his arms, the world is bright, all right.”

            She would give Rae up, if forced.  That was their understanding from the beginning.
If either woman wanted out of the relationship, they would be honest, but gentle.  They called it their experiment.  Neither had made love to anyone of their same sex.  Talk about not being able to breathe.  Gwen remembered the exhilaration, the near hysteria she felt that first time. They’d rented a hotel room with a Jacuzzi.  Rae had packed a picnic basket of cheese and wine. They remained clothed while they ate on top of the bed, sitting Indian-style.  When they agreed to remove their clothes simultaneously, they laughed wildly when they saw they’d both worn bathing suits beneath.  Once they warmed up in the water, they agreed to remove their swimsuits, looking openly at each other, without turning away.  

            Gwen gave way to sobs, picturing Rae’s auburn curls, the pearl-blush of her breasts.

Gwen couldn’t stop shaking.  She slid under the bathwater, where everything flowed warm and soft.  Where she didn’t have to worry about breathing. 

            Last week, they’d argued when Rae insisted that Briar would never accept their relationship. Gwen had defended her husband, insisted he was open-minded and forgiving.

            “Why should he have to forgive you?” Rae had asked, her voice shrill.  “Is what we are doing wrong?”

            Gwen couldn’t stop shaking. She slid under the bathwater, where everything flowed warm and soft. Where she didn’t have to worry about breathing.

            She felt a thud, as of a doorknob flung against a wall.  Gwen came up for air, thinking Briar had returned.  Her eyes fell on one of the broken cornerstone’s chunks.  The ceiling light revealed tiny recesses in the rock’s surface and its natural glints.  

            She was so tired.  Again she slid beneath the water’s surface, its touch reminding her of Rae’s skin.


            “I’ve got you,” Briar said.  “You’re okay.”

            Gwen couldn’t stop shaking.  Something rough pressed against her, and her skin prickled raw. She must have fallen asleep in the bathtub.

            “We’ve got to get you dried off.  My God, have you been in the water all this time?”

            He kept coming at her, trying to make her do something, tangling her arms and legs up in something.  Her head pounded.

            “That’s three hours.  You’ll probably catch pneumonia.  With as much as you drank, you could have drowned.”

            Gwen tried to open her eyes, but the light was too bright.  Briar encased her in blankets, propped her head on the pillow, and held a cup to her lips, urging her to drink. With the first sip of coffee, the events of the evening blossomed like the blow of a sledgehammer to the back of her head. The shivering started again. He removed his robe and slid next to her bare skin, wrapped his arms and legs around her. But she felt his reluctance. 

            She tried to say she was sorry, but her words slurred. He shushed her, saying, right now he needed to keep her warm. His breath bathed her forehead as she cried. He smelled like fall leaves.

            Gwen woke to Briar picking up the pieces of the cornerstone. On top of the towel draping the dresser, he fit the cracked edges together, holding them in place. When she sat up in bed, he turned and moved toward her. The foundation stone glinted over his left shoulder. 


Karen George, who retired from 25 years as a programmer/analyst, is author of the chapbooks Into the Heartland, Inner Passage, and forthcoming The Seed of Me, and the collection Swim Your Way Back from Dos Madres Press. She has received grants from Kentucky Foundation for Women and Kentucky Arts Council. Her work has appeared in Louisville Review, Memoir, Tupelo Press 30/30 Website, Cortland Review, Permafrost, Border Crossing, Wind, and Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. She holds an MFA in Writing from Spalding University, reviews poetry and interviews poets at Poetry Matters and is fiction editor of the online literary and art journal, Waypoints.


return to fiction                   home