Confounding Variables

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July 1, 2013 by The Citron Review

by Michael A. Kiggins


In 1990, with a full-ride to Memphis State awaiting him, Bryan Meigs left Ladue, an affluent suburb of St. Louis, for the Bluff City. He pursued a degree in psychology before he’d failed at other, more potentially lucrative majors and settled for fourth best.

“I want to help people,” was his vague motivation for choosing this field. Later on, it wasn’t rare for him to overhear T.A.s joke, in reference to other students, that that sentiment actually means, “I need therapy. Stat.”

Despite his facility in both cognitive psychology and upper-level statistics, he was awful when it came to experimental design. His hypotheses invariably posited “concurrent, mutually exclusive states which, obviously,” the T.A.s’ comments might as well have been sketches of their eye-rolls, “aren’t amenable to quantitative research. Have you considered sociology?”

Since graduating, his sex life, much less his few attempts at relationships, had been similarly successful. Consider the following:  (∀x)[(f(x)⊃s(x)] Or, in English: For all men, if they are loyal, then they are _______ (circle one).

A. cherished B. neglected C. static D. exploited E. esteemed F. dismissed

For Bryan, those variables thought like leafing through kudzu: where does one plant end and the next begin? Moreover, can an untangled vine be considered in isolation, or is its potential only to be measured against the knot?

To be clear, potential wasn’t a fetish of Bryan’s, for he knew how brutal impatience could be. Once he thought that was how it felt to be idealized, but that word, like a few others, choked just below the voice box: idealized made Bryan think privileged, which made him think clean, which made him think hidden. And, after last summer, this logical chain would always return him to those few days he knew Adam White.

What’s there to say? All of it was consequential, but none of it mattered. Now, all Bryan could do was hope that the pane was still clear once he’d passed through this latest window period. Adam was just one of the many people, for bliss or for curse, whom Bryan had met in this town. If I could just balance that ledger, Bryan often thought, I’d be content. But what’s the use worrying about your shitty credit score when your debt’s so inescapable it feels congenital?

He’d been washing dishes at Café d’Esyal since giving up trying to put his Bachelor’s to use. “B.S.” had never felt more appropriate. One afternoon, when Bryan was taking out the trash, Adam zipped by on a mountain bike. Shirtless, deeply tanned, Adam had cut through the parking lot of the adjacent Indian restaurant, hopping a small curb. He’d stared at Bryan as he slowly coasted around the corner of Café d’Esyal, toward North Evergreen.

Another of the nameless-gorgeous on the periphery, Bryan thought. Flashes more intimated than seen, more gesture than substance, these men were everywhere when you weren’t looking, and nowhere when you were.

But Adam soon pedaled back, smirking. “Hey,” he said, hopping off his bike, “you look like you’d know.” His drawl, a heavy Mississippi.

“What’s that?” Bryan raised the dumpster’s lid, heaved the full bag inside. Adam wouldn’t break eye contact, not even when Bryan let the lid slam. Maybe it’s my lucky day, Bryan thought. Straight men don’t look at you that directly. Unconsciously, his lips mirrored Adam’s smirk, which he found disarming.

“I’m…a little lost,” Adam looked over his shoulder.

While his head was turned, Bryan scanned him from neck to calves. Adam was several inches taller, at least six-foot-three, with nearly-white-blond hair, and large, thick hands. His ripped torso and legs were covered in blond hair, slightly darkened by sweat. Bryan thought, I’m a fuckin’ cliché.

“That’s Poplar, right?” Adam glanced back.

“Uh…” Bryan only now saw how bright green Adam’s eyes were. “Yeah.”

“So, where’s Cooper-Young?”

That neighborhood was maybe three miles away. Bryan gave directions, assuring him, “You can’t miss it.” Before he knew it, Adam was shaking his hand.

“Name’s Adam,” he smiled, his teeth as bright as his hair.

Bryan was caught off guard. Whenever Adam exhaled, his stomach looked like it was composed of inter-locking plates held in place by his flesh. If given the chance, Bryan figured he could handle being that cliché.

“Hold on,” Adam rummaged through the pockets of his cargo shorts. A few seconds later, he uncapped a Sharpie with his teeth and scrawled his telephone number on Bryan’s forearm. “Call me, if you want,” he said, peddling off.

Bryan waited a couple days before calling, and that night they went on a date. How could he have known that Adam was dating both a man in Little Rock and a woman in town?

How could Bryan have known both that Adam was the kind of man who, even with the willing, ruined those he fucked for almost everyone else, and the extent of that ruination? Analogous to increasing the gauge of your earrings, how past a certain point there’s no restoring the default; months after removing the spacers you’d still be able to see daylight.

How could Bryan have sat through dinner and drinks if he’d known that he was nothing more than an outlet for Adam’s darkest trope? And while it had barely been long enough for the swollen, split lip to subside, for the black eye to fade, for shuffling in the shortest, slowest steps to feel like a distant and missed echo of normal, Bryan wondered if he could have saved himself any of the pain by simply letting go.

But he’d learned the answer to the last question two decades prior to meeting Adam, since re-defining idealized. Before he could stop himself, and for no reason he could later pinpoint, Bryan imagined Adam had learned it, too. A means of balancing of karma, albeit retroactively—a means of understanding motive. This generosity was short-lived, though.

Bryan smirked. He’d love to show Adam just how impatient he could be.


Michael A. Kiggins holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Memphis, and a Master’s of Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School. He teaches college English and biblical studies in Nashville, TN. “Confounding Variables” is an excerpt from his novel, And the Train Kept Moving. His fiction has also appeared in Skive Magazine, A&U Magazine, Lodestar Quarterly, and Blithe House Quarterly. When he isn’t grading, he can be found hobbling around the rugby pitch.


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