by Frenci Nguyen
An old English professor of mine once told me that the self is a summation of surrounding influences and experiences that carry people through life. We owe who we are to those around us, whether for better or worse. The center cannot exist without a circle.
Just as children are praised for looking so much like their parents and continuing the legacy of endearing idiosyncrasies, they’re just as quickly condemned for their parents’ misdeeds.
As if the only inheritance their lineage grants them is punitive recourse for those mistakes.
As if they chose to be born to such people.
7:45 a.m. on a school day. My grandmother, in her dark-brown, polyester, bamboo-themed pajamas, was washing the dishes I had forgotten in the sink overnight: soup spoon, bowl, pair of chopsticks, tea mug. Her nails and the dishes clanged against the metal of the sink. She cursed in Vietnamese to herself until she saw me standing behind the counter then voiced her anger in English: what kind of fourteen-year-old can’t even clean up after herself without being reminded because Grandma shouldn’t ever have to repeat something so simple.
“That’s right—you come from your parents. You’re not of my blood. If you were, you wouldn’t be like this,” she said.
To her, if my parents weren’t drug addicts and gamblers and deadbeats jumping from apartment to apartment, I would be able to wash the dishes on time and keep my room tidy and remember to clean the entire house on my own. I’m just an extension of their dysfunctionality, messiness, worthlessness, shame.
According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), addiction is genetic. We all have the gene for addiction because there’s an evolutionary advantage associated with pleasure and survival. However, those with family members who have addictions are especially predisposed to the same dependencies and more likely to develop them. But despite the predisposition, children of such family members can still live happily, can still sever that link to their family history.
When I was eight or maybe nine or ten, my parents took me to the nicest library east Houston had to offer at the time. Greenery overtook all the grayed brick: vibrant moss protruding from between the cracks, overgrown branches tapping against the arched windows, fallen leaves blanketing the entrance in faded emerald and sepia. It looked like a secluded, forsaken castle.
And the inside was the prettiest of any building I had ever seen. The ceiling and walls were tall, which, coupled with the massive arched windows, allowed the sunlight from outside to coat all the muted shelves and counters and floors in warmth. I sat at a table near one of the windows as I waited for my parents to come back with every volume of the Junie B. Jones series. We stayed at this library for five hours—five hours of me flipping through each page of each volume to find out what adventure Junie B. would have next, of the sunlight reflecting off each page and making the words look like something magical, of my parents dozing off across from me, leaning their heads against each other, content smiles on their freckled faces as they slept.
Here, we were not a family struggling to get by on bills because my father wasted all of his paycheck on drugs and slot machines. Here, we were not trapped by apartment evictions or scary drug dealers. Here, the library protected me from the A/C-less nights at home, the baby roach-infested laundromats my mom always needed extra quarters for, the ex-child molester and convicted thief my father let lodge with us because he considered them good friends. In this secluded, forsaken castle with Junie B., I was free—just a kid who loved to read.
I was seven when I was first condemned for my blood relations.
I woke up to a man holding a gun to my mom’s head— someone who was supposed to be my father’s friend, a man who had entered our apartment just hours before and laughed with us. A fistful of her chestnut hair was balled up in his hands, her forehead against the barrel. She begged him not to shoot, not to take the $25 she had saved up to buy me new colored pencils and crayons and journals for school. He pointed the gun at me next.
My mom ended up forfeiting the money to that man in an attempt to save my life. I later heard from her that she had let him inside because he said he was waiting for my father to come back and join him for drinks. As she turned her back, he struck her head with the gun, dragged her to the bathroom, and slammed her face into the tile floor. When she asked him why he attacked her, he said it was because my father pissed him off.
We were just guilty by association.
According to the OED, addiction is the habitual or immoderate devotion to an activity or the consumption of a substance. But nowhere is there listed a breakdown of the in-between, the days/weeks/months when people aren’t overtaken by their addictions.
Like when my parents surprised me with Build-A-Bear Workshop right after I finished binging Junie B. Jones at the library and let me buy however many sparkly outfits I wanted for my new stuffed-animal puppy.
Or when my father bought all three of us tickets to Astro World for summer break and drove us the hour it took to get there just so I could experience a mini road trip at least once in my life.
Or when we would camp out overnight on the beaches near the Seawall in Galveston (in tents that never really kept the sand out even though that’s what my father had marketed them to us as) and then hike up to the nearby McDonald’s for breakfast as salty as the oceanwater.
Or when my mom took me to work with her and would secretly close up the store for ten minutes while we went on our lunch adventures to the nearby Jack in the Box and Marble Slab Creamery because she always craved the former’s savory curly fries followed by the latter’s sweet caramel ice cream.
Or when the sound of my father playing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on his keyboard from the balcony woke me up on school mornings and enticed my mom to sing along from the kitchen while brewing coffee and making all of us eggs and bacon and hash browns and toast.
The most bitter smell I remember of the drugs my parents did is the stench that emanated from one of our old apartments. I had been looking for my mom because my stomach was growling for food too intensely for me to bear. I saw that the light was on in the one closet we all shared, so I walked into it and found my mom amidst a pile of aluminum scraps, eyes wide and irises almost nonexistent, her hair a scribbled mess and sticking to the many beads of sweat coating her face. I wanted to know what she was doing in the closet all by herself, but she mistook it as a nine-year-old’s judgment.
“This just medicine, honey. But bad kind. If I don’t do this, your father, he’ll keep bring them home,” she said while gripping my arms. The stench from her mouth invaded my nose, forcing me into a coughing fit.
I didn’t understand why she had to come up with such a lie in front of her own daughter. I was old enough to figure out that she was doing drugs. We had just started our anti-drugs project at school, after all.
One evening, I happened to be in the same room as my then-23-year-old cousin while my uncle lectured her about her life choices. She was sitting in a chair, my uncle looming over her. She was young, so she could still turn her life around, go back to school, and find better jobs to sustain herself, he said. It didn’t matter that her parents brought her up in a drugs-centered environment. As long as she wanted to make better choices for her life and health, she wouldn’t have to suffer through poverty and unsafe neighborhoods and relationships with sleazy men. It all depended on her willpower to ditch her own drug dependency.
She kept her head low, but through the thin strips of dyed-black hair that tried to hide her face, I saw a faint resigned smile. It’s all her parents’ fault, she said. She didn’t know any other way of living, although she knew that she was ruining her life at an early age.
Everything my cousin said made my chest tighten in rage, but it wasn’t directed at her. I instead glared at my uncle who kept lecturing and lecturing and lecturing about how her justifications were just weak excuses. He saw only the addiction in her. She was just the child of his older sister and her husband who had lost their minds and lives to drug dependency.
My rage grew with each word he aimed at her, but I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t tell him that he was going too far, that it wasn’t her fault who she was born to, that children like us don’t choose our parents. I wasn’t yet ready to defend someone who was unable to dislodge the chains that bound us to our family history.
When I became old enough to have an interest in romance and dating, my grandmother started telling me stories of how boy-crazy my mom used to be in her teens. One night, she snuck out of the house to run away with a boy she had been head-over-heels for after only knowing him for just a couple of months. They were going to take a bus headed somewhere out of the state, but my grandmother caught them at the Greyhound station before my mom could board that bus, dragged her back home, and beat her with her tiny fists until blood coated them. Another night, my mom had snuck out to go to a party where my grandmother swore she was going to meet up with some boy. When my grandmother caught up with her at that house, my mom screamed at her and lunged her nails across her face. Again, she was beaten into submission after that, to the point of blood.
My grandmother would shake her fist to me while she told these stories so that I never forgot what would happen to me if I ever wanted to date or had someone I liked before graduating high school. To her, I was just bound to be as love-crazy as my mom.
I can’t pinpoint when it actually started, but I don’t like compliments about my looks in comparison to my parents’. Something in me becomes agitated to know that their faces exist in my own. I should be flattered since my mom is pretty and my father is decent-looking, too. I have the same deep brown eyes as my mom, her same freckles that spot and tan my arms, her same flat-bridged but rounded and cute nose, her same soft, wavy hair. My eyes are a blend of my mom’s almond eyes and my father’s more rounded ones, and my skin, just like theirs, is healthy, hydrated, clear. If I pack dark eyeshadow on my eyelids and wing my eyeliner, I resemble my mom in her younger years when she used to make a living as a singer.
When I hear these compliments from my family, they’re always prefaced by past-tense verbs. All my skin does is crawl and shiver because what’s referenced is not how my parents look now but how they used to look before their health took a turn for the worst.
Before the addiction.
I remember only one time when living with my grandmother that she praised me for being me. It was a weekend during eighth grade—she had taken me to visit her work at a nail salon in Galveston.
Her boss was talking to her about how her son was always playing on his PS2 and never wanted to study or do his homework when she asked him to. My grandmother then assumed an air of pride, stretched her stout body upright, and raised her chin to brag about my grades that were a result of the hours I spent every day studying and doing my homework. She praised my initiative in always seeking new knowledge and asking questions and teaching others about whatever I had recently learned. She patted my head as she smiled at me, gripping my shoulders in a strong, tight hug. I was her trophy granddaughter that she could show off to others because it made her look good to share blood with someone so studious. I was happy.
Then we got home after her shift ended and she berated me again for leaving dishes in the drying rack because I should have put them up before we left that morning. If I couldn’t do so much as to even think of that beforehand, then I was lazy and a conceited good-for-nothing just like my parents.
Nowadays, my nose will crinkle, scrunch up in wrinkles, if I even think about my childhood. I’ll recall the stench.
And my breath will stop.
Catch in my throat until I’m back in the present.
Until my lungs are safe from the potent, ashy bitterness in my memories.
I don’t want to remember. Instead, I want to be empty space for a while until I can become the center of a new circle.
Frenci Nguyen is currently a second-year M.F.A. candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Miami University (Oxford, OH) who teaches freshman composition for the English Department, works as a graduate writing consultant at the Howe Writing Center, serves as a CNF reader for the campus's graduate student-run literary journal, and is a winner of the 2020 Jordan-Goodman Graduate Writing Award in Creative Nonfiction. Frenci's work has previously appeared in Hippocampus, the queer literary journal peculiar, and The North Texas Review Online.
— Jacob Collins-Wilson
“We parked in front and I heard the music, felt the bass and my dad got out and told me and my mom to wait and I knew those kids were in trouble because that music was too loud and they better hope there aren’t any cuss words because my dad barged in when I was taking a shower and took my Slipknot CD because it cussed.”