My first love gave me his yellow Kodak M35 before he moved, as if he knew we’d never see each other again. I told him no, I wasn’t taking that. He said that he had too much to bring with him anyway, and I accepted that half-ass excuse. The whole third-floor corridor of Block C3 knew his family was moving to a four-story house in a gated neighbourhood. I knew he had more space than stuff to fill it with at this point. But if he really wanted to give, I’d take.
I asked him if he would come visit me as I let my finger trace the edge of the camera’s lens and my eyes trace my finger, so that I didn’t have to look at him. He was sitting right in front of me, on the other side of the seesaw. He bounced once before he answered.
“Yeah,” he said. “Of course.” I didn’t believe it at all. If it were me, I wouldn’t come back.
In the days after Dương left, many people asked how I was doing. My brother and sister wanted to believe that I was lovesick, probably because the thought amused them. Mum scoffed at Quang and Quỳnh for inducing thoughtless juvenile behaviour in me, because good students didn’t fuel illusions about love, they focused on studying for their university entrance examinations. Dad was relieved, because Dương had always been a good-for-nothing petit prince who excelled only at wasting his father’s money on childish trinkets—and at being a bad influence on me. Aunt Tâm, who we all referred to by her husband’s name, thought it was sweet of Dương to have gifted me the camera; it showed that he’d enjoyed my company, too.
If he really cared, he would have come back or at least taken me with him. But that wasn’t going to happen, and I was left to wander around every afternoon with my new old camera. I took pictures in the dying light where the walls were peeling, the algae was growing, and the open corridors of our apartment blocks were sagging with the weight of scrawny potted plants and rusted dish racks. Most of our homes were so crammed on the inside that we had to put our dishes outside. Uncle Tâm slipped into a shot once, walking in the indigo shadows of dusk. I only took one photo per day since I didn’t have another roll of film, and I knew Mum wouldn’t like it if I asked her for money to buy more.
Aunt Tâm caught me once while she was cycling back from her vocal class. Mum told me that she was trained to be a Vietnamese opera performer, but jobs like that always left you with empty bowls. Aunt Tâm taught music in a talent school now.
“I see you’ve found a new hobby,” she said.
I pleaded with her not to tell Mum about this, because she’d make a big deal out of it.
“Oh, she would all right,” Auntie Tâm laughed. “Haven’t you heard? Art gets you nowhere.”
So we were all stuck here. But then Aunt Tâm said, “I won’t tell her—” She held up a hand, “—if you let me see those photos of yours.”
From then on, I decided to save my breakfast money to get the films developed. While I waited, I feasted on excitement instead, spinning images in my mind of what my shots would look like. The night I finally brought the photos over to Aunt Tâm’s place, she made me some bánh rán that had no fillings and were really just fried dough. Uncle was still out drinking somewhere so we spread the photos across the floor and snacked on the chewy dough as we looked through my lonely work. I picked up Uncle Tâm’s photo and gave it to her. The corridor in it was dipped in a smoky blue, so elusive that even Uncle Tâm’s face looked hollowed out. His frayed orange polo shirt stood out like a solitary rag heavy with oil accumulated from his days fixing motorbikes.
“You have a knack for this,” she said. “He looks even more miserable than he is in real life.” I offered her the photo, but she told me to keep it. She sees enough of him already.
“You should do this more often.” There was a glint in Aunt Tâm’s wide, black eyes. “You’re young, and young people should try their hand at things before it’s too late.”
Aunt Tâm agreed to store my photos for me and fry me dough cakes every week when I told her I needed to do this in secret. Skipping breakfast became routine. I didn’t miss Dương as much when I was holding his camera in my hands.
“Where are you always going these days?” Mum would ask. “Don’t be hanging around doing nothing. Your entrance exams are coming up. Your teacher told me you’re not doing so well in Chemistry.”
From then on, whenever she asked, I’d say I was going to an extra class or a friend’s house to study. I told my friends about it, too, in case Mum ever called to check. And I did go to study groups sometimes when I didn’t have enough film on me.
Aunt Tâm helped me pick out the good photos that might be accepted by newspapers or magazines somewhere. She even paid for postage every now and then. “You know what else you should do? Find a studio and ask for a job. People love taking family photos these days. Get dressed up and made up and smile pretty for the camera,” she scoffed.
At night, I’d ponder the possibilities while listening to Aunt Tâm bark at her husband. He often came home late, and he spent so much of their money on alcohol. Uncle Tâm, on the other hand, thought that his wife was hoarding and keeping money from him. She selfishly kept it for herself and her family. She said she was saving so that they’d be able to find a proper house. He called her a liar. She called him a drunkard. I thought about capturing them in a photo shoot, made up and smiling pretty for the camera.
“Poor thing, Aunt Tâm,” Mum would sigh and say, when she heard them fighting. “Barren woman. This is what happens to a marriage when you don’t have children.”
“Surely they’re just unhappy,” my sister Quỳnh countered. “A baby would only make things worse.”
“That’s what you’d think,” Mum said. “You’ll see when you grow up and have a family.”
I only knew that Aunt Tâm’s face lifted whenever I showed her my photos, so I spent more and more time over at her place. I’d help her cook dinner after our chats, and she’d chase me back home. A good daughter would never miss family meals.
I wasn’t a good daughter, I said. I was lying to my parents, using study time to indulge in a hobby they didn’t see any value in, caring less about coming back to that little square jam-packed with five people. I needed to be someplace else, and good daughters never asked for that.
Aunt Tâm looked at me sneakily like she wanted to tell me a secret but was unsure. Finally, she said, “I’ve got some places you can go. So many places in this city you would have never known about.”
I was intrigued.
“You’ve always lived in the well-planned, blocky parts of town, so you don’t notice it. But I tell you, Hà Nội is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.”
Her eyes grew big and sparkling again. I knew she enjoyed the impatient curiosity that was leaking from my face.
“Here’s the trick: you have to go down the alleys. They’re small but you cannot imagine the worlds that lie within them.”
So, on an early summer afternoon, as students bubbled onto the streets in bursts, I found myself biking down a tiny alleyway I had never been down before. It was like the sun had gone away behind the roofs atop, and the chatter of cars and bikes was switched off. I was alone, and I never knew that I could be alone in this city. Anyone that passed by was merely a fleeting face. I stopped, pulled out my yellow camera, and snapped.
The lane bent at odd angles, obscuring whatever was ahead, so I hardly knew when it would end. I felt the air slide over my skin, cooling the sweat. At some points, it even felt chilling, cycling through the shadows like that. And then I rolled into the sun and found myself at the end of the road—the beginning of that hidden world Aunt Tâm had talked about.
It was a big patch of land housing an open market. I never heard the haggling until I reached the mouth of the alley. There were fish and tofu, vegetables and flowers, fruits and snacks, and vendor ladies with their cone hats. The market was damp with sweat and the buckets of water used to wash produce. It was patchy with the shades of the trees and houses that surrounded it like a fortress. I knew open markets—I frequented the one near Block C3 to buy the occasional packet of salt or bunch of spring onions for Mum—but I had never seen a market this busy hidden behind a rivulet-sized alley.
Cycling around, I arrived at the other side of the market, where there was yet another, this time broader, alleyway. I slipped in, wondering what other worlds awaited. This route was significantly shorter, and I soon skidded to a stop in front of a rusted gate. It stood wide open, though there was a small one-story house on the side, where the gatekeeper no doubt stayed. Behind the gate was something unexpected: a row of tall, pristinely coloured houses with walls that had fantastic ridges and carvings on them. They were solemn and quiet and stood straight against the dashing sky.
This was it. Nothing whispered in the air, save for the occasional wriggle of the wind. I could imagine living inside one of those houses: neighbour-free, noise-free, carefree. I would have my own room, where I could snack and read manga until I was bored. Then I’d walk out and photograph Hà Nội like it was nobody’s business. No one would complain because we’d never have to worry about empty bowls.
Bringing the camera up to my eyes, I steadied the frame so that the houses loomed like happy mountains over the gate and the guardhouse. There were dashes of yellow and green and so much beautiful blue. None of the chipped paint and indigo shadows of Block C3.
Aunt Tâm was right. I took my chance and slipped through the gate. The guard, if he was there, didn’t stop me. There were more houses behind the ones I had just photographed. There must have been forty of them, standing side by side. They had delicately designed gates that shielded their courtyards. They were mighty and silent and lined with all kinds of plants that had wonderfully large, fertilized flowers.
That night, when I came back to my apartment block, I went straight to Aunt Tâm and told her what I found. She laughed at my amazement.
“Did you sit there and soak it in?” She asked. “Soak in all the money?”
I didn’t because I was afraid I’d find Dương there. This city was big and the possibility of me bumping into him was next to none, but I was still afraid. The sight of him would mar this perfect setting. Aunt Tâm raised an eyebrow.
“Did you take pictures?”
I told her about the photo of the gate. “All these beautiful houses and you took a picture of the gate,” she smirked. “Look who’s the artist now.”
When I stepped next door into my nook of a home, I found Quang catching my eye and shaking his head at me from the table where he was reading. He threw a glance at Mum, who was chopping something on the kitchen counter with vigour. I barely finished greeting her when she asked: “Where were you?”
I told her I was studying, by default.
“Where were you studying?”
At a friend’s house. Like usual. She kept at the chopping board, not looking at me.
“Are you sure that you’ve been studying?”
I laughed, pretending like I was not nervous, and wondered aloud what she meant. She turned around, knife still in hand. Quang watched on through discrete glances.
“I called Nga’s mother,” she said, her brows dipping like shovels into wet soil. “I’ll ask one more time: where were you?”
I wanted to cry. I wanted to run out of here, away from these watchful eyes and perched ears, back to that narrow lane.
“Who were you with?” No one, I told her. “What were you doing?” Nothing, I said, and she glared at me.
“Is it a boy? Have you been messing around? It’s been months of ‘I’m going to study.’ Months of lying, and I was stupid enough to never actually listen. But you’ve got my full attention now. What were you doing?”
Nothing, I repeated. Mum threw her knife onto the floor. I jumped back and stared at her, my throat burning and my eardrums tightening like they were about to combust.
“Say that one more time,” she raised a shaky finger at me. Mum sucked in a breath, and it felt like she was depriving me of my own. The room only had so much air. “If it’s a boy, you might as well tell me now. Tell me the worst thing you can.” She was challenging me to disappoint her even more.
“And what’s that? What’s the worst thing I could say to you?” I snapped at her. Suddenly I was crying like there were broken dykes behind my eyes. “What have I done to upset you? So what if I don’t become the best in my class? So what if I don’t ace the entrance exams? So what if I care for a boy? So what if I don’t like it here where everyone is always in each other’s ears and eyes and space?”
I never finished saying everything I wanted to, because Mum cut in to tell me that I was being disrespectful and thoughtless. She and Dad had done everything to provide for the three of us, and they had taught their children well—look at Quỳnh and Quang. I was being fooled by some pipe dream that life was easy, but it wasn’t. Did I think this right now was bad? She’d have me know that it was better than nothing. Because in two months we’d have nothing, not even this tiny flimsy-walled hellhole.
“What?” Quang joined the conversation, as confused as I was.
Mum dropped herself onto a chair like a sack of oranges and threw her head into her palms. She had wanted to wait until Dad and Quỳnh were home. But hell, we had gotten this far already, hadn’t we? They were throwing us out, to build some shopping centre or plaza on our piece of land. Some big corporation was starting deconstruction soon. We were told to move.
Quang had gone over to where Mum was sitting. “But we own this apartment.”
They were only paying the minimum compensation, barely the market value. It wasn’t going to be enough to find another apartment like this, Mum told us with her face still in her hands.
“That just can’t be right,” Quang said.
But it was, because two months later, I went back to this place to take a final picture of the walls I had so despised, and there was only one wall left: the one right at the back of Block C3. It was just a massive slab, a morbid mosaic of measly apartments’ back walls, hidden from strangers’ eyes until this moment. We were one in dozens, and we were lost.
Uncle Tâm was there with me too, sitting on his old armchair. It was left on the pavement opposite of where our block once was. Uncle Tâm stared at the rubble-strewn ground. It was where his motorbike workshop used to be.
I watched the sun filter through the unsettled dust, raised my Kodak to Uncle Tâm, and snapped.
Note: the author also translated this story into Vietnamese. Read at Công Dân & Khuyến Học.
Thao To writes short stories, peruses newspaper archives in her free time, and is always between time zones. You can find her work in (mac)ro(mic), The Augment Review, and on Twitter @thao__to