Breathe for Them Both

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

A waygookin was the only witness to the Gongdeok hit and run. That night, Izzy—the foreigner in question—heard the crash before she saw it. On a side street that spidered out somewhere near Gongdeok station, wheels squealed, sounding like something dying. The smell of rubber scraped raw on asphalt came next. And then the scream. Izzy followed the sound into an alley to find a toppled baedal motorcycle with its trunk door yawning open and still steaming fried chicken scattered about it. Next to the bike, there was an expensive sedan, and under this sedan, there was a man.

Dropping her phone and groceries, Izzy ran over to the car. The accident left the man sprawled out under the Mercedes, but none of his limbs had been run over, thank god. Izzy crouched down next to him. “Gwaenchaneuseyo?” she asked, fighting every instinct to speak English. Even after being in the country for three months, something about adrenaline and terror overrides any desire to speak your second language. “Are you okay?” she asked again. With the full-face helmet on his head, she couldn’t see his face, but his chest rose and fell with labored breaths.

The car door slammed shut. The driver, an unkempt man in a suit with his tie undone, took one look at the biker and turned away in panic. “Fuck!”

“Hey,” Izzy snapped at him in Korean. “Help me get—”

The man under the car gasped. He sat up with difficulty, as though some great, invisible mass were holding him down.

“Slowly, okay?” Izzy said.

“I can’t move my arm,” the man said.

Izzy turned to the driver, who was squatting next to his car in tears. “Ya, ahjusshi! Dowa juseyo.”

The driver looked at her with the same disbelief that people always did when they saw Izzy—a Black foreigner—speak Korean. He helped Izzy ease the man out from under the car, both of them careful not to touch his injured arm. As they moved him out of the street, the driver walked close to Izzy, smelling of cigarettes and soju. The fucker was drunk.

Once they propped the man up against a brick wall, the driver bowed with an apology, ran to his car, and drove off, wheels crunching over Izzy’s groceries and smartphone.

“Motherfucker!” Izzy yelled after the car in English, trying to memorize the license plate: 18 나 3456

18 나 3456

18 나 3456

18 나 34—

The car peeled out of sight. Izzy picked up her crushed phone to call an ambulance, but the cracked glass of the touch screen sliced her finger open.


Izzy turned around. The biker sat against the wall with his head lolled to the side, away from his corpse-limp arm. With his good hand, he pawed at the chin strap of his full-face helmet. “Help me?”

Izzy crouched down at his side again. When she removed the helmet, the sight of his round face and doe eyes stunned her; he was just a kid. No older than twenty, and the fear on his face made him look even younger.

“You’re gonna be okay. Can I have your phone?” she said in Korean, showing him the crushed remains of her own phone. “I’ll call for help.”

The boy patted at the pocket of his windbreaker, but his hand couldn’t make sense of the zipper. “You’re a waygookin.” He sounded dazed, as though his consciousness was on the precipice of oblivion. “How do you speak Korean so well?”

“You’re hurt. Don’t worry about that.” Izzy gestured to his pocket. “May I?” He nodded, and she unzipped the jacket pocket and pulled out his phone.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“Hear what?”

“Something’s ringing.”

God, she needed to get this boy to a hospital. “What’s your passcode?”

“Eighteen-eighteen,” he said with a delusional laugh. In Korean, the word for “eighteen” sounded like the word for “fuck.”

Izzy typed 9-1-1. No, shit, she thought. We’re in Korea. She deleted the numbers and dialed 1-1-9.

“What’s your emergency?”

Christ, how do you say hit and run in Korean? “A car hit someone,” Izzy said, unsure if she used the right verb.

She must not have, because the operator replied in English, “We have your location. An ambulance is on the way.”

“Help is coming,” Izzy said to the boy.

His head bobbed as sleep tried to take him. “I’m very tired.”

“Anio, you gotta stay awake. You probably have a . . .” Izzy realized she didn’t know the word for “concussion.” “If you sleep, it will hurt your brain.”

“Do I have nwejintang?”

That must be the word she was looking for. “Talk to me. What’s your name?”

“Park Doyoon. What is that noise?”

“It’ll go away soon. Tell me about yourself, Doyoon,” Izzy said, listening hard for the sound of sirens, but only the nighttime breath of Seoul city streets met her ear: the far-off whine of brakes on blue buses, distant voices lost in the sweep of cars on broad boulevards, muffled music disembodied from cafes and noraebangs. “Is there someone I can call for you? Your parents?”

“Who has parents?” he said with a bitter laugh.

“You don’t have parents?”

“No, I don’t. My grandma is in a nursing home in Daegu, but most days she doesn’t know my face.” Daegu was on the other side of the country. How lonely he must have been in this city, and now, bike-wrecked and alone in an alley with a stranger—a waygookin, no less. Though Izzy herself had never been the victim of a crime, she knew the kind of loneliness that lived in your bones, that fed on you from the inside out on the nights you lay awake searching the black of your ceiling alone, at dinner tables with your parents sitting as far apart as strangers, in clinic lobbies when the paperwork asked if you’d ever been pregnant before. No, Izzy couldn’t  think about that lobby’s sterile, medical smell or its linoleum floor dirty with artistic flecks of color or the dry cough of the woman next to her who was about to abort what would be her third child. Now, on a research grant for her dissertation in a foreign country where she knew no one, Izzy felt seen in the loneliness that Doyoon had just shared.

“That noise, Noona,” Doyoon said. “It’s so annoying.”

Where the fuck was this ambulance? Izzy had to keep him talking. “So, you’re a delivery driver, right?”

“That’s just a part-time job. I’m a trainee.”

“Trainee? Like Kpop?”

“Ne, I hope the company makes me main dancer when I debut.” He started to nod off again, but then, as if something had plucked his soul like a string, he sat up straight. “Noona, I’m going to be able to dance, right?”

She looked at his arm; he hadn’t moved it since she pulled him out from under the car. “You’re gonna be fine,” she said. He replied to this lie with a dazed smile. Then something like worry or alarm sank onto his face. “You ok—”

He opened his mouth and vomited right onto Izzy’s blouse. “I’m so sorry,” he said, tears welling.

The smell alone made Izzy gag, but she managed to keep down the samgak kimbap she had had for lunch. Doyoon fought with the zipper on his jacket as if he was going to take it off and give it to her, but when he moved his wounded arm, he let out a cry like an animal.

“Stop, stop, stop. It’s okay,” Izzy said. Squatting here in this alley with puke seeping through the silk of her blouse, she wasn’t angry or disgusted. No, if anything, the vomit on her shirt endeared the boy to her; she wanted to do whatever she could to help him.

Sirens blared as the ambulance peeled around the corner, filling the dark alley with green light. EMTs rolled a stretcher out of the vehicle and helped Doyoon onto it. One of them asked Doyoon a series of questions about his pain, and Doyoon gave him mostly intelligible answers. The other EMT turned to Izzy and asked in English, “Did you see what happened?”

“No. I heard the crash, and he was on the ground when I got here. The driver drove off, though.”

“Did you get the plate?”

“Yeah, I’ll report it to the police,” she said.

The EMTs hoisted the stretcher into the ambulance, and Izzy handed Doyoon’s helmet to one of them. When they went to close the doors, Doyoon sat up, wincing. “Wait a second. Noona, are you coming?”

Izzy and the EMTs looked at each other, all unsure what to tell him. Something opened inside Izzy wide as a chasm, and a long-forgotten memory bubbled to the surface. A yellow streetlight poured over the corner of North Charles and University Parkway in Baltimore. The breath of late spring cooled the simmering sidewalk, and Izzy and her boyfriend, Miles—juniors in college—walked arm in arm toward her apartment. On University Parkway, they passed the lacrosse field. A game had just ended, and waves of Johns Hopkins students—disappointed by the loss to Princeton—dispersed from the field, heading toward their row houses and ugly, ancient apartment buildings. Miles was laughing at something Izzy had said when they heard the screech of car brakes and the heavy thunk that followed. They turned around to find an SUV stopped in the intersection and a woman on the ground. People were running toward her, yelling things like Are you okay? and Someone call 911! Even though the woman had at least fifteen people around her, helping her, Miles took off in her direction and added to the shouting, What happened? Is she okay? Izzy stood on the sidewalk next to the field, amazed by his instincts. There were so many people around that Izzy immediately thought someone else would help her, that she and Miles didn’t have to be the ones to step up. But watching Miles take long strides through the crowd to make sure he would be the one to help, Izzy realized how much she herself had to grow as a person.

Here she was now, five years later, staring into the mouth of an ambulance as a boy not much younger than herself reached out for help before the jaw shut.

“He doesn’t have any family,” Izzy told the EMTs. They both stepped aside and let her into the bus.


Izzy sat in a corner of the ambulance and talked to Doyoon while the EMTs did their work. Below the bellow of sirens, Doyoon thanked Izzy for coming with him, and his gratitude saddened her. To see someone so young, so alone and confused that they latched onto a complete stranger in a time of crisis sent pangs of hurt rippling through Izzy. She had felt those same pangs in the waiting room of that clinic. Izzy saw so much of herself, her own fears, her own isolation, in this poor kid. Following him to the hospital was the least she could do. And so, as the sirens announced Doyoon’s emergency to the world, Izzy asked him questions about his music to keep him awake, all while trying to remember that fucker’s license plate:

18 나 3456

18 나 3456

18 너 3456

18 너 3465

18 너 3645

When they arrived at the hospital, Izzy stepped out of the ambulance after the EMTs moved Doyoon’s stretcher.

“Noona, where are you going?” he asked as they wheeled him away.

“I’ll be in the lobby. I’ll see you soon,” she said, and he relaxed onto the stretcher.


In the lobby, Izzy spoke to two cops, giving them a description of the driver, his disheveled suit and his fancy car. When it came to the license plate, she knew she had the right numbers, but her goddamn dyslexia couldn’t keep them straight in her head, so she gave them a few possible combinations.

“Gamsahabnida,” one of the officers thanked her as he handed back her Alien Registration Card. “With this information and CCTV footage from the street, we probably can find this guy. We’ll be in touch if we need anything else.”

Izzy replied with a deep bow and watched the officers take their leave through the hospital’s revolving door. She sat down in a sea of chairs and hand-wringing patrons, wearing a too-small tee shirt that a nurse was kind enough to pull from the lost and found. Every few minutes, the image of Doyoon under the car came back to her like a ghost. Sitting amid the nervous chatter of the waiting room with no phone to occupy herself, she awaited news about Doyoon. Izzy wasn’t sure if she had ever sat alone with nothing but her own thoughts before.

Even on the twelve-hour flight from SFO to Incheon—the longest flight she had ever been on—she had had music and headrest display movies to occupy her mind, to distract herself from the fresh break-up with Miles. But now, all there was was the drone of the hospital PA system above her, the tack-tack of the receptionists’ keyboards behind her, and the inky blackness of her own thoughts. These thoughts, as they often did, drifted back to Miles.

Izzy hadn’t always been this alone in life. Before Korea, before she wedged her feet into those stirrups, there was Miles. On her worst days in Seoul, she regretted breaking up with him. She had let him believe it was because she was moving 5,600 miles away for a year, but that was bullshit. After all, she and Miles had done just fine when he was working on his master’s degree at Cambridge and she was starting her PhD at Berkeley. Honestly, she liked the space from him. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? They had been together so long, since they were twenty and stupid, and she needed that space from him, his year abroad in England, to see who she might become without him.

When he came back and started his job at a tech company in San Francisco, Izzy went to pick him up at the airport. She saw him waiting for his luggage at baggage claim before he saw her, and the sight of his lanky frame, his messy shock of orange hair, and the sweater her mom had given him two Christmases ago disappointed her. It had been months since they last had seen each other, and yet the sight of him blossomed something heavy and sinking in her chest. As his Iron Man suitcase tumbled onto the carousel, a single, curious word came to mind. Run. Yes, she could turn around, take the SUV-sized elevator to the garage, slide into her Prius, and drive back to her shitty apartment in Berkeley before he saw her. Run. The word came to her in a quiet rush like wind across ripened grain. But she wouldn’t be running from him; she’d be running toward something, toward a future without him, toward the self she could become without him.

Miles pulled his suitcase off the belt, and their eyes met across the stale-smelling room full of crying children in strollers and phone-wielding travelers. Miles smiled at Izzy, and she smiled too, but it was a mask. In that moment, she remembered something her college acting professor had said: Fix the face and the feeling will follow. And sometimes it did follow, on the windows-down drive across the Bay Bridge as they wailed Mumford & Sons lyrics into the black of the bay, in the grocery store as they vehemently agreed on which brand of peanut butter was shit, in bed as she traced the lightning-bolt scar on his thumb after she came. He had allegedly gotten the scar in a knife fight on an Eagle Scouts trip. Izzy never believed that story, though. The sight of that scar, just like the sight of his red curls tamed by gel or the razor bumps amassing around the pulse of his neck, summoned doubt. She wasn’t bored of him—not always—and she certainly didn’t resent him. Most of the time, she did love him—the way you love your childhood dog. The problem was that she didn’t love the person she would become with him.

That’s why, when the US government selected her grant application out of thousands and chose to fund her doctoral research in Korea, she waited weeks to tell him about her acceptance. That’s why, when she missed her period two weeks before she was to board that flight to Incheon, she got an abortion without telling him. That’s why she broke up with him the next morning in front of Sather Gate on campus, claiming that the distance would be too much.

Now, twenty-five years old and three months into becoming herself in Korea, Izzy spent her days in the Yonsei University Library and her nights drinking soju in her apartment in Gongdeok, watching wholesome dramas that brought tears to her eyes until she passed out on her couch. Here, as a Black woman in this country, she was so loudly visible and invisible to the world around her. Most nights, she considered calling Miles and telling him about the abortion, the secret she kept to herself and tended like a garden. But while Izzy had her honsool nights in Seoul, Miles was just starting his day in San Francisco. What would it be like to get a drunk call from your ex first thing in the morning? God, Izzy would do anything for a connection with another person, something to end the loneliness of her own foreignness, of her own failures in her second language.

Here, in this waiting room, all she wanted to do was talk to Miles, to have someone bear witness to what she had witnessed. Izzy took out her phone as a reflex. Somehow, it still turned on, and through the shattered screen, she could see the time: 8:13 PM. It was the middle of the night in San Francisco, and the knowledge of that made Izzy sink deeper into her own loneliness.

“Park Doyoon’s guardian,” the receptionist called out. “Who brought in Park Doyoon?” Izzy approached the front desk. “He’s been moved to this room.” The receptionist pointed on a laminated map. “You can go see him now.”

Arm in a temporary sling, Doyoon sat up in his hospital bed. He wore a long-sleeved hospital gown with vertical stripes and the word “hospital” repeating up and down it in a dizzying pattern. Izzy pulled a chair up to the bed. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Better, I think,” he said. “My shoulder was dislocated, and they took some x-rays. They also did, like, a brain scan thing, too? I don’t know. I’m waiting for the doctor now.” He looked at Izzy’s shirt. “Oh, Noona, you got a new shirt.” He covered his face in embarrassment. “I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it. Really. I’m just happy you’re safe.”

“I am worried about my dancing, though. You know bboying?” Images of people diving into handstands and spinning on their heads came to mind. “Well, that’s my style. I need my arms to dance.” They both looked at his sling. “They said the doctor will tell me how bad it is once he sees my x-rays.”

A nurse knocked on the door and poked her head into the room. “The doctor will be here soon.”

Izzy looked back at Doyoon. “Do you want me to get you some water?”

He nodded.


Izzy filled up two cups at the water cooler in the hallway. Her pocket chirped out her ringtone, but it sounded wrong, gravelly, as if the speakers had been put through a blender.

Surprised it was able to ring at all, she took out her phone, careful not to cut her fingers again. White and purple lines streaked across the screen. A chunk of glass was missing from the top corner, but she could still make out the name of the caller: Miles. What the hell? It was almost four in the morning in California. Why was he calling her now? Then, through the surprise bloomed something like hope. Of all the nights he could call her, he chose the night she thought of him the most. The thing about loneliness was that when something irrevocably significant happened, you had no one to share it with, and this lack of a listener left your voice to croak in your own throat until you had no voice at all. And here was the universe giving her her voice again, an opportunity to make her suffering seen, to make the suffering she had seen, seen again.

The click of dress shoes on tile floors echoed through the hall. A doctor in a lab coat walked toward Doyoon’s room. The phone rang insistently in Izzy’s hand, Miles’s name flickering on the screen like a candle about to go out. She could answer the phone and close or reopen—she couldn’t be sure—the wound she had given herself all those months ago. Or she could sit with Doyoon as he received news about his shoulder, his future, the person this accident would likely force him to become. Seeing the doctor several doors down from Doyoon’s room, Izzy locked her phone and went back inside.

She sat at Doyoon’s side as the doctor entered the room. Stress and sleep deprivation had purpled the bags under the doctor’s eyes. Doyoon took a deep breath, but didn’t let it out.

Overhead, the fluorescent lights hummed loud like cicadas in summer. The doctor took a seat at the computer, tapped away at the keyboard, and turned the screen toward them. Doyoon didn’t breathe, next to Izzy, so she breathed for them both, taking in the clean smell of hospital, the faint smell of blood on the doctor, metallic like coins held too long in your hands. Something about the way the doctor clicked his pen and pointed at the x-ray reminded Izzy of a clock tower’s toll, the way the bell announced the end of one thing and the beginning of another.