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Just Breathe

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Jiwoo’s mind degrades slowly. It starts with small things like forgetting Hyejoo’s name, and leaving her purse at home when she goes out. Sooyoung worries, but ultimately doesn’t think much of it, chalking the occasional memory lapses up to her reaching her 60’s. It’s only when Jiwoo shakes her awake one night and asks where they are that she realizes there’s a bigger issue at hand. 


They go to the doctor’s office later that week, and a few simple tests confirm the last thing Sooyoung’s ever wanted to hear. 


It’s Alzheimer’s, mid-stage.



Hyejoo checks her email the second she gets off the plane, thumbing through the few questions her company reps have about their newest game launch before switching over to her messages. She sends her ETA to the number of their neighbor that her mother had given her, getting a quick thumbs up in response. She collects her luggage from baggage claim and heads outside to hail a cab. 


Hyejoo lets her mind wander as the city passes by, thinking back on all the time she spent roaming these streets before she left for college. They pass by her old high school, her favorite arcade, and finally--




The cab driver slams the break, looking wildly for whatever Hyejoo had seen on the road that he hadn’t.


“Uh...sorry,” she embarrassedly rubs at the back of her neck, “Do you mind letting me out here instead?”


The man grumbles something about needing a raise as he pulls up to the sidewalk. Hyejoo tips him extra for the scare.


She walks into the old restaurant her family used to go to every Saturday night, breathing in the comforting smell of Korean food. Hyejoo orders family sized portions of tteokbokki and fried chicken before grabbing a seat in the waiting area. It’s around three in the afternoon, too late for most people to eat lunch, and too early to be getting dinner. Only one table is full, a party of teenagers chattering loudly as they gorge themselves on bbq. Their backpacks are stacked beneath the table, all thoughts of school forgotten as they eat what Hyejoo assumes they starved themselves all day for. 


She realizes that she doesn’t know whether her moms’ neighbor eats Korean food, but then she remembers her mom referring to her as Ms. Park. With a name like that, it would be a true shame if she didn’t. A laugh rings out from the table, and it’s timed so perfectly that Hyejoo wonders for a moment if the kids can read her thoughts.




A familiar woman with bright purple hair walks over with her order in hand. 


“Choi Yerim? Is that you?”


The woman gives her a dazzling smile, pushing any doubt Hyejoo may have had out of her mind. Yerim sets the food on an empty chair before wrapping her old friend up in a hug. Hyejoo lets her head rest on Yerim’s shoulder, drinking in the familiar scent of the woman’s perfume--flowery with a hint of something sweeter that Hyejoo’s always assumed is cherry. 


“You work here now?” she asks as she pulls away, “I always thought you would be a dancer?”


There’s a sadness in Yerim’s eyes as she smiles.


“I tried, but I just wasn’t cut out for it. Not all of us can live our dreams like you did,” she gently nudges Hyejoo’s shoulder. 


Coming from anyone else, the words would sound bitter--accusatory even--but the way Yerim says it makes Hyejoo feel proud. It’s like she’s acknowledging all the hard work that she’s put in, and that other people have failed to recognize. 


“Do you remember Yeojin?” Yerim asks.


“Um, maybe?”


“She was a year younger than us and did the school announcements our junior and senior years.”


“Oh man, yes,” an image of a tiny girl with hair buns and the loudest voice she’s ever heard pops into her brain and makes her laugh.


“Well we got married right after she finished university. Her parents ran this place but passed it over to her a few years ago.”




“Yeah,” Yerim’s smile disappears as she stares down at her shoes, “I sent you an invite to the wedding but when I didn’t hear back I assumed it never reached you.”


“Oh, what year was it?”




Hyejoo gives her a sheepish grin, “Yeah I was traveling most of that year and ‘01. I went to Europe and Asia and basically couch surfed my way through about twenty countries. I’m not sure what address you had for me, but I never got the invite.”


“Oh,” the smile returns to Yerim’s face, and there’s a reassurance in her eyes at Hyejoo’s answer. 


“I’m sorry I missed it,” she says, hoping Yerim can hear the sincerity in her voice.


“That’s okay. I mean, it was only the greatest wedding of the century so no biggie.”


“Hey, it’s the only wedding I’ve ever been invited to so I’m sure it was.”


“CHOI YERIM!” A booming voice rings out from the back kitchen.


“Guess I gotta go,” Yerim laughs. She pulls Hyejoo in for one last hug, “It’s great to see you Hyejoo, really. And if you want to catch up while you’re back in the city, well, you know where to find me.”



The walk to Hyejoo’s old house is short, and the food is still nice and warm when she arrives. She takes a few minutes to bring her luggage inside and use the restroom before heading next door. 


‘It’s on the left. The door is pink and there’s a bunch of white roses under the front window,’ Sooyoung had told her.


She knocks twice and steps back. A voice calls out from inside, too soft to understand but Hyejoo assumes that whoever it is is coming to answer the door. She’s not sure who to expect. A woman, obviously, but she doesn’t even have an age range to speculate over. 


The door opens, and Hyejoo almost drops the food at the sight of her old high school girlfriend. 


“Hi Hyejoo.”


Chaewon’s voice is as crunchy as ever, and her face is just as beautiful as Hyejoo remembers. The biggest difference is her hair--once an ashy blonde, it’s now back to what she assumes is a natural black. There’s soft laugh lines on her face that deepen as she breaks into a wide smile. Chaewon ushers her inside, closing the door softly behind them before giving her a quick hug.


Hyejoo stands shell-shocked, and Chaewon giggles as she takes the bag of food from her.


“Jiwoo! You have a visitor!”


The older woman walks in from the hallway, and there’s a brief moment of silence in which Hyejoo worries she won’t recognize her. But then the light of realization enters her eyes, and her mom all but runs to embrace her. 


“My little baby,” she squeezes her daughter in a surprisingly tight hold, “My precious Hyejoo. I’ve missed you so much.”


“Hi mom,” Hyejoo gently squeezes back, shocked at the tears that prickle at her eyes. “I brought dinner.”


“What,” Jiwoo pouts, “I was gonna cook for you. Can we just eat the food you brought tomorrow?”


“We could, but it’s from Wong’s Restaurant…”


“Hmm,” Jiwoo eyes the bag in Chaewon’s grip, “Well, I guess I can just make you breakfast tomorrow.”



They talk about Hyejoo’s latest work exploits as they eat, and Chaewon reveals that she’s been looking forward to her new release. She streams on twitch in her free time, and Hyejoo’s games are always her favorite to play. Hyejoo learns that Chaewon’s a geriatric nurse for an in-home organization. She’s between patients at the moment, which is why Jiwoo’s been able to stay with her these past few days while Sooyoung’s in the hospital.


Their conversation naturally dies down as they finish eating, and Chaewon shoos them outside before she starts to pick up.


“Can we visit Sooyoungie?” Jiwoo asks.


Hyejoo nods, having wanted to see her mother today anyway. 



The lady at the front desk smiles warmly at Jiwoo as they walk in. 


“Hi Hyunjin,” Jiwoo chirps, “This is my daughter, Hyejoo.”


“Hello,” Hyunjin reaches out a hand to shake.


“Do you have anything for me today?” Jiwoo peeks over the counter at Hyunjin’s desk, looking for god-knows-what.


“I do but it’s not finished yet,” Hyunjin pouts along with Jiwoo, “Sorry, it’s been a bit busy today. Maybe ask me again when you finish visiting?”


“Okay,” the smile returns to the older woman’s face.


“Here are your visitor passes,” Hyunjin hands over two yellow badges on a string, “She’s in room--”


“1009, I remember,” Jiwoo cuts her off, proud grin on her face.


She drags her daughter to the elevator and together they head up to the tenth floor. The hall is practically empty, and there’s an eerie silence that puts Hyejoo on high alert. Jiwoo leads them to the room, opening and closing the door quietly in case Sooyoung is napping. Fortunately for them she’s awake and watching some old soap opera on TV.


“Hyejoo!” She greets, stretching her arms out and waiting for a hug.


“Hi mom, how are you feeling?” 


“Better now that you two are here,” she rubs Hyejoo’s back before pulling away, “It’s very boring being away from your mother.”


Sooyoung makes space for Jiwoo to join her on the hospital bed, and Hyejoo pulls up a chair.


“When are you getting released again?”


“Tomorrow, but I’ll have to come back in on Monday.”


“So is everything okay? All you told me was that you were peeing blood,” Hyejoo makes herself comfortable in her seat as she waits for an explanation.


“Yeah it was just some issue with my kidneys. The doctors say that I should be fine after a week or so, but they’re keeping me here another night just to make sure nothing else happens.”


“And why do you have to come back Monday?”


“Well they’re putting in a catheter later tonight so I need to come back to get it removed.”


“Ah,” Hyejoo nods.


“How about you? Is everything going well with your new game launch?”


“Yeah,” Hyejoo sighs, “Everythings going according to schedule but honestly it’s been tiring. I’ve had to put in longer hours recently and even now I’m getting emails about things that people should have been briefed on weeks ago.”


“What’s the game called again?” Jiwoo asks.


“Loonaverse,” she responds.


“Loonaverse,” Sooyoung whispers the name again to herself, “I like it. What kind of game is it? RPG? Platform? Puzzle?”


“Wow, mom, I didn’t know you knew what those words meant.”


“Chaewon has been teaching us,” Jiwoo smugly reveals. 


“Well, I’ll have to thank her for having the patience to do that. I remember last time I tried to show you guys a video game mom ending up breaking the TV with the controller.”


“That was an accident,” Sooyoung protests, “And it was years ago, so it’s irrelevant now.”


Hyejoo chuckles, ignoring the glare her mother sends her.



After a detailed explanation of the new game, and a lengthy interrogation about Hyejoo’s non-existent love life, visiting hours are almost up. Hyejoo bids her mother goodbye and steps outside, giving her parents a few minutes to themselves. As gross as it is to her, she knows that growing older has not shied her parents away from affection.


A doctor who looks around Hyejoo’s age walks down the hallway, flipping through the sheets on her clipboard. She walks right past her and stops, backtracking as she realizes she’s missed her patient’s room.


“Oh, hello,” she smiles at Hyejoo, “Sorry, I didn’t notice you there. Um, do you mind if I just get past you?”


The woman--Dr. Heejin Jeon, according to her name tag--gestures to Sooyoung’s door.


“Oh, sure, but I think my parents might be having a private moment in there if you know what I mean.”


She blushes, nodding in understanding.


“So you’re Sooyoung Ha’s daughter?”




Heejin looks down at her clipboard, clicking the pen in her other hand in a nervous rhythm.


“Sooyoung has asked me to not disclose this information to your other mom, but she never said anything about you. So, for the sake of her best interest, there’s something you should know about the tests we’ve been running.”


“On her urine?”


“No,” the doctor shakes her head, “Her urine is fine, the blood should clear up in a matter of days. I’m talking about the tumors we took biopsies of.”


“What tumors?” Hyejoo frowns.


“When we were screening her we found two tumors growing in her left breast. We took cells from each and tested them; one was benign, but the other was cancerous. We told your mother this yesterday and went over treatment options, but she was very adamant about not doing anything.”


“Wait, you’re saying my mom has cancer?”


“Yes,” Heejin glances down at her sheet, “Thankfully, we caught it early, but if left untreated she most likely won’t live to reach seventy. I don’t know if she’s scared or what, but this is an issue that can easily be treated at this stage, and I’m hoping you can convince her to change her mind about her decision to do nothing.”


Before Hyejoo can respond, the door opens, and Jiwoo walks right into her daughter. 


“Oh, sorry Hyejoo,” she steadies herself and smiles, “Hi Dr. Jeon!”


“Hello Mrs. Ha,” she smiles politely.


“Doctor, I’ve been meaning to ask,” Jiwoo smiles innocently, “Do you know Kim Hyunjin? She’s a nurse here.”


Heejin’s cheeks redden at the mention of the other woman’s name, “Um yeah, I’ve talked with her a few times.”


The answer changes the look in Jiwoo’s eyes, and Hyejoo just knows her mother is up to something.


“Is there a reason you’re asking?” 


“Oh, well, I just figured I might as well tell you what she’s too shy to.”


“W-which is?” Heejin stammers.


“She thinks you’re really pretty, and she’s sad you didn’t ask her out after your Christmas party.”


Heejin’s the same color as a tomato now, and for the sake of the doctor’s dignity, Hyejoo pulls her mother away from the room and back down the hall.


“Did you see her face?” Jiwoo giggles once they’re in the privacy of the elevator. “If she doesn’t ask Hyunjin out after that, I’m not sure she ever will.”


“You’re very sneaky, you know that?” Hyejoo shakes her head.


Jiwoo just smiles, flouncing over to the front desk when the elevator dings open. Hyejoo watches as Hyunjin hands her an origami butterfly made from a page of one of the informational pamphlets they have at the desk. Jiwoo marvels at the creation, inspecting it carefully before thanking her and handing over their visitor passes.



They’re halfway home when Jiwoo starts to grow anxious. She continuously looks between Hyejoo and the passenger window, nervously wringing her hands together. Hyejoo notices, but doesn’t say anything. She thinks it’s about Sooyoung until Jiwoo finally speaks up.


“Excuse me but, who are you? And where are you taking me?”


Her voice is shaky, and Hyejoo almost slams into the car in front of her at the shock of her mother’s words.


“Mom, it’s me, Hyejoo. Your daughter. I’m taking you home.”


“Oh, okay” Jiwoo slowly nods, accepting the answer as she turns her gaze back to the window. 


A lump forms in her throat and Hyejoo holds back her tears until later that night when she’s alone. 



Hyejoo wakes up to smoke and the fire alarm going off.


She bolts to the kitchen, switching off the burner that’s working on turning a pan of eggs into char. Hyejoo opens all the windows, trying to air the place out, and also looking for her mother. She starts to panic when the last room she checks turns up empty. 


Hyejoo throws on pants and runs next door, almost busting down Chaewon’s door as she knocks.


“Hi Hyejoo,” Jiwoo answers with a wide smile on her face, “What are you doing here?”


Me?” Hyejoo asks, “Why are you here?”


“She was inviting me to breakfast,” Chaewon answers as she walks into the entryway. She’s wearing grey sweats and an oversized pink hoodie and Hyejoo swears she’s never seen anything cuter in her life. “What’s wrong? You look worried?”


“You forgot to turn off the stove,” Hyejoo turns to her mom, “I didn’t wake up in time to save your eggs.”


“Oh no!” Jiwoo’s hands raise to her head, a look of pure devastation on her face. “I’m so sorry, it just slipped my mind.”


“It’s okay, I don’t even like eggs,” Chaewon winks.


“Me neither,” Hyejoo lies, picking up on what the other woman is trying to do.


“Oh, okay,” Jiwoo smiles slightly, “Well I guess that’s good then because I made too many for just me to eat.”



“Are you sure you don’t mind?”


“Hyejoo,” Chaewon laughs, “For the millionth time, no. Me and your mom will stay here and make lunch while you go get Sooyoung.”


“Okay,” Hyejoo smiles thankfully before grabbing her mom’s car keys and leaving the house.



“Here’s your release form--oh and, do you mind giving these to your mom and telling thank you for me?”


Hyunjin hands over an origami swan and penguin.


“Sure but, thank you for what?”


“Someone I’ve been waiting on finally asked me out, and I’m pretty sure she had something to do with it.”


“Oh yeah, Dr. Jeon right?”


The smile on Hyunjin’s face is enough of an answer, and Hyejoo promises to pass along the message before heading up to the tenth floor.


Sooyoung is waiting with a nurse outside her door, and she waves excitedly when she sees her daughter approaching. Hyejoo hands the nurse the form before hugging her mom.


“Ready to go?”


“Fuck yes,” Sooyoung grins, “I cannot wait to get out of here.”


“Good,” Hyejoo takes her hand, “But we need to talk when we get in the car.”



“I just don’t understand why you won’t even consider treatment? For fuck’s sake mom, a few rounds of chemo and this could be cleared up easily.”


“It’s not that simple, Hyejoo.”


“Yes it is! I’ve looked it up and your chance of getting past it at this stage is almost 100%, so why are you being so stubborn?”


“Because I don’t want to have to go to more treatments than I already do!”


Hyejoo quiets. Honestly, her mom had been going for so long that she had forgotten she was on dialysis. 


“Twelve hours a week for the past ten years of my life, Hyejoo,” Sooyoung sighs, “When your mother goes, I’m done.”


“Mom,” Hyejoo frowns, “Don’t say that.”


“I’m serious, Hyejoo. I’m tired, and once Jiwoo leaves us there won’t be anybody I need to look out for anymore.”


“What about me ?” her voice cracks.


“Oh, Hyejoo,” Sooyoung takes her daughter’s hands, “I am so incredibly proud of you, and everything you’ve become. As much as it pains me that you’re still on your own, I know that you can take care of yourself. I raised you to survive, and no matter what happens to me or your mom, you will.”



“Aww look how cute you guys were!” Jiwoo squeals as she pulls out an old prom photo. 


Chaewon is in a beautiful, powder blue gown, matching the tie around Hyejoo’s neck. Hyejoo still remembers that night--being crowned prom queens, leaving early with their friends to get some real food, and finally, staying the night in a motel to share their first intimate moments with each other.


They were babies back then, unaware that months later they would lose each other to distant schools and a string of broken promises. 


“You know, Hyejoo,” Sooyoung’s eyebrow raises, “She’s still single, and she asks about you a lot…”


“You two were always so good together,” Jiwoo gushes, “And she’s such a nice girl.”


Hyejoo rolls her eyes, “I’m not asking her out.”




“I don’t have time to date anyways,” she waves her mother off, “Work is too busy.”


“Fine,” Sooyouong interjects before Jiwoo has the chance to respond. She gives her wife’s knee a little squeeze, and she seems to get the hint.


They will be scheming later.



“Here, Hyejoo,” Sooyoung hands over her ticket, “Your mom forgot her glasses in the car so we’re gonna go get them. Save us seats in the middle row. And get me a blue slushee?”


“Okay,” Hyejoo nods, handing over the car keys. “Do you want anything, mom?”


“A coke?”


“Alright so popcorn, blue slushee, coke, got it.”


Hyejoo heads inside the theater as her moms go back to the parking lot. She’s paying for the concessions when she hears her name called from somewhere behind her.


“Hyejoo!” Chaewon’s arms wave erratically and she jumps up and down in her spot.


She laughs softly to herself as she gathers up the snacks. 


“What are you doing here?” Hyejoo asks as she approaches.


“Your moms said you wanted to hang out with me,” she takes in the confusion in the other woman’s eyes and shakes her head, “And now I’m realizing that my original suspicions were correct and you had no idea about any of this.”


Hyejoo realizes her moms must have lied about leaving the glasses in the car, and were most likely not coming back.


“Damn it,” Hyejoo groans, “Why did they ask me to get this stuff for them…”


“Maybe because they know those slushies are my favorite.”


Hyejoo hands over the drink, annoyance subsiding as Chaewon gulps some down. When she smiles, her teeth are slightly blue.



“You know Hyejoo, I’ve been thinking about you a lot recently, and I had a really nice time tonight. If it’s okay with you, I’d love to take you out on an actual date.”


The tips of Hyejoo’s ears grow warm, and she quickly accepts Chaewon’s proposal. The smaller woman links their hands together, and the warmth that fills her is enough to combat the biting cold as they walk home.



“Can’t you just stay here with me?” Chaewon pouts.


“You know I can’t. Loonaverse launches in three days and I need to be there just in case something goes wrong.”


Hyejoo zips up her suitcase and turns to her girlfriend, pressing a light kiss to her lips before continuing, “I’ll only be gone a few weeks, I promise.”


“Okay,” Chaewon sighs, letting her body melt into Hyejoo’s arms. She can’t help but worry about Hyejoo leaving. Working as a geriatric nurse, Chaewon has seen many people go down the road Jiwoo’s on, and she knows that it’s getting closer and closer to the time where she’ll need a permanent caretaker. Once she reaches that point, her mind will deteriorate quickly, and Chaewon’s afraid that Hyejoo will return to a shell of a woman who once raised her. 



“Congratulations Hyejoo! Another hit!”


Her boss clinks his glass with hers before swigging down the champagne. 


“Thank you,” she nods politely. 


“Can’t wait to see what you do next.”


“About that…I’m turning in my two weeks notice tomorrow.”




His shout draws the attention of some of the people around them, earning a few curious stares. 


“I need to go home and take care of my parents, so I’m resigning.”




“Enjoy the rest of your night, sir.”



Chaewon waits at the airport gate with a homemade sign, scanning the exiting passengers for her girlfriend. Finally she spots her, looking especially cute in her black sweats and the purple sweatshirt Chaewon let her take. Hyejoo’s eyes light up when she spots her, and she hurries over to pull her tiny girlfriend into a deep kiss. 


“Hi baby, I missed you.”


Chaewon blushes at the pet name and grabs her hands, “I missed you, too.”


“Did my moms come with you?”


“No they’re at home making dinner for you.” 


Hyejoo hums in response and together the two walk to baggage claim. 



Jiwoo’s gotten much worse in the few weeks Hyejoo’s been gone. Most mornings she needs help getting dressed, and multiple times a day she’ll forget where she is or what she’s supposed to be doing. Hyejoo does her best to help out, taking her mother out on walks around the neighborhood and watching movies with her. But Jiwoo’s attention span isn’t what it used to be, and holding conversations with her mother gets increasingly difficult as she starts to lose her grasp on language. Chaewon moves in with them a month into Hyejoo’s return, after a particularly bad outburst at the grocery store that leaves her and Sooyoung shaken. 


To her mother’s credit, she does her best to pretend everything is normal, although Hyejoo can see the toll it takes on her when she has to remind her wife who she is for the nth time that day. She tries to talk to her about it, but Sooyoung can’t seem to even think about what’s happening without breaking down. 


So Hyejoo goes to Chaewon instead. She cries and rants and yells and the smaller girl just takes it all, offering her hugs and comforting words that help to calm her down. It’s after one of these crying sessions that Hyejoo realizes something--she’s absolutely, head over heels in love.



Hyejoo proposes a few days into winter. There’s a chill in the air and her pants soak through with freezing water as she kneels on the grass and pulls out the ring. Chaewon cries, shivering with cold and excitement as she slips it onto her finger. Her parents watch from the upstairs window, both happy that their daughter has finally found someone to live her life with.


Hyejoo remembers it as the last truly good moment of her year.



Jiwoo’s funeral brings in more people than Hyejoo expected. Yerim shows up with her mothers, as well as Yeojin and hers. Even Heejin and Hyunjin come, the latter bringing a small but beautifully crafted origami rose that Sooyoung gives her permission to place under Jiwoo’s stiff hands.


It rains as their little crowd huddles under umbrellas, staring into the hole in the ground. Sooyoung can’t bring herself to speak, so Hyejoo does her best to make it through the eulogy alone. 


That night, their house is silent, and there’s an emptiness in all of them at the loss of the once bright woman who now lays six feet under the earth. 



“I do.”


“By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you wife and wife.”


Hyejoo revels in the cheers of her friends as she kisses Chaewon. 


“I love you, Hyejoo,” she smiles as she pulls away. 


“I love you, Chaewon.”


There’s two empty seats at the front table, honorary placements for Hyejoo’s mothers with little placards on the plates. The whole ceremony she couldn’t help but glance at them, wishing for nothing more than to have them there, watching her union to the love of her life. 


But as the slow song plays and they start their first dance together, Hyejoo forgets that she’s even missing anything at all.