I Bought a Balloon

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.6 Winter 2009
  • byJo Kyung Ran
I Bought a Balloon

The following excerpt is from the title story in Jo Kyung Ran’s fifth short story collection, I Bought a Balloon. The collection was awarded the Dong-in Literary Prize in 2008.


His therapeutic process didn’t look smooth or easy. Working on a daily journal was one of the many chores he had as part of his therapy. If his doctor gave him an assignment to drive around downtown, he had to record when he did it, who he did it with, and what degree of anticipatory anxiety he would feel. And how he would get beyond his anxiety if panic overcame him. For his first assignment, which was to drive around downtown, he drove up to my house without any warning and picked me up, although, having just gotten up, I was wearing thick horn-rimmed glasses because I didn’t have time to put in my contacts and had mismatched socks on my feet. It was one in the afternoon. Soon enough, it looked as if his heart was pounding, his neck was getting stiff, and he was beginning to breathe audibly. It didn’t seem possible that he would be able to stay in his lane. I was twirling my hair with my index finger, playing with a balloon in my pocket. When we passed the congested Dosan intersection, he confessed that he had a feeling that an enormous cement truck would plow into us in any moment.

I knew that his hands on the steering wheel were slick with sweat.

You know, I offered, you have to anticipate your fear and accept it. And you have to leave it alone as you acknowledge it, as you wait for it to pass. And you focus on what you can do right now. Then you have to acknowledge the progress you made by being one with your fear while you moved past it and you need to take this as an opportunity to practice not giving into the fear.

And you have to know and accept that this fear could come to you again. I quickly laid out all the ways to conquer fear, the sentences I used to think to myself at one point, with the word break-up in the place of fear. I joked, smiling ruefully, there are peaks and valleys to every learning experience, you know. No, I might have just sat there with my mouth firmly closed, as if I were angry, because I didn’t know how to comfort someone.

When I’m at a loss as to what to do or if I encounter something difficult, I often wonder, what would Nietzsche do? Some things you have to learn at a young age, like knowing how to comfort someone or doing an act of kindness. I realized that I’d had almost no opportunity to practice things like that. To reassure him, I looked at him, my face stretched into the warmest smile I could muster.

It was a good thing that he didn’t say dismissively, Do you always cry so easily? Later, I saw that, in his daily journal, next to “How I will get out of an anxious state,” he had written in large letters, “Ask a friend to drive instead.”

Sitting in that car, I told J several things before I got out. J, you have the right to make mistakes and the right to ask for help and the right to feel anger and the right to cry and the right to be surprised and the right to change your mind, and, as long as you don’t violate other people’s rights, you have the right to do whatever it is that makes you happy, and the right to hate. And, I said, J, you have the right to drive.

I was glad that he seemed interested in what I was saying. Sometimes I think that I learned all the things I know not from Nietzsche, but from Thomas. My friend Thomas, who grew ferns, had brunch at Cafe Louise at eleven on Sunday mornings, and always wore the fur coat that he had inherited from his mom. People didn’t understand why he walked around wearing his dead mom’s fur coat. I think we became so close because I understood that coat and Thomas understood my fears.

One day, Thomas told me, “Buy a balloon.” That was one of the therapeutic methods recommended by Thomas, my friend and psychiatrist, who later became a neuropsychiatry specialist at Berlin’s Charite Hospital. Every time I felt anxiety blooming, every time I sensed my breathing grow shallow, I controlled my breath by blowing up balloons, taking deep, rapid breaths.

It was a breathing exercise to get me used to hyperventilation so that, even if I started breathing too rapidly, I wouldn’t end up in a panic attack.

Thomas would gaze at me blowing balloons, his green-gray eyes gloomy. They were the saddest and most anxious eyes that have ever looked at me. I blew up thousands of balloons. 



* Translated by Chi-Young Kim.

Author's Profile

Jo Kyung Ran made her literary debut in 1996 when her short story “The French Optical” won the Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She is the author of the short story collections Looking for the Elephant (2002) and The Story of a Ladle (2004)I Bought a Balloon (2008), Philosophy of Sunday (2013), and the novels Time for Baking Bread (2001), Tongue (2007), and Blowfish (2010). She is also the recipient of the Hyundae Munhak Award and the Dongin Prize, among others.