“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players…”

― William Shakespeare, As You Like It



Grief is a funny thing, ladies and gentlemen. 


It’s hard to describe—and even harder to experience—because it’s an evasive little feeling. You forget,just for a second, and then it hits you again. And again. Thoroughly, with a tinge of guilt.


Grief makes you see things that aren’t there, forms sounds that weren’t made. It creates walls out of doors and men out of shadows. But so does guilt, right?


They go hand-in-hand, afterall.


“That’s a good start!” The tired woman—clearly a paid therapist—replies to the voice on the other side of the phone.


I’m sitting on a table outside a cafe, darkened by the awning above. My plan was to get some skit ideas for my next show. So here I am, observing a woman walking down the street. I take her in. She seems like someone who surrounds herself with the sorrow of other people. It’s in the steely look in her eye and the steady step of her feet, but also the wrinkles around her mouth. Her slight smile, one of someone who knows that it can go a long way. I admire her. I don’t think I could do that. She tries to comfort whoever’s calling her in a hushed and soft voice that can be seen—if not heard—from here.


I have no idea who this woman is, who she’s talking to, who she knows. But honestly, none of that matters. All that matters is who she could be. What possible stories lie in her life, unknown to me—a complete stranger. It’s about the potential.


I look at her, my mind running. In my world, she’s a divorced mother of 3, working overtime, and dealing with clients that have more issues than she can help with. Her shirt is a deep maroon and her sun-bleached jeans are well-worn. Her leather heels click on the concrete, well-worn. 


Still, I won’t lie: it would be nice to know if I was close. Whether my ‘ability’ to read people, honed by years of public speaking and observation, is just wishful thinking or something real. Too bad I’ll never find out.


And that’s when I get an idea. My left hand trembles and rushes to jot down the thought before it leaves me.



The lights of the stage burn my eyes. The platform is wooden, glossed, and a microphone in a crooked stand is in front of me. My mouth moves too fast for my brain to keep up. At this point, it’s muscle memory.


Someone laughs at my well-executed joke and everything’s going according to plan. Comedy is a form of entertainment, a form of storytelling. Whereasthat woman (possibly) deals with sorrow, I deal with laughter and joy (a much more optimistic profession, in my expert opinion). 


My eyes scan the crowd. I haven’t tried to do anything like this before, but she’s here, just as I planned (more like gambled). The woman from the cafe sits in the corner of my eye, now wearing a simple green dress with her hair in a braid. She still looks tired, but this is an opportunity I can’t pass up. It’s a chance to see how close my stories are to reality.


“You! In the crowd!” I call in a humorous tone while gesturing to her. I steel myself and hope that she’s willing to go along with the performance. 


Her gaze lands on me. I can’t tell if she somehow recognises me from that coffee shop days ago or if she’s always able to see right through people. 


Once again, my mouth disconnects with my head and goes into impromptu mode as I incorporate her into my routine. But, to tell you the truth? I planned my questions and her possible responses, like a conversational flow chart in my brain. 


Her answers aren’t surprising. She’s a youth counsellor, not a professional therapist, which actually fits better with my guess that she’s in debt. Instead of 3 kids, she has a son and a daughter, both of whom she’s not close to. The woman doesn’t actually say much about them but it’s clear that they’re estranged. Oh, and her dog died a few months ago. 


After the performance, I realised just how unlikely this whole situation is. I see some woman outside a cafe, and she manages to end up in my show? Getting to see someone outside the stage is a nice little experience, but it’s sadly never going to happen again. Right?



It happens again. And again. And again. 


Many have lost their parents, siblings, their sense of self. Some have lost opportunities and dreams, their beliefs and ideals which they once built their world on. In a way, I mourn them. Their “could have beens” and their “would have beens”. That woman earlier? Her life would be a utopia to some of the poor souls that hobble down the middle of the street. 


It makes a lot of things really hard, like staying detached and not getting emotional myself. I hate it; I hate the sense of hopelessness that has corrupted all these people. But I can’t say I blame them. No, it feels like a mirror has been thrusted into my face. It feels like a shadowy figure is pulling on my hair, tilting my chin up high, making sure that I look. I don’t want to. But I can’t stop.


I don’t like thinking about my own problems. Alas, when your area of work is like mine—badly-done improvised comedy which digs fingers into the bruises of other people—it’s unavoidable. I’m not going to let that stop me.



Again, I sit in that very first cafe. The coffee there is like nectar, a sweet tar that clings to my teeth. My notebook is covered in half-coherent ideas, seven half-done doodles and three circled items. The wind brushes my face and hair. It slips under my clothes and chills my skin. The glass table digs into the palms of my clammy hands and my pen is on the floor.


The creak of a chair being pulled out breaks my train of thought. I think her name’s Vanessa? I can’t remember, that day feels so long ago. I open my mouth to say something, just to break the silence—


“You don’t owe me anything,” her almost-cold voice is contradicted by her warm look. Her eyes are not pitiful, but more… empathetic? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I don’t need her sympathy.


I tell her that much. 


She looks at me, and sighs. “If there is one universal truth, dear, it’s that we all live, love and eventually, lose.” 


Before I can answer, she continues. 


“Does that mean that death is personal? It is, but not because of that. Those no longer with you are not lost. People leave marks, they shape you. It doesn’t mean that they’re gone, you live out their wishes with every step you take.” 


She grabs my notebook, flipping to the page where I sketched her and wrote my crude guesses. She traces the list and smiles.


That’s when my gaze refocuses. Time dilates like the pupil of an eye to let everything in. She grabs my hands with her own, and warmth travels through my fingertips. My mother—has it really been that long? So long that I can’t even recognise her?


I try to squeeze her hand but there’s nothing there. The sky overhead darkens. It starts to rain, wetting the metal frame of the table. She’s gone, a ghost in the wind. No, that’s another lie—I really can’t do this anymore.


My tears drip down my face and onto the table instead. The distant barking of a dog assaults my ears. I reach out to my phone and it nearly slips out of my grasp. My shaking hands click the dial. For the first time in fifteen years, and two years after our mother’s death, I press my sister’s number. 


Writer – Areeba Zabrina
Editor – Ally Chu
Artist – Natalie Choi

–May 2024–

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