THE PORTRAIT OF AN
ANGEL, A LION, A MONSTER
A Play in Three Acts
Copyright © 2020 1809 University Ave.
by Katrin Arefy Berkeley, CA 94703
Phone: (510) 710-0995
Same as Act I except no flowers on the table. A pile of clean laundry on the couch.
HE stands stage left, front stage, facing the audience. SHE enters stage left, her pace and manner quick and lively. SHE holds her purse and a shopping bag. SHE is dressed stylishly in a summer outfit. SHE leaves the shopping bags on the floor and drops her keys on the table noisily.
(Picks up the keys from the table. Staring at them prompts a memory.)
Why do you wrap your keys in a handkerchief?
(Without looking at her.)
So that they don’t make a hole in my pocket.
(Laughs out loud)
Did you really care about not making a hole in your pocket?
The last time we spoke, you said “I carry your smile in my pocket.” I asked which pocket.
…you said the one on the right side.
(Laughs. Pauses, then suddenly
You said, “We run and run, not knowing what it is we are running after.” You said, “I can’t sleep at night. But during the daytime, things are okay.” We laughed.
I said I want you to be happy. I want you to be happy, to fly, to continue to inspire me by flying like a…
…lion. I know lions can’t fly, but you can.
And I want me to fly too.
(Pause. Places the groceries
on the table as she talks,
absentmindedly stacking items
atop each other, creating
some kind of sculpture.)
I used to think that I knew. That I knew why we met.
If I hadn’t missed my train station, I wouldn’t have ended up sitting next to you in the subway station that day. If you’d stepped into the library’s elevator just before I walked in…two random incidents within a week? Or was it all planned for us?
I used to think that I knew what the plan was. As if I could read God’s mind.
(Laughs. Done with the
sculpture. Looks up.)
(Pause. Punches the sculpture
with her fist. Stares at the
scattered grocery items, pauses.
Takes the grocery items and exits
right. She speaks as if talking
to someone right next to her.)
I was thinking a lot about you this past week. I was thinking about you when I was using your mom’s favorite frying pans, and then when I made borscht, and then when Iwent to my doctor’s visit. You were sitting there in the room just like last year when they did the biopsy on my breast, and imagining you next to me, I felt strong. I knew I could handle anything because you were there with me.
(Pause. SHE speaks as she starts
folding her laundry.)
The blessing of being a cancer survivor is the feeling of being so alive, so alive it feels like I want all of life right at this moment combined with the feeling of…feeling of nothing is important anymore.
(Throws the folded clothes in
I could only connect to that part of you after I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Learning to live life day by day and give each day the most, to give it all you have got.
(Pause. Takes her earrings off.)
That year, when you were diagnosed…we were not seeing each other…you left me a message. Only one. All you said in the message was that you were hoping that we could talk.
(Pause. Sits on the couch and
starts folding the laundry once
I listened to your message over and over. There was something in your tone of voice that I couldn’t read. I had no idea what was going on, no idea that doctors gave you three months to live. When I finally was able to forgive you and call you a few months later, the first thing you told me was that you were undergoing chemotherapy. You spelled the name of the disease on the phone. We planned to see each other the next night. I was used to you being late, but waiting at the synagogue’s door that chilly evening, every second felt too long. I watched your car as you parked it across the street. Something about that moment when you opened the car door, slowly turned around, and closed the door… I stood on the stairs examining your figure, your face, as you walked closer. No hair, no eyebrows or eyelashes, with a face swollen from all the medicines.
“How do I look?”
“Fine, can I hug you?” Then we went for a walk around the block before going to the services.
You would stop and smell the roses on the street. We used to do that on our evening walks. But this time I was watching you smell the roses.
(Pauses. Stops folding the laundry)
I couldn’t. Thinking that they would be there and blossoming after you were gone…I hated the roses.I hated the dog passing by that you stopped to pet. It all looked surreal to me, it still does, thinking about it. I stood there watching the dog, thinking, how dare you, dog? How dare you outlive him? You held me as we walked. You talked about what you wanted to do after you were cured. You talked about buying an all-electric car.
(Long pause. Looks through her
“There is a curious combination of strength and gentleness in him, as if being gentle required a certain might.”
(Gets up. Speaks in a lively
I wanted to tell you about something I read recently. I read that Moses’ strength came from his sister, Miriam. Those who are a source of strength to others need their own source of strength. Often for Moses that source was God Himself. But even Moses needed a human friend, and according to the author, seems like it was Miriam.
That made me wonder…
You lost more than your mother when your mother passed away. You lost your anchor.
My breast cancer came to rescue you. It brought some meaning to your life. Now you had a mission, that was to rescue me.
And you did. Flying from China to be with me on my first and every doctor appointment, taking me on hikes, making me laugh. Now doctors referred to you as my husband. You were born to fight for bigger things. Smaller things bored you. You were born to conquer the sun.
Your mom told me about the letter you wrote to your parents when you were seventeen. You came here for a mathematics competition. You wrote them that you were not going back to Saint Petersburg. She said when your father read the letter, he said that you chose the path of a man. You never told me about it. Did she know that you were sleeping in the streets and eating ketchup from fast-food restaurants? I don’t think you would tell them that. You bury your memories somewhere deep in your ocean. You have a big ocean in your belly. You can bury big things. Do you ever visit them? I don’t know. It seems like you rather run away from them, keeping yourself busy, burying your head in your work. You hold them all at the same time as you run. Last time we spoke, you said you wanted to call me earlier but it was easier to jump off a building than to call me. I asked why, you said, “I ran away.”
(Long pause. She sits and keeps
busy with the laundry again.)
For six years I didn’t know where you were in the world, but I knew that you were part of me, inside my body.
That is quite a disconcerting feeling to carry for so long. I couldn’t say your name without crying.
(She becomes more and more
emotional. HE turns and looks
at her, appearing guilty.)
I took healing sessions. I prayed. I threw breadcrumbs into the river to say goodbye to the past. But you were not my past. You were very present. I wrote. I let the time go by and heal me. I let six years pass by. I locked my door to men because if they reminded me of you in the slightest way, I couldn’t see them, and if they were not like you in any manner, how could I see them?
(long pause to calm down)
I stopped talking about you. I couldn’t stand it when people looked at us with their clichéd and judgmental eyes.
(HE faces the audience.)
And that was when I stopped talking about you. I would talk only to you, or to God, your God. Or I would write.
(Pause. Her recorded voice is
heard as she organizes and reads
“It was unexpected to see him at the synagogue after six years. I lifted my head from the prayer book, and I saw him in a beret, navy blue suit, and tie, standing near the bimah. He looked so grave, I almost didn’t recognize him.
I sat there staring at him. He was called up to the Torah to say the blessing. I’ve never seen him at the bimah before. He looked extra handsome wrapped in the tallit, the prayer shawl. He coughed and hardly uttered the words in a weak voice.”
(Recording stops. She speaks.)
I think it was after you said the blessing that you saw me. Our eyes locked on each other’s. We stared at each other from afar. I could feel you holding me through the air. You didn’t know that I had adopted Judaism and that I had been going to that synagogue all those years.
I don’t know why I took your sad face as a sign that the remission was over. I should have known better. You were not sad when you were fighting the disease. You were my source of hope and strength.
I walked out to the social hall. He followed me.
“How is your health?” I asked in Russian.
“My health is fine. My mother passed away.” He saidthat she was hit by a car. He told me that he mostly lives in China these days and that the new device he invented is going to save lives by preventing car accidents.
Seeing him, it was like that part of me that I have been carrying inside for the past six years suddenly was standing in front of me. I had decided that he was an angel sent to me by God to take me into the path of Judaism. And, so, after his job was done, he was gone.But, now he was back! You can’t do that! You are an angel! Angels don’t come back when their mission is over.
Maybe angels do come back when we are about to need them.
And I had no idea how badly I was going to need you, when I would be diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after that. I couldn’t have gone through that without you. No, I couldn’t. You were sent back to me, my angel, right on time.
Standing in front of you after six years in the same synagogue.
You said your mom’s passing away was like a part of your chest being torn away from you. I told you that was how I felt when you left me. You said we share the same pain. I cried, for your pain, and mine.
I act awkward when it comes to someone’s death. I told you a joke while crying and I laughed while crying. You hugged me. That is what you are really good at. I cut the conversation short and I left. It was too much to hold onto.
After six years of not being in touch, once again you did what you have always done, which was come back and be sorry. And I did what I have always done, which was forgive and welcome. How can you welcome someone back who has always been there? Not much has changed, except the news we had for each other; your mom’s passing away, me adopting Judaism, and you mostly living in China now. But isn’t that all external?
Remember, you once told me, “I want you to understand that even when we are not seeing each other, we are still together?” That was the truest thing you ever told me.
(Pause. SHE turns away.
HE holds her arm. SHE
holds his hand, smiling,
closes her eyes.)
Once, after your chemo treatment, we went to a fancy restaurant. There were the three of us—your mother, you, and me.
(SHE opens her eyes)
Chemo made you impatient but only with me, and sometimes with your mom.
You sat in the shadows and took your hat off. The hat was hanging on the back of my chair. Every time I moved, the hat would fall down.It made you nag, which didn’t sound like you. “You keep falling my hat!” you said in Russian. “I am not falling your hat. I am dropping your hat!” I corrected you, laughing. You admired that I could speak Russian fluently, but you were probably not expecting that correction.
(Quiet music is heard from
far. SHE continues.)
There was a Jewish wedding in the garden. You took my hand, we walked to watch the people dance.
(SHE dances slowly with an
imaginary person, humming
along with the music. HE
stands, watching her.)
(Long pause. Music continues
for a little longer, then
fades away. SHE sits on the
couch, slouching and gazing.
SHE kicks her shoes off,
starts rubbing her legs and
You don’t talk much about your father, but you did tell me that your father walked around stark naked at home. That was one thing you told me several times about your father. I imagine you as a child, watching him with your big grayish-blue eyes. I asked if it was odd for you to see your father walk around naked.
You said that you got used to it. But the way you said it sounded like part of you was still solving a puzzle.
I don’t know about him, but when you walked around my apartmentstripped naked, you looked innocent, like a baby.
A four-year-old can walk around like that, not self-conscious and not even feeling sexual.
(Sudden change of tone.
She is scolding.)
Like your father, there is a part of you that has no respect for people around you; like him you have the ability to easily destroy…
(HE crawls under the table,
hiding as HE stares at her.)
…destroy anything. You are given the most beautiful gem, you hold it in your hands, you notice its rare beauty, its worth, and then you put it under your foot and crush it as if it were a piece of…candy. You do it without thinking about it, not even as a malicious act but just…
You got that from your father. I never got to meet him, but I know you got certain qualities from him. You said he didn’t value your mother.Your mother said he wanted many women because he loved life.
You loathed that idea. For you, there are no other women but your mother and me. No other woman could enter the depth of your heart.But watching you eat your breakfast, I can tell this is the way your father would eat, this is your father’s facial expression.
You want to know how?
You look like you are on a mission, your face becomes very serious, andyou chewdeterminedly, gazing at the table. You put the next spoonful of food in your mouth with a quick movement, with a kind of fortitude that says I must get ready for today’s fight.
You once told me, talking about him, that, “He was like no one you have ever seen!”
I have never seen anyone like you. Sometimes I look at you, and I see God.
(HE crawls out from under
Sometimes I look at you and your strength is that of a monster, but then I also look at you and see that you are a little boy, a five-year-old, innocent, gentle, always happy,not wanting or planning to hurt me or anyone…but hurting me just like a child hurts someone, because a child often doesn’t know how to behave. He only knows what he wants. I admire that childlikeness in you, and I repeatedly forgive you. How can anyone not forgive a child? A four-year-old.
(Long pause. SHE reads, from
her journal, or her recorded
voice is heard. Her voice and
light fade away gradually.)
“I can’t really say I miss you. I feel you next to me all the time. I talk to you, see you, hug you, and love you all day long. You smile, sometimes talk, act like a little boy and close your eyes and kiss me. Very often you kiss me. I keep quiet and watch, trying to see what you need at the moment—my silence or a kiss.
We read a book together in bed and I don’t like your breathing machine, that Slonnik, because you can’t hug me tight with Slonnik on your face.”
(END OF ACT)
Jonathan Sacks, Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible(Jerusalem, Israel, Koren 2015), 215.