We are about to leave Marfa, Texas, a tiny dot on the map where There Will Be Blood and Giant were filmed. Yes, the sunset is unbelievable, but I’m in a terrible mood because we’ve been living out of our car when we aren’t stopping in motels that look like sets for murder scenes. The $50 “suite” we stayed in in Dallas had no hot water, and the $60 room in Nashville had slashed doors.
We are a professor, a he, and a playwright, a she, so we’re cheaper than graduate students. We’re on our way to Arizona because he has a gig and I am in love, so I sublet my place in Brooklyn. I lived right on the border between the Hasids and the hipsters, between the good rugelach and the Citibike stations.
I drive the last six hours to Tucson in ripped jeans, and he goes in to pick up the keys at the synagogue. He has a dog, Vera, with anxiety, so I stay in the car with her, and he returns with an address. Our lease doesn’t start till the end of September, so for the first month we’ll be living in a sublet. A hook up from the local rabbi who heard some young Jews would be settling in the desert for a little bit.
At this point, it’s dark. I imagine the wide summer moon illuminating snakes slithering on the sidewalks, enormous ants marching, and lizards crawling up the walls. My nightmare.
We can’t find the apartment first. It’s tucked in at the back of a complex, it appears. We pass cacti. I roll my eyes at the stereotype. I jump out of the car and wander around the back… then he calls me, coming out from a door that I assume will be ours for the next three weeks. “I really hope you love me,” he warns.
“It’s $900 for the month! Of course, I love you.”
At our engagement party one week prior, someone told me that marriage is a seesaw. You can’t both be down, you can’t both be up. So, I’m guessing I’ll have to be up this time. How bad could it be?
A black leather couch facing a dirty beige wall, a kitschy Hebrew blessing pasted above the sink, and the grand finale: two twin beds with pale floral linens separated by a nightstand in the bedroom. No bulky television, no wifi password, no fridge magnets. I will concede the bathroom was nice: (quick) hot water and a skylight. He decides to run to Whole Foods for sushi while I unpack.
I start with the kitchen, with all the spices we drove across America with rather than pay $5.99 again. After the final little paprika pot, I find the missing maple syrup bottle with its cap mysteriously loose and my red leather bag not so mysteriously sticky… and then he reappears. It’s only been about five minutes, and he has no sushi in hand.
His eyes are wide, and he says, “I have bad news. We have to leave.”
“Ok! How come?”
“They have a security camera, and they saw we have a dog.”
“Well, we’ll leave then.”
“I asked for them to give us through shabbas.”
That meant about three more days.
“All right. I guess I’ll stop unpacking every spice then.”
Ah, well. Nothing to do. You know that feeling when something truly annoying happens, and it’s nobody’s fault in particular? It’s not tragic, but it’s a real pain in the ass, and there’s no one to blame. Our silver dog Vera was fast asleep. She knew it wasn’t her fault.
“It’s ok,” I answer, “it happens.”
Frantic texts and phone calls ensue. By the time, we find an affordable AirBnb, we’ve lost our appetites. We skip dinner and squish ourselves onto the twin bed that night. It’s a marshmallow mattress with vague edges—the person closer to the wall is more comfortable. We sort of switch off, but mostly, we’re miserable.
He wakes up glum. I guess I’m staying up on the seesaw.
“Listen, I’m glad we’re leaving. I don’t know about all these security cameras…,” I joke.
He’s looking up at the ceiling.
“The problem wasn’t Vera.”
“Um. Well, I got into the car, and I got a text message from the owners asking me to call.”
“And there was this woman on the phone, and she said to me, I was watching you on the security cameras when you came in.”
“Uh huh.” This much I knew.
“And she said, I saw that your wife was wearing pants.”
He doesn’t wait for me to respond.
“And I said, ok, we’re leaving.”
“Yes, and she said, you don’t have to leave. Just tell your wife to wear a skirt.”
For a moment, I can’t inhale, and then I start laughing.
He continues, “Yes, and I said, well, we can’t leave right away ‘cause of shabbas, but we’ll leave Sunday. And she said, those are just my rules, ok? I got a complaint already. And then she corrected herself. No, I will get a complaint. I know I will. From the neighbors.”
That’s when I remembered the plastic playground across the way from us that I had assumed was abandoned. I hadn’t seen any children around there. Yet. Or would I? Ever? Were they warned about me? A woman who wore a pair of pants? How do I explain this? Who would believe me? We are in Tucson being remotely monitored by a woman in Brooklyn? Turns out I can run, but I can’t hide.
And what about that hipster t-shirt he was in with some Seattle radio station’s logo and the weird biker pants and five fingered shoes? It’s not as though he wears a black hat. Why wouldn’t that be the cause of complaints? Did she see that on her camera? What shows up on the footage in Williamsburg?
“Because I’m not a harpy of sin,” he deadpans.
Imagine if she knew we weren’t yet married.
Just tell your wife to wear a skirt.
I’m not the kind of person who can just shrug things off. If I were a duck, I’d be bothered by the water on my back. I’m sensitive, and I think I always will be.
So I grapple with it.
I’m not a Torah or Talmud scholar, even though I watched Yentl with what can only be described as religious regularity and fervor. And I did attend an Orthodox day school until 5th grade because my parents couldn’t afford anything else. The Chabad folks were the only ones willing to take the word of two Soviet immigrants without money. The reform synagogue asked for a fancy membership fee upfront and only offered Sunday school. Besides, my parents didn’t know that there were these kinds of Jews and those kinds of Jews—Jews were Jews, they were told in the USSR. Here, in America, we have the luxury of choice, of ritual, of knowledge. Of judgment.
So, here’s what I know about the justifications in certain communities surrounding women’s (and men’s) attire. I was taught that even when you’re swimming, even when you’re changing, even when you’re bathing, you are before the Almighty. Would you appear before the Almighty naked? So, (1) ubiquity of divinity.
Then there was tzniut or “modesty.” The bend of my knee and my elbow are apparently sexual (I wish), so as a growing girl, I wore navy blue pleated skirts or jumper dresses with white collared shirts. Old habits die hard. Even after switching to a secular school and attending a secular university, I insisted on skirts and thick tights through New Haven winters. That’s (2) modesty.
And the third is one I hadn’t previously encountered: the concept of “kli gever.” In Deuteronomy 22:5, there’s a snippet of text that says “lo yihiyeh kli gever al isha” which can be translated as “a man’s utensil shall not be upon a woman.” This is followed by another snippet: “lo yilbash gever simlas isha” or “a man shall not wear a woman’s garment” in English. There’s been endless subsequent rabbinical commentary around these topics which I won’t pretend to know besides to notice some kind of discursive shifting morality that’s exclusively arbitrated by moderators and discussants who are all men. Centuries of bearded manels. In pants, I can only assume. Let’s call that (3) his and hers.
I happen to think there’s occasional value in dualities. Not in rigid binaries, but in productive contrasts. Chiaroscuro: light and dark. Iambic pentameter: stressed and unstressed. Seesaws: up and down. But it feels too simplistic, too reductive to boil down a snippet like this to something as silly as “blue for boys, pink for girls.” Perhaps there’s value to boiling this down to something more along the lines of self-determination—replace “man” with “human.” Once you’ve figured out who you are, utensils and garments that don’t speak to you shall not be upon or worn by you.
Until I start seeing Jews in toga-like robes, I will not be purchasing biblical literalism. Everyone picks and chooses, whether they realize it or not. It’s another binary: for everything we remember, we forgot something. And vice versa. I wore only skirts for years, but I didn’t care for Judaism much. I wear pants now, but I pray. If there’s an Almighty, that being is certainly ubiquitous and beyond my modest understanding. But I can wonder now. I’ve squared myself with the fact that choice is an act of creative destruction, but I’m still learning that faith is an act of destructive creation.
It turns out there used to (and may still?) be a law in Tucson that prohibited one from appearing in public wearing clothing not of “his or her sex.” Hm. So maybe that’s (4) precedent. I doubt the legislators were Jews. Probably dudes attempting to answer an unanswerable question by restricting the other, by locking the dilemmas out. It’s easier to make women wear petticoats than it is to think about what actually makes us who we are. And that kind of fear can be passed down, generation to generation, easily preserved and constantly reimagined: male and female silhouettes locked in amber, fossils that become jewelry.
When I tell people this story, their mouths drop. “That’s illegal!” “That’s ridiculous!” “No way.” Yes, yes, indeed.
But my favorite response was when we called my fiancé’s sister.
“Well, she’s not allowed to watch television! Of course, she’s watching all day and night!”
I think of that woman hunched over a security camera, somewhere in Brooklyn, watching my unwitting performance in Tucson as I unload the car and wish I were in Brooklyn. Where is she wishing she could be?
Liba Vaynberg is a writer and actor based in New York City. Her parents still don’t understand what she does. She wears skirts sometimes. Follow Liba on Instagram: @libavaynberg.