Last August I noticed some red bumps on the back of my husband's neck. His elbow. A few on his arm. Then one Sunday night while he was out babysitting I found myself sitting on the living room floor, back against the wall, staring at my couch.
And even though I hadn't seen a bug I knew. I knew because I had whiled away more than a handful of hours over the past 8 years delving into the hole of the internet and the number one fear of New Yorkers: bed bugs. I had panicked and used a flashlight on my mattress in the middle of the night. I had assessed mosquito bites mid summer and in a frenzy of paranoia texted pictures to friends who had gone through a fight with the devil and emerged victorious.
I called an exterminator and scheduled a dog to come over and inspect the apartment. The next day was August 21st or as the media called it The Great American Eclipse. I had a previously scheduled dentist's appointment and as I was laying down getting my teeth cleaned an old beagle sauntered around my apartment and the moon began to line up with the sun. I stepped out of the dentist's office as my husband texted me with the words, "We have bedbugs." In that moment it felt like the sun was going dark and then it actually was and as I walked by all of the people on eighth street with their glasses on staring up at the sun and celebrating the wonder of the universe, I felt like the world was crashing down around me. I'd like to say there's a freedom that comes with your greatest fear being realized, that the hours you spent worrying in preparation pay off and the hard work you put into being anxious in advance pays off. I'd like to tell you that but honestly, you just get to live through those fears and anxieties again- just with everything you own wrapped in plastic bags.
I got off the train in Astoria, preparing myself to face the apocalypse as a myriad of people in my life sent me messages asking me if I was watching the eclipse and not wanting to tell them that I had bedbugs- I replied that I didn't have the proper glasses- to which they said, just make them out of a cereal box and all I wanted to say was that being celiac, not only do I not eat cereal, but I was preparing to face my greatest enemy and didn't have time for child's play.
The bugs were only in the couch they said. We'd have to wrap everything in plastic they said. It would be 1,000's of dollars for treatment and the eggs could be dropped anywhere so nothing could be left unturned they said. They couldn't treat the couch so we had to get rid of it . Anything sitting on the couch was unsafe. So we hauled the couch down four flights of stairs and slashed the pillows on the street as if to say don't come near here we are marked and this block will never be safe again. We rolled up our rugs and bagged them and then bagged them again. We hauled those out with the couch. We took down our curtains and washed and dried them at the laundromat only to bag them again and as we went from room to room it was the equivalent of rinse and repeat until it was evening and we were sitting on two chairs at a folding table in an empty room filled with plastic bags that was once a place called our living room.
I flinched every few minutes. Was that a bug on my leg?
I spent the next few days- okay, I'm lying- few weeks researching bed bugs. How do you get rid of them? Do they ever come back? Can you ever get rid of them or once you get them are you to be forever cursed?
It got so bad that I had to ban myself from googling questions. I had to walk away from my phone.
Through September and October we slept without pillows, without blankets, we stayed out of the apartment- finding any excuse to be away from the place that was once called home. As our landlord sprayed layer upon layer of chemicals over everything we owned, I started wondering if this is just who we were now. If this is all we'd ever be. If we'd have to move out, abandoning our belongings, set our old lives on fire and start over somewhere new. The trouble was that I wasn't exactly what you could call gainfully employed and I barely had this month's rent let alone first and last. Would we have to move in with my in laws in New Jersey while we saved up money? Would we then abandon New York entirely? If I had already abandoned New York like I had toyed with for years then would I never have gotten bed bugs?
In month two I broke down and googled again. I read an article about how bedbugs can tear relationships apart. How they put so much stress on people that they can end in divorce. I thought about me and my husband and how we had gone through firings and unemployment, auto-immune diseases and health scares, surgeries and hospital bills, depression and indecision. I laughed and thought this is nothing and then I thought- hey, that's the first time you've had perspective in months. Then that night while my husband was sleeping, I turned on the flashlight on my phone and inspected his sleeping body.
I looked for an office job. Anything to get out of the apartment and away from my tormentors. There had been no bites in over a month but that one lady Estelle798 on that message board said that she had bed bugs and they disappeared only to reemerge two years later so you should never rest on your laurels. You are never safe.
I hesitated sitting on the subway. I squirmed as people brushed against me on the train during rush hour. I held all of my belongings on my lap as I sat in a theater watching a play. I felt nervous to go to friend's houses. I felt nervous to unbag my belongings and hang things back up on the walls. Once I let my guard down then those assholes will sense it and rise up in a full blown rebellion because after all, I'm just a human and they are bug masterminds.
In December I started to relax. I could sit on a chair in the living room for an extended period of time without the phantom limb-esque feeling of bugs crawling up my neck and legs. I had a friend over, then five. I could leave a pair of pants on the floor without shaking in the corner and questioning all of my life choices.
In January, I realized that it had indeed brought my husband and me closer. That when you have to do daily morning inspections of each other's bodies for bites that you can't help but understand each other a little more. That the anxiety that surrounded sleeping caused us to go to bed at the same time and that meant more quality time and a safeness in each other's arms.
In February, I realized that the hardest thing about having bed bugs is that nobody talks about it- except to say that their whole life is on fire and that they will never be free. There is literally one positive article about bed bugs on the whole internet and the rest is a hell fire that you should never enter. I think we don't talk about it because there's a stigma of being unclean when really, it's just bad luck and the inherent danger of living in shoe boxes piled on top of each other and riding in yet another shoe box to work- thirty minutes of being in a giant bear hug with a bunch of strangers. These are the realities we accept living in New York City and just like you can't walk around being afraid that you'll get hit by a car, be struck by lighting, or get cancer- you can't walk around being afraid of bed bugs and the havoc that they'll wreak upon your life.
Despite that realization, it took me two months to write this piece even though it was constantly composing itself in the space between my eyes. It took me two months because whenever I would mention to someone that I had bed bugs it came out in hushed tones with averted eyes. It took me two months because despite my being mostly not paranoid now, I still sometimes find myself inspecting flecks of sock dust stuck to my sheets and as I hold it between thumb and pointer finger I am screaming in my mind, ARE YOU A BUG? It's a process. One that includes the moment before I sit down in a theater to see a show and will myself to put my bag down on the floor. It's a constant exercise in trust and letting go. In allowing the universe to govern rather than trying to govern it. I'll tell you right now: that second option- it never works.
So I'm here to say: hi, hey, hello: you have bed bugs and you're going to be okay.