On August 4, 2008, I sat down with my girlfriend, whom I will call Maureen, to enjoy a leisurely, late-morning breakfast of fried potatoes and strong coffee. We had returned the previous evening from a ten-day trip visiting family in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. We enjoyed the visit but were happy to be back in Denver, where the weather was less oppressive. We took our breakfast on the living-room couch and discussed the trip, for much of which we were apart. I felt something crawling on my foot and casually brushed it off. I looked down and saw a brown insect crawling on the floor toward an old chest that served as a coffee table. I shoved the chest, blocked the bug’s path with my foot, and grabbed a nearby hunting knife. My movement attracted Maureen’s attention. She looked down and said, “Oh my God, it’s a bedbug.”
I squashed the vile thing with the back of the blade, and Maureen stood up, shuddering, and said she felt something crawling up her leg. She pulled down her plaid pajama pants and flicked away another bedbug.
Unlike ticks, fleas, and other bloodsucking insects, bedbugs presently don’t spread disease, but their bites are irritating, and their presence leads to anxiety, insomnia, and nausea. They are brown parasites, comparable in size to apple seeds, that resemble (under magnification) hand grenades. Bedbugs—or things, as Maureen calls them—are generally nocturnal but are sometimes (as in our case) active during the day. They hide in tiny crevices and can survive for several months, sometimes more than a year, between meals, which can lead their human victims to a false sense of security and accomplishment. They are attracted by warmth and carbon dioxide and can feed on poultry or mice, but they prefer human blood, and they inject an anesthetic before drawing out blood in order to dine undetected.
Bedbugs, after a few quiet decades, are resurgent across the globe and can be found in homes, apartment buildings, college dorms, homeless shelters, and hotels, or anywhere humans spend time. Some experts attribute the recent increase in bedbug populations in part to the 1972 ban on the pesticide D.D.T., which could not discriminate between bedbugs and bald eagles. If bedbugs were the antagonists in a horror movie, this would be the sequel. We blanketed the earth in life-killing chemicals and believed the bastards dead, but they’re back with a vengeance… and they’re hungry for blood.
The most important thing to know about bedbugs is how to kill them, the cheapest way being, as illustrated earlier, the ruthless application of force. A certain amount of therapy accompanies this method, as well as a high level of nausea.
After the initial tears and suicidal ideations, we called the building manager, and he came over and sprayed some kind of pesticide, although he probably should have waited until we had left. I generally oppose chemicals but was in no emotional state to object. We bagged all our clothes, and I called my mother, who drove down from the suburbs to collect us and our garbage bags. She drove us to a Laundromat near her house, and we spent more than $50 and endured an uncomfortable conversation with a strange man who had recently seen a television program about bedbugs and seemed excited to encounter people with real field experience. (He had been eyeing us and eavesdropping on our conversation, and then someone let slip the keyword, which served, in his mind, as an introduction).
We spent the next two or three days, in a somewhat delirious state, at my mother’s house. When we summoned the courage to return, we gutted our apartment. (My mother, an optimist, took the position that this was “an opportunity to de-clutter.”) We threw out the torn sofa and the revolting old mattress, which someone stole and probably sold. We disemboweled all our desks and dressers and scrubbed and sanitized their insides and their drawers. We investigated natural methods of destroying or deterring bedbugs and proceeded to coat the floors and baseboards with Neem oil (it comes from the Neem tree, is used for skin care, smells like peanuts, and is reported to repel bedbugs) and, when it arrived in the mail, diatomaceous earth, a white powder made from fossilized algae called diatoms. Diatomaceous earth is a desiccant; it kills bedbugs by dehydrating them but isn’t supposed to be harmful to humans or pets, although breathing it is not pleasant. It’s a grotesque pleasure to come across the crisp corpses.
Bedbugs can’t survive extreme hot or cold temperatures. Even after the hours of laundry, there were several bags that hadn’t been cleared, and there were other items, like backpacks and luggage, too cumbersome for a washing machine. We left them in the car for three hot days and found a couple dead bedbugs after this treatment. Three days may strike some as overkill; however, with bedbugs, as with vampires, mummies, and whatever Jason Voorhees is, there’s no such thing as overkill.
Bedbugs are easy to kill but nearly impossible to eradicate because they are difficult to detect, which is why highly trained canines are useful. We were lucky to have found the bedbugs right away. We saw about fifteen bedbugs, most of them dead, over the next two weeks, and we would spend all our time wondering when the next one would show up to throw our lives again into turmoil. About two months after the first sighting, we arranged for a bedbug-sniffing dog to search our apartment, which came up clean. We felt a fragile peace.
Maureen works at a homeless shelter, which is a likely source of our invasion, although she has always been careful about not bringing them home. Our lives changed. We bought a new bed and took to storing most of our clothes in plastic bins, even though they’re against our environmental and aesthetic principles. We started inspecting our seats—sometimes with a red safety light for a bicycle—in the movie theater. I suffer from phantom itches, Maureen (though not so often lately) from Kafkaesque nightmares in which head-sized bedbugs, when stabbed, produce dozens of fist-sized bedbugs that can only be killed by fire. More than a year later, the slightest breeze sets us scratching and searching our skin for bedbugs. (It doesn’t help that she sees them at work every day, or that I’ve moved to New York City, a bedbug’s paradise, “The Big Host”) She keeps asking me, “Do you think we’ll ever be normal again?”
Bedbug victims who can’t afford search dogs might never be certain of success. There will always be doubt, anxiety. Bedbugs, to me, indicate cosmic hostility. Either God doesn’t exist, or God exists and hates us (or at least isn’t fond of us). I cannot accept that a loving God would create a creature whose sole purpose is to feast on the flesh of his so-called children. I find inspiration in these lines from “The City of Dreadful Night” by James Thompson:
The vilest thing must be less vile than Thou/From whom it had its being, God and Lord!
Maureen believes in God, and she believes God, who is loving and good, has a reason for everything he creates. This must include bedbugs, so one day she asked a priest who works at the shelter why bedbugs even exist. He answered that, while they probably have some sort of evolutionary function, they might just be here to annoy us.