I get excited whenever I hear a stranger mention bedbugs, and I want to run up to that stranger, pen and reporter’s notebook in hand, and say, “Tell me all about it!” Today I was hanging out in my office, working on my joint syllabus while listening to two women carry on a loud conversation in the hallway. The conversation covered a variety of topics, like teaching at NYU over the summer (“You can always get work there,” according to one of the anonymous sources), yoga, meditation, giving up smoking due to bronchitis, and swine flu, which, as a member of the media, I’m supposed to refer to, in deference to the American pork industry, as H1N1. One of the speakers had contracted Swine Flu last year, and she said it took a long time to recover from it because it really fucked (I’m paraphrasing) up her immune system so that she went on to catch every other little bug that came along. I wasn’t taking mental notes, so there’s a little lacuna in my memory between the Swine Flu discussion and the bit that comes next, but anyway, a little while later they both laughed for a long time at a joke I didn’t hear, and the one who’s never had Swine Flu said, “It’s like sleeping with bedbugs,” and Swine Flu said, “Oh no, it’s getting dirty now,” and that pretty much killed the conversation. I wanted to run out there, all excited, and say, “What’s like sleeping with bedbugs? Tell me all about it!” but I’m what you might call reserved if you’re into euphemisms and pathologically shy if you’re not.
My office is in New York, and so am I again. I missed out on a lot of big bedbug stories while I was gone. There were bedbugs at Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the AMC Empire 25 at Forty-second Street, where I watched Avatar in 3-D.
I have a room in Queens now. I can’t tell you too much about it on account of I’m subleasing, which in New York City is something of a legal faux pas, but I like it, although the commute is inconvenient. I have to walk ten minutes to the Briarwood-Van Wyck station and then catch the F train to Rockefeller Center. The MTA online trip planner suggested I should then catch an uptown D to Columbus Circle and transfer there for an uptown 1 train. I’ve since found it easier to take the D all the way up to One-forty-fifth and St. Nicholas, which, although it means a slightly farther walk, has two advantages: it means one less transfer, and I get to walk past The Royal Tenenbaums house on Convent Avenue. Reducing transfers is essential because I’m not very good at getting off at the right stop or getting on the right train. One example: on my first day as a bridge-and-tunneler I got off the F train, as prompted by the Internet, at Rockefeller Center, and then crossed the platform and jumped on a patiently waiting D train. I didn’t realize until Thirty-fourth Street that I’d jumped on a Brooklyn-bound D, and I stayed on it until West Fourth Street while I mentally adjusted to what had just happened. I caught an uptown E to the Port Authority and transferred to an A, which I rode to One-twenty-fifth in order to catch a B to get to One-thirty-fifth and St. Nick. My problem is not that I have a short attention span but that I don’t really have an attention span, especially if I’m reading on the subway. In spite of the commute, I like living in Queens. There are a lot of trees in my neighborhood, and a big cemetery nearby that seems like it would be a nice place for a walk, and there are two pizza places I’m dying to try. The best thing is that instead of a histrionic Honduran diva with bad taste in loud music, now I share an apartment with a pair of very nice musicians who travel a lot. I only have two complaints, both minor. I can’t get the front door open. It took me half an hour to unlock the door last night. Things are getting better, though; it only took me four minutes tonight. I think I’ve found the winning formula: you insert the proper key, turn it frantically left and right while holding on to the door handle with your left hand, then try and try and try to get the key to turn, and then you set your bag down even though you don’t want to because who knows what’s crawling in the carpet? Then you withdraw the key and insert the key that unlocks the outside door, and you jiggle that haphazardly for a while and sigh, but not too loud because it’s better not to draw attention to yourself, and then you swap keys and start turning the original key frantically left and right again, never forgetting to hold the handle with your left hand, and after a minute or so you wipe the sweat off your forehead and take off your jacket, and you have another go, mutter some curse words to yourself, and then, when it’s ready, the lock turns to the left. Every day when I come home I feel like the man from the country in the parable the priest tells Joseph K. in The Trial. The other complaint is that there are a few cockroaches, which leads into the point of this essay: there is no insect more disturbing than the bedbug.
It’s true that M made some gagging noises when I mentioned the roaches. I wasn’t even sure they were roaches at first. I used to live in Texas. The roaches we had there did their state proud, but they skewed my idea of cockroaches so that I assumed all roaches were as big as quarters and crunchier than taco shells. These little Queens roaches put me off using the kitchen, but they don’t cause me much stress. They’re disgusting and unsanitary, but they’re stupid and easy to kill. M, as I said, gagged, but only when I mentioned I happened to be staring at a rather large one. If there were bedbugs she would have ordered me to move out posthaste, deposit be damned! Cockroaches, like ticks, mosquitoes, and lice, don’t bother her that much. They don’t get into your head, like bedbugs, and make you paranoid.
“What are you looking at?”
“Some kind of beetle.”
“How do you know it’s a beetle?”
“It’s got a spot.”
“I’m going to kill it anyway.”
You could see how, from a distance, it did look like a bedbug, but up close it was black and looked like it had brown bands. We should have put a magnifying glass on the registry. These beetles crawl up, somehow, from the alley, and get through the window screen, and she finds them by the window fan and kills them. It seems like they deserve to live after that kind of journey. She leaves the corpses inside the windowsill, which she, as a native of Arkansas, pronounces “window seal.”
Ticks are craftier than cockroaches but nowhere near as crafty as bedbugs. Ticks lie in wait for you—it’s called "questing"—and hitch a ride as you pass by. M and I are very sensitive to feathery little bug feet, so an insect has to get up extremely early in the morning and so on, but on less hyperaware individuals a tick has a decent chance of traveling up to warmer climes undetected. Eventually, however, it’s going to be discovered, and killed. A bedbug can dine and dash, but the tick is stuck, and it has no anesthetic to act as a protective invisibility cloak. The best it can do is just really dig in and hope to be mistaken for a mole. In all the years I’ve lived in Colorado I’ve only seen one tick, but this is what I hear every time we go to the country back in our sweltering, tick-teeming home region: “Is that a tick or a mole?” She hates them, but they don’t give her hives.
There are many ways to deal with a tick. You can flick it off or squeeze it to death between your fingernails or flush the fucker down the toilet. If it’s big enough you can give it a postprandial foot stomping. S. Warren, a ranger I met—goddamn it—nearly ten years ago while camping in Buffalo River National Park in Arkansas, liked to get one between a pair of tweezers and burn it with a lighter.
That was the inspiration for a song I wrote, a few years later, called “The Tick.” I still consider it one of the greatest country songs ever written. It goes like this:
I found a tick on my body that reminded me of you/ It sucked the life out of me just the way you used to do.
It latched on to me and it tried to suck me dry/ And I tried to break free, tried to make that thing die/ But it was sunk in so deep and so clever and so clean/ That I couldn’t get my fingers or the tweezers in between/ Its skin and my skin.
I burned it off with a dirty old match/ That reminded me of you and your dirty old snatch/ The skin on my thigh began to turn red/ Because inside of me there are still pieces of you… and that filthy tick’s head.
The wife and I go camping a lot. In the mountains at night there are a lot of shooting stars, and you can see the Milky Way. We go on short hikes, identify birds, and sit with our feet in the water and read. I do handy things with parachute cord and carry my bedbug-killing knife, a Schrade Old Timer with a fixed, four-inch blade and a green handle. I pick up the old beer cans and cigarette butts and diapers and other litter left behind by previous campers, may they burn in Hell. Sometimes we make friends with strange people. We cook tofu dogs over the fire and drink beer. The wilderness is one of the few places we can go where M. doesn’t look for bedbugs.
In July we went to one of our secret, un-crowded, free sites on the Colorado River, and were forced to share the space with a large colony of mosquitoes. They prefer me, but they’re not above biting M. On Monday night, back in Denver, M. said, “I’ve never been eaten up this bad before. Unless…”
“They’re mosquito bites.”