As a seasoned gangster knows never to make himself vulnerable, never to sit with his back to the front door of a restaurant, but to position himself unobtrusively in a seat from which he can survey the entire scene, the sufferer of bedbugs, once rid of the infernal pests, is always quietly aware of the risks of re-infestation. The sufferer is burdened with a level of consciousness of which the mass of his neighbors remain blissfully oblivious, namely, that a bloodsucker is born every minute (an ultra-conservative estimate) and extreme care must be taken to keep them out of the house. The sufferer undertakes his precautions unnoticed. He is careful of where he places his bag, refrains from leaning on walls or subway pillars, is wary of attractive items left on the street and will only take them home if, first, they are extraordinarily marvelous or useful and, second, they can readily be ascertained to be bedbug-free.
I arrived in New York at the end of August. Like Damon Runyon, Harold Ross, and the character played by Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, I came here from Colorado to become a giant, although, fame-wise, I’m still a homunculus.
It wasn’t in the original plan for Maureen to accompany me, but at the last minute it struck me that she’d never been to New York and would probably like it, so I made the suggestion. She thought it was a capital idea, and she hurriedly packed a bag, and my mother rushed us to the train station (I’ve given up airplanes for health reasons), and, in her giddiness, sprung for M.’s ticket. It was exciting, some have said romantic, and then we sat in a train for forty-eight hours.
M. took our infestation hard. Working at a homeless shelter, her risk of encountering and bringing home bedbugs is higher than the average mortal’s, and her anxiety manifests itself in the form of psychosomatic bedbug bites. They look just like real bites, but they don’t itch, and they disappear in about half an hour. When they first started appearing they would send us into fits of searching and cursing and despairing and washing things in hot water.
She saw a therapist for a few weeks. She didn’t come through cured, but she was able to cope with the anxiety. Whenever the bites would appear, she would take deep breaths and repeat a mantra, in her case the Hail Mary. She still gets the fake bites, but not as often.
As I went to stow one of my bags in the overhead compartment, M. grimaced, indicating wordlessly, “Be sure to check for certain evil parasites that shall not be named.” I did the best I could, but light was scarce, and height scarcer, as I couldn’t really see over the ledge. It was time for M.’s mantra.
About twenty-four hours later, in a bar in Chicago’s Union Station (where we watched the Bears play a preseason game against somebody—all that mattered was that Jay Cutler was a dynamo, and I wished bedbugs on the Broncos), M. gave me another look as I set a bag on the floor. I appeased her with a bit of sophistry: they won’t be crawling around in a train station; there’s too much bustle; they’ll be curled up in vicious little balls, waiting for the baggage in which they’re hiding to get settled into a cozy, safe hotel room.
We stayed at the Hotel Chelsea. I knew beforehand that the Chelsea hadn’t retained all its old charms. It was under new management, no longer accepted long-term guests, and had lost some of its oxymoronic bohemian luster, but it’s close to Penn Station and isn’t as terribly expensive as most Manhattan hotels. It’s nice to know you’re staying in a place that used to be home to Janis Joplin, but the most important factor in the decision to stay at the Chelsea was that it seemed to be bedbug-free. There was one posting on the Bedbug Registry (an essential website), but the hotel management had followed up quickly and brought in a search dog, which reportedly found no bedbugs. I suppose this could have been a grand lie, but we were comforted. M. turned on the television immediately, and one of the first commercials we saw was for a bedbug-exterminating service.
M. has a good job in Denver, and she went back to it a couple days later. I stayed on in the hotel. My first night alone in the city, I spotted an insect on the wall in the bathroom. Using a tissue, I squashed it. I held it up to the light with a pair of tweezers, but I couldn’t identify it. It had certain bedbug-like qualities, but it was more horse-belly-shaped than the pictures I looked up on the Internet. Later, M. said she’d heard there were certain beetles that resemble bedbugs, and the next day I came across an insect, larger than the potential bedbug, that could have been a beetle. Nevertheless, the mystery insect triggered a two-day depression.
I found a room in a two-bedroom apartment in Harlem. I didn’t mention bedbugs to my new housemate, although I checked the address on the registry and found the building clean. That’s no guarantee against bedbugs; it only means no one has reported an infestation on the website.
In my new room, I examined sheets, airbed, floor, every corner, every inch of the two closets. Surreptitiously, when the housemate was not around, I inspected the rest of the apartment—all except his room. I scanned the kitchen and bathroom and paid close attention to the living room, where I lifted up the cushions of the couch. It was clean, although I was still reluctant to sit on it because it looked dirty.
So far I’ve seen a rat in a subway tunnel and a mouse in the garbage bin in my kitchen, but I haven’t seen any bedbugs. I’m covered in bites, administered by the intrepid mosquitoes that slip through the window screen in my room every night. I can’t escape the feeling that I’m being tricked, that I’m sharing my room with a legion of very clever bedbugs. Maybe they’re hiding from me, feasting on my savory blood and blaming it on the mosquitoes.
Consciousness of bedbugs is not unlike becoming a vampire slayer. You go through your whole life thinking those creatures are a legend, they don’t exist, but then you find out—inevitably, the hard way—they really do exist, and you begin to see them everywhere, and it’s your mission in life to destroy them.