Emma lived in Long Island City the first time she got bedbugs. Her name isn’t really Emma, but who wants to advertise to her coworkers and friends that her home might be infested with fast-breeding, blood-hungry parasites?
She is a minimalist. She has few possessions, doesn’t travel much, doesn’t indulge in the glorious but risky pastime of curb-mining. Although she wasn’t really aware of bedbugs before, she lived a low-risk lifestyle.
In December 2007 she received an e-mail from some friends that said they might have bedbugs. They had been in her apartment two weeks before.
In January she woke up with the three telltale dots that signify bedbugs. People call them “breakfast, lunch, dinner,” but “starter, main course, dessert” would be more accurate because the three bites signify interruptions, not three separate meals. The bedbug drinks, it gets disturbed, it pulls out. It takes a step, drinks again, gets disturbed, and pulls out. It drinks again. The three signs of the bedbug; it sounds like a Sherlock Holmes story.
She called her landlord, who said they’d never had a problem in that building before.
The jaded exterminator did his thing. He may have known how to deal with bedbugs, but he had no idea how to deal with the people they were biting.
She threw a lot of things away, even some of her favorite books.
“Queens is the part of New York where no one gives a shit about what you do,” she said. There’s not the need, enforced in Brooklyn and Manhattan, to be cool, which meant she didn’t feel too self-conscious about lugging her mattress outside and leaving it on the sidewalk. Someone took it in the night.
She ordered diatomaceous earth and sprinkled it all over her apartment. “I probably gave myself lung cancer,” she said.
She slept, nervously, on an air mattress. Several months later, Sleepy’s, after much pestering, sent her a new bed gratis.
Bedbugs are something from which you recover day by day, and so it’s appropriate to borrow some AA lingo: Emma had been bedbug-free for nearly two years when she moved in with her boyfriend in December.
About two weeks later, she noticed some bites on her arm. They searched the house but didn’t find anything. A couple weeks later her boyfriend saw a bug crawling across his comforter. He killed it, disposed of the corpse, and kept silent in order not to alarm her.
A few weeks later she noticed some more bites, and he told her about the bedbug. They called in a “bored-looking exterminator” who “looked at the mattress and box spring, found one dead bedbug, and told me what my sad, sad options were, which I already knew… turn the house upside down, bag everything, wash everything, live out of these bags for another year, wrap your mattresses and then sleep on them, pretending that it isn’t insanely gross that smashed bedbug corpses are inside the wrapping, or we could toss out the mattresses and get weird looks from the neighbors.”
Her boyfriend lives in a proper house in the suburbs. There’s lots of stuff and no way to check behind every picture frame or underneath every object. She affected a new persona, pretending it wasn’t a big deal. She was bedbug-tested, a veteran. She had to keep a tough exterior for his sake. He’d never dealt with them before.
The second time around isn’t any easier though. There are so many possibilities about where they came from. It makes you want to throw up.
Bedbugs can only live eighteen months without a meal. She almost certainly didn’t bring them with her, but she still feels guilty. She feels betrayed, too, as if bedbugs are strictly a New York City thing and shouldn’t be able to survive in the suburbs.
They had a man with a dog inspect the house, but the dog found nothing. The exterminators came and found fecal evidence. They sprayed the bedroom, and so far there haven’t been any more sightings.
“I remain completely paranoid and creeped out by how easy it is to get these things, and am really annoyed that I had to spend so much money on this yet again,” she said.
Bedbugs are thieves of time. “I think that’s the part that really bothers me about it is that you have to focus on it instead of doing other stuff,” she said. The first time she dealt with them she had trouble focusing on work. She didn’t want to go home and didn’t want to talk about what was going on at home. She didn’t want to go to sleep. When it came to human relations, she felt like this: “I can’t do this. I cannot interact with you normally.”
“I can’t stand that there are people who will never have to deal with this,” she said. When she gets rolling on this topic she’ll admit to harboring what social workers might call calcitratal ideations: she really wants to kick the civilians.
Emma has a good job. She came from a middle-class home and went to a good school. It seems like things like this aren’t really supposed to happen to people like her.
She was talking about bedbugs in a Midtown café. The lady at the next table was probably sick. It was a week after the earthquake in Haiti. Hundreds of thousands were dead. A million were homeless. Supplies weren’t getting through. She felt selfish for thinking about bedbugs.
They take over your life. They can turn you into someone you don’t want to be. She read an article in the Village Voice about a lady who had bedbugs who now won’t let people touch her. “I don’t want to be like that,” she said. “I don’t want to let this bad luck turn me into one of those people.”
Emma is young, talented, educated, and paranoid. She could have the world at her feet, but she’s preoccupied with a physically harmless insect the size, shape, and color of a flax seed. “I feel like I can handle anything in New York,” she said. “Except this.”