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Monday, August 23, 2010

Bedbugs: A Love Story

Once upon a time, seven years ago, Greg and I set out from northern AL, to install ourselves into a decent yet overpriced apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan (actually the location was Morningside Heights, but the realtor called it Upper West Side so.... whatever).

We moved into the apartment with a then-friend. I'd known Adam--we'll call him Adam--for a few years, had acted in a few plays with him back in AL. He was straight and single, we were gay and coupled. Not the best fit for roommates, obviously, but certainly not the worst, in that both G and I got along with Adam.

Adam moved here, to NYC, to pursue acting. I moved here to not be in AL. Greg moved here because I was selfish enough to give him an ultimatum: stay in AL, or come with me to NYC. It is my secret and greatest happiness: Greg decided to move with me. I dunno what I would've done if he'd called my bluff and stayed.

Before we moved to NYC, G and I had spent several years negotiating our living arrangements. We'd been together in the same apartment for three years or so, and had worked out our systems for coping with cohabitation--the bathroom-sharing rituals, the food-preparation system, the mutual consideration of private time versus coupleness. Systematic cohabitation is a difficult thing to negotiate. Not everyone manages to accomplish the perfect balance of individual-vs.-communal living. Someone should teach a class on it. I will be the first to say: I am not the person to teach that class.

Here's what happened with Adam: Things went well for a while. All three of us--G, A, me--were cautious and considerate of one another, trying to be mindful of personal boundaries, and tolerating each others' idiosyncrasies.

Personal idiosyncrasies, btw, are terrible things. We all have them, and we all are under the mistaken impression that what makes us idiosyncratic makes us endearing. This is a lie. What makes us idiosyncratic makes us unbearable to most humans.

After a few months of living together, things deteriorated. G and I began fighting more, Adam became more distant. The three of us realized, perhaps too late, that we weren't working out as cohabitation partners. We tried to work it out. Things got better.

Then, one night just before bed, Greg and I discovered a tiny mobile dot on our bedsheets.

People who have not had bedbugs tend to joke about the overreaction to the bedbug menace. Which I get--I used to joke about it too. Like everyone else, I grew up hearing, "Good night. Sleep tight. Don't let the bedbugs bite." I thought they were a myth: what are bedbugs? What type of bug bites you while you sleep, except spiders? Bedbugs: the boogeyman with more legs, right?

Here's what happened: from the point where we found that first bedbug til two months later, Adam had moved out, I'd quit my job--in a most dramatic and fantastic way--and Greg had been reduced to a sort of ersatz bedbug Hitler, snapping one day, flipping our mattress over and stomping bugs until the bedroom smelled like ammonia.

At night, Greg and I would sleep in long underwear, shirt tails tucked into our pants, pant legs tucked into socks, socks on our feet, hats on our heads, scarves around our necks, gloves on our hands. We'd wake up from half-sleep, swaddled and sweating. We'd move through our days, deprived of sleep, feral, bitter, angry.

Adam, amazingly, didn't have a problem with these fuckers. He slept mostly naked on an inflatable bed, on the floor, in a small alcove of our apartment, where he'd chat loudly on his cellphone to anyone and everyone--an idiosyncrasy of his I never cared for. I also didn't care for his apparent impervious reaction to the bedbugs. G and I were falling apart, but Adam seemed unfazed. They weren't feasting on him at night. They weren't crawling over his blood-infused flesh. They weren't causing him to itch and twitch. After getting off his phone, he'd slip into a deep, peaceful slumber (turned out later the bedbugs were living in the bedroom wall; they did migrate to where Adam slept, but by then he was moving out; he was nice enough to leave a heavily-infested curtain of the fuckers, like a final fuck-you).

Greg and I, during this period, developed a weird mentality, a strange relationship to both the bedbugs and to the people around us. Because of a lack of sleep, both of us became more irritable, more surreal. Conversations with non-bedbug-infested humans were a chore. I'd call a parent, for instance, and find it impossible to have a real conversation--I'd talk nonsense, and scratch at my arm, and become so obsessed with the scratching that I wouldn't hear anything said to me. At work one day, I discovered a bedbug crawling on my coat, transported with me along the MTA to the location I spent hours making money. It felt, somehow, like more of an insult to me to have that little bedbug at work than it did to have it in my bed.

Greg became a paranoid warrior. The day he went completely bonkers, flipping over the bed and stomping on bugs til the bedroom smelled like human blood, I came home and found him heaving and fist-clenched in the middle of our bedroom. The bed was still overturned, the sheets ripped half away from the mattress. A gooey mess of squished bug carcasses on the wood floor. He looked up at me, hair dripping with sweat, plastered against his forehead and into his squinting eyes. "I killed as many as I could," he'd said. "I tried to get them all."

Incidentally, there were still some bugs moving on the underframe of the mattress. I could see them.

The next day I quit my job, which was ill-advised of me since we needed the money, and it wasn't a terrible job. Here's what happened: I called back to the office manager, an unpleasant woman who treated her dog better than she treated anyone else in her life, and asked her a question. About something. Theatre tickets, I think, since it was my job to sell theatre tickets to the clients. I hadn't slept in three days. My skin itched. Every personal belonging I had was in a plastic bag because that's what you do when bedbugs invade: you put everything you can into a plastic bag. Greg and I were fighting over insane, inane shit, and Adam was ready to either murder me in my sleep or move out, taking his share of the rent payments with him.

So I called Laura, the office manager, to ask a question. I was full of coffee and devoid of rest.

Laura answered her extension. "What?"

"Hey Laura. So [Person] wants tickets to [show], but they haven't got enough credit to pay for the tickets."

"Right."

"Well, should I let them have the tickets? Cause they've been using us for a while, and I don't want to make them angry."

"Are you aware you've said 'uh' at least 10 times since you called me?"

Two things: 1) No, I hadn't been aware I was uh-ing Laura. 2) I replied, "Are you aware you are a cunt?" And that was that. I was fired before I could quit. Leaving, I assume, my bedbug work companion behind.

We did eventually get rid of the fuckers. G and I read online that the best way to kill them off was with cold air, so for several frigid nights we slept with the windows of our bedroom open. We slept in our usual way--long underwear, shirts tucked into pants, pants into socks, gloves, hats, scarves--and blanketed ourselves, pretended to touch one another, and waited, our minds broken and our skin protected but still itching from the bloodsucking bites.

And our landlord got around to paying for an exterminator, but it wasn't easy to convince him to do it. Our landlord ignored most tenants' entreaties, until one brave soul--Donald in apartment 5C--allowed his body to be a feeding ground for bedbugs. He wrapped his mattress in plastic, slept naked, and, night after night, would allow the fuckers to feast on him. Because of the plastic on the mattress, the fuckers would gorge on his blood then... something. I don't know. Alls I know is in the AM, upon awakening, Donald would be surrounded with bedbug corpses, and he'd scoop these corpses into a plastic bag. When the bag was full, he took it to our landlord. Next day, the exterminator arrived.

Btw: The exterminator put down white powder. The white powder ate thru the skin of the bedbugs. Sometimes, at night, paranoid and terrified, G or I would turn on the bedroom light to find a few white, half-dissolved bedbugs swarming over us along with the usual swarm of black, watermelon-seeded ones.

G and I still haven't gotten over the experience.

Adam left. He moved to the upper east side, then to L.A. Here's how bad things got between us: when he left, he made a special point to leave behind a curtain, sewn together by his mother and shipped to him via UPS. "I don't need the curtain, " he told me on his last day with us in the apartment, which by then was, as far as I knew, finally purged of bedbugs. "You keep it."

I thanked him. I liked the curtain. I liked the curtain so much, in fact, that as soon as Adam was gone, I climbed up on a high chair to take the curtain down to move to our room.

But when I looked at the stitching, I noticed this: hundreds of crawling, creeping, cavorting bedbugs.

I put the curtain in a plastic bag, stripped, and threw myself into the shower. Later, alone in the apartment, Greg and I began the process of getting back our cohabitation system.

1 comment:

shredder said...

Oh! what a scary story is this. It only emphasize that we need to be aware where those bed bugs possible hiding place. In order for us, to track them down easily and stop them from spreading.

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