Last week, I took cover when I spotted what turned out to be a feather fluttering down from a locker to my gym’s floor. At home, my eye caught a loose thread swaying on a cloth bag in one of my cabinets, and I flinched. A green pepper seed stuck to a FedEx envelope on my coffee table turned my stomach. I freaked out as a drop of water ran down my chest. I was cooking dinner the other night and I realized that I did not like the way that the flame on my one burner was dancing. I did not like it one bit.
It’s been more than a month since I’ve seen a single bloodsucking bedbug in my apartment, and yet I think I see them everywhere. My mind is playing tricks on me. Bedbugs are so small that every tiny, dark-colored speck of anything could be one and deep paranoia drives me to scrutinize every morsel of matter as such. I’m always on patrol, like a cat trapped in an apartment who has nothing better to do but look at absolutely everything.
I have scooped up now countless piles of what look like black pepper flakes that might be bedbug feces to see if they’ll dissolve and run red in rubbing alcohol. I read on a forum that you should do this to test if you are infested. They haven’t run red yet, by the way, so I assume they’re coffee grounds. I don’t quite trust that assumption, but I’m not quite at the point of rejecting hard data. I’m still in my experimental phase. I’m still attempting to cling to sanity here.
I never realized how much black fuzz is in my life, or the extent of its ability to haunt me. I feel like I could fill my bathroom sink with the amount of fuzz I’ve pulled from various other fabrics, and at least the toilet would be right there for me to throw up in when I looked at it. Will the upcoming sweater season finally push me over the edge for good?
Every time I have an itch, I wonder why (it’s probably a bed bug). Every time I see my cat scratching himself, I wonder why (it’s probably a bed bug). My skin is extremely sensitive, and every blemish I have now looks to me like an attempted massacre. Just as I will never be completely sure that I am free of bedbugs, I cannot be completely sure that red marks, ingrown hairs, pimples, bruises, scratches, etc., aren’t actually bedbug bites. I could be getting bit right now. If only I had hundreds of eyes trained to every square inch of my body.
I don’t think I was bitten, though. I never had any true telltale signs of bites—the several small pricks in a row, the swelling, the intense itch-soreness combo that my friend who had them when he lived in Dubai experienced. In fact, I had no idea that I was living with bedbugs until I saw them with my own eyes. One Sunday in early August, I came home to Brooklyn from visiting my family in Jersey. I was straightening up my bed after unpacking when a bedbug strutted its way across my duvet cover. It had the fiercest walk I’ve ever seen. I scooped it up with an undershirt and deposited it in the toilet. “I’m just going to pretend I didn’t see that,” I thought. “Maybe it’s just one.”
And then, as if to mock my willful ignorance, the bedbugs made themselves apparent repeatedly. An hour or so after finding the first, I was reading in bed and two together came bounding over the hill my bunched-up comforter was making for them. They were fucking frolicking. The only way the scene could have been more picturesque is if one of them were flying a kite the size of a pinky nail. I flushed them, too. Then I saw one on my bathroom wall. My bathroom wall. Before I could even process why how what a bedbug was doing on my bathroom wall, I saw another crawling across the floor tile. Later, I found one on a curtain in my living room.
I found a few more on my box spring, which I steamed and sprayed with isopropyl alcohol. My friend Tracie Egan Morrissey (formerly of Gawker Media’s Jezebel, she now runs Broadly) had them recently and told me to do this. She keeps one of the tidiest houses that I’ve ever been in, so the fact that she had them made getting them myself easier to deal with, psychologically. I can’t be that big of a dirtbag if she had them. She told me she believes she got them from a four-star hotel.
“I used to crawl around on the floor at night and look for things on my hands and knees,” she told me. “Also, for about six weeks straight I compulsively washed and dried everything every night, steamed and vacuumed, from after I put my daughter to bed until 2 or 3 in the morning. I was like a zombie, I was so tired.”
The night I treated my room, I started around 9 and didn’t get to sleep (on the couch) until after 4. I didn’t stop at my box spring—I steamed and sprayed my entire bedroom with alcohol. I inhaled so much alcohol, I began understanding what Kitty Dukakis saw in it. I threw all of my shoes in contractor bags that I had weaponized via dichlorvos strips, which I had to have mailed to my family in Jersey since they no longer can be purchased in or sent to New York. I missed several days of work preparing for the exterminator who eventually came (paid for by my landlord, thank god). I had to throw away my couch and box spring. I sent away the majority of my wardrobe to a service that specializes in treating bedbug infestations (it cost me hundreds of dollars). The clothes that I didn’t send away I kept in garbage bags, which is to say I was living out of garbage bags up until last week. I have these hideous anti-bedbug coasters now under every leg of furniture that I own. Just in case they come back.
Sometimes they come back. A friend of mine who had them last summer told me they came back four times. The exterminator would come, a week would go by, and bam, more bedbugs. They still live inside him, too.
“Any time I see a dot or a crumb I do a double take,” he told me. “Every time I change my sheets I check.”
“At restaurants I would pick crumbs up off the table and inspect them in the candle light,” Tracie said.
I wonder if bedbugs are the Helter Skelter of insects: once they’re in your head they never let go. To experience them is to be obsessed. Granted, some people have it worse than others—Jake Scott, who wrote recently about his infestation for Vice, reports that he still sleeps with a flashlight next to him. “Since I started writing this I’ve sliced open my box spring to apply boric acid and my back is bleeding from uncontrollable scratching,” he writes. His infestation happened two years ago.
I will live out the rest of my days in limbo, not ever completely sure that I don’t have bedbugs. Living in New York, this was always the threat—so claimed the piles of news stories that I once wrote off as hysterical. Man was I dumb. They were right all along! Bedbugs are infectious disease externalized. They’re transmitted socially, they’re a bitch to get rid of, and there’s no guarantee they won’t come back. At least with something like an STD, you have a period between your penicillin shot and your next sexual encounter where you can be certain that you’re free of disease. That’s not so for bedbugs. Who knows if your treatment was effective? It would be impossible to see every translucent egg sac that’s less than one millimeter long. It’s impossible to look inside every wall to make sure there isn’t one there just waiting to crawl out and unleash hundreds of baby bedbugs.
And that’s just considering what’s in your apartment—if you’re leaving it and interacting with humanity, you’re putting yourself at risk. I used to really resent people who kept their backpacks on in crowded subway cars, but now I can’t say I blame them. Who knows what’s on those floors? Of course, if everyone keeps their backpacks on, backpacks are bumping and rubbing against each other, a perfect way to share bugs. A woman standing next to me the other day swayed with the train’s motion and knocked into me several times with her pleather, fringe-covered bag. Each poly tendril looked like a potential rope swing for bedbugs, and there were hundreds of them. As I regarded this fringe-bearer, I became nauseated, and for once it was not because I was being judgmental about sartorial decisions.
I don’t know how I got bedbugs. They could be anywhere, and if they could be anywhere, they might as well be everywhere. I’ve never been particular about personal space or sharing germs, but now I would appreciate it if no one that I’m not intimately connected to ever touched me again. In fact, nothing should touch anything ever again. I don’t want anyone to come over ever. I don’t want to go to anyone else’s apartment. I don’t want to sit on wooden benches. I don’t want to sit at all. I don’t want to be in taxis. I wonder when Zipcars will start getting infested. In New York, there would seem to be a fine line between a car-sharing system and a bedbug-sharing system.
The other day, I spent a few minutes at a movie screening contemplating which was a worse placement for my bag on the floor: touching the chair it was in front of or not? (I ultimately decided it should not be touching a chair.) I’m so freaked out about bringing bedbugs home from movie theaters now that as soon as I get home from one, I strip naked and throw everything into garbage bags that I tie. (I also steam my backpack vigorously.) I see a lot of movies, so I go through this process multiple times a week. Before I drop my laundry off at the laundromat, I open the several garbage bags containing various nights’ outfits outside of my building. When I’m not using it, I keep my laundry bag stored in a garbage bag with a dichlorvos strip in it—laundromats seal the clothes they wash, which is great (even though the plastic bags do not seem nearly thick enough to me) but they generally store the untreated laundry bags up against each other. The laundry bags! The laundry bags! Won’t somebody please think of the laundry bags!
A pest spread by incidental contact is the ultimate fuck-you to New Yorkers, and we put up with a lot of fuck-yous as a result of overcrowding alone. This city is constantly rubbing itself in your face and mocking you: “Why do you want to live here? Why do you want to live here? Stop hitting yourself.” What we need is a PrEP but for bedbugs. Whoever invents it will be very rich. Something must be done or the situation will just get worse—maybe everyone being required to wear all white at all times would be a good start. That would at least make it easier to detect who’s carrying bugs. I’m confident that my patience and vigilance is exceptional—I can’t imagine most people being as obsessively on top of managing a situation that could very well turn out to be Sisyphean.
When the guy in charge of the aforementioned laundry service dropped off my clothes two weeks ago, I expressed my paranoia to him. “I’m afraid this is going to happen again,” I said.
“It will happen again,” he countered. “It’s only a matter of time.”
Two months ago, I would have rolled my eyes at these words. Now I believe them so hard it hurts my scalp. This is why I am the way I am.
Illustration by Jim Cooke