This all started with tiny spots of blood. I had no idea where they came from. They were in a splatter pattern. Dots of rust-colored stains on my soft, yellow bedsheets. Very Jackson Pollock.
I should have realized it is not a good thing to have blood in your bed, and it is definitely a bad thing to have blood in your bed and not know its source. But I tell myself it isn’t a problem. I figure I scratched a few mosquito bites in my sleep. I wash everything. I order new sheets. That seems like an acceptable course of action.
A few days later, I am sitting on my bed. It is 11:45 p.m. A bug — brown, pinkie-nail-size, neither especially quick nor slow — crawls across my comforter.
I kill it, squeezing it inside a tissue. It pops like bubble wrap.
Wait a second … I think. That couldn’t be a …
I remain calm. Just because there’s a bug in your bed doesn’t mean you have bedbugs, just like you can have a friend who’s a boy, but it doesn’t mean he’s your boyfriend.
I turn to Wikipedia, WebMD. The evidence piles up. It is disgusting. Words like “infestation,” “parasitic” and “fecal spots” fill my screen. I learn the telltale signs: clusters of bites, which I don’t have, and blood spots in the bed,which I do. Turns out bedbugs explode when their bellies are full. I realize, because I am bite-free, my bugs must be full of someone else’s blood. Maybe my upstairs neighbor? Oh, God. I don’t even know my upstairs neighbor.
I scramble for my phone and start speed-dialing. Parents, sister, brother, sister-in-law, repeat. Straight to voice mail. I remember that my parents have a landline. I call twice, to no avail. I consider yelling into the answering machine. I call again. My dad picks up.
“Sleep on the air mattress,” he says. “There’s nothing we can do about it tonight.”
The next morning, I call pest control. The man who answers has a voice like Coach Taylor’s from “Friday Night Lights.” I report that I have bedbugs.
“First, we’ll need to verify that what you’ve got really are bedbugs,” he says. “Did you save one?”
“No,” I say.
“Oh.” He sounds disappointed.
“I didn’t realize I was supposed to.” Is that an established part of the common knowledge canon? Like how you’re not supposed to drink beer before liquor?
I describe the bug, the bed, the blood. I wonder, is this the same conversation Egyptians had with Old Testament Pest Control during the Passover days? “First you saw blood, and now there are — what, locusts? How do you know they’re locusts?” Wait. Is someone smiting me?
Pest Control Guy confirms my diagnosis. “It’s definitely bedbugs.”
I take a deep breath. “Okay.”
“I’ve got to tell you, this is a nightmare,” he says. “I feel horrible for you.”
“Awesome,” I say.
“You’ll be displaced for a while.”
“Wow. This is … stellar.”
“I really appreciate you keeping a positive attitude,” he says.
He launches into a play-by-play of what I can expect from the next six weeks. “It’s very invasive,” he begins, which is maybe not a smart thing to say to a woman, ever. An exterminator will come three times to “treat” my apartment. Every fabric thing I own must be double-garbage-bagged, washed, dried on high heat, re-double-garbage-bagged.
Minimalists among you are probably thinking, “Well, I don’t have that much stuff.” Inaccurate. You would be shocked at the sheer quantity of your possessions. Everything you own is quite a lot of things. Those T-shirts you keep stuffed in a drawer and hardly ever wear. That bag of clothes you’ve been meaning to drop off at Goodwill. Every partnerless sock. Every last thing.
“Strip your bed,” Pest Control Guy says. “We’ll send somebody out there first thing in the morning.”
I wear surgical gloves. I deal with the pillowcases. The sheets. The mattress. I lift the box spring about two inches, then I scream.
I have an army of bedbugs.
I feel as though someone broke into my house. And started living there. And had sex in my bed.
I almost puke but stop myself. It would just be one more gross thing to clean up, and I don’t have time for that.
“It looks like we’re going to murder someone,” I say as my sister-in-law and I line the seats of her car with garbage bags to protect them from contamination. We don’t know if we are overreacting, underreacting or just-the-right-amount-of-reacting. It is 2 a.m.
We’ve spent seven hours putting every washable item in my apartment into garbage bags, shuttling them down the elevator and into her car. We drive to a 24-hour laundromat in Alexandria.
Perhaps you have never had the pleasure of pulling an all-nighter at a laundromat.
Imagine that fluorescent glare of the Metro car — the kind that makes you look at whomever you were kissing at the bar and think: Oh, no, you? — and the speckle-tiled floor of a high school hallway. The washing machines make loud, gurgling sounds. As night turns into morning the dryers seem to get louder, dry-heaving all around us.
We have on gym shorts and messy half-buns and zombie stares. We make change from $5 bills, then more change from tens, then twenties. We build mountains of quarters like Scarface’s Everests of cocaine. These machines are the Audrey II of appliances. They are insatiable.
At 7 a.m., we pack up the car again. New garbage bags, new labels. Ziplocs of socks. As we drive back across Arlington Memorial Bridge, we watch the sun rise over the Lincoln Memorial.
We sleep for three hours at a hotel, then meet my mom and Will, the exterminator, at my apartment. Will says, in a voice I bet he believes will be reassuring, “You might want to brace yourself before you go back in there.”
I am somehow not surprised by this counsel. “Why?”
“Some of them were crawling along, you know where your back wall meets your ceiling?”
I picture this intersection. I have stared at it many times from the cozy confines of my bed.
“When I killed them,” he says. “They, ahh, they exploded.”
“So, it’s sort of dripping down your wall. I wanted to give you a heads-up.”
“I’ll tell you, you’re lucky. I’ve done about 2,000 of these cases in the past three years,” he says. I realize I am a “case” now, like a blond victim on “CSI.” “And I’ve only seen three, maybe four people, who don’t have any bites.” Will does not have bites, either. We are both miracles, Will and I. Small favors.
My mom, my sister-in-law and I go to Target to buy bug-proof plastic storage. Nothing seems bug-proof. I burrow my nose in the crook of my elbow and try not to cry. Much of these bug-battling days are spent trying not to cry at what I arbitrarily deem unacceptable locations for crying.
I do not cry until we return to the hotel. It has checked us out by mistake.
Our overnight belongings — prescription medicine, change of clothes, the ring my parents gave my for my 16th birthday — are gone.
I cry so hard. I Claire-Danes-tremble-chin cry. Full-body cry. I cry because I am tired of losing things. And I’m tired of being tired. My life is in trash bags. My old bed is in a dumpster somewhere.
I tell myself: There are worse things. I’m from New Jersey; I think about neighbors who fought through Sandy. This is fine. It’s just stuff. Besides, what else could I possibly lose?
Three weeks later, I lose my job.
As “The Bling Ring’s” Alexis Neiers might say, having bedbugs is a real learning lesson for me. I learn the value of a good landlord and the relative worthlessness of my renter’s insurance, which kicks in only if someone is injured in my apartment and/or steals my laptop.
I learn that dealing with bedbugs is a full-time enterprise. I buy a Packtite, this heatable suitcase, to zap any bugs dwelling inside shoes, bags or books. I spend many nights pacing back and forth beside it, checking the thermometer, as if I’m tending to a sick child.
I get a strange pleasure out of one-upping everyone else’s bad news. They see me “roommate fight”; I raise them “bedbugs.” They see me “long day at the office”; I raise them “unemployment.”
They all say they’re sorry, but I think they’re relieved. There’s only so much bad luck to go around. Everyone knows that.
Right before Bugmaggedon, I interviewed Judith Viorst. She’d talked to me about her book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”
“A bad day is kind of a container concept,” she said. “A bad day suggests that maybe tomorrow won’t be a bad day. I’m having a bad day; I’m not having a bad life. And even though you’re not liking your day, there is some feeling that it could get better.”
The new bed arrives on time. The new sheets are cotton-commercial crisp. The wall scarred with bug carnage gets repainted. It is Hanukkah and Thanksgiving and my sister’s birthday all at once.
I apply to job after job after job. I am told many times that I’ll “land on my feet,” though who knows when, or where.
At the end of every day I nestle in my bed. And I have some feeling that it could get better.
Jessica Goldstein is a freelance writer living in Washington. To comment on this story, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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