Getting bitten: It's worse than a paper cut, slightly better than death. Thinking you're about to get bitten: That's a little worse still. Ever been in a fourth-grade classroom when a bee flies through an open window? The screams are loud enough that teachers from other classrooms come running to see who's dead, and who can still be saved.
You don't need anaphylactic shock or all the "National Geographic Explorer" special effects for a bite to be huge news, at least on a very local level. People's bite stories are sometimes pathetically banal, especially in the dead of summer, like hearing about their dentist visits or closing costs: I was [blanking] in the back yard, and all of the sudden this [blank] bit me. I was happy, and then I wasn't. I woke up and there it was. It was an amazing day, and then sszzztt!! and I was all like [Lord's name in vain]!!
Things were fine, until that precise awfulness, until that split-second stab of interaction between species.
And then what'd you do?
I lived, but it wasn't easy, let me just say. It's been a year since I stepped on the stingray near La Jolla. We were stomping along in the shallow California surf (hilariously, Hasselhoffianly), it was my birthday, and suddenly there was a jab at my ankle and I thought: glass. I teetered a moment and said, calmly, "I've stepped on something." But it wasn't glass, and as a pinkish, illegible cursive squirt of my blood surfaced, the stingray swam around my legs, horribly exotic and uninvited and the size of a small Calphalon skillet, not part of the plan.
"What do you want?" the boyfriend said, an hour later, after the swelling wouldn't stop and the lifeguard didn't care and we had hiked up the cliff back to the rental car. I was thrashing around in the back seat, wailing in pain as he drove. I was sweating, cussing, starting to pant and had that odd tinge of anxiety attack, thinking of venom and paralysis. "Do you want Tylenol?" he asked. "Do you want to go to an emergency room?"
"Let's go check into the hotel," I wept, "and I'll Google it."
Another half-hour later, booting up the laptop, feebly typing a search: "stingray bite pain."
"It says, 'Plunge it in the hottest water you can stand,' " I announced, "to 'neutralize the toxin' " -- toxin! " 'Patient may also show signs of increased anxiety.' "
The Internet was right, but life has not been quite the same. My foot eventually stopped hurting, but the moment never stopped happening, a ready visual in my mind: the upside-down "j" shape of the incision, the swelling, the sea beast floating away. Two weeks later, when the swelling had not fully subsided, I found an online testimonial from a woman who'd been healed by the hands of a preacher, having suffered foot pain for 20 years from a vacation stingray encounter. That's why I limped into the HMO on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood.
They were interested. Finally someone was interested. They took X-rays to see if a piece of the ray's stinger was embedded in the bone, gave me an antibiotic prescription. The real care was the attention, some validation. "Oh, sure, this is a nasty one," the triage nurse said, poking at my bulbous ankle. "Stingrays hurt. Toughest-looking surfer dudes in the world come in here, crying their eyes out."
And that's when the pain started to stop, only when it became part of the long human narrative of bites and stings.
You spend your life avoiding black widow spiders and water moccasins and all the other things you told yourself could be out there or under there or living around these parts, whether these parts were the Amazon or Bethesda. You think about sheds, box springs, corners, weeds. Rec rooms in Scottsdale, Ariz., crawling with scorpions that are the same exact color as the carpet. You should come to the barbecue out at the country house: We'll have my special potato salad, you'll get Lyme disease from deer ticks, it'll be a blast.
Foxes terrorize suburban Washington!
(Will they bite you?! Your kids?! Tonight on Fox 5!)
Turns out: That free futon? Was covered with fleas from their cat.
There's a map of the United States showing where the brown recluse spider lives (mostly the South and lower Midwest) and yet you cannot walk into a basement in any state without thinking of one. You know not to water-ski where the sea nettles are in the Chesapeake Bay (they have signs on the shore, telling you not to do it, you genius).
You know that they shot Old Yeller because they thought he had rabies.
You don't want to get bit.
West Nile! (Slap.) West Nile! (Slap.)
I'm getting eaten alive out here. Whose idea was this?
Monkey bites a 2-year-old kid in early August in a Brooklyn grocery store. Monkey owner, who is disabled and apparently uses the monkey as some sort of health-care aide, says the kid pulled the monkey's fur. Family disagrees. But for now, let's side with the monkey.
Michael Jackson, late to court two years ago. The reason, your honor? Neverland was being fumigated and a spider bit Jacko on the hand.
Lights out! Don't let the bedbugs bite, even though microscopes and the household cleanser industry have shown us fairly convincing evidence that they are biting all the time, even in four-star hotels. (Mr. Burns, in a "Simpsons" episode, goes all Howard Hughes about this, loses his mind, starts walking around the manse with Kleenex boxes on his feet, for protection; he can see microbes, microbes everywhere. "Freemasons rule the world!" they shout, in tiny, tiny voices.)
Oooh, raccoons! On the porch! Hi, guys!
Come out here and look at this wasp's nest by the garage door. (No, don't use the pool cue. Sweetie, please don't.)
Or: Snap! Chomp!
Inspector Clouseau, to innkeeper: I thought you zaid your dogue does not baht!
Innkeeper: Zat is not ma dogue.
We were just sitting here eating the rest of the seven-layer dip and then the next thing we know Madison started screaming from the other side of the yard and running around.
That irritating Australian man on cable TV, Steve whoseywhachit, who keeps daring animals to bite him, and you just wish they would already. Repeatedly, on the face and arms.
Finally, "Moby-Dick": What is it, really, but one long story about getting revenge for a very bad bite? Call me Ishmael. Get me some Bactine.
"Bitten: True Medical Stories of Bites and Stings" is a new book by Pamela Nagami, a doctor of internal medicine who teaches at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. It's a horrible, wonderful litany of bitey-bite-bite stories.
She opens with a 90-year-old woman in a Houston chronic-care facility, unable to move. Attendants walk in and find her in bed, covered with fire ants, thousands of them, biting her. She dies.
Then we read about necrotic arachnidism -- death from spider bite, delivered in the night -- but don't worry about death: You've got days before that happens. Then there's a man in the ocean, emerging from the water wrapped in a large, translucent man o' war, which leaves him with painful welts. A family ferret escapes from its cage and chews off 40 percent of both ears on an infant girl.
I love this book.
"This book is for informational purposes only," Nagami writes right at the beginning. "It is not intended to take the place of individualized medical advice. . . . Readers are advised to consult a physician or other qualified health professional regarding treatment of bites or before acting on any of the information in this book."
In other words, this book is really only about enjoying other people's bites and doing whatever you can to never get bitten.
Nagami writes in an utterly fascinating, clinical voice. There is hardly a word of sympathy. Just bite story after bite story after bite story: "A 20-year-old woman in Sweden had kept a donkey as a companion for her horse for some time. . . . It turned violent and clamped its jaws firmly on her thumb, refusing to let go." (Later, tetanus. Then later, pus.)
She's got stories about bats, lab monkeys and even that Komodo dragon that bit the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, who was at the time married to the actress Sharon Stone, who was horrified: "So he went in and started petting the dragon," Stone recalled in a celebrity interview, which Nagami quotes. "The thing has a long, skinny, forked tongue with yellow stripes. It started staring out at Phil's shoes. The zookeepers said, 'I'm sure he thinks it's the white rats that we feed him. You'd probably be better off without your shoes.' "
I must speak to this Dr. Nagami.
But she's on a fishing trip, her publicist informs me by e-mail. She's unreachable. In the woods somewhere.
I hope she has Deep Woods Off! I type back. (Hardy-har.)
Maybe she's doing research by getting bitten, he responds.
And what did I tell you about touching his cage?
So you went ahead and touched it anyhow?
Well, see? See what happens?
(That's about parrots, and 5-year-old boys, and small fingers, and mercurochrome.)
And then what'd you do?
Rubbed butter on it.
Rubbed ice on it, rubbed Cortizone on it, rubbed Caladryl all over it, and you got to eat a Popsicle on the couch and it still hurt like you wouldn't believe. It hurt all summer.